Does America have a foreign policy? This is a question that seems to come up every time the United States takes international action that doesn’t conform to past norms of international behavior. The “America First” approach that the current American administration takes toward its foreign policy seems to reflect an understanding of the world as it existed in the 1920’s and 1930’s (isolationism) rather than a 21st century world that is more interconnected (globalism).
As this century continues to move forward, it is becoming more obvious that the United States is moving away from its traditional postwar role of international leadership, retreating from rather than engaging with the world. This is not a recent development. The Obama Administration was not as bellicose, but just as determined as the Trump Administration to back away from being the “world’s policeman.” Examples of this approach include refusing to use military force, after threatening to do so (the famous “red line”), in order to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against civilians , taking a more secondary role in 2011 NATO military response in support of rebel groups fighting to overthrow the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi, and completely withdrawing American troops from Iraq by 2011, leading to increased regional instability and a later reintroduction of American forces to quell terrorist activity in the region, specifically the expansion of the ISIS caliphate.
President Trump has accelerated this disengagement with his “America First” approach to foreign policy. Since taking office in 2017, the Trump Administration has alienated European allies with his rhetoric concerning mutual defense, especially the failure of some NATO members to meet the 2.0% GDP defense spending commitment. He has also been very supportive of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s BREXIT policy that threatens the stability of the EU. In Asia, Mr. Trump has complained that Japan and South Korea are not paying their fair share of the costs for mutual defense, all the while directly negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jung Un over termination of Kim’s nuclear weapons program, negotiations that exclude South Korea, China, and Russia. Mr. Trump’s approach toward China has been very confrontational, particularly with respect to trade. It has been pretty much a “go it alone” approach and has exposed US allies, especially in Europe as well as Australia, to economic vulnerabilities specifically related to China”s “Belt and Road” program of influence expansion.
As we enter into the third decade of the century, American foreign policy seems to be more reactive than proactive. The United States is divided at home, perhaps more than any time since the 1960’s. The hyperpolarization of politics and the inability of the Congress to govern in an effective manner has contributed to the lack of direction in foreign policy. This began before Mr. Trump was elected to office, perhaps as early as the late 1990’s when Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich (R-GA) began facilitating the downward spiral of American politics. Given the domestic political divide in the United States and the unwillingness of the United States to play the role of global cop, what should American foreign policy look like as we move forward?
The Three Pillars of Future American Foreign Policy
A New Concept of Globalism
There can be no doubt that the post World War II system of globalism was a sea change in the way the international system was organized and operated before the outbreak of the war. The Bretton Woods Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade were the catalysts that brought about an new and more integrated international system characterized by greater access to free markets, a more efficient and flexible international financial system, the growth of democracy, and an emphasis on greater individual freedom and human rights. The primary leader in this move forward was the United States.
Recent systemic changes have brought about a reconsideration of globalism. The economic impact of the Great Recession motivated nations to turn inward as governments worked to deal with the domestic impact of the economic crisis. As this occurred, dissatisfaction with the status quo drove politics toward a more nationalistic and populist approach to governing and policy making, especially in the UK and the United States as well as Poland and Hungary. The election of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump led the way toward a more protectionist approach to international trade on the part of the UK (BREXIT) and the United States (tariffs as a weapon in trade disputes) and the further breakdown of globalism
What is needed now is a new approach to globalism that reinforces the benefits that are derived from that system of international order while at the same time protecting the national interests of individual actors. As Josep Borrell, Vice President of the European Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World, wrote in April of this year, “We will need to devise arrangements for a new kind of globalization capable of striking a balance between the undeniable advantages of open markets and interdependence, and between sovereignty and security of countries.” (Josep Borrell, Policy Brief (www. ecfr.eu/publications/ the-post-corona-virus-world-is-already-here, 30 April 2020). There needs to be a balance between incorporating the inherent advantages of globalism that were previously discussed with protection of legitimate national economic and strategic interests, especially in areas such as supply chain protection, access to strategic materials and the protection of intellectual property and climate change, just to name a few. Current institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Paris Accords, working in concert with the G-7 and G-20 nation,s could be reorganized and repurposed to bring these changes about.
The important point is that the United States must reverse course and lead this reform and restructuring, treating others as equal partners rather than dictating policy that continues to promote a transactional orientation to policy that is more adversarial than it is cooperative.
Renewed Emphasis on Multilateralism
The second pillar of American foreign policy in the 21st century should be a renewed emphasis on multilateralism. The era of arbitrary and impulse driven policy making on the part of the United States must end. The unilateral approach of the past three years has created considerable instability in the Middle East, Europe and Asia and has threatened the national interests and security of the United States and its allies.
This renewed emphasis on multilateralism must attempt to create “win/win” situations for all parties involved. That means that the United States needs to listen as well as lead. The late Steven Covey, in his best selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talked about how important it was to understand before trying to be understood. By better understanding the interests of other nations, the United States can construct the types of outcomes that are mutually beneficial to all parties, at the same time protecting its own national interests. These objectives do not have to be mutually exclusive. A transactional or unilateral approach to foreign policy delineates winners and losers, creates conflict and tension, and isn’t in anyone’s interests, except the interests of those who are adversaries.
A Renewed Commitment to Alliances
The alliance system that was the outgrowth of post World War II American foreign policy was, and continues to be, a significant element in the maintenance of world peace and stability. These traditional alliances provide a framework for multilateralism and are a tool that allows the United States protect is own national interests as well as the national interests of its allies. This is especially true in terms of national security and mutual defense.
That does not mean, however, that the alliance system as it currently organized and operates is without flaws. The system as its exists today was organized in the aftermath of World War II and reflects the political and economic realities of that time. In the years following the war, the European economy was in ruin and was supported by American programs like the Marshall Plan. The Soviet Union was a military threat. When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949, the western European nations did not have the economic or military means to deal with the Soviet threat. In other areas of the world, Japan and South Korea were in similar positions with respect to the Soviet Union and newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The reality of the 21st century is not the same. The countries of western Europe, as well as Japan and South Korea, all have more robust economies than they had in 1949 and should be able to make more robust contributions to these alliances. With NATO, there is no excuse, except political, for Germany, the UK, and France not to meet the 2.0% GDP defense spending commitment that alliance members have agreed to. The other member nations, with weaker economies, should also be striving to meet this commitment, either now or in the future. Since 2017, South Korea and Japan have also increased their monetary contributions to mutual defense.
The United States, on the other hand, should not be making threats to leave alliances if financial goals cannot be met immediately. The benefits gleaned by the United States from these relationships far outweigh the cost. To use noncompliance on GDP spending as a rationale for withdrawing from alliances reinforces the transactional nature of current American foreign policy, it threatens mulitlateralism, and is counterproductive in terms of protecting American and member country interests. It also creates mistrust about the United States’ willingness to meet its treaty obligations and strains American credibility with its allies as well as with others. It is in America’s interests to continue to promote and maintain these agreements, especially now that China is asserting itself in the western Pacific and the strategically important South China Sea and Russia is reasserting itself in Ukraine and the Middle East, especially Syria. It is also important that more collective responsibility be taken by other alliance members to fulfill the military and strategic mission of the alliances, given that it is in everyone’s interests to do so.
Finally, it would be wise for the United States to recommit to two alliances that do not get much attention nowadays, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the ANZUS Treaty (Australia, New Zealand, United States). These alliances should not be considered relics of the Cold War, but rather, effective tools and agreements to counter Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and the southwest Pacific. Again, it is in the strategic and economic interests of all of the alliance members to do so.
American foreign policy in the 21st century must undergo a sea change if the United States is to continue its leadership role in the international community. A policy based on the three pillars of a new concept of globalism, renewed emphasis on mulitlateralism, and a renewed commitment to alliances will allow the United States to exercise leadership in a way that has been missing since the end of the Cold War. The United States does not, nor should it be, the “world’s policeman”. The United States, after its expenditure of blood and treasure in the failed policy of nation building and because of the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, doesn’t have the political will to continue in that role. Despite this, the United States is still looked upon for leadership and it can lead with more moral suasion if it redefines its foreign policy using the three pillars as a guide. By doing so, it creates “win/win” situations for itself and its allies and creates a more stable world.