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.

My hope is that the electoral discourse on foreign policy simply reflects the country’s current bout of pessimism, and that it will not ultimately overturn the bipartisan consensus behind U.S. global leadership. Even still, this rhetoric has consequences in an open political system that enjoys a unique appeal around the world and that influences, and is influenced by, actors around the world.

The great achievement of U.S. foreign policy was to catalyze an unprecedented period of peace among great powers. Before the United States committed itself to global leadership, world wars and violent rivalries were the norm. After World War II, the United States deployed forces to Eurasia and played a central role in normalizing the geopolitics of Europe and East Asia. In the Cold War, the U.S.-led alliance not only deterred Soviet aggression but also underwrote a “zone of peace” that enabled the emergence of a liberal international order. None of this was a given. It all took enormous effort and skill.

In order to preserve and extend those gains, the United States must pursue a strategy of “balance and reconcile” in three key regions—Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. Those regions remain the focal points of geopolitical competition. If events spiral out of control, the consequences will not be contained in those regions. They will affect the entire world, and the geographic isolation of the United States will not provide us with an escape hatch in an era of globalization.

A strategy of “balance and reconcile” requires the United States to maintain a military forward presence to reassure friends and deter adversaries. It also means that the United States should bolster allies and friends that are front line states through security assistance and, as needed, economic support. At the same time, the United States should engage Russia, China and Iran to seek ways to minimize conflict, create multilateral forums to reconcile rivalries, and develop understandings that will help stabilize these critical regions.

Even as we maintain a geopolitical balance of power, the United States should seek to expand the “zone of peace,” which encompasses the alliances and relationships among the world’s established and aspiring democracies. While every nation must find its own path to a democratic transition, the United States should encourage those seeking political orders that respect popular sovereignty, human rights and the rule of law. Where we can, we should seek to expand the ranks of the world’s liberal democracies.

Recent history offers four lessons about the United States’ role in the world:

• We are crucial to the world order; dangerous vacuums emerge when the United States retreats. U.S. global leadership is crucial to manage the risks associated with the trend towards multipolarity.

• Partnering and burden sharing with allies and friends is the surest path to achieving our goals without overextending ourselves.

• We need to balance our determination and can-do vitality with humility—recognizing the limits of power.

• The instruments of foreign and security policy need to be reformed.

During this period of great turmoil, the question facing our country is whether we can learn from our experiences without being disheartened and defeated by them.

Zalmay Khalilzad was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2007 to 2009. This piece is adapted from chapter 26 of his new book The Envoy: From Kabul to the White House, St. Martin's Press.

Image: Flickr/The White House