Alumnae Bulletin
August 2010

Speaking out

Teresita Currie Schaffer '66

National security begins with the economy at home

President Obama is refocusing the country's international agenda. In contrast to its predecessors, his first National Security Strategy, released in May 2010, includes a most unusual ingredient: a long passage on the U.S. economy.

The statement argues that the foundation for America's national interests is not just recovery from the global financial crisis, but more fundamentally rebuilding the infrastructure of economic growth and innovation—everything from education to homeland security. Depicting the U.S. economy in this way is both wise and politic. While the administration's policy rests on the traditional pillars of national interests—security, prosperity, values and international order—this explicit grounding in the domestic economy has not often found voice in our public discussions of national security. After 30 years as a U.S. diplomat, I believe that our international security is only as strong as the economy that sustains it.

The American people have always focused first and foremost on the home front. In a 2006 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, 76 percent of respondents considered "protecting American jobs" to be a "very important" goal of U.S. foreign policy. No other goal got as high a score, though preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, combating terrorism, and securing energy supplies came close. Job protection had ranked at or near the top of U.S. foreign policy goals in similar surveys stretching back over two decades. The Obama administration is saying what most Americans believe.

At the same time, the strategy statement has one interesting omission: geography. Previous statements were similarly light on the regional dimension of American international interests, preferring to focus on more abstract categories. Nonproliferation and climate change, two of the key global themes in Obama's vision, are certainly critical issues. But America's geographic focus matters, and will become increasingly important in the next couple of decades. Many regional problems are hardy perennials on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Asia stands out, both because it is the locus of some of today's most painful problems and because its centrality represents a shift in U.S. national security priorities.

Two World Wars had put Europe at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Our critical military relationships after World War II were transatlantic ones. Japan became a vital economic and military relationship, especially after its economic engine began humming again, but Europe was the core. Security ties were reinforced by huge trade and investment connections, a high cultural comfort level, and similar degrees of economic prosperity.

The weight of Asia in U.S. international relationships, however, has been growing steadily. It accounts for a growing share of U.S. international economic ties. China is now the fourth largest U.S. trading partner. Its trade with the United States grew fourfold between 1999 and the year before the financial crisis, dwarfing the 80 percent increase in U.S. trade with the EU during the same period. Asia is home to the world's two principal rising powers, China and India, which also represent the globe's most dynamic centers of economic growth.

Asia also includes more than its share of trouble—the faceoffs between North and South Korea and across the Taiwan straits, the war in Afghanistan, the still unresolved problems between the two nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, and the principal sources of international Islamic extremism.

The peace and security of this huge region will have a profound impact on the United States' position in the world—and on our lives—in the next couple of decades. The most favorable future would involve continued strong economic growth in Asia (and resumed growth in the U.S.), peaceful engagement among the four major players in the region—China, India, Japan and the United States—and a rough power equilibrium among them.

There are three principal impediments to this happy scenario. One lies in the structure of the region itself. China's economy is close to four times the size of India's; while both enjoy dynamic growth, that gap will not be closed soon. Both are growing much faster than either Japan or the United States. Can the United States and China's Asian neighbors persuade it that a "peaceful rise" scenario offers more benefits than a more disruptive path? The second impediment lies in the many security "hot spots" in the region, any one of which could lead to local conflict and threaten the power equilibrium of the four key players. And the final danger lies in the U.S. economy, should we fail to revitalize it in the ways the strategy statement envisages.

The U.S. government is not very good at developing and following a long-term strategy. The structure of our government and of our funding pulls us toward the short term and the tactical. The multiplicity of players inside the U.S. government and Congress make complicated internal negotiations and detailed compromises almost inevitable. But the twin challenges of reestablishing the foundation of economic growth and managing the future of Asia need that kind of long view.

Ambassador Teresita Schaffer is director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington, D.C. Her areas of expertise include U.S.–South Asia relations, regional security, and economics, energy, and health policy in India. From 1992 to 1995, she was U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka.

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