Shadow Government

The U.S. Needs a New Foreign Policy Agenda for 2016 (Part Four)

In our three previous installments we discussed how President Obama’s six year experiment in retrenching American power has failed. It has created more global disorder, magnified threats to American security, and has shifted America’s strategic posture in damaging ways that diminish our ability to shape the international environment. We also took stock of America’s resources ...


In our three previous installments we discussed how President Obama’s six year experiment in retrenching American power has failed. It has created more global disorder, magnified threats to American security, and has shifted America’s strategic posture in damaging ways that diminish our ability to shape the international environment. We also took stock of America’s resources across the full spectrum of national power, and identified areas needing bolstering as well as areas of strength.

In this essay we look forward and offer principles for action that can reverse the decline of American power and influence in the world. The principles below are not just a checklist of discrete items. Rather, they reinforce each other, because a successful strategy requires the integration of each principle with the others. In some cases below we also suggest specific policy initiatives to implement these principles. We should also note that while the Constitution makes national security policy primarily the domain of the Executive Branch, Congress and the private sector also have essential roles to play. The responsibility of restoring American strength falls on all of us.

1.     Restore America’s economic dynamism. To regain our national confidence, to provide more resources for our national security, and to increase our economic power on the global stage, we need nothing short of an economic revival. This will require instituting a rational tax policy that spurs economic growth, eliminating regulations and restrictions that hamper economic growth and stifle energy production, reforming entitlement programs and reining in runaway entitlement spending, and ending the regulatory capture of government by corporate special interests and market-distorting subsidies that stifle economic growth.

2.      Reinvigorate international economic policy. Restoring economic growth at home will go in tandem with boosting our economic engagement abroad. America’s global leadership in the postwar world included spurring the creation of international economic institutions such as the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, and establishing the dollar as the global reserve currency. While that international economic order has served our nation and the world well, recent years have seen the United States drifting from these commitments and diminishing our influence. We need to recapture the centrality of international economic policy to our global strategy. Specifically, this will mean ensuring that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) advance free markets and liberalize trade and that Congress passes Trade Promotion Authority ("Fast Track"). International energy policy also presents tremendous opportunities. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline is an obvious step, but the United States should take advantage of other developments such as the shale revolution and Mexico’s ongoing liberalization of its energy sector to promote a North America-wide energy initiative that would simultaneously improve bilateral relations with our northern and southern neighbors. Additionally, we should ease the onerous restrictions on exports of petroleum and natural gas. Taken together, these energy reform steps would bolster our domestic economy and strengthen our global leverage. Immigration reform also has a part to play. While we need to secure our borders as an essential first step, we also need to substantially increase the number of H-1B visas available to attract more highly skilled foreign workers and thus maintain our international lead in innovation.

3.     Restore deterrence and peace through strength as strategic principles. U.S. national strategy and military policy should rest on the principle of deterrence — specifically, deterring our adversaries from threating us and our interests. We are never interested in a "fair fight" with our enemies. Rather we should possess such overwhelming strength that our enemies choose not to challenge us. To this end we need to restore our defense budget at a minimum to pre-sequester levels. Just as urgently, we need to reprioritize the development and acquisition of new weapons platforms, including the next-generation strategic bomber and an expanded navy, as well as modernizing our nuclear force. Our military strategy should be premised on a multiple-conflict planning construct, to prepare for the conventional and unconventional threats we face today.

4.     Regain the initiative in the war on terrorists. The best way to combat terrorists is to understand that we are in a "war," and to fight it on all fronts, with the full spectrum of national power. This had been the strategy of the Bush administration, and to the extent that the Obama administration continued it further progress was made in in degrading Al-Qaeda, culminating in the killing of Osama bin Laden. However, the narrow focus only on "core" Al-Qaeda let the terrorist threat metastasize, proliferate, and escalate. The President has spoken of the war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) as "generational" in length, and he is correct. But to have any hope of winning it we need a comprehensive global strategy that deals with the threat in all of its dimensions. It means not allowing weak and failed states to turn into safe havens for terrorists, treating the terrorist conflict as a war and not merely a law enforcement matter, and paying much greater attention to the ideological dimension of the conflict. Over the long term we need to win the war of ideas particularly in terms of information strategy and public diplomacy. The goal should be defeating the jihadists of today, and neutralizing the radicalization of a new generation.

5.     Repair and strengthen our alliances. As we described in our last installment, America’s alliances are an underappreciated dimension of our national strength. They help us protect our interests and security by helping to preserve order and security in key regions of the world, and multiplying our power projection, intelligence gathering, and diplomatic influence. But their strength depends directly on the credibility of our commitments, and on our constant attention to alliance needs. Our job is not to "lead from behind" but from ahead, which means never letting any doubt arise as to whether the U.S. will make good on its alliance commitments. If our allies have confidence in American credibility, they will increase their own commitments and resources to defense and diplomacy. Specifically, we should bolster our standing military forces in Europe, reinvigorate the special relationships with the United Kingdom and other valuable allies, repair damaged relationships with our main partner nations in the Middle East, and put more military resources behind our rhetorical commitments to our Asian allies. Finally, the United States should capitalize on opportunities to cultivate new allies and partner nations, especially among rising power democracies such as India, Indonesia, and Brazil.

6.     Reintegrate diplomacy with the threat of force. It should be axiomatic that diplomacy should never be divorced from the threat of military power. And yet the Obama experiment has done just that. Repeatedly the administration talked about and acted as if diplomacy was separate from and even superior to military capability — that they somehow were alternatives. Diplomacy and military policy should be seen as part of the same continuum of strategy and policy. U.S. diplomacy works best not only when it is backed up by resolve and consistency, but when it is consciously based on an appreciation of both the limits and the potential of military force. We should never threaten war unless we mean it, but at the same time we should not pretend as if conflicts have only "political" solutions — i.e., that the U.S. has no military options at all. Repeatedly downplaying the possibility of the use of force, as the Obama administration has done with respect to Iran, has actually hardened Iran’s position in the nuclear talks. This does not mean reckless saber rattling or rash displays military action; any possible use of force must be rare, tempered by prudence and caution. Yet our diplomacy will be more effective — and conflict will be less frequent — when our diplomats sit at the negotiating table representing the full strength and credibility of the United States.

7.     Restore liberty to foreign policy. American leadership rests on the perception that the U.S. stands not only for hard power but the values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Not only our alliances but American public support depend on and demand it. While the past century brought tremendous advances of liberty around the world, more recent years have seen setbacks for freedom, especially in autocracies like Russia and China and in the failed transitions of the erstwhile Arab Spring. American policy has not kept pace with these challenges. Yet it is no accident that oppressive governments also more often pose security threats, while democracies are more often our best strategic partners. Support for liberty is a strategic advantage for the United States, and democracy and human rights advocates in repressive societies are our natural allies. We must reengage the world on values, not by pushing narrow ideological agendas but by standing whenever possible for freedom and the rule of law. Thus at economic summits we should be pressing an agenda of economic freedom, while in our public and private diplomacy we should be standing up for political and religious liberty, and for those courageous dissidents in closed societies.

8.     Reintegrate economic growth and political progress for weak and failing states. As mentioned in one of our previous essays, failing states are contributing to global disorder and growing threats to American security. To counter the rise of weak and failing states the United States needs not only an economic strategy but a political one. Through aid and diplomacy we should doing everything in our power to help countries liberalize their economies, practice the rule of law, combat corruption and crony capitalism, embrace financial transparency, support free trade and open foreign investment policies, and liberalize labor regulations. At the same time the U.S. should work with weak and failing states to make progress toward stable democratic governments. Doing so should not be about punishing governments that are not sufficiently democratic — strategically cooperating with less than sanguine partners is unavoidable — rather than about providing assistance to certain civil societies to help create the conditions for democratic self-government. This should not be seen as nation building, but as civil society assistance for countries that could someday join the family of free nations and thus possibly become U.S. friends and allies.

9.     Recover our ability to work with regional forces. One of the lessons of the failure of our Syria policy is that supporting and shaping a friendly resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria could have obstructed and perhaps even prevented the rise of the Islamic State (IS). Now that we are in a major fight against IS we need to work with a wide variety of regional forces. In the past we have successfully used the provision of arms as an effective instrument to strengthen our partners and advance our interests, whether our support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets in the 1980s, for Colombia’s war on the FARC guerillas over the last decade, or our support for the Israeli military for the past several decades. Yet in recent years we have neglected the provision of materiel as a policy tool, to the detriment of our interests in places like Syria and Ukraine. We need not only to improve our vetting, training, and coordination of regional groups, but also enhance the capabilities of our conventional and special operations forces to provide support. U.S. special operations forces are overstretched. They need sufficient resources not only to perform core military missions but to train and equip cooperating regional forces for conflict and counter-insurgency missions. Conventional forces need to be reconfigured to conduct fire support and other missions.

Most of what is proposed here was for most of the Cold War and afterwards remarkably uncontroversial and embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. The principles of leadership, strength and deterrence were the hallmarks of U.S. strategy from the time of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower to John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The current administration consciously broke with this strategy. Believing the world had so completely changed and that American capabilities were so diminished, it tried to supplant tried and true strategies with a new experiment of retrenchment and withdrawal. Most Democrats and Republicans alike agree that experiment has failed.

To be fair, not everything wrong with American foreign policy or with the world today is the fault of the current administration. Now is not the time to be apportioning blame, but rather to diagnose problems and offer constructive solutions. This series has represented our effort to do just that.

Our principles add up to this: The United States must reengage as a world leader and embrace the principles of strength and deterrence, and the values of stability and liberty. We must face the world as it is and not as we would wish it would be. We must be careful not to rise in anger but be absolutely resolute in seeing a chosen fight to a successful end. We must back allies rather than undermine them, and it must be far more imaginative and flexible not only in fighting wars but in shaping the world economy and the structure of peace in the world.

For more than six decades of the postwar era the United States embraced a successful strategy of international leadership. We can do so again.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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