The foreign-policy universe is a bit like Mean Girls. Just as that film broke down high school into very specific subcultures, the world of foreign-policy wonks also has its own particular fiefdoms. Smug Realists, for example, can't resist teasing other cliques with taunts about Iraq or "imperialism." There are the Snooty Africanists, who disdain (often with cause) all popular media coverage of that continent as ridiculously superficial. And the Climate Change Crowd can't believe the rest of us are debating trivialities as the atmosphere gets saturated with carbon dioxide.
In recent years, however, I've noticed a new subculture emerging among foreign policy professionals. They frequent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) meetings, Sunday morning talk shows, C-SPAN Book TV talks, and the New York Times op-ed page. Let's call them the Turning Inward crowd. To be clear, they are not isolationists -- I defy anyone to use that term on Thomas Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum, Charles Kupchan, or Richard Haass. Rather, what defines the Turning Inward crowd is the belief that the source of America's biggest problems does not lie overseas, but at home. Therefore, any responsible foreign-policy wonk needs to turn his or her analytic lens to what ails the United States first before focusing on the rest of the world.
This kind of logic has its appeal and cheerleaders -- including President Barack Obama, who has riffed a lot about "nation-building at home." This was a theme of Friedman and Mandelbaum's That Used to Be Us as well as one of the themes in Kupchan's No One's World. CFR President Richard Haass has penned the latest manifesto from the Turning Inward crowd, with Foreign Policy Begins At Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order. More than any of these other works, Haass's book illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this particular subculture. Let's look at them one by one.
STRENGTH: PROVIDING REALISTIC THREAT ASSESSMENTS
Reading a lot of foreign policy commentary, you'd think that the United States was facing a world of unprecedented threats -- China's rise, old-fashioned terrorism, new-fangled cyberterrorism and the like. The truth is that the United States faces no threat even remotely as big as it did during the Cold War.
This is one of the points that Haass and the Turning Inward crowd like to stress for why turning inward might be a good idea. It is precisely during a moment of minimal external threats that a country should turn inward to remedy its internal weaknesses. Indeed, the opening sentence of Haass's Foreign Policy Begins at Home concludes, "The biggest threat to America's security and prosperity comes not from abroad but from within."
WEAKNESS: AUSTERIAN ECONOMICS
Goodness, but the Turning Inward crowd likes austerity. Their general perception is that the United States has bankrupted itself over the past few years with profligate spending and borrowing, and that painful cuts are necessary. Haass epitomizes this argument, arguing that the federal government needs to cut its budget deficit by approximately "$250 billion a year over the next four to five years," explaining that: "The world is looking for a signal that the United States has the political will and ability to make hard choices."
The trouble with this argument is that it overlooks three rather important facts. First, based on borrowing rates, the world has been copacetic with U.S. fiscal policy for the entire post-2008 era. Indeed, as the Economist pointed out, "never in recent economic history have interest rates been so low for so many for so long."