Magazine | December 5, 2016, Issue

Strength in a Tougher World

An outline for a new conservative foreign policy

With Donald Trump’s victory, Republicans are set to reassume the reins of U.S. foreign policy after an absence of eight years. Precisely what a new GOP foreign policy will look like will depend foremost on the preferences of the president-elect, but obviously it should take account of the concerns of voters and the realities abroad. U.S. global leadership remains indispensable, both for American interests and for the world, but must be tailored to a geopolitical landscape that has shifted since Republicans were last in power.

What fueled voters’ support for Trump was in part their worry that the world is changing in alarming ways. Polls showed that for Republican voters, the most important issues besides the economy were terrorism and foreign policy — issues pertaining to America’s relationship with the world. Americans are right to be concerned. The world is becoming more competitive and less susceptible to our influence. Compared with the uniquely favorable post–Cold War “unipolar moment” of the 1990s and 2000s, this new era is likely to be more dangerous, disorderly, and contentious.

It is tempting for Republicans to blame President Obama for these developments. Crises have multiplied on his watch and alliances have grown strained, and he has often seemed blasé about it. Polls show that more than half of Americans disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy. Indeed, many Democratic foreign-policy experts have criticized him.

President Obama’s policies have likely accelerated negative trends in the country’s international standing. But a decline in Americans’ perceptions of U.S. power and influence started not in 2009 but years earlier. This suggests that the need for self-reflection is bipartisan; it also indicates that something deeper is afoot than the failure of any single policy.

What is transpiring in the world is not the decline of the United States, but the rise of other countries. Economic might, once concentrated in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, is diffusing. China’s gross domestic product likely already rivals that of the United States, and India’s economy will be the world’s third largest by the middle of the century. The National Intelligence Council reckons that the U.S. share of global power as measured by economic wealth, military strength, and the like will narrow from a quarter in the early part of the century to a sixth by mid century. That of Japan and traditional U.S. allies in Europe, moreover, is likely to shrink even more.

Increasingly, other states are transforming their growing economic power into military power. While other militaries, such as China’s, have long been larger than the United States’ in sheer manpower, it is their accelerating modernization that is most worrisome today. Cutting-edge military capabilities such as armed drones, precision-guided munitions, and anti-access/area-denial systems have proliferated. China is building a military that can challenge the United States in the western Pacific, and Russia one that can do so — albeit in more limited ways — in Eastern Europe.

Furthermore, the established international order faces increasing challenges. Democracy — whose gradual spread had previously seemed inexorable — has been receding since 2006 as measured by the number of electoral democracies in the world and by levels of freedom and civil liberties globally. The tide of free-market capitalism has slowed since the financial crisis, and trade agreements have stalled.

Other countries, meanwhile, have increasingly sought to challenge the West for the right to shape the international order. China and Russia have become more assertive in advancing their own approaches to issues ranging from territorial control in the South China Sea and Crimea to the rules of the global commons to the terms of trade. Not only “fence-sitter” countries but close U.S. allies are becoming more cautious about signing on to American initiatives or resisting those of American rivals. Witness for example Washington’s failure to rally opposition to Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with even the U.K. rebuffing U.S. overtures.

The U.S. can maintain its preeminent position in the world. But doing so will require us to confront these challenges and craft a foreign policy capable of overcoming them rather than hoping to turn back the clock. American power and influence remain enormous. Yet we will not once again enjoy the relative advantages we had following World War II or after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor can we expect that a strategy of general retrenchment will do anything but delay our reckoning with threats and crises and place them on terms less favorable to us.

What should define U.S. foreign policy going forward is an appreciation of the importance of preserving and expanding American power and employing it strategically and efficiently in a more constrained and competitive geopolitical environment. This means going beyond the debates of past decades between neoconservatives and realists, which centered on whether, how, and to what purposes to deploy a surplus of American power. These are no longer pressing questions when power is increasingly at a premium.

U.S. power should be deployed not to solve the world’s problems for their own sake but to clearly advance U.S. interests. Brokering a solution to a conflict or other problem overseas is sometimes sound strategy, but only if the benefits for us outweigh the costs. Sometimes solutions are out of reach and all we can do is safeguard our interests.

But understanding and focusing on our interests should not mean casting aside the pillars of our post–World War II engagement with the world — global leadership, strong alliances, and liberal institutions — or failing to understand and take account of the interests of others. The U.S.-led order has served us well and has been one of the most important channels for projecting American influence. The rise of powers antithetical to it means that it must be updated and strengthened, not abandoned, since what replaced it might be far less congenial to us. Alliances will be more, not less, important in an era when U.S. power will not be as predominant. We need allies and partners not just to share burdens but to help balance and resist the challenging powers — and they need us.

In short, U.S. foreign policy must become more focused, pragmatic, and competent. Ends and means must match, which in Iraq in 2003 they did not, nor did they more recently in Syria and the South China Sea. We must expand our military and diplomatic capabilities, backing our diplomacy with force and vice versa, using our manifold policy tools in concert rather than in sequence. We must also seek to prevent crises and conflicts, and therefore to reemphasize deterrence and strategic planning, rather than wait to deal with problems when they erupt. And we must secure rather than assume the sustainment and extension of our preferred international norms, which will become meaningless if not enforced.

A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that Americans of all parties still believe in U.S. global leadership. As they return to the White House, Republicans should make the case for a foreign policy that will deliver leadership in an increasingly competitive world, and do so successfully and sustainably. This is vital not only for American citizens but also for the multitudes abroad who still regard the United States as the world’s best hope because they so directly know the alternatives.

– Mr. Singh is the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and the managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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