Here we go again. Once again, Washington’s best and brightest are promoting America as globo-cop—a real-life Adjustment Bureau for the planet. A no-fly zone in Libya? No problem, says John McCain, who seems as detached from 2011 budget realities in Washington as he was from financial realities on Wall Street during his 2008 presidential run. “I would like to point out [that Libya’s] air assets are not large,” the senator said on ABC on Sunday.
Officially, NATO would do the deed, of course, supported by a U.N. Security Council resolution. President Obama has made it clear that he won’t go in without allies. Technically, the United States supplies only about a quarter of NATO’s budget, but in reality the task of neutralizing Muammar el-Qaddafi’s air force would rest mainly with the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy and Air Force. It would be, in other words, another $100 million a month or so (based loosely on the cost of the old no-fly zone in Iraq), added to an underwater federal budget. It’s for a good cause, after all.
And after we save the Libyans, this summer we can go in and help the Sudanese when they begin their own civil war.
Team Obama, to its credit, is throwing out all sorts of cautionary notes about the efficacy of no-fly zones and arms embargoes. This is no video game, White House Chief of Staff William Daley chided on one of the TV talk shows. Nor is it Wheel of Fortune. Sure, there are real humanitarian and strategic interests, but there are also hard financial problems. How often do we need to have this debate while avoiding a real conversation about just how much it costs to keep the peace for the entire planet?
Yes, the rest of the world is underwriting America in a backhanded way: It continues to use the dollar as the main currency, and it asks for very little in interest in return for holding trillions of dollars in Treasury bonds. But it is just not enough. We can’t afford this relationship any longer, and our allies can’t afford to ignore the fact that we can’t afford it. According to a figure cited in the Financial Times this week, as recently as 2000, Washington was responsible for one-third of global defense spending and America claimed one-third of the global economy. Today, the U.S. share of global defense spending has soared to 46 percent, while the American economy has dropped in size to one-quarter of the total. That’s imperial overstretch tested to the breaking point.
Our allies, who are pleading poverty themselves, would say that this imbalance is mostly our fault, beginning with the foolhardy 2003 invasion of Iraq. Up until now, Obama has been appropriately mild in his reactions, still trying to make up for the spit-in-your-face unilateralism of George W. Bush’s first term (much as Bush himself tried to do in his second term). But if the budget debate in Washington is any indication, the avoidance of reality can’t go on indefinitely.
So the new line should sound something like this: Listen up, Europe and Asia. Now that we’re all on the same page again, post-Iraq, we need you to acknowledge that while this is still a one-superpower world, our superpowerhood is merely based on the military. We’ll be glad to continue things as they are—to handle global security so you can enjoy your cushy welfare states. But now we resemble one of those penurious British aristocrats who finds he must turn the family castle into a bed-and-breakfast. Times are tough. If you want to cross the moat, you’ve got to pay.
You want counterterrorism and counterproliferation operations, or help with balancing against the dominant powers (Russia, China, Iran) in your regions? You want to impose no-fly zones and conduct airlifts for disasters so we can all sleep better at night? Or any of the hundred other goodies—technical support, eyes in the sky—that Washington provides to underwrite the international system at its own expense? Well, it’s going to cost you. The Romans called it tribute. We’re humble. We’ll just call it rent.
Most diplomats, both U.S. and foreign, would be aghast at such a strategy shift. People have gotten quite used to their free ride over the decades. Forget, for the moment, all the bad blood over the Iraq invasion. Consider the beauty of the first Persian Gulf War, as seen from the emir’s palace in Kuwait: America drove the Iraqis out, capped the wells, gave the Kuwaitis back their ungodly wealth, and asked them to throw a few reconstruction contracts its way and keep shipping oil. The wonderment of the rulers in Kuwait City was equaled, perhaps, only by the astonishment of the Japanese and Germans after World War II.
But we can no longer indulge in globo-altruism. As Suzanne Nossel, currently the deputy assistant secretary of State for international organizations, once told me: “The U.S. government maintains no central ledger … no place to turn to find out what the United States has done for a particular country lately, or what a country may want or fear.” We don’t want to go overboard with this approach—get greedy to the point where, say, we turn China into the good guy. But we do need to talk far more frankly with our friends. The Libyan crisis is as good a place to start as any.
This article appears in the March 12, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.