Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, broad public opinion on foreign policy has been perceived as no longer generally aligning with the prevailing preferences of the policymaking community. Trump’s foreign policy, as presented in his campaign and as president, has been most commonly framed as challenging the central tenets of the post-World War II “liberal international order” led by the United States. In response, intellectuals and practitioners have produced a deluge of books and articles offering competing visions for U.S. foreign policy at a time when debate about it is more vigorous than it has been in decades.
Peter Beinart, journalist and author of The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris (2010), argues that U.S. foreign policy has gone through three distinct periods since the early 20th century and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Each period cycled through three phases: first, a core idea gains traction and becomes the driving logic for policy; next, initial successes gradually lead to overconfidence; finally, this overconfidence results in a major failure that in turn spurs fundamental change in how foreign policy is framed and implemented.
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The first period was the idealistic “hubris of reason,” which sought to eliminate international conflict through objective analysis and dispassionate mediation but was crushed by the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II. Next came the anti-appeasement “hubris of toughness,” which maintained that the U.S. could and should stop the spread of Communism anywhere in the world but was thwarted by the quagmire of Vietnam. Finally, since the end of the Cold War, the ambitious “hubris of dominance” aimed to remake any country in the image of the U.S., only to be undercut by the “endless wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan and other struggles to manage outcomes in strategic regions.
According to Beinart, each period initially began with increased caution and more circumscribed goals, but things started going wrong when “politicians and intellectuals took ideas that had proved successful in certain, limited circumstances and expanded them into grand doctrines, applicable always and everywhere.” One idea became accepted as the ultimate foreign policy hack, short-circuiting nuanced deliberation of domestic capacity and critically oversimplifying analysis of places abroad.
Now, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming 2020 presidential election, what’s next? The program on U.S. Global Engagement (USGE) at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is looking at the different foreign policy narratives that are emerging in the intellectual field. An October 2019 report identifies several broad categories, ranging from a return to “traditional” robust engagement, to largely “transactional” policies, to various forms of “restraint.” (Beinart’s personal view on how U.S. foreign policy should be recalibrated, discussed in a recent None of the Above podcast episode, falls among those calling for “restraint.”) The project is now exploring how these narratives intersect with the stated positions of the 2020 presidential candidates (including those who have suspended their campaigns) and which ones seem to be resonating most strongly with the public, whose support is essential to the long-term viability of any policy narrative.
Flashback to October 2016: What Is America’s Role in the World? A Conversation with Ian Bremmer and Scott Malcomson
Polls remain one of the main tools for gauging public opinion on foreign policy. However, as project director Nikolas Gvosdev explains, questions in these polls are often presented as isolated issues in which “it’s possible to have everything and everything is achievable.” This does not reflect the reality of tough decision-making based on limited resources. Instead, “a foreign policy narrative should set out which coalition of interests and values it will prioritize, provide the outlines of the domestic political bargains it requires, and present the outline of central organizing principles.” That’s why the U.S. Global Engagement Survey does not allow responders the option of getting everything they’d like to see in an ideal world. Instead, choices involve trade-offs that make the responder think about “how they may have to compromise and where they are willing to accept consequences.”
Who Was Icarus? And What Can Policymakers Learn from His Fate?
In classical mythology, the story of Icarus is a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris, perhaps most famously recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Daedalus, Icarus’s father, builds wings for himself and his son to escape from the island of Crete. He warns Icarus not to fly too low or too high, but “to take the middle way.” Yet, once in the air, “the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher.” As his father had feared, the wax holding the wings together melts, and Icarus plummets to his death in the sea. Peter Beinart draws upon this mythic figure in identifying moments over the last century when American foreign policy has fallen prey to what he calls “the Icarus syndrome,” the title of his 2010 study of “American hubris.” In his introduction, Beinart cautions: “There’s nothing intrinsically American about hubris. As Aeschylus and Ovid testify, it’s a vice that long predates us. But since it’s an affliction born from success, we’ve been especially prone.”
Icarus In this 1960 photograph by Adger Cowans, a figure is silhouetted against the sky, with the sun blazing above, at Orchard Beach in the Bronx, New York City. (Credit: Adger Cowans/Getty Images)
Although the survey remains open, USGE began analyzing the first batch of responses in a March blog post. Overall, “respondents rejected isolationism by an overwhelming majority, and wanted the United States to continue to play a leading role in world affairs.” This baseline finding aligns with results from surveys conducted by other organizations such as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Eurasia Group Foundation. At the same time, while respondents want to “amend or fine-tune” the role of the U.S. in the world, the survey also reveals “a good deal of uncertainty with the extent to which U.S. foreign policy ought to always prioritize values, or when, in pursuit of a foreign policy objective, domestic interests ought to be subordinated.” This level of uncertainty reflects the degree to which the fundamental guiding principles of foreign policy are up for debate in the minds of the public. As more people participate in the survey, USGE will also look at how responses may vary according to age, political preferences, and location. (A second survey was released in August with additional questions focusing on U.S. relationships with democratic and non-democratic countries.)
That initial survey analysis was posted on March 9, just over a week after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York City (where the Carnegie Council is located) and less than two weeks before the Empire State went into lockdown. In a series of reflections, Gvosdev considers the pandemic’s possible implications for foreign policy, such as Americans’ views on “whether the default state of international affairs is competition or cooperation,” and whether their priorities on how to spend national resources will shift toward “reconsidering U.S. intervention and activism abroad to focus on internal reconstruction and development.” Though too early to know what the sustained impact will be, as the number of cases rise, the pandemic continues to shine a spotlight on the United States’ standing and role in the world in the minds of the public. Using the survey, as well as through conversations around the country and online events like “Vox Populi: What Americans Think About Foreign Policy” and “Human Security Is National Security in a Time of Pandemic,” the USGE project seeks to draw out the calculus and ethical orientations of individual Americans and illuminate how different discourses on foreign policy may align with their personal views. As the project continues its research and analyzes incoming survey responses, additional narratives may be added to the mix. It’s far from a clear-cut exercise because multiple narratives can support the same policy choice but for different reasons, and individuals may hold and defend positions on separate issues that are best explained by different narratives.
Public discourse on foreign policy often boils down to bare essentials and slogan-length arguments. The results can sound like a national contest over how to hack our foreign policy, in which one simple, core idea is presented as the essential key to success. By deconstructing grand ideas into their possible rationales and considering their application in specific and realistically challenging contexts, the USGE project takes the conversation beyond clean, surface-level solutions and helps its audience — or, rather, audiences — grapple with the inherent complexity of foreign policymaking.
Gvosdev sets three interlinked goals for the project’s three main audiences: the nongovernmental foreign policy community, the average American voter, and policymakers. First, the project wants to help “the foreign policy community to better understand how the general public perceives foreign policy intersecting with their pocketbook and doorstep issues, and to be able to frame their foreign policy advice to elected leaders in terms of connecting with those aspirations.” Rebuilding this understanding is a necessary corrective to the growing disconnect between the public and foreign policy experts highlighted by the 2016 election and all that has followed.
The second goal is for “the American voter to consider the importance of foreign policy as part of the choice of selecting representatives and elected officials.” As USGE is well aware, this is an uphill battle. Although 91 percent of survey respondents in the initial analysis said that foreign policy is important to them, when asked if they “would vote for a candidate whose domestic agenda they supported but with whose foreign policy they disagreed,” there was a roughly even three-way split among those who said yes, no, or unsure. Whether and how the pandemic crisis could influence that breakdown remains to be seen.
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Finally, USGE hopes to “help leaders and politicians to better frame choices” in a moment when foreign policy could plausibly move in significantly different directions, with each option offering a different package of costs, benefits, and ethical implications that the American people need to understand and accept. In Gvosdev’s view, “a successful outcome is one where the voters are able to identify with a narrative that explains how they expect the U.S. to interact with other countries and the international system and then to trust that the leaders they elect are able to develop and execute policies that align with that overall framework.”
A successful foreign policy narrative must communicate a coherent vision that is understandable and compelling to the average citizen. At the same time, this clarity must not come at the expense of the analytical depth needed to navigate distinct and evolving trends and circumstances around the world, as demonstrated in the cautionary tales of Beinart’s absorbing study of America’s past hubristic errors. Remember the fate of Icarus. Whatever narrative becomes the next driving logic for U.S. foreign policy, it must strike this balance. Otherwise, it risks devolving into a mere hack, offering an oversimplified solution that cannot live up to its promises.
Noelle Pourrat is a program analyst with the Corporation’s International Peace and Security program.