Written by Rocky Cole, Policy Strategist for Defense and Diplomacy, Roosevelt Campus Network
For nearly two decades, the United States has lacked a continuing grand strategy -- an overarching vision of what America's diplomatic and military efforts should seek to achieve -- to guide our international relations. President Bill Clinton, in the wake of Soviet Union's collapse, struggled to define America's new role in the world. President George W. Bush, at least until September 11, 2010, appeared set to continue Clinton's fruitless search for a grand strategy. The terrorist attacks on 9/11 dramatically altered our foreign policy for eight years, but now President Obama is once again markedly shifting America's grand strategy in a way that some claim is leaving "America in retreat."
There is no single explanation for our failure to build a lasting grand strategic vision, but perhaps the biggest reason -- and the most troubling -- is that our foreign policies now seem to reflect our domestic politics: divided, polarized, and stagnant.
Senator Arthur Vandenberg, announcing his support for the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine (the Senator had previously been an isolationist), once famously asserted "politics stops at the water's edge." This saying came to encapsulate America's approach to foreign policy for years to come. The American people, at least so the saying goes, put aside their differences and united against the ever-looming threat of communist expansion.
While the homogeneity of American foreign policy during the Cold War is almost certainly overstated, we can no longer say with any degree of confidence that our domestic politics stops at water's edge. It is indisputable that Americans are more divided than ever over what America's foreign policies should seek to achieve. And our standing in the world has suffered because we have failed to consistently and logically present solutions to international challenges.
Like so many problems in public policy today, America's erratic foreign policy is ultimately an issue younger generations -- my generation -- will have to solve. Unfortunately, American politics are not likely to experience a sudden reversal of the polarization process. It is up to us as individuals to recognize that, if America is to maintain our strong position in the world, we have to find common political ground when it comes to foreign policy. We have to formulate policies upon which we can all agree and support. Partisan, extreme solutions will not suffice.
Recognizing the importance of engaging youth in the discussion about America's future grand strategy, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network is launching a series of nation-wide policy initiatives designed to build sustainable future foreign policies for the United States. This academic year, students from across the nation will be joining the Roosevelt Institute Defense and Diplomacy Center to construct America's next grand strategy, reform our foreign aid system, and create the next generation of climate change leadership.
In a project called A New Marshall Plan, for example, Roosevelt is attempting to identify a set of core values -- upon which Americans all agree -- that America can build a coherent grand strategy around. Similarly, recognizing that America no longer faces a single existential threat to our national security and that security is intertwined with a host of other policy issues, Roosevelt is launching another project, the Natural Security Act, to take a closer look at America's foreign aid system and how it can be re-tooled to serve a broader purpose in American diplomacy.
These initiatives are just examples of what young Americans all over the country can and should be doing; engaging our peers in substantive, civil discussions about how we can agree upon common solutions to real public policy problems. While we cannot hope to eliminate all polarization just through being open minded and adhering to rigorous academic standards in our policy discourse, we can hope to at least find enough common ground to build a coherent grand strategy that lasts a generation.
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