Here's how to reboot US national security and foreign policy — and why we must

Here's how to reboot US national security and foreign policy — and why we must
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Now more than ever we need a reboot of U.S. national security/foreign policy. The coronavirus pandemic has created the conditions for this need, as well as an opportunity to look at what must be done to ensure America’s place as the global leader on security, political and economic issues. 

There are four key components to an adjustment. The U.S. should: 

  • Stay connected to the global economy; 
  • Broaden how national interests are defined and implemented; 
  • Connect domestic social reforms and international policy efforts; and 
  • Ensure domestic political support for NSFP. 

Over the past several years, the term “globalization” has become a byword for U.S. economic disadvantage. While the impact of globalization, particularly trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), is not uniformly beneficial, for the most part it has had a positive impact on American prosperity. 

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The Peterson Institute on International Economics cites the fact that from 1950 to 2016, trade increased the size of the U.S. economy by $2.1 trillion, or the equivalent of $7,000 per person or $18,000 per household each year. There will be a turn inward because of the problems the pandemic has created with global supply chains and the displacement of workers. Although adjustments may be inevitable, it is important to make sure they do not negate the positive effects of global trade and FDI. 

It also is time to help U.S. workers to adjust not only to globalization but to life after the pandemic, with policies supporting a livable minimum wage, good and sustained unemployment benefits, and education programs to retrain workers so they are not displaced by technological change.  

The pandemic will accelerate the evolution of U.S. political interests. A focus of NSFP over the past several years has been great power competition, primarily with China but also Russia. This policy challenge remains, but the U.S. approach must adjust to changing conditions. The pandemic will have an impact on trade, investment in defense, and political relationships, which will directly affect competition and possible cooperation with China in particular.   

In addition, issues such as climate change and global health concerns will become drivers of NSFP as never before. The meltdown in Siberia is just one example of environmental devastation that is occurring at breakneck speed. Cyber issues will have an equally profound impact on political, security and economic relationships. Other urgent challenges remain — defeating terrorists, securing arms control, promoting human rights and good governance, fighting corruption, working to eliminate dire poverty and starvation, and responding to global migration crises

As part of a reexamination of how best to define and support U.S. interests globally, it is essential that even skeptics among U.S. policymakers accept the reality that we cannot take on global problems alone. The environment, like the pandemic, does not respect national borders or ideologies. The U.S. must engage more fully in the international institutions and organizations it helped to create. The United Nations, the international financial institutions, the G7 and G20, albeit imperfect, have served the U.S. and its allies well, as has NATO. If there are improvements to be made to international organizations, this is the time to determine what those improvements should be. If improvements cannot be made, consider replacing institutions and organizations. 

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Experience tells us that although other nations are competing to lead these organizations and institutions, U.S. leadership is still valued. That said, a primus inter pares approach, as opposed to “my way or the highway,” will go a long way toward creating comity and, by extension, promoting U.S. values and interests globally. 

Funding will be a big problem with the next U.S. budget. Even defense spending likely will not be immune from cuts. Nonetheless, there is a pressing need for more investment in the State Department, USAID and related agencies. An investment in these agencies helps the U.S. stay connected to allies, friends and, at times, even adversaries. It is a much less expensive and destructive approach than military action.

To promote values internationally, one important tool should not be overlooked: leading by example. The U.S. is going through dramatic change at home. A successful effort to address pressing social issues could be an important example for other countries to follow. The Economist 2019 Democracy Index ranks the U.S. as a flawed democracy below South Korea, Japan and Costa Rica. Rather than becoming defensive about the results, this could be an opportunity for U.S. political leaders to make course corrections so that the U.S. once again is considered a leader in promoting and supporting key values. 

Finally — and perhaps most important — Congress and the administration must have a direct and regular conversation with the American people about U.S. national security and foreign policy. Americans must know why international engagement is in the national interest, and exactly how their leaders define NSFP. Profound challenges lie ahead and the U.S. needs a government that integrates its values and interests, that is clear about its priorities and policies, that is transparent in its pursuit of those policies, and that is technically competent.  

Ideology has a place in developing policy, but getting things done to benefit all Americans — no matter their political viewpoints — is more urgent now than it ever has been.

William C. Danvers most recently was a World Bank Group Special Representative for International Relations. He previously worked on national security issues for nearly four decades in the executive branch, on Capitol Hill, for international organizations and the private sector.