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Back to the future: In January 2021 America needs to rejoin the world and start leading again

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“America First,” was not supposed to be “America Alone,” but Donald Trump’s rudderless foreign policy is emboldening America’s enemies, alienating its allies, and undermining key foundations of America’s security. America has never been more isolated globally than under Trump. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo learned at a recent UN Security Council meeting that “America Alone” has consequences. The administration has been working for months to create support for extending an arms embargo on Iran, and Pompeo personally brought the issue before the Security Council on June 30. It did not go well. Not only did Russia and China reject Pompeo’s proposal, but so, too, did American allies.

Pompeo’s recent Security Council failure has its roots in Trump’s proclivity to go it alone internationally. Trump gleefully tears up international agreements negotiated by his predecessor that have global support, such as the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear agreement; he attacks and threatens to pull out of the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic, undermines the World Trade Organization, attacks American allies and alliances — such as NATO — while cozying up to despots in North Korea, Russia, and, for a time, China.

Before Trump, America sought to solve international problems and strengthen its national security by building international alliances, constructing regional coalitions, negotiating agreements, and driving a collaborative global agenda on development, health, trade, the environment, and fighting terrorism.

Trump’s disregard for the current international system of organizations, agreements, and alliances is, effectively, undoing the legacy of every president — Democrat and Republican — since WW II. 

Post-WW II administrations, supported by bipartisan leaders in the Congress, created and nurtured the UN family of organizations, NATO, the WTO, and multiple bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements. These institutions and agreements were not perfect, but they prevented world wars, promoted global economic development, eradicated diseases, strengthened American security and protected American values.

The cost of Trump’s “America Alone” approach to foreign policy goes well beyond Pompeo’s embarrassing encounter with the UN Security Council. America simply cannot by itself handle the most significant challenges to the security and prosperity of the American people in the coming decades. As it did with the Soviet Union, America will need allies and international institutions to deal successfully with Chinese ambitions, Russian adventurism, North Korean nuclear threats, and Iranian efforts to exert regional hegemony.

There are even more fundamental challenges than those that are state-based. The current pandemic demonstrates that humanity’s interaction with the natural world is also producing potentially existential global threats to America. The novel coronavirus is only the most recent global health threat in the past decade — and scientists predict there will be more. Scientists have also identified significant threats from the changing climate, which are already evident in rising sea levels, more extreme storm and forest fires, spreading droughts, and steadily melting glacier and polar ice. The negative consequences of climate change will not only cascade as temperatures rise, the conditions that produce them will last at least for centuries, not decades.

“America Alone” can do little to protect itself from global pandemics or the negative impact of climate change; only sustained collaborative global efforts can successfully address global challenges to the well being of America and every other nation. The global community is truly at a point where it either succeeds by working together to deal with common challenges … or a potentially bright future becomes dimmer for all states.

In the past, America generally led the way in identifying global or regional challenges, devising approaches to dealing with them, and galvanizing the international community into action to address them.

America can lead the way again, but doing so requires several actions.

First, America needs to shed Trump’s myopic nationalism, hostility to science, and distaste for allies and international collaboration. Second, the next administration needs to prioritize: rebuilding America’s alliances, rejoining international institutions Trump walked out of, and developing and articulating a constructive multilateral agenda that addresses critical threats to American security and prosperity. Third, it needs to reliably meet America’s financial commitments to international organizations. This may involve renegotiating some of these commitments, but will certainly require Congress and the administration to cooperate in ensuring America is no longer chronically behind in meeting these obligations.

Finally, the next administration needs to enhance America’s capacity for multilateral statecraft and leadership by making clear it values such diplomacy, enhancing the training of American diplomats in this area, and incentivizing assignments to America’s multilateral diplomatic missions and secondments to work in international organizations.

America’s allies — and the global community more generally — would respond well to America’s return to an engaged, collaborative and constructive approach to dealing with global challenges and international institutions. But more importantly, the next administration’s pursuing such a course would be in the interests of American security and prosperity.

Kenneth C. Brill was a career Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2005-2009).

Tags 2020 election China Donald Trump Foreign policy International order Iran Mike Pompeo National security NATO North Korea Russia United Nations WHO

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