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Why Americans Should Fight Donald Trump’s Isolationism

5 minute read

Berengaut, Director for Programs, Partnerships, and Strategic Planning at the Penn Biden Center, served as speechwriter and counselor to former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken; Fishman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council, served as a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff during the Obama Administration.

It is no surprise Americans have grown weary of their role in the world. As the country recovers from long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global financial crisis, there has been no respite from the rapid pace of globalization or harrowingly complex global problems. ISIS has risen with unusual savagery, Russia has invaded its neighbors and subverted American democracy, and North Korea’s nuclear belligerence has made a new war in Asia a frightening possibility. The dangers beyond our shores feel more real, and the opportunities feel more elusive.

A Pew survey from last May confirmed America’s world-weariness: Only slightly more than a third of Americans felt the U.S. should help other countries with their problems. The election of a President who champions “America first” sentiments — and who wants to slash diplomacy and development funding by a colossal 32% — confirmed it as well. Even if the budget cut lands at a fraction of that number, it will cause lasting damage to our credibility and influence in the world.

But Donald Trump did not cause Americans’ unease with the world; he is better viewed as a symptom of it. While the American people enjoy immeasurable advantages from U.S. global engagement, the costs — lives lost in war, dreams deferred by recession — are more palpable than the benefits. The waning appeal of America’s outsize role in the world is a response not only to forces of change, but also failures of communication.

Foreign-policy professionals — and the politicians they advise — have long assumed a popular, bipartisan mandate for American global leadership. And so we focus almost exclusively on talking with each other to design policy in ways that will resonate in the walls of think tanks and diplomatic negotiating rooms — but no farther. Now, that foundational mandate has begun to dissolve. And unless foreign-policy professionals can make a better case for global engagement to a far broader audience, the inward turn of American foreign policy is unlikely to stop with the conclusion of the Trump presidency.

Americans deserve to know the daily return they receive on their investment in diplomacy and development. That investment is small — just 1% of the U.S. federal budget — compared with its impact, but the rationale must be persuasive for each and every dollar. In the last three years alone, American global action has stopped the Ebola epidemic, rallied more than 65 partners to fight ISIS and led 195 countries to forge a historic climate change agreement — before Trump blithely turned his back on our best shot yet at saving our planet.

We must change. And we must do so in a way that reflects the times in which we live. It may be easy to grasp that the bravery of our parents or grandparents at Normandy and Iwo Jima made possible many of the blessings we now enjoy. But it is a far more abstract and challenging task to convince others that cutting the State Department budget in 2017 could precipitate a global war or pandemic.

Large foreign policy concepts must be connected to the day-to-day reality of people’s lives. Domestic concerns about foreign policy cannot be overlooked or downplayed. The case for open trade will be successful only if it also addresses the main drivers of unemployment, such as automation and inadequate training. The case for action on climate change must also speak to coal miners who have lost their jobs and are concerned about their roles in a greener economy. The case for welcoming refugees must not be overly dismissive of the fears — however misplaced — some Americans have of our new arrivals.

The story of our foreign policy should be told in accessible language. Technocratic phrases, like “multilateral engagement,” “global governance” and “rules-based international order,” have little common meaning outside of policy-memo shorthand and absolutely zero rhetorical appeal. If it requires a definition in a speech, we should try to say it another way.

And this should all be discussed directly with the American people — especially outside the context of wonky forums or political debates. By leaving discussions about matters like alliances or trade to the campaign trail, we risk politicizing issues that are critical to the well-being of all Americans regardless of party affiliation. The solemn obligation that all members of NATO make to the defense of one another — the obligation that Trump refused to reiterate in Brussels — should never have become political fodder.

To be sure, we must continue the search for smart solutions to problems at the intersection of foreign- and domestic-policy, such as the economic disruption caused by automation or the fear wrought by violent extremism. But, as foreign policy professionals, we must also prioritize meeting with the people our policies affect most. That means making time for interstate road trips in addition to international flights. Listening to and learning from citizens will provide invaluable insights that will aid us as we craft policies to tackle novel challenges.

With a world in disarray and a President seemingly uninterested in it, one would be justified in thinking the best days of American foreign policy are long behind us. But, with so much at stake, it is imperative that we fight against the tides of isolationism. The source of our country’s strength — our greatness — has always been our willingness to lead in a world darkened by danger. While not perfect, our leadership has ushered in an undeniably more prosperous, more secure, more tolerant, more peaceful world. The success is evident all around us. Now, we must do more to demonstrate it.

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