Linking National Security to the Economy

27 02 2008
time-obama.jpg

When all voters are asked to look ahead to the general election, Mr. McCain, the likely Republican nominee, is seen as better prepared for the presidency, better able to handle an international crisis and more equipped to serve as commander in chief than either of the Democratic candidates.
NYT
, “Polls show Obama Is Seen as More Likely to Beat McCain,” 2/26/08

In a funny and thoughtful post on Talking Points Memo, a reader-blogger argued that Democrats need to reframe the national security debate to be more about the economy and less about military affairs, particularly if they want to beat the presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in November.

John McCain, born on a Naval Base, has often favored military action over diplomacy. Like it’s the only effective instrument handy.

It’s like they say. If all you have is a hammer, every solution looks like a nail.

Missing from the national security conversation is the economy. George Bush was [sic] recently suggested that essentially, the two have nothing to do with each other. He might be the only one who thinks that.

Today, economic power, in the long run anyway, trumps military power. And we’ve overstretched both. Foreign debt has never been greater. We’re living off China’s credit card. In fact, we’re their biggest customer. Saudi Arabia owns more of American interests than this administration would care to admit.

The blogger makes an excellent point in stating that “Today, economic power, in the long run anyway, trumps military power.” With Obama emerging as the Democratic party’s presumptive nominee he may need to adopt such a message. As of late, Obama has sought to court orphan Edwards supporters with his softer brand of populism, but has yet to emphasize the international dimension of economy growth, save his criticism of the off-shoring of American jobs.

But in his Foreign Affairs essay he does seem to hint at how climate change may in fact be the cross cutting issue that will drive much of his foreign and economic policy thinking. In the piece, and on the stump, he refers to how the threat of climate change can become a source of global and regional instability.

Warmer temperatures and declining rainfall will reduce crop yields, increasing conflict, famine, disease, and poverty. By 2050, famine could displace more than 250 million people worldwide. That means increased instability in some of the most volatile parts of the world.

In the same essay he also highlights how climate change may present new economic opportunities too.

I will invest in efficient and clean technologies at home while using our assistance policies and export promotions to help developing countries leapfrog the carbon-energy-intensive stage of development….By 2050, global demand for low-carbon energy could create an annual market worth $500 billion. Meeting that demand would open new frontiers for American entrepreneurs and workers.

Of course, this is nothing new. Al Gore has been a proponent of this approach long before his 2000 presidential campaign, and so was John Kerry in 2004. But the difference now is that both the message and the messenger can get a fair hearing.

To be sure, neutralizing Sen. John McCain’s stature of being the security candidate will require more than a few robust policy speeches on going green. But if done well Obama could change the complexion of the foreign policy debate to shift away from war on terror and Iraq to a more cross cutting issue with a different kind of urgency. According to the economic plan on his website he will:

“… also enact bold new energy efficiency goals for buildings and appliances, which will both reduce middle class American’s monthly electricity bills and help jumpstart the construction and manufacturing industries. Additionally, the Obama plan will provide tax credits for locally-owned biofuel refineries – which have already started to strengthen the economic vitality of rural America.

Senator McCain, of course, is not your average Republican climate change skeptic either. After all, he not only endorsed a cap and trade regime, but even went so far as to characterize it as “capitalistic and free-enterprise oriented.” He also co-sponsored a Senate bill in 2003 calling for reductions in greenhouse emissions.

But politically McCain might be toned deaf to the current concerns of most voters. On January 27th, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press:

SEN. McCAIN: But also, I believe that most Republicans’ first priority is the threat of radical Islamic extremism. Now, I know the concerns about the economy…

MR. RUSSERT: More than the economy?

SEN. McCAIN: More than the economy at the end of the day. We’ll get through this economy. We’re going to restore our economy, and many of the measures we’re taking right now–although it’s very difficult now. This transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism will be with us for the 21st century.

Obviously, the first priority of the President is to protect the American people from threats both foreign and domestic, but that’s not the only thing he does. Nor should that responsibility be carried out to the exclusion of all others.

Generating economic growth and protecting American jobs should also be considered a top priority because frankly the economy will not rebound by itself in a way that will fairly distribute wealth. Simply saying “we’ll get through this economy” does not exactly inspire a great deal of confidence on those who actually fear losing their health insurance or loss their jobs to overseas competition more than they do a senseless act of terror. This is not to minimize certain national security threats, as much as it is acknowledging that the voting public may be alarmed about staying in Iraq for 100 years, despite the fact that the war costs American taxpayers $2.4 billion a week.

So to the extent that national security concerns become an election issue, Obama should reframe the debate to be more about energy security so he can sell energy independence and going green as a security as well as an economic imperative.

If it is indeed Obama and McCain that face off this fall, it there will be a vivid contrasts on many issues, ranging from taxation to the war in Iraq to health care. But I predict the outcome of the election will largely revolve around who has the better policy imagination and vision, not just experience or mere inspiration.

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2 responses

27 02 2008
Lyn

The posting assumes that a Democratic President will accomplish reducing global warming, energy independence for America, and a “fair” distribution of wealth in the US.

There have been Democratic Presidents in the past. President Carter encouraged everyone to set their thermostats lower in the winter and higher in the summer. People didn’t listen. President Clinton had 2 terms to enact some meaningful environmental policy. He didn’t.

Americans want to be comfortable, drive irresponsible vehicles, and consume beyond their means. This stresses the environment and makes the US dependent on other nations for its energy. This will continue until the market makes it too unpleasant. Americans would not tolerate a President really forcing them to make the necessary changes.

And candidate Obama is too busy making promises to support any uncomfortable economy or energy related measures. He says he’s going to secure clean energy and make America green. America’s leading companies, with all the money they spend on research and development, have not yet been able to bring to market a reliable source of clean energy. If they can’t do it then how’s is this one candidate going to do it?

About the fair distribution of wealth – fair to whom? Corporations and the wealthy earn their money. They invest and generate progress. The poor receive generous welfare benefits. The middle class actually gets more benefit from the services it uses than what it pays for in taxes. What would a Democratic President to do change things? Tinker with the budget? Cut defense spending and veterans benefits to provide more subsidies and food stamps to the poor?

If history is a good indicator then what a Democratic President would do is just spend more money than the country can afford trying to give away more “benefits” to the poor.

28 02 2008
KUT

The point of the post was to advocate for broadening the national security debate to be more than just a narrow set of issues. Sure its important to discuss different approaches to troop readiness and growing the army, whether or not we should cancel the certain weapons programs like DDX destroyer or the F-22, and the need to tackle certain state based threats and non-state actors.

But it’s also important to discuss how the change as a result of global warming will impact our foreign policy, and energy security policy in particular.

You are right in saying that people did not listen to Jimmy Carter, but the country is in a very different place now than it was back then or even a decade ago. Few fair-minded people would argue that global warming does not exist or is not a problem.

When people thought the problem of global warming was a hoax it made it damn near impossible to get anything real passed and when it did the right promptly attacked it.

Case in point Kyoto. While Kyoto was certain imperfect, the Bush administration pulled out of the treaty faster than you can say “stay the course” and failed to offer anything in its place, which did a lot to erase the gains of the Clinton administration. (Bush also effectively defanged the EPA too.)

In this era, however, not only can we encourage the market to produce more energy efficient goods from computers, to dishwashers, to light bulbs, but we can also fund research and development into alternative fuels. It will require a lot more patience than most people figure, but it can be done. And slowly but surely we can approach energy independence. There is already evidence that the market is shifting toward greener ways of living. We just need better public policy to nudge it in a better direction.

We can also provide people with tax credits for purchasing such goods and take away tax cuts for those purchasing hummers and SUVs. (See link for more info: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9804EED61230F932A15752C0A9659C8B63)

Additionally, wealth is more than just a monetary good. It’s also about access to an assortment of other resources such as receiving a quality education, obtaining affordable health care, affordable housing, and a lot more. For all those things to come to fruition we need to ensure we redistribute wealth in a fairer manner.

If that means shrinking the defense budget, then we should do it. If it means raising taxes on the wealthy, we should do it.

In the end everyone does benefit. Employers, particularly foreign investors, then would not have to worry about burdensome health care costs. Well-funded schools could actually educate students to become tomorrow’s workers, employers and investors. And, while many join the armed services for different reasons, many recruits would NOT have to do so based on an economic draft, i.e., where the poor mainly fight and the well off avoid military service altogether. (I don’t serve, but certain members of my family do.)

Perhaps, the wealthy do work hard, but so do low-wage workers. And many of them are poor despite working more than one job, if jobs are available to them at all. So if they receive benefits its not because their lazy, its because they need it. It would be really hard to run an economy without low wage labor.

And the fact that we as a society would not do more to offer a helping hand and some modicum of economic security help those with the least among us, or with less than a toehold in the middle class, just does not seem fair to me, especially since we would have so much to gain.

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