Presidential candidates have begun to nibble around the edges of the most important question of 2016, which is what approach we should take toward the world in the 21st century. This of course is not only an international-affairs question. Foreign-policy decisions bring domestic repercussions and effects. Sometimes they are dramatic and sometimes long-lasting.
The political scientist and global risk strategist Ian Bremmer, a foreign-affairs columnist at Time, has written a book asking Americans themselves to decide what our policy should be, and offering what he sees as three central options.
“America,” he writes, “will remain the world’s only superpower for the foreseeable future. But what sort of superpower should it be? What role should America play in the world? What role do you want America to play?”
The world is in flux, its tectonic plates shifting: Old settlements and dispensations are falling away, new ones are having rough births. No one knows what comes next. No American consensus has emerged. President Obama himself has never chosen or declared a foreign-policy vision, which has made nothing better and some things worse.
The worst choice now, says Mr. Bremmer, is to refuse to choose. We can’t just continue improvising—that has become dangerously confusing to our allies, our rivals and ourselves.
So what way do we want to go?
Mr. Bremmer calls the first option “Independent America.” We can’t be the world’s policeman; we’re not Superman. We must “declare independence from the need to solve other people’s problems and . . . finally realize our country’s enormous untapped potential by focusing our attentions at home.” We spend too much on the military, which not only adds to our debt but guarantees our weapons will be used: “Policymakers will find uses for them to justify their expense,” which will “implicate us in crises that are none of our business.”
In this view, our national-security bureaucracy threatens our own freedoms and strains relations with allies. The hidden costs of war include individual anguish, cultural stress and a demand for secrecy that “poisons American democracy.” Drones seem neat and effective, but their use is dangerous: “Our actions in the Middle East and South Asia make us more vulnerable at home, by persuading a new generation of Pakistanis, Yemenis, and others that it’s better to attack Americans who aren’t wearing state-of-the-art body armor.” Not every country wants democracy. “For all the damage a foolish foreign policy inflicts on US interests abroad, the greatest damage is done in the United States.” It follows that we must reorient our thinking: “It is not power that makes America exceptional. It is freedom.”
Is “Independent America” a pleasant term for isolationism? That charge, Mr. Bremmer argues, “is not meant to shed light but to close conversation”—to dismiss “every legitimate reservation that ordinary Americans have” about U.S. foreign-policy excesses and miscalculations. The best way to promote our values around the world is by “perfecting democracy at home.” Among the priorities: protect the U.S. from a terrorist attack “that might push America permanently off course,” protect our borders and infrastructure, clean up and invest in public education, put more money back in taxpayers’ pockets. Stronger at home will mean stronger in the world, which will note our renewal.
The second choice, according to Mr. Bremmer, is “Moneyball America.” The job of U.S. foreign policy is to make the U.S. safer and more prosperous, full stop. Some things must be done in the world, and “it’s in America’s interest for Americans to do them.” But we are not Hercules, and our resources are finite. We must focus our attentions “where they are best able to promise U.S. national security and economic opportunity.”
We should lead international efforts against terrorism, join coalitions of the willing, build partnerships—“Never walk alone”—do more with less, keep our eye on the bottom line. Our military should be state-of-the-art, but we should look to make the arms race into a trade race. Look to America’s value, not its values. There is no bias toward projecting strength; the U.S. should get over its obsession with looking weak. “Those who make American foreign policy and those who implement it must be guided by both discretion and humility.”
At the end of the day, Mr. Bremmer says of the world, “everyone . . . is playing Moneyball.”
The third choice he calls “Indispensable America.” This involves a burly, all-in commitment to international leadership. It has practical and idealistic aspects; it is a long-term project but one consonant with our greatness as a nation. “America can never establish lasting security and prosperity in the interconnected modern world until we have helped others win their freedom.” We are called to “promote and protect” American values globally. “No one else will fill this breach.” We are the world’s only indispensable nation because only we have the means and will to stabilize international politics and the world economy. America is exceptional, and its work is not finished. “America must now think bigger and in more ambitious terms” than ever before. “We must build an entirely new foreign policy” based on the insight that in a globalized world “we can’t succeed unless others succeed too.” Get over ideas like peacetime and wartime: “We live in a world of permanent tension.” We can’t solve every problem, “but this does not excuse us from the responsibility to solve the ones we can.” As to cost, “the United States can pay its debts by simply printing more money.” At the end of the day the dollar will still be the world’s reserve currency—still the safest port in the world economic storm.
As I read, I found myself wondering how a politician would react. I think he’d find it all both too abstract and too concrete. He would want one from column A (independence of action and a shown concern for the home front), one from column B (of course safety and prosperity are paramount) and one from column C (a known willingness to use unquestioned military power can be a handy thing in the world).
Politicians hate to speak about their vision of America’s immediate place and role in the world for several reasons. They have risen in the ad hoc, provisional, moment-to-moment world of daily politics. That life teaches you long-term plans don’t have to be part of your long-term plan. In foreign policy especially, declaring a clear stand wins you committed enemies and tentative friends. Best to dummy up and speak in generalities.
But at a certain point all the candidates for president, even Hillary Clinton, will have to give a sense of what’s in their heads. They hope to guide U.S. foreign policy for the next eight years. It isn’t asking too much that they speak about where we are and where we ought to be going.
Mr. Bremmer gave his choice at the end of the book. It seemed to me surprising from one who appears to have thrived in the heart of the foreign-policy establishment. He felt the tug of each course but in the end came down for Independent America, and for interesting reasons. Candidates especially could get the book and find out what they are.