A New Grand Strategy for a Changing World

American political thinkers en masse have not engaged in meaningful debates on American grand strategy since George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of the ‘New World Order’ in the early 1990s. There have been sincere yet misinformed attempts to change America’s role, including the globalization prophets of the Clinton years, the Terror Warriors of the Bush years, and the liberal re-setters of the Obama years. However, no major faction of thinkers has articulated a practical and influential foreign policy capable of protecting America and the liberal international order in our changing world.

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The reverse side of The Great Seal of the United States. ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ is Latin for ‘New World Order,’ the main theme of George H. W. Bush’s successful foreign policy. This order has been called into question in recent years. September 20, 2009 (U.S. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Remodeling America’s grand strategy will be difficult. In the near future the necessary lights will return to the foreground and shape the debate towards the best possible ends. At the moment, though, it would be beneficial to examine what coming paradigm shifts may look like to prepare us for the shock.

First, the supposedly transcendent norms of democratization and liberalization that swept the globe and led to a new world order over the last two decades are, in fact, not false illusions, but rather social and political constructions whose dissemination has been made possible only by the geopolitical situation of the Post-Cold War world. American hegemony, an interconnected international economic order focused on the United States, Europe, and China, the political bankruptcy of Communism, and the lack of dominant powers in any of the non-North American regions of the world created an environment wherein general interstate peace, the deepening of trade flows between the world’s major economic hubs, the spread of Western-encouraged democratization and liberalization, and multilateralism as standard diplomacy seemed to be basic forces of history rather than historically-contingent phenomena. The success of internationalism and American ideals blinded American political players to some of the unfortunate realities of international political life.

The global geopolitical situation has certainly changed over the last two decades, particularly with the assertiveness of China and the adventurism of Russia over the last six years. The resurgence of other political and economic centers of power, particularly in Russia, China, and Iran, and to a lesser extent India and Japan, has threatened American hegemony. Economic troubles in the US, Europe, and Japan, coupled with resurgent economic nationalism, have stalled the progress of the global commercial and financial order, proving globalization to be a double-edged sword. The ugly offspring of ‘democracy’ in Egypt, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, and other developing nations, as well as the local mutation of American-style liberalism in East Asia, Latin America, and even Western Europe of all places, have threatened formerly ‘universalist’ liberal values. Russia’s forays into Georgia and Crimea, China’s posturing with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, and Iran’s manipulation of the situations in Syria and Iraq have brought the phantasmal ideals of perpetual peace, the triumph of multilateralism, and the end of interstate war to an ironic stalemate.

Moreover, innumerable trends in areas beyond the economy and politics are demanding a fundamental rethinking of how we manage foreign policy. Exponential technological advancement in fields as diverse as information technology, biotechnology, communications, energy, transportation, and manufacturing are restructuring societies, militaries, and economies. The ‘New Medievalism’ – a localization of many political units and the transition of duties formerly embraced by the state to various non-state actors such as corporations, non-governmental organizations, stateless nations, cartels, and insurgent groups – has resulted in a new anarchic political dynamic that cannot be managed by traditional statecraft alone. Environmental change, demographic shifts, and other unpredictable historical forces will continue to shape international and domestic politics in the coming decades.

How can the principles of liberal world order, American pre-eminence, and the balance of power be maintained in a world where increasingly assertive regional powers bolster their presence along their frontiers while developing societies crumble in the face of insurmountable domestic odds?

To start, the United States should determine whether or not maintaining the balance of power in every critical region of the world is feasible. Preventing the Russians from dominating Eastern Europe, the Iranians from intervening in the Greater Middle East, and the Chinese from bullying East Asia has certainly kept America the predominant power in those regions. At the same time, it has cost America blood and treasure, alienated three potential partners, and prevented those states from crafting local political orders that might be far more effective at stymying anarchy than the internationalist pretensions of the Western elite, who are proving to be far too incompetent at handling their own problems to be trusted with the affairs of others.

Balancing the Indians and Pakistanis, the Iranians and Israelis, the Japanese and the Chinese, and the Russians and the Europeans has perpetuated regional rivalries and conflicts and prevented the emergence of other hegemons. These rivalries serve America’s strategic interests in preventing the rise of challengers, but in light of present shifts in the balance of power, it is not clear whether the United States has the resources or will to perpetuate such situations and serve as the global lever. While allowing the emergence of regional hegemons is nowhere near ideal, it may be worthwhile to have go-to strongmen in the world’s critical regions who would be, if not dependable, at least predictable. Such a global concert system, populated by regional leaders as Germany, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil, and maintained by the United States, would certainly provide a more orderly international system than the vaguely law-based equality of all states existing on paper today.

Geopolitics South Russia

This geopolitical map of the South Russian frontier depicts some of strategic movements the Russians have been making in recent years. March 6, 2014 (Spiridon Ion Cepleanu/Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it may be worthwhile to stymie potential challengers. But if current political, economic, and demographic trends are to be trusted, it appears that this will ultimately be a futile endeavor, as developing nations transition into middle-class economies, their subsequent power may be too much for us to keep in check, and our attempts at policing will certainly invite contempt.

America would benefit from maintaining a liberal world order through control of the seas and dominance in military and economic might wherein fellow developed nations would come to the table, manage their own affairs, solve mutual problems, and generally strive to keep order around the world. American values could be promoted, but it would not be wise to export them and seek to impose them on our fellow states. And if the world trended towards war, it would be far easier to manage such a crisis in a world of developed states with mutual understandings, rather than a polarized world of the decadent West and the resurgent rest.

The international system is presently enmeshed in a period of great stress and tension, and a new method of thinking about politics will have to conquer the decadent contemporary orthodoxy. The statesmen of the future must engage in these discussions and seek dynamic and creative solutions – the fate of our nation demands nothing less.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Improving Economic Prospects in the Land of Silver

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The Thinker in El Plaza Congreso, adjacent to official government buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. December 9, 2010 (David Berkowitz/Wikimedia Commons)

Argentina was a gold mine of economic opportunity in the early 20th century. Blessed with trade surpluses in commodities, an influx of foreign technological innovation and development, and a growth rate of 6% (the fastest in the world at the time), Argentina attracted hundreds of thousands of European immigrants.

With the exception of commodity exportation, Argentina’s recent economic condition has soured. The last half-century has been marked by economic decline, political instability, and diminishing geopolitical influence. Consider that when President Obama visited the Southern Cone in 2011, he flew from Chile to Brazil deliberately passing over Argentina. While significant capital inflows from China largely insulated Argentina from the global economic crisis, economic and political turmoil persist to this day. Inflation estimates are above 30%, its expropriation of Spanish petroleum giant Repsol have made those in the international business community wary of FDI, and its export and import quotas have proven disastrous to farmers, businessmen, and consumers alike.

If President Kirchner’s successor seeks to guide Argentina towards a path of economic and political stability, he/she must assuage concerns of an impending crisis, and work swiftly to ignite a stagnant economy. Reviving the economy will be easier said than done in a country whose Ease of Doing Business ranking is 127 out of 189, trailing, among others, Nigeria and Pakistan. A more challenging hurdle will be reducing Argentinean dependence on natural resource exports. As tempting as it may be to ride the commodity wave to economic solvency, diversification of the nation’s income will prove imperative to Argentina’s future growth and stability. Developments in added-value manufacturing and the service industries will better isolate Argentina’s economy from fluctuations in global commodity prices. Diversification will also require improvements in education and infrastructure, areas in which Argentina is particularly deficient.


Map of Argentina circa 1929 depicting recent territorial acquisitions (Ufficio cartografico del Touring Club Italiano/Wikimedia Commons)

One thing Argentina is not deficient in is unfounded optimism. An Argentinean economist once lamented that his nation is destined for lackluster development, positing, “Argentina has always been a country with mediocre growth, believing that spectacular growth and riches are right around the corner, and when a good year comes, Argentines say, ‘Ah, here comes the life we’ve been waiting for and so deserve.’” Such misguided expectations must be replaced by shrewdness and sacrifice. Recovering from the current economic turmoil and moving towards a trajectory of sustainable growth will require drastic fiscal and monetary reforms.

Attempts to curtail government spending will likely aggravate an already sluggish growth rate, particularly after several years of costly welfare programs and President Kirchner’s wasteful spending. Also unpopular will be the inevitable currency devaluation once Argentina’s currency exchange is liberalized. Such unpopular policies have been postponed for far too long. Argentina must follow in Chile’s footsteps by increasing economic competitiveness in the global arena. For a country blessed with bountiful resources, its political malfeasance and bureaucracy remains the only thing slowing down what would otherwise be impressive growth. By fostering more competitive industries and implementing basic economic reforms, Argentina may become the gold mine it once was.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

For Sustainable Development

armstrongfoIn this first edition of “Face-off” on Glimpse From the Globe, I will respond to my colleague Luke Phillips’ argument against sustainable development. Please read his compelling piece before you continue.

Luke and I agree on several points. First, the term “sustainable development” is nebulous. Second, the growth of past prosperous civilizations was fueled, in part, by consumption of natural resources. And third, I question humans’ ability to stop global climate change, not because of global disinterest, but because of the damage already done. However, I disagree with Luke on two points: (1) his justification for the need for continued resource consumption, and (2) his notion of progress.

A historical justification for the continued degradation of the planet is counterproductive and false. Luke correctly asserts: “the prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use…” In the past, imperial expansion was fueled – and funded – by the consumption of silver, water, coal, etc. Therefore, according to Luke, human growth and prosperity depend on “unabated resource consumption” and that any contemporary attempt to deviate from this historical pattern will stall human development. This proposition has two issues. First, a historical justification disregards human ingenuity and/or invention. Past civilizations discovered new ways to turn resources into wealth. For instance, the growth of industrial England was fueled by the use of coal in electrical and transportation infrastructure. What is to say that a contemporary society could not discover a new method (e.g., solar, nuclear, geothermal) to fuel growth in an environmentally sustainable way?

Yes, growth depends on the consumption of natural resources, but history should not shackle future human growth to the harmful consumption of natural resources. Scientific advancements and an environmentalist spirit have the potential for societal development, a fact not acknowledged in Luke’s argument. Indeed, there are contemporary examples that prove economic growth is possible with sustainable resource use. One such example is in the “green growth” of the Southeast Asian cities of Da Nang, Vietnam, Surabaya, Indonesia, and Cebu City, Philippines. A World Bank study concluded that investment in sustainable solutions, such as gas-capture landfills and wastewater-treatment facilities, led to economic growth due to “productivity gains, reduced pollution, and more efficient use of resources.” And the results are not confined to Southeast Asia. The World Bank found a worldwide correlation between GDP per capita growth and increased energy use efficiency. Sustainable development is not just possible, it is happening.

Luke’s argument also rests on the oxymoronic nature of sustainable development. In his eyes, sustainability reflects a sense of permanency, whereas development underscores constant change. When combined, sustainability will stall development, and societal progress will stop. However, sustainability and development are – and must be –compatible for the future health of the planet and its people. I define sustainable development as human growth that consumes resources at or below environmental equilibrium (i.e., the amount of resources the natural environment is able to replenish). This is not an equation for zero growth—it is an equation for the use of renewable energies and limited use of non-renewables to further fuel economic growth. It is a notion of progress that does not depend on the continued destruction of the planet. Further, it is a notion that must be embraced and perfected in order to protect the planet and its people. Continuing “to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature” is a recipe for causing a level of climate change that may irrevocably damage, or worse end, future human growth.

In sum, Luke’s argument against sustainable development is defeatist as its logic precludes any hope of environmentally responsible human growth or innovation in green development. Luke contends that the best humanity can hope for is “preservation where possible amidst economic growth.” However, this pessimistic and faux-realist attitude ignores evidence of sustainable growth in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world that lend credence to the prospect of future sustainable development. Thus, Luke’s argument is unduly destructive. Yes, a transition to sustainable development will be a tremendous challenge, but I believe – and evidence shows – that it is possible.

Against Sustainable Development

Face Off: Luke Phillips and Thomas Armstrong Debate Sustainable Development.

Face Off: Luke Phillips and Thomas Armstrong Debate Sustainable Development.

At any reasonably civilized and well-attended international affairs conference, one of the issues bound to make an appearance is the concept of “sustainable development.” A controversial and nebulous term, most supporters of sustainable development generally agree that human development ought to be reconciled with resource conservation, ultimately to the point that no resources are used in excess or wasted. Harmony between society and nature is to be treasured, and it is expected that a society run on sustainable development will find that harmony.

Beyond this, the definitions are as varied as the proponents of the movement. Some campaign for sustainable development in developing countries such as India and Brazil hoping that, in turn, these countries can bypass the polluting industrial periods the West went through. Others support the placement of sustainable development measures in advanced industrial economies to balance out their resource intakes and pollution outputs by national or international policy. Still others are in favor of a far more organic role, with sustainable development occurring locally at the level of businesses and communities and working its way up the ladder of necessity on an ad hoc basis. In short, the practices mentioned above are as varied as the imposition of taxes on emissions and carbon caps, land preservation efforts, and everything in between. Sustainable development borrows much from the principles of environmental protection established earlier in the 20th Century and seeks to apply them directly to economic growth.

Regardless of the nobility and desirability of such a silver bullet to save the Earth, the truth of development is nowhere near as simple as depicted by sustainable developers. Consider the notion that sustainable development is in fact a paradox, or rather an oxymoron.

Sustainability implies a sense of permanency and renewability, and brings to mind small villages rotating crops around various fields bringing in a steady crop and thus a steady income supply. This same idyllic picture can be applied to almost any other commodity, from fish to timber to fruits to cattle. This example cannot, however, be applied to the nonrenewable resources of the interior of the Earth, including fossil fuels and precious minerals. Not surprisingly, the nonrenewable resource policies sustainable development supporters advocate border on complete abstinence.

In marked contrast to this is development. Development implies a sense of forward-moving change, of increasing utility and complexity, of expansion. A brief survey of history seems to reveal a general and sensible pattern; those nations and peoples who were the most powerful, prosperous, and healthy were those who expanded and developed, either in terms of territory, societal and political complexity, or status. And in every case, this growth was fueled by the efficient consumption of natural resources. The prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use; yet these also marked those societies’ eras of political consolidation, golden governance, high culture, prosperous markets, and general national greatness. Undoubtedly innumerable issues are at play in the development of a golden age, but underlying all must inevitably be a stable resource base and the productive use of it.

This may seem to be a materialistic analysis devoid of reference to the human spirit. I believe that it does seem to be true that the quality of life of any nation is, to a large degree, controlled by its observance of the abstract ideas of freedom, tradition, and innovation. However, there is a quantitative material foundation which must be set before any of these great social virtues can be observed, and so long as that quantity does not spill into decadence, its continued ascendance assures a better quality of life for citizens.

Sustainable development advocates will argue that society need not continue progressing, that a balance and harmony can be wrought out, and humans can continue to advance on the efficient use of resources alone. While this may be true of communities at the smallest level, I highly doubt that it can be applied at anything higher than the individual or, at most, the nuclear family unit. History seems to tell us that the nature of man is to expand – to improve – and from this expansion, all the dramas and stories of human life flow.

Indeed, when considering the implications of zero growth, an eerie economic picture comes to mind. So far as can be told, it appears that every human polity with a successful history has been based on growth and expansion of some sort, and therefore of continued and unabated resource consumption. But sustainable development, in its perfect model, demands the complete efficiency of resource use, a social harmony with nature recycling all. Thus there is no growth in wealth, as nothing more than is needed for survival is used; and no growth in wealth, in economic terms, is stagnation. In a period of stagnation, societies do not advance, do not grow, and do not improve the lives of their members. They merely exist from day to day. If we direct our policies towards sustainable development, we essentially steer our plans with a golden ideal of zero growth as our guide.

All this being said, I am very much an environmentalist. Once upon a time as a kid, I drew up a proposal for the federal government to buy up all remaining undeveloped private land, fence it off, and call it “America National Park.” Boy Scouts does that to you.

In all practical matters, however, I support environmental protection and conservation 100%. I like the system of management practiced by agencies such as the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management, and think we ought to continue and expand it into light international law, particularly for fishery preservation. I favor many of the environmental movement’s earliest endeavors, from the Clean Air Act to legislation against riverine pollution to the Endangered Species Act to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not sure that I believe as passionately in our ability to stop global climate change as many of my colleagues, but I look forward to the day when every vehicle runs on electric power generated at clean nuclear plants. Ecology enchants me, tree-planting and trail-building service projects excite me, and there is nowhere I love to be more than a national park.

But all this being said, prudence and moderation is necessary, for we cannot simply pick environmental protection over economic development, as this goes against the human work ethic, and indeed all of history. And we cannot knowingly take a contradiction in terms that cannot be made to work, and then attempt to make it work. Sustainable development is this type of term – a chimera – and the fact that its successes are scant seems to attest to its impotence. It would be preferable for humans to seek balance with the environment in another way: to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature, and to offset that price not by ceasing growth, but by actively improving nature where possible – through greening projects, resource conservation, environmental protection, and preservation where possible amidst economic growth. These represent the only types of sustainable development compatible with the basic, fundamental human condition.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

What’s Eating Brazil’s Rapid Growth Rates?

A demonstrator tries to stop the riot police during one of many protests around Brazil's major cities in Rio de Janeiro June 20, 2013. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Brazil's biggest cities on Thursday in a growing protest that is tapping into widespread anger at poor public services, police violence and government corruption. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

A demonstrator tries to stop the riot police during one of many protests around Brazil’s major cities in Rio de Janeiro June 20, 2013. Tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Brazil’s biggest cities on Thursday in a growing protest that is tapping into widespread anger at poor public services, police violence and government corruption. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

Only a few years ago Brazil was on the rise. Both a BRIC country and economic the superstar of Latin America, Brazil enjoyed fantastic growth rates as it rode the wave of a commodity boom. With a young population and many untapped growth opportunities, Brazil seemed poised for continued growth and prosperity.

Unfortunately, even the commodity king of Latin America is not immune to an economic malaise. In contrast to its impressive 7.5% growth rate in 2010, Brazil puttered along at a meager 0.9% in 2012. While growth rates are forecast to rise in 2014, social unrest abounds. Just last year, protesters took to the streets in response to hikes on bus fares and corruption scandals in addition to a general outrage for exuberant government spending on stadiums for the upcoming World Cup and Summer Olympics.

The protestors’ indignation is understandable but would be better directed at failed policies and excessive government spending than at publicized scandals. A whopping 11.3% of Brazil’s GDP is spent on public pension plans, comparable to OECD European nations with much older populations. Its public spending, which amounts to 38.5% of GDP, rivals that of many developed countries.

Opponents of austerity will counter that the anti-poverty policies embraced by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or “Lula” for short, lifted nearly 25 million Brazilians out of poverty. Now close to half of Brazil’s population lives in the middle class, and while real income has increased by only 20% for the 10% wealthiest Brazilians, its poorest 10% have seen their real wages double in the last decade. So long as Brazil finds other paths to economic growth, such expensive state intervention can be sustained.

Brazil’s best shot at stimulating growth rates lies in meaningful reform. A disproportionate amount of Brazil’s education spending is lavished upon institutions of higher learning. More of this money should be spent on primary and secondary schooling, and less of it should go to teacher’s pensions, which are unsustainably high.

Reallocation of money from its inflated pension system to investments in infrastructure could pay enormous dividends to Brazil’s economy. While Brazil’s agricultural and commodity production is globally competitive, it is stymied by exorbitant transportation costs that eat up as much as 22% of the costs of production. Improved roads and developed transportation systems could work to alleviate this inefficiency.

Policy makers should also work to streamline its onerous tax code and customs procedures. Doing so would sharply curtail exportation and production costs, in turn bringing Brazilian products to a higher echelon of competitiveness. At the moment, manufacturing costs are continuing to rise while technological advances in production are stagnant. A concerted effort by policy makers to cut manufacturing costs does not need to be a priority, but should be on the backburner as a way of diversifying Brazil’s national income.

These barriers to economic growth are easily remedied. If President Dilma Rousseff or her successors adequately respond with sound economic policies in the coming decade, Brazil will be well on its way to solidifying its place as a world economic power. With a high national birth rate, copious amounts of land and resources, and countless opportunities for reform and infrastructure development, Brazil’s prospects are excellent. In the end, it is not a question of whether Brazil’s economy will continue to grow, but whether its government will allow it to.