At this point in the U.S. election cycle, I find myself honing in on reports and developments that touch on the U.S. role in the world, and on the way this role is (or should be) discussed during a presidential election year.
For example, I was encouraged to hear an outsider take aim at a recent set of foreign policy recommendations entitled “Extending American Power.” The disturbing thing about the report, produced by the bi-partisan Center for New American Security, is that a group of Republican and Democratic experts could only recommend ‘more of the same’ as a U.S. contribution to dealing with current crises in the world. Rather than break out in any new directions, they call for increases in U.S. defense spending and greater U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. The report operates from the premise that there is an existing “order” in international affairs which is it the primary purpose of U.S. policy to protect.
I admit that there are elements of an international system in place, many of them decades old and of proven value. But to assert that there is a fundamentally stable, secure or predictable “order” in the world raises an eye brow – all the more when that assertion entails a linear, no-end-in-sight extension to U.S. commitments around the world. To have a broadly based group of experts say so, without providing room for a contrary view, raises both eye brows. Given the state of affairs in Europe (refugees, resurgent Russia, Ukraine), Asia (resurgent China) and the Middle East (just about everywhere), can we simply assume there is an underlying “order” of things and that American power and insight must push forward at all costs to preserve it? Or is it better to pause and ask how things got the way they are, and whether ‘more of the same’ is the best use of America’s role?
These are complex questions, and not ones that I propose to answer here. My point is simply that although it appears to be an uphill battle, we should be open to re-evaluating our basic military-first course of action in world affairs. Some may say that a presidential campaign is not the setting for a deep re-think of foreign and national security policy. That is probably true, but this is not a normal campaign season. It has brought one surprise after another, revealing an American political culture that seems to be undergoing fundamental change, or that at least is raising fundamental questions about the kind of country we are and who we are in the world. For that reason, it seems like a good moment to stop and think, and to ask ourselves what we have done in the world the last twenty years and how we have gone about it.
A UK Double-take
Let’s divert our attention for a moment. Voters in the UK will decide on June 23 whether to remain in the European Union. The ‘Brexit’ referendum looms as a major challenge, another of the seemingly unrelenting sequence of social, economic and political crises the EU (read here the international “order”) has faced in recent years. Yet for Britons, it follows just twenty-one months after another vital vote on the independence of Scotland. In that case, the “No” side won by a spread of more than ten percent. How the Brexit referendum will go is not clear; recent polling has gone back and forth. My own bet is that British voters will vote to remain rather than exit the EU.
But who wins is not central to my point here. Instead, just step back and consider the fact that, in less than two years, the UK as a society and as a democracy has stepped up to address two basic challenges to its historic identity. In the face of the first challenge, it took a fundamentally conservative approach and chose to retain its historic identity as the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Now it faces a second basic test, on whether to live with a past decision that fundamentally changed its historic relations with Europe. It is a testimony to the strength of the UK’s historic identity and its brand of democracy that it could work its way through two such demanding national campaigns, in a reasonably intelligent and discriminating way that did not leave its politics in tatters.
A Fundamental Re-evaluation
One wonders how the U.S. political culture would perform under such pressures. Would we find it possible to engage in a hard-hitting, sophisticated national debate that involved such complex historical, social, political, economic and security issues? Our history and geography are such that we won’t have to go through anything quite like what the UK has. But the capacity for self-evaluation and self-correction are invaluable to any system that seeks to thrive in a challenging, complicated world.
Perhaps what I am trying to say can be elaborated by a reference that readers of this note might identify with. It is taken from an address given at the October 1945 General Conference of the LDS church, by Marvin O. Ashton, then member of the Church’s presiding bishopric. He spoke just weeks after the United States used atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing an end to World War II. It was a tentative moment. The public knew in a general sense what had taken place but did not understand the devastation. People were unsure what unleashing this power would mean to the world. In this context, Elder Ashton said: “I have a prayer in my heart that the explosion of those bombs and the realization of the possibilities of their destruction have done something to the human mind. … We must take this thing of living happily together more seriously than we have ever done in our lives. We must respect, as never before, the viewpoint of others.” And then he added, for good measure, “If you are an isolationist, you are as far behind the times in your thinking as are the horse and buggy days.”
There is a need for this kind of wisdom today. The United States still has extraordinary, indeed unmatched power at its disposal. But the experience of the past six decades suggests that unleashing that power, or the constant threat to do so, has not transformed the world we live in for the better. At the same time, there can be no question that there is a need for U.S. engagement with the world: isolation was not an option in the 1940’s, nor is it today. But how will that engagement unfold? Are we addicted to the exercise of military strength? Is there another face to who we are? Are we in a position to ‘respect, as never before, the viewpoint of others’ and to take more seriously ‘this thing of living happily together’? Do we have the ability to address such questions?
 Stephen M. Walt, “A New-Old Plan To Save The World … That Has No Hope Of Saving The World.” Foreign Policy, May 26, 2016 (accessed June 2016 at http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/05/26/a-new-old-plan-to-save-the-world-that-has-no-hope-of-saving-the-world-cnas/.)
 Center for New American Security, “Extending American Power: Strategies to Expand U.S. Engagement in a Competitive World Order.” May 16, 2016 (accessed at http://www.cnas.org/extending-American-power, June 2016).
 Conference Report, October 1945, pp. 39, 41.