What Should a Liberal American Foreign Policy Look Like, Part 1: The Field of Play

In a recent column for the Boston Globe, Century Foundation fellow Thannasis Cambanis sees four schools of thought competing to define a new “grand strategy” for American foreign policy. It’s a smart piece that deserves a slow read, but Cambanis’ essay also left me frustrated. Although I consider myself to be a fairly conventional thinker on foreign policy, I didn’t feel like I could sit comfortably in any of the four chairs he set around the table for this discussion.

That frustration started me thinking about the field of play for American foreign policy and, relatedly, wondering why a liberal Democrat like me should have a hard time finding a comfortable position in that debate when there’s a Democrat in the White House, Hillary Clinton heads the Department of State, and the likes of Mike McFaul, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice occupy many other influential positions. Those topics together deserve a longer treatment than any blog reader should be asked to endure in a single go, so I thought I would break the intellectual task in two parts. Here, I take up the first, identifying what I see as the questions any “grand strategy” for American foreign policy–liberal or otherwise–ought to answer. Time permitting, I hope to use future posts to discuss my discomfort with the thrust of contemporary American liberal thinking on the answers to those questions and, readers’ tolerance permitting, my thoughts on plausible alternatives.

So, then: What questions should a grand strategy for American foreign policy aim to answer? I’m a social scientist by training, so I’ll start by defining my terms. When I say “grand strategy,” I mean what Dan Drezner says:

A grand strategy consists of a clear articulation of national interests married to a set of operational plans for advancing them. Sometimes, such strategies are set out in advance, with actions following in sequence. Other times, strategic narratives are offered as coherent explanations connecting past policies with future ones. Either way, a well-articulated grand strategy can offer an interpretative framework that tells everybody, including foreign policy officials themselves, how to understand the administration’s behavior.

In 2o11, the United States remains the world’s most powerful country, with its largest economy and its most powerful military by far. Nothing is permanent, however, and two facts are prodding us to rethink our approach to foreign policy for the second time since the collapse of Communism some 20 years ago. The first is the growing economic and military strength of several other countries–China especially, but also India, Brazil, and others TBD. The second is the tightening pinch of fiscal constraints at home.

Under these circumstances, strategizing about American foreign policy today is essentially a matter of deciding how the U.S. should respond to the emergence of new rivals, given the nature and possible limitations of its power. In his essay on the debate over what America’s grand strategy ought to be, Cambanis hints at two intellectual dimensions representing competing views about the extent and the appropriate uses of American power. I think he’s covered the right ground, so instead of starting the journey over, I’ll simply try to map more explicitly the terrain he’s already crossed. As I see it, the two axes of major disagreement are these.

  • Rules vs. autonomy. This is the current expression of the familiar and enduring idealist-realist axis, but with a particularly American face on the idealism. In American foreign policy, idealists mostly dream about the construction of an international order based on the liberal principles of universal human rights and the rule of law. Few thinkers stand at the extremes–as Henry Kissinger put it in a recent book review, there is “a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy” that is contantly teetering between morality and power–so most of the action on this dimension is a matter of degrees. Toward one end of the axis are thinkers who argue that America’s long-term interests–and, importantly, its values–lie in sustaining and even strengthening the international organizations and treaty regimes that it helped to build over the past half-century. Toward the other end are thinkers who see those institutions in instrumental terms, suggesting that they may have outlived their usefulness and advocating for more autonomous action as changing circumstances require.
  • Retrench vs. re-assert. This dimension is a kind of Rorschach test in response to the rise of new global and regional powers. America’s waning influence is, in part, a function of growth elsewhere, but it is also a function of fiscal troubles at home. Given that fact, should the U.S. respond to its relative decline by pulling away or punching harder? Should we concentrate on shepherding our own strength or on stunting our would-be rivals?

These two axes leave a lot of room for principled disagreement and nutritious discussion. Most American liberals probably gravitate toward the rule-bound end of the first dimension, but there seems to be a wider spread on the second dimension, thanks to serious disagreements between liberals who worry more about deepening economic malaise at home and those who emphasize a continuing moral obligation to agitate for human rights across the world. If the Republican candidates for president are any indication, most American conservatives apparently share a belief in America’s right to do as it sees fit, a belief often expressed as open disdain for international institutions that might constrain U.S. action. Like liberals, though, conservatives also argue among themselves about the implications of America’s economic troubles; where some see tightening budget constraints as sufficient cause to roll back our overseas commitments, others declare national defense to be the federal government’s paramount purpose and argue that the cuts will have to bite elsewhere. Meanwhile, President Obama seems to be hovering near the center on both axes: emphasizing the value of international cooperation but reserving the right to act alone when America is threatened; and calling 2011 “a time to focus on nation building here at home” but extending the costly war in Afghanistan and supporting armed intervention in Libya.

So that’s how I see the field of play for practical thinking about American foreign policy right now and the position of some of the players on it. Again, the core question is how the U.S. should respond to the rising power of other states and the emergence of potential new limitations to its own. Time and readers’ interest permitting, I plan to use this backgrounder as the foundation for a future critique of American liberals’ answers to this question. Peeking ahead, that critique will focus on three interrelated concerns: many liberals’ unwarranted faith in America’s power to transform the world around it; an impatience to see those transformations happen now; and an almost willful blindness to the ironies and unintended consequences of the interventions we undertake as a result.

Leave a comment


  1. Good reading. Look forward to the follow up.

  2. I suppose that I should wait for Part 2 to jump in with this thought. However, I feel like being a bit bold today. I think that a key aspect to any future American foreign policy is to deal with one basic question: How do we deal with the success of our post-World War II strategy? Now I am not advocating American exceptionalism or triumphalism. For all intents and purposes, our strategy of containment, economic liberalization and political self-determination (anti-imperialism) have all been to one extent or another successful. The world is growing more democracies and liberal economies than we have seen before and even Communist states are persisting with more capitalistic elements than they have had in recent memory.

    While there is much discussion of our decline, it is much more of a relativistic statement. We aren’t growing as fast as the rest of the world, but in some regard, we should not be. If the goal was to create more states like ourselves – liberal economic democracies guided by the rule of law – we should not always be light years ahead in terms of quality of life and opportunity. Much as we encouraged Europe to grow after the Second World War so we would have strong trading and defense partners, we need to be encouraging the same across the globe. Our long term allies have enjoyed a lot of success over the years where our basic approaches have been embraced. I think that South Korea is a great example, marked by some pretty rough times, they have embraced democracy and liberal economic principles and have a much higher standard of living.

    So going back to the original question, what should the United States do in the second act, we need to continue to engage and build the robust institutions that enable the world to function without such a steady hand from Washington. We can not be afraid of changes at the UN in the Security Council or at the IMF. The Security Council should be expanded because it is a sign of the success of our foreign policy and our investment in our alliances. We should be seeing more participation at the IMF and World Bank and we should welcome it as a sign of our success. The American tax payer has bourne a number of burdens over time and will continue to do so, but the relative burden to that of others should be declining. Whether to turn those resources to the domestic front is another question (personally, I believe that we should), but we should not withdraw to our shores. What we can’t be doing is fighting wars of empire, much as we did in Iraq, and we must turn our resources and efforts to continuing the growth of democracy and liberal economies.

  3. Fascinating post, and a great way of visualizing the topic. Found it really useful to crystallize my own thoughts. Would be pretty interesting to graph various thinkers over a variety of issues on the axes you came up with.

  4. Kelly Clyde Moore

     /  December 18, 2011

    Nice article. I am always bewildered at the moralism attached to American foreign policy. As I see it, American foreign policy should be directly tied to what the nation can gain. Democracy and liberalism are nice, but that should not be the general goal. Retaining power should. The US should not liberalize Saudi Arabia. The US should not have supported the Egyptian revolution. The US should focus on building a good relationship with China and India, and asserting its influence in the oil rich Middle East.

    @ Brian
    I think it would be ridiculous to include new nations into the security council. Let allies continue to lobby, but don’t reduce American power in the UN.


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