4 Lessons about America's Role in the World

4 Lessons about America's Role in the World

The U.S. should seek to expand the ranks of the world’s liberal democracies.

The United States can manage the rise and resurgence of great powers like China, Russia and Iran at an acceptable cost without ceding entire spheres of influence. The key is to focus on normalizing the geopolitics of the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific, which the United States can do by strengthening its transatlantic and transpacific alliances and adapting them to the new, dangerous circumstances on the horizon. The United States should promote a balance of power in key regions while seeking opportunities to reconcile differences among major actors.

In Asia, the United States should enhance the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region to sustain a balance against the rising Chinese power and shape Beijing’s behavior in partnership with allies, while pursuing a forum for confidence building that includes all the countries of the region, including China. The forum might resemble the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has succeeded in establishing basic rules and processes to manage regional disputes. With U.S. prodding, the Helsinki Accords could serve as a model for the charter of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. It would complement the multiple regional organizations and groups already in place, and would complete the security architecture of the region. Perhaps the best candidate to evolve into this role is the East Asia Summit. It has the right membership, but to perform a role similar to OSCE, it must be institutionalized with a clear mandate and structure. It would also need to be established in a context in which the United States and its allies are developing a joint approach regarding the contested maritime issues in the East China Sea and South China Sea—one that draws red lines where necessary but employs diplomacy to avoid the risk of escalating crises.

The problems of regional rivalry, sectarian conflict and state collapse pose the most difficult and immediate challenges in the Middle East. The fundamental solution, I believe, is to promote a regional balance of power, strengthen moderate and progressive states, and undertake with others the heavy lifting of fostering internal political settlements in Syria and Iraq. Improving governance and economic development in states that actively oppose extremism is perhaps our greatest lever in effecting a balance of power in the region. The United States should also establish a new diplomatic forum for dialogue akin to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Just as the religious wars of Europe eventually provided an impetus for a rules-based order through the Westphalian system, we should consider whether talks to end the Syrian stalemate might lay the groundwork for a neo-Westphalian agreement for the region, starting with an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia for mutual acceptance and some rules for cooperation and interaction in the region. Such an agreement can be followed by a broader forum for dialogue that could set forth a program for confidence building and cooperation.

In Europe, though Putin’s actions are vexing, it should be possible to check his aggressive ambitions while cooperating in areas of common interest. Putin’s Russia is troubled internally, with low oil prices creating major budget deficits and population trends pointing to a demographic decline. With modest NATO deployments to Central and Eastern Europe and a program to arm the Ukrainian armed forces, we can not only raise the price of aggression, but also bolster deterrence in the Baltic and other frontline states. At the same time, we should engage Putin and continue to cooperate on space exploration, countering proliferation and fighting Islamist extremism. Though cooperation may need to be transactional in the immediate future, trends might encourage Russia to cooperate more fully over time.


4. The United States can afford a much lower defense budget.

This argument would be credible were it not articulated in the context of irresponsible schemes, like sequestration or dramatic increases in domestic spending, which would weaken the United States abroad. Too often as well, proponents of this view fail to acknowledge that, although the U.S. military still enjoys technological superiority, it has declined relative to other powers. As a result, the U.S. military, even at current levels of spending, is losing its ability to deter dangerous actors or dissuade them from trying to achieve parity with the United States.

Still, Pentagon reform is long overdue to ensure that we are spending our defense dollars better. Our focus should be on developing instruments to prevent or shape conflicts early and proactively before they turn into costly military engagements down the line. The most obvious way to do this is to redress the imbalance between our diplomatic and military instruments. And when we deploy force, we need to improve civil-military integration, particularly in coordinating the deployments of ambassadors and military commanders. The next administration should work with Congress in undertaking a major review, like the Goldwater-Nichols Commission in the 1980s, to design an integrated civil-military command for expeditionary operations.

Strengthening our diplomatic instrument requires a number of steps. The first is simply to increase funding for the State Department and other civilian agencies. To respond rapidly to changing circumstances, civilian agencies, like the military, need flexible operational funding. The State Department also needs to develop a strong capability to develop and implement regional strategies. One option to consider is for the State Department to develop the equivalent of the regional combatant commanders in the military: individuals who are not tied to the interagency process and have the necessary authority and resources to shape policies over an entire region.


5. The United States should reduce its involvement in democracy promotion.

In his 2004 inaugural address, President Bush called for “ending tyranny in our world.” Today’s remaining GOP candidates appear more interested in ending U.S. democracy-promotion efforts. Trump has repeatedly endorsed more cooperative ties with Moscow, irrespective of its crackdown on journalists, and waxes nostalgic for the reigns of Muammar el-Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Cruz promises that he would not “treat democracy promotion as an absolute directive” and, instead, would consider it as nothing more than “a highly desirable ideal.”

Criticizing U.S. missteps in promoting democracy is certainly reasonable—particularly in light of the debacles in Iraq and Libya—but elevating these criticisms into high doctrine and principled critiques of democracy promotion more generally misses the point. It is not the strategic rationale behind democracy promotion that has steered U.S. policy off course; the spread of human rights and democracy remains the most promising way to promote tolerance, human dignity and peace between great powers. Rather, U.S. setbacks have resulted from the failure of recent administrations to match their rhetoric and goals on democracy with the practical investments that are necessary to help local leaders build democratic institutions over the long term.

Our biggest shortcoming, in my judgment, is the failure to translate civil society efforts into party-building activities that ultimately allow liberals to compete effectively in elections. I learned the hard way as ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq that illiberal actors are often best prepared to take advantage of elections. We are weakest in supporting the consolidation phase of a democratic transition, when new leaders must stand up to institutions to deliver security, services and the rule of law.

Even the darkest days of my ambassadorships in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, did not fundamentally diminish my support for promoting democracy abroad. While I am concerned about the global backsliding in democracy and human rights, pessimism about democracy’s future is ultimately belied by polls across the world that consistently register high support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Our political class may be losing confidence in our ability to promote democracy, but authoritarian regimes still fear our efforts enough to blame them for the so-called “color revolutions" that have ushered in democratic transitions around the world.

My experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq in some ways made me more optimistic about the U.S. role in promoting democracy. As an implementer on the ground, I realized that a small number of capabilities and reforms could have made the difference between major successes and defeats on the democracy front. I attribute the recent resurgence of authoritarianism, in large part, to the sorry but hardly inevitable shortcomings of new democracies in addressing practical governance challenges.

Going forward, I would prioritize a few changes in our democracy promotion efforts:

• We should provide financial and operational support to liberal democratic parties in order to level the playing field with illiberal forces in elections. This means allowing ambassadors and intelligence officials to use discretion in backing liberal parties in sensitive elections, as was done in Europe after World War II;

• We should cultivate democratic counter-elites in a more systematic way, by training individuals from developing countries in the work of promoting democracy and making institutions deliver after a democratic transition;

• And we should establish an effort analogous to the Cold War–era Congress for Cultural Freedom, which created the infrastructure for publications and intellectual discourse aimed at advancing democratic values. Today’s iteration would emphasize lessons on how to establish the rule of law, foster inclusive economic growth, and reform educational institutions to encourage critical thinking, reason and innovation—all of which can contribute to the long game of promoting moderate political forces in China, Russia and the Muslim world.