Five talking points could rally American understanding and support for how the US-led international order protects US interests.
By Marc Grossman*
During almost three decades as a member of the US Foreign Service, I was privileged to play a modest role in the design and nurturing of what many call the “liberal rules-based international order.” Today, that order – created by Americans and our allies and friends and supported and upheld by US military and diplomatic power – is under attack at home and abroad.
As a diplomat, I learned that how one describes things matters. The words “liberal rules-based international order” mean nothing to 99 percent of the American public. Indeed, this mantra is likely heard by skeptics as an elite chant emerging from what President Donald Trump derides as the “swamp” or Ben Rhodes, a former national security official during the Obama administration, called the “blob.” The urgent challenge is to convince a larger audience that the international system the United States created and defended remains a crucial foundation of Americans’ wealth and power.
The RAND Corporation recently described that foundation: “Since 1945, the United States has pursued its interests through the creation and maintenance of international economic institutions, global organizations including the United Nations and G-7, bilateral and regional security organizations including alliances, and liberal political norms.” Today, the benefits of this system are not obvious to many Americans. Thanks to US leadership of a globalizing economy and multilateral international political system, most Americans are better off but not all. Millions in the United States and around the world feel financially insecure and culturally neglected. They fear that their countries’ best days are behind them – and many voted for Brexit, Trump and Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán.
While supporters of the “existing international order” talk of complexity, nuance and interconnectedness, Trump talks directly and effectively to voters’ fears and anxieties. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, Trump said he wanted to promote a world defined by “sovereignty, security and prosperity.” That’s an order people who feel beleaguered can understand.
The irony is that Trump has so far shown limited capacity to implement that vision. When he attacks and then praises individual US allies, or denigrates then hails NATO, before again questioning the US commitment to collective defense, he creates what one observer calls “whiplash,” not support for US interests. Trump is right to tell the NATO allies to meet their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. But then raising the ante to an unrealistic 4 percent is either a sure policy loser – if he actually seeks that outcome – or a strategy designed by Trump to end the most successful military alliance in history.
Trump’s approach to trade is similar. Putin must be delighted with Trump’s description of the European Union as a “foe on trade” in advance of their meeting in Helsinki. Likewise, while NAFTA undoubtedly needs revision, Trump’s threat to walk away would put at risk millions of American jobs based on trade and investment with Mexico and Canada. There is a similar story when it comes to steel and auto tariffs: General Motors recently warned that tariffs on imported cars and parts could lead directly to US job losses.
In Asia, Trump is right to expect China’s support for a denuclearized North Korea and to focus attention on Beijing’s many unfair trade practices, energetic theft of intellectual property and continuing militarization of the South China Sea. But the chances of getting the Chinese to pay serious, sustained attention to US interests will surely be increased if Beijing is faced with a concerted effort by the US, its allies and friends. Instead, Trump abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement designed to strengthen the US position in Asia, and has attacked, along with America’s NATO allies, Mexico, Japan and Korea.
Trump assumes that insulting US allies and friends makes him look strong to his base. One reason he succeeds is that supporters of the existing international order remain trapped defending words which generate little passion and entice no new followers. Those who believe that America remains a powerful force for good in the world must now make this case in new, more forceful ways. Instead of further exhortation to support the “liberal rules-based international order,” here are five “truths” to use in public:
America’s global power and influence are good for Americans. Our economy grows and our country is safer when we have a strong military and strong diplomacy to keep and expand that power and influence.
America is more powerful and prosperous when there are clear rules and we set them. How many Americans want to live in a world where China or Russia sets the rules – or there are no rules at all? That’s what happens when America leaves a leadership vacuum.
America’s power and influence are multiplied when we work with other countries. We need likeminded friends and allies who can assume some of the burdens of global leadership and together solve problems that even the United States can’t manage alone. An isolated America is a less successful and secure America.
America is better off having more democracies in the world rather than more autocrats and dictators. A world growing in freedom is a world where Americans can advance US interests and enjoy greater peace and prosperity.
Americans are richer when America is the world leader in the global economic system. Estimates are that more than 41 million US jobs are connected to trade with other nations. American workers are not afraid of competition, so long as it is fair and provides benefits to all.
There are disadvantages to trying this new pitch. Some US allies and friends, who helped establish today’s order and also greatly benefited from it, probably won’t welcome any change in emphasis in the existing rules. But with the stakes so high, these allies and friends must accept more explicit talk of patriotism and national self-interest from those who oppose Trumpism. They must also recognize that they can do much more to promote the West’s common defense and security interests and acknowledge that there need to be changes and new processes in the international system.
A global struggle is underway to define the future of relations among nation-states. On one side is an anger-driven, fearful nationalism. On the other is an aspiration for an evolving international system still based on what The Economist describes as “America’s unique willingness to lead by fusing power and legitimacy.” The result of this battle of ideas will, in the end, produce some new form of international system or at least loosely defined ways for nations to interact.
If we hope to bequeath the benefits of US global power and influence to future generations, the support of the American people is required. Those who support US global leadership must adopt more direct and convincing ways to talk about how the US designed-international system promotes and protects America’s interests. Progress is not a zero-sum game in which global progress comes at the expense of America’s. Americans need to rally behind the idea that US global leadership is essential to their prosperity and way of life.
*Ambassador Marc Grossman is a Vice Chairman of The Cohen Group. A US Foreign Service Officer for 29 years, he retired in 2005 as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. The ambassador was the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2011-2012, and a Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale in 2013. The author wishes to thank Kate Fernandez, Tom West, Teddy Wessel, and Dave Rank for their support producing this essay.
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