Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order

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Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order by Richard N. Haass. Basic Books, 2013.

Richard Haass, former head of policy planning under Secretary of State Colin Powell and president of the Council on Foreign Relations since July 2003, is a well-known voice in the field of foreign and national security policy. He has published more than a dozen books on subjects such as sanctions, wars of choice, and how to be a successful bureaucrat. Haass has worked Middle East and European issues and conducted delicate peace negotiations. Foreign Policy Begins at Home, however, takes a different tack from his other books. It does not argue for new vision in foreign policy or assess any particular international problem; it contends that our foreign policy must be modulated and reconfigured to allow us to put our domestic economic and political house in order. Haass argues for a US grand strategy of restoration “that would endeavor to restore the foundations of American power, and the proper balances within and between foreign policy and national security” (p. xii). His argument is clear, concise, and perfectly packaged for national security professionals.

Haass contends that the United States has suffered from overreaching abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan and underperforming at home in a number of fields, to include the economy, budget management, and education. He advocates scaling back in the Middle East, supporting the rebalance toward Asia-Pacific, reducing defense expenditures, and putting more resources into rebuilding infrastructure, improving schools, reducing debt, and increasing economic growth. All of this should be possible, he says, because “the most important and overlooked feature of the contemporary world is that great power conflict is highly unlikely for the foreseeable future “(p. 63).

Haass adds a third problem to overreach abroad and underperformance at home: “underreach,” the failure to realize the important links between foreign and domestic issues and the failure to act coherently abroad, even when better policy is within reach. He notes warily that “isolationism is making a comeback.” While others might call it realism, there is clearly a strain of neoisolationism making its rounds in the war-weary United States. For example, in December 2013, the Pew Research Center, in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Affairs, found that for the first time ever, a majority (52 percent) say that the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” In a gentle swipe at the Obama administration, Haass laments the US loss of credibility among its allies.

Haass devotes nearly half of the book to a tour d’horizon of the international scene. His short chapters on China, Europe, and the Middle East are excellent introductions to the problems of those areas. No surprise, he finds Iran and the prospects for conflict over nuclear proliferation to be a major “reason for worry,” although his few pages on the subject appear to have been written before recent progress in negotiations with the current Iranian regime. Across the globe, Haass finds the key new variables in international affairs to be “the unprecedented distribution of power in the world; the reality of globalization . . . a significant and growing degree of interdependence; and the widespread availability of modern information and communications technology” (p. 78).

The last part of the book is about repairing our domestic base, which Haass calls, “restoration at home.” He covers all of the familiar issues—the national debt, education, our ailing physical infrastructure, immigration, and so forth—and ends by examining the US political system, the problem that is preventing the solution to nearly all of the other problems. The author hits squarely at the causes of inaction and polarization, but he does not lay out ways to fix the US political system which continues to produce deadlock and inaction on every major problem faced by our country.

Haass dedicates his book to his old boss, Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who served as the National Security Advisor to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. The hallmark of Scowcroft’s work was attention to the national interest, hearing all sides of issues, and effective supervision of a national security bureaucracy that in recent years has grown by leaps and bounds. It is hard to argue with Scowcroft’s deputy and later secretary of defense, Robert Gates, about the Bush-Scowcroft NSC team: “No matter what any of us do down the road, it will never be as good as this” (p. 167). We will need the caliber of people such as Brent Scowcroft and Robert Gates to solve the problems served up by Haass’s book.

The author concludes his book with a concise reiteration of his thesis and a challenge to the next cohort of national security leaders:

This book is premised on the idea that the world needs American leadership, but that American leadership requires the United States to first put its house in order, something that in turn will require its being more restrained in what it tries to do abroad and more disciplined in what it does at home. This is all obviously desirable. But is it doable? The short answer is yes—but doable is not the same thing as inevitable” (p. 160).

In summary, Haass has written an excellent book addressing the way ahead for US national security policy. His book is well-argued, concise, and almost tailor-made for the war college student who is looking for a single source to “get smart” on national security problems of both the domestic and international variety.

Joseph J. Collins, PhD

Professor of National Security Strategy

National War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."