National Security & Defense

A Dallas Cowboys Foreign Policy

Morning colors ceremony aboard the destroyer USS Paul Hamilton, 2013. (Photo: US Navy)
America should start thinking of itself as the world’s quarterback, not its cop.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is the NFL’s runaway success story this season. A rookie and fourth-round draft pick, Prescott planned to warm the bench for several years as he learned from Tony Romo. Instead, the oft-injured Cowboys legend went down once again, and Prescott stepped in to lead Jerry Jones’s team to the NFC East championship and a playoff bye. There’s a lesson in Prescott’s stardom — for America’s Team, of course, but also for America’s role in the world.

The young captain of the Cowboys’ offense is unquestionably talented. During the regular season, he threw only four interceptions in 459 attempts and boasted a 104.9 quarterback rating. Both are NFL rookie records. His arrival reversed Dallas’s fortunes. Last year’s Romo-less Cowboys finished 4–12; this year’s, 13–3. Yet Prescott owes much of his success to the all-pro talent surrounding him. He benefits from the NFL’s leading rusher, fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, and the game’s most dominant offensive line as well as a strong receiving corps. Prescott leads the Cowboys, but he might not have achieved such greatness without the players who help him win.

It’s a model that the rest of the NFL, for years living and dying by the passing game, will surely try to emulate. But it could also prove useful for an unexpected team: foreign-policy internationalists.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, one of the major questions about his upcoming administration is how the United States should relate to the world. Throughout the primaries and the general election, the president-elect frequently raised this question himself. He blasted the war in Iraq and the wisdom of free trade, while criticizing NATO and calling for improved relations with Putin’s Russia.

Trump seeks what he calls an “America First” foreign policy, scaled back to husbanding resources, focusing on its own achievements, and guarding its own shores. In his view, the United States expends precious energy preserving an international order that increasingly amounts to a raw deal. Washington spends untold sums defending wealthy nations while tolerating the unfair and insulting practices of others in a vain attempt to keep them in the tent — a tent that shelters the cross-country cosmopolitan class but not most of America. As he argued during the campaign, the United States should scale back its global responsibilities and jealously guard its vital national interests. “We cannot be the policemen of the world,” Trump declared in his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s foreign-policy proclivities challenge the conventional wisdom of the foreign-policy elite of both parties, who largely believe in maintaining the U.S.-led order designed after World War II. Internationalists within the GOP fear that they’re already losing the intra-party debate. In one example, recent polls suggest that GOP voters, tracking Trump’s views, changed their minds on Russia in quick succession. In July 2014, 10 percent of Republicans saw Putin in a favorable light; by this past December, that number had risen to 37 percent. This rapid shift indicates a willingness to accept Trump’s argument for better relations with Russia — which, in some ways, is a proxy for accepting his broader views on paring back U.S. ambitions and working with autocratic regimes to pursue common goals. Internationalists also struggle to mount a counterargument in the wake of the Obama administration, whose frequent rhetorical paeans to the liberal order, even as it did so much to expose flaws in that order, undermines Americans’ trust in the system.

The question, then, confronting GOP foreign-policy hands is how can they regain the public’s trust and persuade the Trump administration of the value of U.S. global engagement. They should start by reframing the conversation.

Trump’s rejection of America as policeman was the latest invocation of a perennial trope.

Trump’s rejection of America as policeman was the latest invocation of a perennial trope. The debate about the United States’ proper global stance has often centered on the notion of Washington as law enforcer. The analogy arises almost every election cycle, with candidates forced to answer the question of whether the U.S. should be the world’s policeman. Google “America world’s policeman” and you will find countless, dueling op-eds appear covering every angle of the idea, from “The United States Must Be the World’s Policeman,” to “The U.S. Must Not Be the World’s Policeman,” and “How America Became the World’s Policeman.” The metaphor of policeman is convenient shorthand for what America’s role abroad should or shouldn’t be.

Among internationalists, some embrace the police metaphor. But even those who reject it frequently argue for something that looks like policing anyway — coaxing countries to buy into a rules-based order, buttressed by various global institutions, and enforcing that order through a mixture of diplomacy and, if need be, force. The United States, in other words, should keep the world in line.

To be sure, the policing image holds much merit. It’s a vision not of evangelism but of enforcement. It entails a need to remain within means and focus on diplomacy and deterrence — but, when compelled to act, doing so prudently, forcefully, quickly. Parts of that metaphor might even appeal to Trump’s foreign-policy preferences.

The problem for internationalist-minded foreign-policy experts is that policing, and the role it implies, doesn’t resonate in our current political moment. It fails to provide the American people a compelling vision of U.S. involvement abroad. Law enforcement is difficult, dangerous, and often thankless work. One wrong step could imperil innocent lives or allow a bad actor to escape, triggering widespread opprobrium — a heavy burden to bear.

More important, policing inherently signifies a focus on protecting everyone else — often at your own expense, and on behalf of total strangers, as opposed to friends or teammates. It also shares similarities with umpiring, objectively applying the rules from on high rather than playing the game itself. If voters sided with Trump on global affairs in any cohesive way, it appears to be with the sense that U.S. policymakers have been playing the role of international cop and convener rather than looking after America’s own interests. Foreign-policy practitioners are more concerned with bailing out unworthy nations or persuading China to become a responsible stakeholder than with safeguarding American workers or responding to humiliating provocations. The theme: Elites fight for some global (and globalist) order rather than for “us.”

GOP internationalists can respond to this frustration and make the case for global engagement by adopting a new metaphor: America as quarterback.

The United States plays with a team of like-minded countries, allies who share its goals, help it achieve them, and have its back.

Its goal is to drive its team down the field and score “touchdowns”: diplomatic, economic, and military victories that make the world safer and more prosperous for American people of every class and creed. The quarterback’s (America’s) interests dovetail with those of his teammates (likeminded nations). Together, they form a team. America is the key player. Without it, the team would go nowhere, no matter how talented it was. To succeed, the quarterback needs a full squad of players, from offensive linemen to wide receivers, to block, catch, and run. Even the strongest quarterbacks can become tired or injured and make mistakes. Instead, the United States plays with a team of nations, allies who share its goals, help it achieve them, and have its back.

What’s more, the football analogy communicates much about how global affairs tend to work. Foreign policy is a four-quarter contest. Sometimes teams need to run, other times pass; they may stall out on third and five, or throw an interception; other times, they need to punt on fourth down, or kick a field goal. Every season, the juggernauts, like Tom Brady’s Patriots, tend to dominate, but other teams rise and fall on their strategies and capabilities. Foreign policy, too, is a long game, and to protect and enrich its people, the United States must be involved in the world. According to the quarterback metaphor, it shouldn’t act to preserve an abstract notion of the liberal system. It should attempt to secure greater political and economic security for Americans first and foremost, backed by teammates that stand ready to support it.

#related#Football is not a perfect analogy, of course. For one thing, foreign policy lacks a seasonal format. Countries don’t enjoy the tidy structure of a 16-game season in which they face off against clearly identified opponents every week. Instead, they play many other nations at once, and don’t have time to prepare for all of them. Nor can nations usually provide their people the inherent satisfaction of winning a Super Bowl. Instead, most global victories are incremental, stacking up over time.

But America as quarterback offers a vision of healthy nationalism — a positive, team-oriented case for prudent global commitment. The metaphor explains the purpose of U.S. action abroad. It frames U.S. foreign policy, and Americans’ financial and military contributions to it, as part of a bigger story, with a clear mission that’s meant to help them and their friends. And it responds to the Trumpian critique without forsaking American engagement. At this moment in American politics, winning games could prove more inspiring than walking the beat.

That’s why, as much as Cowboys haters may not like to hear it, America’s team is a blueprint for Team America.


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