When the status quo begins to crumble, the natural reaction of most people is denial. We cling to what we know, and the specter of the unknown often sends shivers down our spines. But eventually events overwhelm the denial and mock the shivers. That is going to happen in coming years with increasing frequency because the status quo is fraying in many realms of politics and geopolitics. Denial is rampant.
Perhaps the best prism through which to view this phenomenon is what we might call “sustainability.” What do we see happening in America and the world that is not sustainable and yet is not recognized as such? As it turns out, quite a lot.
Consider the recent report that Social Security costs will exceed the program’s income next year, which means Social Security will have to begin dipping into its $3 trillion trust fund to maintain benefit payments. And that trust fund, under current projections, will run out of money within 15 years.
This means the Social Security system in its current configuration is unsustainable. And yet it isn’t clear there is a political fix in today’s turbulent politics—or even an economic fix with any chance of success. Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor and now president of Purdue University, says that until a few years ago there were entitlement fixes that, phased in over time, could have assured older Americans that the country would honor retirement-income commitments made to them. Now, he says, that isn’t arithmetically possible.
Erskine Bowles, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, calls it “the most predictable crisis in history.” And yet there is almost no serious civic attention being paid to this unsustainable fiscal development. Fear of the unknown breeds denial.
But if the country’s entitlement matrix isn’t sustainable, that’s merely a small part of a larger unsustainable trend—America’s looming debt crisis. The national debt is now at $22 trillion, including debt held by the public ($16 trillion) and that represented by intragovernmental holdings ($6 trillion). Just the debt held by the public amounts to 78 percent of the country’s GDP. It nearly doubled under President Barack Obama and that growth is accelerating under President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, unfunded liabilities held by the states now exceed $1.6 trillion, some 147 percent of state revenues. And student debt amounts to another $1.5 trillion, an average of $38,000 per student.
At what point does this kind of financial recklessness catch up with us? Difficult to say, but at some point it will. The current trend is unsustainable.
Moving to the realm of politics, how sustainable is the current standoff between the national elites of the coasts and the heartland masses in between? The defining issue of our time, though it seldom is portrayed as such, is immigration. The elites generally now favor open borders. They deny it in words, but their actions belie their words. Prominent Democrats, leading what is now the party of the elites, increasingly conduct themselves that make clear their open border sentiments. They applaud when the courts curtail Trump’s efforts to stem the inflow. They demonstrate no sense of urgency at the border breach represented by masses of asylum seekers overwhelming our processing system. They foster sanctuary cities and states. They portray those who disagree with them as bigots, racists, xenophobes, and the like.
On the other side are heartland folks who wish to preserve the cultural character of the country they grew up in; who believe we have reached a point where assimilation of current immigrants is a legitimate concern; who think current immigration levels generate real economic problems for many Americans; and who harbor deep resentment when they hear elite commentators and politicians calling them bigots, racists, etc. Unlike the elites, when they see hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers overwhelming our system and getting free passes into America as a result, they get anxious and increasingly angry. They want it dealt with. And yet it never is. The country’s ruling class doesn’t care.
This issue is definitional. It goes to the heart of what kind of nation we are going to be. It generates high emotions. And it divides the country as few issues have in recent decades. Neither side possesses the political muscle to settle the issue on its own terms. Yet both sides possess the muscle to prevent the emergence of any solution. Until it is somehow settled, the nation’s politics will be roiled and dysfunctional. The current standoff is unsustainable.
Consider now the realm of foreign policy. One has to ask if the current diplomatic tensions between the West and Russia are sustainable. The Cold War, we can see in retrospect, was a sustainable standoff. After the United States faced down the Soviet threat in Europe between 1946 and 1948, the competition moved to the peripheral areas of the world, with the Soviets generally refraining from directly threatening Western Europe and the West refraining from seeking to reverse the Soviets’ postwar gains in Eastern Europe. It was tense but not inherently unstable.
The current standoff, by contrast, is inherently unstable. With NATO having moved eastward to the Russian border, Russia finds itself grappling with a threat it views as crucial to its fundamental security. The loss of Ukraine or Georgia from its sphere of influence is a matter that Russia would fight over, as Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned (and demonstrated in Georgia in 2008). And yet the West still flirts with the idea of getting those two countries into NATO. Perhaps there is time for some kind of rapprochement that could defuse the situation, but the current standoff is probably unsustainable.
More generally, the entire American geopolitical grand strategy is unsustainable. Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt wrote a provocative piece for Foreign Policy the other day entitled, “American Isn’t as Powerful as It Thinks It Is: The Era of unilateralism is over—and Washington is the last to realize it.” Walt raised the question of whether America remained a unipolar power in a world without any serious opponents capable of challenging that global status; or whether significant limits to U.S. power suggest that it “should be more selective and strategic in setting goals and pursuing them.” Walt said the current foreign policy under Trump is based on the former perception, while in reality the latter prevails.
The unipolar conceit has generated almost no foreign policy successes for America in the post-Cold War era, notes Walt, while failures have been numerous. And the American habit of trampling on the legitimate interests of other nations, friend and foe, is likely to generate a backlash that will leave America grappling with an increasingly hostile world. Walt warns that “being a bully encourages adversaries to join forces out of their own self-interest, while giving potential allies more reason to keep their distance.” It is no accident, he notes, that Russia and China continue to move closer together, even though they are not natural allies.
This unipolar conceit is based on two myths. One, well explored in Walt’s piece, is that the United States still possesses the power to dominate events throughout the world, involving all the nations of the world. This is so obviously false, in light of recent history, as to be almost laughable. And yet it still animates the thinking of many in the foreign policy establishment, both liberals and conservatives..
The other myth is that the United States is a special nation, an exemplar of hallowed democratic principles that other peoples of the world wish to emulate, and hence our global involvement will generate more democracy and hence more stability. This is ridiculous, as demonstrated by the U.S. adventures in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. We may be special, but that doesn’t mean other nations will necessarily view us that way, particularly in light of our bullying foreign policy record of recent decades.
A foreign policy based on myths is unsustainable. Eventually reality will catch up with any nation promulgating such a foreign policy.
Which brings us to the U.S. policy toward Iran, designed to crush that nation through devastating economic sanctions, extended even to any other nation that may wish to trade with the Islamic Republic for reasons related to its own national interest. Clearly the end game here is regime change, but regimes seldom go down under this kind of pressure. More likely they coalesce and resist. Sometimes they strike back out of desperation when they have no other options. Then the result can be war.
It may be instructional to note that Franklin Roosevelt did the same with Japan in 1941—and that he even initiated plans for the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast prior to Pearl Harbor. He knew what he was doing. He wanted war, and he knew that Japan would not accept humiliation through sanctions over the option of initiating military action in a desperate effort to escape the yoke of economic devastation.
Does the Trump administration know what it’s doing with regard to Iran? Is it aware of the reality that the Islamic Republic likely will choose pushback over humiliation? Is that what they want? We don’t know for certain. But we do know that that is what Israel and Saudi Arabia want. And we know that Trump and his minions have embraced those nations’ geostrategic sensibilities as America’s own. It’s certainly realistic to conclude that war is the actual end game.
Thus do we see that the U.S. policy toward Iran is unsustainable. Based on geopolitical illusions, it can’t possibly yield the desired regime change without war. That renders war the likely outcome.
The sustainability test helps us understand serious underlying realities of America and the world in these turbulent times. Once it is applied (and I have applied it only to the most obvious cases), two questions emerge: Is America a stable polity? And is this a stable world? The questions answer themselves.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.