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Two Reviews by Sol Schindler and by John Coffey

Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order by Richard N. Hass, Basic Books, 2013, ISDN 13: 978-0465057986, 208 pp., $ 25.99 (list hardcover),  $17.58 (Amazon hardcover), $11.99 (Kindle).

By Sol Schindler
One could not find a more qualified person to write on American foreign policy than Richard N. Haass.  He has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations since July 2003 and prior to that was Director of Policy and Planning for the State Department and a close advisor to Secretary Colin Powell.  He is held in esteem by virtually everyone, democrats, republicans, cynics, or romantics, and has written eleven previous books on the conduct of foreign affairs.  His latest, best summarized by its title, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, has been met with considerable acclaim as one might expect.  It tells us what our grandfathers might have told us on similar occasions.  In order to have a meaningful policy abroad and exert influence on events as they occur we need the respect of those with whom we deal.  If they have doubts as to how we handle problems at home, these doubts can easily be weighed against our approaches to international issues.  We need therefore to clean up our home base, and restore our economy to its vigorous dynamics, which at one time drew the envy and admiration of the world.  We may not achieve the eminence we once had but we can and should insure that the U.S. dollar can still function as a world currency and that our credit is such that if we have to borrow money from overseas it can easily be done.

Dr. Haass considers the budget deficit our major domestic problem.  No country can amass debt at the rate of a trillion dollars a year and continue to be a major player in world events other than as a victim of its own ineptitude.  He feels the best way to move the budget towards balance is through a mix of spending cuts and selective tax increases.  A ratio of three dollars in spending cuts for every dollar of tax increase seems to him the best way of achieving balance without shutting down investment or hampering growth.  But, he adds, “this can only be done intelligently if spending on entitlements – Social Security and above all health care – is brought under control.”  He suggests the Simpson-Bowles Commission plan, which had been virtually ignored since its publication, be looked at again for ways of doing what is now essential.

Another major area of concern for Dr. Haass is energy.  Although he recognizes the enormous influence hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracting) has had upon the production of oil from shale, which will soon make the United States once more self- sufficient in oil, he fails to note that the federal government has had little to do with its inception, other than dithering over approving a pipeline from Canada which would carry some of this new oil.  It was private enterprise that discovered fracting and bore the risks, at times considerable, of beginning its use.  Now all seems to be going quite well and the International Energy Agency predicts the United States, which has tremendous reserves of shale oil, will overtake Saudi Arabia and become the world’s largest oil producer by 2020.  This, of course, is very good economic news but also has significant political ramifications. The world, including the Middle East, is changing.  The U.S. dollar will no longer be pouring in to pay for oil no longer required; it may rather become eagerly sought for to cover the cost of essential imports.  Even Israel will become a net exporter of natural gas within a year or so while Egypt is turning into an importer.  Old clichés may no longer be valid.

A third area of domestic concern is our educational system, which the author bluntly states is failing.  He cites a paper written by his own organization which states that only one third of our public school students are competent in reading and math, and that internationally we rank 13th in reading, 18th in science, and believe it or not 28th in math.  He believes that an apprentice system in our public school system cosponsored with firms that do most of the local hiring would help ease the unemployment situation, further corporate efficiency, and make schools more of an attraction to bored teen agers.  He also believes that learning or education is a life-long affair and that for schools to have a facility to bring skilled workers up to date in their crafts would be a civic virtue.  He also laments the gradual diminution of civics and history courses being taught which he feels shortchange the students.  He refrains from commenting on higher education with its insanely high tuition costs and its plethora of useless and empty courses but very convincingly makes the point that education requires our critical attention.

Our infrastructure, which at one time was superior to what existed elsewhere, has also now eroded drastically. The solution he recommends is a higher gasoline tax and more toll roads.  He feels borrowing for investment, and infrastructure is an investment that facilitates economic growth, is not only permissible but normal, whereas borrowing for consumption, read entitlements, is the road to economic ruin.

The fifth major domestic issue, which he feels critical, is immigration.  Our country has thrived on immigration — even the Pilgrims were immigrants — but size brings with it its own complexity.  We have in the past, and to our credit, tended to make decisions on humanitarian grounds.  If a family were split because of immigration we enacted laws that made reunification easier and possibly faster.  Dr. Haass while recognizing the need for a humanitarian approach believes we should also take into account the economic results of an immigrant’s arrival.  Thus an atomic physicist, a mechanical engineer, or a professional nurse should be welcomed warmly while used car salesmen or skilled telephone solicitors need not be given maximum consideration.

These, the author believes, are the major domestic issues facing our country all of which can be brought under control if our nation focuses on them.  As this review is being written, however, three major scandals, the Benghazi affair, the Dept. of Justice’s secret investigation of journalists’ telephone accounts, and IRS’s political bias in dealing with tax exempt organizations, are what is drawing the nation’s focus.  Providence, fortunately, has given us fracking, and our energy problem seems to be healing itself.

With a productive economy at our back Dr. Haass feels we can deal with foreign policy issues with confidence and maturity.  He repeats what the State Department has long told its incoming recruits to the Foreign Service: each foreign policy affair has its own complexity of problems.  What is needed is not a formal protocol of procedure, but rather a knowledge and understanding of the local conditions from which the problem arose, and of course the dexterity and grace to approach it.  He also feels we are not, for lack of a better word, sufficiently calculating.  While virtually everyone thought it was a good idea to remove Saddam Hussein from power no one in a position of authority had properly calculated the costs involved.

These as everyone knows turned out, mostly because of the way we went at it, to be enormous and in no way commensurate with the benefits received.  Such unipolar actions can no long be afforded and as we contemplate a world increasingly divided among small and medium sized self-assertive nations we become aware of the necessity of allied and cohesive action.

Dr. Haass feels that because of its intrinsic strength our nation is the only one capable of keeping this turbulent world on a reasonably sound and peaceful path but can do so only if we put our own affairs in order.  His book, a must read for aspiring diplomats, is his effort to show the way.

By John Coffey
Prudence, Aristotle taught, is the chief political virtue, and Walter Lippmann once elegantly framed the prudential requirement to balance means and ends in foreign policy:  “Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs.”1 This prudential axiom lies at the heart of Richard Haass’ judicious and compelling examination of America’s current predicament.

Mindful of the irony that he, a “card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment” for nearly four decades, wrote this book, Haass nonetheless believes the overriding threat to American security and prosperity today comes from within, not from abroad.  The United States, he maintains, has jeopardized its ability to act and to lead in the world through its own errant policies.  Our fiscal profligacy, neglect of pressing domestic needs, and two costly wars of choice (the second Iraq war and the 2009 Afghan troop surge) to remake other countries’ political cultures have undermined a balance between the nation’s resources and commitments.  It is imperative now to rebuild the domestic foundations of the nation’s power:  “Foreign policy needs to begin at home, now and for the foreseeable future.”  Now is the time for nation building at home because the U.S. enjoys a “strategic respite” with no great-power conflict likely on the horizon.  In part I of his book, Haass surveys the present world order; part II prescribes what America should and should not do abroad; part III offers a set of domestic policy recommendations to restore American leadership.

Haass characterizes the emergent world as nonpolar, marked by a diffusion of power where globalization and information technology accentuate this decentralizing trend.  Further, popular dissatisfaction with regional and global organizations has sparked a resurgent nationalism across Europe and the Middle East.2 Haass sheds welcome perspective on the ballyhooed “rise” of China, noting the end of its economic boom and grave domestic problems.3 Europe’s budgetary crisis, pacifist culture, anti-EU sentiment, and demographic decline have eroded its influence on the world stage and point to a future status resembling Japan’s.  “The so-called great powers” (Japan, India, Russia) Haass dismisses as “not all that great.”

At the same time a “global gap” has emerged due to a lack of consensus among major powers to set rules of the road in the new world and tackle common problems (climate change, nuclear proliferation, disease, humanitarian intervention, rules for cyberspace).  In the midst of this “messy,” “dangerous” world, the U.S. remains by all measurements the most powerful and influential force in the world, a “first among unequals,” if no longer “the world’s only superpower.”  Only the U.S. possesses the ability and influence to lead collective efforts to manage global turmoil and deal with common threats.  Provided that it first puts its own house in order.

What then is the shape of a foreign policy to fit American circumstances in the coming years?  Haass considers four leading frameworks for a foreign policy doctrine – democracy promotion, humanitarianism, counterterrorism, and integration into regional and global arrangements – finding each inadequate or partial approaches.  As a realist, Haass objects to democracy promotion as misconceived.  The U.S. should concern itself with what countries do beyond their borders, not with what they are within their borders.4 He proposes instead what he calls the doctrine of Restoration.5 This policy has three major tenets:  1) increase resources for internal rather than international affairs to address urgent domestic needs; 2) refocus away from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region and Western Hemisphere; 3) deemphasize military force, particularly for remaking other societies, and rely more on economic/diplomatic measures.

Restoration, he explains, is not isolationism (“folly”); rather, it proceeds from a realistic appreciation of limits to what can be accomplished in the world.  It would entail fewer “wars of choice” (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq II, the Libyan intervention) where vital interests are not at stake and alternative policies seem viable.  “You might call it,” as he puts it, “a less discretionary, less upbeat approach to the world.”  Above all, the U.S. must not undertake large-scale, military nation building:  “’Less nation-building abroad, more at home’ might be a bumper sticker for Restoration.”  If this sounds like the Obama administration’s foreign policy, that’s because it is, he acknowledges.6 Nor does Restoration mean disarmament, Haass adds.  He recommends a modest defense cut of 5-10%, $25-50 billion, below current levels and correctly reminds us that national security spending did not cause America’s current economic predicament.

Haass devotes the final section of his book to a five-part program for domestic Restoration:  1) reducing the federal deficit and debt through spending cuts and tax increases, especially entitlement reform; 2) developing a comprehensive energy strategy; 3) improving the quality of education; 4) upgrading the country’s physical infrastructure; 5) reforming immigration policy.  All of our problems are soluble with political will, Haass believes, and he recommends several measures to break the present political gridlock.7 We can avoid a bleak future for the United States and the world, he concludes optimistically, by doing what everyone knows needs doing.

Some have criticized Haass’ book for abandoning a muscular American hegemony.8 Yet a foreign policy that fails to set limits and priorities is a fool’s errand.  Moreover, such a policy ignores the stark reality of a cash-strapped Uncle Sam.9 Conservatives who call for assertive American global leadership on the one hand and refuse to pony up to pay for it on the other hand lack credibility.  As Harries and Switzer write, “For politicians to will the ends but balk at providing the means is one of the deadly sins of foreign policy.  A disjunction between ambition and resources – the attempt to sustain greatness on the cheap – is highly dangerous in terms of American lives and interests.”10 Haass is also surely right that only the U.S. has the ability and influence to lead collective efforts to organize international relations and address common challenges.  In Josef Joffe’s words, America is the “default power.”11 Not only must America first put its house in order, but also whether other nations are up to collaborative effort to deal with transnational threats remains to be seen.  A Turkish politician recently remarked, “American credibility is being doubted in this part of the world,” but, he added, Congress needs to remember, “America remains indispensable.”12bluestar


  1. Quoted in Owen Harries and Tom Switzer, “Leading from Behind:  Third Time a Charm?” American Interest (May/June, 2013), p.13.  The authors credit President Obama’s refocus on domestic reconstruction and think he should publicly articulate a foreign policy that stresses realism and restraint, bringing commitments and power into balance.  See also Michael J. Mazarr, “The Risks of Ignoring Strategic Insolvency,” Washington Quarterly (Fall, 2012), 7-22.  Mazarr also contends the current U.S. grand strategy based on Cold War premises is unsustainable.  His first prescription is to refocus on domestic rebuilding.
  2. Recent local elections in England and Wales underscored the rise of populist and nationalist parties across Europe.  The anti-immigration, anti-EU U.K. Independence Party rocked Prime Minister Cameron’s governing coalition by capturing 139 seats, while Conservatives lost 335 seats and Liberal Democrats shed 124.  Labor, the chief opposition in Britain, gained 291 seats.
  3. Aaron Friedberg of Princeton is one of those who exaggerate the “China threat.”  See my review of his A Contest for Supremacy:  China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, American Diplomacy (Feb., 2012).
  4. Opposing views on whether democracy promotion serves the national interest are contained in Jordan Michael Smith, “The U.S. Democracy Project,” National Interest (May/June, 2013), 26-38; and Zalmay Khalilzad, “Democracy Promotion Benefits the United States,” National Interest, 5/3/13.
  5. Other iterations of his thesis are “The Restoration Doctrine,” American Interest (Jan./Feb., 2012), 48-56; “The Irony of American Strategy:  Putting the Middle East in Proper Perspective,” Foreign Affairs (May/June, 2013), 57-67; and “How to Build a Second American Century,” Washington Post, 4/28/13, B4.
  6. See “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership:  Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” Department of Defense (Jan., 2012).  Fred Hiatt criticizes what he sees as Obama’s withdrawal from the world:  “Obama’s Turn Inward Poses Risk for U.S. Interests Abroad,” Washington Post, 5/20/13, A17.
  7. This may be more difficult than Haass suggests, nor is political dysfunction unique to America.  Public alienation from the democratic process has spread across the democratic world.  See E.J. Dionne Jr., “Political Dysfunction Spells Trouble for Democracies,” Washington Post, 5/20/13, A17.  The capacity of men to govern themselves, Lincoln said, remains a “problematical proposition.”
  8. Sohrab Ahmari, “A Noble Responsibility,” Wall Street Journal, 5/6/13.
  9. See Michael Mandelbaum, The Frugal Superpower:  America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (New York:  Public Affairs, 2010).  Mandelbaum warns that the world may soon discover the baleful results of an America that it not too strong, but too weak.
  10. Harries and Switzer, op. cit., p. 14.
  11. Josef Joffe, “The Default Power:  The False Prophecy of America’s Decline,” Foreign Affairs (Sept./Oct., 2009), 21-35.
  12. Quoted in David Ignatius, “America the War-Weary and War-Wary,” Washington Post, 4/7/13, A23.


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Sol Schindler
Sol Schindler

Sol Schindler was born in Sioux City, Iowa in 1924, served in the army (ETO) 1943-46, MA Univ. of Iowa 1951, majored in English, minored in philosophy. USIA 1952-1980 served mostly in Asia, Indonesia, Burma, India, Viet Nam, Pakistan, Korea, with the exception of 3½ years in Yugoslavia. Final assignment, Deputy Chief of Programs, ICS, USIA. Upon retirement worked part time for the State Department, Freedom of Information, 1980-2003. After retirement published more than 100 op eds and book reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Mediterranean Quarterly, the Middle East Quarterly, and a number of smaller publications. This is his second appearance in American Diplomacy.

John Coffey
John Coffey

John Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.

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