A Foreign Policy for Main Street America

How to convince the heartland that the world matters.


American foreign-policy leadership today and in the coming years will depend to a substantial degree on the vigor and strength of our nation’s society and economy. America’s leaders will be hard pressed to obtain sustained support at home and credibility abroad for this nation’s foreign policy without substantial progress on a host of as yet inadequately addressed domestic social and economic challenges.

Nearly 50 percent of Americans believe the United States should retreat from world affairs, according to an April 2014 Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. The public’s desire to pull back has substantially increased from years past. Disenchantment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is a major factor. Another is the perceived lack of a compelling narrative or overall strategy for addressing the world’s proliferating crises, from Libya to Syria, from Ukraine to Iraq. But the public’s disinterest in proactive foreign policy also has roots here at home. A substantial swath of Americans feels a deep sense of anxiety and frustration about their own social and economic circumstances — to which they assign far greater priority than most foreign-policy objectives. The choice should not be either/or — but for many it is.

More than half of the poll’s respondents believe that economic and political structures in this country "are stacked against people like me." Roughly the same number felt that, "Because of the widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else, America is no longer a country where everyone regardless of their background has an opportunity to get ahead." Such high levels of discontent tend to cause many people to look inward and lose enthusiasm for committing U.S. funds or increasing involvement — militarily or politically — on international issues.

During my tenure as undersecretary of state from 2009 to 2013, I traveled the country to places facing severe economic problems, places such as Gary and Hammond, Indiana; Detroit and Hamtramck, Michigan; and New Orleans, Louisiana. Charged with responsibility for helping to shape U.S. international economic policy, I wanted to understand how Americans felt. I engaged with people who had been badly harmed by the recent financial crisis, many of whom had experienced difficult times even before that began. I was struck by how strongly their social and economic anxieties — and their frustration with the inability of the highly partisan and often gridlocked U.S. political system to address these concerns — affected their support for an activist American foreign policy and their confidence in their government in general.

These feelings are deeply troubling to those of us who believe that America needs a robust foreign policy to promote the country’s security and diplomatic goals and to ensure domestic prosperity as well, which increasingly requires a stable world, a well-functioning global economy, and expanding economic opportunities for American products and businesses abroad. It is also worth noting that achieving a range of additional goals related to the environment, human rights, freedom of navigation, and cybersecurity, among others, also requires American leadership and a multitude of partnerships.

Worries on the home front

Equally troubling is that the domestic political and economic circumstances that sour so many Americans on foreign involvement will inevitably further exacerbate tensions and divisions within American society, and those tensions will progressively weaken U.S. foreign-policy prospects. So unless underlying conditions substantially improve, this falloff in support for a proactive foreign policy will not be only a temporary problem. Those Americans who want greater foreign-policy engagement will be met by a higher threshold to demonstrate the need for it. Those who benefit from greater economic globalization and more open trade will encounter deepening distrust and resistance from those who feel disadvantaged by those forces.

Americans who believe strong global leadership is necessary for American security and well-being will face resistance from those who want problems at home resolved before America’s energy and funds are devoted to foreign endeavors. Young Americans, frustrated by their inability to get good jobs, resentful that they will in time bear the burden of the government’s growing debt, and faced with their own enormous debt, could become especially disenchanted with Washington’s pursuit of foreign policy or national security interests abroad that add to government spending.

The Declaration of Independence speaks of governments "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." That is surely true in foreign policy. If large numbers of Americans favor turning inward, U.S. leaders will struggle to operate effectively in a world where economies intertwine, and where security threats to the United States, its friends, and allies emerge from many quarters. We need partnerships with diverse countries to serve America’s security, foreign policy, and economic interests. And an inward-looking United States is less capable of shaping the evolving global system — with emerging powers insisting on a greater voice and role — in ways that support American interests and values. What’s more, without U.S. leadership, there is greater risk that that system itself, in which we have a major stake, will deteriorate.

These considerations underscore why, from a foreign-policy perspective, Washington needs to address the formidable social, economic, and political concerns of Main Street Americans. And it reinforces why policies are required that help the U.S. economy achieve sustained growth in ways that foster expanded job creation and opportunities for the many middle- and lower-income Americans, and small businesses, that feel left behind by the recovery. These are positive in their own right, for domestic reasons. However, they also will have a significant foreign-policy benefit, enabling U.S. leaders to more easily mobilize public support for policies they seek to pursue abroad. Of course, they do not automatically guarantee such support. For their part, U.S. leaders must also provide Americans with a compelling strategic rationale for addressing foreign-policy problems, rather than appearing to lurch from crisis to crisis.

America’s formidable strengths

This is not to say that Americans will reject foreign-policy engagement in all situations. There will be international events and causes around which large numbers of Americans rally. Moreover, even in the face of stronger desires to turn inward, the United States will likely enjoy a significant margin of military and economic capabilities over other nations for a long time. American strengths include an extremely well-equipped and well-trained military, extraordinary intelligence assets, cutting-edge technology, a dynamic business sector, formidable institutions of higher education and research, the world’s most innovative culture, experienced diplomats and foreign missions, and a strong resource base now bolstered by the oil and gas revolution.

In addition, the economy retains formidable strengths. Although job creation has been frustratingly slow, the labor participation rate is low, and long-term fiscal imbalances loom, by most measures the U.S. economy is still the world’s strongest. The dollar remains the most important international currency, and our capital markets are the world’s most vigorous.

And the United States still shines as a civic example. We have achieved social advances matched by few other countries. People of different cultures, races, and religions have assimilated into American society and fueled our nation’s growth and dynamism — notwithstanding our outdated immigration policy. The United States leads the world in many areas of civil rights. And environmental performance is steadily and significantly improving.

Clearly, by these and other traditional measurements, American strength remains robust. But military, economic, and civic strength do not always translate into effective leadership. They may be necessary conditions for leadership, but they are not sufficient to sustain it or ensure success.

Capacity vs. ability

This distinction between the traditional manifestations of American strength and the factors that enable the United States to project effective global leadership and influence — both hard and soft — in the current environment are at the heart of my concern.

Possessing military power today does not necessarily translate into public support at home for using it, even in those limited circumstances when U.S. leaders feel it necessary. Possessing economic power does not necessarily translate into the ability of American leaders to obtain domestic support for tough sanctions or persuade other nations to engage in them — or to convince other nations to make trade agreements we favor. In other words, the factors that enhance our capacity to act do not presuppose our ability to act, nor convince others to act with us.

It’s hard to blame Americans for wanting their leaders to pay attention to their own needs. Struggling schools leave many young people behind. We cannot seem to put entitlement programs on sound financial footings for an aging society, which means looming prospects for tax increases or a drop in benefits for future generations. Many Americans, as the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll indicates, see government as a money game for insiders who buy influence and receive favors, and those average Americans sense that they are losing the ability to affect policy with their votes and voices.

Unfortunately, the resulting tendency toward isolationism, or at least a substantial pullback from international engagement, puts the government in a frustrating bind. This is because successfully shaping the institutions and course of globalization is, in part, our ticket out of some of these problems. If America is to be on the winning side of globalization, we must shape this process in a constructive way that incorporates our core interests and values, even as we work more closely with emerging powers with their own interests and values — whose support for the system will also be important for its stability. U.S. growth and employment depends on tapping expanding market opportunities abroad and shaping the rules of the system so that our companies face a level playing field and fair rules. Soundly conceived and properly enforced trade agreements also will strengthen our economic and political ties to allies and friends in key areas such as Europe and the Pacific.

But enhanced market opportunities, trade agreements, and global financial stability are difficult to achieve without peace and stability, which in turn depend on a wide range of alliances and partnerships. And the global norms, rules, and institutions that relate to cybersecurity, the Internet, freedom of navigation, protection of the environment, and countless other 21st-century issues are also subjects of vigorous global debate. We will need partnerships of mutual interest to shape the international system in these areas as well. Pulling back from global leadership will severely undermine America’s prospects for success in all of these areas, which is why it is necessary to retain the support at home that enables this country to exercise that leadership.

Credibility abroad

It is also important to note that Americans’ frame of mind on social, political, and economic matters is not just a homebound problem. Our economic and social conditions must be sufficiently satisfactory to convince leaders and citizens of other nations that a large enough portion of Americans feels confident enough about their futures that other nations can rely on the United States — that America’s leaders will not be forced by public opinion to turn inward at times and in places where our friends and allies need us most. Domestic discontent at home — if serious enough or if sustained over time — can easily be viewed around the world as a portent of America’s diminished ability to muster the domestic support to lead, and raise questions in the minds of both friends and adversaries about America’s reliability and attention span on international issues.

Americans understandably expect their leaders to get their own house in order first. But turning inward at the expense of foreign involvement — and where major American interests are at stake — would be self-defeating. The reverberations at home on American financial markets, manufacturing industries, service companies, and farm jobs (which all depend on such things as political stability, the price of oil, and open sea lanes abroad) would be enormous. And if left unchecked or uncontained, the growing power of extremists in the Middle East, West Africa, and the Western Sahara poses an increasingly serious threat. So, of course, does the risk from nuclear proliferation. An American pullback would severely increase all of these dangers. It is not that the United States can be expected to counter them all alone, but we are great ralliers of allies, friends, and like-minded countries — and retrenchment would undermine America’s ability to play that role.

The United States already suffers from the perception abroad that it has a short attention span. Americans are generally willing to support bold actions, including direct military or arms support, when they are stirred by a grave threat or incident, such as Muammar al-Qaddafi’s imminent threat to the citizens of Benghazi in 2011. Indeed, there was great initial enthusiasm about the Arab Spring, but when the drama faded from our TV screens and issues became more complicated, public and congressional support for providing even modest resources for countries struggling to make real reforms, such as Tunisia, fell significantly. Commitments for Ukraine are likely to be modest as well, as its problems recede from Page 1 of our newspapers. Support for Syrian refugees fleeing to other countries in the region is modest compared with the scale of the problem and its potential to produce significant instability in the neighborhood.

The more the United States is seen as having weak or erratic public support for key aspects of its foreign policy, the more nervous other nations will be about relying on Washington, even as their own security needs impel them to do so. Military and diplomatic ties in the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East on which countless countries base their security would be subject to more questions — and competitors would be more inclined to probe for weaknesses in those ties. That lack of confidence would also undermine America’s ability to lead on critical issues or to do what historically this nation has done so well: form alliances, coalitions, and pragmatic negotiating arrangements to solve international problems.

Many people, including significant numbers of Americans, assume that U.S. power will inevitably decline as rising nations like China, India, or Brazil gain political, economic, and military power. That may be true in some areas in relative terms, but others’ rise does not have to weaken America’s influence in key regions or on important issues affecting vital interests. The United States has the capacity to project power, but to do so effectively American leaders need domestic support and global credibility.

Common interests, common problems

America’s response to this rise should not primarily be seen in adversarial terms. There are numerous areas in which interests overlap and where successes on social and economic issues at home can enhance cooperation abroad.

It is worth bearing in mind that many rising nations face serious internal economic, social, and political challenges, which in many cases parallel our own: the urgent need for greater job creation, especially for young people; popular demands to increase upward mobility; pressures to address public concerns about effective and responsive governance; and rectifying the problem of the outsized influence of powerful economic interests in determining political outcomes. In most cases, meeting these challenges is far more important to their political stability than any external threat. As we demonstrate success in meeting our own challenges at home, the prospects for advancing cooperation with rising nations in such areas improves. Already there is impressive cooperation among American governors and mayors with their Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian counterparts on practical concerns.

Whether or not they are able to succeed in addressing these common problems will have a particularly profound impact on security in key regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. Washington constantly urges others to make reforms in such areas; the United States believes, with considerable justification, that these reforms will boost stability as well as improve the lives of their people. We also believe that expanded economic opportunity and increased government responsiveness are consistent with our values. But our messages and prods ring hollow if we are unable to successfully address important and similar domestic challenges at home. We cannot be a leader abroad if we are a "do as I say, not as I do" nation.

If the United States can move forward on addressing pressing domestic social and economic issues, becoming again the powerful engine of job creation, upward mobility, and opportunity — as well as the exemplary model of governance that we once were — it will surely enhance its influence abroad. Even countries with very different cultural norms and political structures will look to a socially and economically thriving United States as a more credible partner on practical domestic issues and as a model, if not for their system as a whole then at least for reforms in a number of key areas.

Responding to the kinds of frustrations that so many Americans feel today will not produce results overnight — and certainly will not allay the concerns of all Americans or the desire of some to turn inward. But U.S. leaders in coming years will suffer real limits on their ability to conduct foreign and national security policy if we do not get moving now.

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