The United States' Role in the World Depends on Domestic Politics

Pax Americana is easy to defend. Or at least it was. With no better friend than the United States, and no worse enemy, the choice was simple. U.S. leadership buttressed the rules-based international order. Admittedly, this benefited the United States most of all, but it benefited other countries too. The rule of law, democracy, human rights, and peace were all stronger as a result of U.S. leadership.

Foreigners often grumbled, sometimes with reason, sometimes without. But the home front was never in doubt. Republicans and Democrats alike, in Congress and the administration, supported a big, strong U.S. role in the world.

Now the tables have turned. Foreign countries are aghast at what they see as inconstancy in Washington, DC, exemplified by President Donald Trump’s ill-starred decision to abandon Kurdish militias in northern Syria. The allies would love to go back to the era that they once complained about.

But their handwringing has little effect. If anything, it underlines suspicions in many quarters in the United States that allies demand a lot and provide little.

Counterarguments can and should be made. But the real problem here has nothing to do with foreign policy. It is a domestic issue. Pax Americana was wonderful for the East and West Coasts. People in high-tech businesses or in financial services reaped the benefits of globalization. Those in foreign and security policy enjoyed having the world as their stage. But many in the rest of the United States saw it differently. They did not get nice jobs. They saw safe, well-paid livelihoods disappearing because of foreign competition. They noted how many of the body bags came back to their states. They disliked other changes in their lives too. And they voted.

The lesson here extends well beyond the United States. In peacetime, serious foreign policy demands serious domestic policy. Voters will put up with the costs of engagement abroad if it is unobtrusive (meaning involving modest amounts of money and light military casualties). But once the burden mounts, they expect justification for the sacrifices being imposed by their rulers. One such justification is that the country, although not at war, faces an existential threat. Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Poles (and, increasingly, Swedes, Finns, and Norwegians) do not need reminding of their precarious geopolitical position. Spending money on defense makes sense. So too does shouldering outsize burdens in faraway wars. It takes a lot to dent that faith. Your country’s political leadership may be staggeringly corrupt and incompetent. But it is still better than being run by Russia.

Americans, however, do not see an existential threat. Nor do Germans, French, Italians, and many others in what one might call the “old West.” Many of them regard military spending as wasted. They think the United States is a danger to world peace, and not much better than Russia or China when it comes to its treatment of other countries. Once in that mind-frame, the willingness to accept any foreign policy burden depends largely on trust in government. This stems from the quality of public services, the perceived personal integrity of their leaders, and a belief that costs and benefits are fairly shared.

This means that it is no longer possible to study or practice foreign policy without looking at domestic morale and cohesion. A country that is strong internally will be strong externally. Conversely, corruption, poverty, bad public health, regional tensions, inequality, and injustice are just as corrosive for national security as espionage, subversion, or military unpreparedness. Those wishing to avoid domestic policy dilemmas should not regard foreign policy as a calm, rational refuge. That is how we got “America First.”

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: "161109-Z-NI803-059" via U.S. Department of Defense under Public Domain. 


Edward Lucas
28 October 2019

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