Making American Foreign Policy Unexceptional
President Donald Trump’s campaign and years in office thus far have elicited plenty of pre-mortems on his foreign policy, as well as postmortems on the “liberal international order,” on which he is allegedly turning his back. International relations scholars, foreign policy think-tankers, and journalists continue to debate the nature of this order, whether it actually existed and was a force for good, and Trump’s influence on American grand strategy.
In the last two months alone, four books on the subject have been released, all of them by renowned scholars. Arguing that the U.S. grand strategy of the last three decades has failed and is ripe for re-thinking are Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt with The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy and the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer with The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. On the liberal internationalist side is the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan with The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World and Ivo H. Daalder’s and James M. Lindsay’s The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership.
Now, as if on cue, an economist has poked his head into the room to offer his unsolicited two cents: famed aid and development scholar Jeffrey Sachs (I hope my economist friends will recognize that playful jab was meant only in jest). Sachs is a professor at Columbia University, a special advisor to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and perhaps the most famous economist of the 21st century. His new book is entitled A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism, and there is much inside to be celebrated. I never thought I would utter the words “I agree with Jeff Sachs,” let alone put them in print, yet here we are.
What Sachs has accomplished is to offer a third way of sorts for foreign policy debate, looking beyond the usual dichotomy that dominates popular discourse. He calls for a truly internationalist foreign policy, but one that eschews a forward-leaning military posture, celebrates openness, and doesn’t see the world in a zero-sum manner.
Sachs describes three competing visions of American foreign policy. The first is represented by the liberal internationalists, or exceptionalists as he refers to them. These are largely the current establishment foreign policy elite, those who see America as the indispensable nation—a current that runs deep in American history—that should forcibly assert itself on the world stage, steering events to our liking and benefit. In this telling, America should be the unrivaled world hegemon.
The second vision is realism, represented largely by folks active in the academy: Walt, Mearsheimer, Barry Posen at MIT, and others. Realists argue for a much less militaristic posture and the acceptance of balance of power politics. For Sachs, this is a step in the right direction, but he remains unsatisfied with realism. “[L]ike the exceptionalists, the realists argue essentially for ‘peace through strength,’” he writes. “They believe a new arms race is the necessary and inevitable price to pay to keep the balance of power and preserve U.S. security.”
Sachs calls his preferred vision internationalism, distinct from the liberal internationalism of the exceptionalist camp. “Internationalists argue that global cooperation between nations is not only feasible but also essential to avoid war and sustain American and global prosperity.” Internationalism is the way to avoid conflict, while boosting economic growth and dealing with global collective action problems, such as climate change.
Sachs’s internationalism differs from the liberal internationalism of the foreign policy elite in that it rejects American exceptionalism, which is “passé, a throwback to the years after World War II when the United States dominated the world economy and was far ahead of the rest of the world in military and civilian technology. Times are different now.” Internationalism is about finding a “safe position for the United States without the claim of global dominance.”
There is much to like in Sachs’s conceptualization. He condemns America’s militaristic posture and the role it has played in fostering instability, particularly in the Middle East. Wars often cause more problems than they solve, and we would be smart to avoid them. He proposes some practical steps to rein in the warfare state, such as restructuring the CIA to act solely as an intelligence agency instead of an unaccountable paramilitary organization.
Sachs recognizes the role that our own actions played in poisoning relations with Russia. As he explains, there is an information asymmetry inherent in any state’s action. What one party considers non-aggression, the other may consider aggression. NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union is considered by Russia to be a threat to her long-term security. Despite this protestation, the U.S. has obstinately pushed ahead on this issue.
He also rejects the China hysteria emanating from the Trump administration, liberal exceptionalists, and even some realists. For Sachs, China’s rise represents an opportunity to cooperate on big issues instead of a march towards an inevitable conflict. The exceptionalist view on China is “based on the false idea that global economics must be about winners versus losers, the United States versus China, rather than about mutual gains through trade and technological advance.”
Obviously, one doesn’t need to agree with everything Sachs says to find his contribution valuable. I am sympathetic to realism, but also a fan of openness, trade, and international cooperation. These positions are clearly reconcilable. As political scientists Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky argued in a seminal 1997 article in International Security: “Restraint is a modern form of isolationism: we adopt the military policy of withdrawal, but reject its traditional economic protectionism.” Choosing a security policy of restraint doesn’t precludeglobal economic interdependence. Foreign policy realism, liberalized economic policy, and diplomatic cooperation among states are not inherently at odds with one another—though obviously the devil is always in the details. Realists do tend to be clear-eyed about constraints, the realm of the possible, and the allure of ideologies such as nationalism, which certainly can feed skepticism of Sachs’s ideas about internationalism.
Nonetheless, to my mind, Sachs’s book is a welcome entry into the ongoing foreign policy debate. Many political camps will find much to like: progressives, libertarians, restraint-minded conservatives, and socialists, all of whom concur to varying degrees that U.S. militarism has often not been a force for good. It is well past time we moved past exceptionalism.
Jerrod A. Laber is D.C.-based foreign policy writer and journalist, and a contributor to Young Voices. His work has been published in Defense One, The National Interest, and the Columbus Dispatch, among many other outlets.