America First Requires America to Lead

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the State Department staff last week that our policy must ensure American security and economic interests first but also reflect American values. He said our relationships needed rebalancing and then toured the globe to describe how we should be active everywhere. He’s also going to survey staff for ideas on improvements. All well and good, but something was missing: foreign policy is more than geographies and practices; it’s national standing and purpose.

Policy pronouncements so far from this administration have been contradictory and often meaningless. Policy actions, like the bombing of Syria or statements that we could talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong un “under the right conditions” have become isolated events, with no follow-up or context, no supporting explanations by spokesmen or plans to implement a strategy. Other nations, from Europe to Russia to Japan, can’t see our requirements and red lines. If we go our own way, they will as well.  

Since the end of the World War II, nations of the world have learned to organize themselves around the United States. We created the web of alliances, trade agreements, wars, interventions, and technologies that defined where everyone fit in. During the Cold War, we held high the banner of liberty against communism. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we stood for freedom and open economies as embodied in globalization. Throughout this period, America prospered when America led.

The United States stood up to friend and foe with noble purpose as well as national interest. Simply put, we made the rules and benefitted from them. For example:

  • Bretton Woods institutions governed exchange rates and economic policy for 70 years.   
  • U.S. defense of friends and Allies, from Berlin to Kuwait to Afghanistan, affirmed the principle, often at great cost, that acquisition of territory by force –mankind’s history to 1945—is no longer tolerated.  
  • Over the last 25 years, the major nations of the world adopted U.S. laws against bribery as a standard in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and increasingly in the Group of Twenty.   
  • U.S. trade negotiators for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership were well on their way to establishing a basis to harmonize behind-the-border regulations that so often kept U.S. goods out of supposedly open markets.  

Globalization lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty and is creating a new global middle class that will continue to transform societies from the inside. Yet, Donald Trump’s election and Brexit—the UK’s departure from the European Union—catapulted us into a new era, one where we can no longer assume all do better under open economies. Globalization created new problems for many and resentments against bureaucratic institutions from Washington to Brussels. We need to take the message to heart.  Our purpose cannot be “towards a more perfect globalization.” And it can’t be “everyone for themselves.”

So, we need to ask Secretary Tillerson: where is America going to lead? That is the question we should be answering. I’m afraid the President and the Secretary won’t find the answer in surveys of State Department employees or even the insightful products of Washington think tanks. The survey will produce plenty of great ideas about how to trim the bureaucracy to make it more efficient and how to take advantage of new technologies. But you can’t reorganize a company or a department without knowing its purpose: what are we trying to achieve?  If the political leadership establishes the purposes of America, then our diplomats and generals will translate those goals into strategy and policies that keep America at the center of events.

This is a big exercise that the Administration has in no way begun. “America First” doesn’t say much about the nature or direction of American leadership, indeed it implies an abandonment of leadership. Purpose and example will take more than a collection of 140 character pronouncements. Let’s start with a few basic principles:  

  • We’ve always been an example to the world in economics and politics. We need to develop a work force, a tax code, and a regulatory process that favor advanced manufacturing rather than simply profits and financial transactions.   
  • With others, we need to develop ways to protect societies from terrorism and improve resilience to attacks while respecting the rights of our citizens. We shouldn’t embrace those who claim authoritarianism is the only way to protect their population.
  • We need norms for international conduct in cyberspace, including how to prohibit hacking to influence elections.
  • We must be willing to take on our fair share of the global tasks, like caring for those fleeing violence and disaster, preventing climate breakdown, and giving the poorest a start at economic growth. But we should be honest: endless aid programs have not lifted as many from poverty as market opportunities over the past 20 years. How do we spread opportunity rather than just cash?

You get the picture. Having tapped the discontent to get elected, the new President and his Cabinet owe the nation a way forward. So, rather than a survey, perhaps the new Administration could begin a national conversation on how America leads in a new era. If we don’t take the lead, someone else will.  

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