Storm Warning

How the flood compromises U.S. foreign policy.

The wake of destruction

It has long been a tenet of American foreign policy that politics stop at the water’s edge. The tradition is that too much is at stake to allow partisan interests to take precedence over the national interest. Sometimes this principle is honored, sometimes not, but either way, the water in question is the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

What happens when water floods an important American city, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, is something else again. It will be no easier to cordon off U.S. foreign policy from the effects of Hurricane Katrina than it has been to protect New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain.

That a purely domestic event should have profound consequences for American foreign policy is not in and of itself new. U.S. prestige suffered a blow in 1992 when the Los Angeles riots were broadcast around the world. By contrast, Ronald Reagan’s firm handling of the air-traffic controllers strike a decade before communicated resolve and firmness.

The initial federal and local reactions to Hurricane Katrina, however, have sent the opposite message. The images seen around the world communicated a lack of competence and considerable chaos and suffering. The dominant overseas reaction has been sympathy mixed with shock and horror at what was seen by many as evidence of racism and a reminder of the extreme poverty in which many Americans live. America’s enemies indulged in schadenfreude. Hugo Chávez could not resist the chance to taunt President Bush; North Korea radio linked the U.S. “defeat” in Iraq with its “defeat” by Katrina; jihadists celebrated what had happened and the possibility the price of oil would soar even higher. The world’s only remaining superpower appeared to be anything but. In an era of 24-hour satellite television and the Internet, public diplomacy is about who Americans are and what they do, not just what they say. Unlike Las Vegas, what happens here does not stay here.

The global impact goes beyond impressions. A priority of this administration’s foreign policy is to promote democracy around the world. But the attractiveness of the American model, and the ability of the United States to be an effective advocate for more democratic, capitalist societies, which had already been weakened by the disarray in Iraq, is now weaker still as a result of the disarray at home. It will be more difficult to make the case for free markets and more open societies if the results of such reforms come to be associated with the disorder seen in New Orleans.

Katrina will also have an impact on how citizens of the United States view foreign policy. The enormous problems and costs associated with the hurricane will raise additional questions about the ability of the United States to “stay the course” in Iraq. The aftermath of the catastrophe will inevitably increase political pressure on President Bush to begin to reduce the U.S. involvement in Iraq and refocus U.S. resources at home, be it on the expensive reconstruction of flood-ravaged areas or on improving the country’s capacity to deal with future disasters of this magnitude.

A similar debate can be expected about the military. The National Guard is being used in unforeseen ways in Iraq, and it is clearly needed in foreseeable ways at home. The National Guard will not be able to do it all. Homeland security requirements, be they derived from hurricanes or terrorists, are and will be extensive. This reality highlights the fact that the Guard will not forever be available for overseas duty on anything like the current scale. The need clearly exists to expand the active duty Army, now too small to carry out its assigned tasks of fighting traditional wars and dealing with difficult aftermaths such as we are witnessing in Iraq.

U.S. energy policy or, to be coldly honest, the lack of one, is another reality that Katrina exposes. This time it was a storm in the vicinity of important refineries, but next time it could be instability in any one of the major oil-producing countries or simply the cumulative result of the growth in world demand for oil outstripping the growth in world supply. Americans cannot drill or diversify or substitute their way out of this shortage. The United States must act to cut its consumption of oil, something that can be accomplished most efficiently with new regulations mandating substantially higher fuel economy for all vehicles sold in the country. Unfortunately, this is precisely what the legislation recently passed by Congress failed to do.

The United States emerged from the Cold War as first among unequals, with an extraordinary opportunity to shape the world. This opportunity rested on many factors, but above all on a foundation of the country’s strength. U.S. power—military, economic, diplomatic, cultural—is great by any yardstick and gives the United States the ability to get things done in the world at the same time it works to discourage other powers from challenging it.

Hurricane Katrina has delivered a painful but important warning. In ways similar to the 9/11 attacks four years ago, it demonstrates that U.S. power, however great, is not to be confused with invulnerability. In addition, U.S. power, however great, is still limited. And U.S. power, however great, cannot be taken for granted. In the end, American power is a reflection of the strength of the American economy and the cohesion of American society. Any country must balance what it allocates for guns and what for butter; the United States is no exception. Although we are wealthy enough to fund both, we are not wealthy enough to fund both to the extent we are now doing and to keep taxes as low as they are. Something will have to give.