Ask Not What Your Country Can Do for Foreign Policy

July 7, 2020

America is facing more challenges at home than just a pandemic. Political polarization, racism, and deep-seated inequality all roil U.S. society and domestic politics. These domestic troubles have already eroded American standing abroad and caused many foreign policy thinkers to wonder whether the United States has the necessary unity, purpose, and prosperity at home to forge an effective foreign policy.

This is a discussion with a rich tradition. Ever since 1630, when John Winthrop compared the Massachusetts Bay colony to the “city on a hill” from the Sermon on the Mount, American statesmen have understood the power that America derives from its role as a beacon of hope. Since the American Revolution, thinkers have worried aloud about whether American democracy’s domestic inadequacies would limit its ability to succeed abroad: In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that “foreign politics demands scarcely any of those qualities which a democracy possesses.” De Tocqueville believed that the organization of the U.S. federal government, while virtuous in its capacity to protect liberty, was not conducive to forging domestic unity and thus an effective, energetic foreign policy.



Richard Haass’ 2013 book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, gave rise to yet another wave of such introspective foreign policy literature. These works often suggest that the United States should “invest in its democracy” or “grow the economy” in order to improve its foreign policy. Echoing the thinkers of yore, they remind us that America is more than just a powerful country — it is an idea designed to have universal appeal. The example it sets for the world, the degree of unity of purpose it exhibits at home, and the prosperity that its vibrant economy creates have always been critical sources of American strength in the world.

Abraham Denmark and Matthew Rojansky’s recent article continues this tradition in these virtual pages. With great passion and eloquence, they argue that America’s success within its own borders has always been the foundation of its success abroad. And so, they reason, if America’s foreign policy is to be successful, it must tend to its problems at home. This is an important point and a salutary reminder at a time of growing American solipsism. But from a policy perspective, the implications they draw from it seem entirely backwards.

In the manner of foreign policy professionals, Denmark and Rojansky urge us to reform the American social contract to “put the United States in a far more advantageous position globally.” But of course, Americans have any number of reasons to improve their social contract. They want to live in a more just society, ensure that their children can get an education, and have access to healthcare in a time of pandemic. Compared to these priorities, a more advantageous global position is not uppermost in people’s minds (unless, perhaps, those people work on foreign policy).

If these endemic challenges to America’s domestic peace and prosperity persist, it is not because Americans lack a foreign policy incentive to solve them. It is because they are thorny political and economic problems that generate deep domestic divisions and resist easy solution. The United States has many thousands of policy professionals that have devoted their lives to addressing persistent domestic problems like racism, poverty, and lack of access to healthcare. They have never needed a geopolitical competition with China or Russia to inspire them, and adding it to the mix will probably not help them solve these intractable problems.

Domestic Policy Begins Abroad

That America’s greatest problems are domestic should not inspire foreign policy professionals to ask what a stronger democracy at home might do for U.S. foreign policy. Rather, they should ask what can foreign policy do to improve American democracy. After all, the entire point of U.S. foreign policy is to protect America, both the country and the idea.

Through this lens, one might see it is unwise for American democracy to constantly mobilize the national security state to fight perennial wars on abstract concepts like communism, terrorism, or authoritarianism. One might notice that U.S. race relations do not benefit from the xenophobia and quasi-racist rhetoric that often accompanies those mobilizations. And one might decide that some of the $720 billion or so a year the country spends on national defense might be better put to the domestic troubles that so divide us at home. As John Quincy Adams warned two centuries ago, a foreign policy that fails to take account of its effect at home risks that “the fundamental maxims of [America’s] policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

It follows that if the core problem is American democracy, foreign policy professionals ought to seek ways that U.S. foreign policy might improve the home front rather than simply improving foreign policy for its own sake. In times of scarce resources, U.S. foreign policy choices ought to continuously demonstrate their utility, which means focusing on the problems that matter to Americans.

Such a focus would begin not with abstract calls for global leadership or rousing calls to arms for yet another global struggle. Rather, it would begin, as the Trump administration often has, with a focus on the international economic policies that affect all Americans — on trade, immigration, and the international regulatory issues that in an interdependent world increasingly determine the structure of the U.S. economy and the prosperity of Americans. This would also mean focusing on finding solutions to global issues that matter at home that have been neglected or even sabotaged by the Trump administration, such as climate change, corruption, pandemic, and the regulation of cyberspace. In all cases, as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders often emphasized in their presidential campaigns, those policies should be aimed not at enriching corporations and wealthy individuals, but at supporting American workers and reducing inequality at home.

In this way, U.S. foreign policy can become more than just a plaything of jet-setting elites. It can be a force for clear and meaningful change in the lives of all Americans.



Jeremy Shapiro is the Director of Research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Image: NASA