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A Foreign Policy for the Day After Trump

  • Rebecca Lissner
  • Nov, 2020
  • 212
  • Global News

Reimagining-not restoring-the liberal international order

Come the November presidential election, voters in the United States will likely be focused on the uncontained coronavirus pandemic, the tattered economy, the unanswered call for racial justice, and the climate crisis. But another enormous issue is on the ballot: the future of the United States’ role in the world. The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the “America first” strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump, offering a ready rationale for closing borders, slashing international trade, and adopting a beggar-thy-neighbor approach to vaccine development. Some of these measures were necessary, but they must not become a blueprint for the future of U.S. foreign policy.

The next administration will confront a beleaguered nation and world, but it will also inherit a historic opportunity to meet those circumstances with a transformative new strategy. Should former Vice President Joe Biden win the presidency, his team will likely find itself pulled in opposite directions. Amid unrelenting crises, the new administration may be tempted to restore, rather than reimagine, U.S. foreign policy in the hope of reversing four years of damage to the liberal international order. But a Biden White House will also field calls from both sides of the political aisle for a military and an economic retreat on the grounds that U.S. security is best served by making the country more self-sufficient and reducing its global ambitions.

Neither a nostalgic quest for the old liberal order nor an isolationist retrenchment will ultimately serve U.S. interests or allow Washington to successfully navigate the world. The country has a narrowing window in which to reconfigure its foreign policy to ensure that it remains mighty even though it is no longer the uncontested superpower. If it fails to transform its foreign policy approach, the United States will find itself weaker in the face of great-power rivals and borderless threats and less able to guarantee its own security and prosperity. This necessary evolution will require Washington to eschew post-Cold War hubris, with its grandiose claims of liberal universalism. Instead, U.S. officials must advance an affirmative vision for an international order that allies and partners can embrace-one that we have called an “open world.”

The current period of disruption and turmoil presents the greatest world-ordering opportunity since the end of the Cold War-and perhaps since World War II. The United States must lead in turning the present destruction into a moment of creation.


In “The Open World: What America Can Achieve After Trump” (May/June 2019), we argued that the United States can remain secure and prosperous only in a free and open international system. Since then, an epochal global pandemic has revealed that international institutions are threadbare and multilateral cooperation is elusive, making it all too likely that states will seek security by closing themselves off from the world. Although the so-called liberal international order served the United States well for decades, many forces have eroded its foundations: China’s continued ascent and the diffusion of power from west to east; rapid technological change in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and digital surveillance; and growing domestic dysfunction in the United States and other democracies. But the United States can still secure its dearest interests even if it relinquishes its aspirations to global primacy and universal liberalism.

An open world is one in which states are free to make independent political decisions; international waters, airspace, and space remain accessible to military and commercial traffic; and countries cooperate informally and through modernized international institutions. The United States should accept the reality that its rivals, such as China, are stronger than they once were and will have greater influence, but Washington must resist any attempts to establish spheres of dominance-whether territorial or technological-that are impermeable to outside commercial, military, or diplomatic access. That means opposing the efforts of hostile nations to dominate their regions, subvert the political processes of independent states, and close off vital waterways, airspaces, or information spaces.

Achieving an open world does not, however, require the United States to dominate all prospective military or political challengers, as it did in the post-Cold War era. Nor does it compel the United States to embrace unrestricted trade and immigration or to refrain from more tightly controlling its borders in the event of emergencies, such as the pandemic. The United States should seek the economic interdependence that benefits it without championing unfettered neoliberalis...

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