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America Needs a Better Foreign Policy Debate
Why it matters and how to get it.
I tuned into the first Republican presidential debate of the 2024 campaign season to watch the foreign policy portion—not because I was expecting great insights, but because I promised a media outlet that I’d offer some quick commentary for a television interview that night.
The foreign policy questions came more than an hour into the debate, right after the central question now dominating today’s GOP: what do you think about Donald Trump? As the debate broke for commercial after the brief few minutes spent on foreign policy, the first reaction that came to mind was the moderator’s response to Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison near the end of the 1994 comedy:
Mr. Madison, what you just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Nevertheless, I steeled myself for a more high-level and thoughtful analysis of what I just watched, perhaps trying to bestow more form and meaning to the disarrayed debate exchanges I had just witnessed. I talked about the sharp splits within today’s Republican Party on Ukraine policy, which reflects long-standing intra-party divisions stretching back more than a decade now, and examined the exchanges on immigration, climate change, and the Middle East.
But afterwards, my initial impression was the one that stuck with me the most: this was not a high-quality discussion about America’s role in the world. Indeed, it’s part of a broader dynamic underway inside of America: a foreign policy debate that has steadily become cheaper and less insightful over time across the spectrum.
It’s not just a Republican Party problem
Lest you think this is just some cranky partisan screed against one particular political party facing a particularly challenging moment, let me make clear the bigger point: the problem of a low-quality foreign policy debate in America today is one that is present in many other parts of the ideological spectrum.
Recall last fall’s embarrassing episode when self-styled progressives proposed impractical ideas for “ending the war” that Russia started with its invasion of Ukraine and then quickly withdrew them. Take a look at many of the ideas put forward by the self-labeled “restraint” camp in U.S. foreign policy, mostly a euphemism for neo-isolationism, and you’ll find that they know more about what they are against rather than what they propose America should do about particular national security challenges. They’re against the phantom menace of a new Cold War with China and any attempt by the Biden administration to bring relations with Saudi Arabia towards a more functional cooperation, for instance, but they usually don’t offer much beyond empty slogans as actual clear policy alternatives.
Another factor contributing to the debate is the grim reality that the Biden administration hasn’t offered a clear and compelling storyline to American voters about what it has done in the world to boost America’s security and economic well-being. Nearly three years in office, Biden’s foreign policy narrative lacks a clear North Star, including on big picture issues like China.
To be clear, the problem with America’s foreign policy debate discussion isn’t just because of political actors or think tank analysts. There’s a broader thinness to the debate about America’s role in the world. Has anyone else noticed an overall decline in the quality of analysis and writing in leading foreign policy publications? Mercy, mercy, me, things ain’t what they used to be.
Why having a better foreign policy debate matters
If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking: Brian, now you’re just engaging in the very problem that you seem to be complaining about, simply ranting and raving about things rather than offering an analysis. To that I respond: that’s true. But let me shift gears.
How America’s foreign policy debate got to this point is a longer story worth its own separate explanation, one wrapped up in America’s multiple unforced errors in the world by four administrations from 2001 to 2021, the broader dynamic of extreme partisanship, social media dynamics, and dysfunctions affecting the country overall.
Why does a better foreign policy debate matter?
1. What happens in the world affects all Americans. It may not seem so given the way many foreign policy experts use arcane and academic terms to discuss and describe the world, but the world is not like Las Vegas. What happens in the world doesn’t stay in the world, as we re-learned again and again from the pandemic, climate change, energy prices, cyberattacks, international terrorism… just tell me where to stop. The world doesn’t go away just because we don’t talk about it in our domestic political debates, or at least don’t talk about it in constructive and reasonable ways.
2. It’s still the economy, stupid. One of those key dynamics in the world that affect all of our lives is the state of the global economy. Some may entertain and revel in isolationist delusions of somehow being able to maintain a “gated community” mindset, whether by building an actual wall on America’s physical borders or erecting tariff barriers around the economy. But the changing nature of work worldwide, the stickiness of global interconnectedness in all facets of our economic lives, and the basic fact that America’s abundance and prosperity is still linked to the rest of the world forces us with a pretty simply choice: face reality head on or stick our heads in the sand. The reality of today’s global economy is why recent efforts to boost America’s ability to compete in the world is one of the biggest bipartisan foreign policy stories in recent years and one that remains under-analyzed.
3. A global competition of values. Liberal and democratic values never really triumphed as fully as some had hoped or posited after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and there are multiple centers of thinking around the world challenging the very notion of “universal values” that was more prevalent 75 years ago after World War II than it is today. What America says it stands for—democracy and freedom—is being challenged around the world and in ways that have implications at home (see point number one above).
Those are three main reasons why it’s important for people engaged in politics not to assume that we can ignore dynamics that happen beyond the water’s edge and pretend like they don’t affect the actual health and trajectory of domestic politics. On the right and the left, we need stronger efforts to integrate and synchronize our foreign policy approaches with the domestic policy agenda.
How to get a better foreign policy debate
Truth be told, there were glimmers of interesting ideas in some of the GOP debate earlier this week on foreign policy, including how to stand up to Russia and Putin, even if those ideas lacked depth or verged on preposterous. But more can be done to strengthen the quality of America’s foreign policy discussions and make the political debates about it more rational.
1. Spotlight and feature voices of people who have experiences overseas. One of the reasons why America’s foreign policy debates have become cheaper is that the barriers to entry have become lower—social media and other dynamics that allow certain voices to punch above their actual weight. That has led to a more diverse and chaotic discussion, and in some ways, this is a very good thing.
But this otherwise salutary increase in voices in the foreign policy debate includes those who operate as little more than internet trolls from positions in Congress as members or staffers, or from advocacy efforts masquerading as think tanks.
The one remedy to this is to pay more attention to those who have actually lived overseas and speak the languages of the countries being analyzed. Some of the best, high-quality media outlets like PBS Newshour and National Public Radio still do this, and it’s a best practice that could be followed by other news outlets. Those who have this experience don’t always get things right and often disagree with one another, but their perspectives too often go unheard in our present debates, drowned out by provocative critiques and posturing that often ends up being empty in terms of practical plans about what to do in the world.
2. Connect the foreign policy debate with ordinary Americans more closely. There is a strong, natural curiosity and interest about the rest of the world in so-called middle America. That’s my experience in giving talks and engaging in conversations around the country at community organizations.
But too often foreign policy experts discuss the challenges in the world in terms (“American exceptionalism” or “rules-based liberal international order”) that simply don’t connect with busy Americans in their day-to-day lives. It’s as if their rhetoric is meant to actively alienate ordinary people and cede the public debate on America's foreign policy to charlatans and demagogues who offer simple fixes and easy-to-remember slogans like “build the wall” and “end endless wars.”
3. Build relationship capital and networks of individuals across ideological and partisan divides. The tribal and sectarian nature of the elite foreign policy debate adds to the problem and detracts a broader swathe of Americans from engaging in and connecting with the foreign policy debate. There’s a strong appetite for building coalitions in foreign policy among normies outside of the elite bubbles of America’s national security debate. But our polarized domestic politics transforms complicated issues and relationships with foreign nations into matters of partisanship—there are now “blue” causes and countries and “red” ones, much to the detriment of our foreign policy.
Doing this is not as complicated as it seems for internationalists on both sides of the aisle. The internationalist voices still vastly outnumber the isolationist fringes within both parties. There are a large number of conservative foreign policy analysts who have deep expertise in complicated parts of the world well but who have mostly been politically orphaned by dynamics in their party. There are a sizable number of foreign policy specialists on the left who remain committed to America playing a leadership role in the world, including Biden administration burnouts and academic and think tank voices who aren’t as organized as the more extremist voices on the far left. Internationalists, it’s time to come together, right now.
None of these things will “fix” the many challenges America faces with a foreign policy debate that has become progressively more stupid in recent years.
But the first step in addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one and coming up with ideas about how to tackle it.