REBUILDING AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY

By Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, Brian Hook

U.S. foreign policy today is failing every test that a great power’s foreign policy can fail. Today, America’s enemies do not fear the United States and America’s friends doubt that they can trust it. Neither the American people nor the world-at-large understands anymore either the purposes of American power or even, in some respects, the principles that shape them. Indeed, after a decade and a half of conflict in the Middle East and South Asia, some Americans have concluded that the best thing to do is to pull back from the world and its troubles. Some argue that America’s role as guarantor of global order is no longer necessary, history having ended with the Cold War; there are also those who think the United States is too clumsy and incompetent to do much of anything right; and there are, finally, those who think that “nation-building at home” is some kind of alternative to engagement abroad.

We disagree. We believe that a strong United States is essential to the maintenance of the open global order under which this country and the rest of the world have prospered since 1945; that the alternative is not a self-regulating machine of balancing states but a landscape marked by eruptions of chaos and destruction. We recognize the failures as well as the successes of past policies, because to govern is to choose, and to choose in the world as it is, is necessarily to err. But while we believe that we must understand those failures and learn from them, we also believe that American power and influence has, on the whole, served our country and the world far better than American weakness and introversion.

We also recognize that international circumstances have changed, and that, while many of the fundamentals of American foreign policy remain, our approaches must change accordingly. In Lincoln’s words, “as our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.”

Today the United States faces a global system that is more complex and more volatile, if not always more dangerous, than that of the 20th century. In Asia we confront a rising China, whose growing economy may eventually equal or even surpass ours in sheer size, whose governmental system still rests on the foundation laid by one of the great totalitarian monsters of the past century, and whose aspirations run counter to our interests. Beijing seeks to dominate East Asia, to assert claims to international waters that are unacceptable to us, and to replace the American-shaped order that enabled China’s “peaceful rise” with a system in which we are only one of multiple, equal participants.

In Europe, rather than the continent whole, free and at peace that many anticipated at the end of the Cold War, we face a revived Russia whose frail democratic institutions have been undermined, silenced, or destroyed. The Putin regime has invaded two neighbors and annexed part of their territory, while intimidating others. Moscow has refurbished and rebuilt important elements of its armed forces and is willing to use them. At the same time, our European allies are trapped in slow growth, inadequate defense expenditure, and a crisis of confidence in the postwar institutions that they have constructed.

The Middle East is aflame, as several of the states created in the aftermath of the world wars have dissolved in sectarian and ethnic bloodshed and civil war. The Syrian civil war, which has cost nearly a quarter million people their lives, has created millions of refugees and emerged as a magnet for jihadis from around the world, including Europe, who will eventually return, hardened by experience, to their homelands. The Persian Gulf is menaced by an Iran whose nuclear ambitions will not be blocked and, indeed, may even be eased by the Obama Administration’s misconceived deal with it. Today, Tehran dominates four Arab capitals and wages covert warfare from the Mediterranean coast to southern Yemen, attacking by indirect means America’s allies from Israel to the Emirates.

The threats from hostile states include the persistence of a North Korea that is expanding its stockpile of nuclear weapons and which, if unchecked, will put them on missiles that can reach the United States. At the same time, non-state actors—most notably, jihadi movements of several stripes—vie with each other for primacy in waging holy war from Nigeria to Pakistan. After a period in which American leaders boasted that they had put al-Qaeda and analogous movements on the verge of strategic defeat, we now realize that they will continue to threaten our homeland, our people, and our interests abroad, and that such groups have the power to destabilize or even overthrow allied governments throughout the Middle East.

These and other challenges (for example, America’s increasing estrangement from an authoritarian and illiberal Turkey, or the nascent competition for control of resources in the High North) require a first-order rethinking of American foreign policy. The threats will not be resolved by rousing speeches and a substantial increase in defense spending alone, welcome and necessary though both would be. Rather, they will require more resources and creative statecraft. A new American administration will require patience and perseverance in reversing the setbacks of recent years, and in refashioning a world order that the United States played the leading role in shaping some seventy years ago.

…the American hand in international politics remains not only strong, but considerably stronger than that of any potential rival or collection of rivals most emphatically to include China.

The good news is that the American hand in international politics remains not only strong, but considerably stronger than that of any potential rival or collection of rivals, most emphatically to include China. The United States has a modestly growing and relatively young population, unlike China, Russia, Japan, and Europe. The depth of our financial markets and research establishment remains unmatched. As a result of the unconventional oil boom the United States, in effect, is energy self-sufficient; it has, in addition, abundant water, the world’s most productive agriculture, natural resources, and clean air. The American military is the most experienced in the world, and, while others can match individual aspects of its armed forces, none has its full spectrum of abilities. The American system of government, with all of its cacophony and division, is legitimate and functional; the states of our federal system are laboratories for policy innovation, and a constantly renewed source of fresh political elites. The United States has an alliance system that, despite strains and change, remains unmatched. Indeed, one of its great intangible sources of strength is its ability to build and operate coalitions. And unlike its potential rivals, it shares borders with only two nations, and those friendly.

What principles should inform the way the United States plays this hand? The first is to reject the notion of foreign policy based exclusively either on ideals or interests. The truth is that the United States has always, and must by its nature, act on both. A country founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal,” and whose President declared during its greatest war that the issue at stake was whether “any nation so constituted can long endure,” has universal claims and a universal outlook that it cannot and must not renounce. John Quincy Adams may have declared that the United States should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, but in the same speech he insisted that the principles underlying the Declaration of Independence were the only legitimate ones, destined to cover the globe.

At the same time, the United States has interests like all states; moreover, a pursuit of its ideals without thought to cost or consequence would lead to all manner of unacceptable dangers. Americans rightly allied with the Soviet Union during World War II; it cooperated with unsavory regimes in the Cold War; it reluctantly works with non-democratic regimes in the Middle East that are better than the alternative.

The first principle of American foreign policy, therefore, should be prudence, a cardinal conservative virtue, which does not mean forsaking one’s values but rather advancing them in the manner best adapted to their success. In the increasingly complex international environment in which we operate, the United States cannot afford to be doctrinaire, even as it would also be absurd to aspire to act with the amoral practicality of an 18th-century monarchy. Prudence will also mean picking our fights. In the aftermath of World War II American GDP was nearly fifty percent of the global total; after falling to something over a quarter of world GDP when Europe and Japan recovered from World War II, it is declining further to something like a fifth of global GDP. Our resources will be finite, and so will be the ability of our leaders to focus on more than a few problems at a time.

At the heart of American foreign policy should be our conception of international order. That order is only partly about free trade, although it is important to remind ourselves and others of just how important a world of low tariffs and diminished barriers to commerce has been to the prosperity that has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty since the World Wars. That conception of order must include: the freedom of smaller states to live without fear of invasion or military coercion; commitment to the rules that govern the great commons of mankind—including sea and space—and rights of free passage and peaceful use thereof. And it must include as well the maintenance of a world that is friendly to the existence of free peoples and limited government.

The United States does not seek to impose its form of government by conquest, but it should never flag in its defense of the basic ideas that have defined us: limited government; freedom of speech, religion, and assembly; protection of private property; an independent judiciary. The United States could not thrive in a world dominated by corrupt, authoritarian, or totalitarian regimes, and history suggests that, although democracies have waged war against each other in the past, by and large free states can and do settle their differences amicably.

The United States cannot exert its influence by example alone. For more than seventy years American military power underwrote the very existence of the international system. American soft power, from Fulbright scholarships to U.S. Information Agency libraries, from Radio Free Europe to the work of institutes sponsored by the two great parties in the United States, were indispensable. The first call on the U.S. government must be the reconstruction of our defenses after years of war and, recently and worryingly, a prolonged reduction in them below what is safe. The word “reconstruction” is important here: An American military redesigned for the 21st century will differ in material ways from that of the 20th.

In the same way, our instruments of soft power must be reconceived. Efforts to wage a “war of ideas” against radical Islam have, on the whole, failed. The U.S. government, working creatively with the private and nonprofit sectors, must find approaches that make the case for free governments and free societies, and that undermine or confront ideologies that oppose ours. There is a political contest here that requires the same energy and enterprising spirit that imbued American efforts at political warfare during the early Cold War.

A third effort must be directed at reshaping the American alliance system, which was indispensable to our victory in the Cold War, but which now requires remaking. Some old allies—the United Kingdom, most notably—have faded and withdrawn, while others (Japan, Australia, and even Canada) have grown in importance and self-confidence. We have new allies (the United Arab Emirates, for example, or Colombia) whose potential remains to be untapped. And we have partners—above all, India—who may resist the name “ally” but will act alongside us in important ways.

The NATO alliance will remain a bedrock of European security; indeed, its protection and maintenance in the face of Russian aggression are imperatives. But new alliance systems will emerge, in a variety of forms, to including treaties, informal agreements, and bilateral and multilateral arrangements. And it is correct to say that, without slighting our European commitments, the United States must shift some of its foreign policy energy to Asia from its traditional focus on Europe and the Middle East.

One hundred years ago, the United States hesitated on the verge of entering the global war that was convulsing Europe. It eventually did so, as an associated rather than an Allied power, and its ambivalence crippled its performance. President Wilson’s attempt to reconstruct global order was only partly successful and, regrettably, America’s leaders were unable to agree on sustaining an American role in maintaining global order thereafter. That hesitation and reluctance increased the price paid when, in the 1930s, the dictators had their way in Europe and Asia.

But it is fair to compare our era to that of the early 1930s, when the democratic powers seemed to have lost much of their military edge, and equally important, their self-confidence and will to use their power.

We do not yet face a cataclysm like that of the late 1930s. But it is fair to compare our era to that of the early 1930s, when the democratic powers seemed to have lost much of their military edge and, equally important, their self-confidence and will to use their power. At the same time, pitiless dictators and virulent ideologies were making use of new technologies to threaten, in ways previously inconceivable, the international order. In our world, which could turn much darker with little notice, neither a minimalist foreign policy that seeks to avoid conflict and maintain quiet nor one thoughtlessly eager to remake the world, can succeed. Rather, America needs a foreign policy based on strength, rooted in values and interests, and conducted with wisdom. And to that end, this book.


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