28 June 2011

IOU-solationism: Imperialist criticizes fiscally conservative foreign policy

One of the fault lines likely to split the Republican party during next year's presidential primary season is foreign policy. For the moment, the rift seems to divide the current candidates from a GOP establishment disapproving from the sidelines. Most notably, Senator McCain has criticized "isolationist" tendencies within his own party, decrying many Republicans' lack of commitment to the campaign against Libya as well as a broader desire for a rollback of American commitments abroad in the interest of deficit and debt reduction. Now British historian and Newsweek columnist Niall Ferguson takes up McCain's cudgel, coining a new buzzword -- "IOU-solationism" -- in the process. Ferguson, a historian of high finance and British imperialism, subjects with which he sympathizes, has been urging Americans to take up the 21st century white-man's burden since at least September 2001. He writes in 2011 as if he were trapped ten years in the past. How can Americans consider cutting back on foreign military commitments, he asks, when "If radical Islamism is a declining force around the world, I hadn’t noticed."

Ferguson wants fiscal conservatives to aim their knives elsewhere, since "it’s manifestly untrue to claim that “Bush’s wars” are the principal cause of our current fiscal malaise." As he explains, "The defense budget last year was 4.7 percent of GDP (higher than at any time under Bush), but the cost of Social Security plus Medicare plus Medicaid was 10.3 percent." So obviously that's where we should cut. Cutting defense (or foreign aid, I assume) is not an option for Ferguson, since "the world beyond our borders isn’t getting any safer." The unspoken assumption is that it's the special if not exclusive responsibility of the U.S. to make it safer, at whatever cost to Americans. That's easy for Ferguson to say, but the question for the next year is how many Americans, apart from McCain, he actually speaks for.

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