Thomas Friedman, who it’s safe to say is no isolationist, argues in his Sunday column that the United States is devoting too many resources to the outside world.


We’re going to spend $1 billion to fix the Georgia between Russia and Turkey, not the one between South Carolina and Florida.

Sorry, but the thought of us spending $1 billion to repair a country whose president, though a democrat, recklessly provoked a war with a brutish Russia, which was itching to bash its neighbor, makes no sense to me. Yes, we should diplomatically squeeze Russia until it withdraws its troops; no one should be invading neighbors.

But where are our priorities? How many wars can we fight at once without finishing even one? Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Georgia. Which is the priority? Americans are struggling to meet their mortgages, and we’re sending $1 billion to a country whose president behaved irresponsibly, just to poke Vladimir Putin in the eye. Couldn’t we poke Putin with $100 million? And shouldn’t we be fostering a dialogue with Georgia and with Putin? Otherwise, where is this going? A new cold war? Over what?

No doubt, this is an appealing point.  One needn’t conduct a national survey to know that the American taxpayer would prefer to spend the billions we’re spending rebuilding Iraq, Afghanistan, and Georgia on, say, rebuilding the Gulf Coast or developing alternative energy sources.

But, as Friedman surely knows, life doesn’t always give us the luxury of prioritizing our resources as we’d prefer.  A family may scrimp and save for a year to buy that flat screen television they’ve had their eye on only to have the air conditioner suddenly go out and make a competing claim. 

So it is with public policy.  Most of us paid little attention to Afghanistan until one fateful morning seven years ago forced us to.   War in Afghanistan, in turn, made Pakistan a much higher priority and, rightly or wrongly, did the same for Iraq.  

One can argue the degree to which the Caucasus are an American interest and, certainly, how far we wish to go in defending their sovereignty against Russia’s desire to reassert its sphere of interest.  Elsewhere in today’s edition, Alexander Motyl asks “Would NATO defend Narva?”  The answer, almost certainly, is No.  But, as he argues superbly, the consequences of that decision could be dire, indeed.

Should the United States, as Friedman suggests, focus on “strengthening our capacity for innovation — our most important competitive advantage”?  Of course.   As he points out, “If we can’t remain the most innovative country in the world, we are not going to have $1 billion to toss at either the country Georgia or the state of Georgia.”  But, while our resources are finite, it’s simply absurd to argue that we can not simultaneously invest an infinitescimile fraction of our GDP in humanitarian and security aid to countries struggling to choose the globalized world model of the West over authoritarianism while continuing to invest in our own human capital and infrastructure. 

Indeed, as a wise analyst  told us nearly a decade ago, the primary threat the United States faces is from countries and super-empowered individuals who “want to bring down the power structure that now exists” and that the “only way” to combat them is “by making sure that as much of the society as possible has a stake in the globalization system.”  We want make it as easy as possible for Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States to get inside that system.

Imagine how much better off we would have been had we invested a few billion dollars in Afghanistan in the 1990s so that we could save hundreds of billions — not to mention thousands of lives — in the current decade. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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