At the start of 2019, are we seeing the first green shoots of what might emerge as the mid-21st century iteration of a U.S. bipartisan foreign policy consensus? From Nikki Haley’s conceptualization and defense of her interpretation of Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to the first forays by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to define what a progressive foreign policy might encompass, American political figures are beginning to wrestle with the task, as Sanders himself put it, of engaging in a “vigorous discussion about our foreign policy, and how it needs to change in this new era.”
Already, Barack Obama had sensed that the previous consensus about the U.S. role in the international system was eroding among American voters, which guided his attempts, particularly in his second term, to find ways to minimize the costs that Americans would be asked to shoulder in order to maintain Washington’s leadership of the global community of nations; I (and others) had termed this attempt as the search for a low-cost, no-casualty paradigm. Donald Trump was prepared to drive a metaphorical truck through that consensus altogether, articulating the concerns of many Americans that the verities of U.S. foreign policy appeared to be disconnected from the needs and desires of significant blocs of the citizenry. The 2016 election campaign, as a recently released Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs report points out,
exposed the extent to which the narrative that sustains the variants of “pragmatic internationalism” espoused by both Democratic and Republican administrations has collapsed altogether for a portion of the American electorate, and with many Americans questioning at least some of its basic tenets.
A growing number of U.S. political figures now accept that there is no resetting to any sort of pre-2016 approach. The reality of Donald Trump’s election and the first two years of his administration have begun to alter both the structure of international politics as well as to reshape the domestic discussion about the U.S. role in the world. The end of the unipolar moment and the return of great power competition change the cost-benefit structure for U.S. engagement; as Nadia Schadlow, who served as deputy national security advisor in the Trump administration, notes, the U.S. government, in crafting a foreign policy, must
respond to key shifts in the geopolitical order, including the resurgence of great power competition, to acknowledge limitations in American power and agency and to modernize U.S. engagement with other countries and institutions.
At the same time, as the above-referenced Carnegie Council report notes, Americans themselves “want to renegotiate some of the terms of American involvement in terms of costs and burden-sharing” and “want to revisit the question of how costs and benefits of U.S. engagement will be distributed among the population.”
The first National Security Strategy released by the Trump administration in December 2017 was a first attempt to marry traditional American internationalist principles (such as support for alliances and for creating conditions for the spread of free-market democracy around the world) with the economic populism embodied in an America First approach. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has noted, part of the agenda of advancing U.S. foreign policy goals is not only accelerating economic development and political progress in other societies, but also creating opportunities for U.S. companies and generating jobs at home. In other words, American foreign policy actions must be directly connected to some aspect of Americans’ domestic well-being. Connected to this mindset is the Trump administration’s rejection of the proposition that offering preferential access to America’s domestic market—even if American workers or companies will suffer in the short run—is the right way to incentivize other countries to support America’s global agenda. Instead, Trump has been very blunt in demanding what I have termed “entrance fees” from other states seeking to benefit from U.S. protection and leadership.
Even though the Trump administration’s effort has been criticized from both left and right, it is from those terms of reference that future discussions about the parameters of American national security policy will take place.
Most American political figures now accept that the strategy of pursuing closer economic integration with China in the absence of concurrent commitments to political reform at home has not worked as expected. The assumption was that as trade ties grew between Washington and Beijing, and as the United States worked to open doors for China’s rise in the global economy, the People’s Republic would begin a path towards political liberalization at home and a willing acceptance of the burdens of being, in the words of Robert Zoellick, a “responsible stakeholder” of the U.S.-led international system. Instead, China has pursued integration on its own terms and with an eye to revising the rules in its own favor, and the expected political reform has given way to a new authoritarian consolidation. Prospective 2020 presidential candidates will differ in terms of their policy prescriptions as to how to deal with this situation, but none of the hopefuls—so far—advocates a return to the status quo ante Trump. Here, we also see a convergence of populist, progressive, and realist critiques: a focus on China’s unfair trading practices and human rights practices which, in turn, enable Beijing to project power as a competitor to the United States.
Another assumption—that security follows trade—is being challenged. The current model—where close U.S. allies who depend on Washington for protection have allowed markets to develop interconnected vulnerabilities with states like Russia and China, which seek to revise the current international system—is also not sustainable. For years, Australian politicians have warned that their growing economic dependence on Chinese markets would call into question their willingness to join with the United States in responding to Beijing’s efforts to revise the existing order in the Pacific rim. Germany is discovering the limits of its ability to use its economic interdependence with Russia to dissuade the Kremlin from pursuing actions which destabilize the European theater. Moreover, in the case of Turkey, the lure of becoming Russia’s primary energy hub to replace Ukraine has been one of the factors in Ankara’s distancing itself from the West.
Plenty of American politicians have disagreed with Trump’s brash manner in raising such issues with key allies like Germany or Australia—but, beyond the superficialities, they are showing agreement with the substance of the critique—that allies need to increase their trade amongst themselves and reduce their dependencies on the revisionist powers.
This raises the possibility that a new approach could emerge, one that both Democrats and Republicans could agree upon (at least in terms of the large picture). If America’s core strengths in world affairs are its ability to forge together coalitions and partnerships (in a way that Russia or China has much more difficulty in doing) and the creative dynamism of its economy, particularly when it comes to high technology, then rebuilding a network of core economic and technological ties “within the family” of U.S. allies—one that reduces their dependence on Russia and China while generating more of the jobs and investment for the United States that, in turn, rebuilds domestic U.S. support for global engagement—becomes the foundation of a new bipartisan approach to American foreign policy.
Consider this. In the years to come, access to energy and water will become more critical issues, especially for American partners in the “drylands” as well as for American allies who are increasingly coping with the strain of massive migrations from the drylands, particularly into Europe. One could envision a series of intra-allied corporate partnerships (among French, Korean, and American firms) for the provision of nuclear power, in conjunction with developing new technologies for rapid and efficient desalination to provide water for drinking and irrigation. In turn, joining into these partnerships would require countries to seek U.S. security assistance to protect these installations. The development of such global partnerships among allies would also provide a new rationale for why the U.S. Navy keeps global supply routes open and safe; not a generic “global good” for which U.S. taxpayers are expected to foot the bill but connected to the outflow of American goods and services to partners around the world.
The trend lines are pointing towards a future where the U.S. reduces the scope of its global activity to a more manageable number of partners around the world, and expects a clearer bargain whereby U.S. security guarantees are linked to greater investment in and purchase of goods and services from the U.S. economy. In turn, the U.S. is more likely to reverse the sequence of events—not offering access to American markets, technology, or financing until a country has met a series of conditions in terms of how it is governed and what commitments it is willing to undertake to share burdens with the United States. No matter who succeeds Trump, the conclusion that Derek Reveron and I reached four years ago remains valid: “The United States will become more selective in where and when it chooses to act.” On this, all sides of the U.S. political spectrum can agree.