Foreign policy was the last thing on voters’ minds in the midterm elections, but as we begin 2020, one thing is clear: President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy — or its progressive cousin, retrenchment — is broadly popular in both parties. Trump’s recent decision to withdraw all troops from Syria and 7,000 from Afghanistan has been condemned by Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington, D.C. But it is not at all clear that Americans beyond the Beltway are equally outraged.
The fact is, whatever tolerance most Americans had for the global role the United States embraced after World War II began to fade with the collapse of the Soviet Union and was shattered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis. Whoever takes office in 2020 will have a hard time bucking a trend that preceded Trump and will likely survive him.
Yet that president is going to face an increasingly dangerous world that looks more like the 1930s than the end of history — with populists, nationalists and demagogues on the rise; autocratic powers growing in strength and increasingly aggressive; Europe mired in division and self-doubt; and democracy under siege and vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Then there are the new challenges of our own century — from cyberwarfare to mass migration to a warming planet — that no one nation can meet alone and no wall can contain.
Doubling down on “America First,” with its mix of nationalism, unilateralism and xenophobia, will only exacerbate these problems.
So here is the challenge: Can we find a foreign policy of responsible global engagement that most Americans support, that draws the right lessons from our past mistakes, that steers between the equally dangerous shoals of confrontation and abdication, and that understands the difference between self-interest and selfishness? Such a policy would rest on four pillars:
1. Preventive diplomacy and deterrence
A responsible foreign policy seeks to prevent crises or contain them before they spiral out of control. That requires a combination of active diplomacy and military deterrence.
Successive administrations have underfunded and undervalued our diplomacy, none more dangerously than the present one. With a depleted senior diplomatic corps and key posts still unfilled, with cuts to foreign aid, with tariffs targeted at our closest allies and with confidence in American leadership at a nadir, we are depleting one of our greatest assets: the ability to defuse conflicts and mobilize others in collective action.
Most Americans do not know the role our diplomats have played over the decades in preventing wars between nuclear-armed nations such as India and Pakistan; between Israel and the Arab states; and between China and Japan in the East China Sea. American diplomacy helped end the Cold War, reunify Germany and build peace in the Balkans.
The United States led others to begin addressing climate change, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to fight the Ebola epidemic, to confront the Islamic State and to level economic playing fields.
2. Trade and technology
Trump treats trade as a zero-sum game where “winning” means making more money than the other guy. Some progressive critics see free trade as the source of our greatest inequities.
The reality is more complex. It’s true that global trade, along with rapid technological change, is profoundly disruptive. Managed improperly, it can increase the gap between rich and poor, and fuel fears that today’s jobs will be lost tomorrow. But the fact is, 70 years of free trade also helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, many into a global middle class — which in turn helped produce decades of peace and stability.
Americans have never backed away from the challenges posed by competition and innovation. When we pull out of trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we hand a win to countries such as China. If we opt out, they will shape global trade and innovation to their benefit, not ours.
Together, government and the private sector must renew investments in our human resources — through affordable education, training, health care, housing, infrastructure, research and development — to help our citizens weather the ups and downs of the global economy and the uneven effects of technological change. We need budget and tax policies that put a higher priority on these national requirements.
3. Allies and institutions
The United States doesn’t have to address these challenges or bear these costs alone. After World War II we wisely advanced the security and prosperity of countries that shared our interests, values and fears. Enlightened self-interest produced a community of democracies with new markets for our products, new partners to help meet global challenges and new allies to deter aggression. That strategy produced victory in the Cold War. Turning away from it invites defeat in the struggles that lie ahead. It’s no coincidence that Russia has launched attacks against two nations that are not members of NATO — but has yet to strike a member of the alliance.
To rally and protect ourselves, we must adapt. Our alliances are out of date in one key respect: The United States has European allies and Asian allies, but no institution links the Asian and European democracies. As China’s Belt and Road initiative draws Asia, Europe and the Middle East closer together in ways that serve Beijing’s interests, the democracies also need a global perspective — and new institutions to forge a common strategic, economic and political vision.
4. Immigration and refugees
Finally, we have to contend with the most divisive and destabilizing phenomenon in geopolitics: mass migration. There are more people forcibly on the move around the globe — about 70 million — than at any time since World War II.
Democracies have a right and obligation to control their borders, humanely. But as conflicts and economic, political and climatic crises drive people from their homes, we are not going to solve the problem with barbed wire and bayonets. With allied democracies struggling to cope with greater flows of migrants and refugees, the United States needs to lead, in our own interests, in addressing the causes and consequences of migration. That means doing more, not less, to prevent conflict and help others to withstand migratory shocks and to build strong and resilient democratic institutions.
We must start in our own hemisphere. The answer is not throwing aid at problems; we need to tie our increased investments to genuine reforms in governance, policing, judicial systems and the economy while combating corruption. We also need to bolster our neighbors’ economies by trading with them, just as we did in Europe after World War II.
Americans have been given a false choice. Of course, we need to put America first. But what does that mean? Decades ago, we learned that to advance America’s interests required building and defending a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic world. Nation-building at home and promoting the stability and success of others go hand-in-hand.
We also learned that the world does not govern itself. If the United States abdicates its leading role in shaping international rules and institutions — and mobilizing others to defend them — then one of two things will happen: Either some other power or powers will step in and move the world in ways that advance their interests and values, not ours. Or, more likely, the world will descend into chaos and conflict, and the jungle will overtake us, as it did in the 1930s.
We don’t need to make that mistake a second time. For all the flaws of the present world and the mistakes of our nation, we should not lose sight of what we have accomplished, and of what the world will look like if the United States, shortsightedly, forfeits the future.
Blinken served as U.S. deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017 and deputy national security adviser from 2013 to 2015. Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Post. His latest book is “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.”