Hard Choices for US Foreign Policy

The 2016 Presidential Elections in the United States has been notable for a couple of “firsts” and a few “twists” uncommon in the modern presidential campaigns. Among such firsts are likely to be the first woman nominated for the presidency (Hillary Clinton), and the first time potential candidates for either party will not reflect the establishments of either national party. The twists include Ted Cruz’ recent announcement of Carly Fiorina for Vice President, a move never made before the nominating convention. Going to both party conventions and the general election, 2016 is a pivotal year that will determine the viability of the Obama Administration’s progressive policies, and the next four (potentially eight) years of American leadership in the world. So much time has been spent on the first part, few are really looking at the second part, and the swirling conversations about the future of US foreign policy. Here’s the point being missed: the agreed upon standards of US leadership, in terms of national security, economic & trade policy, and national values are being challenged by an electoral groundswell on both the right and left. To the outside observer, in Berlin, Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing, etc, the race is about competing visions of the Pax Americana, a shift in values and expression of US power that could fundamentally change the 21st century role of America globally. Worse yet, if you look at all the candidates running in this race, only Hillary Clinton promises to hold the course, and maybe reinvent the foreign policy consensus, while her opponents in both parties promise (or avoid talking about) their radical departures from our national values, rolling back 60 years of American progress.

What Is American Foreign Policy?

Most Americans know foreign policy in sound-bytes, taught to us in grade school when studying Truman’s 1947 Containment Speech, or Kennedy’s sentiments of “protecting democracy anytime, anywhere.” These values fall in three categories: Political, Economic, and National Security. The first category is the foundational political principles underlying our commitment to democratic values, human rights, rule of law, and political equality. These come from the constitution, and recast overtime to fit modern, post-World War II international conditions. Our commitments to free trade, freedom of navigation, and commitment to capitalism that emerged later in the twentieth century as the second pillar of American foreign policy are economic values. Codified by the Atlantic Charter and Bretton Woods, it became an integral component of our efforts to fight communism, and build partnerships with our allies and emerging states not aligned with the Soviet Union. These values and tenets are protected by institutions guided by our national security goals, coordinated through a vast structure of agencies, departments, and private groups in the Washington beltway, from the departments of Defense, State, and Treasury to the network of think tanks and national defense agencies. The American “national security state” coordinates countless policies based on these values, both to protect the homeland, and preserve the system of values central to the Pax Americana.

This system is the basis of what Andrew Bacevich and other foreign policy thinkers call the Washington Consensus. This consensus is supported by the major national parties, and is often an essential part of any frontrunners’ platform in order to earn the buy-in of the establishment and party elites. Rarely have there been serious challenges to the consensus. The Vietnam War brought these systems into question, whether or not America should be a global enforcer of democracy and capitalism, even at the cost of starting conflicts abroad or military adventurism. The ongoing War on Terror, the confrontation with the Islamic State, and the challenge of China and a revanchist Russia have created a similar condition for challenging the status quo. The central question we must ask ourselves is “How do we reinvent American leadership to make it appealing to a new generation of Americans concerned with increasing inequality, and economic decline?

Reorientation and Refutation

We must make immediate course corrections and expand the scope of our foreign policy beyond the narrow conversation we having about the Middle East, China, and Russia. Taking partisan politics out of the presidential race, the gap between the candidates Clinton and the other candidates in this race. When we examine the following critical parts of diplomacy: capacity, strength of alliances, and reproach with our enemies, here is what our presidential politics looks like:

  1. Diplomatic capacity: expanding our investments in soft power, by increasing funding for the diplomatic corp, sending a greater number of students as cultural ambassadors abroad, and increasing our foreign aid budget. Hillary Clinton is the only candidate arguing to steer the course of American foreign policy, outlined in her book Hard Choices. While critiquing the excesses of the Bush Era, Clinton sees the source of American leadership as not being military power, but the application of all the tools of diplomacy. Her Clinton Doctrine is the application of “Smart Power,” utilizing political, economic, moral, and cultural leadership to build on the fraying American system. In the process, such efforts would force competitors like China, Russia, and other potential pretenders (India and Brazil among them) to acquiesce out of self-interest. Her leadership would bring a new cadre of staffers and thought leaders to Washington, wielding smart power beyond the realm of generals, intelligence officers, and hawkish academics.
  1. Strength of Alliances: Second, we have to reinvest in our proven allies in Europe and the Far East. There could not be a starker choice between all three of Mrs. Clinton’s opponents. Donald Trump yesterday announced his basic tenets of the “America First Doctrine” calling for our allies to obtain nuclear weapons, disengaging from NATO, and cooperating with China and Russia. He has attacked free trade, and called for US forces worldwide to downsize and return home, despite their necessity to enforce our economic priorities around the globe. Even as basic as changing the ways we talk about foreign policy, treating strategic negotiations as real estate and business deals, Trump is calling for America to return to its old, pre-World War II isolationism. Boiling down the rhetoric, America First is a contradictory call to focus on rejuvenating American power at home by having our allies pick up the bill, but still owe reverence to American leadership in retreat.
  1. Reproach with enemies: We must also follow through in good faith working with our enemies, including Iran and Russia, to contain conflict in the Middle East. If you were looking to Ted Cruz to provide an alternative to Hillary Clinton, the Republican Primary has pushed him to meet Mr. Trump on many of the same populist themes. Carly Fiorina, his recently announced pick for Vice President, echoed a need to invest at home and fight free trade. The major departure for Cruz is his overemphasis on military power and wielding Teddy Roosevelt’s “Stick” against ISIS, Iran, and China.  Discarding the “speak softly,” part of T.R.’s famous dictum, Cruz’ leadership would be a triumphal victory for neo-conservatives, but cede the moral leadership that is essential for the post-Cold War consensus to those who are competing for global leadership. But with Cruz’ near defection to Trump’s camp has shown one important event in the 2016 narrative, large sections of the electorate are rebelling against the foreign policy consensus, hoping to move to that impossible place where America remains the leader of the free world while expecting other to simply acknowledge this and foot the bill for American protection.

Our Principles

If we look back in history, great powers have come and gone, each leaving a mark on the world through their own system of values, applied through force of will. The great powers rose to great prominence, and then declined through political, economic, or moral weakness , dismembered or destroyed. The cyclical nature of history would indicate that we are entering a period of American decline, and that the current process of decline is not just economic weakness, but a social question of what our leadership role should be. Those on the side of Trump, Sanders, and Cruz are asking if American commitments to free trade have been worth the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the flight of corporate investments overseas. The continued political turmoil in Europe, China’s bucking of international norms in its island building campaign in the South China Sea, and the disintegration of Iraq and Syria were presented as proof by Trump that America’s allies may not be worth the investments.

We have to look beyond traditional geopolitics by addressing three emerging issues that we not only face as a country, but will be needed to invigorate a rising generation of American leaders. One of the first priorities should be fighting anthropogenic Climate Change and mitigating the environmental consequences that will come. Not only does this affect our environment, it has implications for the security environment, from the growing number of water wars derived from desertification to rise in levels of tropical borne diseases. Secondly, we must  invest in a new American Space Program that will energize the US economy, position us to write the rules for the next frontier of international norms. While the goals of our program since 2009 have not changed fundamentally (emphasis on scientific learning, exploration, a trip to Mars), we are in danger of ceding leadership in space to China and Russia (even the Europeans) as the private space industry takes off in a new direction. We are missing a golden opportunity to create new opportunities for national prestige and pride in the coming decades.
While the foundations of the Washington Consensus and the core values of American foreign policy are in line with the mission of this magazine, we believe a fundamental shift of application is necessary to reinvent American leadership for a world whose fellow nation states are drifting into new orbits. The principles and foundations of our foreign policy have brought an unprecedented level of peace in the world wars that caused unprecedented destruction. But the overuse of force, reliance on military power, and pursuit of raw GDP growth at the expense of qualitative domestic policies to help Americans keep up with the global economy has damaged the long-term prospects of American leadership. The Brexit challenge and Japan’s renewed investments in military power stem from a lack of US investment in the economic and political system is created sixty years ago. To the international community, the possibility of a Trump, Sanders, or Cruz Presidency reflects concern that they will again be solely responsible for their own security, raising the threat of inter-state war and economic collapse. At the same time, it empowers China and Russia to make a case for new world orders whose rules and standards will leave Americans worse off than they are today.


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