Post-Debate: Americans and the Next Administration on Foreign Policy

September 21, 2015 By John Glenn

What a difference a year can make. In 2014, some wondered whether Americans were “war weary” and wanted to pull back from the world. Fast forward past Russia’s invasion of Crimea, ISIS declaring a caliphate and brutally executing Americans, and ebola landing in Dallas, and no one is asking: should the United States be engaged and lead in the world?

Last Wednesday’s debates among the Republican candidates for president seemed to settle that question, with no disagreement that America must be engaged globally, even from voices that have previously flirted with isolationism. Instead the question was how should America lead in today’s world of complex crises?

This is not the place to summarize the five sprawling hours of debate (although it is remarkable that the pressing Syrian refugee crisis barely merited a mention) nor to judge winners and losers (which you can find here and here and here). Instead, let’s set the candidates’ views against the backdrop of the views of the American people and the views of those who might serve and advise the next administration.

What does the public think about America’s role in the world?

The consensus among the candidates that America must lead in today’s world finds broad support in the American public. Despite polls a couple years ago showing Americans wanted the United States to mind its own business globally, a poll released on the day of the debate by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs showed that this has changed and majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents favor an active U.S. role in world affairs:

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Do we know what’s driving this? The Chicago Council found a significant uptick in concern about Islamic fundamentalism in both parties and broad agreement on maintaining a strong military. Yet again, when it came to how America should lead, the poll found differences.

In sum, Republicans were more likely to favor the use of U.S. troops, while Democrats tended to favor diplomacy. To be fair, these were relative differences, with majorities from both parties supporting international treaties and signing free trade agreements (45 percent of Republicans even support strengthening the United Nations).

The weakest support for an active role in world affairs was found among Independents. There has been fascinating research on the meaning of independent voters in today’s partisan climate, often finding them leaning in practice to one party or the other. But the Chicago Council found them mixed, aligning with Republicans on lower overall support for diplomacy, but with Democrats on the limits to hard power.

And the views of those who might serve the next Commander in Chief?

While the candidates share their visions for leading the country, there is also a vibrant debate about American global leadership among the policymakers and experts who might serve and advise the next Administration. One glimpse into this debate can be found in The National Interest magazine’s recent symposium, where they asked twenty-five leading thinkers and policymakers, “What should be the purpose of American power?”

Most of those asked – from academics to former cabinet members — agreed broadly that the purpose of American power is to advance our interests in the world, but a closer look suggested differences in the foreign policy tools needed for American global leadership.

Rebalancing our power portfolio:

For some, the question is finding the right balance of military and civilian power. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) called for strengthening both, observing “just as diplomacy is sterile without military might, the force of arms is useless without a coherent foreign policy and a clear sense of our objectives.”

Former diplomat William Burns suggested we need “to rebalance our power portfolio — prioritizing diplomacy backed by force, as opposed to force backed by diplomacy, and long-term affirmative investments in development aid and liberal trade along with near-term punitive actions like sanctions.” Paula Dobriansky, who served in the Bush 43 Administration, highlighted America’s economic power, saying it “builds upon our soft power and contributes to global economic prosperity, undergirded by shared commitments to market economies and free trade.”

Others focused on how American power is an expression of our values. Anne Marie Slaughter, who worked with Hillary Clinton in the first term of the Obama Administration, said that Americans “define our interests in moral as well as material terms, a definition that not only guides the use of our power but also augments the power we have available to use.” Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as Ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq for President George W. Bush, focused on promoting democracy, saying America should “seek to shape the political evolution of the world by advocating liberal democracy and working with patriotic and visionary leaders who seek to enable their peoples to live under governments that respect human rights and dignity.”

More to come:

These are just a few snapshots from former policymakers, while others would surely have given other answers to the question of American power (for all the answers at The National Interest, see here). Given the complex and partisan world, Leslie Gelb warned the symposium that a consensus on foreign policy is unlikely “for a long time.”

There’s more to come on American’s role in the world in the coming weeks. The first debate among the Democratic candidates is coming soon on October 13, and the third Republican debate on October 28.

With pressing crises in Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen, among other places, the world is unlikely to allow the United States (or those who would lead it) to avoid answering the question of how America should lead today.

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