Emerging Narratives for U.S. Foreign Policy

June 3, 2019

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

Over the past year and a half, the U.S. Global Engagement program has been examining the causes of "narrative collapse" with regards to American foreign policy. Having made some preliminary conclusions about the disconnect between what U.S. politicians and experts have been articulating and the concerns of the citizenry, as we move into the 2020 campaign, it is time to assess what narratives are on offer to provide a framework and rationale for U.S. involvement in world affairs.

One emerging narrative might be termed "restorationist." This approach argues that Americans, having experienced the disruptions and disconnects of the Trump administration, will return to the old bipartisan consensus about U.S. foreign policy—returning to the familiar and stable. A second one is what I call the "damn the torpedoes" approach—that the disruptions and dislocations—whether in trade, alliance relations, multinational institutions, etc.—are necessary to clear away the old thinking and approaches and allow for the emergence of a new "America First" paradigm that will re-balance American commitments and interests. In theory, a Joe Biden-Donald Trump match-up in 2020 might be characterized by the clash between these two perspectives.

There are additional narratives that are taking shape, however. There are variations of the "democratic community" approach—that the U.S. should pivot and reorient its core economic and security relationships to encompass a community of like-minded democracies in Europe and Asia (and perhaps Latin America and Africa) and which will not only promote the development of norms (and withstand efforts by China, Russia and others to revise the core tenets of the current international system) but will seek to reincentivize support for a democratic coalition of nations by reorienting trading relations so that democracies trade and invest with each other, rather than "yoking" their economies to a Chinese system that may promise cheaper goods and easy credit but which does not support the security goals or value propositions of the democracies. Ash Jain's recent appearance at the Carnegie Council discussed how rejuvenating the U.S. leadership role of a democratic coalition of nations could provide a new, sustainable narrative for American policy. In a subsequent event, Ali Wyne will examine whether the construct of "great power competition" provides a template. There is also a nascent "climate change" narrative which argues that the changes expected in the global climate will require re-conceptualizing global affairs and the U.S. role in it.

As we continue to move into the 21st century, the "post-Cold War" designation loses relevance. Yet a new construct and narrative has not emerged to take its place that enjoys broad support and resonance. Will tweaking the old narrative work? Or will one of these alternatives take its place?

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