Restoring America’s Role in the World

By rejecting the extremes of both isolationism and globalism, we can take sensible steps toward regaining the global leadership we have squandered


From the end of World War II, through the restoration of war-ravaged economies and creation of a strong, free-market system of trade, the dominant force for progress among the world’s democracies has been American leadership – economic, diplomatic and technological. Seven postwar decades of robust, purposeful American foreign policy, largely a product of bipartisan consensus and supported by strong international alliances for defense and free trade, have produced enormous benefits for this nation and its allies.

Yet that leadership, along with the political consensus and consistent foreign policy that made it possible, has been slipping from us at an increasingly rapid pace. Even worse, our current political climate has produced policy-making gridlock, the product of poisonous partisanship and schoolyard name calling, not to mention a total misreading of history. While so much of this deterioration has occurred over the past three years of Donald Trump’s presidency, America’s failures of policy and purpose are not solely the product of one administration, political party or philosophy. Both parties, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, share the blame for this failure, and neither appears able to find a solution.

The Trump White House, lacking any coherent foreign-policy philosophy, has chosen isolationism, protectionism, nativism and disengagement as its “Make America Great Again” cure-all. While in Congress, neither party seems able, or even willing, to address the decline of American leadership. No one concerned has any understanding of the threat their inaction poses or what needs to be done about it, preferring instead to score easy points with the most rabid extremes of their political base.

Certainly, every successful nation-state in history has had to put its own interests first and aspire in its own way to be great. But that’s never been an excuse to ignore the needs of other nations or to close doors to allies with shared interests and ideals. In that spirit, American leaders must pursue policies that put our national interests – and our values – first. But putting America first can be accomplished without withdrawing from the rest of the world, building walls, closing off markets and disrespecting needed allies. And it most certainly does not call for cozying up to dictators.

Two Paths America is no fan of mindless “America First” isolation as preached by President Trump to the cheers of so many Republicans. Nor, looking back to the Obama era, can we share with many Democrats their globalist faith that international organizations and agreements, by themselves, can be relied upon to protect our nation’s interests. We believe that both of these approaches are wrong: wrong as underlying philosophies and wrong in the ways they have been applied by successive administrations. Instead, we are advocates of another way, an approach to restoring America’s global leadership based on the core principles of Diplomacy, Development and Defense, applied in ways that keep a steadfast focus on our national interests while pursuing, with an equally sharp eye, the benefits of international cooperation and engagement that can advance those same interests.

These are the principles that sustained our nation’s leadership throughout the postwar era, but are now being slowly, perhaps irretrievably, eroded as opposing extremes take their turns on stage. Two Paths America is convinced that these once-honored principles must be reinvigorated for application in a world that has entered a new, post-postwar era, a time that promises exciting opportunities for progress and prosperity, but also presents formidable threats to global stability and peace. America’s ability to reclaim its global leadership in the face of these changes will require a new way forward.

Finding that new way must start with rejecting the most extreme versions of the two options we’ve been given: blind faith that either isolationism or globalism will succeed in reestablishing the leadership we have squandered. By rejecting those philosophical dead ends and pursuing a new way, America can restore its global leadership and achieve greatness on its own terms and without shunning allies. The need to begin these changes is urgent, for the passage of time in this digitally-paced world is not our friend. Unpredictable global events, driven by unfriendly and often ruthless actors, can overtake our good intentions at any point.

In presenting these proposals, our purpose is to preserve and advance freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law at home and around the world. American isolationism and protectionism threaten world peace, while a total reliance on globalism cannot be depended to protect our interests. Both paths threaten to cede America’s moral leadership role in the world. We must instead choose a path of cooperation and engagement, using our global influence to share our values and economic opportunity. Based on our three core principles of Diplomacy, Development and Defense, Two Paths America proposes an action agenda – summarized here – to begin that conversation.

Preparing America to lead – and succeed – in overcoming the challenges of global trade

In the United States, one in five jobs depends on trade, and these jobs tend to be in higher paying occupations. While the cross-border flow of goods and services has benefitted our country as a whole, many workers and entire industries have suffered as a result. Our international partners must make greater efforts to support free and, importantly, fair trade. That means they must end their government subsidies, dumping and other anticompetitive policies. Then U.S. lawmakers must improve our own trade policies, including elimination of bureaucratic delays in the process to review and stop trade violations. We should work with our allies to modernize current trade agreements, with a goal of finding win-win solutions.

At the same time, it is essential to strengthen public and private efforts that help people obtain the skills they need to succeed in the jobs of the future. This must start in the earliest grades for young students who will one day enter the job market. Training must focus as well on older workers whose careers have been disrupted by technological change or world trade. This will mean aligning America’s education and job-training efforts with the needs of emerging industries, developing the right curriculum and skill sets, and making businesses a more active participant in our educational systems from grade school forward.

Countering our greatest global threats

Today, America and its allies face new and increasingly complex challenges posed by China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as a menacing array of nonstate actors. These are threats that may strike at any time and from any direction, including space or cyberspace. To deal with global threats – Russian aggression, the rise of China, nuclear proliferation, cyberattacks – America needs to harden its defenses and reinvigorate its alliances. As part of these efforts, our allies must provide for a greater share of their own defense and all of us must invest in efforts to deal with cyberthreats and protect the global trading system.

One of the global challenges for America and its allies is China’s increasingly aggressive geopolitical and economic posture, both within its region and across the globe. The Beijing government, capitalizing on the vacuum created by erosion of America’s engagement in the world, is rapidly expanding its economic and military power, violating international norms of fair trade and intellectual-property rights, and tightening its stranglehold on liberty and freedom at home. While the many positives of China’s economic rise may be obvious – for example, the Chinese continue to be the top consumers of American goods and services – we cannot forget that China is led by autocrats who want, above all, to ensure the survival of the regime. The ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong, as millions resist Beijing’s repression, is but the latest evidence of that.

Becoming more and more aggressive on the world stage, China wants to push the United States out of the Western Pacific and undermine our alliances in the region. And it wants to remold the international system to become more reflective of a multi-polar world, one in which China increasingly becomes the sole arbiter of standards and rules. With all of this, China sees the U.S. not as an opponent, but as a rival whose ideology of transparency, accountability, democracy, human rights and the rule of law poses a long-term threat to the survival of the Beijing autocracy. American policy must acknowledge that such a rivalry exists and deter China’s disruptive behavior more actively, while working to incentivize the Chinese to become responsible stakeholders in the international system.

In dealing with Russia, we should cooperate where our two nations have common interests, while never closing our eyes to the true nature of Russia’s leaders, their ill intentions and their disregard for our values and basic human rights. America must let the Kremlin leaders know, in no uncertain terms, that Russian aggression and cyber-interference must cease or else they will face decisive and escalating action from the U.S. and its allies. If needed, these measures should isolate Russia by stepping up limitations on Russian access – public and private – to the West’s capital markets and the international banking system. Renewed U.S. talks with the Russians on nuclear arms control are also a priority, given that our two nations control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. However, negotiations with the Kremlin must make it clear that we will not concede when it comes to defending our values and the rules-based international order.

North Korea and Iran remain sources of major concern, as both threaten to put nuclear weapons into the hands of their unstable and unpredictable regimes. On the Korean Peninsula, denuclearization must remain a constant U.S. goal, knowing that solutions will be impossible without our sure-footed leadership and a commitment to finally ending the seven-decades-old Korean War. Until then, strong outside diplomatic and economic pressures must be applied to have North Korea renounce its nuclear ambitions. China bears a special responsibility for the situation in North Korea. In addition to sheltering the regime from the full effects of sanctions by continuing to trade with it, Beijing has, at a minimum, looked the other way while Chinese-owned banks and front companies enable the North to do business with the rest of the world. We must force China to choose between economic access to the dollar system and continued political support for North Korea’s current regime. To do so, we can target a greater number of larger Chinese banks that deal with North Korea, fine their U.S. subsidiaries, freeze their assets here and prevent them from using the U.S. dollar for financial transactions.

Iran adds even more menace with its persistent support for regional unrest and terrorism. After progress was made with 2015’s agreed-upon framework for containing Iran’s nuclear threat, President Trump withdrew from that deal three years later, leaving us with no real way for slowing the Tehran regime’s weapons development or ending its other threats to peace. The Trump administration’s approach – not reaching out for constructive engagement with Iran and loudly declaring that our goal is to destroy the regime – serves only to strengthen the radicals in charge. These wrong-headed policies separate us from our allies and leave us no avenue for achieving meaningful peace. Yes, the Iran nuclear deal had abundant shortcomings, but it was ill-advised to withdraw from that agreement without a coherent plan for moving forward in its absence. Even with the Iran deal’s imperfections, it would be better for the United States to focus its efforts on containing Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and their malignant adventurism – and better to deal with one nuclear crisis at a time. Recognizing the framework’s flaws, the U.S. must make another attempt to deter Iran’s threats, perhaps by revitalizing the better elements of that deal.

Getting serious about cybersecurity

Communication networks, computer systems and data servers around the world, public and private, are increasingly vulnerable to hacker attacks, espionage and all manner of cyber-crime. While many private-sector businesses have successfully hardened their systems to detect and deter intrusion, others have fallen victim to theft of their own and their customers’ data. Shockingly, among the cyber assets most at risk are the U.S. government’s military, diplomatic, technological and financial data, which are held in a complex array of separately managed and mostly uncoordinated networks, systems and databanks. Following the lead of John Kasich, a member of our national advisory board who has long been concerned by the risk of these siloed and unevenly safeguarded systems, Two Paths America advocates uniting these systems under a single agency, headed by a cabinet-level official. And, because cybercrime presents enormous geopolitical and economic implications for all nations and industries, we are convinced that a higher level of intelligence-sharing, diplomacy and private sector participation will be key to organizing a collective defense among our allies by creating, essentially, a cyber-NATO alliance.

Fresh thinking about the fight against terrorism

The “war on terrorism,” which strikes on multiple fronts and from multiple, shape-shifting foes, is unlike any war the U.S. and its allies have ever confronted. The fight against these challenges will require a constant flow of fresh, nimble thinking and allied commitment. While our nation’s overriding focus must be on direct threats of terrorism on American soil, we must always be open to a time when our intervention might be needed abroad – either with direct U.S. action or with our military advice, training and weaponry. This will require building broad-based political and public agreement – in advance – on principles that will guide us should we ever be tempted to intervene: should we go and to what extent, what resources are we willing to commit, what might persuade us to escalate our commitment and – most important – how and when, short of victory, would we decide it’s time to leave? These criteria must also include a U.S. commitment not to become entangled in civil wars, but instead to rely on diplomacy to persuade those allies most affected to take the lead.

Building a stronger world through cooperation and engagement

To be great, now and forever in a challenging world, America must cooperate and lead. Two Paths America believes that our nation’s leaders, and those who aspire to lead us, must commit themselves to policies of international cooperation and engagement with like-minded nations. These must be policies that will secure our economic future, reimagine and strengthen our defenses and alliances and focus on the prime challenges to our national interests. We cannot be helpless bystanders to world events and expect to survive as a self-respecting nation and a prosperous economy. Drawing the curtains, closing our doors and offending our neighbors are not ways to endure in a troubled world. Instead of our current path, we must forge a coherent, forward-looking national security doctrine that will attract consensus here at home, between the Democratic and Republican parties, and overseas, with those who share our interests and values.

The bottom line

Policy approaches suggested here are not based exclusively on Republican ideas – certainly not as present-day thinking runs for many who consider themselves to be Republicans in the Trump era. Nor can any of this be described as liberal by the current, leftward-leaning definition of that term, although Democratic administrations of the past have embraced much of this philosophy. These are solid, center-right positions, many that have served our nation well under Democratic and Republican administrations since 1945. Others have been refreshed or reconsidered to meet the unique and fast-changing challenges of our times.

In short, this way forward must not follow a path to retreat and isolation. Two Paths America believes the restoration of America’s global leadership can be achieved only by engagement and cooperation with the world, based on a renewed commitment to supporting those who share our values. But first, we must restore the capacity of our political process to collaborate and to find a new, bipartisan consensus that can adapt our policies and institutions to the challenges we face. For those in positions to lead, that means rediscovering open-mindedness, civility, mutual respect and compromise. This is a tall order, indeed, but an essential one given the alternatives.