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Foreign Policy Is King

No one is paying attention to domestic policy right now, and they're not going to any time soon.

12:00 AM, May 3, 2002 • By DAVID BROOKS
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I DON'T THINK domestic policy is coming back.

Since September 11, foreign policy has aroused Americans' political passions. Still, most politicos assumed that over time the world would revert to normal, and domestic bread-and-butter issues would again dominate the agenda. Democrats especially talked this way because (a) they didn't care to talk much about foreign policy, where Bush is succeeding, and (b) there is currently no definable Democratic approach to foreign policy, and coming up with one would split the party six ways from Sunday.

But it has been seven months and foreign policy is still front and center. And we haven't even gone to war with Iraq yet.

Here are the reasons foreign policy will continue to dominate politics:

1) There is no money for any big domestic policy changes. Domestic discretionary spending--the money that goes for education, welfare, etc.-- is now the same percentage of GDP as it was in 1960. The most recent budget forecast that by the end of the decade, non-defense discretionary spending would be, as a percentage of GDP, at the same level it was in 1941. That's because entitlement programs are swallowing the federal budget, and will continue to do so as the boomers age. Bigger entitlements mean there are no resources to launch big new ideas.

2) The Bush tax cuts are not going to be repealed. Many Democrats would love to, but they'd risk losing the Senate if they made that a major campaign issue. Hence, what little non-entitlement money is sloshing around Washington will go to pay for the tax cut, leaving even fewer pennies for domestic initiatives.

3) That debate is over. We spent the 20th century arguing about the size of government. The Fascists and Communists wanted it huge, the libertarians wanted it teeny. We've now settled in at a resting point. The federal government accounts for about a fifth of the GDP, and it is staying there. Hillary Clinton tried to increase government. Newt Gingrich tried to shrink it. Both failed. Nobody can get passionate over minuscule wiggles in the size of government: 22.3 percent versus 22.7 percent.

4) Foreign policy really is interesting these days. It's not all trade deals and economics, the way we thought it was becoming in the 1990s. It is about fundamental moral and political values. Fundamental clashes of ideas, not only between us and the Islamists, but between us and the Europeans and the Chinese. We really are different from other people around the globe, and those differences are the stuff of conflict and passion.

5) America is the issue. Never before in human history, Yale's Paul Kennedy assures us, has the disparity between the top power in the world and the other great powers been so wide. The cultural, economic, and political might of America is bound to be the big issue of the coming years (replacing the size-of-government debate). We will get dragged into that argument again and again.

6) The opportunities are abroad. If you are a kid who wants to achieve something significant, where are your opportunities? Abroad. There are countries crying for democracy and freedom (after their own fashion). There are huge environmental problems that are far bigger than just getting to the 99.9 percentile standard--which is what domestic environmentalism has largely become. Wouldn't you rather spend your life doing that global stuff rather than devoting yourself to a set of domestic economic squabbles that are really tiny deviations around the center?

There have been periods in the past when foreign policy dominated politics. The 1960 presidential debates were largely foreign policy conversations. Can anybody remember the big domestic policy arguments that split people in the 1950s? It was foreign policy that mattered most.

Oh well, I let my subscription to Foreign Affairs and the National Interest lapse. Time to re-up.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.