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Preserving American leadership

Can I prove myself wrong? Maybe!

American flag (Bigstock)

Late last week Heather Hurlburt did a mitzvah and wrote an excellent Lawfare review essay on the current state of debate over U.S. grand strategy. She noted, “though the authors include Republicans, Democrats and people unaffiliated with either party, all share an eagerness for a day when Donald Trump and his acolytes are not running U.S. foreign policy, and each seeks to push forward the national security community’s preparations for that day.”

Hurlburt was kind enough to include my recent Foreign Affairs essay in her discussion. While she suggested that I was part of the camp “insisting that the U.S. leadership role can be recouped, and that the investment needed to do so would be worthwhile,” I fear she might have overestimated the optimism contained in that essay. I literally wrote, “In most Foreign Affairs articles, this is the moment when the writer calls for a leader to exercise the necessary political will to do the right thing. That exhortation always sounded implausible, but now it sounds laughable.”

Still, nihilism is not my natural métier. After that essay’s publication, I’ve received queries from surprising places that (a) agree with my diagnosis of the problem but (b) want to know if there’s a remedy. If one believes that it is in the U.S. national interest to continue to exercise leadership, how can that leadership be sustained? To put it more plainly: can I prove my nihilist sentiments wrong?

That is exactly the kind of challenge any self-respecting academic would accept. Recall my primary concern in that essay: a combination of Ideas Industry effects, political polarization, and the erosion of checks and balances on the presidency have created a system where presidents had amassed unfettered foreign policy authorities but may also find all their actions reversed by their successor from the opposing party: “The question is not what U.S. foreign policy can do after Trump. The question is whether there is any viable grand strategy that can endure past an election cycle.”

So, can this be fixed? Maybe. If I were advising an incoming administration on what to do to preserve and restore U.S. leadership in the world, here’s my proposed set of policies, in sequence:

1. Reverse all Trump executive actions as soon as possible. As previously noted, an awful lot of Trump’s foreign policy legacy consists solely of executive actions; most of the controversial bits can be reversed as quickly as possible. And I mean everything: lift the tariffs on steel and aluminum, lift the tariffs on China, rejoin JCPOA (or, if that is not possible, restart nuclear negotiations with Iran), the Paris climate accords and the U.N. Human Rights Council, end the declared state of emergency on the Southern border, the whole smash.

The idea here would be to signal to the rest of the world that the Age of Trump was a blip and not a trend. Obviously this would not extend to anything ratified by Congress, such as USMCA (if that happens). However, in many ways these very revocations would further confirm my claim that foreign policy is now being conducted by presidential whim. So this would be a weak signal, but still an initial gesture of good faith. Then ...

2. Develop a sanctions doctrine. One area where the United States continues to exercise unparalleled power is in the financial realm. The Trump administration’s sanctions addiction, however, has gotten so bad that it is roiling allies and rivals alike into finding ways to route around the dollar. As Jack Lew and Richard Nephew have warned, this is a brilliant way to erode U.S. structural power.

One way to forestall this decline is to articulate a set of principles under which the United States would choose to resort to financial statecraft. What are the conditions under which the United States would act unilaterally? When would secondary sanctions be considered? This should come in the form of a presidential speech at the Treasury Department. And these criteria better be pretty damn stringent; otherwise this will not reassure anyone.

A key part of this would be a willingness to work with Congress to reform the tools the Trump administration has abused, including Section 232 of the 1962 Trade Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The goal would be to forestall more concerted action by U.S. allies to widen the workarounds for U.S. financial sanctions.

3. Create a White House Council of Foreign Affairs Advisers. Foreign policy is just as important to the White House as economic policy, so I see no reason why political scientists should not get their own council. This would have the added benefit of bolstering presidential reliance on expertise, which I hear has been a problem as of late. This council would differ from the National Security Council in providing a bigger picture on how U.S. foreign policy connects to U.S. national interests. It could also take over the lead on drafting the U.S. National Security Strategy.

Is empowering international relations academics self-serving? You betcha! It would nonetheless be another way to bridge the gap between policymakers and scholars.

4. Create a bipartisan National Commission on Reforming America’s Foreign Policy Architecture. National commissions are often ways to turf out problems that cannot be immediately resolved. Still, they can matter on occasion, and this might be one of those times. In her essay, Hurlburt wrote, “writers from hard-bitten realists to antiwar liberals to internationalist conservatives nearly all see a continuing role for at least some parts of the alliances and multilateral organizations against which Trump and his enablers have successfully rallied their supporters.” This suggests that it might be possible to assemble a group of progressives, liberal internationalists, conservatives and even populists to discuss whether there are common foundations for how to make the foreign policy machinery run better, the proper allocation of resources, how to get Congress more involved and how to ensure that commitments last beyond a presidential terms. Finally ....

5. Educate the public. None of this will work unless there is some buy-in from the American people. This requires a president willing to forego Executive Time to actually connect the vagaries of foreign policy to bread-and-butter issues for U.S. citizens. Ironically enough, this might be Trump’s greatest long-term service to U.S. foreign policy. By constantly disrupting the machine, he has highlighted the costs of those disruptions. The polling data suggest that a message of the importance of credible commitments would register with the American people. The next president has to sell it, however.

Will any of this work? I don’t know. But that’s what I have. I think it would be worth trying.