Sound Foreign Policy Begins at Home
Guest columnist Christopher Preble says if Joe Biden wants to rebuild America's global standing he should start by looking inward.
The deadly attack on the US Capitol two weeks ago by a violent mob of Trump supporters requires more than introspection about the state of our union and should compel US leaders to rethink America's larger national security challenges.
The foreign policy community is programmed to look for dangers emanating from other countries. Yet, if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it is that the greatest threat to Americans is from within – a yawning partisan divide over nearly every salient issue, an unwillingness to tolerate opposing points of view, and an inability to confront serious challenges like a pandemic that has taken more than 400,0000 American lives. Increasingly, we are not one country, but many. E Pluribus Unum has become the punchline of a bad joke.
Addressing this growing challenge begins with setting clear priorities. The few initiatives around which President Joe Biden might be able to fashion a workable political constituency are domestic: surviving the COVID-19 pandemic; repairing the US economy; and restoring trust in US democracy and the institutions that underpin it.
Biden’s campaign rhetoric, however, suggests a more ambitious agenda especially when it comes to restoring American leadership abroad. He wants to build back better, which implies a house with a firm foundation and “good bones” that is mostly in need of some cosmetic repairs. It is appropriate, however, to imagine that the entire edifice of American politics has been destroyed, the foundation is cracked and sagging, and the timbers rotted and termite-infested. While Biden and his team would like to turn back time to before Donald Trump came on the scene, the political polarization that Trump tapped into and then exacerbated won’t disappear along with the former president’s Twitter feed.
This calls for a dose of true humility on the part of Biden’s entire team, and a willingness to listen to the American people – including at least some of the 74+ million who voted for Trump. And many of those Americans genuinely want a foreign policy that puts America first, just not necessarily the severe, zero-sum, xenophobic, and hostile brand that Trump championed. Americans generally favor trade over protectionism, diplomacy over force, and continued global engagement over isolationism. They prefer working with others to solve global challenges rather than going it alone.
The United States should rebuild its international relationships with others in a spirit of cooperation, as opposed to coercion and intimidation. The Trump administration punished key allies for refusing to back out of the nuclear deal with Iran, and employed trade as a weapon to extract concessions from Mexico. This is the opposite of what Americans want from their elected leaders.
Indeed, poll after poll reveals broad-based agreement on the nature of America’s global role and support for the idea that the United States should engage with the rest of the world, but not be forced to bear all the burdens of managing it.
According to a recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “Americans want the United States to continue to lead abroad, but few want it to lead alone.” In fact, “majorities across the board prefer a shared leadership role for the United States (68 percent). Just 24 percent want the United States to take a dominant leadership role, and very few say the United States should have no global leadership role at all (6 percent).”
Meanwhile, although US foreign policy elites have often viewed US military power as the sine qua non of America’s influence, and are generally determined to maintain US military dominance at all costs, Americans are skeptical. “Support for American military primacy is much weaker than support for global diplomatic engagement,” the Eurasia Group Foundation (EGF) concluded. A plurality of Americans in the EGF poll wished to draw down “the number of U.S. troops stationed overseas and reduce commitments to maintain security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.”
Relatedly, “Twice as many Americans want to decrease the defense budget as increase it,” EGF reported, and “support for decreasing the defense budget is most pronounced among younger Americans.” The main reason is a “desire to redirect resources domestically.”
Americans want to fix this country before attempting to fix others. That means focusing on public investments that can increase economic competitiveness and living standards, such as domestic infrastructure, education and job training. A more efficient public health system in the United States, meanwhile, would also help the country recover more quickly from the current pandemic, and build resilience against the next one.
This does not mean that areas of disagreement do not exist. The aforementioned report from the Chicago Council for Foreign Affairs for example, found that two-thirds of Republicans named China as a critical threat, but Democrats were more concerned about climate change. They differ, too, on which domestic threats matter most. Democrats worry about racial inequality, while Republicans fret over international terrorism and “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States.” But quite clearly there are more areas of common ground than rancor on foreign policy - a point that President Biden should emphasize.
Biden could begin the process of restoring trust - and finding consensus - by leveling with the American people about the costs and consequences of the nation’s foreign policies, after years of obfuscation by US officials. Greater transparency would include overturning decisions that allowed Trump to claim that he was ending the so-called “forever wars,” when he was, in fact, expanding them. Americans should know the number of US troops stationed abroad, and the number of civilians killed by US air strikes - data that was kept hidden by the Department of Defense during Trump’s years in office.
Biden should also ensure that Congress is able to exercise its proper oversight role, and his administration should promptly comply with congressional requests for more information. That would be a welcome change from the Trump administration’s stonewalling. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, allegedly out of concern for the Senate’s refusal to confirm Trump administration appointees. But Pompeo also ignored congressional subpoenas into the firing of the State Department’s Inspector General, who had been investigating Pompeo’s spending as Secretary of State.
Opening US foreign policy to greater scrutiny will restore public confidence and will not close off peaceful global engagement through diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchange.
In short, the very best foreign policy begins at home. US leaders should commit to making America stronger in its neighborhoods and communities, and communicate honestly and forthrightly about the challenges America faces, the opportunities that come from greater foreign engagement, and the tradeoffs that must be made.
Christopher Preble is the co-director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s New American Engagement Initiative.