Three Foreign Policy Initiatives the U.S. Can Take To Show Global Leadership While Keeping “America First”


John F. Phillips, MA

Politics From The Heartland, LLC

Earlier this year, I attempted to address some of the foreign policy challenges that the United States faces as we move forward in the 21st century. I suggested three pillars that I thought should be foundational elements of future American foreign policy: a new approach to globalism, a new commitment to multilateralism, and a recommitment to traditional alliances.

One of the questions that I have been pondering since I wrote the article is how does America continue to lead globally while still protecting its own interests; how does the United States reconcile its current “America First” approach to foreign policy with the need to exert global leadership in a time of increasing international turmoil?

I believe that the three pillars provide a rationale for three specific steps the United States could take in the next six months to reassert its global leadership while keeping “America First”, creating a win/win situation for all parties involved. These are steps that could be implemented no matter who wins the November election.

Mediate a Solution to the Current UK/EU Standoff Over BREXIT

No doubt, finding a solution to this mess is in the national interests of the United States. Mediating this dispute serves American interests because a win/win solution can reestablish American credibility with the members of the EU and with the UK, protect American trade markets, and act as a buffer against the increasing influence of China in Europe. This is a situation that screams for American leadership.

The key to a win/win solution is helping the UK save face while partially reintegrating them into the EU. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has really painted himself into a corner on this because his populist approach to the problem has forced him to be less flexible than maybe he intended. Mr. Johnson has lost political support in his Conservative Party over many of the provisions of the exit strategy as he tries to reconcile the interests of the diverse coalition that supported Brexit. A recent essay in The Economist states, “Brexiteers were united by what they were against rather than what they were for.” (The Economist, “Boris v the Blue Blob”, Sept. 19, 2020). The fact that he inherited this mess from former PM Teresa May didn’t help the situation.

Any attempt at mediation by the United States is going to have to offer solutions that reconcile the differences within the Brexit coalition in a way that buttresses political support for Mr. Johnson and allows him to make the difficult choices that are needed to pull this off.

This will be a delicate balancing act, but perhaps President Donald Trump can leverage his relationship with Mr. Johnson to move him and his government forward without compromising some of the populist underpinnings that motivated the movement to leave the EU in the first place. The two leaders speak the same populist language.

Efforts must also be made to use this process to shore up the relationships between the U.S. and other EU members, especially Germany and France. A major mistakes of current American foreign policy has been the alienation of traditional European allies over NATO, particularly with respect to defense spending, and the use of tariffs in retaliation for pro EU trade policies. These disputes have served to undermine confidence in American leadership and have eroded confidence in U.S. commitments, especially in terms of U.S. commitment to mutual defense.

American mediation efforts in the Brexit dispute could go a long way toward repairing these frayed relationships. The United States can lead both sides toward the compromises that are needed to solve the problem. The U.S. must accomplish this in a way that both sides can accept as being unbiased and in everyone’s best interest. These impartial efforts toward mediation will increase American influence on the continent, mend broken relationships with Germany and France, reopen markets, and serve as leverage as the U.S. attempts to mitigate increased Russian and Chinese influence.

Rejoin the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement

It is absolutely essential that the United States rejoins the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement. The sooner, the better. If one of the goals of American foreign policy is to counter Chinese expansionism in the Pacific Rim, it is in the national interests of the United States to reenter the agreement. This is an “America First” no brainer.

Reentry would protect the interests of the United States in a number of ways. It would allow the United States to protect critical markets such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Southeast Asia. It would allow for the development of common approaches to trade and finance toward China that would benefit the U.S. as well as the other signatories of the agreement, serving as a counterbalance to China’s Belt and Road development program, and would deter China’s efforts to undermine international markets and currencies.

In terms of strategic/military benefits, reentry into the Trans Pacific Trade Agreement could lend momentum to efforts to strengthen Cold War military alliances such as the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the military alliance between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. As China continues to develop its military capabilities and its ability to project hard and soft power, these alliances lend greater legitimacy to American efforts to control freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and other areas of the western Pacific Ocean and serve as an instrument to contain and deter Chinese efforts to expand its economic and strategic footprint in the region.

Recommit to the Paris Climate Accords

Climate change and global warming are challenges that threaten the national security and economic strength of the United States. There can be no dispute that climate change due to global warming is impacting the planet and that a multilateral approach to solving the problem is crucial. This is an issue that isn’t about “America First.” Environmental destruction know no boundaries.

This doesn’t mean that America can’t lead on this issue and protect American interests at the same time. The scientific and economic power of the United States could make significant contributions to the efforts to mitigate climate change, leading the way toward innovative and long term solutions to this challenge. If the United States can muster the effort to land on the moon, it can also lead in this effort to save the planet.

These efforts by the United States will take creative thinking and a willingness to create U.S domestic environmental policy that contributes to the effort to reduce global warming, at the same time protecting American industry and American jobs. American leadership at home will also allow the United States to use moral suasion and economic pressure to compel China and India, among others, to take the appropriate steps to fall in line and accept responsibility for their own role in global warming and to take steps to implement policies to contain and reverse the environmental destruction taking place in their own back yard.

“America First” and Global Leadership

A U.S. foreign policy that is oriented toward “America First” while emphasizing American global leadership can be mutually inclusive, allowing for American participation in the global community while, at the same time, protecting American interests. The United States can have it both ways.

The international community doesn’t want the United States to retreat from the world stage. It wants American leadership. It needs American leadership. The way that the United States can protect American interests and further American goals and influence is by engagement, not by retreat and isolation. Global leadership, if exercised in a positive and mutually inclusive way, can create an international arena where “America First” means “America First” in terms of leadership and the articulation of mutual goals that protect and further American interests and not “America First” in terms casting allies aside or engaging in a transactional foreign policy where only America wins.

The international community must also realize that the United States must protect its own economic and national interests, just like any other country. Other countries must work with the U.S. in a meaningful way to forward mutual interests and create win/win solutions that accomplish common policy goals while protecting national sovereignty. There are many challenges facing the international community that threaten international stability. America and her allies must work together, recognizing our common goals without sacrificing national interests and national sovereignty. This is really what “America First” is all about.

Is the United States and the international community up to the challenge?

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