American Success Abroad is Anchored to Problem-Solving at Home


The global power of the United States has long been rooted in its assertion of principles and values alongside the capabilities of its military and the scale and ingenuity of its economy. As the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop wrote “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” That sense of America as a special, exceptional place was echoed by Thomas Paine in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, in French observer Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and others. President Woodrow Wilson built on this tradition when addressing the 1914 graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy, declaring that the United States had a unique role in the world, to defend and promote liberty abroad. He exhorted the sailors present that day “to take these great engines of force out onto the seas like adventurers enlisted for the elevation of the spirit of the human race. For that is the only distinction that America has.”

In his 1941 State of the Union Address, on the eve of America’s entrance into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt set forth “four freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) that should be enjoyed by people “everywhere in the world.” But he went further, stating explicitly that an “all-inclusive national defense” will require “an impressive expression of the public will” without partisanship. He called on Americans to support “those resolute people everywhere who are resisting aggression and are thereby keeping war away from our Hemisphere” and declared that an “enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people’s freedom.”



But the lofty and exceptional American quest for liberty has long had eminently realistic — and realist — foundations, as well. George F. Kennan, one of the leading lights of realist diplomacy in the 20th century, abhorred wasteful expenditure of financial and military resources, and he cautioned against excesses of bravado toward allies and adversaries alike. Yet he also recognized the essential linkage among foreign policy success, a compelling national idea, and the ability to inspire others by solving problems at home.

In his landmark 1946 Long Telegram and the subsequent 1947 “X” article (“The Sources of Soviet Conduct”), Kennan diagnosed the essence of the then-nascent Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as a test not only of military strength and material output, but of ideas and example. The “containment” strategy he prescribed depended in part on the ability of the United States to accurately diagnose and counter Soviet moves to gain influence worldwide. Far more important, in Kennan’s own words, was the demonstrated ability to solve problems, to make life better for ordinary people, and thus to lead by example:

This is [the] point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.

The debate among policy scholars and historians over what brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War remains unresolved. Some emphasize the importance of U.S. defense spending, in which the economic and political contradictions inside the Soviet Union were exacerbated as the United States forced Moscow to pursue a military competition it could ill afford. Others attribute it more to pressures on the Soviet system from within — the centripetal forces of nationalism pulling against Moscow’s far-flung empire, plus the rejection of the Bolsheviks’ false promises and oppressive oligarchy by ordinary citizens, who increasingly withheld their full cooperation and participation in the system.

Both were undoubtedly significant factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union, but when Soviet and East European citizens set about to replace totalitarian communism with something new, their sights were trained less on the failures of the past and present than on a positive and inspiring model for the future. Though it was far from perfect, for many in the former Eastern bloc, that model came largely from the positive, attractive alternative on display in the West, including in the United States.

By the end of the Cold War, regular depictions in communist state media of homelessness, racial discrimination, and violent crime in democratic countries had broadly convinced its people that the America depicted in Hollywood movies airbrushed over deep injustices. But people in the East also knew that in the United States and the developed democracies of the West, citizens could speak out against injustices, could organize with or without government sanction, could cast their votes, and that in so doing, they ultimately played a role in managing and solving those problems.

Material quality of life was important too — average Americans were quite obviously richer and more comfortable than their Soviet counterparts. But as Soviets knew well, material comforts could be unequally shared, fleeting, and deceiving. Thus a far more important lodestar than material wealth was the West’s apparent resiliency, the ability of the system and the people in it to shake off adversity, its willingness to entertain and even protect dissent, and its ultimate capacity to innovate and solve problems that were beyond the ability of leaders in Moscow.

Implications for American Foreign Policy Today

The United States is gradually realizing that it is already engaged in a geopolitical competition with other major powers. The Obama administration grew to more openly acknowledge the competitive aspects of its relations with China, and the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy identified competition with both Russia and China as the country’s central and overarching priority. Current officials have argued that the United States must pursue strategies to ensure it remains able to prevent either major power from dominating Europe or the Indo-Pacific, respectively. These are compelling challenges, which will demand complex strategies to manage competing priorities across multiple government portfolios, from relations with allies and partners, to defense policy, to budget prioritization, to name just a few. Perhaps more important than any of these tools for great power competition, though, will be the degree to which Americans can continue to lead by example.

Building influence and support among the world’s middle powers will be a critical task of competition with both China and Russia. With traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the NATO members in Europe, the United States will seek to gain cooperation on joint initiatives to push back against shared challenges and advance mutual interests. With non-allied partner states and other third countries, the United States will attempt to limit Beijing’s and Moscow’s influence while enhancing its own.

In a contest for influence, the United States will have a significant structural advantage in soft power — the principles inherent in political and economic liberalism have universal appeal, as evidenced by the remarkable spread of democracy and the free market across widely disparate cultures and geographies. But that fact only confers a foreign policy advantage on Washington if it maintains a position of leadership by example within its own democratic politics.

The nationwide protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and the aggressive response by some law enforcement and government officials, have triggered a crucial test for American democracy and made these issues a focal point for world attention. Americans coming together to confront and redress injustice can powerfully reinforce Washington’s leadership by example. When we fail to live up to our own ideals, however, it can pose significant foreign policy challenges, including tensions with close allies.

The murder of George Floyd has provoked a reverberating global reaction, with protests erupting around the world and foreign leaders condemning both the murder as well as the U.S. government’s reaction to resulting protests. The Australian prime minister, for example, expressed outrage and alarm after an Australian reporter was slammed with a shield and punched by federal law enforcement officers clearing Lafayette Square ahead of the president’s visit to St. John’s church. Leaders from the United Kingdom, European Union, and Canada all expressed their concerns about developments in the United States, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared his solidarity with protestors, explaining, “obviously we are all very concerned about the authoritarian debate and those authoritarian ways that we are seeing as a response to some demonstrations.”

Similarly, the head of the African Union Commission condemned the murder of George Floyd, and “reaffirm[ed] and reiterate[d] the African Union’s rejection of continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the USA.” Leadership from African nations subsequently drove the UN Human Rights Council to call upon the UN’s top rights official to spearhead efforts to “address systemic racism against people of African descent by law enforcement agencies.” There were also protests in the heart of downtown Tokyo, when hundreds of protesters chanted slogans in English and Japanese expressing solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although views of the United States itself remain generally positive, there has been a notably diminished willingness of U.S. allies and partners to work with the United States on Washington’s top policy issues, especially on issues that depend on America’s assertions of moral leadership. After the United States failed to convince the rest of the international community to force Taiwan’s inclusion into a recent meeting of the World Health Assembly, President Donald Trump noted China’s outsized influence in the institution. Similarly, the United States proved unable to build an international coalition to push back against Beijing’s efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Yet an armed, violent response by some law enforcement against protestors on U.S. streets has already given China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes an example they can cite to relativize the repression of their own people and accuse the United States of hypocrisy. Indeed, a commentary published in the Chinese newspaper Global Times interpreted recent protests in the U.S. through the lens of U.S. views on protests in Hong Kong, noting that American politicians should think twice before commenting again on Hong Kong, knowing “their words might backfire.” Similarly, as noted in the Japan Times, a spokesperson for the International Department of the North Korean Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee described demonstrators as “enraged by the extreme racists throng even to the White House.”

A More Perfect Union

For John Winthrop, the “city upon a hill” may have been the fulfillment of a divine mission, and Franklin Roosevelt may have described his “Four Freedoms” as universal, but for most Americans today, the need for principled leadership comes in response to less abstract, more immediate concerns. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a severe economic contraction, and in the wake of centuries of slavery and institutionalized discrimination against black people by those in power, the American social contract has been stretched to a near breaking point. For the most part, people in this country are demanding change because they want to see the system evolve and survive, not because they want to see it torn down.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution identified its first purpose as establishing a “more perfect union,” and built in mechanisms by which laws could be passed and the Constitution itself could be amended through democratic processes. Over the centuries, albeit imperfectly and in fits and starts, the United States has generally moved in the direction of fulfilling the lofty ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Today, despite shortcomings, citizens are far more able to live their lives according to their own conscience and preference, to enjoy the blessings of liberty, to pursue happiness, and to confront and redress injustice than ever before.

These advances have made this country far stronger, more resilient, and more attractive as an example for people worldwide — whether their governments are allies or adversaries of the United States. The pursuit of justice and expansion of opportunity for all Americans have been especially compelling changes. The United States military, intelligence community, and diplomatic corps were made stronger by desegregation and the integration of women. A more broadly educated society, in which more people have access to higher education, enabled remarkable technological advancements that have sustained innovation in the U.S. economy and created a technologically skilled armed force.

Justice, tranquility, and unity at home have proved foundational to American power internationally, while dissent, debate, and tumultuous if ultimately peaceful transformation in our politics have only reinforced that power of attraction. The current eroded state of the American social contract — the basic bargain by which every person feels respected, well served by, and committed to the system of government in which they participate — is in urgent need of reform. Addressing that challenge will help assuage the concerns of protestors and dissenters across this country, but it will also put the United States in a far more advantageous position globally. As George F. Kennan put it:

It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time. … Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this.

Despite genuinely disparate interests, much of the world supports the United States in this effort. That is why thousands of peaceful protesters around the world have taken to the streets to decry racism in America. Setting aside propagandistic exercises orchestrated by Washington’s authoritarian adversaries, protestors abroad mostly want the United States to continue to play a significant role in the world, and their disappointment underscores the linkage between the state of the republic at home and its leadership internationally.

Liberal principles and values should be more than a talking point for American leaders. In a long-term competition with Russia and China, a commitment to solve problems on the basis of these core principles will showcase the “spiritual vitality” that will enable the United States to lead initiatives and attract supporters internationally. Further instability, festering injustice, and sustained political rancor will play into the hands of America’s adversaries.



Abraham M. Denmark is Director of the Asia Program and a Senior Fellow in the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is also an adjunct professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia.

Matthew Rojansky is Director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and is an expert on U.S. relations with the states of the former Soviet Union. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and serves as U.S. Executive Secretary for the Dartmouth Conference, a track-two U.S.-Russian conflict resolution initiative begun in 1960.

The views expressed are those of the authors alone.

Image: Wikicommons (Image by SounderBruce)

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