February 04, 2019

America’s Role in the World is Worth Debating

There is a growing debate in the United States about the utility of America’s allies and the United States’ role in the world. Should the United States retrench and play a less active role internationally? Or should Washington remain engaged and continue to invest in our core set of alliances? Perhaps no issue better encapsulates this debate than America’s membership in and commitment to NATO. Since coming to office, President Trump has regularly complained about Allied burden sharing in NATO and has been highly skeptical of the value of America’s participation in the Alliance. His disregard for NATO runs so deep that he reportedly told senior members of his administration last year that he wanted to withdraw from NATO and that he “didn’t see the point” of it.

Although the President’s comments elicited a vocal backlash, including from the US Congress, his views reflect a growing sense among Americans that U.S. Allies are more of a burden than an asset. According to this perspective, Europeans are free-riders who underspend on defense and rely too heavily on the U.S. for their security. It follows then that Americans would be better served by turning the defense of Europe back over to the Europeans. These arguments clash with the competing perspective which posits that U.S. interests are best served when Washington sustains its global leadership and that strong Allies are critical for maintaining American power and influence. Proponents of this view see NATO as the most successful alliance in modern history and as necessary for maintaining the European peace and security that has benefitted the United States for the last 70 years.

The difference between these two positions is stark and the positions more politicized and polarized. A 2018 survey found a 22-percentage point difference between Democrats and Republicans on their commitment to NATO – the largest divide since the survey began during the Cold War. Given the distance between these views, how can Americans find common ground on which to base our future role in NATO and our relations with Europe?

The answer to this question—and the broader issue of America’s future role in the world-- should be informed by the views of all Americans. That is why our small bipartisan organization, the Center for a New American Security, is coming to Milwaukee. We have embarked on a three-year project that will bring small groups of American and European foreign policy officials to 12 cities across the United States. The project is called “Across the Pond, In the Field.” The goal is simple: we want the Washingtonians and the Europeans we’re bringing along to better understand the diverse range of American perspectives on everything from trade to national security. We are looking to foster a genuine exchange of ideas that will allow the residents and leaders of the cities we visit to ask the hard questions and challenge our longstanding, core assumptions about US foreign policy in Europe and beyond.

These are turbulent times. U.S. allies in Europe are questioning America’s commitment. Trade tensions are rising. And foreign actors like China and Russia seek to undermine U.S. influence and power. Addressing these challenges will require new voices and fresh ideas from outside the Beltway. Responsible debate, dialogue, and deliberation are the bedrock of American democracy. We hope you will join us. Learn more at cnasinthefield.org.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

Rachel Rizzo is the Bacevich Fellow at CNAS.

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