The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
America’s status as the greatest and most influential nation on earth comes with certain inescapable realities. Among these are an abundance of enemies wishing to undermine us, numerous allies dependent on our strength and constancy, and the burden of knowing that every choice we make in exercising our power—even when we choose not to exercise it at all—has tremendous human and geopolitical consequences.
This has been true for at least 70 years, but never more so than today. As the world has grown more interconnected, American leadership has grown more critical to maintaining global order and defending our people’s interests, and as our economy has turned from national to international, domestic policy and foreign policy have become inseparable.
President Barack Obama has failed to recognize this. He entered office believing the United States was too engaged in too many places and that globalization had diminished the need for American power. He set to work peeling back the protective cover of American influence, stranding our allies, and deferring to the whims of nefarious regional powers. He has vacillated between leading recklessly and not leading at all, which has left the world more dangerous and America’s interests less secure.
It will take years for our next president to confront the residual effects of President Obama’s foreign and defense policies. Countering the spread of the self-declared Islamic State, for example, will require a broadened coalition of regional partners, increased U.S. involvement in the fight, and steady action to prevent the group’s expansion to other failed and failing states. Halting Iran’s regional expansionism and preventing its acquisition of a nuclear weapon will demand equal urgency and care.
The Middle East, however, is far from the only region with crises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing’s attempts to dominate the South China Sea, resurgent despotism in South America, and the rise of new threats—from devastating cyberattacks to challenges in space—will all require the careful attention of America’s next president.
Each challenge will be made more difficult by President Obama’s slashing of hundreds of billions of dollars from the defense budget, which has left the U.S. Army on track to be at pre–World War II levels, the U.S. Navy at pre–World War I levels, and the U.S. Air Force with the smallest and oldest combat force in its history. Our next president must act immediately on entering office to begin rebuilding these capabilities.
The first and most important pillar of my foreign policy will be a renewal of American strength. This is an idea based on a simple truth: the world is at its safest when America is at its strongest.Physical strength and an active foreign policy to back it up are a means of preserving peace, not promoting conflict. Foreign involvement has never been a binary choice between perpetual war and passive indifference. The president has many tools to advance U.S. interests, and when used in proper balance, they will make it less likely that force will ever be required and will thus save lives rather than cost them.
My foreign policy would restore the post-1945 bipartisan presidential tradition of a strong and engaged America while adjusting it to meet the new realities of a globalized world. The foreign policy I propose has three pillars. Each can be best described through an example of a challenge we face in this new century, but they all reveal the need for all elements of American power—for a dynamic foreign policy that restores strength, promotes prosperity, and steers the world toward freedom.
The first and most important pillar of my foreign policy will be a renewal of American strength. This is an idea based on a simple truth: the world is at its safest when America is at its strongest. When America’s armed forces and intelligence professionals, aided by our civilian diplomatic and foreign assistance programs, are able to send a forceful message without firing a shot, the result is more peace, not more conflict. Yet when the United States fails to build or display such strength, it weakens our global hand by casting doubt on our ability and willingness to act. This doubt only encourages our adversaries to test us.
The Obama administration’s handling of Iran has demonstrated this with alarming clarity. Tehran exploited the president’s lack of strength throughout the negotiations over its nuclear program by wringing a series of dangerous concessions from the United States and its partners, including the ability to enrich uranium, keep the Arak and Fordow nuclear facilities open, avoid admitting its past transgressions, and ensure a limited timeline for the agreement.
How did a nation with as little intrinsic leverage as Iran win so many concessions? Part of the answer is that President Obama took off the table the largest advantage our nation had entering into the negotiations: military strength. Although the president frequently said that “all options are on the table” with regard to Iran, his administration consistently signaled otherwise. Several senior officials openly criticized the notion of a military strike, and the president himself publicly said that there could be no military solution to the Iranian nuclear program. This was underscored by a historic reluctance to engage throughout the Middle East, from pulling troops out of Iraq at all costs to retreating from the stated redline on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
How did a nation with as little intrinsic leverage as Iran win so many concessions? Part of the answer is that President Obama took off the table the largest advantage our nation had entering into the negotiations: military strength.President Obama became so publicly opposed to military action that he sacrificed any option that could have conceivably raised the stakes and forced the mullahs into making major concessions. Iran recognized that it could push for greater compromise without fear that the United States would break off the talks. The president’s drive for a deal caused him to forsake a basic principle of diplomacy with rogue regimes: it must be backed by the threat of force. As president, I would have altered the basic environment of the talks. I would have maneuvered forces in the region to signal readiness; linked the nuclear talks to Iran’s broader conduct, from its human rights abuses to its support for terrorism and its existential threats against Israel; and pressured Tehran on all fronts, from Syria to Yemen.
It is true that Iran, in response to these displays of strength, may have broken off negotiations or even lashed out in the region. History, however, suggests that even if Iran had created more trouble in the near term, increased pressure would have eventually forced it to back down. That is exactly what happened in 1988, when Iran ended its war with Iraq and its attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf after the Reagan administration sent in the U.S. Navy. More recently, after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran halted a key component of its nuclear program.
It’s not too late to mitigate the damage of the administration’s mishandling of Iran. By rescinding the flawed deal concluded by President Obama and reasserting our presence in the Middle East, we can reverse Iran’s malign influence in this vitally important region and prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The security of the region, the safety of Israel, and the interests of the entire world require an American approach toward Tehran marked by strength and leadership rather than weakness and concession.
The second pillar of my foreign policy is the protection of an open international economy in an increasingly globalized world. Millions of the best jobs in this century will depend on international trade that will be possible only when global sea-lanes are open and sovereign nations are protected from the aggression of larger neighbors. Thus, the prosperity of American families is tied to the safety and stability of regions on the other side of the world, from Asia to the Middle East to Europe.
That is why Russia’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty is much more than a question of where lines are drawn on the maps of eastern Europe. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and efforts to sow instability in eastern Ukraine were sparked, in no small part, by the decision of a sovereign Ukrainian government to seek closer political and economic ties with the European Union and the West.
Russia’s actions are a historic affront to the post–World War II global order on which the global economy depends, and they set a disturbing precedent in a world of rising powers with surging ambitions. Our halting and meager response sends a message to other countries that borders can be violated and countries invaded without serious consequences. The threat of this precedent is profound. America should never have to ask permission from a regional power to conduct commerce with any nation. We cannot allow the world to become a place where countries become off-limits to us as markets and trading partners because of violence, uncertainty, or the blustering threats of an autocratic ruler.
Russia’s actions are emblematic of a larger global trend. From the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea, authoritarian states increasingly threaten recognized borders and international waters, airspace, cyberspace, and outer space as a means of gaining leverage over their neighbors and over the United States. Since the end of World War II, the United States has prospered in part because it guarded those critical pathways, and U.S. engagement has a distinguished record of increasing the well-being of other countries, from Germany and Japan to South Korea and Colombia. By failing to maintain this devotion to protecting the lanes of commerce, the Obama administration has exposed international markets to exploitation and chaos.
Retrenchment and retreat are not our destiny. The United States, by its presence alone, has the ability to alter balances, realign regional powers, promote stability, and enhance liberty.
As president, I will seek to restore Ukrainian sovereignty by providing greater military assistance to Kiev, including weapons, and by expanding the training of Ukrainian troops. While the president’s sanctions to date have been a good first step, I will also work closely with our European allies to impose additional sanctions on Russian entities, including the Russian oil giant Gazprom and its senior leadership, and to restrict Russian access to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, payment system.
I will also isolate Russia diplomatically, expanding visa bans and asset freezes on high-level Russian officials and pausing cooperation with Moscow on global strategic challenges. The United States should also station U.S. combat troops in eastern Europe to make clear that we will honor our commitments to our NATO allies and to discourage further Russian aggression.
If that support is coupled with more robust support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and a willingness to leverage America’s newly gained status as a leader in oil and natural gas by lifting the ban on U.S. exports, we can help guard our European allies from Russia’s attempts to use trade and energy dependence as a weapon. This will also assist our efforts to help Ukraine’s leaders modernize and reform their economy and ultimately consolidate their independence from Moscow.
By preserving Ukraine’s freedom and demonstrating that the United States will not tolerate such threats to the global economy, the United States can begin to deter other potential aggressors from bullying their neighbors, including an increasingly ambitious China.
Our approach to China in this century relates to the last pillar of my foreign policy: the need for moral clarity regarding America’s core values. Our devotion to the spread of human rights and liberal democratic principles has been a part of the fabric of our country since its founding and a beacon of hope for so many oppressed peoples around the globe. It is also a strategic imperative that requires pragmatism and idealism in equal measure.
Members of the Obama administration have signaled a disturbing willingness to ignore human rights violations in the hope of appeasing the Chinese leadership. In the administration’s early days in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that human rights “can’t interfere” with other ostensibly more important bilateral issues, and in the months before Xi Jinping ascended to China’s top leadership post in 2012, Vice President Joe Biden told him that U.S. support for human rights was merely a matter of domestic political posturing.
The best way for the United States to counter China’s expansion in East Asia is through support for liberty.As we have fallen silent about the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese government has stymied democratic efforts in Hong Kong, raided the offices of human rights organizations, arrested scores of activists, redoubled its efforts to monitor and control the Internet, and continued repressive policies in Tibet and other Chinese regions, all while rapidly expanding its military, threatening its neighbors, establishing military installations on disputed islands, and carrying out unprecedented cyberattacks against America. China’s actions reveal a basic truth: the manner in which governments treat their own citizens is indicative of the manner in which they will treat other nations. Beijing’s repression at home and its aggressiveness abroad are two branches of the same tree. If the United States hopes to restore stability in East Asia, it has to speak with clarity and strength regarding the universal rights and values that America represents.
The best way for the United States to counter China’s expansion in East Asia is through support for liberty. The “rebalance” to Asia needs to be about more than just physical posturing. We must stand for the principles that have allowed Asian economies to grow so rapidly and for democracy to take root in the region. Only American leadership can show the Chinese government that its increasingly aggressive regional expansionism will be countered by a reinforcement of cooperation among like-minded nations in the region.
As president, I will strengthen ties with Asia’s democracies, from India to Taiwan. Bolstering liberty on China’s periphery can galvanize the region against Beijing’s hostility and change China’s political future. I will also back the Chinese people’s demands for unrestricted Internet access and their appeals for the basic human right of free speech. I will engage with dissidents, reformers, and religious rights activists, and I will reject Beijing’s attempts to block our contacts with these champions of freedom. I will also redouble U.S. support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and ensure that, once the trade deal is concluded, additional countries are able to join, expanding the creation of what will be millions of jobs here at home as well as abroad.
China will likely resist these efforts, but it is dependent on its economic relationship with the United States and, despite angry outbursts, will have no choice but to preserve it. President Ronald Reagan proved through his diplomacy with the Soviet Union that having a productive relationship with a great power and insisting on that power’s improvement of human rights are not conflicting aims. If the United States can pursue this agenda with China even as it continues its economic engagement, it will demonstrate that America remains committed to the cause of freedom in our time. I believe that when true freedom for the 1.3 billion people of China is finally attained, the impact will fundamentally change the course of human history.
These are only three examples of the challenges the United States will face in this century. They are all examples of problems that will require deft, multifaceted leadership. In addition to existing and emerging threats, we undoubtedly will be confronted with unexpected crises in the years ahead. These unknowns highlight the importance of establishing a fixed set of principles and objectives to guide American leadership. After years of strategic disengagement, this is the only way to restore global certainty regarding American commitments.
By making retrenchment his primary objective, President Obama has put the international system at the mercy of the most ruthless aggressors. They are constantly seeking to undermine the basic principles of the post-1945 world by challenging American military primacy, threatening the global commons, and undermining liberal values. That Iran, Russia, and China are each challenging the United States in these spheres at the same time demonstrates their mutual desire for a departure from the postwar order.
The authoritarian rulers of these nations find an open international system deeply threatening to their exclusive grip on domestic political power. They cannot simply be reassured or persuaded, and they will push their agendas with whatever tools we give them the latitude to use. We cannot assume that these states will negotiate in good faith or see it in their interest to come to an agreement. If we allow the continued erosion of our military, economic, and moral strength, we will see a further breakdown in global order cast a lengthening shadow across our domestic prosperity and safety.
Retrenchment and retreat are not our destiny. The United States, by its presence alone, has the ability to alter balances, realign regional powers, promote stability, and enhance liberty. Only we can form coalitions based on mutual investment and mutual sacrifice. Our sole goal has never been to remain the world’s preeminent power. We will encourage and assist the rise of more powers when their rise is benign or noble. We wish to be a fraternal force rather than a paternal one.
This principle has marked the bipartisan tradition of U.S. foreign policy for the last 70 years. Our recent departure from this tradition has brought only violence, chaos, and discord. By advancing the three pillars of my foreign policy, I intend to restore American leadership to a world badly in need of it and defend our interests in what I’m confident will be another American century.