A second chance for America

A second chance for America
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The swift announcement by Joe Biden of his foreign policy team reveals the priorities of the next president. The focus with “build back better” is international as well as domestic. Veterans of former administrations on the team have gone out of their way to dispel the notion of a restoration. Most insist that it would be audacious to recreate the foreign policy they oversaw before Donald Trump took office. With so many veterans in the wings, however, it is hard not to see a sort of restoration underway.

Restoration is the usual method at the start of a new administration from the other political party. It is natural to want to pick up where the political party left off. While the transition has promised to rejoin the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement, and other international accords and institutions, there is likely to be a bit of restoration of foreign policy.

There is a fine balance between building back to restoration and building better with renovation. A restoration in the name of renovation, instead of the other way around, could also be known as the doctrine of the second chance. This has recurred often in history. There is the case of the United Nations, which was founded to right some of the wrongs of the League of Nations. The international system whose “apparent” downfall many people mourn today was, as the historian Robert Divine has described in his book called “Second Chance,” a deliberate effort that started in World War Two to correct the mistakes from the era after the former conflict.

After World War Two, it appeared that Harry Truman lost much of that effort in a new Cold War. So came Dwight Eisenhower with a disciplined move to rethink the premises of the Cold War and a plan to survive and possibly to prevail by relying upon a strong and healthy alliance network. As Ben Bradlee later declared, “Ike gave us a second chance.”

Such second chances, and the analysis of them, has recurred more or less with each new administration. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote a book also titled “Second Chance,” which traced the failures of presidents to put together a successor foreign policy after the Cold War and suggested that another new administration had one more chance to do so. When asked in 2016 if Barack Obama had lost that chance, Brzezinski declined to answer.

There is nothing new about these second chances. Almost all of them are about the first chance that Woodrow Wilson promoted a century ago. With something called the new diplomacy, he handed his country the language and the strategy for international affairs which some have called idealistic and others higher realism. The world institutions, norms, rules, and laws that Wilson advocated after noting the need to “make the world safe for democracy” were aspirational. They made sense to so many people then and later on because they fit with the aspirational words of our creed to build a “more perfect” union. It is the chance that keeps on giving.

The difference between the era of Wilson and today is that his ideology sought to make the world safe for democracy by forward and proactive measures. His aim remains in effect but seems overshadowed by a desire to do the opposite. It is not to retreat but to insulate, perhaps, by reactive measures. Many items like alliance management, development spending, and even military interventions are the same, as is the overall aim to make the world safe for democracy, but the operational purpose is different.

Therefore, the line of the new administration is probably correct to focus on “better” above “back” in foreign policy. It will not be a full restoration. As much as the leaders of other countries welcome a new foreign policy, few are clamoring for restoration of the “indispensable nation” or “global hyperpower.” There will instead be more modest rhetoric and a narrower field of international efforts, which will likely be advanced more often in regions. Maybe the result will be a tastier Goldilocks porridge. But if not, pray that the world gives the United States another second chance.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian whose latest book with James Goodby is “Practical Lessons from United States Foreign Policy: The Itinerant Years.”