September 11, 2016
Editor’s Note: An abridged version of the following article appeared in the September-October 2016 print edition and can be found here.
How will the next president of the United States secure and promote greater security, greater prosperity and greater freedom for the United States, and for our friends and allies around the world? How will he or she use American power and influence to shape the global system, strengthen international institutions and affect state behavior? How will the next president choose to lead? These questions lie at the core of America’s foreign policy and its purpose.
Looking to 2017, the next administration will confront the paradox of American power: unparalleled strength, but a deep disinclination to exercise leadership. It remains true that the next president will benefit from certain enduring advantages. No competing world power threatens our security. The United States remains the undisputed global leader in military, economic and diplomatic terms, and is likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Our influence is enhanced by a set of international institutions, largely of our own creation, that favor the rule of law, the free market and representative democracy, and a network of formal and informal alliances with many of the world’s most powerful countries. Unlike the period of the Cold War, we face no global ideological rival that offers a more appealing alternative to a social contract based on individual freedom, economic opportunity and human dignity.
At the same time, the world today and our place in it are less certain than before. The inward focus of our European allies has weakened our most important alliance. The eruptions throughout the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring have brought new misery across the region. A post–World War II record of 65 million people are refugees or internally displaced persons, with half being children. Three powers, China, Russia and Iran, are trying to revise the order in their regions by subversion and even military force, intimidating our friends and allies and undermining U.S. credibility. A fourth, North Korea, continues to improve its nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile capabilities unabated. The proliferation of terrorists, insurgents and other nonstate actors, some with global reach, has undermined the traditional state monopoly on the use of force. For the past decade or more, there has also been a menu of “new” security issues, led by cyberwarfare, but including climate change, infectious diseases, narcotics and human trafficking, and, increasingly, natural resources, especially water.