the real world
The World We’re Actually Living In
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
FOR the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy. That is not “how things are supposed to be,” and Republicans sound apoplectic about it. But there is a reason President Obama is leading on national security, and it was apparent in his U.N. speech last week, which showed a president who understands that we really do live in a more complex world today — and that saying so is not a cop-out. It’s a road map. Mitt Romney, given his international business background, should understand this, but he acts instead as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes, where the menu and architecture rarely changes.
Rather than really thinking afresh about the world, Romney has chosen instead to go with the same old G.O.P. bacon and eggs — that the Democrats are toothless wimps who won’t stand up to our foes or for our values, that the Republicans are tough and that it is 1989 all over again. That is, America stands astride the globe with unrivaled power to bend the world our way, and the only thing missing is a president with “will.” The only thing missing is a president who is ready to simultaneously confront Russia, bash China, tell Iraqis we’re not leaving their country, snub the Muslim world by outsourcing our Arab-Israel policy to the prime minister of Israel, green light Israel to bomb Iran — and raise the defense budget while cutting taxes and eliminating the deficit.
It’s all “attitude” — without a hint at how we could possibly do all these contradictory things at once, or the simplest acknowledgment that two wars and a giant tax cut under George W. Bush has limited our ability to do even half of them.
Let’s look at the world we’re actually living in. It is a world that has become much more interdependent so that our friends failing (like Greece) can now harm us as much as our enemies threatening, and our rivals (like China) collapsing can hurt us as much as their rising. It’s a world where a cheap YouTube video made by a superempowered individual can cause us more trouble than the million-dollar propaganda campaign of a superpower competitor. It is a globalized economy in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, America’s largest business lobby, has opposed Romney’s pledge to designate China as a currency manipulator and is pressing Congress to lift cold war trade restrictions on Russia, a country Romney has labeled America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” It is a world where, at times, pulling back — and focusing on rebuilding our strength at home — is the most meaningful foreign policy initiative we can undertake because when America is at its best — its institutions, schools and values — it can inspire emulation, whereas Russia and China still have to rely on transactions or bullying to get others to follow. It is still a world where the use of force, or the threat of force, against implacable foes (Iran) is required, but a world where a nudge at the right time and place can also be effective.
Add it all up and it’s a world in which America will have greater responsibility (because our European and Japanese allies are now economically enfeebled) and fewer resources (because we have to cut the defense budget) to manage a more complex set of actors (because so many of the states we have to deal with now are new democracies with power emanating from their people not just one man — like Egypt — or failing states like Pakistan) where our leverage on other major powers is limited (because Russia’s massive oil and gas income gives it great independence and any war we’d want to fight in Asia we’d have to borrow the money from China).
This complexity doesn’t argue for isolationism. It argues for using our power judiciously and in a nuanced fashion. For instance, if you had listened to Romney criticizing Obama for weakness after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, you’d have thought that, had Romney been president, he would have immediately ordered some counterstrike. But, had we done so, it would have aborted what was a much more meaningful response: Libyans themselves taking to the streets under the banner “Our Revolution Will Not Be Stolen” and storming the headquarters of the Islamist militias who killed the U.S. ambassador. It shows you how much this complexity can surprise you.
The one area where Romney could have really challenged Obama on foreign policy was on the president’s bad decision to double-down on Afghanistan. But Romney can’t, because the Republican Party wanted to triple down. So we’re having no debate about how to extricate ourselves from our biggest foreign policy mess and a cartoon debate — “I’m tough; he’s not” — about everything else. In that sense, foreign policy is a lot like domestic policy. The morning after the election, we will face a huge “cliff”: how to deal with Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, without guidance from the candidates or a mandate from voters. Voters will have to go with their gut about which guy has the best gut feel for navigating this world. Obama has demonstrated that he has something there. Romney has not.