Right-Sizing Foreign Policy

No adventurism, unilateralism, or isolationism. Just sensible principles for a United States that leads but doesn’t dominate.

By Bruce W. Jentleson

Tagged ChinaClimate ChangeDemocratsForeign Policynational securitytrade

Progressives have the greatest opportunity in decades to shape the foreign policy debate. Their policy agenda, however, needs an overhaul beyond Trump-bashing and harking back to Democrats’ standard-fare invocations of “the Liberal International Order” and “American leadership.” The politics, both within the Democratic Party and beyond, are conducive. But progressives need to steer clear of political potholes and convey more of a strategic sense of not simply what they’re against but what they’re for.

No illusion here that foreign policy matters as much as domestic policy in 2020 politics. The only times foreign policy has been a major issue in contemporary presidential elections have been during wars (Korea 1952, Vietnam 1972) or major international crises (1980 because of the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). But to say that foreign policy is electorally less important than domestic policy is not to say that it is unimportant. In a close election, if even 5 percent of the electorate vote on this basis, let alone the 13 percent in 2016 who pointed to foreign policy as their most important issue, foreign policy can provide the winning margin.

Fleshing out a progressive foreign policy doesn’t require yet another rhetorical coinage in the post-Cold War “Kennan sweepstakes”—indeed, George Kennan long lamented how his core idea of containment got globalized and militarized in ways far beyond what he intended (to justify the Vietnam War, as a prime example). I was in the Clinton Administration when, in 1993, we tried “enlargement,” seemingly a clever play off of containment, only to receive a cable from an American ambassador in Latin America saying that the closest Spanish translation was imperialismo. George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” couldn’t overcome the realities of the Iraq war. “Lead from behind” and “don’t do stupid shit” didn’t exactly hit the mark in the Obama years.

Still, while well short of grand strategy, what’s needed is a foreign policy “right-sizing” that fits the realities of the twenty-first century world. Americans aren’t turning isolationist: Only 29 percent opted to “stay out of world affairs,” among the lowest percentages in the 45 years the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) has been polling this question. But as a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) study found, “traditional language from foreign policy experts about ‘fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship, ‘promoting democracy,’ or ‘working with allies and the international community’ uniformly fell flat.” Right-sizing entails a foreign policy better scaled than traditional Democratic internationalism to both the scope and limits of American power and influence, and with limited but significant changes in priorities and strategies. Six key elements frame this strategy:

  • First, shape a narrative that affirms America’s role and taps American pride without resorting to Global Leader and American Exceptionalism rhetoric.
  • Second, beyond usual diplomacy-not-force speechifying, make the strategic case for ending the Afghan and Iraq wars and for greater overall military restraint.
  • Third, embrace the fight against climate change as a winning general election issue.
  • Fourth, confront China as warranted, compete as necessary, cooperate as possible, but don’t fall into threat-inflated new Cold War mania.
  • Fifth, resist protectionism and support trade, but with emphasis on policies that make trade a force for reducing domestic economic inequality.
  • Sixth, on the politically charged issue of Israel, criticize Israeli policy without being anti-Israel, and turn the anti-Semitic accusation against Trump and the Republicans.
A Better Narrative for America’s Global Role

It’s encouraging that those international relationships that Trump has most opposed have actually seen their support go up: e.g., NATO from 53 percent in 2016 to 62 percent in 2017, the Paris climate accord 62 percent to 68 percent, the Iran nuclear non-proliferation Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 60 percent to 66 percent, the United Nations 61 in 2016 percent to 68 percent in 2019. No surprise that every Democratic presidential candidate supports all of these. And all are hitting on the damage Trump has been doing to our relationship with them and to America’s reputation through both his personal style and policy substance.

But that’s not enough. People get what’s wrong with Trumpian foreign policy. But they remain to be convinced of what’s right about the standard Democratic invocations of leadership and engagement.

Let’s be honest: Even pre-Trump, it wasn’t just a matter of the United States leads and others follow. The reputation argument also was made about the discrediting effects of Bush and Iraq, and the enthusiasm that greeted Obama. But while negative reputation incurred costs, positive reputation did not reap comparable dividends. Under Obama, NATO was divided over the 2011 Libya intervention; Pakistan still sheltered the Taliban; both the Israelis and the Palestinians resisted efforts to re-start the peace process.

It’s just not a world in which any one country—not the United States, not China—can be The Leader. Alliances and partnerships still matter but are less exclusive than when countries largely joined up with one side or the other. Just weeks after Australian conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison got reelected, the Chinese navy made a major port call in Sydney. Israel finds Russia a more valuable partner in Syria than the United States. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds summits with both Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. We’re seeing what elsewhere I’ve called a “pluralization of diplomacy,” by which more countries have more relations with one another on more issues than ever before. The American public gets this. When asked whether the United States should be “dominant world leader/shared leadership/no leadership role,” 66 percent preferred shared leadership, with Independents tracking closely with Democrats, 69 percent to 75 percent. (Even Republicans are at 51 percent).

So say it: It’s not all about us. Sure, the United States still should play a global leadership role. But we can’t talk about partnerships if what we really mean is that Washington calls all the shots, or if we won’t acknowledge that on some issues others are better positioned to lead than we are: on Venezuela, for example, where we bring so much yanqui baggage (any U.S. President, not just Trump). Nor are all the best ideas made in Washington. Who leads is less important than what is achieved. Stand tall but get past the penchant for strutting across the global stage.

At the same time, beyond the easy applause line mocking John Bolton for wanting to blow the United Nations up, show some tough love about making multilateralism work. But do so less in the name of international law and hifalutin concepts than with straight talk about how there are things in the twenty-first century world—economic prosperity, counterterrorism, global environment, pandemic prevention—that affect us here within our own borders that even as the most powerful country we can’t do on our own. Cite examples of international institutions deserving more credit than they often get: UN peacekeeping, for example, which has more successes than failures; the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its dispute resolution process, which often rules in the United States’s favor, not just against us. But also fess up to the underperformance of others. What, more precisely, are we going to do to make international institutions more effective? Speeches need to convey not just a belief in multilateralism as the right thing to do, but a pragmatic sense of the challenges in making multilateralism work.

As to American exceptionalism, younger generations in particular are finding this self-characterization less resonant. CCGA polls show millennials holding less to the view “that the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world,” and instead more likely to say that “every country is unique and that the United States is no greater than other nations.” Pew polls show similar inclinations with only 18 percent of millennials agreeing with the view that the United States “stands above all other countries in the world.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks blasted such views under the headline, “Your Foreign Policy Views Stink!” To the contrary, we’d do well to learn from our youngers. There is a substantive basis for less of a rose-colored view of American foreign policy’s history, taking into account the anti-democratic covert actions we’ve taken, the military interventions we’ve launched, and the human rights we haven’t supported. This isn’t to deny that the United States has done much good in the world, both officially and through our people and society. Progressive candidates need to avoid the mirror-image mistake of hitting only on the violations of our values and not the affirmations. Don’t sanitize, but also don’t blame America alone. Speak to what Amy Chua calls “a version of the dream that recognizes past failure instead of denying it.”

While such more measured views make for less ringing rhetoric, the narrative they trace sizes well with the nature of the twenty-first century world and the role the United States can and should play. Indeed, this is the essence of progressivism: rooted in tradition while adaptive to changing realities.

Make the Strategic Case for Diplomacy Not War

Democrats, even self-styled progressives, are still overly cautious about the accusation of being “soft.” It’s long past time to shake that off. Afghanistan and Iraq are the two longest wars in our nation’s history. The $6 trillion-plus spent on these wars and other post-9/11 military operations have contributed to domestic social and economic inequality in ways that run deeper than just straightforward budgetary guns vs. butter. Yet for all this, Afghanistan ranks last on the global peace index, Iraq fifth from the bottom.

Polls show 61 percent support for fully withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, and only 22 percent see the war as succesful. Veterans are actually even more supportive of withdrawal (69 percent), and only slightly more positive on the results (24 percent). The Iraq war gets similar results. More broadly, only 51 percent consider maintaining superior military power worldwide to be a very important goal, far less than the 68 percent immediately after 9/11. Going back to generational dynamics, Millennials were only at 44 percent on military supremacy and 23 percent on increasing defense spending.

So no more dancing around with fudges like “end endless wars” and “end the wars responsibly.” Commit to ending the wars. But “get out” is not enough. People need to be convinced that you have an alternative strategy. On Afghanistan, for example, two key elements need to be conveyed. First, negotiate with the Taliban. This is, after all, what the Trump Administration has been doing. Commit to building on these talks, as continuity or course correction depending on where they are left. Second, launch a high-level regional diplomacy initiative. For all these years, the United States has been bearing the costs and burdens of trying to stabilize Afghanistan while other outside players—Pakistan, India, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran—have been maneuvering in support of their own favored groups and in pursuit of their own interests. By withdrawing our forces and getting off the frontlines, other nations’ risks also go up and thus their incentives for working out some rules of the road increase. Don’t oversell but do make the case that this type of strategic diplomacy has a better chance of working than making America’s longest war in history that much longer.

While “no more wars” declarations are too arbitrary, greater military restraint is a crucial part of right-sizing. This includes over-reliance on special operations forces, now deployed in close to 150 countries with vaguely defined and open-ended mission statements like “train, advise, and assist.” Terrorism remains a threat, but even a RAND study shows at best mixed results for American military operations in reducing intrastate conflicts that foster terrorism and other violence. And with defense spending greater than that of the ten next highest spending countries combined, there is ample basis for questioning Pentagon budgets.

Put resources, not just rhetoric, behind beefing our diplomacy up. Whoever wins the nomination should make the kind of commitment that Senator Elizabeth Warren has laid out to rebuild and enhance the State Department. As much damage as the Trump Administration has done, the weakening through budget cuts, outsourcing diplomacy to the Pentagon, overuse of political appointees, bureaucratization of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Foreign Service’s own lack of innovation go back much further.

Climate Change Is a Winning Election Issue

For too long, climate change opponents have kept Democrats on the political defensive. As a foreign policy aide to Senator-Vice Presidential candidate Al Gore in the 1992 campaign, I still recall the caricature of him as “Senator Ozone.” The Clinton Administration signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol but balked at sending it to the Senate. Even in the Gore 2000 campaign the political calculation was to give limited attention to climate change. That Obama felt sufficiently constrained politically to resort to an executive order for his Clean Power Plan and executive agreement for the Paris Accord made it that much easier for Trump to do his rescinding. Polls showing climate change tracking so closely with party identity have all the Democratic presidential candidates giving it emphasis. But contrary to so much commentary about the general election risks of going “too far left,” facts, economics, politics, and national security all make this exactly where Democrats need to be.

Facts: One warning report after another—global warming, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, species extinction, desertification—flashes bright red. Extreme weather events are here, now: Over the last two decades, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes have caused more than 600,000 deaths and over 4 billion people injured and displaced globally. While many factors affect any particular weather event, the frequency and severity of weather weirding comes back to climate change.

Economics: Green (environment) versus green (economic profit) is increasingly shown as a false choice. It’s plenty possible to be doubly green. The business community gets it. Car manufacturers pushed back against Trump’s reversal of Obama’s higher fuel efficiency standards. Goldman Sachs has set up a fund prioritizing companies with smaller carbon footprints. Entrepreneur magazine sees this kind of sustainable capitalism as “the next big thing.” With Zillow projecting $882 billion in risks to housing values from rising sea levels, the insurance industry is among the most ardent converts, as Fortune magazine puts it, to “climate change believers.” Being underwater is taking on a much more literal meaning.

Politics: Remember all those worries of political disaster when congressional Democrats launched the Green New Deal? Despite Republican efforts, and despite criticisms of some of the particulars, the green-and-green framing as a “big, bold transformation of the economy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change” has gotten legs. Even in polls mentioning that jobs would be lost and taxes would go up, among likely voters, 46 percent supported the idea and only 39 percent opposed. Among self-identifying moderates, the 44 to 27 percent margin was even greater. In states that are presidential battlegrounds and have Republican Senate seats up in 2020, support was: Colorado 60 percent, Maine 57 percent, Iowa 54 percent, North Carolina 56 percent. While only 23 percent of Trumpistas support the Paris agreement, 53 percent of non-Trump Republicans and 60 percent of Independents do.

National Security: The National Intelligence Council first stressed the foreign policy and national security consequences of climate change during the Clinton Administration. While initially downplaying these factors, the Bush Pentagon produced a 2004 report with its own “dire warnings.” The 2015 Obama Pentagon National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate stressed how “global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries.” While White House censoring forced the Trump Pentagon to walk back such views, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis still managed to report on overseas military bases endangered by climate change. And the 400,000 deaths per year from climate change are 13 times greater than those form terrorism.

It’s high time to stop falling for the Republican feint that Democrats have more to lose than gain from making climate change a major political message and policy priority. Here too, progressive policy and progressive politics are potentially in sync.

Compete with China, but No New Cold War

Republicans are going all-in on a new Cold War with China. Along with Mr. Tariff’s focus on economic warfare, the emphasis in the 2017 National Security Strategy on great power rivalry was more about China than Russia. The 2018 National Defense Strategy was even more China-centric. State Department Policy Planning Director Kiron Skinner added a clash of civilizations dimension, posing this as “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.” The Committee on the Present Danger: China, reviving and re-branding the Cold War anti-détente group and bringing together longstanding neocons like Frank Gaffney and rightist populists like Steve Bannon, recently made its entry to the Washington scene.

Democrats are still wavering on their alternative. Joe Biden’s no big deal/we can do this in our sleep comments made last May were widely criticized as too complacent. On the other hand, calls for putting China “at the heart of their pitch to voters” have their own new Cold War ring. This misreads the politics. Only 39 percent of the American public sees China’s rise as a critical threat—the lowest percentage in more than 10 years. And while China’s greater assertiveness, regionally and globally, is cause for concern, experience shows how dangerous and distorting threat inflation can be. For their part, American allies are seeking balance not containment, as the India and Australia examples cited earlier demonstrate. And as happens to all great powers that overextend, Chinese President Xi Jinping is getting pushback on his Belt and Road Initiative from countries that feel exploited, and from millions in the streets of Hong Kong due to his heightened repression.

To be sure, there is ample basis for pressuring China on economic issues. Any number of congressional races over the past decade-plus have seen both Republican and Democratic candidates running campaign ads hitting China on currency manipulation, manufacturing subsidies, intellectual property theft, and other unfair trade practices. But Trump’s counterproductive economic warfare leaves plenty of room for policies that actually help American workers, farmers, and consumers. Even before the Spring 2019 threat to further ratchet up of tariffs, 72 percent of those polled were concerned that the trade war was hurting our own economy. A “weapon of mass destruction,” the head of the Apparel Importers Association termed the proposed additional 25 percent tariffs; hyperbolic, but point made.

On some issues it’s not just Beijing’s policies but American corporate practices that are of concern to progressives. One such issue, technology transfer agreements, in exchange for access to the Chinese domestic market, fit with the broader progressive critique of globalization as favoring company profits over worker jobs. Another issue is the role U.S. tech firms are playing in providing technology and expertise helping, as a Foreign Policy article put it, “build the Chinese Orwellian state.” Yet neither the Trump Administration nor Congress have begun to regulate or monitor this kind of behavior.

Amidst these and other issues, we should not lose sight of the ways in which the United States and China have managed to cooperate. It was a prior U.S.-China understanding on climate change that made the 2015 Paris Agreement possible. China was part of the P-5+1 in the Iran JCPOA. Going forward, any number of issues would benefit from, if not require, the cooperation of the world’s two largest economies. The balance to be struck is to confront China as warranted, compete as necessary, and cooperate when possible. But we don’t have to get grandiose about whose century it’s going to be to take seriously the formidable challenges this huge, ambitious, innovative, and proud country presents.

Be Pro-Trade, but Emphasize Making Trade a Force for Reducing Domestic Economic Inequality

Trump’s economic warfare has not stopped with China. He’s imposed or threatened tariffs against India, Canada and Mexico, the European Union, and South Korea. Yet his lashing out repeatedly ends up a net negative. One import-challenged sector may be temporarily helped, while other sectors with supply chains requiring those higher priced products get smacked with higher costs, consumers get stuck with higher prices, and export-oriented sectors get retaliated against. The public sees through Trump’s claims of victory: Only 37 percent approve his trade policies. Rather than try to out-protectionist Trump, there’s plenty of room to be pro-trade in a way that is tough but effective.

Three steps will help re-orient trade policy in a progressive direction. First, with trade having grown to 30 percent of U.S. GDP, it needs play a much larger part of a broader progressive effort to, as Jennifer Harris put it in these pages, “address inequality.” Polls show even more people now believe trade is good for the overall economy than pre-Trump: 59 percent in 2016 to 82 percent in 2019. The key issue, though, as always: Is it good for me, my family, my job, my community? Trade always has winners and losers, but the gap between benefits reaped and costs borne has been widening in recent years. While it’s true that technology has done a greater job transforming and destroying effects than trade, trade has had its own substantial impact on the gaping American economic inequality gap. For example, since the foreign tax havens in which Harris estimates $2 trillion in corporate profits are stashed—surely more since the 2017 tax cuts—were opened by U.S. policy, they can be closed or at least narrowed by U.S. policy, too. If the U.S. government is going to help American companies get market access, they need to do more to ensure that the U.S. economy benefits more than just companies’ bottom lines. Willingness to negotiate investment treaties should take into account company compensatory measures to limit job loss at home.

Second, programs created to help hard-hit industries and communities adjust to trade competition need to be more effective than they have been. It may be true that many areas of the country in which Trump’s economic nationalism has had its greatest appeal are actually being hurt by those very policies. But, again, there needs to be a credible alternative not just a critique. Programs like Trade Adjustment Assistance, around since the 1960s, need to start being more about the first “A” and less just about the second.

Third is to stop prioritizing ostensible geopolitical benefits of trade over its economic downsides. Many of those who expressed concern that NAFTA would hurt certain sectors of the economy and still supported it cited the ways it would stabilize Mexico or ameliorate problems like drug cartels and immigration. Bringing China into the WTO would supposedly allow markets to work their magic, and political liberalization would follow. In reality, the economic downsides loomed large. The “China shock” over the ensuing decade severely impacted manufacturing and other sectors of the American economy. Economic questions about the 2015-16 Trans-Pacific Partnership were said to be superseded by Asian geopolitical gains over China. The lose-lose was that none of these prioritized political and strategic goals were achieved, and that opportunities for addressing provisions in ways that could have made these more win-win economically were missed. Future trade agreements need to be sold to the American public on their economic merits with political-strategic factors in addition to, not instead of, economic bases for supporting them.

Criticize Israeli Policy, Reject Anti-Semitism

Amidst the Netanyahu-Trump partnership, traditional Democrats who consider Israel an ally have fallen to 26 percent. Even congressional moderates with significant Jewish-American constituencies such as Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia (both in the Washington, D.C. area) have called for “honesty” about the U.S.-Israel relationship. But criticisms of anti-Semitism within the Democratic Party, the progressive wing in particular, can’t just be written off.

Be critical of Israeli policies but don’t be anti-Israel. Speak out against Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and any such moves in the West Bank, and against Trump’s punitive cuts in aid to the Palestinians. And in defending the Iran JCPOA, make sure people know that while Netanyahu demagogued it, many Israeli national security experts have supported it. Leave no doubt about being deeply committed to Israel’s right to exist and core security as well as to Palestinian human rights and statehood. Peace process strategy may change from what it was in the Clinton and Obama years, but the goal of a two-state solution remains the same—a goal, by the way, endorsed by Commanders for Israel’s Security, a group comprised of “the overwhelming majority of available retired IDF [Israel Defense Forces] generals and their Mossad, Shin Bet (Security Agency), and Police equivalents.”

And here too get off the defensive. Turn the anti-Semitism accusation against Trump and the Republicans. While Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are first-term House members, it was House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy who tweeted about Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and George Soros trying to “buy” the 2018 election. And it’s been Donald Trump whose 2017 Charlottesville “good people on both sides” condoned neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence, and who more recently tried to make American Jews a “human shield” behind which to try to hide his racist attacks on Omar and three other Democratic Congresswomen of color. Anti-Semitic incidents have reached a record high including the October 2018 Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre by a perpetrator who raged about Jews’ being behind that “caravan” Trump was demagoguing at the time.

When the time comes to give a Middle East policy speech, forget usual sites like a New York synagogue—give it at the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Reflect on the photos there of rabbis marching with Martin Luther King, Jr., on the exhibits showing young Jews prominent among white civil rights activists, notably two of the three 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi. Invite Jewish-American and African-American high school students involved in the Operation Understanding program to front row seats. Speak about rekindling this coalition, and broadening it to take on Islamophobia, Hispanic-bashing, and other forms of vilification. Turn Middle East issues from a source of divisiveness and special-interest pandering to a basis for coming together not only on these issues per se but more broadly as a coalition with more in common than not.

Beyond Trump-Bashing and Traditional Democratic Internationalism

There have been presidents with whose foreign policy I (and so many others like me) disagreed, but never before one as truly dangerous to the country and the world as the current incumbent. But as bad as Trump’s policies and persona are, they are the effect of deeper dynamics within the United States and the international community that, to a great extent, would have been there even if Trump had lost. Traditional Democratic internationalism has neither the policy basis nor the political appeal to get beyond what’s wrong with Trumpian America First to what’s right about the alternative. A rejuvenated progressive approach can do that in ways that work politically and provide the basis for a foreign policy geared to the world as it is, not how it used to be.

Read more about ChinaClimate ChangeDemocratsForeign Policynational securitytrade

Bruce W. Jentleson is William Preston Few Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. He has served in the Clinton and Obama State Departments, and as a Democratic foreign policy advisor in numerous presidential elections since 1987-88.

Also by this author

The Liberal Order Isn’t Coming Back: What Next?

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus