Foreign policy debate needs bigger voice in 2020 campaign

Marty Rochester

By Marty Rochester

Did you know that the U.S. Air Force is the smallest it has been since 1947 and that we have the smallest navy in almost a century? Do you care? 

You may recall a slogan that Bill Clinton’s campaign used during his 1992 run for the presidency: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It was meant to suggest that his focus would be on domestic issues.

Today, we seem to be in a similar electoral cycle. If you look at any of the major Democratic Party entrants into the 2020 presidential race — Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kristen Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden — one is hard pressed to find a single mention of foreign policy in their various pronouncements, unless one counts issues such as border security, immigration and climate change, which are as much domestic as foreign in nature. (Warren did write an essay in the January/February 2019 Foreign Affairs, but even there she stressed “foreign policy starts at home.”)

As for Donald Trump, Richard Haass of the Council of Foreign Relations has characterized him as standing for “a new isolationism,” reviving our 1930s policy of “turning away from global engagement” (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 5, 2016). 

That may be an unfair labeling of Trump. As president, he has necessarily found himself engaged internationally on several fronts, from North Korea to Iran to China and elsewhere, and he has supported a strong defense buildup. Still, per his “America First” mantra, he has most loudly called for retrenchment in our alliance and other overseas commitments. He has hardly been a champion of continuing America’s leadership role in preserving the liberal international order Washington has promoted since 1945, built on international institutions, free trade and democratization. 


Trump’s 2016 election owed in no small measure to a backlash against globalization. While a recent poll taken by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 70 percent of Americans “want the U.S. to take an active role in world affairs,” there is clearly little appetite for further military interventions, in the wake of recent failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2018). It is fair to say that the American public is in a somewhat isolationist mood. Symptomatic is the growing detachment from Israel evidenced even by American Jews.

Yet, as Haass argues, notwithstanding “the isolationist temptation,” the United States “does not have the option of becoming a giant gated community.” Minding our own business proved unworkable in the interwar period between World War I and World War II. It is likely to be even less realistic today in a world of terrorist threats, WMD proliferation and economic interdependence.

So what are our foreign policy options? There are three main alternative “grand strategies.”

The first could be called unilateralist internationalist. The phrase may sound oxymoronic, but think George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and what is called neoconservatism.  

Neoconservatives believe that the United States must be active internationally but is better off pursuing our national interests mostly alone, welcoming allies when they share our views but just as content to act unilaterally if necessary. They are skeptical if not hostile toward the United Nations and do not wish to be constrained by international law. They lean toward the use of armed force —hard power — as a mode of exercising influence and achieving goals. And they believe in American Exceptionalism and flag waving.  

The second approach could be called multilateralist internationalist. Think Jimmy Carter, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, that is, liberal internationalism. They also feel the United States must be active internationally but choose to devote more energies to acting multilaterally, supporting not only alliances, but also the U.N. and global institution-building along with ratifying many worldwide treaties we are not now a party to (such as the Law of the Sea Treaty, the Biodiversity Treaty, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child). They view foreign policy as social work, doing good deeds such as fighting global poverty, AIDS and other problems. They tend to be dovish: reliant on soft power, more inclined to give diplomacy a chance except willing to use force at times in the name of humanitarian intervention. 

So-called realists represent a third school. In insisting we define our interests much more narrowly than the other two schools and reduce spending on both hard power (the defense budget) as well as soft power (the U.N. and foreign aid), they come close to being neoisolationist. 

The categories admittedly are not clear-cut. Barack Obama, for example, was variously labeled a liberal internationalist (he won the Nobel Peace Prize within months of occupying the White House), a neocon (he tripled the number of drone strikes George W. Bush had authorized) and a realist (he was considered pragmatic in his cautious reluctance to put boots on the ground). 

In fact, some observers went so far as to call him a neoisolationist insofar as he seemed to see his job as managing the decline of U.S. hegemony. Regarding the absence of any clear grand strategy on his part, Ian Bremmer, in Superpower, says “no president in decades has so lacked a clear foreign policy focus. He had the world thoroughly confused.” 

Donald Trump’s foreign policy may invite even more confusion. 

For reasons suggested above, I do not think neoisolationism is a viable option, leaving the choices between the first two options. Neither is without some drawbacks.

Neoconservatism seems a recipe for constant military intervention, raises questions about the limits of hard power and whether we can afford primacy, paying for both guns and butter; it invites charges of arrogance and puts a bulls-eye on our back. 

Liberal internationalism raises questions about the limits of soft power and whether it invites perceptions of weakness and whether we are naïve to rely so heavily on international organization and law and on Lyndon Johnson’s bromide that “ít is better to have your enemy inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in,” as if we know what it would take to get the likes of North Korea and al-Qaida inside the tent.

Both neoconservativism and liberal internationalism share a moralistic streak in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, raising the question of whether we have the right and the capacity to spread our democratic values and do regime change in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or anywhere else.

The toughest issue we face today is when, if ever, to engage in military intervention. Our penchant for frequent interventionism during the Cold War has continued into the post-Cold War era, leading some to criticize the United States as involved in “permanent war.” No doubt, we overintervene. 

But should the United States stand by and merely watch as an overseas actor rapes children, beheads people of another faith, destroys treasured antiquities and performs other atrocities, as ISIS did? Or are we obligated on occasion to engage in humanitarian intervention? And are there not instances when our vital interests are at stake, such as in Afghanistan where, even though we risk a Vietnam-style quagmire engaging in a seemingly endless counterinsurgency conflict, failure to do so risks leaving a safe haven for terrorists?  

There are many profound dilemmas in world politics today, often posing damned if we do, damned if we don’t choices. Difficult as these issues are, our leadership, along with the public, cannot afford to remain silent about them.

One hopes to hear more discussion of foreign policy concerns in the upcoming election season.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”