Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has prompted a major reassessment of the United States’ global role—the most fundamental rethinking since the immediate aftermath of World War II.

I am not a neutral or independent observer. I was Hillary Clinton’s running mate last fall. We won the popular vote handily but lost where it counts: in the Electoral College. Following the election, I returned to the U.S. Senate, which is now engaged in a task that would have seemed surreal a few years ago: the review of successful efforts by the Russian government to interfere in an American presidential election. Many questions remain to be answered—and answered they will be.

But the election is over, and Trump is in place. Much effort is now being expended to figure out his administration’s priorities, yet it is already clear that Trump’s election will continue at least one trend that has been under way since the collapse of the Soviet Union. For some 40 years following World War II, the United States had a fairly coherent foreign policy, which both parties supported. That policy—the Truman Doctrine—saw the world as a bipolar competition between the Soviet bloc and the U.S.-led bloc. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, however, the Truman Doctrine lost its viability. Although fragments of the strategy still shape U.S. thinking, no administration has come up with a comprehensive plan to replace it.

The United States should strive to reestablish its position as the world’s exemplary democracy.

Trump’s views on trade and the importance of international institutions are very different from those of Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Trump will prioritize immediate economic gains over security and human rights. But like his immediate predecessors, Trump will probably also make foreign policy in an executive-driven, reactive way, without a clear or lasting strategic vision that he shares with Congress or the American people. Such an approach has some advantages: in theory, it’s a good way to avoid blunders and unnecessary adventures. But its risks are even greater. The country, and the world, needs a new, twenty-first-century version of the Truman Doctrine: a sustained U.S. national security strategy that is proactive rather than reactive and sets a course for this administration and those that follow it. At a time when countries such as Russia are attempting to subvert other nations’ democratic institutions, the world needs a reinvigorated campaign to peacefully and forcefully promote the virtues of democracy over authoritarianism or extremism. The United States is best suited to lead that campaign, and failure to do so will hurt both the United States and people around the world.

OPLANS BUT NO STRATEGY

As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I benefit from constant dialogue with U.S. military leaders. Early in 2016, I was struck by something one of our most senior uniformed officers told me. “We have OPLANs [operational plans] but no strategy,” he said. He was right, and his complaint laid bare a key problem the United States faces today. While operational plans are important—and the U.S. military creates them for virtually every contingency—the country lacks an overall framework for looking at and leading in today’s complicated world.

This thought occurred to me often during my 100-plus days on the campaign trail last year. There was so much discussion of national security topics, including the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the Zika virus, terrorism, China, Russia, North Korea, the Middle East, and cyberthreats. Debates over the value of immigration, trade, diplomacy—including our advances with Cuba and Iran—and institutions such as NATO and the United Nations dominated much of the election. Yet each issue was treated as a one-off, briefly discussed without much context or connection. Beyond platitudes such as “America first,” little attention was paid to overall strategy.

Although that problem is common during campaigns, it’s not the way the United States and its allies have always done things. Seventy years ago, in three famous speeches, leaders of the free world laid out a markedly different approach.

The first of these speeches was delivered by Winston Churchill in March 1946. At U.S. President Harry Truman’s request, the former (and future) British prime minister delivered a talk at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill used his address to flatter the United States as standing “at the pinnacle of world power” but urged the country to match its primacy with “an awe-inspiring accountability to the future.” Warning Americans about the rise of a militant Soviet bloc—lying behind the “Iron Curtain” he was the first to describe—Churchill called for the creation of an “overall strategic concept” to shape the U.S. and allied response. The core of this mission, Churchill argued, should be an effort to shield the world from war and tyranny.

One year later, Truman sought to put these principles into practice. With the governments of Greece and Turkey facing threats from Soviet-backed extremists, Truman went to Congress in March 1947. The United States was war-weary and, in the 1946 midterm elections, had repudiated Truman and his party by handing Republicans control of both houses of Congress. But Truman didn’t shrink from the task. In his speech, he highlighted the dangers facing Athens and Ankara and pointed out that no other country had the means to help them. And the cause was urgent. As Truman declared, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.”

A few months later, in June 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall gave the third key speech, in which he sought to give shape to the emerging policy. In a commencement address at Harvard University, Marshall, who had led U.S. forces during World War II, proposed that the United States assist in the rebuilding of war-torn Europe. The plan—which Truman shrewdly recognized would be more likely to win Congress’ favor if it was named after a war hero—was designed to use economic aid to promote stability and reduce Soviet influence in Europe and, later, Japan. Congress agreed, and the United States soon began providing aid to Greece and Turkey, and then to many of their neighbors, too.

And so a grand strategy was born. For the next four decades, the United States would be openly interventionist. It would strive to reduce the threat of war, check Soviet communism, and promote freedom—as defined by Western ideals of democracy. Washington would use international institutions as a first resort. But as the world’s democratic superpower, the United States would act unilaterally when necessary.

The fact that the Truman Doctrine lasted as long as it did does not mean that it was perfect. Without it, the United States might have avoided taking over France’s colonial fight in Southeast Asia—a fight that became the Vietnam War. It might not have intervened to help topple the democratically elected governments of Iran, Guatemala, Congo, and Chile. It might not have attempted to invade Cuba during the first months of the Kennedy administration. Too often, in attempting to thwart real or perceived Soviet influence, the United States threw its weight behind authoritarian regimes—thus turning a doctrine meant to promote its best values into one focused on checking its adversary. And as President Dwight Eisenhower famously observed, the doctrine also led to an overemphasis on militaristic solutions, thereby robbing the Treasury of dollars that might have been better spent on domestic priorities.

Yet for all of the doctrine’s flaws, at least the United States had a strategy during these years—one that shaped its military posture, its budget, its diplomacy, its humanitarian aid, its engagement with international institutions, and even many of its great domestic social programs. And by its own terms, that doctrine succeeded: the United States dominated the second half of the twentieth century, and the Soviet Union, unable to compete, eventually collapsed. When it did, however, Washington suddenly found itself without an organizing principle to animate its foreign policy—and so it reverted to the pragmatic, case-by-case approach the country had pursued prior to World War II.

Now, there is something to be said for careful pragmatism in international relations. The George H. W. Bush administration, for example, demonstrated the virtues of this approach in 1990–91, when it pushed Iraq out of Kuwait but then refrained from toppling Saddam Hussein. Nondoctrinal pragmatism also suits the American psyche. Americans are a practical and concrete people: we tend to be suspicious of theory and favor commonsense approaches to problem solving.

It seems unlikely that the Trump administration will articulate a clear strategy of its own.

But there are also downsides to a case-by-case approach. It is too often reactive. It doesn’t give allies, adversaries, or the U.S. public any way to predict what the U.S. government will do. And it can lead to incoherence. During the 1990s, for example, the United States intervened to stop genocide in the Balkans but refused to do the same in Rwanda. Today many people assume that that difference was based on a judgment that African lives mattered less than European ones. That is a haunting thought.

After al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration tried to define a new American mission: “the global war on terror.” In the years since, that mission has led the country into a number of military conflicts: in Afghanistan, Iraq, the tribal areas of Pakistan, Syria, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Although terrorism remains a central—perhaps the central—security challenge of our era, the idea that this problem could define U.S. foreign policy had collapsed by the end of Bush’s second term. Collective embarrassment over an Iraq war sold on the basis of a nonexistent nuclear threat was part of the problem. But on a deeper level, the military struggle against shadowy nonstate actors was simply inadequate to fully describe or determine the many ways in which the United States interacted with the world.

By the beginning of the Obama administration, the United States had once again entered a murky and nondoctrinal phase in its international relations. Since 2008, the country has struggled to answer its hardest foreign policy questions—Should it stay in Iraq or Afghanistan? Intervene in Libya or Syria? Pivot to Asia? Respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Negotiate new treaties and trade deals?—without a clearly articulated doctrine to help it. As the United States continues to wrestle with these and deeper questions, other nations have had a hard time anticipating what it will do and how it will deal with new crises. The recent presidential election only heightened those concerns.

I strongly supported Obama and generally agreed with his foreign actions. By reviving the hunt for Osama bin Laden, he managed to eliminate the architect of the 9/11 attacks. He also reinvigorated U.S. diplomacy by normalizing relations with Cuba, pursuing a high-stakes international nuclear deal with Iran, leading the Paris negotiations on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and helping end the civil war in Colombia. Obama’s general inclination to defend the United States unilaterally even while participating in the rules-based order and seeking to promote democratic values through multilateral coalitions was sound.

But Obama’s suspicion of grand strategy proved problematic. He once said that his national security strategy was “don’t do stupid stuff” (although he used stronger language), and that quip revealed a lot about his pragmatic and nonideological inclination. His desire to avoid doing stupid stuff may have helped the country avoid some bad decisions. But sometimes not doing stupid stuff became an excuse for not doing stuff it was stupid not to do. I believe that the Obama administration’s unwillingness to forcefully intervene early in the Syrian civil war will come to haunt the United States in the future, much as the Clinton administration’s failure to help avert the horror in Rwanda haunts the United States today. And the lack of a clear strategy led to a lackadaisical response to Russia’s cyberattacks and its unprecedented interference in the 2016 election.

At this point, it seems unlikely that the Trump administration will articulate a clear strategy of its own. Trump touts the virtues of unpredictability. His promises to put “America first” recall the country’s isolationist bent in the years preceding World War II. And the deep ideological divisions among his military, national security, and diplomatic advisers make it likely that his administration will continue to deal with challenges on a case-by-case basis.

This approach—OPLANs but no strategy—may help the country avoid doing stupid stuff. But should Washington pursue it, it will miss clear leadership opportunities and produce a lot of confusion abroad at a time when the world still looks to the United States for leadership.

Truman and Churchill at the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany, July 1945.
Truman and Churchill at the Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany, July 1945.
National Archives and Records Administration

THE TRIPOLAR WORLD

So how should the United States do things? Simply calling for the creation of a new grand strategy is easy. The problem is that the modern world is significantly different from the world Churchill, Truman, and Marshall confronted. Given how hyperdiffuse and hyperconnected power has become, it’s worth asking whether it’s even possible to conceive of a comprehensive national security strategy today.

I think it is. Before getting into the details, however, I must make one other basic point. The Truman Doctrine was created by a Democratic president who was able to convince a Republican Congress to embrace it. For a new national security strategy to succeed, it, too, will need bipartisan support—since Congress, among its other prerogatives, retains the exclusive power to declare war. That said, the strategy itself must once again come from the president, to whom the Constitution gives significant power to formulate and execute foreign policy. Individual senators and representatives can help inform the process, as can think tanks, academics, military leaders, diplomats, foreign allies, journalists, and citizens. But today’s Congress—which has been reluctant to vote on the war against ISIS, to ratify important treaties, and to confirm ambassadors and other key diplomats (at least under Obama), and which views trade deals and globally focused institutions such as the Export-Import Bank with suspicion—is generally uninterested in acting to support U.S. global leadership. Most other nations, furthermore, are used to strong executives and expect the same from the U.S. president. So no lasting strategy will ever catch hold absent a clear articulation by the commander in chief.

In trying to define a new grand strategy, a president should start with the same question that Churchill, Truman, and Marshall asked themselves in the late 1940s: What is the current arrangement of power around the globe? Things are much more complicated today than they were during the Cold War, when the world was dominated by the competition between a U.S.-led democratic capitalist bloc and the Soviet-dominated socialist bloc. Wealth has become far more diffuse, and there is more parity among nations. At the close of World War II, the United States enjoyed both economic and military dominance. These days, although the United States stills boasts overall primacy, it faces far more constraints, such as high debt levels, which have created a powerful push to reduce spending on international aid, diplomacy, and the military. Such constraints narrow the United States’ qualitative edge and limit its choices—if not always the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

A second change from Truman’s day is the increase in interconnectedness. Today, travel, communication, information sharing, technology, immigration, and commerce draw nations together far more closely than ever before. And the post–World War II system of international norms, rules, and institutions—a system the United States played a major role in building—draws countries closer together still. This interconnectedness is generally a positive thing, but not entirely so. The tighter ties linking markets means that national financial problems, such as the Greek debt crisis, can have a much bigger impact on other countries—including the United States—than they would have had a few decades ago. Immigration brings valuable flows of talent to the United States but also raises concerns about security. More trade means more export-related jobs, but it also means fewer jobs in sectors where other nations’ lower costs give them an advantage.

A third key difference between Truman’s era and our own is the tremendous increase in the power of nonstate actors—from terrorist groups to criminal syndicates to international nongovernmental organizations to transnational businesses. Many of these forces are benign, even beneficial. But the ability of nonstate actors to use violence and evade laws and accountability is both pernicious and destabilizing. The rise of these nonstate actors is undercutting the Westphalian consensus, which dates back to the mid-1600s and was based on the assumption that power, especially military power, was to be exercised by nation-states—and only nation-states—and within generally accepted boundaries. Today’s world is not bipolar, as it was during Truman’s day. It’s tripolar: power is now exercised by democratic states, authoritarian states, and nonstate actors. A contemporary U.S. security doctrine must operate in that framework and offer a guide for action that treats each group distinctly.

Let’s start with democracies, which now come in many different shapes and styles and exist all over the planet. U.S. policymakers tend to spend most of their time focusing on trouble spots, and not worrying much about democracies, which they assume can take care of themselves. But such complacency is problematic. Democracies throughout the West are currently struggling with anti-Semitism and other forms of ugly sectarianism. Europe’s democracies have suffered an energy-sapping fiscal crisis, which the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU will make even more complicated. Countries aspiring to greater democracy, such as Ukraine, are now threatened by authoritarian neighbors, and others, such as Tunisia, are under assault by terrorist groups. Finally, democracies everywhere are grappling with fundamental questions regarding immigration and national identity, which often involve tough decisions about how to balance security with individual liberty. All these tensions risk making democracies more authoritarian, as their anxious leaders curtail individual freedoms in their desperate attempts to hold things together.

Any new U.S. national security strategy should therefore start by looking for cooperative, not coercive, ways to shore up the world’s existing democracies. The United States can do this best by making the best use of its own example and showing how its democratic institutions promote prosperity, peace, and happiness. The better the United States does, the more its example will inspire other democracies to keep improving.

Authoritarian states represent today’s second major global power base. Like modern democracies, contemporary authoritarian states differ substantially from one another. And just as some democracies are starting to betray authoritarian tendencies, so some authoritarian nations have begun to democratize in certain spheres—by increasing participation in local governments, for example, as Vietnam has done.

Democracies everywhere are grappling with fundamental questions regarding immigration and national identity.

The United States should skillfully challenge such states in the hopes that they will increase their commitment to democratic values, as well as their commitment to peaceful relations with other nations and their integration into global institutions. Challenging authoritarian nations requires different tactics depending on the issue. Sometimes the United States should cooperate, sometimes compete, and sometimes confront. The United States’ current relationships with China and Russia show how complex these interactions must be. Washington cooperates with Beijing and Moscow in many areas, from trade to climate change. That’s as it should be. Engagement deepens U.S. understanding of these regimes. It doesn’t guarantee success, but refusing to engage usually guarantees failure.

Of course, sometimes cooperation with nations such as China and Russia isn’t the right approach. So the United States also competes with them—by forming military and trade alliances with their nervous neighbors, for example. And at other times, Washington must confront Beijing and Moscow: over human rights, for example, or China’s construction of islands in the South China Sea, or Russia’s aggressive behavior in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere.

The final type of power the United States faces today is the nonstate actor. Many such entities—companies and nongovernmental organizations, for example—help build bridges between nations and individuals. Such organizations should be supported. Those that use violence to achieve their ends, however, must be fought and defeated. This fight is the key area in which the United States has cooperated, and should continue to cooperate, with authoritarian states. All countries that agree that military force should be exercised only by nation-states—or international coalitions of nation-states—and not by nonstate organizations must work together to defeat violent extremists. Trump is therefore right when he argues that the United States should work with Russia to defeat groups such as ISIS. While there are many reasons to be skeptical about Russian intentions in other areas, fighting terrorist organizations has long been a key Russian priority, and there is no reason not to work together toward that end.

Terrorists aren’t the only nonstate actors who use their peculiar status to avoid accountability and legal restrictions. Speaking about ExxonMobil, Lee Raymond, then the company’s CEO, once famously said, “I’m not a U.S. company, and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” On one level, corporations seeking to avoid paying taxes seem quite different from transnational drug cartels. But both types of groups now take advantage of the mobility of capital and people in a roughly similar way. The United States must therefore work with other nations to close the loopholes that allow organizations to amass economic power while evading accountability to any national legal system.

Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine at a campaign rally in Philadelphia, October 2016.
Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine at a campaign rally in Philadelphia, October 2016.
Carlos Barria / REUTERS

FROM INDISPENSABLE TO EXEMPLARY 

As the United States builds a strategy for navigating today’s tripolar world, the first step should involve setting aside the idea that it is “the indispensable nation.” This concept was largely a statement of fact when Churchill and Truman promoted it in the 1940s. And it was arguably still a statement of fact when then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made it the 1990s. But it doesn’t accurately describe the United States’ place in the world today. Other nations are growing in power. Growth is a positive development, and the United States should find ways to accommodate it in a framework designed to help both American citizens and people around the world.

Too often in the past, the idea of American exceptionalism has slid from justified pride in U.S. accomplishments into a belief that the United States is exempt from the rules that everyone else must follow. When the Soviet Union worked with Cuba to provide military support to rebel groups in the Western Hemisphere from the 1950s through the 1980s, Washington correctly perceived such behavior as a threat—and responded accordingly. Why, then, did Washington fail to anticipate how Russia would see NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territory under Clinton and Bush? And why was Washington surprised when China viewed Obama’s “pivot” to Asia as a threat and strengthened its own military posture in response?

Washington’s fondness for opining about who should or should not lead other nations also often proves counterproductive. In recent years, at various times, the U.S. government publicly stated that Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad had to go, and it went to war twice—once in Iraq, once in Libya—to effect regime change. Trump’s missile strike against the Syrian government may or may not be a precursor to another such war. These statements and conflicts make it easy for authoritarian nations to dismiss Washington’s just criticism of their policies by arguing that the United States is only interested in overthrowing their governments. The United States should condemn atrocities whenever and wherever they are committed, and use appropriate tools—such as sanctions, UN Security Council resolutions, prosecution by the International Criminal Court, or multilateral military action—to punish breaches of global norms. But a United States justifiably outraged at the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin to affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election has no right to decide who should lead other countries.

Instead of proclaiming its own indispensability, the United States should strive to reestablish its position as the world’s exemplary democracy. Doing so would be the best way to advance the needs of American citizens and make the most persuasive case for the virtues of democracy over authoritarianism or extremism.

Those virtues are not as immediately obvious today as they were in Truman’s era. Authoritarian governments such as Russia’s are using propaganda and active subversion to make it seem as though democracies cannot govern effectively. And too often, democratic governments provide evidence to support this claim, by failing to stand up for themselves or deal effectively with issues such as immigration and the promotion of human rights.

The good news is that if the United States decides to reinvest in the power of its example, it will have an exemplary foundation to work with. Ever since Thomas Jefferson put equality first on his list of “self-evident” truths in the Declaration of Independence, the country has progressively expanded civic participation. The country witnessed a number of remarkable firsts in just the last decade, including its first minority president, its first Supreme Court justice of Hispanic descent, and its first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party. It extended the right to serve in all positions in the U.S. military to anyone who meets the qualifications, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. It expanded access to health care to tens of millions of people of modest means, and it granted marriage equality to LGBT citizens. Although the harsh rhetoric during the recent election and the election result have threatened to undo some of this progress, history has shown that such pushbacks never erase all the gains made—and often provide new motivation for champions of equality to move society forward. Indeed, the recent uptick in civic activism and peaceful protest shows that this dynamic is already working.

There are so many other areas in which the U.S. example is strong. Chief among them is the American culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, fostered by the rule of law, the protection of intellectual property, strong institutions of higher education, a big supply of immigrant talent, and a willingness to accept failure and allow second chances. As China and India continue to grow, the United States may not remain the world’s largest economy forever. But there is no reason why it should stop being the world’s most innovative economy.

Of course, being the exemplary democracy also requires a willingness to criticize oneself. The recent election should shake Americans out of their complacency, awakening them to the country’s persistent regional and racial gaps in economic success, abysmal record electing women to federal office, and shockingly low voter-turnout rates (even in high-stakes presidential elections)—these all show how much work remains to be done.

Another key way to restore the United States’ status as the world’s exemplary democracy is by supporting democracies around the globe. Together with its allies, Washington should establish a new global pro-democracy initiative—one that is separate from military alliances such as NATO—that will highlight and advance the virtues and viability of democracy worldwide. Such an effort would look like an expanded Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or Community of Democracies. It would have a global reach—emphasizing the success of democracies on all continents and not just in North America and Europe. It would focus on sharing best practices for improving the effectiveness of democratic institutions. Democracy today needs a champion. If the United States refuses to play that role, the strength of the democratic model will likely diminish.

LEVERS OF INFLUENCE

The primary goal of the U.S. military is to protect the country. Succeeding in that mission requires both capacity and determination. The U.S. military’s capacity—the skill of its troops and the sophistication of its weaponry—remains superb. But the dysfunction in Congress imperils that advantage, not just by making it harder to continue to invest in troops and weapons but also by making the government’s investments less predictable. Legislative gimmicks, such as budget sequestration, continuing resolutions, and overseas contingency operations, are all part of the problem, and Congress should abandon them.

Equally problematic is the government’s lack of determination. Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election succeeded only because Moscow was not afraid to try. Washington’s failure to articulate a clear deterrence strategy in the realm of cyberspace and its dithering over what to do once it learned that the United States was under attack will go down as low points in the country’s national security history. To protect itself in the future, the United States must always send a clear message to those who mean Americans harm: don’t mess with us. And Washington must back that message up by always defending the country, the American people, and U.S. institutions with swift, visible, and overwhelming force. Failure to do so emboldens U.S. enemies and undermines American allies’ confidence that Washington will come to their aid when needed.

There is no reason why the United States should stop being the world’s most innovative economy.

A second major role for the U.S. military—and one that is growing in importance today—is to serve as the security partner of choice for other countries trying to protect themselves. U.S. efforts to help train foreign militaries, through programs both abroad and in the United States, consume a small fraction of the country’s overall defense budget. But using U.S. resources to build the defense capacity of other nations, while reinforcing respect for norms such as civilian control of the military and the unacceptability of torture, is one of the best investments the United States can make. The United States may no longer have the resources or the will to be the world’s protector, but it is still the best builder of smart military capacity, and it should hold on to that position and focus its efforts on democracies.

Another way the United States has historically amplified its influence is by acting as a rule builder, not an empire builder. The Trump administration now seems intent on abandoning that tradition, even though Americans and everyone else have benefited greatly from the hard work Washington has done to help craft international standards over the last seven decades. While the president has raised some important questions about the United Nations, NATO, and various trade deals, and while such institutions must be reexamined and reinvigorated over time, it would be foolish to abandon them or cede the United States’ leadership role. The battle against international threats such as ISIS requires coordination among states. Undermining the international forums designed to promote such coordination would make the United States weaker, not stronger.

As for trade, rapid advances in transportation and communication technologies guarantee that it will accelerate in the years ahead. Most new demand for goods and services will come from outside the United States. The United States wants access to those markets. Why, then, should it not continue to help draft the kind of rules that would guarantee that access? Trump is right that a bad trade deal is worse than no deal. Washington’s failure to robustly enforce the rules of existing deals and its inadequate commitment to helping American workers whose lives have been disrupted by globalization and automation have soured the public on international agreements. But the answer to this problem is to craft new and better rules—not abandon trade deals altogether, or let others rewrite them.

Another key role the United States must preserve is that of humanitarian leader. When crises occur around the world—whether a tsunami in the Pacific or an Ebola outbreak in Africa—people turn to the United States for help. That impulse can seem like a burden, but it should also be a tremendous source of pride: it shows that people around the world know that not only does the United States have the capacity to help; it also has the instinct.

This work goes way beyond what the State Department, the Pentagon, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other government agencies provide. Americans have also helped drive the growth of nongovernmental organizations around the world. And increasing numbers of American corporations have begun to provide humanitarian assistance in order to make a good impression in new markets. Yet Washington’s role remains essential. The U.S. government currently spends less than one percent of its annual budget on foreign aid, yet the return on this investment—in terms of security and goodwill—is enormous. Carrying out the administration’s intention to slash funding for diplomacy and foreign aid, announced in its 2018 budget blueprint, would therefore be a huge mistake.

Finally, as the United States seeks to define a new grand strategy for the twenty-first century, it needs to correct one long-term trend. Since the country’s earliest days, its policymakers have tended to think in East-West terms. We have focused most of our attention on Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, China, Southeast Asia, and Russia, while neglecting the global South. We have seldom paid enough attention to the Americas, in particular, and when we have—whether through the Monroe Doctrine or by battling communist movements during the Cold War—we have focused more on blocking outsiders from building influence in the Western Hemisphere than we have on the nations already there.

That must change. The United States needs an “all Americas” national security policy that places primacy on North, Central, and South America. It should not be an “Americas only” policy, one that limits the United States’ involvement with democracies elsewhere. But the United States should shift its focus. The 35 nations that make up the Americas share significant cultural similarities and boast a combined population of more than one billion. Thanks to the cease-fire that Washington helped broker in Colombia, for the first time in recorded history, there are now no wars being fought in the hemisphere. The region is also home to two of the United States’ top three trading partners, Canada and Mexico, and the United States’ commercial ties to these and other countries in the Americas will continue to be critical to the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, the move toward the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba has removed a perennial obstacle to improved relations with other parts of Latin America.

Despite the progress, Americans must remember that the problems still faced by various countries in the region—from poverty to violence to drugs to political instability—can and do directly affect the United States. Historically, the U.S. government has looked south only during crises and then, once the problems have been addressed, quickly shifted its attention back to Europe or Asia. The United States’ top diplomats spend little time in the hemisphere, and Washington devotes few resources to the U.S. military’s Southern Command. Other countries have noticed this lack of focus and taken advantage of it. As one South American president told me recently, “We prefer dealing with America and American companies because of our close ties—language, culture, history, immigration. But you are largely absent from the region, while China is very present. And so we work more with them.”

Increasing U.S. engagement with the Americas would have major upsides. It would help the United States compete with the huge Chinese and Indian economies. Building new bridges through cooperation on commerce, education, defense, and intelligence would increase U.S. security. And such efforts would carry little risk if undertaken respectfully. Many of the problems the United States is currently experiencing in its relations with China and Russia come from their concern over U.S. activities in their backyards. Increasing the United States’ focus on the Americas would not raise similar suspicions. Given the budget constraints that have made it difficult to project power globally, moreover, Washington should consider how much more it could do by increasing investment closer to home.

The USS John S. McCain at the start of a U.S.-Philippine military exercise in Subic Bay, Philippines, June 2014.
The USS John S. McCain at the start of a U.S.-Philippine military exercise in Subic Bay, Philippines, June 2014.
Erik De Castro / REUTERS

GREATNESS THROUGH GOODNESS

The seeds of the United States’ remarkable dominance in the twentieth century were first planted in the late 1860s, when the elimination of slavery and the reunification of the nation after the Civil War allowed the country to start looking outward. By 1890, the U.S. economy had become the world’s largest. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. military became much more powerful, and under President Woodrow Wilson, the country intervened to end a pointless and destructive world war and thus established itself as the most promising broker of international peace and stability. Barely two decades later, the United States played the decisive role in the defeat of German and Japanese fascism. It then helped construct a postwar architecture of rules, norms, and institutions that has benefited people all over the world. And it led a coalition of nations in successfully resisting the Soviet bloc.

This history helps explain why, despite all the mistakes made and the envy American dominance inspires, so many nations still want the United States to exert global leadership. I hear this regularly when I travel around the world and interact with foreign leaders. They know that, although the United States must always put its own interests first, the country’s unique combination of resources and principles makes it the best source of humane solutions to humankind’s most pressing problems. This desire for U.S. engagement remains the most important measure of American power.

On August 10, 2010, the USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, docked in Da Nang harbor, in Vietnam, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi. It was a momentous and emotional moment, in which the Vietnamese military command welcomed an American warship named after the father and grandfather of my fellow senator John McCain—a former naval aviator who had been held prisoner in the country for more than five years. The Vietnam War killed some 60,000 Americans and between 1.5 million and three million Vietnamese. Yet now Hanoi wanted an even deeper military and economic partnership with its former adversary, because it knew that this was the best way to improve its citizens’ security and quality of life.

Today—in the aftermath of one of the most bitter elections in recent U.S. history—is a good time for Americans to remember that story and remind themselves just how much influence the United States still possesses around the world. The key question the country now faces is what to do with it. It can continue along a reactive path and even reduce its commitments to its allies and the international institutions it helped create. Or it can start articulating a broad new strategy for reengaging with the world as its leading democracy. Americans should recognize their country’s unique strengths without indulging in either paranoia or unnecessary self-congratulation. That is what Truman and the U.S. Congress did 70 years ago, at a moment when bipartisan cooperation seemed unlikely. There is no excuse for failing to live up to the challenge today.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now