The Future of American Internationalism

Hal Brands has published a long and thoughtful essay at War on the Rocks on the future of American Internationalism. Despite its length, or perhaps because of it, the piece is worthy of a careful read.

Echoing themes that I have discussed previously (e.g. here and here), Brands foresees two equally plausible scenarios: a return to the liberal international order (LIO) crafted and sustained by a bipartisan foreign policy elite since the end of World War II; or an enduring shift away from internationalism, a process decades-in-the-making, but hastened by Trump’s presidency.

Brands is cautiously optimistic that the former will eventually prevail, provided that U.S. leaders undertake a series of reforms reflecting new geopolitical and domestic political realities. Fearful that Trump’s isolationism and hyper-nationalism will prevail, I have argued for a third way. U.S. leaders should reiterate their commitment to economic openness and international engagement, but call on other wealthy nations to share in the burdens of maintaining it. And they should back up such rhetoric with actions, by renegotiating decades-long alliance relationships, and avoiding intervening militarily in disputes that do not engage vital U.S. security interests. 

Brands does shade the truth from time to time. For example, he claims that U.S. leaders “sought to sustain a global balance of power that favored America and its democratic allies, and to advance liberal concepts such as democracy and human rights.” A not-complete list of the U.S. government’s perilous partners over the past 70 years reminds us that Washington’s commitment to promoting democracy and human rights has been inconsistent, at best.

  • Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwan)
  • Syngman Rhee/Park Chung Hee/Chun Doo-Hwan (South Korea)
  • Ayub Khan/Zia-ul-Haq/Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan)
  • The House of Saud
  • The Shah of Iran
  • Hosni Mubarak/Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt)
  • Plus a handful (or more) of generals and strongmen in Latin America

And herein lies a deeper point: U.S. foreign policy has often been geared toward advancing U.S. national interests, or, more accurately, how U.S. leaders defined those interests. On the other hand, Washington has wrapped its actions in a veneer of altruism and disinterest, always professing fealty to nobler goals. In his often ham-fisted way, Donald Trump has said publicly what many Americans have always believed: the true object of U.S. foreign policy is to protect U.S. security. When the public grows skeptical that U.S. policy is actually delivering such benefits (e.g. after Vietnam and Iraq), it has pushed for a course correction.

Can Brands’ version of American internationalism square the circle? Can it provide the public what it wants, while allowing U.S. elites to do what they think America, and more importantly the world, needs?

I’m skeptical. Brands calls on U.S. leaders to do at least six things:

1. American leaders will need to aggressively defend U.S. interests and the global order while avoiding the costly quagmires that have left so many Americans disillusioned.
2. They will need to drive harder bargains on burden-sharing and trade.
3. They will need to ensure that the pursuit of an open and profitable trading system does not come at the expense of vulnerable populations at home.
4. They will need to devise ways of better protecting the country’s borders and ensuring homeland security without losing the dynamism and societal rejuvenation that immigration provides.
5. They will need to strengthen the social safety net for those who need it most while also pursuing the reforms necessary to keep those programs — and the U.S. government — solvent over time.
6. They will need to get back to first principles in explaining why America’s global engagement really matters — and what would happen if Washington ceased to play such a role — while also giving more Americans a sense that their foreign policy truly does put them first.

To this list, I would add a seventh:

7. Because maintaining U.S. primacy will cost even more money than the substantial amount that we already spend on the military, U.S. leaders will need to convince Americans that internationalism is worth paying for with higher taxes, lower domestic spending, or, most likely, a combination of both.

I am not aware of any American politician willing to step forward with such a program. And, until that happens, expect Trump’s anti-internationalism to prevail.