Shadow Government

A blueprint for restoring American exceptionalism

The Obama administration's minimalist foreign policy, animated by domestic political expediency and a cramped view of America's responsibilities to uphold the liberal international order from which it has benefited so richly, can lead observers to forget what a more traditionally engaged foreign policy even looks like. The new national security strategy developed by a bipartisan group under the aegis of the Project for a United and Strong America fills that gap. It maps out a robust vision of a foreign policy guided by the belief that the United States is not "the dispensable nation" but in fact has a singular role to play in sustaining a world safe for the values and interests of free peoples. 

As attested by the bipartisan constitution of the group that produced the report -- chaired by Kurt Volker of the McCain Institute and Jim Goldgeier of American University and drafted by Ash Jain of the German Marshall Fund -- this is not a Republican or Democratic vision. It is an American internationalist ambition that pays tribute to the legacies of Truman and Reagan. It is also a potent antidote to the policies of retrenchment and buck-passing that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2009. 

As the report argues, America's power, reach, network, and example are, in fact, exceptional:

The United States remains the single greatest economic, military, and political power in the world. It has a unique ability to mobilize actions by allies and friends and to project force and influence on a global scale. Through its own commitment to democratic values, its protection of human rights, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice, and its capacity for adaptation and renewal, the United States continues to inspire efforts to realize these values in societies around the world. For years to come, no other nation can play this role.

Nor can the United States simply retreat from the world's trouble spots and assume that its position and interests will be unaffected:

The world is not a passive and neutral playing field, but one in which competing views and interests are constantly being pressed. U.S. interests are continually being challenged.... In this environment, a lack of active U.S. leadership can lead to a steady erosion of U.S. interests. The United States not only has the unique ability to lead, but an imperative to do so -- for the protection of its own national interests and values, as well as for the advancement of democratic values, human development, and security around the world. The protection of these values in turn reinforces the long-term security and well-being of the United States.

What is wrong with a foreign policy that brings American forces home from hot spots like Afghanistan, stays out of messy civil wars like that in Syria, largely leaves allies like Israel and Japan to their own devices, and engages vital parts of the Islamic world mainly through long-distance drone strikes?

[T]he distinguishing feature of America's global role since its founding has been its broad-based conception of national security -- the belief that the advancement of an open, rules-based international order that promotes universal values of liberty, democracy, human dignity, and economic freedom is essential to the security and economic vitality of the United States.

To put American foreign policy back on a more traditional footing of values-based engagement with the world, the report recommends a strategy guided by: 

  • reconstructing the foundation of American strength and competitiveness
  • pursuing a vigorous, proactive leadership role that reflects our responsibilities as the world's indispensable nation
  • actively and consistently promoting the universal values that reinforce a liberal, democratic world order.

Acknowledging limited resources in an age of debt and deficits, it calls for cost-effective investments in our core capacities of economic vitality, preeminent military power, and foreign assistance, while pursuing smarter public diplomacy and more effectively leveraging the capabilities America's many allies and partners offer in support of our joint objectives. 

Beyond managing near-term challenges posed by Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, North Korea, global terrorism, and economic weakness in the Eurozone, the report wisely calls for a set of longer-term, strategic investments to reinforce American security and prosperity for coming generations.  These include:

  • bolstering the rules-based global economy
  • advancing energy security and alternative energy technologies
  • supporting democratic transitions and basic rights in the wider Middle East
  • managing China's rising power, given the dangers it poses to the liberal order
  • bolstering strategic partnership with India, given its role in reinforcing a favorable balance of power and values
  • establishing a new prosperity initiative that targets Africa's enormous potential
  • promoting a prosperous, secure, and democratic Western Hemisphere.

As the report concludes:

What is essential is that facing limited resources, the United States must make choices and engage strategically. The issues identified above represent either those crisis areas where the United States has no choice but to engage, or alternatively, where it can make strategic investments to help shape the global playing field long into the future. A national security strategy that focuses on these critical challenges and investments -- while based on the core principles of advancing a liberal democratic order and a proactive American global leadership role -- offers the best opportunity to assure the long-term security and prosperity of the United States, its citizens, and the global democratic community.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Laying out a new foreign policy vision

In the prevailing debates about American foreign policy, it seems that some of the emerging fault lines fall across each political party more than between them. Tom Wright argued this point persuasively here the other week when he identified the competing camps of "restrainers" and "shapers" among the Democrats contending for control of the Obama Administration's foreign policy. A similar dynamic is in play among Republicans as emerging Senate leaders such as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio seek to point the party either in the foreign policy tradition of Robert Taft's restrained unilateralism or of Ronald Reagan's assertive internationalism. 

Against this backdrop, I wanted to follow up on Dan Twining's thoughtful post on the release today of the "Setting Priorities for American Leadership" report by the Project for a United and Strong America. [In full disclosure, along with Dan and several other Shadow Government contributors, I also served on the task force that helped produce the document]. Notably, the report was crafted by a bipartisan collection of foreign policy experts with experience in the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations and offers a blueprint for a national security strategy for the United States. During this season of acute partisan division, I think the fact that such a bipartisan group could come together in agreement is notable in its own right, and I hope it is at least a modest indicator of the possibilities of bipartisan consensus on American national security priorities and policies.

Of course many articulate critics of American foreign policy from both the left and the right lament this very notion of "bipartisan consensus." In their minds, American national security policy has been captured and institutionalized by a Beltway monopoly in both parties that overpays for the defense budget, overcommits American resources abroad, overstretches our military, and overpromises what American foreign policy can actually deliver - regardless of which party controls the White House. In a time of almost unprecedented fiscal constraints and national exhaustion from multiple prolonged wars, such a critique is understandable and must be considered. But it also has its own internal contradictions and inadequacies and in my mind is ultimately insufficient as a guide to what America's role in the world should be. I hope the Obama administration will resist the seductions of adopting a more passive international role, though recent signs are not encouraging. Hence I'm happy to endorse the effort by the Project for a United and Strong America to reassert the need for American global leadership even amidst austerity -- not because it is easy or without its downsides, but because it is a better course than all of the other alternatives. I hope Shadow Government readers will also find the report an edifying read.  

Alex Wong/Getty Images