With complex issues of national security and foreign affairs on the horizon, the next president and Congress must replace piecemeal reactions with a discriminating, forward-looking perspective. To do so, they need to define national interests, devise appropriate policy, and build public support for the priorities, the policies, and the actions that flow from them.

A few security concerns, each in need of a fresh infusion of energy, form the core around which American policy should be reworked to meet evolving conditions. These priorities are cooperative relationships with Russia, China, and America's allies and a sharp reduction in nuclear weapons.

Additional interests, likewise carrying with them governmental responsibility to act, range from prevention of nuclear proliferation in Iraq or Iran to suppression of genocide in the Balkans, terrorism from Libya, or traffic in drugs from Colombia and Mexico. Beyond these immediate security issues are still further interests, such as discouraging human rights violations abroad, preventing violent conflict in areas of limited strategic significance, and encouraging democracy for its own sake.

Although viewed as intrinsically desirable, these latter interests have limited effect on American security and well-being. It is useful then to "tier" U.S. interests according to the likely need for using force and positioning force in forward areas. For lesser-tier challenges, the United States needs the effective collaboration that stems from strong alliances, regional mechanisms, and U.N. forces.

Fortunately, a collaborative network of Cold War institutions, policies, and commitments retains its value. These all focus U.S. interests while adapting themselves to new needs and objectives and drawing in former adversaries. Foremost among these institutions are NATO, U.S. treaties with Japan and South Korea, the United Nations, and an array of international economic institutions. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are essential to reducing nuclear arsenals to the lowest level that can be reliably verified. U.S. policy should aim to stem further proliferation and retain only enough nuclear weapons to dissuade their use or threatened use by others.

Able advisers and vigorous, informed debate can help a president define interests and implement policies. But only the chief executive can make the decisions and then build the necessary public and congressional support. Clarity is important for gaining public backing, and it is best achieved by matching the right policy concepts to each case requiring action. Although precise calculations of costs and benefits are not possible, experience can help policymakers determine likely outcomes and levels of support. Past failures in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Lebanon, and Somalia and the more recent nuclear tests by India and Pakistan, Senate rejection of the CTBT, and collapse of the Seattle World Trade Organization meeting show the heavy costs of faulty planning, poor preparation, inept execution, or inadequate public support.

Sustaining public support on the issues confronting the United States is demonstrably more difficult and uncertain now than in the era of a strategic bipolar contest. Coherent definitions of interests and clear development of policies may help convey a sense of priorities. But this may well prove insufficient. In today's politically charged, special-interest-dominated, sensationalized milieu, the crisis of the moment often pushes aside more important, longer-term matters.

A useful first step is to recognize some of the principal resistances and obstacles. The public at large has a natural reluctance to set priorities and pay attention to ill-defined matters, particularly foreign problems remote in distance or time. Congress is plagued by widely differing priorities among members and within the parties, unavoidable concern for members' own political fortunes, an unrelenting need to raise campaign funds, and constant pressures from influential contributors and special interests.

The resulting agenda too often fails to convey a clear and coherent focus on matters of longer-term payoff and enduring importance. Within the executive branch, the same kinds of pressures emphasize day-to-day issues at the expense of more fundamental needs. Modern media, serving as an interpretive (and often distorted) screen between government and the public, further complicates the building of trust and support. The "CNN syndrome" -- instant portrayal of horrors and human rights violations around the world -- skews perspective from the distant to the immediate and transforms short-term interests into priorities.

Surmounting such problems starts with honoring the principle of "telling it like it is." A second step is to draw the congressional leadership into early policy consultation to see that it is present at the takeoff as well as the landing. A useful third technique employed by past presidents is to test through trial balloons the chances of gaining needed public and congressional support for a given measure. Nongovernmental organizations can help mobilize understanding by encouraging analytical debate and fostering critical evaluation. Such nongovernmental activity will of course be marked by a degree of organizational self-interest, but the media can provide a countervailing dose of skepticism.

For the hard issues of the current international era, the United States requires a rigorous approach to the linked tasks of prioritizing interests, devising realistic policies, and executing well-thought-out actions. The next president must provide the leadership to accomplish these tasks and galvanize public and congressional support for them. Only then can American security and prosperity in a dangerous world be more ably served.

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  • Andrew J. Goodpaster, a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, was Staff Secretary to President Eisenhower. He was Chair of the George C. Marshall Foundation, the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute, and the Atlantic Council of the United States.
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