GDP Now Matters More Than Force

Leslie H. Gelb
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
Nov/Dec 2010
Council on Foreign Relations
Most nations have adjusted their foreign policies to focus on economic security, but the United States has not. Today's leaders should adapt to an economic-centric world and look to Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower for guidance.
Security, Economics
Political Geography
United States, Europe, Washington
Most nations today beat their foreign policy drums largely to economic rhythms, but less so the United States. Most nations define their interests largely in economic terms and deal mostly in economic power, but less so the United States. Most nations have adjusted their national security strategies to focus on economic security, but less so the United States. Washington still principally thinks of its security in traditional military terms and responds to threats with military means. The main challenge for Washington, then, is to recompose its foreign policy with an economic theme, while countering threats in new and creative ways. The goal is to redefine "security" to harmonize with twenty-first-century realities. The model already exists for such an economic-centric world and for a policy to match: the approach of U.S. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. They understood that a strong economy is the basis of both a vibrant democracy at home and U.S. military might abroad. They also knew that no matter how strong the U.S. economy and military, Washington would need a lot of help in checking communism. Accordingly, they bolstered U.S. power by resurrecting the economies of Western Europe and Japan, and they added legitimacy to that power by establishing international institutions such as the World Bank and NATO. To respond to threats from the Soviet Union and communism, Truman and Eisenhower fashioned the policies of containment and deterrence, backed up by military and economic aid. The idea was to check Soviet military power without bankrupting the United States. Today, of course, any U.S. approach must account for the complexity of the global economy as well as new threats from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. All this can be done -- but not without causing some intellectual and political mayhem.