Because America: The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy Starts with a Reality Check

FlagWritten by Sarah Tully and Angela Canterbury

Is the United States the world’s singular superpower? Is it an indispensable and exceptional nation that remains the top of the heap in world order?

A discussion at Center for American Progress (CAP) on the future of U.S. foreign policy focused on the dramatic changes in world order since our emergence as a perceived superpower at the end of World War II. The speakers also questioned the oft-assumed ‘truth’ that the U.S. is the sole hegemonic force in the world.

In a recent article entitled ‘Realism, Old and New’ in The American Prospect, James Mann calls on America for a reality check on its true place in this century’s world order. He writes, “We seem unable to acknowledge to ourselves that other nations of the world do not always need us as a leader in exactly the same way they did in 1945 or 1989…In short, America’s view of its role in the world has become downright, well, unrealistic.”

The article traces the evolution of the adoption (or perhaps misappropriation) of the theory of realism to U.S. foreign policy. It became the focal point of this week’s discussion with panelists from across the political spectrum: James Mann of Johns Hopkins SAIS, Chris Preble from the Cato Institute, Kim Holmes at Heritage Foundation, and Brian Katulis and Larry Korb from CAP.

A key takeaway was the crucial role U.S. allies should and do play into our foreign policy strategies. Mann asserted that America’s alliances are the basis of its power; it is impossible to isolate the United States’ role in the global political space from that of its allies. To Mann and Katulis, the Libya scenario of the U.S. ‘leading from behind’ was not a foreign policy failure of leadership but an example of U.S. ability to engage with our allies without stealing the show. As Chris Preble pointed out, it also was an example of how reliant on the U.S. military our allies have become. He noted that our European partners have benefited from reducing their own military spending while relying upon ours to not only protect our interests, but also theirs.

Holmes cautioned that sometimes our interests and those of our allies aren’t precisely synonymous, but we need to extract and capitalize on the points of agreement and be wary of divergence. Katulis added to this point that we need to better define and implement U.S. leadership. Many allies look to us for guidance, but see the same dysfunction in our political system that we see.

Chris Preble pointed to a disconnect between political elites inside the beltway who believe in American exceptionalism and America’s role in the world as understood by the average American.   Even Kim Holmes acquiesced: “It is true, given the end of the Cold War, we’re not as indispensable in that strategic sense as we used to be. I’ll concede that point. But that doesn’t mean we’re not indispensable at all to them, particularly these new countries that depend on us.”

The crisis in Ukraine is an example of the U.S. government (and consequently media) inflating its perceived role in world events. The U.S. policy elites who view of the Ukraine crisis is that the conflict is a direct challenge to Washington has led to increased tensions with Moscow. The reality is, in this crisis, Germany is perhaps the more indispensable nation. Their sanctions have a far greater effect on the Russian economy than do U.S. sanctions, because Germany has a much stronger trade relationship with Russia.

The CAP event is a rarity at a time when divergence between those who call themselves liberal and conservative, and even within those ideological communities, is acute. However, the greatest point of agreement was the fact that cordial across-the-isle interaction, as with this panel of experts, can be productive. As Kim Holmes put it, “we spend a lot of time, each in our own bubbles…but I have the feeling that there’s sort of a yearning to move beyond that, to try to see more what we have in common than what divides us.”

In order to effect change, the non-governmental community should lead by example; take the advice offered on this week’s panel to work across political and ideological lines.

* Click here for an explanation of the ‘Because America’ phenomenon.