How Should the U.S. React to Foreign Challenges?

Aspects of U.S. Foreign Relations
Top (Left to Right):
U.S. Army soldiers in Ramadi, August 2006   Wikimedia Commons / Air Force Tech Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock
Container ship from Asia / Peter Kaminsky
Center: U.N. General Assembly Hall    Wikimedia Commons / Flickr (Patrick Gruben)
Bottom (Left to Right):
Russian Sukhoi Su-24M: Russian workhorse in Syria  Wikimedia Commons / Alexander Mishin, © A. Mishin
Obama discussing Syria and ISIS with Putin, 9/29/2015   Wikimedia Commons /

In my last post,  The U.S. Interactions With Other Nations, I presented the case for why the United States should remain fully engaged with the rest of the world, whether by trade, military alliances, or by actual combat against lethal adversaries. Such engagements should not and need not be for the cause of imposing our own ideologies or values on others, but to protect against hostile enemies or to enrich our own country by trade. Neither do we have to abandon our altruism in dealing with other countries, as we can certainly offer trade, knowledge and technology that would be as useful to other countries as they are for us.

Assuming the case for international engagement has been made, I wish in this post to offer a neoliberal (i.e. conservative) vision of how such engagements should proceed.


One very important way in which this point of view  is different from that of a progressive is that the basic tenets of multiculturalism are explicitly assumed to be false. I think most people share an empirical view of reality where the reality of our world and universe is objective; that is, independent of us. Ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, are part of that reality to be sure, and may modify other aspects of our world. But our actions themselves, once performed, have objective reality. The universe and our world are not subjective constructs of our minds, the way postmodernism and its child multiculturalism assume.

Another important difference is in the assumption that cultural values are not totally relative to the culture, and that there are objective procedures for ranking some values of a culture as better or worse than analogous values in other cultures. By “better or worse” I mean a comparison of values as to whether they make a culture more fit to survive than those of other cultures. Surviving against the competition of other cultures means more than just avoiding being conquered, although that is part of it. It also means the culture’s citizens can see and appreciate their values’ superiority over those of a competing culture. If they do not, then many in their society may adopt some of the values of the competing culture, causing a mutation that promotes the survival of the new, modified culture. This form of social Darwinism can be called Lamarckian, because the induced mutation comes from individuals striving to improve their society. The struggle for self-improvement then leads to adopting superior values from other cultures, a mutation that might be inheritable by the next generation.

Social Darwinism became somewhat despised as a concept in the 20th century, because of a connection made by many to eugenics. The idea was the reason some culture was inferior to others was due to the biological inferiority of its population, and therefore to improve, a society had to apply eugenics to improve its genetic stock. That is not the version of social Darwinism of which I am thinking. The competition in my version of social evolution is not a competition between the biological attributes of populations, but rather is a competition of ideas and values. What evolves is not the human biological  organisms, but the cultural institutions of the country. One implication of this picture is that a culture on the losing end of social evolution does not necessarily die, but instead might voluntarily mutate itself to make social progress and improve their survivability.

National Security

I will now make the very important assumption  that you believe the values inherent to the American republic are worthy of survival, perhaps with some modifications. What then should we do to ensure our national security? In the face of any country or group such as ISIS or al-Qaeda that wishes to conquer us, the answer is relatively simple, or at least simple to express: We must apply any amount of military power required to defeat our enemies. In the case of countries like Russia or China, the degree of power required might be merely possessing it and making clear we would use it to defend ourselves: Peace through strength and deterrence. With organizations like ISIS or al-Qaeda, however, who if we do not convert to Islam are willing to kill us to the last man, woman, and child, we have no choice but to kill them down to the last man if necessary. We have no choice because the Islamic terrorists have made the choice for us.

To carry out such a program of self-defense, we should heed some lessons from the Iraq War begun by the George W. Bush administration. That we should not have started that war is not one of those lessons. The wide-spread belief in most Western intelligence agencies that the president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, possessed weapons of mass destruction WMD (nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons) was widely cited as the major motivation for invading Iraq. The fact that no WMD were found after the war led Democrats to accuse the Bush administration of exaggerating the Iraqi threat to justify an unnecessary war. “Bush lied and people died” was the protest refrain. Never mind that most Western intelligence agencies suffered the very same intelligence failure. In the world after the devastating attacks on September 11, 2001, allowing uncertainty about Iraq’s possession of WMD was not an option. One unsettling possibility was that Iraq would gift some terrorist organization such as al-Qaeda with a nuclear device to be smuggled into some Western city for a surface detonation.

Nevertheless, there were a number of other motivations that well justified the war which were not so widely publicized. These included:

  • Saddam’s Iraq supplied terrorist groups with training camps, operating bases, and financial support. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. State Department had listed Iraq as a state sponsor of terrorism. Among the terrorists supported were groups fighting the neighboring countries of Turkey and Iran, as well as hard-line Palestinian groups and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
  • During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraq used WMD in the form of mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin gas against Iranian soldiers and villages. In addition in March 1988, Iraqi forces also killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds using mustard gas and sarin. Having already demonstrated a proclivity to use WMD,  Saddam’s  reputed possession of nuclear devices  was all the more worrisome.
  • Saddam’s government repeatedly defied international law in the use of WMD against his own people and in the support of terrorists. International prohibitions of these actions mean absolutely nothing unless some country or group of countries is willing to enforce them.

The United States and other Western countries had cogent reasons for putting down the rogue Saddam Hussein regime before it could grievously hurt the West. Yet, the war’s execution was terribly flawed, dragging on for eight long years between 2003 and 2011. The initial invasion and conquest went very quickly, lasting  only about one and a half months between 19 March and 30 April of 2003. The remaining eight years were consumed fighting two insurgencies. The first was against remnants of Saddam’s Sunni Ba’athist government and army, the Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was later to become ISIS. The second was a Shiite insurgency led by the anti-American Shiitie cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The war continued interminably until the Bush administration finally decided to overwhelm the insurgents with a great surge of 20,000 soldiers in U.S. forces in 2007. The surge, combined with internal Iraqi political developments such as the Anbar province awakening of the Sunni tribes, quickly ended both insurgencies and stabilized Iraq.

This experience gave the United States two very important lessons on occupying a subjugated country. The first is U.S. forces should seek political and military cooperation from major population groups, as in Iraq with the Anbar province Sunni tribes, to the maximum extent possible. To encourage such cooperation the U.S. should make known as widely as possible that it was preparing the country for independence, but would only leave when its security was assured. The second lesson is that at the first sign of an insurgency, U.S. forces should be massively reinforced to the degree necessary to smother the insurgency.

Yet a third lesson was provided when the Obama administration decided to withdraw from Iraq posthaste in 2011, without leaving a strong residual force for contingencies. From that point on, events went downhill for the Americans and the Iraqi opponents of the Sunni jihadists. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, unopposed by American military might or by a politically and militarily inept Baghdad government, had a “Great Re-Awakening” of their own to become the even more brutal ISIS. The rest, as is often said, was history.

If it wishes to survive, the United States really has no choice but to involve itself militarily with many of the world’s conflicts. Because radical Muslim jihadists have declared war on Western Civilization, our survival interests dictate we involve ourselves in the vast Muslim civil war engulfing the Middle East and South Asia. In addition, the U.S. must worry about the imperial ambitions of China, as well as a revanchist and revisionist Russia seeking to take back former possessions in Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea states.

U.S. Trade in the International Markets

One of the most troubling developments  in Americans’ attitudes toward foreign relations has been the growing resistance to free-trade. Between the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the onset of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the consensus of opinion was that free foreign trade benefits both countries on the opposite sides of the trade. Whether economists were neoclassical, Keynesian, socialist, or communist, it did not matter. The common benefits of free-trade to all were almost universally acknowledged. About the only kind of economist who would disagree is the mercantilist species, if you could even find one.

In fact, the neoclassical economic law spelling out when foreign trades are profitable to both sides, Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage, is so simple it is the only economic law (that I know of anyway) that actually has a rigorous mathematical proof. If the producing country has a comparative advantage over the buying country, then the exporter from the producing country can sell its good to the importer in the buying country for more than the exporter could sell it in his own country. At the same time, the importer can buy the good from the exporter for less than he would pay for the good produced in his own country.

The social problem produced by free trade arises because the buying country no longer has to produce the imported good. The company that used to produce that good no longer needs the employees used to produce it, and if the company can not find alternative employment for them, it must lay them off. Their jobs have essentially been displaced or “out-sourced” to the exporting country.  If this outcome is not acceptable, and if this were the end of the story, then the only acceptable answer to the problem would be to ban all foreign commerce altogether!

But of course this is not the end of the story. If inside the importing country the erstwhile producing company no longer has to employ people to make the good, neither does it have to pay their wages, nor to pay for all the capital expenses to make and maintain producing facilities, or to buy raw materials and intermediate goods needed to produce the good.  Said erstwhile producing company has freed a goodly hunk of change in saved capital assets no longer needed to produce the imported good. With a large amount of freed capital, the company can invest it in some other, more profitable venture. Jobs produced by the new venture can then replace the jobs lost by the import substitution, at least in part. In the meantime, the consumers of the imported good will save money in buying it, since it will be sold at smaller prices than if it were produced within their own country. They can then use what they have saved in making additional demands on the economy, which in turn will create more jobs to meet the additional demands.

However, this is not what has happened since the end of the Great Recession. Indeed, corporations have generally not invested very much at all, and the saved capital from new import substitution has not been used in new investments to produce substitute jobs. Although the U3 headline unemployment rate has come down, that is primarily because discouraged workers have left the work force, not so much because of new jobs. This can be seen in the plot of the Labor Force Participation Rate falling with time as shown below.

The Labor Force Participation Rate from August 2004 to August 2016

The Labor Force Participation Rate from August 2004 to August 2016
Image Credit: St. Louis Federal Reserve District Bank/FRED

Nor has the participation rate fallen because of large numbers of baby-boomer retirements, as many have speculated. As I showed in Perspectives on Unemployment last October, many people who would be expected to retire have held onto their jobs, while it is the younger people who have dropped out. As Robert Romano observed in a post,

On the other side are those such as senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute, Diana Furchtgott-Roth who, in a Jan. 14 piece for noted that “since 2000 the labor force participation rates of workers 55 and over have been rising steadily, and the labor force participation rates of workers between 16 and 54 have been declining.”

Which is absolutely true. Since 2003, those 65 years and older have seen their labor force participation rate rise from 13.99 percent to 18.7 percent. Those aged 55-64 saw their rate rise from 62.44 percent to 64.36 percent, a recent Americans for Limited Government (ALG) study of Bureau data from 2003-2013 shows.

Meanwhile, participation by those aged 16-24 dropped from 61.56 percent in 2003 to 55.05 percent in 2013, and for those aged 25-54, it dropped from 82.98 percent to 82.01 percent.

That many baby boomers stubbornly refuse to retire, while many millennials fail to launch suggests the relatively hard economic times we have been experiencing.

The reason why new jobs have not been created to replace the out-sourced jobs is because of the extremely bad economic environment created by the federal government and some state governments. I discussed this distressing situation in the post Why Isn’t the US Economy Booming?. My advice to President Trump is to forget destructive tariffs on imports and eliminate the government sources of economic stagnation: Cut taxes (especially on corporations), severely prune economic regulations (especially from Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency), and cut government spending. Although the jury is still out on the cutting of government spending, Trump is planning to do all this anyway. All the imposition of import tariffs would accomplish is to increase the cost of living for all Americans. I would also observe we would do little good for our national security if we in general make the economic conditions of other countries more desperate by decreasing their trade with us.

Other Relations Between the Nations

Almost all of our relations with other countries  are involved either with national security or foreign trade. Nevertheless, there are a number of other ways our government interacts with other countries, most of which are involved one way or another with the United Nations. I will reserve comment on that subject for a future post.

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