This essay explores the complex nature of the contemporary foreign policy and national security inheritance and offers recommendations for how the next president should begin to chart a new course to restore America’s credibility, influence, and power in the world and, in so doing, strengthen America’s national security.
The United States faces a growing and daunting list of strategic challenges: reversing the decline in America’s global standing; protecting America and its interests and allies from terrorist attacks; developing a more effective long-term strategy against violent Islamist extremists; constraining nuclear proliferation; finding a responsible way out of Iraq while maintaining American influence in the wider region; persevering in Afghanistan; dealing prudently with global climate change; working towards greater energy security; rebuilding the nation’s armed forces; restoring the nation’s fiscal health; and restoring public trust in all manner of government functions, just to name a few. The next president of the United States, no matter his or her political party or particular worldview, will confront a stark set of global challenges that defy easy characterization or remedy.
As daunting as these challenges are, an honest accounting will also reveal positive trends and powerful advantages that the United States continues to enjoy in international affairs. The armed forces, while under enormous strain, have demonstrated an enduring strength and resilience that will continue to serve the nation well in the years to come. The Bush administration has rightly focused on the long-term nature of the dangers posed by Islamist radicals. Through vigilance and hard work, the American homeland has been spared terrorist attacks since 9/11. President George Bush launched a major strategic engagement with India, the world’s largest democracy. Relations with Japan are strong and with China relatively stable. There have been important new initiatives aimed at alleviating global poverty and stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS. The president has also demonstrated true leadership in trying to fashion a bipartisan and comprehensive approach to immigration reform.
The national security inheritance of the next president is, in fact, a complex mix of challenges and opportunities. In this piece, we explore nine primary elements of the inheritance in depth: the costs of the Iraq War; military overextension; strategic preoccupation, confusion, and distraction; disregard for the rule of law; softening power and alienated allies; public disillusionment; financial indebtedness; a divided and fearful polity; and the enduring promise and potential of America. Managing this bequest must be the primary task for whoever occupies that lonely office in the West Wing. The stakes are high, and defining a way forward for American national security will be a consuming preoccupation for the next president and other presidents to follow.
Given this daunting inheritance, the next president of the United States will have a number of exceedingly difficult yet absolutely critical choices to make to chart a new way forward for America in the world. The next president must seek to restore U.S. moral authority and credibility, redefine U.S. leadership in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era, and signal to the American people and the world that a fundamental course correction is taking place. This will require not only new rhetoric but, far more important, new deeds.
It will be imperative for the next president to demonstrate early and clearly that the United States is embracing a new national security strategy and adopting a new approach to wielding its power in the world—one that is strong, pragmatic, and principled. Such an approach must be rooted in the values upon which the Republic was founded, take into account the fundamental changes in the international security environment, and be able to win and sustain the support of the American people.
The next president will have to convince the American people and their representatives in Congress to reject the neo-isolationist impulses they may feel in the wake of Iraq in order to embrace a smarter and more selective form of engagement. Our nation’s history and power—economic, military, and cultural—give the United States a unique role in the world. The United States has been and will continue to be the preeminent leader in the international community, and we cannot protect or advance our interests in a globalized world if we do not continue to serve in that role. But with this unique role come great responsibilities.
And how we wield our power and influence matters—it either enhances or undermines our moral authority.
Moving forward, six principles should guide a new U.S. national security strategy:
• U.S. strategy must be grounded in pragmatism rather than ideology.
• The United States must remain engaged in critical regions around the world.
• U.S. engagement must be smarter and more selective.
• The United States must play by the rules, exemplifying respect for the rule of law.
• Allies and partners are now even more essential given the nature of the challenges we face.
• Military power is necessary but not sufficient to deal with 21st century challenges; complex problems demand solutions that integrate all of the instruments of our national power.
These principles must lead to concrete actions. While the next president must ultimately deal with the full range of inherited challenges, from nuclear proliferation to climate change, there are ten steps that he or she should take early on to restore U.S. credibility, influence, and power:
1. Transition out of Iraq: The only way to begin to limit and recover from the extraordinary damage that the Iraq War has done to U.S. credibility is to begin to end U.S. involvement in the war. But the United States must take great care to avoid a precipitous withdrawal that could result in an even greater catastrophe for Iraq and the broader Middle East. The United States should adopt a new strategy and begin a phased transition calibrated to protect its most fundamental interests—no al Qaeda safe havens, no regional war, and no genocide—while drawing down the American troop presence over the next few years.
2. Overhaul U.S. strategy for the long struggle against violent extremists: Conceiving of the struggle against violent Islamist extremists as a “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) has been both misguided and damaging to U.S. international standing. While the threat of violent extremism is real and must be addressed as a top priority, the GWOT frame is counterproductive. Reconceptualizing and reframing U.S. strategy in the “war on terror” early in the next term should be a top priority for the next president.
3. Reinvigorate the Middle East peace process: The United States has an indispensable and unique role to play in brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Given the centrality of this issue to creating lasting peace and stability in such a critical region and its resonance with the broader Muslim world, it is imperative that the peace process once again rises to the level of a top priority for the next president.
4. Affirm and vigorously enforce U.S. commitment to the rule of law: The next president should take a number of concrete actions to demonstrate the United States’ renewed commitment to the rule of law. Specifically, the United States should: close the detainee facilities at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; renounce the practice of extraordinary renditions; abide by the four Geneva Conventions in the context of the so-called war on terror; begin a systematic program of bringing terror suspects into American and other national legal systems as comprehensively as possible; and, where necessary, work with the Congress to ensure more legally expedient ways to detain and question suspected terrorists while still allowing them to remain inside the legal system, and convene the international community to address and correct any deficiencies in the international legal system.
5. Reject preventive war: In order to restore U.S. credibility, the next president must take pains to reverse the impression that the United States will use force on a unilateral and often preemptive basis, unconstrained by international law. While he or she should certainly reserve the traditional right to take preemptive action in self defense, it is imperative that the next president clarify that the United States intends to exercise this right only in extreme circumstances, such as in the face of an imminent attack.
6. Identify and pursue a broader set of strategic priorities: Since the invasion of Iraq, the United States has suffered from an extreme case of strategic myopia. The war in Iraq has consistently eclipsed every other issue of strategic import for the long-term interests of the United States. A concerted effort must be undertaken to ensure that important yet neglected challenges receive more high-level focus, attention, and resources.
7. Revitalize U.S. alliances, partnerships, and international institutions: The Bush administration’s “you are either with us or against us” approach to international relations in the wake of September 11th took a serious toll on a number of our bilateral relationships. Many U.S. allies were left wondering whether the shared interests, threat perceptions, and strategies that have underpinned their relationship with the United States for many decades still exist. The next president must confront this issue head on with each of the United States’ key allies and demonstrate that once again America is prepared to work with friends and allies to promote global interests.
8. Be proactive in the use of American soft power: The next president must take pains to reverse the impression that the United States is insensitive to the problems that define the daily lives of the majority of the world’s people: poverty, disease, lack of access to clean water, environmental degradation, lack of economic opportunity, and lack of avenues for political participation in their respective societies. The United States has an interest in addressing these conditions, not only because it is “the right thing to do” and doing so would certainly improve America’s image abroad, but also because these are the very conditions that often give rise to instability and conflict. The next president should, therefore, be much more proactive in the use of non-military instruments like humanitarian assistance, development assistance to reduce poverty and build economic capacity, and civil society programs that promote democracy and good governance.
9. Restore fiscal discipline: For the past several years, the federal government has been borrowing against the country’s future. The federal deficit has just begun to come down from record levels, and the rate of borrowing from foreign sources has increased markedly. The solutions to these problems will be difficult pills to swallow, but are vital to the future health of the nation’s economy. The next president, working with Congress, will have to roll back at least parts of the Bush tax cuts and search the budget for areas where excess spending can be eliminated. Doing so will pave the way for greatly reducing our reliance on excessive foreign borrowing, strengthening the dollar, and easing our federal account deficit in the process.
10. Revitalize the U.S. military and ensure its prudent use: The next president must give priority to addressing the strains that have stretched the All-Volunteer Force close to the breaking point. Revitalizing the military will also require adapting it to meet future challenges. Given that today’s military was optimized to fight major theater wars against conventional armies, it will have to undergo some significant changes to be fully prepared to meet the irregular challenges of the future.
Furthermore, because domestic and international skepticism about the use of military force in the wake of the Iraq War will make it exceedingly difficult for the next president to use the U.S. military as an instrument of U.S. policy, the next president should foster a broad dialogue with the American people and with America’s allies on when it is appropriate—and not—to use force in the new security environment.
Addressing the inheritance will require nothing less than a fundamental reframing of the U.S. role in the world and the development of a much more integrated approach to national security, one that fully resources and employs all of the instruments of national power. The next president will need to restore public and international confidence in the United States’ ability to use its power in ways that are prudent, responsible, and for the greater good.
He or she will also need to demonstrate a renewed appreciation of the necessity of alliances, partnerships, and coalitions to address global problems and transnational threats. This will require a more integrated national security strategy that fully utilizes non-military tools that have gathered dust in recent years, such as multilateral diplomacy, economic persuasion, and responsible stewardship of national and international law. Perhaps the most consequential thing the next president can do is to take visible, concrete steps to begin to restore U.S. credibility abroad.
In the face of skeptical publics at home and overseas, a deeply divided nation and Congress, disillusioned and wary allies, and tenacious and vicious adversaries, charting this new way forward for America will likely be the most difficult, vexing, and time consuming challenge the next president will face. It will also be the most important. It will likely determine his or her place in history. Most importantly, how he or she manages the inheritance will in large part determine whether U.S. security and influence will wax or wane still further in the years to come.