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Will America's Failed Domestic Policy Spur a New Cold War?

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May 13, 2014

This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on May 13, 2014.

By Karen Alter

We hear that the world is returning to the Cold War, where geo-political struggles, like Russia's seizure of Crimea, overtake our leaders' ability to cooperatively address today's blossoming world problems.

Commentators like Walter Russell Mead and David Brooks suggest that the post-Cold War success of global governance was a quirk of history that is behind us, and that the old world order of geopolitics is speedily becoming the international reality. As Ukraine tries to defend against Russia further carving up its country, their claims ring true. But the ring is misleading. Blame for this new Cold War is cast all around, but most often lands on America and Europe.

Unsurprisingly, Putin blames the West rather than himself. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer faults European entreaties towards Ukraine for triggering Vladimir Putin's actions there. Foreign policy realists suggest that they were right all along. American support of NATO expansion did stoke Russian nationalism and provoke a defensive response. Republican critics blame the refusal of the Obama administration to threaten a stronger military response in the region for why America's warnings to Russia are not taken seriously.

Proponents of military force suggest that hard power is what world leaders respond to. If defense budgets are increased and if the American president commits the U.S. to a forceful response, then Putin might be responsive to American directives, they say.

These responses miss the mark. President Obama and European leaders are simply doing what their populations want them to do in Russia, and therein lies the problem. While confronting Russia undermines popular support for American and European leaders, Putin, by contrast, is finding that fighting the West enhances his popularity.

The real source of weakness in both American and European foreign policy remains their domestic politics. Soft power -- the use of rhetoric, diplomacy, carrots and sticks to influence others -- works through its implicit link to core economic and military power. People listen because they know that rewards flow on favored friends while costs accrue to outcasts.

Soft power has been an extremely effective tool of diplomacy in the last 50 years. But today, the Obama administration's soft power initiatives are not working because there is a lack of political will to restore the founts of American power at home.

The chief factor limiting America's resurgence and international influence is partisan politics surrounding the budget, which has paralyzed our political institution's ability to do anything. World leaders and men and women on the street alike understand that so long as Americans cannot agree on something as basic and self-interested as rebuilding America, there will be no energy, resources or follow through to seriously confront world affairs.

The wealthy, smart and capable United States could quickly turn around world perceptions if we would recommit to paying to rebuild America -- from our infrastructure, to our schools, to our military. Promises are not enough. There must be money behind any initiative before the rhetoric will be believable.

Europe has its own domestic sources of impotence, which contributed to its failed soft power diplomacy, and in many ways are harder to solve. The Russian crisis has exacerbated Europe's previous uncertainty about supporting its own currency. European countries are dependent on Russian energy, and weaning would be costly. It is possible for the European Union as a whole to wean itself from Russian energy by transferring more resources from rich countries to poorer ones, but the will to invest in the weaker periphery of Europe does not exist.

European leaders also need to find their backbone, standing up to the business interests that will take a hit from strong sanctions on Russia, and investing in growing less prosperous parts of Europe. Until then. Europe's economic and political interests will suffer.

In the current geopolitical context, all roads lead home. Without sustainable domestic policy, foreign policy is itself not sustainable. Meanwhile, we already learned from the Iraq and Afghan wars that overwhelming military force combined with billions of dollars invested cannot deliver as much as the attractive persuasive pull of soft power.

If the U.S. and Europe can renew their core of their power -- their own economies, investment in their people, a world presence, and their militaries -- soft power will follow in its wake. Only then will Putin and other world leaders know that they will pay a meaningful economic cost for dangerous foreign policies.

Until we restore soft power, until there are real cost to dangerous foreign policies like Putin's, the domestic temptation to stoke nationalism so as to divert focus from domestic problems in Russia, China, Iran and elsewhere will continue.

We are at a fork in the road. We should be happy that the solution matches foreign and domestic interests: fix ourselves, and we will also be better able to address world problems. But this also means that a failure to fix ourselves will likely contribute to creating a world where geopolitical strategizing overtakes collectively problem solving. The costs of American and European political paralysis will reverberate around the world. Domestic politics, as much as foreign politics, are what will create a new Cold War.

- Karen Alter is a professor of political science and law at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion