Balanced Internationalism: 5 Core Principles to Guide U.S. National Security Policy

July 31, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: United StatesForeign PolicyDefenseStrategyWar

Balanced Internationalism: 5 Core Principles to Guide U.S. National Security Policy

America’s legitimacy as a global leader will rest not only on our military and economic power, but also on our moral authority.

Similarly, we cannot simply choose between “interests” and “values,” between “power” and “morality,” between “isolationism” and “unilateralism.” These are false choices. Values underpin our interests. Morality and power are not opposites, since moral power is arguably the most enduring form of power. Today, neither isolationism nor unilateralism is a serious option for the United States. Our strategic challenge is to balance the pursuit of our objectives with the recognition of the limitations of America’s power, of our increasingly constrained resources, and of our finite capacity to shape favorable outcomes.

To illustrate this balance, we offer five core principles to help guide the next Administration’s thinking about U.S. national security strategy:

1.  American leadership is essential.

2.  Leadership must be collaborative, not unilateral.

3.  We don’t have the luxury of ignorance.

4. Empathy is the most important strategic virtue, hubris the most dangerous strategic vice.

5. Especially in a democracy, “process” and the rule of law matter.


1. American leadership is essential.

American power will remain preeminent for the foreseeable future. We continue to have the most powerful and most resilient economy in the world; our military is without peer on the planet, and the U.S. remains the only country that can project a significant amount of military power anywhere on the globe and sustain it for any length of time; as a society we remain a magnet for peoples from around the world in a way that no other country is; and much of the rest of the world still looks to us to shape the agenda for any concerted action in addressing global issues. In this respect, America remains an “exceptional” nation, even as we acknowledge that it is also a fallible nation, with its own domestic challenges.

That power brings responsibilities, including global leadership. The U.S. assumed the mantle of global leadership following two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century that left in their wake both a far-reaching political vacuum and hostile forces willing to fill that vacuum if we did not. With allied, especially British, help, we built a new rules-based world order that defined a resilient international security structure that prevented a new and devastating global conflict, built the foundations of a new global economy that fostered the resurgence of war-torn economies, and created the political infrastructure into which new states could find their place in that order.

American global leadership is not an act of philanthropy, but one of self-interest. Our interests are global. Even while, in the nineteenth century, we avoided “entangling alliances,” we understood that our prosperity depended on being part of an international trading system, and we more than once in that century used military force to protect freedom of the seas. After liberating Europe twice in the twentieth century, lest our own security be threatened, our unprecedented peacetime commitment to Europe through NATO was an essential preventative measure that has secured a longer period of peace in Europe than Europe has enjoyed for much of its history. Similarly, American engagement in the Pacific has been an essential foundation for what even the Chinese leadership has called a “constructive force for peace and stability in the region.” Those institutions and alliances remain vital today.

In recent decades, we have only become more intertwined with an increasingly globalized world. We enjoy an unparalleled ability to project influence and to grow our economy, but we have also become increasingly vulnerable—to the loss of critical resources, to economic shocks across the globe, to epidemics, to cyber attacks from states and pranksters alike, and to terrorism. Hence, our own lives and livelihoods depend on our ability to anticipate, shape, promote, and defend against forces that can affect us over time and in material or virtual space.

American leadership is also critical to maintaining a degree of stability in the international system. That system is not static; it is not the same system we created in the wake of World War II. Yet, the international system depends on preserving a dynamic stability—the ability to adapt to change without the kind of revolutionary disruptions that promote uncertainty, fear, and chaos, which can cause the entire system to unravel.

In this respect, when we invest in the sources of American power abroad, we do so not only for ourselves, but also for the system as a whole. For example, the health of the American economy and the dollar is not only important to the U.S., but it is also an essential foundation to stability within global financial markets, and vice versa. U.S. military power—including the efficacy of its extended nuclear deterrent on behalf of allies—is not only important to projecting American power, but is also essential to preserving regional stability among allies and potential adversaries alike.

To demonstrate this point, one must only observe the open anxiety of both allies and potential adversaries when America’s capacity to provide these “collective goods” to the system is put into question, either because the sources of American power are weakened or because politicians openly question whether such investment is even necessary or desirable.

This is not to suggest that American leadership has always been benign, well articulated, or well executed. Even at the height of American postwar influence, our ability to coerce outcomes was limited. American leadership is all the more essential in a volatile world, but it also must adapt. In recent decades, the nature of power has changed; so must our leadership.

2. Leadership must be collaborative, not unilateral.

Power is not a zero-sum game. In his provocative book, The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being in Charge Isn’t What it Used to Be, Moisés Naím advises that we “get off the elevator” and stop thinking about power as a vertical concept, obsessed with whether countries, politicians, or business leaders are “number one” or “winning.” As he and others have argued, the nature of political power is changing. Successive National Intelligence Council Global Trends reports have consistently highlighted the “diffusion of power” within the international system.

Power is not a quantifiable commodity, but a “capacity to influence,” which depends not only on the instruments of power that we possess but also on whether those instruments will have any effect on another. In that respect, the classic concept of “balance of power” that has dominated international relations for over three centuries is not obsolete, but it is inadequate. In some cases, it is more telling to understand the “balance of vulnerabilities” between states than it is to understand a “balance of power.” Economic sanctions against a state that has no other options for commerce can be powerful, but sanctions against a state that exists within an economically porous global marketplace are futile, regardless of the presumed power of the sanctioning state.

It follows that power is a relational and contextual concept. We have power not in the abstract, but in relation to others, circumscribed by our ability to affect what others value. In a globalized world, we have enormous influence, but our ability to coerce has been substantially diminished. Our greater success comes from our ability to persuade, to identify shared interests even in—and sometimes especially in—an antagonistic relationship. Ultimately, leadership is most effective when the leader enjoys the respect of those who are being led, and when those being led believe they have a stake in the system.

These ideas point to a simple fact—that “rising powers” within the international system do not necessarily mean the “decline” of American power. American power is preeminent, in virtually every measure, but it must make room for the emergence of new powers—with different voices and perspectives—within the international system.

The post-1945 international order was the product of a small group of largely like-minded powers that commanded the preponderance of global political, economic, and military might. The U.S. operated as the chairman of a small and largely homogenous board of directors. Yet, even then, American leadership did not extend to remaking the world in our own image: we did not have that ability even at the height of American power in the wake of World War II; we do not have that power now.

To bring together that same preponderance of power around one table today, one needs to gather at least the G-20, with countries from every region of the world and encompassing a wide array of cultures, religions, ethnicities, forms of government, and economic structures. Even with American leadership, global solutions to global problems will require that this diverse constellation of states have a stake in the outcome. Leadership cannot—and need not—be unilateral. We must rely on allies, partners, and friends, as well as the international institutions that we helped build over the past seven decades.

Similarly, in dealing with competitors and potential adversaries, preserving security within the international system requires that we identify those shared interests that do exist. Even in the most frigid moments of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union shared a basic interest in survival. We developed through regular interaction a shared vocabulary for managing our fragile strategic relationship, which ultimately bore fruit in a litany of arms control agreements and confidence building measures—nurtured through continual diplomatic interaction—that helped keep conflicts from escalating out of control.