Opinions - 05.10.2016 - 00:00 

US elections 2016: Four key tasks for a coherent foreign policy

A multitude of foreign policy decisions will face the next US President. An opinion piece by James W. Davis.

6 October 2016. With only weeks before the US elections, the foreign policy philosophy of the Republican candidate remains a mystery. Sometimes he seems to adhere to a form of neo-isolationism, with calls for the US to pull out of alliances, renege on longstanding treaty obligations, and hide behind a wall.

The implication is that America can afford to remain indifferent to the world and just go it alone. ISIS? Leave that to Russia? Russia? Leave that to Germany. Other times he calls on the US to play the role of global bully. He advocates torturing prisoners of war, plundering the resources of countries we have liberated from dictators, and, scariest of all, using nuclear weapons against ISIS and North Korea.

A coherent foreign policy

Does it matter whether the president has a coherent foreign policy? Geographically removed from most of the world’s conflicts, many Americans might not think so. But as an American currently living abroad I am convinced it does. Looking at the world from outside the United States you quickly come to realise that while America cannot solve all the world’s problems, without American leadership, nothing much gets done. And if nothing gets done, Americans will suffer.

As we get ready for the final debates, Americans are rightly focused on the future prosperity and security of the country. Of course the two goals are closely linked. In fact, America cannot be secure unless it has a prospering economy. But the benefits of prosperity will not be widely enjoyed if America confronts a world of pervasive conflict and instability. Because domestic prosperity depends on a conducive international environment, the personal interests of every American – rich and working class alike – are directly affected by a president’s foreign policies, a fact that is truer today than it was four or eight years ago.

Holding the international order together

The international order that the US built after the Second World War, which was expanded after the fall of the Iron Curtain, created an unprecedented period of international cooperation and economic growth both at home and abroad. Premised on the principles of open markets and collective defence, the United States built an interlocking network of international institutions to promote it. Today, however, that order is coming apart at the seams. Holding it together should be a top priority of whoever is elected on 8 November. This will entail four key tasks:

1. Rebuilding a global consensus in favour of open markets based on fair access. Protectionist rhetoric is on the rise across the globe threatening the economic prospects of American workers and consumers. When markets are closed by national preferences and unfair trade restrictions, American exports suffer, American workers lose their jobs, and American consumers end up paying higher prices for a narrower range of goods.

2. Reinvigorating Europe. Europe and America enjoy the largest trade and investment relationship in the world and Europeans fight side by side with Americans from Afghanistan to Syria. But shaken by the ongoing debt crisis, Euro crisis, refugee crisis, Brexit and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Europeans have lost confidence in their ability to collectively manage their economic and security affairs. A strong and self-confident Europe is a Europe than can pull its weight in deterring further Russian aggression, projecting stability to Africa and the Middle East, and rebuilding a consensus in favour of open markets.

3. Reconceptualise the Middle East. The civil war between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, the competition between Persians, Arabs and Turks for regional hegemony, the collapse of Iraq and Syria, the emergence of a quasi-independent Kurdistan, the assertion of Russian power, and the rise of a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders less committed to a negotiated settlement of the conflict, demand a thorough reconceptualisation of the Middle East. To avoid decades of ongoing war, economic instability and humanitarian crisis, the US will need to lead the search for new principles of regional order and help construct a regional balance of power to support it.

4. Reassure our Asian partners and resist Chinese efforts to redefine the rules of the game. With a rapidly growing economy and population, Asia remains the marketplace of the future. US prosperity and security are nowhere more closely linked. Reassuring Asian allies of our commitment to collective defence in the shadow of a rising China contributes to both political and economic stability. At the same time we should make it clear to Beijing that China has more to gain if it plays by the rules than it does by stoking the flames of nationalism in response to a slowdown of economic growth to more sustainable levels.

"Stronger together"

While preparing to choose who should occupy the highest office of the land, every American should ask themselves who they trust to create the sort of world where they can be safe and prosperous. Can America be great by going it alone in a world of closed markets, uncertainty in Europe, instability in the Middle East, and where our Asian partners live in fear of a nationalist China? Or are our goals better served by American leadership committed to the principle of "stronger together"?

Dr. James W. Davis is Professor of International Politics and Dean of the School of Economics.

A first version of this article was published in Forbes on 26 September 2016.

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