Sunday, March 24, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
The price tag for World War II came to $296 billion, or $4 trillion in today’s money. The aftermath of that war cost $13 billion more: The United States spent over 10 percent of its federal budget on rebuilding Europe — an aid package that amounted to the largest voluntary transfer of a nation’s wealth in history.
Being a superpower ain’t cheap. Just like being the head of the household means picking up the check when the family goes out to dinner, leading the free world means footing one gigantic bill after another.
What does it cost to protect the world’s oil supply in the Persian Gulf? According to one estimate, $10 billion annually. What about the cost of making peace between Egypt and Israel? More than $4.5 billion a year in American aid.
In recent years, more and more Americans are wondering whether superpower status is worth it. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul drew huge applause at a conservative conference this month when he proclaimed: “I say not one penny more to countries that are burning our flag.”
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 86 percent of Republicans believe the United States should concentrate on problems at home, a dramatic jump from 66 percent who felt that way in 2002. (Eighty percent of Democrats feel the same way, roughly the same as 10 years ago.)
This desire to withdraw from the world — to divorce the family, or at least tell them to find their own dinner — comes after 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The wars cost more than $1 trillion, and we aren’t even sure what we got for that money. Afghanistan and Iraq are still in turmoil. The entire Middle East appears to be unraveling. We don’t feel any safer than we did before the wars. Threats have morphed and gotten more complex. Meanwhile, our ability to handle them the way we used to — with huge, expensive military operations and generous aid packages — has eroded.
So where do we go from here? In the aftermath of World War II, as fear of Hitler gave way to fear of communism, Secretary of State George Marshall managed to convince war-weary Americans to double down on their investment overseas. That gamble paid off and laid the foundation for a peaceful, democratic, more united Europe. But today, there is little evidence that Secretary of State John Kerry can persuade us to double down on our investment in the Middle East. The Obama administration wants to pivot out of there. And 72 percent of the American public agrees.
But before we give up and throw in the superpower towel, before we duck out the back door and leave the world to pay the check, we should take a lesson from all the breadwinners who have managed to get by with a shrinking budget. They have learned to do more with less. They cook at home instead of eating out. They rely on other members of the family, who get jobs and pitch in with the bills.
So too should the United States pull together with its allies to continue to steer the world through a dangerous time. The Europe that we helped stabilize back in 1948 is giving us a return on that investment. Recently, France led African troops in a military operation against jihadists in Mali, with logistical help from the United States. France and Britain took the lead in the Libya no-fly zone. (Although they still relied heavily on support from the United States, the cost to U.S. taxpayers for Libya was just $1 billion.)
That’s a cooperative model that Americans should get used to. As defense budgets everywhere shrink, NATO allies should be looking for ways to share military capacities and find efficiencies by buying — and building — equipment together. Free Trade talks with Europe provide opportunities for vast economic cooperation, as the United States and Europe struggle to maintain influence over an evolving new world order.
It will take a mental leap for Americans to view themselves as partners in a superpower team, rather than the only one calling all the shots.
But the bill for the world’s problems is too big for the United States to pay alone.
Farah Stockman writes for the Boston Globe.