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Not for decades has American foreign policy been as uncertain and contested as it is today. At the start of the Trump administration, the challenges of foreign policy are of fundamental significance for US national security, and for global peace and prosperity. Today I’m inaugurating a new weekly series on America and the world that will look deeply at the US foreign policy debate, taking into account the rapid changes underway in the world economy, advanced technologies, and population trends. Our well-being and national security will depend on Americans understanding how the world has changed and how we must change our attitudes and approaches to it.
The world seems to be a sea of problems: the Syrian war; the related European refugee crisis; ISIS and terrorist attacks across the globe; Russia’s brazen hacking of the US election; China’s rising territorial claims in the South China Sea; North Korea’s growing nuclear threat; and much more.
Yet the world also offers a host of new opportunities. China, India, and the African Union are each home to more than a billion people with rapid economic growth and a rising middle class. The information revolution continues to advance at a dazzling rate. Robotics, artificial intelligence, and ubiquitous broadband offer the chances for dramatic breakthroughs in health care, education, and renewable energy, at home and globally.
If US foreign policy is only about the threats and not the opportunities, the United States will miss out on the rapid advances in well-being that the new technological revolution can deliver, and that would help to stabilize today’s conflict zones. The fundamental challenge facing US foreign policy is to keep America safe without busting the military budget, dragging America into needless wars, or diverting our attention and resources from the opportunity to build a smart, fair, and sustainable US and world economy.
There are three distinct sets of voices in the current foreign policy debate.
The first group, whom I call the primacists, argues that the United States should continue to aim for global “primacy,” or geopolitical dominance, maintained by unrivaled US military superiority. This group sees US military dominance as both feasible and necessary for global stability.
The second group, whom I call the realists, argues that the United States must accept a (realistic) balance of power rather than US primacy. Yet like the primacists, the realists argue for “peace through strength.” They believe a new arms race is the necessary price to pay in order to keep the global balance of power and preserve US security.
The third group, whom I call the cooperatists, argues that cooperation between nations is not only feasible but necessary to avoid war and to sustain prosperity. In their view, cooperation would spare the world a costly and dangerous new arms race between the United States and the emerging powers, one that could spill over into open conflict. Second, cooperation would enable the United States and indeed the world to seize the opportunities opened by the current technological revolution to boost economic growth and overcome global ills that include global warming, emerging diseases, and mass migration.
The coming foreign policy battles in the Trump years will pit these three visions against each other, most likely in a fierce pitched battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. I am firmly in the cooperatist camp. I believe that primacy is a dangerous illusion for America in the 21st century, while realism is excessively pessimistic about the potential for diplomacy. In this series, I will seek to explain the options facing the United States.
Consider the current US policy debate regarding China.
The primacists see China’s rise as an unacceptable threat to US primacy. They argue that the United States should invest trillions of dollars in a new arms buildup that China could not afford. They call for trade and technology measures to limit China’s future economic growth. The primacists recall that when Ronald Reagan led a military buildup in the 1980s, the Soviet Union went bankrupt trying to keep up. They think the same would happen to China today. They argue that the benefits to the United States of a unilateral US arms buildup would far exceed the costs, with benefits in the form of enhanced US prestige, global leadership, national security, and the safety of overseas investments.
Suppose, as an illustration, that the primacists call for $5 trillion investment in new armaments, believing that the arms buildup will enable the United States to gain $10 trillion in geopolitical advantages from China, for a net US benefit of $5 trillion and a net loss to China of $10 trillion.
The realists agree with the primacists that a unilateral US military buildup would give the United States a net gain, but they believe that China would match US arms buildup. Even so, the realists say that the United States should make the investment. Their reasoning: If China invests $5 trillion in armaments while the United States does not, then China will take $10 trillion in geopolitical advantage. Yet if the United States also invests $5 trillion in new armaments, it avoids the $10 trillion geopolitical loss. And if, inexplicably, China decides not to arm, then the United States would garner a net gain of $5 trillion in geopolitical benefits.
Using game theory jargon, the realists argue that an arms buildup is America’s (and China’s) “dominant” strategy. If China arms, then the United States must do so as well. If China chooses not to arm, then the United States can secure a huge geopolitical advantage through its own military buildup. No matter what China does, therefore, the United States should arm. Since China reasons symmetrically, both countries end up arming, and each incurs a $5 trillion cost but ends up at a standstill. According to the realists, the $5 trillion is the unavoidable cost to pay to ensure America’s geopolitical standing.
Hold on, say the cooperatists. Surely our two countries can come to their senses. The arms race would cause a net loss of $5 trillion to each country, money that both countries urgently need for education, health care, renewable energy, and cutting-edge infrastructure. Rather than an arms race, let’s agree with China that neither side will arm. Better still, let’s agree to pool some of our resources into new high-tech ventures together to advance cutting-edge global solutions for low-carbon energy, quality education, health care for all, and other vital mutual and global goals.
The essence of careful foreign policy analysis is to size up these contrasting positions.
The realists, for their part, feel that an arms race with China and with Russia is more or less inevitable. They point to the bad behavior of China and Russia as proof that diplomacy is useless. China is busy expanding its military presence in the South China Sea. Russia is hacking US politics, bombing Aleppo, and destabilizing Ukraine. How could the United States possibly trust those countries?
As a cooperatist, I say, “Not so fast.” China’s and Russia’s actions might look aggressive from our point of view, but they are viewed as defensive steps from their vantage point. Many Chinese strategists plausibly believe that America will try to stifle China’s future economic growth and note that the United States outspends China on the military by more than 2-to-1 ($596 billion to $215 billion, in 2015). They hardly feel like the aggressors.
Russian strategists similarly argue that it was the United States, not Russia, that provoked the recent deterioration of relations in recent years. They point to US meddling in Russia’s internal politics going back many years, and perhaps even more provocatively, to America’s meddling in Ukraine as well. Russian strategists particularly object to the US attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO, which of course would bring the US-led military alliance right up to Russia’s border, and to NATO’s deployment of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe that Russia asserts could be used for offensive purposes. (The new missile deployments follow America’s unilateral withdrawal in 2002 from the US-Soviet ABM treaty.)
Once upon a time, the primacist view might have been at least plausible as an achievable aim. Consider 1945, when the United States constituted about 30 percent of the world economy and dominated every industrial sector and advanced technology. US global leadership at the time seemed necessary to American and European strategists to stop Soviet subversion of postwar Western Europe and parts of Asia following the Soviet Union’s brutal occupation and subjugation of Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. Even then, many supporters of US “containment” of Soviet expansion warned the United States against a grandiosity and overreach in America’s foreign policy objectives.
Times are very different now. Not only is the Soviet Union long gone, but the US share of world output has also declined sharply, to roughly 16 percent today. The US economy is actually smaller than China’s when both economies are measured by a common set of international prices. The US goal of global primacy seems both unnecessary and unachievable in these very different conditions.
Another fundamental change is the much greater need for global cooperation regarding global warming, emerging diseases, and mass migration. If the United States and China view each other as military competitors, they are far less likely to view each other as partners in environmental sustainability. Our mindset — conflict or cooperation — will shape not only our arms spending, but our chances to control global warming, fight newly emerging diseases, and invest together in cutting-edge technologies.
A third fundamental change is that the world now has the institutional machinery to sustain global cooperation, thanks to the United Nations and its various component institutions. Importantly, the 193 member states of the UN have agreed, as of 2015, on a new cooperative framework for sustainable development and for fighting climate change. It took hard work over many years to secure a unanimous global agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. It would be especially foolhardy and indeed reckless to turn America’s back on those hard-won unanimous achievements.
In each region of the world, the United States will face the choice between conflict and cooperation. How will the Trump administration come down on that choice? Does Trump’s tough talk about China, nuclear arms, trade wars, and the infamous Mexican wall portend an assertion of American primacy, or was it merely bluster for the campaign trail?
Trump has assembled an administration filled with China-bashers, protectionists, and military hardliners. Yet he has also assembled business people, like himself, who like to make a buck (in fact, billions of them) and who have actively and profitably invested for years in Russia, China, and other emerging economies. Indeed, Trump is being harshly criticized from the Republican right for chumming up to Vladimir Putin, especially in the context of Russia’s e-mail hacking. Yet on this issue, it is Trump not his critics who seems intent on renewed cooperation rather than conflict. Of course, one theory holds that Trump aims to improve relations with Russia mainly to put even more geopolitical pressure on China, which Trump may deem to be America’s real competitor. (If the evidence eventually shows that Trump’s associates colluded with Russia in the hacking, the result would almost surely be a deep US political crisis and the collapse of any hopes for cooperation with Russia in the short term.)
Most importantly, foreign policy cannot be a spectator sport, where Americans learn about their place in the world through the next midnight tweet. Americans will need to learn by studying the options, and then to speak out, loudly and clearly, for the option of constructive cooperation over the dangerous claims of primacy and war-mongering.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”