‘America First’ is only making the world worse. Here’s a better approach.

The American flag flies at half staff at the US Capitol prior to the service for former President George H. W. Bush at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 03 December 2018. Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS - RC1FFB18A0B0
Editor's note:

Can we find a foreign policy of responsible global engagement that most Americans support, that draws the right lessons from our past mistakes, that steers between the equally dangerous shoals of confrontation and abdication, and that understands the difference between self-interest and selfishness? Antony Blinken and Robert Kagan propose an approach in a piece originally published by the Washington Post.

Foreign policy was the last thing on voters’ minds in the midterm elections, but as we look toward 2020, one thing is clear: President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy—or its progressive cousin, retrenchment—is broadly popular in both parties. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw all troops from Syria and 7,000 from Afghanistan has been condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington. But it is not at all clear that Americans beyond the Beltway are equally outraged.

The fact is, whatever tolerance most Americans had for the global role the United States embraced after World War II began to fade with the collapse of the Soviet Union and was shattered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis. Whoever wins office in 2020 will have a hard time bucking a trend that preceded Trump and will likely survive him.

Yet that president is going to face an increasingly dangerous world that looks more like the 1930s than the end of history—with populists, nationalists and demagogues on the rise; autocratic powers growing in strength and increasingly aggressive; Europe mired in division and self-doubt; and democracy under siege and vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Then there are the new challenges of our own century—from cyberwarfare to mass migration to a warming planet—that no one nation can meet alone and no wall can contain.

Doubling down on “America First,” with its mix of nationalism, unilateralism and xenophobia, would only exacerbate these problems. But so would embracing the alternative offered by thinkers across the ideological spectrum who, concerned that our reach exceeds our means, advise us to pull back without considering the likely consequences, as we did in the 1930s.

Back then, the result was an even greater global conflagration. But after World War II, when Americans stayed engaged, built strong alliances with fellow democracies, and shaped the rules, norms and institutions for relations among nations, we produced unprecedented global prosperity, democracy and security from which Americans benefited more than anyone. It wasn’t a perfect world, but it was far better than the alternative.

So here is the challenge: Can we find a foreign policy of responsible global engagement that most Americans support, that draws the right lessons from our past mistakes, that steers between the equally dangerous shoals of confrontation and abdication, and that understands the difference between self-interest and selfishness? Such a policy would rest on four pillars:


Preventive diplomacy and deterrence

A responsible foreign policy seeks to prevent crises or contain them before they spiral out of control. That requires a combination of active diplomacy and military deterrence.

Successive administrations have underfunded and undervalued our diplomacy, none more dangerously than the present one. With a depleted senior diplomatic corps and key posts still unfilled, with cuts to foreign aid, with tariffs targeted at our closest allies and with confidence in U.S. leadership at a nadir, we are depleting one of our greatest assets: the ability to defuse conflicts and mobilize others in collective action.

Most Americans do not know the role our diplomats have played over the decades in preventing wars between nuclear-armed nations such as India and Pakistan; between Israel and the Arab states; and between China and Japan in the East China Sea. U.S. diplomacy helped end the Cold War, reunify Germany and build peace in the Balkans. The United States led others to begin addressing climate change, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to fight the Ebola epidemic, to confront the Islamic State and to level economic playing fields. Properly empowered, U.S. diplomacy can save trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives that would otherwise be spent responding to crises that explode because we ignored problems while they were still manageable.

As geopolitical competition intensifies, we must supplement diplomacy with deterrence. Words alone will not dissuade the Vladi­mir Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world. Recognizing their traditional imperial “spheres of interest” will only embolden them to expand farther while betraying the sovereign nations that fall under their dominion. Because we face real budget constraints, we have to make tough choices about how best to defend our interests. We’ll have to strike the right balance of modernization, readiness, asymmetric capabilities and force structure. Whatever formula we choose, we must convince rivals and adversaries that trying to achieve their objectives by force will fail and that they have more to gain through peaceful cooperation and economic development than through aggression.

What about our own use of force? In the 1990s, we drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, removed a drug-dealing dictator in Panama, and brought peace to the Balkans with minimal American casualties; later we killed Osama bin Laden. But the mistakes we made in Iraq and Afghanistan—including bad intelligence, misguided strategy and inadequate planning for the day after—have sapped support for projecting American power.

Yet force can be a necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy. In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little. Without bringing appropriate power to bear, no peace could be negotiated, much less imposed. Today we see the consequences, in hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, in millions of refugees who have destabilized Europe and in the growing influence of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. If the retreat from Syria announced by Trump proceeds, we will likely see the return of the Islamic State as well.

Going forward, we have to be judicious in our use of force; to focus on the aftermath of war, as well as the war itself; to involve allies; to work with Congress and insist that it play its constitutional role. Americans need to know that if we use force, it has been carefully thought out—and by more than just a handful of officials. They deserve to know what our objectives are and to have reasonable confidence that we can achieve them.


Trade and technology

Trump treats trade as a zero-sum game where “winning” means making more money than the other guy. Some progressive critics see free trade as the source of our greatest inequities.

The reality is more complex. It’s true that global trade, along with rapid technological change, is profoundly disruptive. Managed improperly, it can increase the gap between rich and poor, and fuel fears that today’s jobs will be lost tomorrow. But the fact is, 70 years of free trade also helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and many into a global middle class—which in turn helped produce decades of peace and stability.

Americans have never backed away from the challenges posed by competition and innovation. Trying to revive the industrial economy of the 1950s is impossible; nor should we embrace the protectionism of the 1930s that helped destroy the global economy and hasten world war. When we pull out of trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we hand a win to countries such as China. If we opt out, they will shape global trade and innovation to their benefit, not ours.

We should insist on competing in a rules-based system that protects our people from the aggressive state capitalism of modern autocracies. We should use our market power to set the highest standards for protecting workers, the environment, intellectual property and middle-class wages, while insisting on transparency and basic commercial reciprocity. In other words, we’ll treat you the way you treat us.

We also need to stay ahead of the competition in new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, which will reshape the future global balance of power. We cannot cede to China or anyone else a technological sphere of influence. To maintain our edge, we must preserve the free flow of ideas and international collaboration that spark innovation, but we also need to crack down on espionage, technology transfer and intellectual property theft. Our tech firms need to take more responsibility for national security, both in preventing foreign efforts to manipulate our political system, and protecting data and privacy. If they won’t, government will.

Together, government and the private sector must renew investments in our human resources—through affordable education, training, health care, housing, infrastructure, and research and development—to help our citizens weather the ups and downs of the global economy and the uneven effects of technological change. We need budget and tax policies that put a higher priority on these national requirements.

Allies and institutions

The United States doesn’t have to address these challenges or bear these costs alone. After World War II, we wisely advanced the security and prosperity of countries that shared our interests, values and fears. Enlightened self-interest produced a community of democracies with new markets for our products, new partners to help meet global challenges and new allies to deter aggression. That strategy produced victory in the Cold War. Turning away from it invites defeat in the struggles that lie ahead. It’s no coincidence that Russia has launched attacks against two nations that are not members of NATO—but has yet to strike a member of the alliance.

Today, the rise of an alternative, techno-authoritarian model of governance is the principal threat to the community of democracies. Autocrats, fearing democracy’s strength and appeal, have weaponized the tools of social control they use at home to sow division within and among democracies.

To rally and protect ourselves, we must adapt. Our alliances are out of date in one key respect: The United States has European allies and Asian allies, but no institution links the Asian and European democracies. As China’s Belt and Road initiative draws Asia, Europe and the Middle East closer together in ways that serve Beijing’s interests, the democracies also need a global perspective—and new institutions to forge a common strategic, economic and political vision. Why shouldn’t Germany and France work with India and Japan on strategic issues? Such an organization—call it a league of democracies or a democratic cooperative network—would not just address military security but also cybersecurity and other threats that democracies face today, from terrorism to election interference.

Immigration and refugees

Finally, we have to contend with the most divisive and destabilizing phenomenon in geopolitics: mass migration. There are more people forcibly on the move around the globe—about 70 million—than at any time since World War II.

Democracies have a right and obligation to control their borders, humanely. But as conflicts and economic, political and climatic crises drive people from their homes, we are not going to solve the problem with barbed wire and bayonets. With allied democracies struggling to cope with greater flows of migrants and refugees, the United States needs to lead, in our own interest, in addressing the causes and consequences of migration. That means doing more, not less, to prevent conflict and help others to withstand migratory shocks, and to build strong and resilient democratic institutions.

We must start in our own hemisphere. Today, out of $50 billion in foreign and military assistance, about $20 billion goes to the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Roughly $12 billion goes to sub-Saharan Africa. Only $2 billion goes to Latin America—and less than half of that to the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That is not proportionate to our interests. The answer is not throwing aid at problems; we need to tie our increased investments to genuine reforms in governance, policing, judicial systems and the economy while combating corruption. We also need to bolster our neighbors’ economies by trading with them, just as we did in Europe after World War II.

Americans have been given a false choice. Of course, we need to put America first. But what does that mean? Decades ago, we learned that to advance America’s interests required building and defending a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic world. Nation-building at home and promoting the stability and success of others go hand in hand.

We also learned that the world does not govern itself. If the United States abdicates its leading role in shaping international rules and institutions—and mobilizing others to defend them—then one of two things will happen: Some other power or powers will step in and move the world in ways that advance their interests and values, not ours. Or, more likely, the world will descend into chaos and conflict, and the jungle will overtake us, as it did in the 1930s.

We don’t need to make that mistake a second time. For all the flaws of the present world and the mistakes of our nation, we should not lose sight of what we have accomplished, and of what the world will look like if the United States, shortsightedly, forfeits the future.