The word of the year is “crisis.”
Debt crisis. Jobs crisis. Budget crisis. Nuclear crisis. Famine crisis. Institutional crisis. Global warming crisis. Moral crisis. The list could go on and on. Wherever we look, we see too much of one thing and not enough of another. In other words, we have a balance crisis.
One place that feels the pinch from the world’s crises is foreign policy. As countries suffer through a host of domestic maladies, political leaders inevitably face criticism for turning their attention away from domestic matters and toward the international arena. President Barack Obama (or any president for that matter) is criticized for attending meetings overseas while unemployment sits at 9%. Yet this criticism is misplaced. Tough economies create constraints — budgetary and political — that make international engagement a hard sell. But the current crises around the world need drastic engagement to stave off debt contagion, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and other threats. Ignoring these problems will only make them worse.
The various economic crises are the most in need of urgent action by all parties. The global financial system puts all the major world economies in the same boat, and if the boat sinks, everyone sinks. This explains why Germany and France are willing to take big hits on Greek debt and why Italian debt concerns are now on front pages around the world. Even the U.S., which is strongly invested in German, French, and British banks, is vulnerable to European debt crises. A market crash in Europe would not only hurt American investors, but a likely economic recession would also reduce American exports to Europe. Therefore, the unemployment crisis in the U.S. could be made even worse by the Greek domino. The threat posed by European debt necessitates action by American officials.
Likewise, political and security threats must be managed on an international scale. Terrorist organizations and pirates will continue to attack their targets for political and economic gain. Decisive action by the U.S. and its allies is required to limit these threats. Politically, the U.S. must continue to build relationships with other countries to create opportunities for trade and political alliances. The recent trade agreements with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia are an example of this ongoing international work. In addition, the U.S. must continue to fund international development efforts that show promise and cost effectiveness and strengthen political ties with partners around the world.
International engagement does not mean large-scale war, extended troop deployments, and expensive state building efforts of dubious efficacy. But it does require spending time and resources on international issues, and yes, making overseas visits. The cost of engagement is high, but the price of disengagement is higher. This is even truer when the world economy is in turmoil, governments are toppled, and security threats remain.
The U.S. is not about to shock itself into pure isolationism, but American elections will be critical moving forward. Already, more Americans across the political spectrum say that the U.S. “should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.” Yet, the crises around the world creates complex problems for the international community. The problems may be difficult to solve, but they can only be solved with bold action and direct engagement on the international stage. The U.S. must be involved. As the 2012 election cycle heats up, foreign policy must remain a principle issue for both voters and candidates.
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