Recalibrating U.S. Foreign Policy

Recalibrating U.S. Foreign Policy Picture

Photo Credit: The Economist

By Ali Wyne, MPP 2017

Donald Trump’s presidency challenges the Truman-esque orthodoxy that has underpinned U.S. participation in world affairs for nearly three quarters of a century: namely, that alliances, free-trade agreements, participation in international institutions, and a positive-sum conception of diplomacy advance U.S. national interests.  While members of America’s foreign policy establishment may not need to convince each other of that proposition, they must make the case anew—to themselves and to each other—if they are to understand why it has failed to gain wider traction.  That point became clear to me a few months ago, when I had the chance to hear a distinguished Asia hand who was advising Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  Shortly before the election, he related, he was telling a voter how crucial the alliance between America and Japan was to the former’s economy and security.  When the voter asked why, he found that he was unable to offer a succinct answer.  Herein lies one of the greatest ironies of persuasive communication: the more self-evident we regard a proposition, the less capable we become of explaining it to those who are not similarly convinced.

It behooves members of the foreign policy establishment to reassess their case, scrutinize its assumptions, and acknowledge its limitations.  Among the elements of that recalibration might be:

  • Advocating for a tighter conception of U.S. foreign policy, one that is more appreciative of the limits to military force in achieving political outcomes and the need to adopt a more focused conception of America’s vital national interests;
  • Formulating a renewed case for U.S. engagement in the world, less by focusing on abstract strategic benefits that accrue to the country, and more by identifying clear, tangible benefits that flow to lower- and middle-class Americans; and
  • Collaborating more actively with polling organizations to understand the intricacies and fault lines of U.S. public opinion on foreign policy.

But the burden of recalibration cannot be that of the establishment to bear alone.  The greater responsibility rests with President Trump and those who believe that his “America First” approach to foreign policy will more effectively advance U.S. national interests.  The objection here is not that periodic interrogations of policy orthodoxies are unwarranted; on the contrary, since policymakers are entrusted with designing a foreign policy that reflects trends in domestic opinion as well as shifts in world order, such reexaminations are both appropriate and healthy.  But if one proposes to overturn the pillars of an over-70-year-old foreign policy that, for all of its failures, inconsistencies, and hubris, has helped propel the United States to its present position of preeminence, one is obliged to propose an alternative that is both strategically coherent and politically tenable.  Based on Trump’s early statements and measures, however, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is offering what Joseph Nye dubs “policy by thunderbolt.”  Nye warns that one should not “tear up 70 years of foreign policy until [one] think[s] hard about what replaces it.”

Critics of the status quo might discount such concerns on the grounds that its defenders are intrinsically unwilling and/or unable to appraise alternative views objectively.  Importantly, though, it is not just proponents of this bipartisan consensus who are concerned; detractors are nervous as well.  Consider Stephen Walt, a noted advocate of “offshore balancing” who assesses that U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War has been needlessly ambitious and profligate.  He argues that Trump has missed an opportunity to challenge America’s foreign policy orthodoxy in a measured, incremental fashion.  Countenancing a trade war with, and potentially the containment of, China; unnerving longstanding allies such as Australia; professing agnosticism on whether the European Union stays together or disintegrates; declaring NATO obsolete; taking steps that will undercut the Iran deal; and expressing equanimity about a new wave of nuclear proliferation; do not amount to a “smart and more restrained approach to the world.”  Instead, Walt observes, Trump “has managed to unite and empower opposition at home and abroad in ways that would have been hard to imagine a few months ago.”

Or take Barry Posen, who has long contended that the United States “needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies.”  Posen concludes that, contrary to some election-cycle speculations, Trump’s victory does not mark “a ‘eureka’ moment for the ‘restraint’ strategy….His appointees seem to be people who wish to militarily confront those states and groups who challenge the U.S. in any way.”

So yes, the establishment has an obligation (as well as an opportunity) to reformulate its case for U.S. engagement in world affairs.  The ascendancy of Trump’s worldview makes clear that arguments about the need for U.S. “strength,” “leadership,” “engagement,” and the like, however legitimate, ring increasingly hollow to a significant proportion of the American public.  But America First-ers have obligations as well; overturning the status quo should only be done with great deliberation, caution, and humility.  It takes far less effort to rail against a flawed policy than to craft a reasonable replacement.

Ali Wyne is a second-year Master in Public Policy Student at the Harvard Kennedy School, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project.