Foreign policy is not most Americans’ strong suit, and encouraging voters to follow global events is difficult when there are so many entertainment options. If Americans were given the choice to watch Empire, Big Bang Theory, or a Frontline documentary about Putin, Putin could rest assured that most Americans would not learn about his shenanigans. Even if Americans learned about global events, how should they then develop a coherent foreign policy? With Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, Ian Bremmer seeks to educate Americans about different foreign policies so that they can force the 2016 presidential candidates to debate foreign policy coherently.
Superpower’s central premise is that the United States has not had a coherent foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. As Bremmer said at an event last October, “This was about, ‘Damn, guys, the US does not really have a foreign policy strategy, and we sort of need one.’” The “Incoherent America” chapter includes one of the better criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy I’ve read (though Bremmer criticizes both Republicans and Democrats), and my analysis of the State of the Union Address drew upon this criticism. For instance, America’s foreign policy is incoherent when the President says “Assad must go” but then the US does not enact policies that could achieve this goal. Allies become confused about what America is and is not willing to do to help them. Adversaries think they can get away with aggression and risk crossing an actual “red line”.
Bremmer is right to see great risk in America keeping an incoherent foreign policy. As he argued in October:
The reason this is dangerous is not because the US is in decline. The reason this is dangerous is because after 9/11, where we did more damage to ourselves than at any other point since the end of the Cold War, ultimately it wasn’t that damaging to America because Europe was with us, the Russians were reasonably aligned, the Chinese were fairly small. The next time… we overreact, and none of those… conditions are true, then we could fall off. Then we could be in real trouble. Then we could do damage our kids and grandkids won’t be able to easily dig out of.
To force Americans to think through foreign policy strategies and to avoid a future overreaction, he describes three options for America: Independent, Moneyball, and Indispensable.
“Independent America” could be labeled “neo-isolationist”, though he insists it is not isolationist. The hope is that if America leaves the world alone, perfects democracy at home, and develops a strong economy, citizens in China and elsewhere would be so enchanted with America that foreign governments would have to change behavior. However, Independent America is not populist. For example, this policy would still accept refugees (including Syrians) in order to show the world a better example.
“Moneyball America” could be labeled “realist”, and it uses American power only when there is a high “return on investment”. These situations would require developing allies to deal with global issues such as defending the shipping lanes or countering terrorism. America would not seek to export values such as democracy or civil liberties.
“Indispensable America” could be labeled “idealist”, and it seeks to make the world safe for democracy. The strategy is a long-term doctrine that believes if democracy can work in South Korea, Poland, or Taiwan, it can work in North Korea, Russia, and China. Because democracies are more predictable than dictatorships, there is more likely to be a stable peace.
Bremmer has said over and over that the book is not about his choice. However, he does choose. Spoiler Alert: he picks Independent America. What makes this choice interesting is that he hates Independent America. As he said at the event:
One of the reasons why I ended up choosing Independent America at the end—which I don’t like at all, it’s my least favorite of the three—is not because I think it’s the best one for America at all, it’s because I don’t actually think that we are going to pick one. I think it’s much more likely that people ignore the book… and that we’re going to continue to muddle through. And the world is going to make it increasingly likely that the US will have an easier time with Independent America… And American demographics will move more towards Independent America… I hate Independent America, but I think it’s likely. And I think it’s marginally better than Incoherent.
In some ways, this conclusion is classic political-risk analysis, which is not surprising since Bremmer founded the world’s largest political-risk consultancy, Eurasia Group. Instead of picking a side because it is best and fighting for that good cause, the analyst says what is easiest and most likely. Leaders need good analysts to help make decisions, but there is a significant difference between good leaders and good analysts. A good analyst says what direction the crowd is headed. A good leader leads the crowd.
However, Superpower would have benefited if it had included more analysis on elections. Successful politicians need to build coalitions of voters, and building coalitions often means making compromises that lead to incoherent policies, domestic or foreign. Yet Bremmer does not analyze which groups of voters are likely to elect a candidate with a coherent foreign policy.
For instance, many voters who support the “Independent” choice are divided on domestic policy. Some right-leaning voters are neo-isolationist because they want to reduce total government spending and thus lower taxes. Some left-wing voters want to reduce military spending in order to increase spending on other programs, such as healthcare. These two views agree on foreign policy, but they completely disagree on domestic policy, which is their primary focus. If left-leaning “Independent” voters must choose between a liberal, “Moneyball” or “Incoherent” Democrat and a conservative, “Independent” Republican, few would vote Republican. Domestic policy trumps foreign policy.
An “Independent” candidate would thus have to build a coalition with Independent-leaning voters who generally agree on domestic policies. This coalition would likely include populist voters. However, this inclusion would likely mean compromising on Independent America and shifting towards a slightly different foreign policy choice, which could be called “Populist America”.
Donald Trump has been able to build a coalition including a foreign policy that is similar to yet very different from Independent America. He has promised to limit America’s involvement in different parts of the world, such as by taking American troops out of South Korea and Europe (unless the US gets paid for those troops). Contrary to Independent America, Trump has promised to use waterboarding, to limit Syrian refugees, to create safe zones in Syria, and to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS. Yet Trump has had much more success than the traditional “Independent” candidate, Rand Paul, who received two-thirds fewer voters in Iowa than Ron Paul received in 2012. In October Bremmer said:
It was clear to me that there was a much bigger isolationist trope in American demographics, which I expected would be exploited by someone in the race. I thought that would be Rand Paul. I was wrong about that. It’s being exploited by Donald Trump… Think about what Trump has been saying recently on foreign policy… That is the most coherent, strong isolationist view that has been offered by a leader of either party in a presidential race, certainly since I’ve been a political scientist.
Bremmer can certainly be forgiven for not predicting Donald Trump’s rise, and this critique relies on hindsight (also note that some of the cited Trump comments came after Bremmer’s talk). Yet Trump’s rise does add more data to help assess Superpower. This fresh data should be included in any future edition, which could include a chapter entitled “Populist America” to ask questions about Trump’s foreign policy. If Bremmer says that Independent America is “marginally better” than Incoherent America, would Populist America be better or worse than Incoherent? Or would Populist America just be a variation of Incoherent America? These questions and others would make for interesting analysis, especially if an “Independent” candidate can win only by building a coalition with populist voters.
As previously mentioned, Superpower’s primary focus is not to promote Bremmer’s choice but to educate voters about foreign policy. This goal is admirable. From my own perspective, American foreign policy has been incoherent because American voters don’t understand the world. This misunderstanding can easily lead to overreactions and miscalculations when the world’s problems crash onto our shores.
So yes, American voters should read this book, along with other foreign policy books. The best part is the Incoherent America chapter, but Superpower also provides a good introduction to different foreign policy strategies. Even if the reader strongly disagrees with Bremmer’s choice, it is still important to understand all the choices, including their costs and benefits. The book should be considered an introduction, and Kissinger’s World Order would be a good companion. Bremmer’s Time column would be a good follow-up.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Language & International Trade from Mississippi College. Prior to moving to DC, he worked as a political science adjunct professor at community colleges in Mississippi. He is Providence’s resident millennial (don’t let the premature salt-and-pepper hair fool you, he’s a millennial).
Read more articles by Mark here.
Photo Credit: John Vetterli via Flickr