Ivo Daalder, U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing columnist for The Post.
The economic, political and security strategy that the United States has pursued for more than seven decades, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, is today widely questioned by large segments of the American public and is under attack by leading political candidates in both parties. Many Americans no longer seem to value the liberal international order that the United States created after World War II and sustained throughout the Cold War and beyond. Or perhaps they take it for granted and have lost sight of the essential role the United States plays in supporting the international environment from which they benefit greatly. The unprecedented prosperity made possible by free and open markets and thriving international trade; the spread of democracy; and the avoidance of major conflict among great powers: All these remarkable accomplishments have depended on sustained U.S. engagement around the world. Yet politicians in both parties dangle before the public the vision of an America freed from the burdens of leadership.
What these politicians don’t say, perhaps because they don’t understand it themselves, is that the price of ending our engagement would far outweigh its costs. The international order created by the United States today faces challenges greater than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Rising authoritarian powers in Asia and Europe threaten to undermine the security structures that have kept the peace since World War II. Russia invaded Ukraine and has seized some of its territory. In East Asia, an increasingly aggressive China seeks to control the sea lanes through which a large share of global commerce flows. In the Middle East, Iran pursues hegemony by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and the bloody tyranny in Syria. The Islamic State controls more territory than any terrorist group in history, brutally imposing its extreme vision of Islam and striking at targets throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
None of these threats will simply go away. Nor will the United States be spared if the international order collapses, as it did twice in the 20th century. In the 21st century, oceans provide no security. Nor do walls along borders. Nor would cutting off the United States from the international economy by trashing trade agreements and erecting barriers to commerce.
Instead of following the irresponsible counsel of demagogues, we need to restore a bipartisan foreign policy consensus around renewing U.S. global leadership. Despite predictions of a “post-American world,” U.S. capacities remain considerable. The U.S. economy remains the most dynamic in the world. The widely touted “rise of the rest” — the idea that the United States was being overtaken by the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China — has proved to be a myth. The dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, and people across the globe seek U.S. investment and entrepreneurial skills to help their flagging economies. U.S. institutions of higher learning remain the world’s best and attract students from every corner of the globe. The political values that the United States stands for remain potent forces for change. Even at a time of resurgent autocracy, popular demands for greater freedom can be heard in Russia, China, Iran and elsewhere, and those peoples look to the United States for support, both moral and material. And our strategic position remains strong. The United States has more than 50 allies and partners around the world. Russia and China between them have no more than a handful.
The task ahead is to play on these strengths and provide the kind of leadership that many around the world seek and that the American public can support. For the past two years, under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, we have worked with a diverse, bipartisan group of Americans and representatives from other countries to put together the broad outlines of a strategy for renewed U.S. leadership. There is nothing magical about our proposals. The strategies to sustain the present international order are much the same as the strategies that created it. But they need to be adapted and updated to meet new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.
For instance, one prime task today is to strengthen the international economy, from which the American people derive so many benefits. This means passing trade agreements that strengthen ties between the United States and the vast economies of East Asia and Europe. Contrary to what demagogues in both parties claim, ordinary Americans stand to gain significantly from the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the agreement will increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion. The United States also needs to work to reform existing international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, so that rising economic powers such as China feel a greater stake in them, while also working with new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to ensure that they reinforce rather than undermine liberal economic norms.
The revolution in energy, which has made the United States one of the world’s leading suppliers, offers another powerful advantage. With the right mix of policies, the United States could help allies in Europe and Asia diversify their sources of supply and thus reduce their vulnerability to Russian manipulation. Nations such as Russia and Iran that rely heavily on hydrocarbon exports would be weakened, as would the OPEC oil cartel. The overall result would be a relative increase in our power and ability to sustain the order.
The world has come to recognize that education, creativity and innovation are key to prosperity, and most see the United States as a leader in these areas. Other nations want access to the American market, American finance and American innovation. Businesspeople around the world seek to build up their own Silicon Valleys and other U.S.-style centers of entrepreneurship. The U.S. government can do a better job of working with the private sector in collaborating with developing countries. And Americans need to be more, not less, welcoming to immigrants. Students studying at our world-class universities, entrepreneurs innovating in our high-tech incubators and immigrants searching for new opportunities for their families strengthen the United States and show the world the opportunities offered by democracy.
Finally, the United States needs to do more to reassure allies that it will be there to back them up if they face aggression. Would-be adversaries need to know that they would do better by integrating themselves into the present international order than by trying to undermine it. Accomplishing this, however, requires ending budget sequestration and increasing spending on defense and on all the other tools of international affairs. This investment would be more than paid for by the global security it would provide.
All these efforts are interrelated, and, indeed, a key task for responsible political leaders will be to show how the pieces fit together: how trade enhances security, how military power undergirds prosperity and how providing access to American education strengthens the forces dedicated to a more open and freer world.
Above all, Americans need to be reminded what is at stake. Many millions around the world have benefited from an international order that has raised standards of living, opened political systems and preserved the general peace. But no nation and no people have benefited more than Americans. And no nation has a greater role to play in preserving this system for future generations.