America’s global role: An ongoing debate

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting in Fort Dodge, Iowa, U.S., April 16, 2019.  REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage - RC17753C0590

How should the United States engage in the world? Such a simple question underlies all of American foreign policy, and yet remains hotly contested among experts and the public alike. Particularly as the 2020 presidential campaign season heats up, it’s essential to better understand the shifting currents around that question.

Since November 2017, Foreign Policy at Brookings and the Charles Koch Institute have crisscrossed the country, visiting cities to engage in already vibrant public debates on the question of what is America’s Role in the World. Traveling with this series, I’ve been fortunate to not only hear these debates, but to listen to and engage with attendees from the public—from students with fresh outlooks, to local business leaders and media steeped in their industry, to retirees with a life of experience. While anecdotal, these snapshots in each city have provided a series of windows into how our national conversation on foreign policy is evolving.

As we launched our second season on May 7 at Dartmouth College—convening Eugene Gholz of the University of Notre Dame, Jennifer Lind of Dartmouth College, Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution, Jake Sullivan of Dartmouth College, and Stephen Wertheim of Columbia University—it was evident that while many issues remain unsettled, a rich debate is unfolding. Having watched this conversation grow in locales from Atlanta to Seattle, three aspects stand out.


1The problem of force

In the shadow of decades of war in the Middle East, the role of the American military and the use of force remains fiercely contested. Pointing to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gholz cautioned Americans to be “humble and prudent about what military power can achieve.” Proponents of a more engaged U.S. strategy also recognize the strain of these wars on the American military and public. As Stelzenmüller noted, “America is exhausted and overextended.”

Despite President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward Iran and North Korea, Americans are wary of employing military force. Such an inclination is understandable. However, focusing on the lessons of these conflicts alone is too narrow a scope, particularly in this new geopolitical moment. While much of the public remains centered on countering terrorism—as a May 2019 survey from the Center for American Progress (CAP) details—the 2018 National Defense Strategy defines “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, [as] now the primary concern in U.S. national security.”

That goal is not without objection. Critics such as Wertheim have argued that the pursuit of a strategy to manage great power competition has “inflated competitors into grand ideological enemies.” Nonetheless, as Lind asserted in the debate at Dartmouth, Russia and China persist in “challenging the balance of power by modernizing their militaries, pursuing salami tactics and asymmetric strategies, and also using pretty clever diplomacy to separate the U.S. from its allies.” If one perceives such behaviors as a legitimate threat to American values and interests, then the United States requires a strategy to protect those.

Here, Americans—56 percent according to the CAP survey—increasingly view China as a strategic competitor. Yet, simultaneously, the survey finds that “voters overwhelmingly reject putting military action on the table in dealing with both China and Russia” as only 13 percent of voters would consider military action to “stop Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and to defend U.S. allies,” preferring to rely on diplomacy and other means.

While seeking to avoid war between the United States and China—undoubtedly an unmitigated disaster if it were to occur—is a worthy strategic aim, examining U.S. foreign policy solely through the perspective of the mistakes of the Iraq War overlooks the role of military force in coercive diplomacy and deterrence. Though military force can be misused and divorced from a political framework, history also teaches that diplomacy lacking the appropriate supportive power is often fraught.

Rather than viewing force and diplomacy as binary choices, it would be more accurate to consider the question as a spectrum. Skeptics need look no further than the lauded Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA); there Sullivan, a lead negotiator in that effort, noted: “I believe we got that agreement at least in part because of the credible threat of military force.”


2The need to invest at home

For decades, it has been a foreign policy truism that “to be strong abroad, a nation must be strong at home.” This adage often has led to policy recommendation by platitude—of which we too have been guilty. Guidance for decisionmakers emerges as broad-brush mandates to make “economic decisions that take into account the necessity of maintaining America’s competitive advantage and national security needs in the coming decades.”

Nevertheless, in watching the national dialogue, a deeper, more expansive vision is emerging on this issue. Restraint advocates have long argued the need to decrease spending abroad and to “take our resources…[to] invest in renewing the United States,” as Gholz framed it. Such rhetoric in the Obama administration, of “nation-building at home,” caused debate and pushback from foreign policy leaders.

Today, however, new technologies and the interconnections of globalization may be scrambling the board for restrainers and internationalists alike. For defenders of an engaged, forward-deployed United States, the strategy since the Second World War has been, as Brookings’s Mara Karlin put it in a 2017 debate, protecting America by “fighting away games.” Yet, when technological advances around cyber and 5G—such as those Senator Mark Warner recently outlined at Brookings—open vulnerabilities in the Western core, national competitiveness beyond military strength matters in a more concrete way.

Economic competitiveness thus matters to not only protect the country’s national security innovation base, but also to reinforce that liberal, market democracies can deliver for all citizens in this moment of authoritarian resurgence. Shoring up democracy against authoritarian pushback requires expanding the scope of the foreign policy discussion, and therefore building new tools or increasing resources to relevant existing ones. That work exists as much at home as abroad. An effective approach will require policies “including major new investments in infrastructure, research and development, education, development assistance, intelligence, alliances”—not only defense.

3A more nuanced debate

Our visit to Dartmouth revealed the contours of a debate continuing to adapt over time. As I collected audience questions for our moderators throughout the first season, I saw considerable reflexive criticism of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. Why was the United States spending so much abroad? What did faraway places have to do with America’s security and prosperity?

Audience questions collected at Dartmouth were different. While only time will tell if the questions posed were specific to this particular audience, attendees probed deeper into the potential consequences of a more restrained foreign policy, rather than focusing on interrogating past U.S. policy. Perhaps President Trump’s unconventional behavior and the international response it has garnered are causing the public to look more critically at both sides of the scale. Perhaps news of a more assertive Russia and China have caused individuals to reassess how the void of American withdrawal will realistically be filled.

The public’s tentative reassessment does not suggest a desire to return to past U.S. policy. American strategy cannot revert to its pre-Trump past. Nor should we want it to; it was neither error-free nor suited to the rising geopolitical challenges confronting the United States. As Stelzenmüller highlighted, “there is a huge aspect…which is about the resilience of our [Western] societies, our economies, and our political systems–for which we aren’t spending the time we need to prepare, to deter, to defend.”

What we are seeing, however, is a new phase of the foreign policy dialogue, one in which both “restrainers” and “internationalists” are sharpening and refining their arguments. Within “the establishment,” innovative efforts are testing assumptions and expanding the boundaries of the foreign policy conversation on both sides of the aisle. Simultaneously, critics of traditional American foreign policy are elaborating on how to operationalize potential alternatives. The public, as well, is stepping up its engagement, asking tougher, more nuanced questions to both sides of the debate.

That debate is far from over. As the months carry the nation closer to the 2020 election, politics, leadership, and world events will have a tremendous impact on the discourse. Nonetheless, throughout this period and beyond, the Brookings-Charles Koch Institute series will be there to contribute, seeking to elevate the conversation.