By Pete Wehner

About a quarter of a century ago the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. It was an epic moment that evoked understandable elation, and in some quarters highly optimistic analysis. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in an influential 1989 essay, “The End of History?”, that the world had perhaps reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Twenty-five years later, it is clear history is not over, even in the Hegelian sense, and liberal democracy has not been universalized. Euphoria has given way to anxiety. The world, if not necessarily more dangerous than it was during the Cold War, is surely more chaotic and diffusely complex. The scale of global disorder is staggering. In the Middle East alone we behold the continuing threat from al-Qaeda and the rise of the Islamic State; the dissolution of states such as Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen; the regional rise of Iran as a nuclear-threshold state and, with it, the specter of nuclear weapons proliferating far and wide. Nor is the rest of the world any calmer, with Russian aggression in Ukraine and Chinese expansionism in the maritime domains of East Asia. Cyber threats have mushroomed and grown global in scale, and, thanks to the current U.S. Administration’s policies, the alliance system designed to preserve order and peace has been weakened.

As one might expect, foreign policy is rising on the list of priorities and concerns for the American people. A Pew Research Center poll from earlier this year shows that, for the first time in five years, as many Americans cite defending the United States against terrorism (76 percent) as a top policy priority as say that about strengthening the nation’s economy (75 percent). An internal Republican survey in March found that security issues ranked first on a list of top priorities for voters, ahead of economic growth, fiscal responsibility, and moral issues, among others. Foreign policy will almost certainly be an important, perhaps even dominant, issue in the 2016 presidential race.


The President has made the United States a reluctant and often passive world power, and the world is more turbulent and dangerous because of it.

Those running for high public office are likely to find the American people somewhat disoriented, feeling vulnerable, anxious, and unusually powerless in the face of global affairs. There can be little wonder why. The United States has waged war for nearly fifteen years and undertaken “nation-building” operations that turned out to be more difficult and costly than we imagined. If previous administrations overestimated America’s capacity to shape events, the current Administration has made the United States a reluctant and often passive world power, and the world is more turbulent and dangerous because of it.

We are caught in a moment of confusion, then, that begs for clarity. This is where Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World comes in. Consisting of 27 chapters drafted by members of the John Hay Initiative, Choosing to Lead seeks to diagnose the problem and suggest remedies going forward. It articulates both a conceptual approach—the principles and ideals that ought to inform American foreign policy—and concrete and comprehensive policies flowing therefrom. It covers the world, with chapters addressing challenges and opportunities from Latin America, Europe, and Asia to the Middle East and Africa. It includes chapters on defense modernization and readiness, trade and economics, intelligence and energy security, democracy and human rights, cyber security and the United Nations, foreign assistance and structuring the National Security Council. The tone of the chapters is analytical, not polemical; we are interested more in solutions than in recriminations or scoring debating points.

Most of the contributors writing here have served in government, so we bring not just a theoretical understanding of the issues but real-world experience. Informing these chapters is an appreciation of the sheer complexity of the current strategic environment and the knowledge that adjustments and recalibrations need to be made all along the way.

Choosing to Lead points the way forward for the next President, regardless of party. Just as many of our foreign policy challenges transcend party politics, so do their solutions. For a period of time from 1942 onwards, American leaders of both parties came to a consensus about how our country should conduct itself internationally. That consensus has frayed badly, but it can be rewoven into a common fabric of organizing principles and commitments.

This book is designed as a practical policy manual, one intended to address real concerns. But the larger ambition of this book is to help Americans regain their footing and confidence in American leadership in world affairs. It aims to provide the American public, lawmakers, and even prospective Presidents with insights into how to think about foreign policy in an age of upheaval.

No party has a monopoly on wisdom. Members of both major parties have plenty of lessons to learn from the past fifteen years, from the difficult and protracted nature of war and nation-building to the chaos and upheavals that have followed in the wake of American weakness and retreat.

In an unusually polarized time the contributors to this book believe it is important that we restore the bipartisan tradition of American leadership in world affairs. We urge the careful balancing of American ideals and interests, prize strength and prudence, and stress the need for a measured application of a principled vision of foreign policy to shifting circumstances. A successful foreign policy requires three things: a proper conceptual understanding; the right policies; and individuals with the ability, wisdom, and discernment to successfully implement them. The next President will need all three.

Change is a constant in world affairs, of course, but the present period is unusually tumultuous. Tectonic plates have been quietly shifting and we are now witnessing some of the noisy effects. Maps are being redrawn; the very units of the post-Westphalian order are under unprecedented stress; jihadi statelets are rising suddenly from the rubble of failed and collapsing states. If in the face of all this the United States withdraws within itself, whether out of frustration, weariness, or a sense of impotence, the world’s problems will only worsen, the disorder will accelerate, and malignant regimes and organizations will gain strength and influence.

There is no reason the 21st century cannot be the next American Century.

We are, nonetheless, sanguine about the future, both because we reject historical determinism and because we know the United States has a unique place and role to play among nations. Every author in this book accepts that there are limitations on American power. But we understand, too, that with the right leadership and policies in place, the United States can once again be a guarantor of global order and peace, a champion of human rights, and a beacon of economic growth and human flourishing. There is no reason the 21st century cannot be the next American Century. We have our problems, but our economic, social, and cultural assets far outstrip those of every imaginable competitor. Choosing to Lead offers perspectives and recommendations on how to make that next American Century happen. In doing so, we believe it will serve the world as well as the United States of America.

A few final words about the plan of the book. It is divided into six sections and opens with a compelling and visionary chapter on rebuilding American foreign policy. It then turns to a subject too often neglected in recent years, America’s alliances. After discussing national defense and international economic concerns it examines threats to American national security by region. It then explores a number of global challenges and opportunities. The book concludes with the question of organizing the central government, and above all the White House, for the effective conduct of foreign and defense policy.

September 2, 2015