A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

The End of Linear Thinking


Imagining US foreign policy beyond 2020 means learning from past mistakes. While new narratives are taking hold, politicians on the American left and right underestimate the power of technological change.

© REUTERS/Jason Reed

Former President Bill Clinton once said, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” But as Donald Trump and a raft of more than ten Democratic presidential candidates think about US foreign policy with 2020 in mind, even trend lines don’t command the power they once held. The United States has fallen into the “arc of history” trap—following the trend line—at least four times in the past thirty years, each time exposing strategic weaknesses in US foreign policy.

The first miscalculation was that the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet communism would easily lead to the victory of liberal, free-market democracy over all competing ideologies.  A second was that “Europe”—and particularly the broadened core of Europe within an enlarging EU and NATO—would effectively cease to be a geo-strategic theater of international politics. The third—articulated in 2008 by Barack Obama in Berlin and his subsequent administration—was that the ugliness of the Bush administration with its unilateralism, norms-breaking, vengefulness, corruption, feckless management, jingoism, and penchant for violence, was a deviation from the true character of American moral leadership. The final—heralded particularly at the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring—was to see the spread of technology as an unqualified global good paving the way for democracy, freedom and dynamic civil society.

Addressing—and in some ways correcting for—these four interrelated traps will define the US foreign policy debate in 2020 and beyond. No candidate can ignore these four hubristic blind spots. The outcome of this reimagination could be a foreign policy that is more sober, reflective, and circumspect in its ambition. It could also be more imaginative.

No Status Quo Ante

The folly of 1990s triumphalism has been widely derided, but foreign policy in the United States is only now beginning to change. It has become difficult to lean on the platitudes of post-Cold War foreign policy. The Iraq War and 2008 financial crisis dealt twin blows to the unreflective global acceptance of US leadership and the power of American ideals. China’s rise, Russia’s aggression, and Trump’s election have hastened it. As Trump has shown through his withdrawal from the TPP, Paris Climate Accord, the JPCOA with Iran, and UNESCO, agreements with the US will from now on always have a built-in sunset clause lasting the term of an administration. That is a staggering limitation on the credibility of the country that had been the international system’s underwriter since Harry Truman.

In 2020 and beyond, US foreign policy will have to engage and prepare for a world without unquestioned US hegemony. The potential for conflict is rising as great powers and aspirants jockey to fill vacuums. The December 2017 National Security Strategy recognized as much: “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned.” The strategy frames US foreign policy in terms of great power rivalry with China and Russia wielding above-board and below-the-belt instruments to expand their spheres of influence.

US foreign policy has been at once jolted from its complacency and made aware of its limitations. At least in some areas, this could lead to the US becoming a more mature great power. Progressives and mainstream Republicans recognize the need to shore up alliances, institutions, and vehicles of US influence in the international system—albeit clipped by an awareness of the dent in credibility caused by the Trump administration.

This has also created space for creative thinking about policy areas that were once sacred tenants of the liberal order, like free trade and the unencumbered flow of capital. Having cast off slavish adherence to the divinity of open markets, Trump—and any progressives that follow—will feel freer to deploy geo-economic instruments to shape foreign policy. The Trump administration is making maximal usage of the $20 trillion US economy as a cudgel against US rivals—attempting to quarantine Iran through sanctions against the wishes of the other P5+1 JCPOA signatories; levying more than a quarter trillion dollars of tariffs on China; and hanging sanctions and visa bans on hundreds of Kremlin-linked Russians.

Both progressives and Trump adherents will continue to reach for these tools and emphasize their effectiveness against the backdrop of a continuing distaste for military intervention abroad. In fact, 2020 could well see consensus across the political spectrum about the reluctance to use force. Trump has attacked the Iraqi, Libyan, and Afghan wars, as have many leading potential Democratic challengers (with Joe Biden the major exception). Whatever the case, the US could end up in a position where the challenges are more acutely felt and the instruments at its disposal more limited.

No Happily Ever Afters

The grand illusion that Europe would cease to play a role in US foreign policy and domestic politics has also been blown apart. Russia’s Ukraine invasion and the flows of migrants from Syria have brought Europe back to the fore as an active theater for US foreign, security, and to some extent, domestic policy.

On the Republican side, positions on Russia are sticky. The Republican party has long been driven by Russia hawks, led principally by John McCain, who seethed as the early Obama-era reset brought pragmatic nodes of cooperation like New START, supply transport to Afghanistan, and Russian WTO accession. Trump’s own officials, aided by Republicans in Congress, have worked to fortify US power in Europe and elsewhere, strengthening the interior NATO frontline, considering permanent basing in Poland, providing lethal assistance to Ukraine, and naming a Special Envoy to Ukraine negotiations.

But that is slowly changing. More and more, the Trump-allied GOP is broaching the idea of a new openness to the model of Putin’s Russia. Kissinger-style realists are congregating around Trump along with Rand Paul-style isolationists and anti-gay evangelicals like Franklin Graham to form a powerful coalition of Putin admirers within the GOP.

On the other side, Democrats have become decidedly more hawkish. It began with Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria, which hardened progressive foreign policy establishment somewhat, even though Obama still winced at the idea of supplying Georgia-war levels of assistance and lethal weapons to Kyiv. Russia’s 2016 assault on the US election then galvanized Democrats and made Russia a domestic issue to a level that makes rapprochement with Putin impossible.

Behind the rhetoric, there remains a great deal of consensus in US transatlantic policy. The building blocks will remain the same. Concerns about defense spending, trade imbalances, and energy dependence remain high in both parties in Congress and even with the Trump administration. These positions are unlikely to change. But the school of thought underpinning US grand strategy is in line for a massive electoral overhaul.

Who Is Doing the Rigging?

Even as American defenders of the liberal order woke up to the threats from the East and South, Trump has also unmasked threats from within. Obama’s promise that he could transcend the divisiveness both at home and abroad was built on the assumption that the Bush administration was a departure from a wide American liberal consensus of normative leadership, faith in alliances, institutions, and global trust. Of course, the presidency of George W. Bush was not an apparition. Neither is President Trump, who has reinforced several of the core elements of the first Bush administration while adding elements of unpredictability and ethno-nationalism.

By 2020, the wheel will have turned. There is no intellectual consensus on the ideals underpinning the US role in the world. Trump came into office promising to unshackle the country from a rigged system based on pluralism, nondiscrimination, immigration, open trade, an institution- and rules-based international community, and norms built on trust. At the heart of this is a searing critique of Enlightenment Europe with the EU and NATO at its core. As Trump stated in Warsaw in July 2017: “The danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.” The Bannonist wing of Trump’s coalition will seek to validate this vision at the 2020 polls. If successful, a second Trump administration could revisit a broad range of multilateral arrangements the president considers constraining, including NATO, America’s partnership with the EU, and even membership in the WTO and UN.

Just as Trump is articulating his vision of technocratic globalism and its dangers, 2020 progressives have found a new organizing principle in the fight against kleptocratic authoritarianism. For progressives, US foreign policy will have to draw on new lines of political philosophy that are rooted domestically. These include the fight against corruption and concentration of power and wealth, particularly in big finance, big oil, and big tech. With Trump and Putin both squarely in the crosshairs, Bernie Sanders outlined his unified theory of the global plutocratic sucking sound in a Guardian article in September 2018. He believes there is an “international authoritarian axis” with connections between “unaccountable government power” and “unaccountable corporate power” that reaches across borders and sectors. Progressives increasingly see this clutch of corrupt oligarchs—aided by political clients—as the force that demolishes the rule of law in the pursuit of shameless extraction of wealth, destructive climate policies, monopolistic control of information flow, unfair trade, election manipulation, and a narrower space for democratic action.

In some ways, the narratives behind both paradigms—the fight against globalism and the fight against kleptocracy—have a similar ring. Both feature an unaccountable elite riding roughshod over the will of citizens. Both contain transnational overtones pointing to a world-wide phenomenon that must be confronted both at home and abroad. But only the latter is compatible with the liberal world order.

The Deep Digital Age

Finally, there is technology. The squabbling travails of today’s foreign policy might look quaint when compared to the challenges from artificial intelligence, robotics, quantum computing, and block chain ledgers. If algorithms are ideologies, as Lawrence Lessig and others have argued, then creating the structures in which they develop could be the most important challenge both for relations within states and between states. The understanding that the rise of technology is the driving political, ethical, economic and security factor of our day has been particularly slow to work its way into the American strategic discourse.

The lesson of the hacks against the Democratic National Committee  by FancyBear is that tech can be a wormhole for instability and subterfuge. Political progressives, mainstream conservatives, and US social media platforms are aware of this threat vector and have worked to patch vulnerabilities in the information space. The American left has painfully experienced how open elections are vulnerable to manipulation through hacking, fake news, deep fakes, and other hybrid tools. Both Democrats and non-Trumpist Republicans have attempted to build in consequences for future attempts to undermine the legitimacy of elections in the form of sanctions, asset freezes, and visa bans.

But the myopic focus on social media, fake news, and election meddling ignores other potential effects of technology on American foreign policy. Automation is a source of populist anger globally and potentially as destabilizing as immigration and trade. Cyber threats are increasingly defined not only by data theft and manipulation but by physical harm, as autonomous vehicles and connected homes, appliances, even clothing join critical infrastructure as a vector of attack.

And then there’s artificial intelligence. The AI race between the US and China is accelerating—and not solely for its commercial applications. In fact, AI technology has the potential to have the same effect on relations within states that nuclear weapons had on relations between states. Machine learning voice and visual recognition and omnipresent information analysis could perpetualize authoritarian governing systems like that in China. Neither Republicans or Democrats have begun to rethink a world order where AI-infused predictive policing, communication analysis and wall-to-wall surveillance would make a Tiananmen Square-style uprising almost unthinkable.

Nothing Is Inevitable

The intellectual energy of foreign policy thinkers on both right and left has delivered stinging rebukes to the pristine niceties of the post-Cold War era. Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls those who propagate those platitudes a class of “inevitability politicians” who allow a vague sense of righteousness to anesthetize their followers into inaction. Those day are over. But if the rise of populism, revisionist powers—including the United States—and technology are rendering the old order unfit, we must ask ourselves: are we present at the new creation? All indications point to yes, even if American progressives, stewards of the establishment, and Trump-style reactionaries have yet to fully grapple with the singularity of this moment.