US needs popular support for viable foreign policy

BOSTON — At this moment of urgent need to forge a U.S. foreign policy capable of dealing effectively with a radically changed world, we are reminded that no viable international strategy is possible in a democratic republic without strong domestic support.

The bad news emanating from the early Republican primaries is that we are moving in the wrong direction.

The debates, speeches, surveys and political ads constitute a chaotic mix of evasion, ignorance, bellicosity, isolationism, interventionism and above all, patriotic pandering. We are practicing exploitation rather than pursuing education at a perilous moment in our roiling world and our domestic crises.

There may be some potential to redress this given the very diversity and uncertainty of current American views on foreign policy. Public opinion surveys reflect doubts about what form its internationalism should take and feelings about needing to pay more attention to domestic needs.

The international environment that we are now swept up in is radically different than the one we are accustomed to dealing with. There are a number of forces loose in our globalized world which are hugely powerful, beyond anyone’s control, and converging at a fast rate, including: pandemics; terrorism; contagious economic fluctuations; climate change and resource scarcity; expanding ethnic and sectarian conflict; major turmoil threatening regional stability; and the rich-poor gap, which exacerbates everything else.

At the same time, as a nation we are not well situated to deal with them.

Despite our prodigious strengths, we face a daunting aggregation of troubles, including: a sick economy; breakdowns in democratic governance; our evolution into a "money-archy," particularly at the intersection of politics, power and policy; deteriorating infrastructure; a lagging educational system; a political culture of incivility, polarization and obstructionism; our own growing economic and social inequality; and an ebbing of our national values so that they are insufficient bulwarks against selfishness, unfairness and nonaccountability. We lack committment to the common good and solidarity — a national ethos.

This is clearly a mismatch; the supply is dwarfed by the demand. We do not admit the power of all the dangers we face and we do not recognize how unprepared we are to meet them.

But this country will not be able to design, let alone agree upon, a re-configured foreign policy quickly, in one big jump. First we have to lay a base of public focus and understanding. And this requires adopting a new set of public perceptions, assumptions and attitudes, new ways of thinking, enabling us to accurately understand what the international challenges are and what our domestic capacity is to confront them. Then we will be more competent to forge strong policies and to create the needed consensus to support them.

This is profoundly difficult, and the chaos of a ferocious political climate is not a wholesome environment for reflection and sobriety. But it is essential to make the most of this season of open political debate, which ideally is dedicated to ideas as well as to combat, and not to wait.

There are a few principles which may be useful for laying the base, for connecting our public with our policy-makers, for adopting new attitudes needed to construct a foreign policy for a new world.

The biggest is to stop denying reality, to be able to recognize the truth, in the way we perceive developments abroad and conditions at home. We are allergic to complexity, ignore some of our biggest threats, and embrace illusion.

We will have much less resources to expend internationally, less than the challenges optimally demand, and we need to apply them with more priority and selectively. We need to restrain our ambitions, to undertake less, to calculate better the contributions of other nations.

Time is a factor and a resource which has to be drastically recalibrated. We need to think and act more long-term rather than short, while remaining competent to confront threats requiring immediate response. The deepest problems are long enduring, and should be engaged with the aim of making progress over time rather than attempting quick-fix “solutions.”

Greater willingness to deal with the complexity we face in the world today would require US foreign policy to be less ideological and more pragmatic, less hostile toward ambiguity and less spooked by uncertainty, more supple and adaptable.

A greater appreciation of the limited value of military power and its collateral costs is necessary for us to calculate when it is essential, what form it should take, and in what integration with diplomacy and development efforts in an overall strategy.

A new attitude emphasizing American cooperation rather than competition, collaboration rather than aggressiveness in our role would be consistent with the dangers and opportunities of our volatile world. We need as a polity to recognize and support the idea of reinforcing interdependency, that the effective pursuit of our national interest now must encompass the need to respond to the legitimate interests of the others with which ours are intertwined. This applies especially to the commitment to reduce the global disparity gap. It requires respect, discipline, compromise and patience.

The US will not survive alone. We are in this crucible together. We must move forward, not back off, but with new concepts, and as a people, not just a government.

Jonathan Moore is an associate at the Shorenstein Center for Press and Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. Moore is a former special assistant to the Secretary of Defence and a former US ambassador to the United Nations.

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