The Atlantic

America Needs an Entirely New Foreign Policy for the Trump Age

The bipartisan consensus is broken. And Democrats do their voters and their country a disservice by wedding themselves to GOP hawks.
Source: Eduardo Munos / Reuters

Amid all the talk about the Democratic Party’s move to the left, a contrary phenomenon has gone comparatively unnoticed: On foreign policy, Washington Democrats keep attacking Donald Trump from the right. They’re not criticizing him merely for his lackluster response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. They’re criticizing him for seeking a rapprochement with key American adversaries and for potentially reducing America’s military footprint overseas.

In June, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reprimanded Trump for meeting with Kim Jong Un and warned him not to weaken sanctions absent the complete “dismantlement and removal of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.” That same month, Democratic senators criticized the president for agreeing to suspend military exercises with South Korea and introduced legislation to block him from withdrawing troops from the Korean peninsula. Before Trump’s July trip to Europe, 44 Democrats on the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees urged him to maintain sanctions against Russia until it returns Crimea to Ukraine, to shun any cooperation between the American and Russian militaries, and to remain open to admitting new members to NATO.

There are other issues—notably Iran—on which Trump remains the more bellicose party. But overall, the partisan contours of the Washington foreign-policy debate have shifted markedly since the Obama years. On North Korea, Russia, and NATO, Democrats in Congress sound a lot like the Never Trump hawks who once called them appeasers.

But the more Washington Democrats echo GOP or ex-GOP hawks, the more they distance themselves from their party’s own base. Polls suggest that rank-and-file Democrats are more supportive than rank-and-file Republicans of decreasing America’s military presence overseas and more skeptical of higher defense spending and of relying on military force to combat terrorism. On her website, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blasts “corporate Democrats [who] seem to find the cash to fund a $1.1 trillion fighter jet program” and are “re-fighting the Cold War with a new arms race that nobody can win.”

Beneath this intra-Democratic rift lies an argument about the past quarter century of American foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought a unipolar world in which no country enjoys a sphere of influence except for the United States. As part of that strategy, America has expanded its commitments overseas on the implicit assumption that ordinary Americans benefit as America’s global footprint grows. But many ordinary Americans disagree. In 1943, the columnist Walter Lippmann said the goal of American foreign policy was to serve as the “shield of the republic”: to shape an external environment that protects freedom and prosperity at home. And for many Americans, by many measures—including growing federal debt, stagnant income growth, and degrading infrastructure—the republic during this period of overseas expansion has not fared well.

The result has been a crisis of foreign-policy “solvency.” The term is Lippmann’s. A government’s international commitments, he argued, resemble its financial commitments. Just as it cannot indefinitely incur debts that exceed its ability to pay, it cannot indefinitely incur overseas obligations that exceed its power. A nation’s power consists not merely of money and guns. In a democracy, it also consists of the public’s willingness to deploy them. And when a nation’s obligations exceed that power, the scales must eventually—often painfully—be brought back into balance.

Donald Trump rode this solvency crisis into the White House. In his incoherent and immoral way, he has challenged the assumption that the pursuit of unipolarity serves average Americans. His presidency presents Democrats with a choice. They can defend unipolarity, and join the Never Trumpers in defining a foreign-policy agenda that blends Hillary Clinton’s worldview and Marco Rubio’s. Or they can listen to their base, which has its own qualms about the expansive, interventionist foreign-policy course America has taken over the past quarter

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