Foreign Policy–Should the US Act as Unipolar World Leader?

March 21, 2014

In 1990 Charles Krauthammer wrote an article in Foreign Policy Magazine, entitled “The Unipolar Moment.” In this now famous article, he accurately laid out the clear proposition resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union: “The immediate Post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its allies.” At that time, US power was at it’s multi-dimensional power peak.  We didn’t need to consult any other power. We could unilaterally do whatever we wanted to fix the world’s problems. Our allies would quickly fall into line. Our enemies would withdraw. Our power was beyond question.

Writing on March 20, 2014, 24 years later, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, Krauthammer seems to have overlooked all that has happened since 1990. He needs to update.

In this article, he lambasts President Obama for failing to send military aid to Ukraine, presumably to prevent Russia from annexing Crimea, as indeed it has done. Krauthammer is not alone in such arguments. He is joined by the likes of John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others on the hawkish Right of American politics.  These critics do not even mention the need to consult other powers.

There are three contrary points to be made to Krauthammer and those who would have us double down in our efforts to be the unipolar military policeman of the world:

1. The US is no longer the unilateral unipolar power.
2.  Our military actions around the world have yielded little other than lives lost and budget deficits.
3.  The American public is not in favor of military engagement.

The US is no longer the unipolar power. The early nineties represented a unique period of unipolar power for the US. Global power is calculated by most scholars in terms of three considerations: Military power, economic power, and soft power (including ideology, foreign policy, and all other factors of global perception).  In all three areas, the US has lost its advantage, and at the same time a number of other nations have advanced in terms of one or more of these factors. Examples include China and India, Brazil and Turkey, Mexico and other countries.  US has suffered in the failed attempts of two wars, and in developing a huge budget deficit, triggering a global recession with its mortgage financing debacle, and becoming politically weakened by the obvious gridlock in our partisan Congress. Our form of government has been challenged by the success of China’s benign dictatorship and our attempts (e.g., the “Washington Consensus which drove IMF and World Bank’s largely unsuccessful policies in the 90s).  Our attempts to proselytize the combination of democracy and our form of capitalism as only end game of government has not been well received globally.

Thus, we have found ourselves forced to share power with others, due to our losses and their advances. They have insisted in bodies such as the United Nations Security Council, the World Trade Organization, and elsewhere.

This transition from unquestioned unipolarity toward a possible multipolar global order can be regarded as tragic, or it can be regarded as inevitable–no nation in history has been able to hold the unipolar position–it yields to multipolarity, or a new lead country comes to power.  It can also be regarded as healthy and in the best interest of the world, given that the US actions in trade and foreign policy are unavoidably heavily influenced by interests which are seeking US advantage primarily, as indeed are the interests of any single nation.  Isn’t it abundantly clear that a world government, at least ideally, would be better able to assure global fairness of trade, deal with health epidemics, the global environment, scarce resources, and matters of abject poverty and human welfare–better than any single country, such as the US or Russia?

Some think China is already the power for this century. This is another long debate, but the essence is that China is not ready to take over unipolar world leadership, and will not be for at least another thirty years, in the opinion of many respected scholars. Goldman Sachs says so, also! This is because of the Chinese view of the world and also the challenges they face in sustaining the growth of the world’s largest country, while facing issues of corruption, inequality, pollution, inadequate water, and being surrounded by nations with which they have had wars, and other challenges, with few allies.  Sustained strong growth is necessary to create 20 million or more additional jobs per year. Falling far short of that risks political instability for China.

While relatively weaker than in 1990, the US remains by far the strongest nation, stronger than any other collection of nations, and supported by an immense alliance of allies. This strength clearly exceeds that of the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Mercosur, ASEAN, NAFTA, SELA, OPEC, or the “BRICS.”

Nevertheless, the power of the US can no longer be seen as unipolar in the sense of its status in 1990. Most foreign policy experts agree that the US must now collaborate with a number of other countries to effect the best answers to the evolving challenges of the world.  These growing countries insist on having a voice in major world affairs–and some don’t agree with the US in its actions–in Egypt, Syria, Iran, now in the Ukraine, and elsewhere. In fact, many of us realize the power of the US in world governing organizations is too great–a greater voice must be given to emerging powers and to the developing world–we don’t have all the wisdom!

Of course, achieving agreement in IGO’s is time consuming and laborious. The Right would seem to prefer quick military action.

Yet, our military actions around the world have yielded little other than lives lost and budget deficits: Estimates put the loss of US lives above 6,000 and the total cost of the two wars from $4-6 Trillion, $75,000 for every American household, with many of those households in the precarious financial position that this amount of money might have made all the difference–food, child care, education, not to mention what it might have done for poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. The failure to achieve desired results abroad has damaged the global perception of US unipolar strength which existed when Krauthammer first wrote of it. These failures in war suggest to other nations that our military strength is not effective, notwithstanding all the dollars spent, and that our foreign policy and strategy left these countries dependent on the US and allies, while still riddled with corruption and internal conflict even after our withdrawal.

Third, I have not met anyone across the last few years who wants to send troops to Egypt, to Turkey, to Syria, to North Korea, to Iran, to the Ukraine, or any other of the many places in the world where there is conflict and mistreatment of humanity.

It’s not that we don’t care. Most of us do. That’s why we support increasing and improving our foreign aid (another hotly debated subject). That’s why we support strengthening the International Governing Organizations (IGOs). That’s why we support people like Obama who believe in the collaborative efforts of governments around the world–no single policeman acting unilaterally.

It’s also that these situations are invariably complex. They are thousands of miles from home, in cultures we little understand. And, by reason of our moral commitments to the methods of war and also international agreements, we choose not to cavalierly use methods that risk civilian lives, or use weapons such as chemical or nuclear. The political landscape is hard to understand and is constantly changing. We can’t easily identify the good guys and the bad guys. If we could isolate just the bad guys and properly remove them, that might do it. But, as an example, what if the bad guys were properly elected, as in the case of Egypt, or Yanokovich in the Ukraine? Do we feel we should override the elected decisions of a people?

While Russian action in Crimea is not appropriate, they do have some very strong arguments on their side: Yanukovich was elected. Crimea is largely Russian speaking and wants to be part of Russia. It’s not a black and white situation, as few are.

The point is, we are not able to be effective in achieving reasonable goals of improvement in most cases. And, it’s not just that the US in not capable, it’s that any country so far away trying to aggressively intervene is not likely to be any more successful than we. But if there is a chance of best trying to right the wrongs of distant places in the world, how can anyone argue that it’s not the job of world organizations to do that? Of course, some will say they can’t, or they won’t, so forget that–someone has to have the guts to step up.  I’d vote for that if the record from Vietnam on did not so clearly demonstrate that we can’t.

Finally–there is the nature of political discussion around matters like this:

The irony of such political rhetoric is that it is often cloaked in criticism of our weakness in threatening sanctions and then imposing what is seen as only weak sanctions, thus arguably resulting in our prestige and the importance of our “power” in the world being diminished–i.e., we say you’ll be punished if you do that, and when they take the forbidden step, we do little.

Yet, when these advocating for boots on the ground or even guns and weapons being delivered to those opposing what we see as invasion, or (as in Syria) what we see as crimes against humanity, etc., do they acknowledge that these steps also constitute threats–threats that if our foes do not stop whatever we object to, we will rapidly step up such aid or put (more) boots on the ground? These are also threats. Do they intend to “threaten” in this way, but stop at some line short of true military action such as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this kind of threat without action not a worse kind than the threat of diplomatic or economic sanctions? Or, would these critics intend to follow up with war? Could it be that some of these hope we will sufficiently provoke to justify yet another war? Why? The only beneficiaries of that are the military industrial complex.

I will have a great deal more respect for such critics if they will publicly state either (a) where they would stop (and any stop arguably creates just another empty threat–which they apparently oppose); or (b) that they would go the whole way into war if the desired action is not taken.

Hawks–there is no value to criticizing “threats” unless you answer these questions regarding your own proposed threats.

No matter whether the critic is on the Right or the Left, whenever I hear a litany of what was done wrong, I hope, but never seem to hear exactly what the critic would have done if he/she were in the deciding role, and certainly never get that final piece, e.g., “…and if military supplies do not turn the tide, I would then….”

Joe Stiglitz Raises Important Globalization Issues

March 18, 2014

Joe Stiglitz, former Chief Economist of the World Bank, hardly a liberal institution, posts an article in the March 15 issue of the New York Times.

Here is his concluding summary on the question of whether unfettered global trade, as pursued by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”) is a good thing for the US and the world:

In this series, I have repeatedly made two points: The first is that the high level of inequality in the United States today, and its enormous increase during the past 30 years, is the cumulative result of an array of policies, programs and laws. Given that the president himself has emphasized that inequality should be the country’s top priority, every new policy, program or law should be examined from the perspective of its impact on inequality. Agreements like the TPP have contributed in important ways to this inequality. Corporations may profit, and it is even possible, though far from assured, that gross domestic product as conventionally measured will increase. But the well-being of ordinary citizens is likely to take a hit.  And this brings me to the second point that I have repeatedly emphasized: Trickle-down economics is a myth. Enriching corporations — as the TPP would — will not necessarily help those in the middle, let alone those at the bottom.” (

There are many who believe unfettered trade is a good thing–pure and simple. It certainly can be, but there are many occasions when it’s not so simple. 

Start with answering a question: What outcome to increased trade would be considered good? Is it sufficient for trade to result in GDP growth? Is it sufficient for corporate sales and profits to grow? Or, is it necessary or important to also consider whether the particular trade that is actually implemented, with all its unique rules and regulations, results in loss of jobs and therefore increased inequality and poverty? I think the answer has to be that these impacts of trade must be considered to determine whether the particular trade envisioned is good.  

One of the best scholars on this issue is Ha-Joon Chang. In his “Kicking Away the Ladder: Infant Industry Promotion in Historical Perspective,” 2003, he documents the behavior of countries like the US, Japan, Korea, and other of the now wealthy variety, as they faced the early development challenges now faced by today’s developing countries. All of these used aggressive protectionist tactics in the early days to enable nurturing young businesses which would not have had the chance to develop if they had faced unrestrained competition in the early days. Now, having graduated to a level of high GDP per capita, the same group is attempting to impose on others a set of limitations which they themselves did not accept at the equivalent stage of their growth.

Furthermore, Chang point out in this treatise that, “Whatever the intention behind the ‘ladder kicking,’ the fact remains that these allegedly ‘good’ policies have not been able to generate the promised growth dynamism in the developing countries during the last two decades or so” (p 29).

Stiglitz is not only arguing for some compassion in regard to the developing countries. He has pointed out in other works, such as his The Price of Inequality (2012) that opening borders indiscriminately can also be bad policy in developed countries.  When relaxed regulations make it easy for US manufacturers to quickly moved production from the US to China, and then when wages rise a bit, from China to Bangladesh, there can be populations of workers who are unexpectedly displaced and need help to be re-trained in order to tackle some job higher up the food chain–help they are not getting under policies implemented by Reagan and now aggressively supported by Conservatives. Conservative policies tend to assume that what is called “flexible labor policies,” a misnomer for “let the company do whatever is in the best interest of shareholders only, with no obligation to dismissed employees” are the answer to everything. 

Stiglitz finishes the article by reminding us that this kind of “trickle down” theory has not worked. 

If it worked, would we have record levels of inequality today? We have seen record GDP and wealth creation, especially for the top 20%, but little for the middle class and below.  

It’s really that simple as it relates to the “trickle down” theory.

George Will’s Misinterpretation

March 17, 2014

In his Washington Post opinion of March 14 (, George Will, no friend of Democrats or Barack Obama, seeks to fault the policies of Democrats in trying to find an avenue to reduced inequality.

Inequality is a recent development here in the US.  Forty years ago, we were one of the most equal countries, and in this short time, we have moved to one of the most unequal, thanks in large part to conservative policies driven by the likes of Reagan, Friedman, and now by the likes of George Will.

While inequality (essentially resulting from incentives which motivate hard work and creativity) is a good thing up to a point, a growing number of highly respected economists, as well as social scientists, medical experts, and others, are arguing that very high levels of inequality, such as we have today, result in many negatives–reduced economic growth, psychological distress to the lesser privileged, health issues, and a general discontent with the fairness of the system. These things can eventually lead to revolution, and indeed there is much world history to evidence this risk.

Let’s examine Will’s points in his article. There are three.

He starts with criticism of the continuance of farm subsidies totaling $956 billion. With this criticism, I wholeheartedly agree. We are not only subsidizing crops we shouldn’t even be growing, enriching already wealthy farmers, but also denying parts of the world which are much better suited in climate and labor costs to supply our cotton, rice, and other subsidized farm products–parts of the world in abject poverty, in which these agricultural products represent one of the few ways for their poor populations to earn a bare essential living. The question we have is how does Will determine to lay the blame for this on the Democrats? Farm subsidy programs have been in place for decades, supported by far more Republican than Democratic votes, paid for by the lobbyists for large food and agricultural interests. I would say it is much more clearly a Republican program. Take a look at a CATO Institute examination of Republican support for farm subsidies ( “…24 of the RSC’s 165 members sit on the House Agriculture Committee, the notorious overseer of farm-welfare programs. Total direct government farm payments to the districts of those 24 [Republican] representatives alone costs taxpayers more than $1 billion per year. Numerous other RSC members hail from farm states, and therefore have a vested interest in protecting payments to their constituents.”

Next, Will wants to attack food stamps, moving rapidly from there to welfare in general. He says we spend $1 trillion annually on welfare. It’s not clear how Will adds up his numbers. Other sources ( compare key US spending categories this way:  Welfare $396 billion; health care $970 billion; defense $820 billion. The International Peace Research Institute reports that we spend more than the next 10 countries combined on defense ( Let’s talk about reducing not only farm subsidies, but also defense spending and use the savings to spend more on schools and infrastructure.

And, the implication of his treatment of welfare is that welfare is not helpful in reducing inequality.  He seems to feel welfare is a waste.  Welfare programs can do with improvements, but successful nations do and must provide a safety net for those who are disadvantaged or are unable to work. I’m sure there are many on the right who would like to summarily identify those on welfare as “simply lazy,” but this is clearly not the case. Millions of Americans are lining up to apply repeatedly for scare jobs every day.  More on why we have such unemployment in future posts.

Will is right that the welfare program of the US is tilted toward the elderly, in terms of medical and social security payments, but he is not necessarily right that welfare is bad in general. And, again, this misallocation toward the elderly was not initiated by the Democrats–it has been true for decades since Medicare and Social Security were enacted. It was not taken down by Regan, or the either of the Bushes. Let the Republicans try to change the elderly orientation of welfare–their challenge will be as great as that of the Democrats–this is now motherhood and apple pie in the US. The elderly have the time, the money, and willingness to engage in politics–to fight a good fight, which the young do not have. I doubt the Republicans will bring on that fight, should they inure to majority in US leadership.

His third and final point is to attack the low interest rates of the Obama era as undermining equality by paying only low interest rates to the pensioners. He’s right about this. But, what were the policies of the Bush/Greenspan era which led to the crisis, which resulted in the need to manage interest rates at similarly low levels in the years leading up to the 2007 collapse?  The Democratic administration’s low interest rates were necessitated to enable a recovery from the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression–a legacy of Republican leadership. Congress was unwilling to do much of anything of a fiscal nature, leaving the Federal Reserve with the burden of trying to revive the economy with monetary policy alone. Those low interest rate policies under Bush and Greenspan were designed to artificially motivate the middle class to buy more homes, take out second mortgages, buy more cars, and keep the economy growing–that was the Bush/Greenspan 2002-2007 set of policies. This eventually resulted in a massive bubble which had to be addressed by the Obama administration.

There are certainly things the Democrats could have done better in the Obama term, but George Will is wrong and unfair in attempting to place unique blame on the Democrats in regard to these elements of policy.

From his choice of complaints, I would say the better discussion around these points would be around whether these problem areas are the fault of Democrats or Republicans, and how these kinds of vested interests can indeed be overcome to make changes for the common good. In terms of the present administration, the discussion might be about whether it is Obama’s fault that Congress is gridlocked, or whether that is more the fault of the right wing of the Republican party. More the latter in my opinion.

High Inequality Restrains Economic Growth

March 10, 2014

In his op-ed of March 9 in the New York Times (, Paul Krugman provides a quick summary of the scholastic history of a key question: Whether high inequality restrains economic growth.

The Krugman article speaks well for itself, so I will only add a brief observation here, hoping you’ll look at the article itself.

Krugman is very reasonable in his position. He’s not proposing a huge redistribution from the wealthy. He’s not disputing the value of incenting everyone to excel by rewarding the successful with the fruits of their labor.

He’s simply saying that at very high levels of inequality, such as we are currently experiencing, there is a restraint to economic growth. Putting a little more income in the hands of the lesser privileged will result in spending, which will grow the economy.  This is good for everyone.

It simply does not appear that allowing the wealthy to continue to aggregate unlimited amounts of wealth is resulting in what the conservative economists and politicians of the Reagan era and beyond have been extolling–that the wealthy would invest it in production and this would result in jobs and “trickle down.”

In fact, as shown in previous posts here, there has only been a significant “trickle up” across the last 30 years.

More research needs to be done on Krugman’s last point in the article. Isn’t it possible such growth enhancement stimulated by a little redistribution actually results in more wealth for the wealthy also? Is it necessarily true that the efficiency of selective forms of gradual redistribution is such that the wealthy lose a little, as he acknowledges is possible? For example, if I get A% of B $ GDP now, maybe C% (a little lower) of D $GDP (a little higher) will be a larger number for me…?

But, even if this is not true, a very modest loss to the ultra wealthy is worth it for the common good of all, and also as prevention to the ultimate risk of revolt and revolution.  And, this is not a loss of existing wealth, only a little loss in the rate of future wealth growth.

The Puzzle–Why Haven’t the Losers Across The Great Divergence Protested?

February 26, 2014

As inequality has steadily increased (worsened) since around the 1970’s the question is, why hasn’t there been more of a popular backlash against it, from the middle and lower classes?

It can’t be because they haven’t felt it. The cost of higher education has increased across that period at approximately 2 1/2 times the inflation rate. Inflation alone would justify the $10,000 cost of a college degree in 1986 rising to about $21,000 now, but the real cost today is almost $60,000–and that’s not at Ivy League schools (  The cost of medical care and housing have both significantly outpaced the inflation rate. So, there is no doubt the middle class and the poor have felt it.

This state of affairs is addressed in Beatrice Walton’s May 1, 2011, article in the Harvard Political Review ( Quoting an MIT study, she reports that between 1980 and 2005, fully 80% of the US income increase went to the top 1%.  The Institute for Policy Studies says that from 1976 to 2007, the income share of that top 1% went from 8.9% of total income, to 23.5%.  Meanwhile, the real wages of blue collar workers have only increased 4.4% between 1981 and 2006 ( The chart below shows rising productivity of blue collar workers, but stagnant real (inflation adjusted) wages across the long period form the 80s to the present.

It can’t be because they haven’t felt it, can it?  And, if the workers had not been delivering added productivity (as shown above), the stagnant pay would at least be understandable–but, in fact, worker productivity rose steadily.

Walton quotes Professor Nathan Kelly of the University of Tennessee: “We found […] that as inequality increases, the public actually becomes more conservative. It’s actually the case that the rich, those with middle incomes, and the poor all become more conservative at the same time.” This confirms the suspicion that something is wrong–people should be protesting, but they are not–at least not very much. So, this still leads to the question of why? Paul Krugman says the era of rising inequality turns out to be coincident with the rise of “movement conservatism.” 

So, it’s not my imagination–people are suffering, but they’re not protesting very much. In fact, many who have been suffering have somehow bought the rhetoric of the right.

I have referred often to the theory of the “tunnel effect” developed by Albert Hirschman around 1973. He said that if two lanes of traffic are passing though a tunnel and one becomes blocked, slows to a standstill, for a time the people in that lane will not be upset, because they see the parallel lane moving swiftly and figure that this will soon be their fate as well–nothing to do but wait. This is the image the Right sells effectively–there is opportunity for everyone, you can be just as successful as the next person, and the last thing you want is to dis-incent motivation to succeed by threatening any form of redistribution. That, so they claim, will only result in no one wanting to take risk or try harder.

However, nigh onto 30 years of stagnating real wages is a lot longer than Hirschman had in mind as the level of tolerance. He said that at some point, patience and tolerance would wear out, and there would be protest.

Yet, except for Occupy, there has been little protest in the US. And Occupy was unable to get its priorities and agenda together to move the one issue of inequality forward. They had many other elements of dissatisfaction. Similarly, in China, there are hundreds of thousands of protests annually, but even the top ranked areas of concern–pollution, inequality, inflation, and corruption–none of these individually have taken on a national campaign. Of course, in China it is possible that one reason is that the State is prepared to quell any such moves, but that’s not the case here.

Why have we been so tolerant, while our lane has been only slowly crawling, and the adjacent lane is moving fast and even steadily accelerating?

I believe some reduction in inequality, achieved thoughtfully and gradually, would actually benefit the rich with faster economic growth for all.  More important, this is the opinion of many respected economists.  

What are the ways to do this? A comprehensive health care system is one form of equalization–providing coverage for the middle and lower classes, so that they can stay healthy, can work, and can contribute to the economy. Yes, there is an element of redistribution in any such system–but it’s fair, fits our American ethic of equal rights and privilege for all. Obamacare is one legitimate attempt to do that. Let the Right come forward with its own plan and let’s see if perhaps it can do the job better–we should all be open to that.

Another critical element of equalization is education. It has developed that the wealthy send their kids to private schools all the way from kindergarten to Harvard and Yale. But the middle class can no longer afford that burden and are left with the poorly funded public schools and little political voice to influence improvement in them. Hirschman also wrote about this phenomenon, calling it the “exit voice.” That’s when the influential withdraw from public services to get their needs met privately, which they can easily afford, leaving a mess for the rest to try to conquer, with dwindling government and tax revenue for funding, and influence.

Rightist rhetoric has done a very effective job in persuading the middle and lower classes to vote for reducing taxes. Some think this is cleverly built into the campaigns of conservatives as a “starve the beast” plan—that is, if lower classes can be sold into lower taxes (which they all can see will increase their take home pay), they won’t translate that to the absolute correlation of less government revenue and therefore less ability to pay for health care, education, housing for the poor, or other forms of welfare.

Taxes can play a role. I’m willing to have my income taxes rise a bit and my deductions reduce a bit, if I can see that the investment of these tax dollars is going toward a little more equalization and opportunity for the bottom half of our income pie.  What about the inheritance tax?  If we are a nation which believes one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps, then why don’t we trust that our children can do that too? Maybe that’s because it’s not really true anymore–you need the 20 years of private education to be able to do that,  and it helps if you live in the right (prestigious) neighborhood, belong to the right clubs, and have some money to invest.

There are many other ways to achieve gradual redistribution, to gradually reduce the level of inequality.

So, it’s clear that the tightening squeeze on the middle and poorer classes is not resulting in significant protest. But, it’s still not clear why those who are losing in the inequality advancement are not protesting more. Credit must be given to the Right for constructing a complex set of messages which obscure some of the equality and opportunity disadvantages–messages about reduced taxes, religion, abortion, military strength, property rights, gun controls, and other things prized by the lesser privileged.

The argument that allowing the rich to get richer so that their wealth will trickle down because they will invest it in production and  production creates more job, has failed across thirty years. With exceptions, of course, the wealthy are not investing as much as the theory imagines, putting more in liquid investments and homes, boats, planes, etc. 

So, for now, there can only be hope that some political and economic wisdom can be advanced and we can make some modest adjustments before it’s too late.