Election 2020

America’s Pullback Must Continue No Matter Who Is President

For all the talk of a new administration boldly reengaging with the world after four years of “America first,” Trump’s strategic retrenchment can only be the start.

This article is part of Election 2020: What We’re Missing, FP’s series of daily takes by leading global thinkers on the most important foreign-policy issues not being talked about during the presidential election campaign.

A U.S. soldier stands guard as a Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship flies over the Syrian town of Al-Malikiyah near the Turkish border on June 3.
A U.S. soldier stands guard as a Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship flies over the Syrian town of Al-Malikiyah near the Turkish border on June 3. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

As the Trump era potentially comes to an end, many foreign-policy voices in the United States and abroad relish the prospect of the country’s roaring return to the global stage. But attempting a full-on comeback would be a mistake. If anything, the strategic pullback that President Donald Trump has initiated needs to continue—albeit in a more coherent and judicious manner.

Much of the debate surrounding the next administration’s foreign policy has focused on boldly reasserting U.S. leadership in the world. And it’s true: Global interdependence and upheaval do require steady U.S. leadership and engagement. What’s been largely missing from this debate, however, are the challenges facing the next president when it comes to right-sizing U.S. engagement abroad—especially military involvement—and bringing the nation’s strategic commitments back into line with it means and purposes.
What’s been missing from the debate are the challenges facing the next president when it comes to right-sizing U.S. engagement abroad.

The American electorate has turned sharply inward in response to military overreach in the Middle East, the economic dislocations brought about by innovation and globalization, and the national calamity caused by COVID-19. The nation’s next president would be wise to take note—and craft a brand of global statecraft that is effective but also politically sustainable. Otherwise, the strategic pullback that needs to take place will occur by default rather than by design, risking that U.S. overreach could turn into even more dangerous underreach. Indeed, that’s what’s been happening during Trump’s presidency. He seems to have understood the need to retrench. But his troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Germany have been haphazard, making a hash of the effort. Retrenchment cannot be done by tweet, in unpredictable fits and starts, and couched in an abrasive “America first” unilateralism that has alienated allies and set the world on edge.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden is far better suited to restore an equilibrium between the nation’s foreign policy and its political will. Throughout his career, he has been a pragmatic and prudent internationalist; looking forward, pragmatism and prudence will require a more selective and discriminating internationalism, not restoration of the status quo ante. Three-quarters of the American public want U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan and Iraq—it is time to downsize the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. U.S. foreign policy has become over-militarized—the next administration should reallocate priorities and resources, putting more emphasis on diplomacy, cybersecurity, global public health, and climate change. Washington should also return to being a team player if it is to lighten its load; retrenchment and multilateral engagement go hand in hand. Meeting the threat posed by China, managing international trade and finance, preventing nuclear proliferation, addressing pandemics—these and other urgent challenges all require broad international cooperation. And as the United States pulls back from its role as global policeman, it will want like-minded partners to help fill the gap. These partnerships become stronger through diplomacy and teamwork.

The top priorities of the next president will be at home: taming the pandemic, repairing the economy, and reviving democratic institutions and norms. Only if the country’s democratic lights come back on can it effectively deal with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the next administration needs to continue Trump’s effort to downsize the nation’s foreign entanglements—but in a smart and measured way. The United States needs to step back without stepping away. “Build back better” applies abroad just as much as it does at home.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

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