Memo to our next president
© Greg Nash

Dear Mr./Madam President:

It is January 2017: You have before you a critical opportunity — and an imperative — to renew America's leadership role in world affairs. History has shown that when the president makes a case to the American people, they listen. You will hear that now is a moment of unprecedented division and partisan anger. You will hear that any major decision will be met with hostility from one — or more — political party. We're here to tell you it isn't so — or need not be so — at least not in the world of national security.


It is not simply the outrage at terrorist attacks like those in Paris, the Sinai Peninsula, Beirut and elsewhere that binds us. Nor is it the increased assertiveness of Russia in Ukraine, or China in the South China Sea, that has united us behind a common cause. Liberals, moderates, conservatives, Republicans, Democrats and independents can come together and agree that America must lead — and truly lead — in the world. We know, because we have spent the last two years with just such a group. The American Internationalism Project, which we chair, brought together Washington think tank scholars across the political spectrum, current and former government officials, and many others, to rebuild a new consensus for American leadership in the world. It is a model for what can be done when we focus on our national interests, our global priorities and our shared morality.

Our goal started with a simple question: What is best for the American people? The answer, absent the politics that too often color such statements of principle, coalesced around three key concepts: security, prosperity and freedom.

The security of the United States and its people is our first priority. But to equate American engagement with military entanglements would be to overlook the many ways military power can be used. It also misses the other vital and underused tools available to you, tools that will enhance America's prosperity and freedoms as much as they will make us more secure. You have at your disposal formidable instruments that benefit Americans and foreigners alike without a shot being fired. Military force is only one tool of international engagement and never our first option.

Consider oft-maligned diplomacy, which advances our interests and enables us to favorably influence the development of international norms in ways that are also advantageous to our security interests. Does America always get exactly what it wants in the international arena? No. But by working through effective institutions and relationships that undergird the international order, we simultaneously create a buy-in for American leadership with our allies and advance the values that are fundamental to our way of life.

All — hawks and doves, left and right — agree that the United States must prioritize diplomatic solutions and public diplomacy and refocus on human rights as a core priority. That means a better, smarter foreign affairs budget, recalling that all of our largest trading partners are former recipients of U.S. aid. It also means protecting and amplifying the soft power that has been a hallmark of American leadership for so long. We need only look at the mass flows of refugees to Europe, or the spread of ideologies anathema to our own, to know that our leadership is needed.

Also consider free trade, which creates jobs and lowers prices, both at home and abroad. Do we always agree on the terms? No. But there is a foundational commitment to the notion that the free movement of goods and services ultimately benefits those who need it the most: the poor and the needy the world over. And all agree that absent U.S. leadership, there is no reason to believe that the rules of the international economic game will be played fairly, or to the benefit of the American people.

We all found common ground in the conviction that without American leadership, the rules-based international system that allows for free trade, the openness of the Internet and the protection of intellectual property rights would quickly come under threat. Alternative economic models that allow countries to short-cut their way to prosperity while overlooking human rights and internationally accepted standards have gained popularity in recent years; this is neither in America's interest nor, in the long run, in the rest of the world's.

Underpinning all of the other vital roles for the United States in the world is the strength and capabilities of the U.S. military. Whether it's freedom on the high seas, the security of global air space or simply deterring adversaries, much of what our armed forces do is prevent conflict. But to continue to achieve these goals, the federal government must rethink how it matches resources to outcomes in a way that is both plausible and sustainable. Right now, the U.S. is on track for a substantial disinvestment in the military, and our consensus view is that that must end. You must also explain to the American people that it is rare, indeed almost unknown, that the U.S. "goes it alone." No other power can mobilize alliances the way we can, and our alliances are the envy of our adversaries.

Our time pondering the role of America in the world shows that a bipartisan consensus exists around the fact that American leadership still matters: It makes us safer and richer, and sustains an international system that has transformed the world. We will help, but ultimately, the role of making that case to the American people falls to you.

Kyl and Lieberman co-chair the American Enterprise Institute's American Internationalism Project. The bipartisan group's report, "Why American Leadership Still Matters" was just released.