THR Blog   /   December 8, 2020

America Abroad (Again)

Are we dispensable?

Nadav Samin

( Leaders of Brazil, Australia, Argentina, Germany, China and the United States at the G20 2017 summit, July 7, 2017, Casa Rosada via Wikimedia Commons.)

When I was a graduate student in international relations in the early 2000s, my teachers would frequently invoke the famous, though possibly apocryphal, response of the late Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai to the question of whether the French Revolution had been a success: “It’s too soon to tell.” Contemplating the same arc of history that forms the subtext of Zhou’s reply, we might see the United States today bending gingerly away from populist indignation and toward a potentially gentler interval of governance. Though the nation’s attention is rightly focused on domestic matters, above all on contending with a devasting pandemic, changes at the helm mean that it is open season for grand visioning from the heights, particularly as concerns America’s place in the world. Are we dispensable? Indispensable? Exceptional? Banal? Imperialist? Heroic? Or simply unsound?

My grandfather, a citrus farmer in Israel, was skilled at hybridizing citrus trees, splicing branches from one orange tree onto a larger trunk and grafting them to grow as one. That process might also describe the shaping of an emergent American foreign policy, one that joins conservative nationalist principles with liberal internationalist ones. If this smells of nostalgia for a bygone foreign policy consensus, then that fruit is past ripe, because the state of America’s politics today permits no retreads. Rather, I hope that by fusing together some of the sentiments that seem to animate liberal and conservative opinion, including the former’s optimism about human nature and the latter’s emphasis on American sovereignty, we may be able to move toward a new consensus, one that better reflects the nation’s imperfect yet admirable character.

Champions of a policy shaped via the hybridizing techniques employed by my grandfather might, on one hand, say something like this: The world beyond our borders is filled with good people who are constantly seeking to take advantage of us. Persecuted religious and ethnic minorities and economic migrants seek the refuge of our protective laws and the opportunities for economic mobility, however rugged and dispiriting our individualistic rat race may be. Meanwhile, allies and competitors often seek dubious advantage from our international security and trade commitments, carving out exceptions to free trade rules for themselves, foregoing their contributions to global or regional security, or instigating conflict on the assumption we will turn a blind eye or serve as an end-game lender or enforcer.

We are inclined by geography and the expansive vision of our Founders to profess both skepticism and magnanimity toward the wider world. For this predisposition we at once reap rewards and pay a price. And though we may at times emphasize one instinct over the other, the polarization of domestic politics today might make the conscious calibration of a balance between American leadership and restraint in the world, between magnanimity and skepticism toward the lands beyond our borders, seem impossibly elusive.

But champions of a new hybridized policy might also say this: We judge the merits of prospective friends or allies firstly on their virtues—their virtues relative to one another, that is, not their absolute moral worth. The global backlash against liberal internationalism and its universalizing drive is not new to this era of populism. Challenges to liberal democracy have persisted throughout modern history. Communism gave way to jihadism as the ideology of resistance; yet both molded their talking points into simple binaries, clear enough for Americans to contemplate and digest as such. By contrast, the present moment is one characterized by a profound diffusion of authority: a multipolar world of political competition, coupled with a fragmentation of information systems into myriad microparts. These complexities challenge our comprehension, giving diverse antagonists opportunity to exploit the confusion and erode the underpinnings of our civic culture, which is the first line of defense against both foreign and domestic threats.

So how might we best shore up our external defenses to secure the American project for another century? Reasserting common cause with sister democracies around the world seems a good start, beginning with Europe but certainly extending to friends elsewhere. Yet beyond repairing the currently challenged comity of democratic nations, the picture gets even murkier. Amid the vast and growing authoritarian landscape, including many nations that once seemed democratic or at least on the path to democracy, supporting friends and opposing foes at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer ($2 trillion for an inconclusive War on Terror?) is no easy business for America. It is made even more challenging by a polarized polity that alternates leadership between two profoundly antagonistic parties. What then is the value of non-democratic nations to the United States?

We seem in recent memory to have defined the value of non-democratic allies and friends in terms of their utility. Utility can mean providing economic benefit, as China long did through its low-cost manufacture of inexpensive consumer goods; or, it can mean assisting in countering a threat to our territories or citizenry, as some Arab governments have attempted to do in their efforts to dismantle the jihadist international, to generally useful effect. Traditional virtue—meaning high character and principled, rules-based action—is nowhere present in the calculation of these benefits, which accrue through practices that directly contradict our commitments to fair enterprise and individual rights. And yet, on a bipartisan basis, we have structured our global economic and security architecture during the past several decades to obtain such benefits. In other words, we have secured our place as a nation in the world by adopting a morally dubious definition of virtue, one that carves out its own exceptions for the sake of self-interest. And with the authoritarian impulse still advancing at a seductive clip throughout the world it is unlikely that we will be able to give up on utilitarian horse trading any time soon. The challenge of dealing effectively with repressive nations while advancing a morally grounded foreign policy is a formidable one for any leader. And as our domestic politics devolves further into a confrontation between aggrieved factions bearing rival absolute truths, the task of analysis and persuasion about matters already complex and arcane is rendered all the more difficult.

A centrist temperament, though put into at least momentary abeyance, presumably will soon direct our political compass at home. Can a centrist view, one realistically skeptical about the world but strategically charitable about its flaws, be applied to our foreign policy challenges as well? The polarizing logic of partisan politics might make this feat impossible. But a view of the United States from the world would reveal that without such a recombination of idealism and national self-interest, without reaching perpetually for higher principles while rejecting the fiction that we can live by them consistently, our good name as united states is simply less persuasive. And that would be the greatest gift to our enemies.