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February 28, 2005

Dogs vs. Cats, Treasury vs. State, Economists vs. Diplomats

Cats vs. Dogs, State vs. Treasury, Diplomats vs. Economists

Once again today I had my nose rubbed in a fact of life...

When economists talk about international trade and finance, they talk--first and most importantly--about building institutions to allow for mutually-beneficial acts of economic exchange. They talk about diminishing barriers and increasing confidence. They talk about playing positive-sum games with people in other countries that increase wealth, trust, and confidence and that ultimately align interests: the larger is the surplus from international trade and finance, the bigger is that stake that everyone has in continuing the free-trade-and-finance game.

When diplomats talk about international trade and finance, they talk about them as carrots and sticks: we give people we want to reward access to our markets; we punish people who we want to punish by slapping on trade embargos. "Economic diplomacy" is like bombing, only less so.

And arguments that it is much more important to build large and profitable positive-sum games that align interests than to win zero- (or negative!) sum games that lead to the domination of one government's conception of its momentary interest over another's? They blow right past the diplomats, the State Department people as if they were just gentle breezes.

Now this matters a lot, for in the long run we all have an enormous mutual common interest in peace, tolerance, and prosperity. And we have virtually no interest in most of what governments choose to fight about. Who cares today whether the signs in Strasbourg say "Strasbourg" or "Strassburg"? Who today is willing to fight and die to make Vancouver part of the United States of America? Who cares today whether the eighteenth century saw members of the Bourbon or the Habsburg dynasty seated on the throne of Spain?

This has very powerful implications. For one thing, it means that next to nobody in the foreign relations community is thinking about a set of issues that is one of the key sets of geostrategic issues for America today. What set? Let me back up a century and a half.

Between 1850 and 1910--by accident--Great Britain built ties with the United States: economic ties, cultural ties, political ties of mutual deference where strategic issues were at stake. As a result, by 1910 Americans perceived Britain as their friend, and the British Empire as by and large a force for good in the world. This is in striking contrast to how Britain was perceived in 1850: the cruel corrupt ex-colonial power that had just starved a quarter of all Irishmen to death.

Now this mattered a lot.

This meant that when Britain got into trouble in the twentieth century--whether with Wilhelm II or Hitler or Stalin and his successors--it had wired aces as its hole cards in the poker game of seven-card stud that is international relations. The willingness of the United States to send Pershing and his army Over There, to risk war with and then to fight Hitler, and to move U.S. tanks from Ft. Hood, TX, to the Fulda Gap were all powerfully motivated by America's affinity with Britain, its geostrategic causes, and its security.1

How does this apply to the present? It is obvious. Alexis de Tocqueville could project before the Civil War that the U.S. and Russia were likely to become twentieth-century superpowers. We can project today that at least one of India and China--perhaps both--will become late-twenty first century superpowers. We have an interest in building ties of affinity now. It is very important for the late-twenty first century national security of the United States that, fifty years from now, schoolchildren in India and China be taught that America is their friend that did all it could to help them become rich. It is very important that they not be taught that America wishes that they were still barefoot and powerless, and has done all it can to keep them so.

The fact that these issues are not even on the radar screen of the international relations community is indeed terrifying...


1The argument--that I have heard twice--that the U.S. fought World Wars I and II and the Cold War overwhelmingly out of keen-eyed realism, and not in part because of the affinity between the U.S. and Britain that had grown up since 1850, strikes me as prima facie ludicrous for the cases of World Wars I and II. Wilhelmine Germany posed no threat to the national security or the prosperity of the United States. The same goes for Hitler's Germany. D-Day was only possible because (1) 75% of the Wehrmacht was tied down by the Red Army on the Eastern Front and (2) England served as a huge aircraft carrier and logistics base. A D-Day in reverse with 1940s technology is inconceivable. The Atlantic Ocean is big. Only with the coming of the H-bomb and the ICBM does U.S. national security become dependent on what happens on other continents.

Roosevelt tried to sell Hitler's Nazism as a threat to America, but not in a convincing fashion. Wilson didn't even try to sell Wilhelmine Germany as a threat.

Posted by DeLong at February 28, 2005 03:57 PM