Fixing our broken foreign policy is critical issue of the next president

Fixing our broken foreign policy is critical issue of the next president
© Getty Images

Whoever takes the oath of office in January will confront a daunting pile of national security priorities. We face trials in every region and across every portfolio, from climate change and Chinese ambition to nuclear weapons and election security. But to tackle any of these challenges effectively, we must first restore the integrity of our foreign policy process. It will be the work of many small reforms, but here are three that should top the list.

First, we need to dust the cobwebs off our critical alliances. Since the end of World War Two, our foreign policy has been founded on the notion that American power is at its lowest ebb when we act alone. Across front after front, we have disengaged, by pulling out of the Paris accord and the Iran deal, then by pulling our forces from Germany then threatening the same in South Korea. None of these were perfect arrangements, of course, and longing for the good old days is neither feasible nor a smart strategy.

The Iran deal was never a cure all for malign behavior but a tourniquet on nefarious nuclear ambitions. The Paris accord was aspirational yet it lacks the teeth to prevent China from plowing ahead with dirty coal. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still, in some respects, a tiered alliance not prepared for the conflicts of tomorrow. But to the extent such pacts need improving, our hand is far stronger when we have a seat at the table. Our next president must reinvigorate each arrangement, and restart the work of bolstering them, as soon as his hand leaves the inauguration bible.

ADVERTISEMENT

Second, we need to reinvest in soft power. Our commitment to a world at peace means that hard power must be our last resort rather than our first reflex. If we want to realize our foreign policy goals, however, we have to provide our diplomats with the resources necessary to succeed. But over the last several years, the State Department has been underfunded, with its mission politicized then ranks hollowed out, as more and more career officials head for the exit every day. According to a minority report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the current administration has never had the confirmed assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, even while India and Pakistan have inched toward hot conflict.

The next president has to make staffing a priority. It means having a list of names ready for the Senate on day one, but it also means vetting them in advance, so that time and capital are not burned in difficult confirmation hearings. We also have to restore the practice of appointing the qualified and most experienced people as our representatives abroad. Today more than ever, the public and our allies must know our ambassadors work for the United States, not for the private interests of the dominant party.

Finally, we need to rebuild our intelligence community. We have no hopes of making good policy without good intelligence, and good intelligence is scrupulously independent. However, much like the State Department, the intelligence community has seen many acting officials and many partisan entanglements. Indeed, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has strayed from its mission as a joint command agency with members of intelligence agencies, and has become a tool under the executive branch. Federal watchdogs have been sidelined. Inspectors general have had the independence undermined, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was left without quorum, in essence moribund, for over a year.

Institutions such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council have to be the right size, with professionals instead of loyalists. At every level, the intelligence community must allow enough sunlight to demonstrate its independence and its ability to speak truth to power. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board should be given the resources and the access necessary to reassure the public that surveillance has not been abused for political gain, and also to show our partners that our government is protecting both security and privacy.

These priorities of restoring our alliances, reinvesting in soft power, and refurbishing our intelligence community are simple to dismiss as merely process improvements and less dramatic than debating whom to bomb, surveil, or sanction. But our effectiveness is grounded in process, as the magnificent legacy of Brent Scowcroft attests. His foreign policy legacy must be the shining model for a repurposed national security agenda.

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.