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How to close the ever-expanding chasm between US power and commitments

Biden’s recent strikes in Iraq and Syria highlight the need to revisit, and reorient, the so-called ‘Lippmann Gap.’

With President Joe Biden doubling down on the use of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, it’s worth revisiting an old dilemma identified by journalist and political commentator Walter Lippmann. Back in 1943, Lippmann wrote that foreign policy “consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power.” This imbalance between U.S. commitments and power is known as the Lippmann Gap, a term coined by political scientist Samuel Huntington. If commitments are not supported by power, the theory goes, a nation’s foreign policy becomes insolvent.

The Lippmann Gap has become something more closely resembling a chasm in today’s foreign policy. In the 1960s, when the Lippmann Gap began expanding according to Huntington, the U.S. GDP as a percentage of the world was 40 percent. Today, it is around half that. Yet, U.S. global commitments remain ubiquitous; America still patrols the world’s oceans, maintains 800 overseas military bases, and protects one-quarter of humanity through formal defense treaties. The United States has even added to its commitments through counterterrorism, NATO enlargement, and nation-building projects, to name a few. Meanwhile, to fund these vast commitments, Congress happily approves defense budget increases, the latest of which racks up to around $733 billion.

But what purpose do these military budget increases actually serve? Crucially, the Lippmann Gap only offers insights into the balance between commitments and power, which are both means rather than an end. The end is U.S. interests. Emeritus Professor David Hendrickson of Colorado College argues that for this reason, the framework surrounding the Lippmann Gap should be replaced with something called the Engelhardt Gap, named after journalist Tom Engelhardt. The Engelhardt Gap consists of “an American military giant that far outclasses the rest of the world in overall expenditures and destructive power” on the one side, and “a state whose actual uses of military power produce no benefits and lead to pernicious consequences” on the other.

These dynamics are certainly at play in one of the U.S.’s flagship overseas commitments: the so-called “War on Terror.” U.S. military action in the War on Terror has created more enemies which, in turn, justifies the need for a greater defense budget, despite the fact, according to a RAND study, that only 7 percent of terrorist organizations ended because they were defeated through military action.

The Lippmann Gap’s framework isn’t obsolete, it just needs an adjustment. Our definition of power must move away from a singular obsession with military dominance. In Huntington’s view, one of the reasons that the Lippmann Gap began growing was due to a cut in military spending. Huntington proposed larger military forces and defense budgets as a potential remedy for balancing power and commitments. On the face of it, this seems logical. If commitments and power are imbalanced, either increasing power or decreasing commitments should do the trick.

Yet, an increase in military power can leadto more commitments, rather than reducing the Lippmann Gap. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once famously asked then Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Unfortunately, this has become the unofficial mantra of many foreign policymakers. Few can genuinely claim that the latest airstrikes in Iraq and Syria will successfully deter Iran, and much less that it protects the American people. But, because of the U.S. military’s awesome size, the entire world is now our collective backyard. Drone strikes in the Middle East can be characterized as “defensive.” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby even claimed that the recent airstrikes were designed to “limit the risk of escalation.” The United States would fare far better at limiting escalation and reducing commitments if it rejected the well-travelled path of militarism. Any effort to narrow the Lippmann Gap has to resist the conventional wisdom that more military power would reduce commitments.

To close the Lippmann Gap, the focus should instead be on redefining interests and re-engaging diplomatically. In his Interim National Security Guidance, President Biden promised to use diplomacy “as our tool of first resort.” If carried out, this is a welcome change. Too often, the United States has sought to use its military without diplomatic engagement. Many primacists invoke the example of the Munich agreement of 1938 to argue against diplomatic engagement, specifically appeasement. However, Hitler is a bad example for theories of deterrence because he wanted war.

Rather, diplomatic efforts often produce the most favorable outcomes in American foreign policy. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, for example, allowed for only 300 kilos of enriched uranium and communicated live data and measurements to the International Atomic Energy Association, making it difficult for the Iranians to cheat. By engaging diplomatically and redefining U.S. interests in Iran, the JCPOA reduced threats to U.S. interests. The Trump administration reversed this policy, instead applying broad sanctions on Iran and increasing U.S. commitments in the form of thousands more soldiers being sent to the Persian Gulf. The Lippmann Gap — the balance between commitments and power — is far more likely to be closed if the United States practices restraint and seeks diplomatic solutions.

But it’s an uphill battle. America’s “black box,” its ability to constantly reinvent itself, is an underdog against the churning wheels of the military-industrial complex and the foreign policy establishment. Ambassador James Jeffrey recently penned an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Can Biden do Everything?” to which his answer was, well, “Yes” (with a lot of ifs and buts). This doesn’t reflect the growing divide between U.S. power and its commitments. America must make tough choices about which commitments best protect U.S. interests rather than making foreign policy wish lists.

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