For the past 60 years, there has been convergence between the strategic logic of America's strategy of forward deployment in key regions of the world and the economic imperative of securing the nation's prosperity. Despite the constant protests on college campuses about "banana republics" and "no blood for oil," there was, in fact, generally a strong correlation between the places where the American military was engaged and those areas that were seen as vital to the economic health of the country. Opposition from naturally isolationist tendencies of the American body politic was overcome, in part, by the argument that prosperity at home could only be secured by guaranteeing access to markets and resources abroad.
By the 1990s, this approach had reached its apex in the emergence of a truly global system of trade, defined by "just in time" supply networks and the outsourcing of many of the stages of manufacturing away from the U.S. homeland. American politicians could no longer argue against the U.S. global presence by claiming that problems abroad had no impact on domestic prosperity. True, the average American might not be able to locate particular countries on the map. But with oil flowing from West Africa and the Persian Gulf, high-technology components shipped in from East Asia and Europe and a veritable flood of low-cost consumer goods flowing from China and other low-wage centers around the world, U.S. strategists could easily educate the general public about how U.S. involvement could be translated into low prices at the pump and at the store. The idea that America had to take the lead in protecting, patrolling and defending the so-called global commons because U.S. prosperity was at stake was even reflected in recruiting campaigns for the U.S. military.
Today, however, the U.S. stands at the threshold of a new technological revolution that, if it continues to its logical conclusion over the next two decades, could break these time-honored links, with the result that a robust U.S. military presence abroad will no longer be seen as essential for prosperity at home. If America proceeds with extensive development of nonconventional oil and natural gas -- the so-called shale revolution -- the United States might finally achieve what every U.S. president since Richard Nixon has placed on the top list of U.S. strategic priorities: energy independence. Indeed, there might even be enough domestic supply for the U.S. not only to meet its own needs but also to resume its place as one of the world's major energy exporters.
Some assume that shale oil would, by lowering prices, help solve the U.S. military's budget woes by reducing the fuel costs for current missions and deployments. But it could just as easily foster a renewed sense of American isolationism. Why should the United States take upon itself the burden of protecting the energy security of other nations -- particularly possible rivals like China, but also ostensible allies unwilling to pay their fair share of the security burden? If, as some suggest, shale oil could put America well on its way to energy independence by 2020, why wouldn't the Carter Doctrine and the Reagan Corollary, which commit the United States to defend the countries of the Persian Gulf against outside aggression and internal subversion because this region and its energy resources are deemed invaluable to U.S. interests, go the way of other now-irrelevant U.S. foreign policy doctrines?
Nor would there be much strategic logic for the U.S. to insert itself into efforts to bring Eurasian energy to international markets. For the past 20 years, it has been U.S. policy
to promote new transport routes
that would get Caspian and Central Asian energy to Western markets by bypassing both Russia and Iran, and to encourage European consumers to lessen their dependence on Russian energy supplies. But if the U.S. could itself export energy to Europe, as well as support the emergence of new sources of Central European shale gas, what economic need would there be to continue to compete with Russia in the Eurasian space?
There are other possible technological breakthroughs that would curtail American dependence on other overseas inputs, from safer and more environmentally sustainable ways to access domestic sources of raw materials to new manufacturing techniques, in turn decreasing American dependence on a globalized "just in time" system of trade. The U.S. will never achieve autarky, but it may become more cost-effective in the coming years to truly "buy American." And, as some have noted, if the U.S. shifts its orientation away from Europe and Asia toward consolidating a hemisphere-wide market for goods and services, then the U.S. might redirect its security posture away from connecting far-flung regions of the world in favor of a defensive crouch centered on North and South America.
Lower resource costs could, in turn, revitalize other sectors of the domestic economy. Already there is a small but noticeable trend by which jobs formerly outsourced to lower-cost venues overseas over the past two decades are being repatriated. And if more manufacturing positions return to the continental United States, leading to a situation where more of the products being consumed in the U.S. are being made on American soil, what of the logic that the U.S. must secure the infrastructure of globalization? Would preventing piracy off the Horn of Africa or in the Strait of Malacca still rise to the fore as key U.S. national security challenges in such a future scenario?
I raise these questions because the debate over looming budget cuts, not to mention sequestration
, has focused on how to preserve as much of the existing U.S. global security posture as possible under conditions of fiscal austerity, with far less discussion as to whether changes now underway might render that position obsolete -- at least from the perspective of American domestic prosperity. If this occurs, what happens to the current consensus in U.S. political life about the desirability of American "global leadership?"
Such a shift would raise the question of whether "national interest" -- at least understood as those interests that maximize a country's welfare, usually defined in economic terms -- will continue to be a guide for American action in the world. An America freed from energy dependence and that satisfies its needs primarily from domestic sources might be more, not less, inclined to intervene around the world in support of American values. When combined with other technological advances in military affairs -- notably the explosion in remotely piloted air, land and naval vehicles -- it may even further accelerate the trend for low-cost humanitarian interventions in the world.
During the Cold War and the immediate post-Cold War period, U.S. foreign policy practitioners lived in a world where values and interests had to be balanced and assessed against possible damage to the nation's economic well-being. But a world may be emerging where a new bargain is forged: The isolationist predilections of the majority can be tolerated because the country's economic security no longer rests on global engagement, but the interventionist tendencies of the foreign policy elite can be accommodated as long as the cost is kept at a minimum. In just a few years time, we may be witnessing a far different U.S. posture in the world.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, the Realist Prism, appears every Friday.