Today, U.S. forces are smaller and stretched even further around the world. The U.S. base at Bagram, Afghanistan, for instance, is halfway around the world from the center of the 48 contiguous states near Lebanon, Kan. On any given day, about one-third of the armed forces are deployed abroad.
Moreover, on Independence Day, America’s military stretch was aggravated by national political and economic turmoil. In its 233rd year, it would seem the nation is badly in need of retrenchment — not a retreat into the isolation of yesteryear, but a step back to take a deep breath, reflect a bit and sort out priorities.
A debate over how deeply the United States should be engaged with the rest of the world has been running off and on since World War II left the United States standing as the world’s most powerful nation. Perhaps nowhere were opposing views better expressed than in the visions of President Kennedy, a Democrat, and President Nixon, a Republican.
In 1961, Mr. Kennedy proclaimed: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
In contrast, Mr. Nixon in 1970 declared: “America cannot — and will not — conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions and undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world.” The Nixon Doctrine called on other nations to provide their share for the common defense.
In the ensuing years, the Kennedy view has persisted, and the United States is still the policeman of the world despite occasional American demands that somebody else resolve the issue of the day. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, homeland security has gotten more attention but still has not become the main concern of Washington.
In foreign policy, priorities really need sorting out. Precedence should go to long-neglected relations with Canada and Mexico and, by extension, Central America. With 5,000 miles of undefended Northern and Southern borders, the United States must have friends across those borders.
Beyond that, the United States should give priority to alliances with Britain, Australia and Japan, the island nations off the Eurasian land mass. India, the subcontinent cut off from Eurasia by mountains, desert and jungle, is a likely candidate to be added to that group. Israel, with which the U.S. has long had special ties, rates high priority.
In diplomacy, the United States is understaffed, undereducated and underfunded. Eight former secretaries of state — including Republican Henry A. Kissinger and Democrat Madeleine K. Albright — recently called for a larger and better-trained U.S. diplomatic corps, especially in foreign languages. The secretaries cited a report saying that “sending diplomats abroad without language skills is like deploying soldiers without bullets.”
The eight secretaries asserted that the State Department “lacks the personnel to send to language training at a time when nearly 20 percent of regular positions in embassies and in the State Department are unfilled.”
Finally, American politicians don’t help much. Far too many seem more concerned with their own agenda and special interests than with the interests of the communities, states or the nation they were elected to serve. Too few, in any political party, evince any study - let alone mastery - of the international issues of the day.
Richard Halloran is a freelance writer based in Honolulu.