The United States is arguably more politically polarized and wearier of maintaining the global security system than at any time since the end of the Cold War. National debt stands at a whopping $34 trillion, inflation lingers, the southern border is uncontrolled, and a poll last fall showed that 78 percent of Americans thought the country was moving in the wrong direction. In foreign affairs, seemingly “never-ending wars,” the possible failure of U.S. policy in Ukraine, and the potentially widening Israel–Hamas war have cast into doubt the course the country has been on for the past three decades. As the next presidential election moves into high gear, the country’s leadership urgently needs to articulate a path to recovery, at home and abroad.
As with any such effort, the first step is to admit that one has a problem—or more than one. First, American elites remain in thrall to economic and political assumptions that no longer reflect reality. This is in part because, with the fall of the Berlin Wall more than three decades ago, pragmatism and careful risk assessment gave way to faith that the “end of history” had validated our assumptions about economics and politics. On economic policy, both government and business disregarded fundamental tenets of national security, facilitating an unprecedented transfer of American technology, know-how, and research base to Communist China on the flawed premise that trade and development would make it become more pluralist and democratic.
After the Cold War, American foreign policy also lost much of its commonsense restraint and orientation toward the national interest. With the implosion of the Soviet Union, the U.S. could act unilaterally with relative impunity, but it failed to develop a proper sense of restraint about whether, when, and how it should act. The successful Cold War strategy gave way to projects of breathtaking scope, aimed at transforming entire cultures through state-building. These imprecise goals, framed in concepts like the Global War on Terror (though after 9/11 America was obviously justified in seeking to respond), committed the country to two decades of warfare that drained our resources and sapped our political will.
The U.S. needs to focus in three key areas if it is to achieve national renewal. First, our political leaders must weigh all policy choices in terms of how they serve American citizens. In an empire, elites govern the citizens; in a republic, they govern on the citizens’ behalf. This means that we must put the welfare of Americans and our national security priorities at the center of our economic decision making. Consequently, when it comes to national security, we must on-shore our critical manufacturing and arrange it so that other supply chains are located in friendly countries. The United States urgently needs to rebuild its manufacturing base, for without it, the country will lack the wherewithal to support its military in the event of war. This should be the leading project for Congress and the next administration.
Second and equally important will be ending the toxic ideological polarization that has paralyzed our ability to seek compromise in the name of the public good. We need a thorough reform of the educational system at every level, from elementary through colleges and universities, so that we can once again pass on our national DNA to the next generation. After decades of divisive curricula in which racial transgressions overshadow what we share as a people, American education needs to start healing. In a country as racially and ethnically diverse as ours, this can only be done through the restoration of the centrality of individual citizenship.
The rekindling of national cohesion means relearning the principle of genuine tolerance, not its ideologically deformed imitation. This requires that Americans patiently endure the expression of beliefs with which they may disagree—sometimes vehemently—and recognize that, as long as their fellow citizens abide by the law, they have no right to seek to censor them. Our culture of free speech unfortunately has reached a low point; as a New York Times/Sienna College poll conducted in 2022 showed, 84 percent of Americans saw being afraid to exercise free speech as a serious problem.
Finally, our foreign and national security policy needs fundamental rethinking, but not in terms of “pivots to Asia” or other similar recipes. Thus far the conversation has been about defending the rules-based international order and a new era of “strategic competition” in a multipolar world. This discussion remains fundamentally normative and reactive, buried in old assumptions. We need an approach that shapes the key areas of the world where America must remain engaged to ensure our continued security and prosperity, especially the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We need to transform our alliances so that they support America’s and our allies’ geostrategic priorities at a manageable cost. We should work with those who share our threat perceptions and are willing to put their money and national resources on the line to counter them.
We need to draft a new National Security Strategy that speaks in concrete terms of geostrategy, identifying the key global choke points critical to American security and the requisite alliances and military capabilities needed to achieve those goals. This means refocusing NATO on deterring Russian aggression (matching our resources to our rhetoric), repositioning American bases on NATO’s eastern flank, especially in Poland, and, in the Pacific region, building a wider alliance of Asian powers to augment the framework of AUKUS—the partnership between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.—to deter China. In the Middle East and North Africa, the U.S. needs to reaffirm its alliance with Israel, while also taking a clear-eyed look at which Arab countries can be counted on to support American interests against China, Russia, and, most of all, Iran.
Admitting what went wrong after the Cold War should not be cause for despair, but rather a spur to act, especially in this critical election year. The United States is a country with still-untapped human and material resources, blessed with a uniquely secure geopolitical environment. It remains the most desirable destination for immigrants from around the world and a vibrant land of opportunity for innovation and capital formation. Our natural resources and R&D base give us unparalleled advantages relative to our competitors and our enemies. While our political institutions have been tarnished of late, the country’s democratic culture remains strong and will reassert itself once the principles of citizenship and merit return to center stage. In foreign and security policy, a strategy that prioritizes national interests and matches those with national power—both our own and our allies’—will deter and, if necessary, defeat our adversaries.
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