Lucas Jackson / Reuters Demonstrators near the White House in Washington, January 21, 2017.

Time for a New U.S. Foreign Policy Narrative

A Better Alternative to Trump's "America First"

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump told a powerful story about the United States’ role in global affairs. It was a dramatic narrative full of free-riding allies, unchecked globalization, and nuclear brinkmanship. Refugees and immigrants were cast as villains, repressive regimes like Russia and China were regarded with admiration, and human rights and democratic freedoms were pushed to the sidelines. As a candidate, Trump painted a gloomy portrait of American weakness and decline, trends that he promised to reverse.

To the surprise of some and the fears of many, Trump’s dark vision resonated and continues to resonate over a year into his presidency. A quarter century as the world’s sole superpower has numbed much of the country to the role of global affairs in daily life. A July 2017 Pew survey found that nearly half of Americans agreed with the statement that the United States needs to “pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home.”

It’s an understandable feeling. American families are strapped. They’re focused on their jobs, their homes, their kids, and their savings. They’re anxious about the health care bills they have to pay today, not the troubles of tomorrow happening thousands of miles away.

Add to that the perception that global engagement has left many Americans worse off, and the disdain for foreign policy compounds. For them, globalization represents a complex system of influence, wealth, and power that buoys the rich and well connected at the expense of everyone else. Working-class sons and daughters are sacrificed for wars with misguided motives and uncertain ends. Their jobs are sent overseas, their family businesses are surrendered to some greater good they can’t take part in, and their communities become economic afterthoughts. On top of that, Americans feel less safe. Terrorism has struck at home. The Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremists seem too powerful. Victory in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere remains elusive despite years of sacrifice. It is easy to understand why many Americans wonder what foreign policy has done for them.

Fifteen months into his tenure, Trump is still trying to exploit these feelings of frustration. His improvised international agenda is based on telling America, time and again, that it has to choose: safety at home or peace abroad, human rights or a steady paycheck, compassion or strength, mercy or muscle.

These are ultimately false choices. In today’s interconnected world, the distinction between global and domestic challenges is artificial. The United States turning its back on the world will do nothing to keep U.S. citizens—or the country—secure and prosperous. Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign affairs will lead instead to America alone, and allow others to write the rules that shape the future.

Trump's improvised international agenda is based on telling America, time and again, that it has to choose: safety at home or peace abroad, human rights or a steady paycheck, compassion or strength, mercy or muscle. These are ultimately false choices. In today's interconnected world, the distinction between global and domestic challenges is artificial.

Today, American families are paying for the United States’ failure to address climate change with skyrocketing flood insurance bills and town budgets broken by the destruction that hurricanes, mudslides, nor’easters, and wildfires leave in their wake. They’re feeling the inadequacies of U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking in an addiction epidemic that grows more horrific by the day. Their privacy and personal security is threatened by international cyberattacks, their social media platforms are infiltrated by malicious foreign actors, and their most precious democratic right, their vote, is in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s crosshairs. American men and women continue to don uniforms and leave their families behind to fight conflicts with no clear goal or exit strategy in place.

Foreign policy is not something that happens an ocean away. It affects not only the wars we fight but the bills we pay. Not just the weapons we use abroad but the computers we use at home. Not only crisis and disease on another continent but illness and injustice down the street.

Make no mistake: the global threats that Americans face today are serious. China’s rising power, Russia’s wide-ranging interference, Europe’s growing division, and the United States’ abdication of international leadership means that a new world order is on the horizon. We’ve already caught glimpses. Although the United States remains the world’s largest economy, it is China that is now the world’s most forceful economic actor, channeling its political and economic heft into its state-owned enterprises. Apple may be the world’s largest corporation by market value, but its CEO Tim Cook is responsible to Apple shareholders, not U.S. lawmakers; Chinese billionaire Jack Ma doesn’t have the same luxury. In China, the rise of state capitalism and its staying power pose a considerable challenge for the global free market. How the United States responds won’t only set the stage for the security of American families for generations to come; it will determine whether the country’s proudest democratic ideals sink or swim.

Getting this right requires something better than Trump’s short-sighted and selfish approach to foreign affairs. It requires an American electorate fully engaged in an active foreign policy that works in tandem with a domestic agenda to promote democracy, individual freedom, and human dignity. If we want the American people to be as engaged on foreign policy as they’ve been on health care or on gun control or for the #metoo movement, then we need to offer a more compelling story about American foreign policy and why it matters.

A NEW FOREIGN POLICY STORY

Roughly 3,500 miles separate Paris, France from Fall River, Massachusetts. For this working-class community in southeastern New England, climate change is a central part of daily life. For years, the United States’ inadequate response to global warming has wreaked havoc on local infrastructure, municipal budgets, and flood insurance rates across the region. The city is struggling to pay off $174 million in mandated sewage updates so that their aging infrastructure can handle the influx of extreme weather without putting public health and safety at risk. Average flood insurance premiums throughout the area have increased by 12 percent over the last six years. For communities like this one, the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw the United States (the largest CO2 emitter in history) from the Paris agreement isn’t some talking point; it is a reality that will affect their bottom line every single day. 

Trump's "America first" approach to foreign affairs will lead instead to America alone, and allow others to write the rules that shape the future.

It would take you around 24 hours to get from Atlanta to Afghanistan. But in the state of Georgia, hundreds of thousands of families bear the burden of U.S. wars in the Middle East; the state has more military enlistees per civilian adults than any other in the nation. South Carolina and Texas aren’t far behind. For these families and communities and countless others across the country, the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t simply stories featured in The New York Times; they are hard realities, told through searing human loss and staggering economic costs. It’s estimated that since 9/11, American taxpayers have paid more than $5.6 trillion, money that could have gone to our struggling schools or crumbling bridges. As a presidential candidate, Trump railed against wars fought without a strategic vision, conflicts that will cost the American taxpayer for decades to come. But as president, his scattershot foreign policy risks plunging the United States into an unnecessary military confrontation, by choice or by accident, with Iran, North Korea, Russia, and even NATO-ally Turkey.

West Virginia isn’t exactly a border state. In fact, it’s almost 2,000 miles to Laredo, the nearest crossing into Mexico. But no state has been more ravaged by the United States’ drug addiction epidemic. This American tragedy is a confluence of government abdication, private sector profiteering, and foreign exploitation. Lax drug prescribing practices and loosely regulated pharmaceutical companies got America hooked on pain pills. A horrifically underfunded mental health system ensured that it stayed that way. The price of addiction rose and drug cartels in Mexico seized the opportunity to meet American demand; today 95 percent of U.S. heroin originates in Mexico. As the crisis evolved, the drugs did too. Fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, consists of chemicals made in rogue Chinese labs that are shipped directly into the United States or through Mexico, where it is largely smuggled into the United States through official ports of entry. In other words, Trump’s $70 billion border wall won’t stop this epidemic. Increased mental health funding, pharmaceutical accountability, and real engagement across the borders could.

There are over 6,500 miles between Nebraska and Syria. Still, the state has taken in more refugees per capita (76 per 100,000 residents) than anywhere else in the country. For these communities and families, debates about refugee policy don’t play out in the halls of Washington or stages of international institutions, but in their community centers, churches, schools, service agencies, and other local institutions forced to provide for the refugees because the country is unable and unwilling to do so through sensible immigration policy.

Russia is some 5,000 miles away from Wisconsin. But that didn’t keep Midwestern voters safe from the efforts of our Russian adversary to tamper with and influence their votes in 2016. Wisconsin was one of seven states (along with Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas) that had their state websites or voter registration databases compromised ahead of the 2016 elections, according to U.S. intelligence officials. It’s since been discovered that foreign actors also successfully hacked into the U.S. power grid and other critical infrastructure. Without even leaving their homes, U.S. enemies seized on the echo chambers created by social media to further fracture our society. This new cyber front knows no boundaries or borders.

Nearly 7,000 miles separate Scranton, Pennsylvania and Beijing, China. But when it comes to the debate about U.S. trade policy, no two cities better illustrate the interconnection of our domestic and foreign policy choices. Globalization has undoubtedly benefited American consumers, businesses, and the country’s overall prosperity in countless ways; the average American enjoys a standard of living that citizens in developing countries can only dream of. We must admit, however, that free trade has not always been fair trade. Industrial communities and American manufacturing workers have been hit disproportionately by global trade patterns. There’s a valid reason why protectionist proposals (on both sides of the aisle) have resonated with voters. But the answer isn’t nationalist half-measures like the tariffs recently announced by the president, which benefit targeted communities while opening other key industries to the impacts of a trade war. Races to the bottom can be just as ferocious within countries as between them. 

Democracy is messy. It moves more slowly than we might like and frustrates those who seek quick fixes. But 250 years ago, America made a choice: free will is worth the fight. Americans foresaw that the greatest return on their investment would not come in the form of battle victories or even GDP. It would come from the power of a people whose freedom has not been bargained away.

HOW WE GOT HERE 

No story exists in a vacuum, particularly when it comes to global affairs. Any attempt to get the American public invested in an active foreign policy demands a clear picture of the world that we are navigating today. Only then can we understand the urgency: China is waiting in the wings. That is not just a threat to our economic clout or global reputation. It is a threat to the democratic values and individual freedoms that the United States has spent generations defending at home and abroad.

When the United States devised the current global governance architecture in the wake of World War II, U.S. leaders understood that America’s self-interest would be furthered by arrangements that other states understood would treat them fairly, too. Instead of trying to create a world where some states were “winners” and others were “losers,” U.S. leaders had the confidence to create a world where the United States and many other nations could benefit together. This system was not perfect, but it provided the basis for decades of economic growth and played no small part in the United States’ Cold War victory.

Today, however, non-Western powers are gaining political and economic influence, and no longer feel that the global architecture created in the late 1940s fits their purposes and their ambitions. They’re right. But in response, the Trump administration seems content to let the old order collapse—and even help accelerate that process—while seeming unwilling to use American power to create a new and better one.  

That’s a mistake. The United States should find reasonable ways to give emerging powers greater say in the current international system. If institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Security Council don’t end up better reflecting the de facto power ordering of today’s world, alternative institutions like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank will emerge to aggressively challenge them. And we must accept that some new, alternative institutions, backed by emerging powers, will arise regardless; they don’t see it in terms of either/or the way that Americans do.

Does that mean the United States just hands over the keys to alternative architecture upstarts like China and Russia? Absolutely not. But it does mean that the United States needs to stop viewing the world through a zero-sum lens when it comes to foreign demands for a greater say in global institutions. Instead, we should be confident that we can negotiate new arrangements that will safeguard our interests while acknowledging the interests of others. Once we’ve established that we’re open to changing the rules of the game, we’re free to stake out and defend our own positions. That means setting clear red lines for what we will or won’t accept. We should also draw a distinction between the at times constructive “revisionism” of China or India, compared to the far more destructive “revisionism” of Russia, and insist that we be leaders in the conversation and fairly represented in whatever new institutions or standards that these emerging powers propose.

THE MORAL TO OUR STORY

Trump is offering the American public a slate of false choices when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. But the truth is that there is a real choice to be made, and it matters. Does the United States reaffirm itself to the cause of freedom, human dignity, and democracy at home and abroad—or allow it to be chipped away? Does it compromise the values, promises, and foundational liberties etched in the U.S. Constitution because of the latest insult or opportunity that arises?

The era of Pax Americana is over, but the next chapter of America’s role in the world is still being written. We are headed toward a new world order, and the United States should take a leadership role in shaping what that order will be. If it doesn’t, the outcome will be decided without it, its interests, and its values.

Put another way: China has an alternative model for global leadership and it’s ready to go. It is a model centered on government, rather than the individual, a model defined by conformity rather than freedom. It is a transactional model based on state capitalism, one that benefits those who pay fealty to Beijing; it is not one that is based on mutual benefit and growth, that values and respects the rights of individuals (and countries) to seek their own success in the free market, or that in so doing benefits the world at large.

Democracy is messy. It moves more slowly than we might like and frustrates those who seek quick fixes. But 250 years ago, America made a choice: free will is worth the fight. Americans foresaw that the greatest return on their investment would not come in the form of battle victories or even GDP. It would come from the power of a people whose freedom has not been bargained away.

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