Realism Abroad, Idealism at Home: An Alternative Vision for ‘America First’
Depending on what type of reader you are, the title outlined above will mean a variety of things. Whether you’re a seasoned student of foreign policy or a layman looking for some perspective, the terms above have likely come across your news feed at some point. I ask you now to forget everything you know about them. We’re going to try a thought experiment.
Pretend, for a moment, that you have never encountered any of these terms. Pretend that you live in a world where the term realism does not subconsciously associate with ‘isolationism’ or ‘global retreat.’ Forget, moreover, that realism refers to a formal theory of international behavior; just think of it as a set of instincts that emphasize being realistic about the world and about people. Pretend that idealism is not a watchword for liberal utopianism at home or neoconservative ‘nation-building’ abroad, and instead think of it as a humble belief in the legitimacy of values and the ability for some values to be more exceptional than others. Likewise, forget everything you have heard, read or felt about America First. It will not help you where we intend to go. And finally, set aside the fact that the author of this piece is a conservative Republican.
The goal here is to suspend the comical state of reality in 2017 and contemplate, for a brief moment, the world as it actually exists. Beyond the headlines, false binaries, and alternative facts of our political theater and mainstream media, meaningful debates are being had about what America’s role ought to be in a world where it is no longer the sole superpower and where liberal-democratic values do not universally hold sway. In this Twilight Zone of civil exchange, where reasoned argument, cordiality, and a shared sense of American identity are the basis for dialogue, an alternative vision for America First — one buttressed on its flanks by prudent realism abroad and reenergized idealism at home — is beginning to take shape.
Getting to Reality
This alternative vision rests on a few key pillars. The first among these is the basic idea that when it comes to international politics, circumstances, capabilities, and norms are mostly determinant. In other words, getting a grip on what is actually happening around the world, studying closely how powerful our adversaries have become (and what their interests are), and appreciating the profound changes happening in our own country will not only define the spectrum of possible foreign policy choices the U.S. can undertake, but will also influence the character of those choices.
When put to the ever-reliable test of circumstances, current trends point to an ineluctable conclusion: America — as a country and as an idea — is no longer the world’s sole superpower or paradigm. Despite what pundits, politicians or your president might tell you, the United States cannot extract any concession it wants from foreign states without a cost, deploy military might wherever it pleases with immunity, or destroy and reconstruct weaker nations at will. The liberal, rules-based order America built during the post-war years and upheld for seven decades is likewise beyond the point of mere fraying: the most prominent member states of the so-called ‘international community’ — China, Russia, and now the United States — appear to no longer be bound by its rules and norms.
At this point in most articles, the author will present you with some melodramatic binary (e.g. the U.S. will have to either ‘retreat’ from all its commitments abroad, or confront all of them head on with all its might). I intend to do no such thing. In the real world, choices, especially grand strategic ones, are not reducible to dichotomous platitudes; policymakers can take an assertive approach in one region and a more accommodative approach in another. The U.S. can take a hard line defending international norms against China in the South China Sea while tolerating, in some degree, disruptive Russian activities in Eastern Europe. While American values must surely play a role in defining America’s interests, the most basic question underlying any strategic choice must always be: What is the relative importance of American interests involved and how much blood or treasure is America willing to expend in securing them? To get a better grasp of how this guiding proposition bears out in our present geopolitical moment and what “relative” importance exactly means, we need a bit more context.
Relativity and its Rules
Despite diminutive trends, the United States still carries more weight — militarily, economically, and diplomatically — than any other great power. Nevertheless, it is not as relatively powerful as it was even ten years ago. Given current levels of spending on national defense, the U.S. cannot practically fight three wars at once in three different theaters (e.g. Russia in Europe, China/North Korea in Asia, and ISIS/al-Qaeda/Iran in the Middle East). This means that the U.S. must rank-order which threats it believes are greatest, and possibly sacrifice certain goals, values, and resources for the sake of tackling more important ones. This requires that policymakers be realistic about the threats America faces, but it also implies the need to grapple with, and improve, America’s material ability to respond to them.
This reality implies another one: If it hopes to survive in a world of renewed great power competition, the U.S. will have to engage with uncomfortable actors. In this sense, President Trump has to this point been a bad messenger of a mostly necessary idea — working with Russia on areas of mutual interest. As Americans, we should rightfully view the regime in Moscow as abhorrent; the recent turn of parts of the Republican electorate towards affection for Vladimir Putin is something all principled Americans should decry. Despite our moral reservations, however, the nature of our challenges, from the Middle East to East Asia, mandate some measure of cooperation with Russia and other distasteful actors who share U.S. interests. The choice may be a reluctant one, but it is indeed necessary: if the U.S. fails to take advantage of potential partners, more powerful (and threatening) adversaries like China will happily fill the void.
Though it sounds amoral, what is outlined here should not be viewed as an abdication of American values. As naval Captain Frank Ramsay famously remarks in the film Crimson Tide regarding questionable U.S. tactics during the Cold War: “We’re here to preserve democracy — not to practice it.”
As brash as it sounds, this aphorism offers a profound insight into the distinctive morality of a state when it comes to foreign policy: On the international stage, where the U.S. is responsible for its own security and no global sovereign can regulate the use of force, the rules of the game are different from what they are here at home. When its power was sufficient to enforce norms adversarial states would not otherwise accept, the U.S. was able to maintain an international playing field bound (generally) by liberal-democratic rules. With the U.S. no longer able to play the role of umpire everywhere and at all times, it cannot simply rely on the goodwill of other states in order to protect its interests. And while promoting liberal values overseas is commendable and at times strategically shrewd, it can oftentimes have the reverse effect of alienating potential partners and stoking the insecurities of our enemies (the example of Russia is a case in point). Hence, whatever the circumstance, prudence should dictate whether promoting our values or sidelining them is advisable; the key is retaining the flexibility to choose.
Making Exceptionalism Great Again
Finally, it is here on the home front, rather than through moral crusades abroad, where America must reinvest in its values and recast its exceptionalism. Checks-and-balances, representative government, and an open society are embedded in our historical experience and they must be defended vigorously. Recent attempts by the Trump administration to undermine those institutions through executive fiat and rhetorical assault are perversions of putting “America” first, for they misunderstand the essence of what America is (or, more dangerously, intentionally mean to transform it). Regardless his interpretation of the American spirit, though, President Trump has rightly argued that U.S. foreign policy must first and foremost commit itself to preserving American values for the sake of American citizens. Period.
Where President Trump falls short, or fails to tread entirely, is in the discussion of how to repurpose America’s historic idealism for this new age. Communism no longer exists to organize the forces of democracy against it, radical Islam has proven an elusive follow-on, and China’s imprecise character makes it an unlikely moral counterpoint. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is gaining momentum as the next likely candidate, but the imperatives imposed by common interests will inevitably disqualify the Russians, too. Against which foe, then, must the American people direct the energy of their exceptionalism? If such a moral adversary cannot be found, whither must America’s enduring exceptionalism be deployed?
The beginning of an answer, to quote Henry Kissinger, goes something along the lines of this:
“In traveling along the road to world order for the third time in the modern era, American idealism remains as essential as ever, perhaps even more so. But in the new world order, its role will be to provide the faith to sustain America through all the ambiguities of choice in an imperfect world [emphasis added].”
Mr. Kissinger authored this paragraph more than twenty years ago, and yet his advice remarks presciently on our current moment: In this imperfect world of 2017, where realities impress upon us the limits of our power but compel us, nevertheless, to take action in the world, American ideals must serve as the motivation for our engagement abroad, not as policy ends to be secured with some terminal finitude: for as recent memory painfully reminds, “such an attitude would turn innocence into self-indulgence.” By drawing strength from our values and reengaging the world as it actually exists, we can begin, with renewed confidence and clarity of purpose, to put both America and her ideals first.