From Syria and Ukraine, to the Arctic Circle and the INF Treaty, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is upending post-Cold War arrangements that kept the peace for a quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the South China Sea, cyberspace and outer space, Xi Jinping’s China is not only challenging but seeking to rewrite the rules of the road that have maintained some semblance of order in the global commons—rules America began drafting and defending a century ago. And both Russia and China are meddling in American institutions. Why is this happening, and how can we stop it? The answer to these 21st-questions can be found in an 18th-century essay.
In 1787, John Jay penned Federalist Number 4. In it, he argued that actions on the part of the United States—just like the laws of physics—lead inevitably to corresponding reactions on the part of foreign powers. With a nascent America loosely—barely—connected under the Articles of Confederation, Jay noted that France, Britain and “most other European nations” were seeking “to restrain” American trade and freedom of maneuver. He pointed out that Spain was blockading the Mississippi River, even as Britain was blockading the St. Lawrence River. He warned that “the safety of the people of America against dangers from foreign force depends…on their placing and continuing themselves in such a situation as not to invite hostility or insult.”
The remedy, according to Jay, would be a national government that is “efficient and well administered,” an approach to trade that is “prudently regulated,” a military that is “properly organized and disciplined,” a financial system that is “discreetly managed,” and a polity that is “free, contented and united.” If foreign powers saw in the United States these characteristics, Jay concluded, “they will be much more disposed to cultivate our friendship than provoke our resentment.” But if America failed to get its act together, he warned, “How liable would she become not only to their contempt but to their outrage.”
The United States of 2019 is not the backwater basket-case it was in 1787. But regrettably, it’s not anywhere near the model of efficiency, liberty and unity advocated by Jay.
The Shutdown Teardown
The Constitution has been described as “an invitation to struggle.” Indeed, making this republic work can be difficult. But in recent years, we have made it more difficult than need be.
There have been 21 government shutdowns in the 43 years since 1976. There were none in the 200 years prior. Setting aside the philosophical differences that triggered these shutdowns—differences which are real and deeply held—the primary responsibility of those we elect to run the government is, well, to run the government. Failing to do so undermines the confidence those watching from afar have in the U.S. government.
Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security recently unearthed evidence of how our enemies use these shutdowns to tear down America. China’s official news agency noted, “What’s happening in the United States today will make more people worldwide reflect on the viability and legitimacy of such a chaotic political system.” Another state-run PRC outlet explained, “Americans boldly portray their democracy as a global model,” but “the government shutdown has been going on for nearly three weeks and involves 800,000 government employees not being able to work…Developing countries that are exploring a development path can hardly afford it.”
In addition, as Fontaine noted, there are the practical problems that come with idling government agencies: a State Department running at half-speed, a USTR with only a skeleton staff, the TSA and Coast Guard ordered to work on the promise of IOUs—these can increase risks and problems for the American people. In short, shutdowns do not serve the national interest.
An Enormous Problem
Jay’s point about trade—that it be “prudently regulated”—has more to do with predictability and dependability than with how we use the term “regulate.” Even so, free-traders and mercantilists alike can see that America’s approach to international trade has grown increasingly unpredictable and undependable in recent years.
President Donald Trump has slapped billions of dollars in tariffs on imports from the not-so-friendly regime in China, but he also has hit longtime allies in Canada, Mexico and Europe with tariffs. In addition, he withdrew from the Transpacific Partnership and nearly withdrew from NAFTA, which he labeled “a disaster.”
Critics of Trump’s approach to trade forget that President Barack Obama called NAFTA “an enormous problem,” declared that “NAFTA needs to be amended” and threatened to “opt out” of NAFTA during his 2008 campaign. As a candidate for president, Hillary Clinton vowed in 2016, “I will stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages, including the Transpacific Partnership…I’ll oppose it as president.” And both Obama and Clinton opposed trade deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama, though Obama ultimately signed FTAs with all three, albeit after letting them languish years into his presidency.
In short, for the better part of a decade, Washington’s approach to trade has been anything but prudent or predictable. As Jay understood, that impacts America’s perception on the world stage.
Smaller and Older
In addition to calling for a militia that is “properly organized and disciplined,” Jay noted that “the time may come, if we are wise, when the fleets of America may engage attention.” In short, he understood that respect in the world is at least partly a function of military might.
Regrettably, in the wake of the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, America’s military might is a shadow of what it once was—and what it needs to be.
By the end of 2016, after five years under the sequestration guillotine, the Army’s active-duty endstrength was smaller than it was on the eve of 9/11. Put another way: America deployed a bigger ground force in a time of peace than it did in a time of war.
The Air Force is “the smallest and oldest it has ever been,” according to an Air Force report. Defense News adds that “Air Force mishaps rose 16 percent between 2013 and 2017…accidents involving all of the Defense Department’s warplanes—manned fighter, bomber, helicopter, tiltrotor and cargo aircraft—rose nearly 40 percent during that time.”
In 2016, Marine aviation units were forced to salvage parts from museums. Sequestration left the Navy with 53 percent of its aircraft unable to fly—twice the historic average. And the post-sequestration Navy has only 287 active deployable ships—not even close to America’s maritime needs. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.”
Russia, China and other hostile regimes have taken notice, as evidenced by their increased mischief and outright aggression. As Gen. Robert Brown, commander of U.S. Army-Pacific, concludes, “They don’t fear us anymore.”
This is an ominous turn of events. Since the end of World War II, the United States has premised its national security on deterrence. But deterrence doesn’t work if America’s enemies don’t calculate the costs of aggression to be greater than the potential benefits—and don’t fear the consequences. It pays to recall that deterrence comes from the Latin dēterreō: “to frighten off.” As Brown puts it, “You have to have that little bit of fear for deterrence to be effective.”
Recent defense budgets have ended sequestration’s maiming of the military. However, a couple budget cycles are not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” former Defense Secretary James Mattis noted. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”
Debt, Deficit and Disarray
That brings us to the disarray of America’s fiscal house. Sequestration, after all, was a response to runaway deficit spending and the mushrooming of the national debt that followed the Great Recession.
In 2008, the national debt represented 68 percent of GDP. By 2013, it was 99 percent of GDP. In 2016, it was 104 percent of GDP. It’s projected to eclipse 108 percent of GDP by 2020.
By way of comparison, that’s around where the national debt was at the height of World War II. Piling up debt to rescue civilization in the 1940s, face down Stalin in the 1950s and win the Cold War in the 1980s seems like a reasonable tradeoff. But what does Washington have to show for its recent spending binge? The War on Terror has not been won. America’s military is smaller and weaker, as China’s has grown bigger and stronger. And with the addition of a new national healthcare program, America’s smorgasbord of entitlements is larger at time when America’s bank account is smaller. Yet Washington is promising more profligate spending—lots more—in the coming years.
America’s reach, relevance and role overseas has always been a function of its economic strength at home. As Washington spends without consideration for the real costs of its spending sprees and as elected officials openly advocate a lurch toward socialism, America’s economic dynamism will diminish—and with it America’s position on the world stage.
Land of the Mostly Free
Jay counseled that the American people needed to be free to gain the respect of other nations.
We Americans call our country “the land of the free”—and understandably so. This is, after all, where the Pilgrims fled to find religious and political freedom, where Jay and other Founders drafted charters of government declaring our unalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and securing “the blessings of liberty,” where the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag once waved—and still does in some places.
Yet according to a number of measurements of freedom, the United States of 2019 is not exactly the land of the free. On the Human Freedom Index—a broad-based measure of individual freedom—the U.S. ranks just 17th. America trails the likes of Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Germany—countries not generally known as bastions of liberty. On the International Property Rights Index, the U.S. ranks 14th. On the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, the U.S. ranks 12th. And while the U.S. is considered “free” on the Freedom House survey of political freedom, it registers a lower score than Canada and Costa Rica, Slovakia and Slovenia, France and Finland, Ireland and Iceland.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle seem intent on exacerbating our differences, pandering to age groups, faiths and races, and thus balkanizing these United States. It’s no wonder that more than 80 percent of Americans say the country is divided (at least we agree on that).
Aside from the 20 years surrounding the Civil War, it’s difficult to identify a period in U.S. history akin to what we have witnessed since 2001—almost two decades in which basically half the country thinks the very worst about the president. President Bush’s fiercest critics, it pays to recall, believe that he had foreknowledge of 9/11 and lied about intelligence related to Iraq. President Obama's fiercest critics believe he’s not American. President Trump’s fiercest critics believe he colluded with Russia.
There have always been differences of opinion in America, but to have nearly half the country believe such things about the only person who represents us all speaks volumes about our republic’s unity and health—or lack thereof.
These problems are not insurmountable or unfixable. But now, as when Jay and his fellow Federalists made their case, America must get its act together at home if it wants to maintain respect abroad.