The Vision: Saving the Old or Building the New?

August 2, 2018

This article originally appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on August 2, 2018.

Steve Walt writes in Foreign Policy about why he chose not to endorse an open letter to the Trump administration by various international relations scholars about the need to save and preserve the U.S. role in the "liberal international order." Ultimately, his point has to do with the vision the United States has for how world affairs should be conducted and the role it wishes to play. His closing observations need to be considered carefully by anyone who is interested in finding a compelling narrative for U.S. global engagement:

[M]y objection is that defending the old order...is both a losing proposition politically and a distraction from the important task of figuring out what a new order should look like. As a community of scholars, we should be spending less time looking backward and defending a troubled status quo, and spend more time thinking about how the current situation can be improved.

Let's not forget: Trump won in 2016 in part because millions of Americans were convinced the existing order wasn't working for them and U.S. foreign policy was, as Trump put it, a "complete and total disaster." Anyone who wants to beat him in 2020 will have to come up with a positive vision for U.S. foreign policy that is more appealing...

There is one set of visions, a more conservative and a more liberal version, which involves resetting U.S. policy back to where it was in 2016 or 2008. There is a Trumpian "America First" approach which is also echoed by other leaders like Hungary's Victor Orban—returning to a more contractual set of relations between nation-states defined by a rejection of universal values and trans-national institutions. There are visions based on the importance of shared values among democracies being the foundation for any international order, versus those who look to economics and transactional deals. There is a potential progressive vision which could become more dominant in the Democratic party which would also pull back from a high degree of forward engagement. And finally there is an emerging train of thought that seeks to "mend, not end" U.S. involvement: which acknowledges the recent mistakes that have led to skepticism on the part of the U.S. public towards American global engagement, but still sees benefits to reforming the system rather than withdrawing from it.

To what extent will the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections reflect a debate among these visions? And for you, the reader, what do you see as the preferred vision that you would endorse?

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