Advising the Next Administration: Finding a New Foreign Policy Approach

Sep 12, 2018

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

The Center for American Progress has released a report laying out a foreign policy approach that the next administration might consider adopting. Securing a Democratic World: The Case for a Democratic Values-Based U.S. Foreign Policy takes as its starting point the important recognition that one cannot simply turn the clock backwards and ignore the reality of the 2016 elections: that it is not enough to "[elect] a different president or [revert] to previous foreign policy approaches." Rather, the "United States must adopt bold new policies."

So far, so good. Kelly Magsamen, Max Bergmann, Michael Fuchs, and Trevor Sutton, the authors of the report, tackle head-on the problem of "narrative collapse" by refusing to paint the pre-2016 environment in rosy colors. They acknowledge these realities and note:

These problems have fed a widespread perception that the U.S. political system no longer represents the interests of ordinary Americans nor does it address grave challenges such as inequality, racial injustice, and opioid addiction. Such failures, compounded by foreign policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, have contributed to a profound loss of faith in American institutions that Donald Trump effectively channeled in his bid for the presidency.

They describe their proposal as grounded in a "democratic values-based U.S. foreign policy," one that moves beyond short-term transanctionalism in favor of recreating and strengthening a global community of democracies (with the United States in the lead). It is designed, in my view, to appeal to a broad set of future Democratic candidates from both the centrist/moderate wing all along the spectrum towards the left/progressive side of the balance sheet. The report reads as an attempt to refresh the "democratic enlargement" strategy of the Clinton administration, to select elements of the Bush "Freedom Agenda" minus the reliance on American hard power and other neo-conservative elements, and fold in the network/smart power approach of the Clinton State Department during the Obama years.

How compelling this approach will be remains to be seen. The ground has shifted over the last several years, so that rhetoric about defending American democratic values . . .

. . . is insufficient to address the reality that growing numbers of Americans are questioning the central principle of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus: that the sustained deployment of U.S. power around the world is indispensable for managing an international system that promotes peace and stability through greater integration and interconnection and creates conditions for the spread of liberal values. . . .

At the same time, there is an interesting but important convergence from both left and right sides of the U.S. political spectrum, both centering on the question of efficacy. The narrative around U.S. engagement has eroded because of the apparent inability of the United States to achieve its objectives or promote its values—that interventions made in the name of safeguarding human rights, for example, seem to worsen rather than improve the situation, while measures such as enlarging alliances and trade pacts which promise to lower costs and burdens for the United States seem to do the opposite. This contributes to a growing skepticism about the competence of the United States and a loss of confidence in an American ability to achieve positive change.

Their explicit discussion of a comprehensive domestic policy agenda suggests a belief that if the next administration better address domestic dislocation, the population is more likely to give it carte blanche in the realm of foreign policy. It also rests on an assumption I think needs to be re-examined more closely: that Americans believe that the success and sustainability of their democracy requires expanding the zone of democracies abroad, and that, conversely, the success of democracies overseas contributes to their own sense of well-being and security. I know that this is almost an article of faith in Washington, but I think that this core assumption of their proposed strategy requires rekindling that faith among Americans.

To their credit, the authors anticipate a series of realist and progressive objections to their approach and provide responses, but, in my opinion, the responses generally fall along the lines of "we can make it work better with the right people"–in other words, if the next administration is the right one, these problems can dealt with. It also seems to assume that the tradeoffs can be easily navigated.

We have seen, of course, that in the past, those tradeoffs have been difficult to manage. U.S. support for democracy in Ukraine and Mali, for instance, did not go as far as to provide trade incentives for Ukrainian steel or Malian cotton that would have damaged U.S. domestic producers–while economic problems contributed to the faltering of democracy in both countries as a result. Decreasing dependence on authoritarian regimes is all well and good, but throughout the West there is reluctance to develop the indigenous energy resources arising out of environmental concerns that could replace dependence on authoritarian regimes. Most notably, a forward-leaning U.S. foreign policy in terms of alliance commitments and trade arrangements runs up against the reality that . . .

. . . the costs of maintaining U.S. engagement in the world, and the benefits that have accrued from the international system that the U.S. played the leading role in designing and sustaining, have not been spread equally across the population. There are clear "winners" and "losers" from globalization and U.S. interventions.

In the end, the goals of the authors in sketching out an approach for the next administration will carry much greater weight if more attention is paid to calling out the benefits that reforming U.S. engagement will bring (rather than completely withdrawing from international affairs) and where clearer acknowledgement of the recent mistakes that have led to skepticism on the part of the U.S. public towards American global engagement are squarely faced–not only those of the Bush and Trump administrations, but of the Clinton and Obama administrations as well.

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