A New Vision for American Foreign Policy Part II

In Part I of this brief series, I laid down a brief historical framework for how we have arrived at where we currently find ourselves in history. The point of the Part I is not to litigate old grievances, rather to trace the path of how we arrived at where we currently stand to help us better understand the challenges, problems, and opportunities.

Let us proceed to lay out some broad principles and then narrow that into specific small scale policy examples that broad political swathes should theoretically be able to agree upon. Examining history and the failures coupled with a review of future objectives and challenges gives us parameters to layout a vision of principles for American foreign policy.

  1. Values matter. From strong support for and defense of liberal values like free markets, democracy, and human rights, the United State must lead by example domestically and support them internationally.  Countries and people are attracted to the United States because of the values we support, espouse, and aspire to.  As a superpower slowly declining in relative influence, what matters more long term than the ability to impose an outcome is to create the environment for the mutually agreed values to arrive at a consensus.  The United States must place projecting liberal values at the heart of its foreign policy formulation and be prepared to lead by example.
  2. Alliances matter. Though remaining an absolute superpower, the United States decline in relative terms implies it should attach greater importance to building and maintaining alliances.  As countries from India to China and others grow, absolute power is diffusing more widely and demand greater investment in alliances to promote a liberal, open, democratic order coalescing where possible with likeminded states.  Whether formal or informal in nature, the United States needs to invest in alliances with like minded countries and nurture reformist developing countries that value democracy, human rights, and economic freedom.
  3. Institutions matter. The United States invested in international institutions post-World War II to formalize the commitment to liberal internationalism.  Many of these institutions have either been diverted from their focus or need re-assessment to face new challenges.  Institutions matter by providing benefits and spreading values while punishing violators. Investing in institutions means pushing institutions forward to manage new challenges or creating new ones but institutions help formalize the requirements of states to behave within proscribed boundaries.  The United States must return to valuing institutions and preventing authoritarian use of their influence.
  4. Invest in assets. Military assets have long been seen as valuable tools of global influence projects, however, United States foreign policy needs to invest in other forms of influence projection.  As the United States decline in relative power, due to the rapid rise of others, must increase its investment in non-hard power projection assets.  This can mean a variety of investments from increasing the number of trade agreements to raising development assistance to countries in threatened regions.  The United States needs to invest financially and politically in countries and institutions.
  5. Accept the costs. United States foreign policy suffers from extreme risk aversion to costs or economic losses.  To be the leader, the United States must accept the costs associated with being the leader.  Whether this means making the largest concessions on trade deals or accepting economic losses on trade to push liberal values, the United States must accept that other countries must see the benefit of liberal openness as well as face consequences.  The values of liberal openness, free markets, democracy, and human rights will not spontaneously occur but must be backed by a leader that promotes them and is willing to exclude or punish those that do not share those values.


A New Vision for American Foreign Policy in Broad Practice

We now turn to taking a relatively simple set of principles and wrestle with how to apply them in practice. While significant recent criticism has focused on the Trump administration criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just to name a few, these critiques overlook during the extended period of benign neglect suffered by these institutions and does not give us a framework on how to move beyond short term political critiques.

At the risk of merely touching upon topics that require much more in-depth analysis, let me describe how to apply the principle framework to topics that would benefit from American leadership.  President Trump has criticized the World Trade Organization, rather unfairly and factually incorrect in most respects, however, that does not mean that the WTO should be considered a robust, healthy example of multilateral institutionalism.

The WTO has suffered from the gridlock of having most every country in the world join while simultaneously giving many significant ability to hamper new trade agreements or reforms resulting in a nearly effective veto for each member.  The WTO has been working on its latest reform called the Doha round since 2001 with no end in sight.  Rather than working through the WTO, many countries well before the Trump administration, have been choosing bilateral or limited multilateral channels to address trade issues whether disputes or new agreements.  President Trump and his advisers may not understand the intricacies of WTO dispute resolution or the hurdles to reform, but the WTO does suffer from both its own success, failures, and benign neglect that began well before Trump entered office.

With or without United States influence, independent of the Trump administration, it is quite possible, no more wide reforms will take place in the WTO.  This presents the United States with a conundrum of whether to continue trying to reform an institution that suffers from paralysis or make some type of more fundamental change? The WTO seems ill prepared to deal with protectionist countries who do not enforce rulings and allow wide spread government intervention in trade related matters such as China. This may mean forming an alliance of countries that wish to proceed further with trade, investment, and services opening such as the TPP. It is a political reality that all countries in the world, which is effectively what constitutes current WTO membership, will find it difficult to reach an agreement. Rather than permitting an erosion of these values and standards, American foreign policy should focus on working with countries that share the same values.

In other areas, United States foreign policy must strike a greater balance than absolute priority given to economic interests.  While economic interests should remain primary it should not sacrifice other values at the altar of oppressive authoritarianism.  Access to the US market should not be an unchecked right for countries that fail to abide by their agreements and engage in gross human rights violations. The preference for economic advancement should not obliterate any concern for the rules of engagement or the associated human costs.

The current economic disputes with China result from an aggregation of pressure that previous administrations chose not to address.  From currency manipulation, trade and investment restrictions, lack of continued reform upon WTO membership, intellectual property theft and lack of enforcement, to repeated and serious human rights violations, recent United States economic policy towards China is marked by never ending appeasement based upon economic threats.  While entirely fair to debate and criticize the Trump administration’s methods, stated objectives, proposed solutions, and others technical matters, it is however, factually false to believe that United States economic foreign policy historically focused on Asia and specifically China adhered to, defended, and vigorously promoted our values.

Within the framework we have defined how we formulate policy charts the course of how to manage the relationship with China.  The United States must be willing to emphasize that other factors beyond pure economic gain matter and be willing to accept the costs of defending liberal international values.  China and other authoritarian illiberal states will not simply adopt these values if the United States is unwilling to defend them.

United States foreign policy must create a long-term policy framework to address Chinese economic malpractice that seek to alter the rules of international cooperation. There are numerous possible steps the United States foreign policy should address.  For instance, defining incremental steps that can be taken to raise pressure to address Chinese protectionism in trade and investment such as targeting firms that aid sanctioned states like North Korea and Iran.  Expand the definition of what American wants out of its trade relationship with China beyond specific discrete economic benefit covering market function, rule of law, and respect for human rights encompassing the right to assemble and form unions.

To defend and project its values more broadly as countries face pressure between competing bipolar powers, the United States must invest in countries and institutions.

Specific Small Scale Policy Recommendations

  1. Development programs like the Millennium Project and Peace Corp have changed the international landscape. The United States foreign policy should consider similar projects with slightly different populations and objectives.  With baby boomers retiring, there is a wealth of able bodied people that could enticed to give their expertise around the world teaching, providing business, or public administration expertise in lesser developed countries.  To minimize the financial burden, the United States could accelerate social security for those not yet old enough to qualify coupled with additional funding and access to Medicare overseas for those who join the program.
  2. The youthful world is clamoring for higher education. United States development assistance would be well advised to have a program which both funded US academic jobs in overseas institutions or created new institutions. Raising up liberal institutions is vital to the establishment of values systems. Given the surplus of Phd educated graduates every year versus the number of available academic jobs, the United States could invest tangibly in US educated graduates and other countries.
  3. Rejoining the struggle for human rights in all layers of foreign policy from trade agreements to representation on the United Nations Human Rights Council. The United States foreign policy establishment must abandon the end of history theory that values will attract good behavior by other actors.  Absent the incentivization of good behavior yielding benefits and bad behavior producing consequences, authoritarian regimes have little reason to alter their behavior.  A simple way is to attach stronger human rights language to trade deals specifically multilateral FTAs.
  4. The United States Agency for International Development should increase its budget focusing on concessionary loans combined with debt forgiveness based upon specific incentives. The United States has historically targeted softer type development projects in areas like education and health services and less on infrastructure development.  The reality is that development assistance provides many benefits to the donor as well as to the recipient.  The United States could push development assistance in a range of sectors that both helps American business but also builds expertise in developing countries.  From advanced education and health provision with tech firms to infrastructure development such as telecommunications backbones and basic construction, the United States could make a significant impact with a minimal budget impact.
  5. The United States should make large immediate wide market access available to the least developed countries based upon criteria such as economic and human rights reforms or progress. From tariff free access on low skilled and wage products to other benefits, the United States strength stems in part from its ability to lead by example.  Trade and economic growth bestow a range of benefits that the United States should make immediately available to countries who demonstrate progress in economic reform and good governance.

The Challenge in American Foreign Policy

The fundamental confrontation facing United States foreign policy is the rise of authoritarianism. In 2018, United States foreign policy seems ill prepared or equipped to engage in a battle of values, but confronting rising authoritarianism led by China necessitates standing proud and defending globally universal values of democracy, human rights, and free markets is the primary challenge.

While the international relations debate stems primarily around conflict due to rising and declining relative power, this entirely obfuscates the dividing line between China and the United States: the values of each country and how they apply to global and domestic governance.  China is an expansionist authoritarian nominally Communist state bent on exporting its model of governance.  United States foreign policy must stand firm and defend the universal principles confronting the isolationist and oppressive values represented by Chinese governance.  Any conception of the US-China relationship and broader foreign policy that does not place these values at their heart lacks the moral courage to confront their rise. These should not be secondary or tertiary values, but fundamental and primary.

Arguably the greatest blow delivered by China is making people believe the lie that isolationist authoritarian governance is superior to open liberal democracy as a way to organize the state.  Western values of human rights, democracy, and open markets are universal and superior, to the oppressive authoritarianism pushed by the Chinese Communist Party. Everything the United States does in foreign policy must be framed not as great power competition with a rising state but as standing firm in the values of openness, democracy, and respect for human rights.  Aaron Friedberg defined the problem like this:

If there is a single theme that unifies much of what follows, it is the often underestimated importance of political beliefs and ideology. America’s post-Cold War strategy for dealing with China was rooted in prevailing liberal ideas about the linkages between trade, economic growth and democracy, and a faith in the presumed universality and irresistible power of the human desire for freedom. The strategy pursued by China’s leaders, on the other hand, was, and still is, motivated first and foremost by their commitment to preserving the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on domestic political power. The CCP’s use of militant nationalism, its cultivation of historic claims and grievances against foreign powers, and its rejection of the idea that there are, in fact, universal human values are essential pieces of its programme for mobilising popular support and bolstering regime legitimacy. It is impossible to make sense of the ambitions, fears, strategy and tactics of China’s present regime without reference to its authoritarian, illiberal character and distinctive, Leninist roots…. If they wish to respond effectively to these new realities, American and allied policymakers cannot afford to downplay the ideological dimension in their own strategy. Beijing’s obsessive desire to squelch dissent, block the inward flow of unfavourable news and discredit ‘so-called universal values’ bespeaks an insecurity that is, in itself, a form of strategic vulnerability. China’s rulers clearly believe the ideological realm to be a crucially important domain of competition, one that they would be only too happy to see the United States and the other Western nations ignore or abandon.[1]

Every facet of the US-China relationship must be viewed through the prism of CCP insecurity just as US foreign policy must be viewed through the lens of what values we promote globally.  The great power conflict between the United States and China is not about rising and declining power but about the vision of state power.  The universal ideals of democracy, human rights, and free markets championed by most every developed country or an adherence to authoritarianism, oppression, and closed markets. We should never apologize or shrink from these values.

Finally, United States foreign policy must avoid pointless semantical debates about the historical analogy of Chinese authoritarianism.  The organization of the Chinese state, channels of influence, and global politics differ markedly from the Cold War. China does not specifically seek to export Communist revolution and valid debate over whether China even qualifies as a Communist state.  However, the fundamental threat to democracy, human rights, and open markets differs little.  The CCP may use its influence on the UN Human Right Council to suppress discussion of its human rights violations or financial influence to silence overseas from covering its closed markets, however, this does not change the fact of their existence.  Beijing is not neutral about the principles, domestically or international, the United States and other liberal democracies view as fundamental and universal.  The Chinese threat to global values is real and high regardless the name given.



The United States remains the dominant and leading power in the world today.  However, we have turned inwards and content expecting the ideas and values we hold to perpetuate and grow of their own volition.  The United States must recommit itself to the peaceful spread of freedom, democracy, human rights, and open markets challenging authoritarianism everywhere we find it. The attraction of America is driven as much as by the ideas and values that we stand for providing opportunity and freedom which withstand the threat of closed authoritarianism which confronts the world today. United States foreign policy must be willing to accept that there will be costs to promoting and defending the values we hold. There is no costless reward for pushing free trade, but the United States cannot stand firm on liberal values without recognizing the risks by allowing unchecked authoritarianism. The challenge of expansionary authoritarianism is real and must be confronted by an alliance and investment from freedom loving states that will not tolerate this assault upon the values we hold dear.

[1] “Competing with China” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 60(3) pp. 7-64