A Conservative Foreign Policy for the Future
Continuity, not revolution, should guide the United States.
Fifty years ago, in the first issue of Foreign Policy, a who’s who of who was and would be graced the pages of a neatly conceived journal. Imagined by two “old friends,” Samuel P. Huntington and Warren Demian Manshel, with the goal of stimulating “rational discussion of the new directions required in American foreign policy,” the magazine laid down a marker in 1970: “[A]n era in American foreign policy, which began in the late 1940’s, has ended.”
If that sounds familiar, keep reading: Paul C. Warnke and Leslie H. Gelb fretted that the “Defense Department budget has become the prime target in the search for the billions of dollars necessary to solve our corrosive social problems.” Paul Seabury and Alvin Drischler told us that the “American debate over foreign commitments … has only begun.” Graham Allison pondered an “undeniable trend away from the settled assumptions shared by postwar American leaders,” and Richard Holbrooke hoped to infuse “meaning” into the “President’s promise of a new foreign policy for the seventies.”
Of course, the U.S. role in the Vietnam War would last for another three years, the Soviet Union was nowhere close to playing its last cards, China remained in the middle of Maoist chaos, and Iran was still a friendly regional power. The conceit that 1970 marked the beginning of a new era was just that. And as Hillary Clinton would later learn to her chagrin, there is no reset button. Foreign policy doesn’t change with a new gimmick, and its exigencies don’t change with a new president. The world does not become a new place every time the White House gets a new resident or because the party in power is left, right, or something else entirely. National security is not a paint job, and it’s high time its specialists reckoned with that.
There is a tide in the affairs of men; it can be navigated, it can drag victims underwater, and it can, on rare occasions, be turned. But those occasions are not marked on the calendar and do not neatly correspond with an election or the turn of a new decade or century. Yet hubristic purveyors of national security navigational charts insist with ponderous regularity that destiny can be transformed every four years on the first Tuesday of November. Policy must meet the challenges, and the challenges do not adapt easily to the U.S. political calendar. Indeed, lately the U.S. political calendar has come not just to mark new eras but to assert new realities. Presidents now regularly shred the orders of their predecessors, entering into and withdrawing from international organizations with less heed than it takes to join or abandon the local Rotary Club. Their actions do little to alter the currents but do perplex onlookers and delay serious strategic decisions.
In some ways, this era’s challenges are fresh, though not historically unique. The world has endured previous pandemics, shifting alliances, revisionist powers, irredentist states; empires have risen and fallen; invincible nations have been vanquished. Yet we do face problems that feel truly new: The internet is not the printing press, though there are analogies. Cyberwarfare might be transformative but not on the order of the introductions of steel or gunpowder. The last century saw the rise of rapacious revisionist powers, but none were as rich or as populous as today’s People’s Republic of China.
Another novel problem is understanding power, particularly power that feels divorced from ideology. The United States cut its teeth as a hegemon by confronting two enemies bent on malign visions—fascism and communism—and then settled comfortably into the rut of democratic capitalism, never fearing that these magical ideas, which had delivered historically unprecedented freedom and prosperity, might lose their luster. An effort to squeeze Islamist extremism and Salafi ideology into the role once played by the Soviet Union failed, mostly due to the obvious limits of the breadth and appeal of Salafism. And while there are ideological elements to both Russian and Chinese great-power ambitions, even those are largely rooted in nationalist ideas that will have little appeal beyond their own borders.
In formulating a new foreign policy, part of the challenge the United States and its allies face today is institutional fatigue. The international bodies that have formed the foundation of the world order since the end of World War II are now 75 years old. And notwithstanding the protestations of their partisans, they have failed to modernize and keep pace with new challenges, a different order, and shifting priorities. Free trade has delivered more economic benefit than the handouts of well-intentioned aid agencies and the World Bank’s development arm. NATO was ill-equipped to muddle through the Balkan Wars and found itself even more helpless against the recent problems posed by Libya and Turkey. The European Union struggles against centrifugal forces, disenchanted members, and backsliding grifters. Ever the fig leaf, the United Nations ignores what it cannot paper over and claims authority when a lowest-common-denominator agreement can be haphazardly pressed into a statement from Turtle Bay.
Most difficult, the U.S. constituency that favors the gauzy notion of a liberal international order is in one of its regular periods of occultation, perhaps more so than ever before. Washington’s massive failure to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a crisis of confidence—and competence—that was already well underway in the wake of the Iraq War. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt detailed in his trenchant October 2020 Irving Kristol Award lecture, there are dangerous trends afoot: a national debt that will soon exceed that borne during World War II; a “full employment” state (pre-coronavirus) in which the prime-age male work rate tracks that at the end of the Great Depression; diseases of dystopia including suicide and opioid addiction; and, after years of improvement in educational attainment levels, a slowdown in growth that leaves the United States “limping along.” Imagine: “Over 90 million American adults—nearly 3 in 8—now have criminal arrest records.”
On New Presidents
In large part, the Nixon Doctrine is an attempt to respond both to changed international as well as domestic conditions. Its object is to preserve as well as give some new meaning to America’s continued involvement in the world.
President Ronald Reagan is fond of calling America a “city upon a hill.” But the Puritan leader John Winthrop, who first uttered those words in the 17th century, intended them as a warning about the importance of adhering to the values that eventually shaped America’s founding and development.
—Cyrus R. Vance
If President Bill Clinton serves a full two terms, his decisions will influence the course of world demography for a long time. The quality of American leadership will be key to determining when and at what level world population can be stabilized.
—Sharon L. Camp
My hunch, and my hope, is that Obama will be a successful president, not because he’ll totally change the foreign policy he’ll inherit from Bush but because he’ll largely continue it.
Small wonder that Chamberlainism prevails: Quarrels in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing have little draw on the public imagination. National elites share responsibility for the problem. The anger of the forgotten that brought Donald Trump to power has not dissipated. The rising tide of trade meant to lift all boats did not; the seminal battles against the evils of the 21st century have dragged on without decisive victory. Experts are detached from the costs and benefits of a particular U.S. global posture, indifferent to whether policies enjoy popular support, and more attuned to their own political echo chambers than to the actual public opinion.
As a result, the public has drifted away from global engagement, in one of the cyclical troughs that the United States regularly finds itself in between fitful spates of intense internationalism. Reading those tea leaves, isolationists on both the left and right have counseled disengagement, movement away from war (in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere) and from global trading arrangements (NAFTA, TPP, TTIP), and against ambitious experiments in democratization.
The corollary to this shift is a movement onto the world stage by ambitious revisionists like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. This was not sudden or solely opportunistic. These are agenda-driven autocrats making openings for themselves, calculating (correctly so far) that the United States will respond only incrementally and without decisive purpose. Along with their territorial gains, Putin and Xi, using all the newest informational tools available to them, argue strenuously that democracy has faded, its advantages oversold. They are having a moment.
Historically, for every Neville Chamberlain-like figure the United States has produced, an anti-Chamberlain has also risen. Call him Blutarsky, after Animal House: the man who stood athwart the naysayers and shouted, “Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell, no!” Occasionally overweight, underemployed, not always sober, but ever game, this American archetype must be stirred to action. But the times do not always lend themselves to the stirring of men’s souls. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were generational events. Much else is the shifting of tides, which can barely stir Bluto to open another beer, let alone join a movement. Like Chamberlain, most of the time, he’d like to know what the hell it all has to do with him.
How to contend with this lack of enthusiasm? Clarion calls by knowing experts are probably not the way forward. Building clear exigencies around what will be urgent challenges—China’s occupation of vast swaths of the South China Sea, Russia’s renewed control of ever growing portions of its periphery, the smooth glide path toward nuclear weapons for Iran and others—has rhetorical drama, but without committing the tools to oppose the malefactors at the heart of the problem, even a purposeful leader will fail. Falling back on the truisms of international relations theory and vanilla liberalism—Let’s build a new multilateral organization! Or at least strengthen an existing one!—is likely to be an underresourced laugh line.
As unlikely as many believed it would be, the negative national security agenda that Trump pursued was remarkably effective. He sought to reverse the perceived errors of his predecessors’ ways—coddling Iran, excusing Chinese global predations, allowing allies a pass on their defense commitments, embracing “job-killing” trade agreements—and did so decisively. Trump aligned the United States against Russia (Robert Mueller’s findings notwithstanding), reversing Barack Obama’s decision not to provide lethal weapons to Ukrainians seeking to defend themselves, punishing kleptocrats and mercenaries allied with Putin, and launching heretofore unprecedented cyber-reprisals at Russian interference in U.S. elections. He did the same with Iran and China—reinstating and intensifying sanctions that had been lifted after the Iran deal and cracking down on Chinese intellectual property theft and plans to dominate global 5G—and dragged much of the world with him. But Trump’s agenda was not consistent enough or funded well enough to rise to the level of doctrine. He did not change the world.
Nor will Joe Biden. Other than better manners, lip service to global leftist totems (such as climate change and the International Criminal Court), and a desire to strike a new deal with Iran, the incoming U.S. president promises to be little different. Like Trump before him, Biden hopes to deliver on the vow of nation-building at home but, like Trump, is unlikely to summon the resources necessary or the enthusiasm required for a wholesale revamping of the global order.
Absent a compelling deus ex machina, is the only means of building consensus around a different national security policy to wait for a Blutarsky moment? Or to cast all U.S. priorities as crises, Greta Thunberg-style, in hopes the fever will spread? Should the U.S. government fabricate artificial narratives that facilitate (but still do not pay or build consensus for) nominal resets? In short, no.
The right answer—and it is a deeply conventional one—is to build a sense of continuity in national security and end the search for that elusive, game-changing reset button. Americans should admit that the economic and geostrategic shifts afoot may not benefit the United States, that it’s not all Trump’s fault, and that the advent of a new administration will not herald a new dawn in the United States’ relationship with the world. With humility, the U.S. goal should be to build domestic and international consensus around improvements that can right its course. U.S. military power is not sustainable with the current trajectory of spending on entitlements at the Pentagon (pensions and health care prime among them), and reform is imperative. U.S. economic prosperity is not sustainable absent global trading arrangements underpinned by a benign military power that can ensure and enforce just rules of the road. That means reversing the trend away from freer trade—adjusting to ensure China and others cannot continue exploiting the system—and rebuilding the constituency for a U.S.-led, internationally resourced global commons that protects us all. The rise of anti-democrats around the world is antithetical to U.S. national security, and the national self-loathing that increasingly pervades political discourse compromises the U.S. ability to stand up to them. Leadership, and a willingness to lay out choices to the American people, is the key, rather than the tactical shifts that have marked 21st-century U.S. politics. These are the imperatives of the future, as they were before Trump and will be after Biden.
Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @dpletka