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Proposal: Determine a Coherent, Consistent Foreign Policy

In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington warned the American people against the dangers of foreign entanglement. In the 21st Century, after two adventures in the Middle-East, should America continue to try to spread democracy and freedom abroad? Or should we listen to our first president and re-focus toward building a better democracy at home?

The Issue

Problem Defined

The next US President will face major questions on the international stage. He or she must lay out a guiding vision for US foreign policy rather than the patchwork approach used since the Cold War ended. Concerns are:

  •  As China's 30 years of growth slow down, the new economic superpower faces political clashes at home between market-friendly reformers and conservatives benefiting from inefficient state-run enterprises. Such turmoil could spill-over into relations between China and its neighbors in contentious areas like the South China Sea.
  • Aggression from Russia in Ukraine has caused America's allies to question US commitment to NATO. The Baltic States question whether the President would risk a larger war with Russia over their security.
  • A new president will have to clean-up or leave the mess in the Middle East left by the Arab Spring, weak autocratic regimes, and radical Islam. Deciding what is justified in combating terrorism and keeping oil prices stable is key.
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How to define US foreign policy?MORE

The State Department mission "is to shape and sustain a peaceful, prosperous, just, and democratic world and foster conditions for stability and progress for the benefit of the American people and people everywhere." How to do that is the real question because everyone has a different answer. 

The US is in a more vulnerable global positionMORE

We have less influence today than we did after the Cold War. We can't build international coalitions or forge trade agreements as easily as we could 25 years ago. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan hurt US credibility. New power players like Russia and China aren't friendly democracies. New global institutions like the Chinese and Brazilian Development Banks are investing more than the US-led World Bank per year. China is the leading trade partner to 126 nations compared to the US's 78 nations. The time has passed when a president could act unilaterally without long-term international or domestic support.

US foreign policy is Incoherent MORE

President Obama has been unwilling to choose a strategy to either stop or accept that decline. His motto is "Don't do stupid stuff." The administration policy is that a long-term strategy won't work because the world is changing too quickly. However, a strategy is crucial because it helps create principles that define our world view and establish credibility. If we treat each situation individually, our allies and enemies will question our commitments. Ambiguity will make allies unwilling to take the lead and increase chance for miscalculation. 

"We have not had a clear articulation of what American foreign policy is basically since the Cold War."- Former Senator Jim Webb (D-Va) 

In order to discover the truth behind the statement, let's examine foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. 

George H.W. Bush (Sr.) - "A new world order," 1989-1992MORE

 After the end of the Cold War, there was a hole in US foreign policy left from where the threat of communism once stood. Bush Sr. believed that the way to fill this hole was for America to act as the leader of a new global order. A success in the First Gulf War led to the belief that there was no limit on US power. 

The bi-polar world order was gone and replaced by a uni-polar world order with the US at the helm. Bush lost his re-election bid before he could lay out his post-Cold War strategy. 

Bill Clinton - "It's the economy, stupid!" 1993-2000MORE

In the 1992 election, the American people voted for a more domestically-focused candidate at the ballot. Clinton won the election on the promise of ending an economic downturn and stopping a large crime wave (and with some help from Ralph Nader). 

As a result Clinton was left ill-prepared for international crises in Somalia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. Clinton did try to continue Bush's American-led world order legacy, though, when he expanded NATO to former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries at the cost of a humiliated Russia and forge the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

George W. Bush (Jr.) - "A global war on terror," 2001-2008MORE

During his election campaign Bush Jr. preached modest goals and ambitions on US foreign policy.  Then on September 11th, 2001, when the US saw the deadliest direct attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor, the world changed. America demanded a response, and Bush met the challenge with a global war on terror. 

Immediate military action followed against Afghanistan for supporting Al-Qaeda. Two years later, US invaded Iraq on the suspicion that the Iraqi government was building weapons of mass destruction. Taking a pro-active approach to foreign policy, Bush rejected Clinton's domestic-first policy.

Barack Obama - "Hope," 2009-2016MORE

Obama has failed to choose and stick to a foreign policy strategy. During his first-term, he focused on the global economy which was still in the depth of the recession and ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pivoted to Asia based on the region's growing importance to the world economy and world stability.  

However, he was caught off-guard by the Arab Spring and the ensuing civil wars in Libya and Syria. Further, he imposed harsh limits on America's commitment that were tested by new emerging threats like ISIS. Instead of laying out clear stances for enemies and allies, he has created ambiguity that has hurt trust in American power. 

Go deeper
SUPERPOWER: Three Choices for America's Role in the World

Ian Bremmer - ()

Expert Authors

Eurasia Group is made up of highly talented, diverse, and motivated people who are dedicated to defining the business of politics. Headquartered in New York, we also have offices in Washington and London, as well as a vast network of experts around the world.

Ian Bremmer
President - Eurasia Group

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. He founded Eurasia Group in 1998 with just $25,000. Today, the company has offices in New York, Washington, and London, as well as a network of experts and resources around the world. Eurasia Group provides financial, corporate, and government clients with information and insight on how political developments move markets.

Dr. Bremmer created Wall Street's first global political risk index, and has authored several books, including the national bestsellers, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World and The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? Bremmer is a contributor for the Financial Times A-List and Reuters.com, and writes "The Call" blog on ForeignPolicy.com. He has also published articles in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, Harvard Business Review, and Foreign Affairs. He appears regularly on CNBC, Fox News Channel, National Public Radio, and other networks.

Dr. Bremmer holds a PhD in political science from Stanford University (1994) and a BA from Tulane University; he was the youngest-ever National Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He teaches at Columbia University and has held faculty positions at the East-West Institute and the World Policy Institute. In 2007, he was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. His analysis focuses on global macro political trends and emerging markets, which he defines as "those countries where politics matter at least as much as economics for market outcomes." 

A native of Boston, he now lives in New York and Washington, DC.

Catherine Reidy
James Skala
Student - Northwestern University

The Solution

Proposed Actions
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Why choose a foreign policy?MORE

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."-Theodore Roosevelt

America continues to be hurt by its failure to choose a foreign policy strategy for the upcoming decades. We need the help of the American people to debate different roles for the US in the world. 

The following three proposals are the three most broad and foreseeable courses for the US to pursue. None is perfect. But failure to choose one could do more harm than picking the "wrong thing". Each comes with different implications and ramifications. So our challenge to the reader is to find the one that resonates the most with you, pick it, and debate it with your fellow Americans. The only wrong choice is to not pick one at all.

An America that is independentMORE

"Democracy is something we must always be working at. It is a process never finished, never ending." - Edmund de S. Brunner

America cannot be an example for the world, if it doesn't live up to its ideals of democracy, freedom, and prosperity at home. America has overreached since the end of the Cold War and become the world's policeman. Our conflicts have not improved the lives of ordinary Iraqis, Afghani, or Libyans. Most Americans don't want the US to go to war against Russia over the fate of Ukraine. Our global image is damaged when people see the hypocrisy of condemning fake elections in Venezuela and lauding Egypt for hollow reforms. 

Our adventures also have a cost for ourselves. Democracy is fragile and we need to protect it. Instead of $1 trillion spent rebuilding Afghanistan and Afghanistan, why don't we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure system or close the deficit? Why don't we take the effort we spend negotiating treaties and use that effort to see work on real political reform? 

Independent America does not mean isolationist America, but an America that simply allows the rest of the world to solve its own problems. The EU countries are strong, yet sit passive behind American security guarantees. Our prosperous democracy at home will then inspire other countries to work toward actual reform to prosper like us.

An America that plays by the rules of moneyballMORE

"Reason is a very light rider, and easily shook off." - Jonathan Swift

Moneyball America is all about rationality and practicality, the attributes that made America strong in the past. The problem with American foreign policy is that we mix up moral values with strategic ones. America has become too stretched out and we have tried too force our values on others. We shouldn't focus on exporting democracy, but protecting our core interests. Independent America argues that we should re-focus domestically in order to become more prosperous, but in a more interconnected world the way to safeguard American prosperity is to look beyond our borders.  The US should focus on areas of strategic interest and ensure that her trade and investment are never jeopardized. While Latin America and Sub-Sahara Africa are important, they don't possess the same threats to vital US economic or security goals. 

  •  In the Middle East, we should work to maintain the regional balance of power by forging a more pragmatic, constructive relationship with a non-nuclear Iran. The region is still vital to the global economy through oil and trade and so requires the US to guarantee the security of allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. 
  •  In Europe, the EU should bear the brunt of the effort against Russian aggression due to their closer economic ties. We shouldn't ignore the Ukraine, but we don't have a moral responsibility to Ukraine. We should use affordable means of punishment on Russia like sanctions, visa bans, and asset freezes. Only if Russia attacks our formal alliance partners, should the US respond in direct confrontation. 
  •  In East Asia, we should strengthen economic interdependence with China and other regional players. The US can benefit from China's rise while gaining stronger leverage and ensuring our security. With stronger trade ties, countries like Japan and Vietnam also then won't become economically dependent on China.
An America that is indispensableMORE

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." -George Bernard Shaw

We believe in American exceptionalism, because the values that made America great can be used globally. To meet the challenges of an interconnected 21st century, America must shape a world where the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are basic human rights, not just dreams. Indispensable America is a global policeman that protects national sovereignty and encourages democratic transformation.

  • Independent America is right that we need a strong nation, but we strengthen with military alliances, economic cooperation, and the spread of ideas. We need strong commercial and trading partners so that our companies can invest and trade abroad. Democracies are friendlier to open markets than autocratic regimes and open markets raise millions out of poverty who then consume US goods.
  • Moneyball America forgets that moral values are tied to strategic ones. Acting strategically, not morally, invites our rivals to do the same and degrades the trust the world places in us. We need to lead multinational efforts to improve health and access to food in the Third World as well as combat terrorism and unlawful aggression. This doesn't mean only government action, instead we can work with NGO's and charities to build a better future for millions.  
  • As the world interconnects, our vital national interests expand. New challenges arise daily to threaten them. America must be vigilante. Just like wining the Cold War, America will need to fight many smaller battles to win the ultimate one, a better future.
Expected Results
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Budget Impact
Net Present Value

The Conversation

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