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A Debate on America’s Role - 25 Years Late
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump disembark Air Force One upon their arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2017 (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

A Debate on America’s Role - 25 Years Late

Walter Russell Mead

Watching Donald Trump on the world stage must be surreal for the academics, politicians, diplomats and soldiers of the foreign-policy establishment. They haven’t been this alarmed since the Senate failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. Yet Mr. Trump is merely a symptom of America’s greatest problem in international affairs, and the crisis in foreign policy will not disappear when he leaves office.

The roots of the problem go back to the late 1940s, when the U.S. set out to build a global order in the aftermath of World War II. America helped create a long period of integration and growth by rebuilding Europe, promoting development in the decolonizing Third World, encouraging free trade, and providing safe passage for global commerce across the seas.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment was united in seeing a historic opportunity to deepen the liberal order and extend it into the rest of the world. Yet the public had always been skeptical about this project. Jacksonians in particular believed that American global policy was a response to the Soviet threat, and that once the threat had disappeared, the U.S. should retrench.

After World War I, and again at the start of the Cold War, Americans had held great debates over whether and how to engage with the world. But that debate didn’t happen after the Soviet collapse. Elites felt confident that the end of history had arrived, that expanding the world order would be so easy and cheap it could be done without much public support. Washington thus embarked on a series of consequential foreign-policy endeavors: enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include much of Central and Eastern Europe, establishing the World Trade Organization in the mid-’90s, promoting a global democracy agenda whenever possible.

American voters have never shared the establishment’s enthusiasm for a foreign policy aimed at transforming the post-Cold War world. When given the choice at the ballot box, they consistently dismiss experienced foreign-policy hands who call for deep global engagement. Instead they install untried outsiders who want increased focus on issues at home. Thus Clinton over Bush in 1992, Bush over Gore in 2000, Obama over McCain in 2008, and Trump over Clinton in 2016.

Today the core problem in American foreign policy remains the disconnect between the establishment’s ambitious global agenda and the limited engagement that voters appear to support. As Washington’s challenges abroad become more urgent and more dangerous, the divide between elite and public opinion grows more serious by the day.

The establishment is now beginning to discover what many voters intuitively believed back in the 1990s. Building a liberal world order is much more expensive and difficult than it appeared in a quarter-century ago, when America was king. Further, Washington’s foreign-policy establishment is neither as wise nor as competent as it believes itself to be.

Meantime, the world is only becoming more dangerous. North Korea threatens to take America hostage. The Middle East burns. Venezuela descends into chaos. Jihadist groups develop new capacities. A failing Russia lashes out. The European Union risks breaking apart. China presses toward regional hegemony. Trade liberalization grinds to a halt. Turkey turns away from democracy. And the U.S. still lacks a strong consensus on what its foreign policy should be.

Washington’s foreign policy needs more than grudging acquiescence from the American people if it is to succeed. How to build broad support? First, the Trump administration should embrace a new national strategy that is more realistic than the end-of-history fantasies that came at the Cold War’s conclusion. The case for international engagement should be grounded in the actual priorities of American citizens. Second, Mr. Trump and other political leaders must make the case for strategic global engagement to a rightfully skeptical public.

For much of the establishment, focusing on the Trump administration’s shortcomings is a way to avoid a painful inquest into the failures and follies of 25 years of post-Cold War foreign policy. But Mr. Trump’s presidency is the result of establishment failure rather than the cause of it. Until the national leadership absorbs this lesson, the internal American crisis will deepen as the world crisis grows more acute.

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