America is still a special place. It has enjoyed continuous economic growth throughout its existence. She churns out research scientists and engineers in great numbers. Science and innovation has been our legacy in creating a vibrant economy and a modern industrialized nation.
But we have problems. We have an aging and inefficient infrastructure. Our classrooms are overcrowded and the highways and interstates that move people and produce are congested. According to some estimates this costs the US over $300 billion in economic activity every year.
We import oil from a region of the world that is unstable. But we must because fossil fuel is the staple to modern economies. The US relies heavily on imported oil and consequently is victim to oil price manipulation and political instability in the Middle East. This is in spite of having our own reserves that rivals Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, our untapped resources surpass Saudi Arabia. But we don’t know for sure because we have not invested enough to find out.
We can tackle these problems but it will cost money. Actually, it will cost lots of money that will need to be pulled from elsewhere and used to empower our research scientists and engineers to modernize our society and infrastructure.
Since 2001, the US has spent somewhere between $1.3 and $4 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan. The difference in the dollars spent is the result of hidden costs and budget schemes that make the bottom dollar hard to measure.
I’m not advocating gutting our military or forgoing our position in the world. I am for a strong military. Preferably one that can fight two major conflicts simultaneously. Curtailing our foreign policy, however, will reduce the costs that exceed this capability. We don’t need an $800 billion dollar defense budget to accomplish this. Occupying wars and nation building projects have proved, without a doubt, enormously expensive with little return on the dollar. The US’ policy of intervention and advocacy has proven to be too costly both politically and economically.
Our leaders and the citizens of this country need to see the futility of neoconservatism and liberal interventionism. If we adopt a Realist perspective to our foreign policy, the costs of operating a second to none military will actually decrease. We’ll stop intervening abroad and the need to justify huge defense budgets by entering into small wars will lessen.
The money saved from nation building and supplying occupying forces abroad can be spent here at home. It takes leadership, however, to turn Americans from military-nationalism toward American civic-nationalism.
I’m calling for a kind of nationalism that makes the business of America about Americans again. When we feel the need to intervene in the lives of people and spend $1 trillion in US tax dollars to reform political institutions, builds schools, highways, hospitals, and train and educate a workforce to compete in the global economy, I advocate we do that here at home.
Stephen Walt | Nation Building at Home
Why aren’t Americans more concerned about their eroding infrastructure? Luce argues we’ve just adapted to delays, discomfort, and inefficiencies, much as the fabled frog supposedly doesn’t recognize it is being boiled to death if the temperature in the pot rises slowly. But I’d argue there are a number of other forces at work.
The first is militarized patriotism: It’s easier to get Americans to cheer when a B-2 or the Blue Angels does a flyover above a football game than it is to get them to take pride in a truly modern flight tracking system that would streamline commercial air travel. Similarly, it is easier to scare taxpayers by inflating foreign threats than it is to get them to put money into roads, bridges and other safety features that would reduce U.S. highway fatalities. We all know that nearly 3000 people died on September 11, 2001, but we never notice the deaths that might have been avoided if we had better hospitals, highways, and a more productive economy that kept fewer people in poverty.
Combine the hyping of foreign dangers with America’s liberal idealism, and you get a country that will pour a trillion or more dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan, send special forces and drones into countries of little or no strategic value, and spend more time worrying about who’s going to run Syria than it does worrying about conditions here at home.
Second, and following from the first, infrastructure improvements don’t enjoy the support of large and well-organized lobbies constantly beating the drum for keeping our infrastructure in good working order. Such groups aren’t non-existent, but their political power pales in comparison with other groups who are constantly thrusting their hands into the public till.
And then there’s the time lag: Building road, bridges, internet capacity, air traffic control, a robust power grid, and protections against climate change/rising sea levels will be expensive and take years to complete. Equally important, the benefits accrue far into the future, long after today’s politicians are gone. It takes foresight and a powerful sense of civic duty to invest in things that will mostly benefit future generations, which is why today’s politicians are more likely to pander to today’s voters and to well-heeled interest groups, instead of helping the country as a whole prepare for the future.
This is not an argument for gutting defense, by the way; but cutting defense is clearly implied. More to the point, it is an argument for not squandering lots of money elsewhere when there are obvious needs here at home. And let’s not forget that building infrastructure is actually something we know how to do, unlike the various costly projects of “nation-building” we’ve taken on elsewhere.