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A new argument for American global leadership

I spent the last two years on the campaign trail. As I talked to people, I came to understand why Trump’s arguments for a reduced American role appealed. I couldn’t say the same for our arguments.

A new argument for American global leadership
Published 28 Jun 2017 

Jake Sullivan, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, is the Lowy Institute's 2017 Distinguished International Fellow. This article is based on a lecture delivered at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia on 15 June.

Three basic premises that formed the foundation of American foreign policy since 1945 are now in doubt.

First, the premise that our alliances are a strategic asset, and not a liability, for the US. Second, the premise that values as well as interests matter in the conduct of our foreign policy. Third, and most important, the premise that American foreign policy should operate on the positive-sum logic that we are safer, stronger, and more prosperous when we contribute to making others safer, stronger, and more prosperous. 

So that’s where we are. How did we get here?

No doubt a big part of it is Donald Trump. If Hillary Clinton had won the election, things would look a lot different. But in many ways, Trump is the epiphenomenon, and we shouldn’t miss the underlying phenomenon. We are now having a debate about America’s global role that has been coming our way for a while now. Trump’s campaign was just the trigger.

Let’s take a step back and consider why.

The fact is that those of us who believe in US global leadership haven’t offered the American people a clear rationale for our role in the world since the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, there was a defined enemy and a clear mission. Ronald Reagan summed it up succinctly: we win and they lose. After the Soviet Union fell, we were left looking around for a new mission, something beyond simply remaining the world’s only superpower.

But how do you come up with that clear story in the absence of a defining enemy like Nazism or communism? Climate change or Ebola don’t quite do it. They are too diffuse, too abstract. Terrorists are the kind of enemy you can put a face on, but we should be fighting them without making them ten feet tall. 

The lack of an affirmative narrative, and the lack of a clear enemy, have naturally left Americans wondering, what exactly is our foreign policy all about?

On top of this uncertainty, there is the trauma of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people see two wars that are still going on, with no end in sight. Meanwhile, they endured a financial crisis in 2008 that cost millions their jobs and sapped the savings of tens of millions more. And parts of America have also suffered from a less visible, slower-moving crisis — the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs following China’s entry into the WTO in 2000. These crises reinforced public doubts about the benefits of globalisation. 

Then there is our politics. Trump and his allies have been masterful in mashing together the economic insecurity of many working class whites with fear of 'the other', especially immigrants and Islam. This has contributed to a sense among many that we should be taking care of our people over here and not worrying so much about those people over there.

I spent the last two years on the campaign trail serving as Hillary Clinton’s senior policy advisor. At first, I brushed off Trump’s attacks on American leadership. Running down NATO? He can’t get away with that, I thought. Suggesting that other countries should fight a nuclear war while we stand by and watch? Disqualifying, I thought. And America First? That was the slogan of Nazi sympathizers who wanted to keep us out of the Second World War, and it would never fly. Or so I thought. 

As I talked to people around the country, however, I came to understand why Trump’s arguments for a reduced American role appealed to people. I couldn’t say the same for our arguments. To push back on Trump’s worldview, we need to figure out how to convince people that principled nationalism and internationalism are not incompatible.

There are at least four things we can do to reinforce the domestic foundation of support for our foreign policy.

First, we have to elevate economic policy within our foreign policy, and in doing so we have to prioritise the paramount problem we confront as a country: how to rebuild an economy where growth works for our middle class.

Second, we have to do a better job of sharing the burden of global problem-solving. 

Third, we need a better answer to the question that has generated so much ambivalence among the public and around the world about our foreign policy: under what circumstances, at what cost, and to what end should the US intervene abroad?

Fourth, we need to recognise both the possibilities and limits of American power and match our means to our stated ends. This will help restore confidence that what we are doing can actually work.

In addition to making these policy adjustments, we have to adjust the way that we actually engage the public on foreign policy. Writing in another context, Tony Judt captured something about how the foreign policy conversation has tended to unfold in recent times: 'The liturgy must be chanted in an obscure tongue, accessible only to the initiated.  For everyone else, faith with suffice.' It is time for those of us in the foreign policy community to engage the public in an open and honest conversation about the challenges and opportunities we face in a complicated global landscape.

Taken together, these steps will help secure a durable foundation of support for America’s leadership role in the decades ahead.

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