U.S. foreign policy today is failing every test by which a great power’s foreign policy can be judged. America is not feared by her enemies, nor trusted by her friends. Neither the American people nor the world-at-large understand any more the purposes of American power, or, even worse, 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; others think that “nation-building at home” is some kind of alternative to engagement abroad.
But through all this white noise of confusion and dismay, one thing stands out as clearly as it has since the end of World War II: a strong United States is still 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 to America’s “indispensability” is not a harmonious, self-regulating balance of independent states but an international landscape marked by eruptions of chaos and destruction. Clearly, and understandably, past policies have had their successes and failures because to lead is to choose, and to choose in the world as it is, is inevitably to sometimes err. Indeed, U.S. leaders need to recognize and learn from policies that have succeeded over the past seven decades and those that have failed, but they must not lose sight of the fact that on the whole, America has served the world far better when confidently asserting power and influence than when retreating into impotence and self-doubt.
This is not to say that America should steer its course without taking into account the constant change in the international system. The world today is more complex and more volatile, if not always more dangerous, than that of the twentieth century.
In Asia, we must confront a rising China whose growing economy may eventually equal or even surpass ours, but 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 may be subtle in its rhetoric, but it is brutally frank in its aims: to dominate East Asia, to assert unacceptable claims to international waters and create “facts on the ground” on islands whose sovereignty is in doubt, and to replace the American-shaped order that ironically enabled China’s “peaceful rise.”
In Europe, rather than a continent that is whole, free, and at peace, as envisioned at the end of the Cold War, we face a revived Russia whose democratic institutions, always frail, have been systematically undermined, silenced, or destroyed over the past decade. The Putin regime has invaded two neighbors and annexed part of their territory; the Kremlin has rebuilt its military and shown itself willing to use it through blackmail as well as conquest. 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 descended into a hell of sectarian and ethnic bloodshed and civil war. The Syrian civil war, which has cost nearly a quarter million lives, has created millions of refugees and emerged as a magnet for jihadis from around the world, including Europe, who will eventually return, made lethal by the 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 on America’s allies from Israel to the Emirates.
These threats include, of course, the toxic enigma of North Korea, overseeing the starvation of its people while persistently expanding its stockpile of nuclear weapons that will, if unchecked, inevitably involve weaponized 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 vain boasts from Washington about having put al-Qaeda and analogous movements on the verge of strategic defeat, we now realize that such groups will continue to threaten our homeland, our people, and our interests abroad, and that they have the power to destabilize or even overthrow allied governments throughout the Middle East.
These and other challenges require a first-order rethinking of the particulars of American foreign policy that begins with an acknowledgment that the United States must take the lead in maintaining international order. 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. The new American administration that will take office in January will require patience and perseverance in reversing setbacks of recent years, and in reasserting the role America played—sometimes poorly, sometimes adroitly, but always predictably—in the post World War II years.
The new administration will not have to start from scratch. The American hand in international politics remains stronger than that of China or any other potential rival or collection of rivals. 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 institutions remains unmatched. As a result of the unconventional oil boom, in effect, the United States is energy self-sufficient. In addition, it has abundant water, the world’s most productive agriculture, natural resources, and clean air. The American military is the most experienced in the world, and although others can match individual aspects of its military capabilities, none has their 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 and initiatives. The United States has an alliance system that despite strains and change, remains unmatched. Indeed, one of its great intangible—and underappreciated—sources of strength is its ability to build and operate coalitions.
Given such assets, what principles should inform the way the United States plays this hand? The first is to reject the notion that foreign policy is based exclusively on either ideals or interests. The truth is that the United States has always acted on both. A country founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal” has universal claims and a universal outlook that it 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 destined to cover the globe.
At the same time, the United States, like all states, has specific interests; Americans rightly allied with the Soviet Union against Hitler during World War II; it cooperated with unsavory regimes in the Cold War, and it reluctantly works with nondemocratic regimes in the Middle East to fight terrorism.
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 adopting policies that best assures that those values prevail and over the long term. In the increasingly complex international environment in which we operate, the United States cannot afford to be doctrinaire, any more than it can afford to be amorally pragmatic. Prudence will also mean picking our fights. In the aftermath of World War II, American GDP was nearly 50 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 has declined even 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 must be a renewed commitment to support the concept of the international order as we know it. That order is only partly about trade, although it is important to remind ourselves and others just how critical diminished tariffs and diminished trade barriers have been to expanding our own prosperity, as well as fueling the global development that has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty and hunger since the World Wars. But if that world order concept is to continue to provide for economic growth and global stability—and be consistent with our traditions as a people—it must also protect the freedom of weaker states to exist without fear of invasion or outside military coercion; defend the laws and norms that govern the great commons of mankind—including sea and space—and the rights of free passage and peaceful use thereof; encourage limited and representative government; and be committed to defending the borders of freedom.
The United States cannot exert its influence by rhetoric and example alone. For more than seventy years, American military power underwrote the very existence of the international system. Likewise, 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, American “soft” power was also 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 the levels needed to ensure the country’s safe and prosperous future. The word “reconstruction” is important here: an American military redesigned for the twenty-first century will differ in material ways from that of the twentieth.
Four principles should animate a reconstructed American defense policy. First, we need forces capable not only to win today’s wars but also to deal with newly emerging threats. Second, we require a defense “insurance policy” that can deal with unforeseen or unforeseeable threats an to provide for extensions in time of need. Third, we must invest in capabilities and concepts that will maintain our qualitative superiority over all competitors. And fourth, we must reshape our alliance and partnership arrangements to provide in the twenty-first century what NATO provided in the Cold War: a coalition support structure that enabled the United States to sustain global order as well as its own national security.
None of this can be accomplished with a defense budget that is stagnant. Spending on defense will need to rise from about 3 percent of GDP or less to something approaching at least the 4 percent of recent years.
We face a wide variety of opponents and an equally wide variety of possible conflicts, from nuclear exchanges to terrorism and everything in between. It is therefore necessary that the United States restore its capacity to build on its natural strengths and mobilize assets. This should include developing rapid response mechanisms that can quickly incorporate civilians with highly valued and urgently needed talents or expertise into DoD planning and operations as civilians or in uniform. We also need ways to develop new weapons quickly or to mass produce weapons we currently produce in small quantities and even to replace losses in key air and naval assets. In addition to relearning the art of mobilizing and surging, we will need to develop the capacities and resources that will allow us to conduct sustained operations. In the event of large-scale cyber war, for example, we will need to augment uniformed and civilian DoD personnel with available experts from the private and nonprofit sector whose expertise and skills are equal and, in many cases, significantly exceed those inside government.
Furthermore, it is important that the next President and his or her cabinet officers explain to the American people the insurance function of defense spending. It will therefore be incumbent on the next generation of American leaders to describe accurately and realistically the dangers of a world that includes state and non-state actors deeply hostile to the United States. We need to learn to say the names of our enemies.
For the past decade, Defense Department leaders have managed two medium-sized wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and chronic global counterterrorism campaigns with an overextended and overstrained activeduty force. There has been some effort to reorient to Asia, but given the constraints of time, attention, and above all resources, this “pivot” has been limited and with only limited success. The real “peace dividend”— the large margin of global military superiority that the United States possessed when the Soviet Union collapsed—and before China rose—has been spent, and overspent. It is time to rearm, but to rearm more intelligently than we have done before.
The coming era will pose large and, in some respects, unprecedented challenges. As has been the case for the past fifteen years, the new Secretary of Defense will have to be a Secretary of War as well as a deft and hard-nosed administrator. At the same time, the Pentagon’s leadership must attend to the reconstruction of our armed forces for an era that will be as different from the post-9/11 decade as that period was from the Cold War that preceded it. This includes rebuilding the intellectual infrastructure of defense—the array of internal analytic organizations, military educational institutions, and allied academic organizations outside DoD. Whereas in the past defense leaders could either wage an ongoing war or, in a breathing period, overhaul institutions to prepare for the next, the President and Secretary of Defense who take office in January will have to do both. DoD’s new leaders should not enter the Pentagon merely to remedy a patchwork of their predecessors’ omissions and failures, but to assume command with the intention to reshape and rebuild the military for the complicated and, in many respects, perilous age before us—the likes of which we have not yet faced.
In the same way, our instruments of soft power must be reconceived and redeployed. 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 confront the authoritarian and barbarian ideologies that oppose ours.
The third priority must be to reshape and strengthen America’s global alliance structure, which emerged victorious from the Cold War, but is now under assault and threatened by divisive forces within and hostile forces without. Some old allies—the United Kingdom, most notably—have receded, while others (Japan, Australia, and Canada) have grown in importance and self-confidence. We have new allies (e.g., the United Arab Emirates and Columbia) whose potential remains untapped. And we have partners—above all, India—who may resist the name “ally” but will act alongside us in important ways, particularly if we build a relationship that encourages them to do so.
The NATO alliance will remain bedrock of European security; indeed, its protection and maintenance in the face of Russian aggression are crucial. But new alliance systems will emerge, in a variety of forms, including treaties, informal agreements, and bilateral and multilateral arrangements. And given new realities, it is correct that without slighting our traditional commitments to our longtime allies, the United States must shift some of its foreign and defense policy energy to Asia from Europe and the Middle East.
The Obama Administration made a practice of privileging relations with adversaries, Cuba and Iran among them, over those with allies. Its justification was that making America’s opponents “part of the solution rather than the problem” would be the hallmark of twenty-first century diplomacy that would give birth to a new equilibrium that would enable the United States to lay down its outsized burdens. The benefits to this approach have been elusive at best, and still born at worst. And it is apparent that the art of negotiating pacts and managing alliances is a skill that has atrophied and must be reinvigorated.
As former Secretary of State George Shultz has suggested, alliance management is akin to gardening with state-to-state relationships resembling tender flowers that need fairly constant time, attention, and nourishment. The work of alliance management can be burdensome. It is time-consuming, emotionally draining, and requires frequent consultations by senior officials. Nonetheless, it will be de rigueur for the next President’s diplomats and senior officials.
One hundred years ago, the United States hesitated on the verge of entering the global war that was convulsing Europe. It eventually joined, as an associated rather than an Allied power, but President Wilson’s ambivalence and the resulting flaws in strategy crippled America’s early performance though in the end, mounting losses and the sheer numbers of American troops crossing the Atlantic sapped the will of Germany’s High Command. President Wilson’s postwar attempt to build a world body that would maintain global order was only partly successful and regrettably, America’s inability to agree on the appropriate American role eventually doomed it. That hesitation and reluctance increased the price paid when, in the 1930s, a new generation of dictators set Europe and Asia on fire.
We do not yet face a cataclysm like that of the late 1930s. But our era is coming to resemble that one when the democratic powers lost their moral fervor, their self-confidence, their military edge, and the will to use their power against aggression whose ultimate target was the international order itself.
In a world that 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 prudence and wisdom. The new president will need, early on in his or her tenure, to demonstrate commitment to rebuilding and reconstructing American military power. The White House will need to engage once again in the hard work of alliance management and most of all, it will need to summon the will to use all the instruments and levers of American power in pursuit of a vigorous agenda of international engagement. Only then will friends and adversaries see that the passivity of the recent eight years was a momentary digression from America’s postwar tradition rather than the new normal in the way America conducts its affairs.
This article was adapted from Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World published by the John Hay Initiative.
Eliot Cohen was The Counselor of the Department of State, 2007-2009, Eric Edelman was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, 2005-2009, and Brian Hook was Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, 2008-2009.