In Sunday’s New York Times, New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter has written a powerful essay that criticizes U.S. President Joe Biden for lacking a foreign policy vision—and then lays out a sweeping one of her own.

Arguing that existing interpretations of Biden’s foreign policy (including one by Boston University professor Joshua Shifrinson and myself) miss the mark, Slaughter charges the administration with an antiquated fixation on geopolitics. Strategic rivalry, she argues, is a hangover of twentieth-century thinking. Instead, she writes, the United States should pursue an unabashed project of “globalism” or “planetary politics,” seeking to tackle challenges that afflict all people regardless of the world’s artificial divisions into national borders.

Amid a lethal pandemic and an overheating planet, Slaughter’s perspective is an appealing one. The United States surely should update its foreign policy for a twenty-first century in which climate change probably poses a greater threat to the American people, where they live and work, than any foreign army does. But globalism may not offer the lodestar that U.S. foreign policy currently lacks nor the break from the past for which Slaughter hopes.

Back to the 1990s?

Slaughter wants Biden to tackle issues of universal scope and prioritize them above the competing frameworks he has put forward for his foreign policy, among them countering China, defending democracies, and ending so-called forever wars. “From a people-first perspective,” she writes, “saving the planet for humanity must be a goal that takes precedence over all others.” After all, she notes, if U.S. cities are underwater, no one can throw a parade for “beating China.”

Stephen Wertheim
Stephen Wertheim is a senior fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Centering global concerns certainly would change U.S. foreign policy. Yet calls to do so are not new. In the 1990s, then president Bill Clinton aimed to “build a bridge to the twenty-first century,” in part by embracing the forces of globalization that were supposedly bringing the world closer together for the benefit of all. “It’s time to put people first” went one of Clinton’s campaign slogans from 1992, a line that Slaughter happens to repeat in her essay.

What went wrong? While many U.S. leaders and commentators have long wished for a cooperative future of global problem-solving, they have also pursued one of the most maximalist geopolitical objectives imaginable: ensuring that the United States remained the world’s dominant military power, deployed in every major region and seeking to maintain its superiority in perpetuity. They supposed cooperation and dominance would go hand in hand—at least until tensions arose between the two.

Clinton, for example, signed the Kyoto Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions, only to find that Congress had no intention of ratifying it. More politically palatable were Clinton’s decisions to expand the U.S.-led NATO alliance and leave tens of thousands of troops in the Middle East. His successors continued to divide the world into subordinate allies and multiplying adversaries, while speaking grandly of cooperative goals that nonetheless received a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget. When Donald Trump became president, he vowed that “our military dominance must be unquestioned” and discarded the pretense of serving humanity.

A year after Trump narrowly lost reelection, Slaughter urges “bold, transformative change” for America’s role in the world. But if a militarized approach has not worked, where should the United States pull back? Without offering specifics, pleas to promote nonmilitary engagement risk repeating the failed formula of the past.

Military Globalism Corrupts

Foreign policy experts are now engaging in concrete debates about the limits of America’s coercive power. Should the United States commit to wage a great-power war over Taiwan? Should it remain the leading military power in a prosperous Europe? Should it station large numbers of troops in the Middle East and engage in routine counterterrorism strikes across an expanding arc of the earth?

My own answer is no—not only because such objectives inhibit and corrupt effective engagement on nonmilitary challenges, but also because they generate unnecessary wars and adversaries that make America less safe. It would be illuminating to hear Slaughter and likeminded experts elaborate on what their brand of globalism would mean for U.S. security policy as conventionally defined.

If, however, the aim is to preserve all of America’s far-flung defense commitments and forward deployments, and simply try harder to work with U.S. adversaries to combat climate change, tame pandemics, and promote development, then this approach is unlikely to improve on the returns to date. A foreign policy that yokes globalist aspirations to U.S. military primacy is only less plausible now than it was during the 1990s, when the United States stood alone as the world’s superpower. In today’s competitive world, it would require greater exertion and expenditure simply to retain America’s existing military posture, especially if China continues to rise and Russia to assert itself.

What Global Problems Require

American democracy, meanwhile, is reeling. Should Trump return to the White House in 2024, globalism will not be on his agenda. To the contrary, the former president would doubtless relish the opportunity to run against an administration that espoused globalism. That is how Trump has consistently preferred to characterize his opponents—as “globalists” who put other people’s interests ahead of America’s.

If the choice is framed in those terms, there is little reason to think that globalism will win. Trump’s doctrine of “America First,” whatever its faults, asserts the principle that U.S. foreign policy should serve the United States. It refuses to subsume America’s distinctive interests into a postnational abstraction.

Slaughter may well agree that the primary purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to safeguard the security, freedom, and prosperity of America. Her point is presumably that climate chaos, among other challenges, threatens Americans’ security, freedom, and prosperity a great deal. But it would be dangerous to make globalism, conceived and articulated as such, into the basis of U.S. foreign policy.

Globalism, as an –ism, sends America on a general and permanent quest to solve far-flung problems. By “putting people ahead of states,” as Slaughter proposes, globalism too easily misses that the people chiefly to be served are Americans­—and they are Americans because they are citizens of a state. Because climate change and pandemics threaten Americans, their government should act vigorously against them. But for the United States, as for other states, the foundation of planetary cooperation will be the advancement of national interests through states, with due regard for the well-being of others. Slaughter rightly maintains that interstate rivalry should not become “an end in itself,” but neither should global activism.

To the extent that America First jingoism and undifferentiated globalism come to define the axis of debate, U.S. foreign policy will suffer. It is better to speak frankly of the paramount place of the United States in its own foreign policy and, at the same time, of the need to collaborate with others in a diverse and connected world. Such an approach draws attention, as globalism does not, to the reality that differentials of power and interest will determine planetary outcomes. The road to decarbonizing energy and distributing vaccines, for example, runs substantially through harnessing the power of nation-states, which remain unmatched in their ability to mobilize human will, resources, and authority on behalf of public purposes.

Thirty years ago, the United States missed its best chance to let other states provide for their own security and to galvanize action on the common threats that matter most. But that opportunity may not have completely lapsed. To seize it, however, will require a new candor about the uses of power—and the hazards of licensing its most destructive forms.