America Needs a Bipartisan Foreign Policy. Donald Trump Can Make It Happen.

America Needs a Bipartisan Foreign Policy. Donald Trump Can Make It Happen.

A new approach must consider not just elites’ perceptions and preferences but also those of the public.


A discussion of a new foreign policy must take into account the relative U.S. power position. While the United States remains the world’s strongest power, with unmatched capabilities in the military, economic, technological and intellectual domains, its advantage over others has eroded. The U.S. share of global GDP declined to 20 percent, as fast-growing economies claimed greater shares and U.S. growth lagged. U.S. national debt reached levels, as a percentage of GDP, not seen since immediately after World War II, when debt had funded the war effort. Annual deficits continued to run at $600 billion, and the growth of spending on entitlement programs is escalating. Meanwhile, budget deals had gutted military spending: force-structure cuts were scheduled to reduce the army to its smallest size since the interwar years. Currently, readiness is at its lowest in decades, and modernization programs are constrained, even as the threat from abroad increases.

The new president won’t have the luxury of easing into these challenges. First of all, it is likely that other powers—both friends and adversaries—will try to test him, to try and take his measure. It will not just be state actors but also terrorists and extremists who will do so. Then too, some of the crises he inherits are urgent and immediate, and must be addressed right away. These include Syria and the war against the Islamic State.


To navigate these challenges and crises, President Trump must embrace a strategic perspective­—to determine what his objectives are and how he will pursue them. He must also determine what outcomes are unacceptable to the United States. Such a perspective can help in prioritizing issues and enable him to shape the future. Trump will need domestic support from both the public and Congress. One way for him to restore bipartisanship and unity, goals he clearly stated in his early-morning acceptance speech, is to identify a few issues, based on his commitments in the campaign, where agreement can come more easily. To win broad and lasting support for his foreign policy, Trump’s choices must relate to domestic circumstances and include not just elites’ perceptions and preferences but also those of the public.

Besides demonstrating from the beginning both the understanding and the readiness to deal with immediate issues, he will have to focus on the longer term in the following ways.

First, strengthening the underpinnings of American power is clearly necessary and has broad support. As other powers have risen economically, the relative standing of the United States has declined. Urgent actions are required to restore the health of the U.S. economy and the strength of the military. The new administration needs to bolster U.S. innovation and technological leadership.

Second, ensuring peace among the great powers. Among its landmark achievements, U.S. statecraft ended the Cold War without open conflict and maintained peace among the great powers for an impressive seventy years. That took both political skill and military deterrence, as well as soft and hard power to secure national interests and values, while appreciating the legitimate concerns of others and keeping tensions at a level below great-power war. Cooperation among the major powers is important not only to diminish the potential conflict with each other but to containing and decreasing instability around the world.

Third, prevent the domination of key regions by hostile powers. In the post–Cold War period, American presidents have consistently stated that certain regions—particularly Europe, East Asia and the Greater Middle East—were critically important because of their wealth or resources. Although the balance of U.S. activities among the regions varied over time, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all recognized the geostrategic importance of these regions.

Fourth, the need to counter extremism and terrorism threatening the United States is an obvious and shared goal, underscored by the ability of the Islamic State to launch multiple attacks and to inspire homegrown terrorists. This threat has deep roots and is ultimately the product of an internal crisis of Islamic civilization. It will be around for a long time. While Americans may disagree on the means required to counter this threat, the goal of protecting the country from terrorism garners bipartisan support.

Fifth, standing up for our values and promoting democracy and good governance selectively where we have confidence we can be effective is an enduring U.S. foreign-policy tradition. This means taking local conditions and America’s ability to shape events into account in order to avoid a situation in which the aftermath of regime change is hijacked by extremists or groups tied to hostile powers. Washington must strike a balance—a middle way between the expensive, risky zeal of universal evangelism resulting from American exceptionalism and multiple, large-scale nation-building exercises, on the one hand, and the passive posture of serving as an example for others to follow or not, on the other. Sometimes small state-building efforts can be a prudent option to address a strategic problem. America should engage with like-minded movements and groups abroad so long as they are truly indigenous and have genuine traction, but understand that it is for them to win their struggles for freedom. While crafting American foreign policy always has involved a tension and balance between U.S. interests and values, a bipartisan path forward needs to prioritize interests and promote values in a realistic and prudent way.

WHAT STRATEGY can both effectively pursue these goals and secure bipartisan support? Republicans and Democrats alike must bring to the table their best ideas to broker an agreed agenda to enhance economic growth and increased employment, not just to bring revenues in line with government expenditures, but also to address the inequities in American society that are undermining social and political cohesion.

But some issues will require difficult compromises. Reforms need to create an immigration system that embraces a new and more confidence-inspiring enforcement regime, for reasons of both national security and economic health. Potential extremists need to be screened out. But America must continue to attract the best and the brightest the world has to offer. Illegal immigration must be curbed to reduce pressure on wages and jobs at the lower end of the income spectrum. Only with such a system can agreement be reached on the status of undocumented immigrants already in the country.

The United States must also update its trade policies to ensure that mercantilist states are unable to take advantage of free trade by, for example, dumping products such as steel onto the U.S. market or thwarting U.S. exports through non-tariff barriers and currency manipulation. The U.S. government must take a harder line in trade negotiations and develop better capabilities to enforce trade agreements in real time, not at the end of a long and litigious process. The era of unquestioning and celebratory globalization is ending. The effects of trade on various strata of American society must be scrutinized more closely.

Efforts to maintain great-power peace will necessarily focus on bilateral issues but also on certain critical regions. Trump has spoken often about the need for new approaches towards Russia, China and the Middle East, particularly in light of dangers posed by the Islamic State and by Iran.

In order to maintain great-power peace in these regions, the United States should pursue a policy of “congagement”—a combination of containment and engagement. The containment element consists of steps that maintain a balance of power to strengthen deterrence and discourage outright challenges to the existing order, while engagement fosters dialogue and understanding, and explores common interests and opportunities for cooperation. The formula can vary depending on the circumstances, but the critical thing is to always consider both elements. This is especially important given the U.S. proclivity to see countries either as friends to be engaged or foes to be confronted.

This strategy must also be employed with flexibility. Containment and engagement will not always be deployed in equal doses, and policymakers need to adapt the balance to changing circumstances. Various forces, not just U.S. actions, shape the policies of other powers. Domestic circumstances, for example, can make other powers more aggressive or cooperative. Washington must recognize changes in a timely manner and adjust accordingly.

U.S. strategy vis-à-vis Russia and China, for example, would pursue national interests by strengthening deterrence and not narrowly tailoring diplomacy to areas of competition and potential conflict. Instead, the United States should be open to and seek cooperation to address regional and global issues and to understand what other powers seek, being sensitive to their legitimate interests and resolving disputed issues peacefully where possible. At the same time, U.S. diplomacy should be alert to opportunities to prevent collaboration among these states to develop into an effective anti-Western axis.

This approach can be practically applied through four pillars in each of the key regions. First, make any needed adjustments to ensure that alliances are focused on actual and current challenges, not residual issues from the past. Engage allies in identifying new and effective ways to deal with these challenges, and come to agreements on how each member can contribute appropriately and actively. This speaks to the reduction of the “free riders” problem that Trump has already raised, and it also creates a more sustainable and enduring arrangement. Trump has already stated that he intends to engage allies within the first six months.