Once again, the United States is adrift in the world. Foreign Affairs framed a recent issue as an “intervention” for a country searching for a strategy. Last year, the Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis brought us On Grand Strategy, a historically informed plea to reject the gross vanity and grand visions of recent decades and bound foreign policy within limited means. Warnings about American imperialism that stuffed bookshelves and newsfeeds a decade ago have been replaced by warnings about imminent collapse.
While the madness peculiar to the Trump administration has needlessly amplified the chaos of this moment, the confusion is not surprising. The closest thing American policy may have to a comfort zone is the gaping hole where grand strategy should be.
Over its short history, the United States has stumbled toward world leadership. Continental and overseas expansion were accompanied by a disastrous civil war and atrocities that undermined the country’s moral authority. Late entry into two world wars did little to boost U.S. preparedness or to shape peace terms that prevented new rounds of conflict. As Fareed Zakaria reminds us, many experts who viewed post-Cold War unipolarity in real time saw it as illusory or fleeting: first due to the evident power of Germany and Japan, then due to the threat of violent extremism, and now due to competition with China and Russia.
The most coherent U.S. national security strategies have been anything but unambiguous guides for action. The Monroe Doctrine was riddled with contradictions and compromises at its creation, and the declaration of an exclusively American sphere of influence has not prevented foreign meddling by European powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, by the Soviets during the Cold War, or by China and Russia today. Later in life, George Kennan insisted the United States could contain communism only selectively. The logic that helped bring down the Berlin Wall also entangled successive U.S. governments in Vietnam and dozens of lesser blunders.
Grand strategy in the American context, then, is less coherent plan than political improvisation, as Ionut Popescu and others have argued. Leaders must adapt to situations that have historical echoes but no real precedent. Their blueprints for success may be clear in conception, but they are muddled in execution by the complexities of the world and the ways that powerful internal and external actors respond to each other.
The best an American strategy for a multipolar world can do is provide a general theory for maintaining national advantages. There are many ways to calculate a country’s comparative standing in international relations, but all the numbers ultimately derive from the choices leaders have made or avoided, which in turn depend on their values. American ideas should be the source of U.S. strategy, and advancing good ideas will advance the wealth and safety of the nation.
The reason to refocus U.S. policy on values is clear. Big ideas clearly do not run the show in Washington today, despite half-hearted efforts to put an intellectual sheen on presidential pinballing. Purely transactional relationships, moral equivocation in the form of “whataboutism,” and the rejection of inconvenient facts as “fake news” are now indistinguishable features of the current administration and its more authoritarian rivals. Emulating China and Russia, however, is a less likely source of American advantage than principles that have benefited the United States while weakening the foundations of autocracy.
Openness. Many of America’s best opportunities in the coming decades arise from its ability to defend the rights and resources that all nations share. A defining feature of illiberal great powers is their desire for exclusive spheres of influence. China has flouted international law and put the economic and physical security of its neighbors at risk by claiming larger swaths of the South China Sea. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has met with resistance from supposed partners, who have pushed to halt or scale back projects they view as “new colonialism” and a “debt trap.” Russia has sought to curb the United States, sow discord in Europe and present a general challenge to liberal ideals by propping up dictators and funding political warfare aimed at subverting the legitimacy of Western governments.
America can position itself favorably by taking another route: promoting open and fair trade, defending access to the global commons, and pushing back against unattributable efforts to manipulate the internal affairs of other states. Mira Rapp-Hooper and Rebecca Friedman Lissner have deftly defined what a commitment to openness looks like. Support and reform organizations and agreements the United States has championed from the start, like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Rejoin pacts that are widely supported by other liberal nations, such as the Paris climate accord or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Lead a push for better international rules in space, cyberspace, and fields of disruptive science like artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
Partnerships. The United States cannot take on this global role to promote openness alone, so leaders must renew America’s commitment to international partnerships. Chinese and Russian influence is grounded in complex systems of coercion that use all available instruments of national power to woo and subdue other countries. This strategy favors weak relationships defined by opportunism, compliance, or inaction, not strong loyalty or affection. America’s marred but intact record as a reliable, non-coercive partner is an advantage it must continue to exploit.
Being a good partner does not mean U.S. and allied obligations must never change. Democrats and Republicans have large and growing disagreements on the importance of maintaining good relations with allies versus getting other countries to assume more costs for security. These objectives can be complimentary. America does not need to accept free-riding arrangements designed for devastated post-war allies who are now self-sufficient. Nor does it need to petulantly walk away from those agreements unless it wins humiliating concessions. Keeping cooperative efforts moving forward while revising agreements that better share common burdens is a viable and preferable solution.
Supporting Tolerance and Democracy. Chinese and Russian methods of population control and repression of difference and dissent are major problems for both countries. Last week’s violent protests in Hong Kong, the ongoing abuse of the Uighurs and other minority groups, and the imprisonment and torture of political activists are all cracks in the facade of eternal, serene support for the Chinese Communist Party. Vladimir Putin’s merciless campaigns against his enemies are well documented, and, although Putin and his supporters profess the diversity of the Russian Federation, their political fuel burns brightest when sparked by Slavic nationalism, xenophobia, or homophobia.
The United States, despite its checkered history of racism and political dysfunction, is and should remain a model of tolerance and support for democracy. America’s status as an immigrant nation—battered but not broken—is a bulwark against the population crises facing China and Russia, as well as a way to capitalize on the brain drain that occurs when experts choose to flee repressive regimes.
The unfortunate equation of democracy promotion with regime change and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan should not blind U.S. leaders to the fact that supporting democracy is an easier task. The United States must come to grips with the existence of illiberal actors in the world, and it will need to cooperate with some of them. The long-term expansion in the number of democratic governments is just as real, though, and it can be bolstered by privileging partnerships with democracies, supporting non-violent political and press freedoms, and developing common methods to counter authoritarian abuse of democratic systems.
Competence. Finally, the United States must recognize its ability to promote levels of good governance its rivals cannot match. As Michael Beckley has argued, China’s gross gains in national power have come at costs that will be difficult to sustain, given the mismanagement and corruption evident across the intercontinental reach of the BRI or the handling of community grievances at home. Putin’s Russia is less a rising state than a criminal enterprise that has devoted its waning days to becoming an international spoiler.
The United States government can outperform China and Russia, but doing so requires moving away from the compartmentalization of domestic and foreign politics. Government service must become more attractive to a wider range of Americans. That can start with reforming workforce policies, but in the end it rests on the will to strengthen democratic institutions. The path to better foreign policy runs through the thickets of voter access, campaign finance reform, electoral maps, and civic education.
As America adjusts to a new world order, Kori Schake accurately observes that “the biggest risk now is that the United States will in the process of making those changes scrap what is best about its foreign policy.” Trying to beat rivals at their own game puts America behind in what may be a race to the bottom. The advantages the United States can best exploit are those it has consistently enjoyed. For the United States to thrive in decline, make America itself again.