A Clear-Eyed Focus on Our Interests: A Guide for the Next President

February 11, 2016

The 2016 presidential campaigns have touched a nerve — we live in a foreign policy age of high anxiety. Americans worry deeply that the United States is declining, the Middle East is unraveling, Europe is stumbling, terrorists and repressive autocrats are winning, and cyber threats are multiplying. As Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo put it during one of the recent Republican debates, “Sometimes it seems the world is on fire.”

In a threat environment this complex and uncertain, the risk is that leaders will focus on the wrong things, allowing more important foreign policy challenges to fester and grow. That’s exactly what is happening. The one thing all presidential candidates have in common is a fixation with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL). In the Republican and Democratic debates this month, ISIL received far more attention than anything else, garnering nearly 60 mentions. Russia, by contrast, received just 16 mentions, nuclear dangers had seven, cyber threats got three, and Pakistan — arguably one of the most dangerous places on earth, with mobile, questionably secure nuclear weapons, a serious domestic Islamist insurgency, and a long-running border feud with its nuclear-armed Indian neighbor — got no attention at all.

For the past two years, we have convened a bipartisan group of Hoover and Stanford scholars to better understand foreign policy challenges and develop a strategy for the next administration — whomever wins — to address them. Our conclusion: U.S. foreign policy needs to get back to basics. A smart national security strategy starts with three guiding principles and focuses on three key strategic challenges: Russia, China, and “black swan” threats comprised of biological, nuclear, and cyber dangers.

The first guiding principle is that the United States should be unapologetic about pursuing its economic and security interests and more tempered in pursuing its ideals. Interventions against horrific regimes to foster democratic reforms have bred more horrific violence and destabilizing political vacuums, from Tripoli to Damascus. America has always stood for universal freedoms, but we have pursued those freedoms in different ways at different times. When it comes to democratic interventions, history has spoken loudly: Democratization in the Middle East has failed, whether led from above, on the ground, or behind. It is time the United States take a more prudent course that prioritizes the stability and security that most directly promote our interests.

Second, the international order is underrated by too many foreign policymakers and observers. The United States has more than 60 alliance partners around the world and still plays a pivotal role in all of the institutions that form the cornerstone of the international order. These alliances and institutions will not take care of themselves. American leaders need to invest time, effort, and resources into nurturing our unparalleled alliances and adapting institutions that have been the bedrock of the international order for seven decades. This means standing firmly by NATO against Russia, bolstering alliance networks in the Asia-Pacific, and modernizing the governance structures of institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and United Nations.

Third, reinvigorating the international order is not enough: The United States must also develop flexible unilateral capabilities that can be deployed against varied threats. This starts with developing a strategic energy policy that takes advantage of our newfound natural resources to strengthen allies and weaken adversaries. It includes more attention to counter-messaging, and not just in the realm of counter-terrorism. International leadership hinges on the force of ideas, not just the use of force. Defense Department acquisition reform, despite Secretary Ash Carter’s best efforts, is still broken and desperately needs fixing so that the Department of Defense can buy smarter and invent faster. Never again should the United States spend 17 years developing a program like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that costs so much and performs so poorly.

The list of specific foreign policy challenges is long, but not all threats are equal. China, Russia, and “black swan” cyber, biological and nuclear threats will remain the three most important challenges for years to come.

China’s future is far from certain. What is certain is that China’s role on the world stage will be large no matter what we do by virtue of the country’s size and economic position, that its military capabilities will continue to increase dramatically, that its domestic stressors are likely to grow and present new challenges to the regime, and that China shares both mutual and conflicting interests with the United States that must be carefully managed. The United States should pursue a policy that seeks to integrate China into the existing international order — including military hedging — that makes it clear to China that joining the American-led global order is its best option Recent experience with China’s creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which attracted the support of America’s closest allies, suggests that policies designed to isolate rather than welcome China into international regimes have backfired. It is time for a new direction: The United States should fully embrace a policy of giving China the role that its size and contributions warrant in existing international organizations provided that China agrees to play by the recognized and accepted rules of international behavior. At the same time, we should vigorously pursue ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, insist on multilateral resolution of territorial disputes in the region, maintain our regional alliances and encourage more robust relationships between our regional allies and partners, assert freedom of navigation in the Western Pacific, and develop strategic partnerships with other major Asian countries, notably India and Indonesia.

Russia is a declining power, but will remain one of the world’s most powerful militaries (with a large nuclear arsenal) for the foreseeable future. Nor is Putin going anywhere anytime soon, as he continues to stoke domestic support by engaging in aggressive behavior abroad and by castigating the United States as an adversary bent on humiliating Russia. The United States must be clear-eyed about cooperating with Russia where possible (on nuclear proliferation and counterterrorism, for example) while containing Putin’s ambitions in Europe by making a sharp distinction between NATO and non-NATO member states and leaving no ambiguity in the minds of Russian leaders that any effort to invade or dismember a NATO member state would be met by force. Perhaps the greatest danger is that Russia would engage in subversion by claiming to protect Russian minorities in the Baltics. NATO must work to continue to clarify attribution for subversion, identify subversive measures that would be violations of Article 5, and publicize what measures would be taken if such violations occur.

The probability that “black swan” cyber, nuclear, and biological threats will materialize is unknowable. Two things, however, are knowable: First, these black swan dangers are not just confined to jihadist terrorist groups. Some states are already engaging in large-scale cyber operations and other states, including Pakistan and North Korea, have a long history of trafficking nuclear materials to third parties. Second, the diffusion of technology is making it easier for individuals to gain access to the material resources necessary to inflict massive disruption and destruction.

The first line of defense against “black swan” dangers is improving intelligence and domestic policing. The second line is promoting “good enough” governance in badly governed polities and strengthening the security capacity of local rulers willing to cooperate with the United States — a path that can be effective and does not require high resource commitments. Where it is impossible to strengthen local capacity, the United States and its allies might have to engage in targeted attacks against transnational terrorist groups. But we should have no illusions — the policy options that can lessen the risk of “black swan” events may involve strengthening the security capacity of rulers who have little regard for democracy or human rights. The best policies involve a choice among bad options.

Today’s principal foreign policy challenge is distraction. In a threat environment this crowded and uncertain, making priorities from headlines is misguided and responding to every foreign policy challenge with force is foolish. American leadership starts with unambiguous guiding principles and priorities that make clear what we stand for, what our goals are, what capabilities we need to achieve them, and what challenges matter most.


Stephen D. Krasner is the Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Relations at Stanford, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution. From 2005 to 2007 he served under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as the director of policy planning at the State Department.

Amy Zegart is the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Co-Director of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.


Photo credit: Tom Lohdan