Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
Come the November presidential election, voters in the United States will likely be focused on the uncontained coronavirus pandemic, the tattered economy, the unanswered call for racial justice, and the climate crisis. But another enormous issue is on the ballot: the future of the United States’ role in the world. The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the “America first” strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump, offering a ready rationale for closing borders, slashing international trade, and adopting a beggar-thy-neighbor approach to vaccine development. Some of these measures were necessary, but they must not become a blueprint for the future of U.S. foreign policy.
The next administration will confront a beleaguered nation and world, but it will also inherit a historic opportunity to meet those circumstances with a transformative new strategy. Should former Vice President Joe Biden win the presidency, his team will likely find itself pulled in opposite directions. Amid unrelenting crises, the new administration may be tempted to restore, rather than reimagine, U.S. foreign policy in the hope of reversing four years of damage to the liberal international order. But a Biden White House will also field calls from both sides of the political aisle for a military and an economic retreat on the grounds that U.S. security is best served by making the country more self-sufficient and reducing its global ambitions.
Neither a nostalgic quest for the old liberal order nor an isolationist retrenchment will ultimately serve U.S. interests or allow Washington to successfully navigate the world. The country has a narrowing window in which to reconfigure its foreign policy to ensure that it remains mighty even though it is no longer the uncontested superpower. If it fails to transform its foreign policy approach, the United States will find itself weaker in the face of great-power rivals and borderless threats and less able to guarantee its own security and prosperity. This necessary evolution will require Washington to eschew post–Cold War hubris, with its grandiose claims of liberal universalism. Instead, U.S. officials must advance an affirmative vision for an international order that allies and partners can embrace—one that we have called an “open world.”
The current period of disruption and turmoil presents the greatest world-ordering opportunity since the end of the Cold War—and perhaps since World War II. The United States must lead in turning the present destruction into a moment of creation.
In “The Open World: What America Can Achieve After Trump” (May/June 2019), we argued that the United States can remain secure and prosperous only in a free and open international system. Since then, an epochal global pandemic has revealed that international institutions are threadbare and multilateral cooperation is elusive, making it all too likely that states will seek security by closing themselves off from the world. Although the so-called liberal international order served the United States well for decades, many forces have eroded its foundations: China’s continued ascent and the diffusion of power from west to east; rapid technological change in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and digital surveillance; and growing domestic dysfunction in the United States and other democracies. But the United States can still secure its dearest interests even if it relinquishes its aspirations to global primacy and universal liberalism.
An open world is one in which states are free to make independent political decisions; international waters, airspace, and space remain accessible to military and commercial traffic; and countries cooperate informally and through modernized international institutions. The United States should accept the reality that its rivals, such as China, are stronger than they once were and will have greater influence, but Washington must resist any attempts to establish spheres of dominance—whether territorial or technological—that are impermeable to outside commercial, military, or diplomatic access. That means opposing the efforts of hostile nations to dominate their regions, subvert the political processes of independent states, and close off vital waterways, airspaces, or information spaces.
Achieving an open world does not, however, require the United States to dominate all prospective military or political challengers, as it did in the post–Cold War era. Nor does it compel the United States to embrace unrestricted trade and immigration or to refrain from more tightly controlling its borders in the event of emergencies, such as the pandemic. The United States should seek the economic interdependence that benefits it without championing unfettered neoliberalism: it should work to ensure, for instance, the resilience and security of U.S. supply chains.
The liberal international order of the post–Cold War era is no more. A new administration should set out to build a structure suited to the twenty-first century. The United States should collaborate with its allies and partners to modernize international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), and prevent closed societies like China’s from exploiting the openness of others, particularly when it comes to intellectual property and digital trade. The United States should also develop new institutions or regimes in undergoverned areas, such as cyberspace, in which Washington has a clear interest in setting open norms and rules. Authoritarian great powers will certainly compete to try to shape the future global order. But the United States and its partners must keep authoritarians from dominating beyond their borders, thereby ensuring that the world remains accessible and interdependent.
Such competition is already evident in areas subject to rapid technological change and few clear rules, such as Internet governance and artificial intelligence. China and Russia prefer a governance model that establishes state control over information. The United States must work with like-minded countries to set more open rules and norms and to prevent authoritarian competitors from imposing their standards on others. Together with partner states, technology firms, and civil society groups, Washington should work to set down rules for data storage, privacy, cybercrime, and hacking.
The liberal international order of the post–Cold War era is no more.
Autocracies may respond by developing “splinternets,” in which nations or blocs of nations cordon off flows of information. But the United States should lead the charge toward an open and pluralistic information environment that encourages democracy, benefits the country economically, and protects the United States and its allies from the most pernicious forms of foreign cyberattacks. This could be accomplished by expanding existing alliances in Asia and Europe to combat the most grievous forms of cyber-aggression, such as attacks on critical infrastructure. In other domains of technological innovation, too, such as artificial intelligence, Washington can pioneer new norms and deter malign actors by closely coordinating with its allies and partners. But the United States cannot dither and wait for a global consensus before it acts—otherwise, authoritarians will write the rules instead.
An international order is similarly vital in confronting such existential threats as climate change and global pandemics. The United States should rejoin the Paris climate accord and lobby other major emitters to unite in embracing new and ambitious domestic climate goals. These additional commitments should be transparent and enforceable, allowing Washington to monitor the implementation of environmental measures and confront cheaters with economic sanctions. The United States must also return to the World Health Organization, working to reform and strengthen it. Washington should belatedly demonstrate leadership in the global response to COVID-19 by sharing vaccines and critical supplies with partners, and it should work with the G-7 to manage follow-on economic shocks and with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to provide economic relief to the developing world.
Trade practices, too, will require an update in this twenty-first-century world order. Free trade has benefited the United States in many ways, but it has also allowed more closed societies, such as China, to exploit openness to their advantage—and to the detriment of U.S. workers. The United States should negotiate new multilateral trade agreements that set high labor, climate, and environmental standards and use these agreements to press for changes in the beleaguered WTO. The country should also work closely with its trusted allies to protect sensitive industries and technologies, such as semiconductors, which authoritarian competitors may exploit for their own gain, and to band together to secure the production and supplies of those technologies. To address the inequality that free trade has fostered in the United States, Washington should accompany its new trade policy with domestic reforms—including the reduction of incentives for businesses to shift production overseas—that address trade-related inequality and job loss directly. The United States will be able to build a successful new international order only if that order benefits the American people.
The next U.S. administration will inherit a foreign policy apparatus that is underequipped for a competition with China that spans economic, technological, ideological, and military domains. Rising to that demand, in all its variegation and dynamism, requires recognizing that foreign policy cannot be made by the Defense Department alone.
The United States must revitalize the State Department and rebalance national security spending toward diplomacy and development. To make an open world, the United States needs a well-funded and expert diplomatic corps to manage ties with small and middling powers while engaging with great-power rivals. The next administration must reverse Trump’s State Department budget cuts in areas such as international institutions, the environment, and the Western Hemisphere. It should also push through national security workforce reforms that allow the government to better respond to nonmilitary national security threats and improve its ability to harness private-sector talent and resources, particularly in new technologies and in efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The next administration need not chase lost U.S. military primacy to achieve the objective of an open world. Instead, the United States should invest in high-end nuclear and conventional deterrence capabilities and in research and development toward the next generation of military technology. Washington should envision success as the defense of U.S. interests without having to resort to war.
Protecting U.S. interests from nonmilitary challenges will require the next administration to rethink the very structure of the national security bureaucracy. Long-term strategies often cross regions, domains, and even the divide between foreign and domestic policy: the new administration should seek to break down the barriers that hinder their coordination. The intelligence community should increase its collaboration with the private sector to improve its ability to detect threats, such as foreign-backed information campaigns that use commercial platforms, and to develop more options for sharing information with allies, partners, and the public.
With numerous crises at home, a new administration could be forgiven for letting long-term strategy and order building take a back seat. But in so doing, Washington would squander a fleeting opportunity. The United States still remains powerful by most measures, but if it fails to act now, its relative power will ebb while China grows stronger. The institutions and rules that have long benefited Washington will become ever more impotent in the face of twenty-first-century problems and dynamics. The agenda we lay out is no bigger than the charge it seeks to address: reconceiving the U.S. role in the world and the organization of the international system in response to historic global change.
If the United States fails to assume this mantle of leadership, succumbing either to nostalgia for the post–Cold War order or to introverted nationalism, it will find itself utterly ill equipped for the world a decade from now. That world may be an increasingly chaotic one, ordered by antithetical norms in which the dearest American economic, political, and security objectives are far from guaranteed. If Washington rises to this moment, however, the United States can preside over an open world that will keep it safe and prosperous for decades to come. There can be no delay in seizing this mandate: the day after Trump will not come again.