Archive for Sunday, January 9, 2005

Bush can’t ignore global economic policy

January 9, 2005

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— Global economic policy has been to the Bush administration what foreign policy was to Bill Clinton's first four years: a troublesome beast that is best kept quiet and chained at some distance from the Oval Office.

But Clinton was led by Bosnia and Kosovo and a mistaken sense of opportunity in Middle East peace-making to change priorities. Similarly, George W. Bush will confront a global economy that will be more at his throat than at his feet in his second term.

The president has grounds to hope that this will not be the case. World markets rapidly absorbed the devastation of the Indian Ocean tsunami, after having adjusted earlier in 2004 to the costly war in Iraq, volatile oil prices and mounting U.S. trade and budget deficits.

Bush could read into those adjustments proof that he should stick with the structural approach of his first term -- essentially to assure that markets are functioning properly and that taxes are as low as possible and to expect everything else to take care of itself.

Bush is poised to stay the minimalist course. The public undermining of Treasury Secretary John Snow by White House staffers has been blatant and unpunished, leaving the unfortunate Snow (or any other official, beyond Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan) without influence as an economic spokesman at home or abroad.

But the temptation to treat economic policy as an orphan while showering attention on the war on terrorism should be resisted. Unpredictable strategic consequences follow in the wake of large-scale natural disasters, wars and neglect of underlying economic trends. When all those forces converge, they can upset and at times overturn the existing order.

Events do not have to be related to have a powerful cumulative effect on world politics and economics. They can come together unbidden and on separate tracks to throw into sharp focus the direction in which we were heading all along. This may be such a moment.

Consider the imbalance that surfaces in the affluent Northern Hemisphere's response to the tsunami disaster. The United States has used its mighty global military reach to rush cargo aircraft, helicopters, supplies and doctors to Indonesia, showing that continuing large defense budgets and standing armed forces can be useful to others in humanitarian emergencies.

Russia makes the same point on a much smaller scale by dispatching military transports to help Indonesia, while European countries that have slashed their defense budgets and forces have not been as immediately effective. Their generous cash donations will flow slowly and uncertainly through a leaky international system. But in the long term, those European countries gain clear economic advantage by shedding those military costs.

China's pursuit of economic advantage above all else also underlines the distracted, fragmented nature of the policies followed by the United States and Russia as they are bled by the costs of fighting nasty insurgencies that place intense strains on their national budgets and force structures.

War today is an uneconomic enterprise for conquerors, who may pay dearly for "victory," as Iraq and Chechnya demonstrate. Occupation brings little material advantage in the globalization era, in contrast to the years following World War II. The major economic consequence of the American invasion of Iraq could ultimately be the opening of Iraq to unlimited imports of cheap Chinese goods.

Both Bush and Putin, in very different circumstances, act as if their only options are to fight and pay up. Just as Bush has marginalized Snow, Putin has pushed aside Andrei Illarionov, the talented adviser who helped him frame the liberalization measures that had steadied the Russian economy.

These presidents seem not to want to hear about problems that their decisions on war and other pressing matters (e.g., Yukos) create. When Washington and Moscow simultaneously toss Economics 101 out the window, a feeling of a loss of control over the global economy is inevitable.

This is hubris. Washington and Moscow need economic policies that accommodate the lasting effects of the military demands they face. International cooperation that brings the United States, Europe, Japan, China and Russia together to deal with international capital flows, which have taken on tsunami proportions, and the other deepening problems of a wildly changing global economy is imperative.

Hope may come from Britain, which hosts this year's Group of Eight conclaves. Tony Blair and his able Chancellor Gordon Brown worry about and understand these issues as well as anyone in power. But they can't do it alone. If Bush does not trust and value Snow, he should appoint someone he does, and now. No aide will be more important in his second term.

-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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