Our adversaries are gleeful, and our allies and partners are despondent. The media in China, Russia and Iran talk of a second civil war in the U.S. and of the chaos of democracy compared to the strength of a one-party state. Our allies and partners are in disbelief, concerned that the absence of U.S. global leadership could be the death knell of a liberal rules-based international order.
We did this to ourselves. Our enemies and adversaries used social media to incite tension and conflict — but we are accountable for the political and social polarization in our country, for the dastardly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.
We are recovering, but it will require sustained, substantive work if we hope to ensure that the world knows the U.S. is a reliable global leader, committed to a rules-based international order. This has been the role of the U.S. since the end of World War II, with the establishment of a Marshall Plan that contributed billions of dollars to the economic recovery of those European countries devastated by that war. This was, moreover, a U.S. commitment to Europe and the world that the U.S. would play a leadership role in countering the threat of communism and ensuring a free, independent Europe. It was this type of global leadership that led to the end of the Cold War in 1991.
During this period, the U.S. was, as President Reagan said in his 1989 farewell address, “A shining city upon a hill” — an America as a model for the world. The Reagan era was a period of global leadership, working hard to defeat communism but collaborating and cooperating with Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev on arms-control agreements to reduce tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, and with China’s Deng Xiaoping on defeating a Soviet Union that invaded Afghanistan while supporting Deng’s plan to open China to foreign investment.
Our embassies abroad had cultural centers and libraries that were magnets for locals hungry to learn more about the U.S. and its values, as a republic committed to the rule of law and the right of all people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Over the years, many of these facilities atrophied. The U.S. Information Service (USIS) was established in 1953 to enrich our dialogue with foreign counterparts; it was staffed by extraordinary professionals who pursued “public diplomacy” as a vocation. Unfortunately, we walked away from USIS in 1999, when it shut down and its mission was given to the State Department.
We are at an important inflection point: Can we heal our political polarization and come together as a nation dedicated to an open, prosperous U.S., committed to international leadership for the well-being of all countries? Many of our allies and partners are concerned that polarization in America will deprive the U.S. of a long-term strategy, replaced by one that could change every four to eight years — making them potentially vulnerable, without U.S. support and involvement, to predatory authoritarian regimes. What these countries are hoping for is a long-term commitment from the U.S. that we will be there for them and will work and collaborate with them to ensure that the liberal rules-based international system prevails.
Part of this is having a strategy to deal with an assertive China. This does not mean, however, that economic decoupling with China or a new cold war is inevitable. Rather, it means viewing China as a formidable strategic economic and geopolitical competitor. China’s “Made in China 2025,” striving to be dominant in global high-tech manufacturing, is a clear marker as to its economic goals and objective. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is another clearly stated program, providing infrastructure loans and assistance stretching from East Asia to Europe, thus expanding China’s economic and political reach.
China’s claim to sovereignty of the islands and adjacent waters in the South China Sea is a geopolitical marker to the U.S. and the region that — despite the 2016 United Nations International Tribunal ruling that China’s claims of historic rights with the nine-dash line, demarcating its claims, were without legal foundation — China will not relent. Also concerning is China’s recent national security law in Hong Kong, its internment camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang, and its military aircraft overflying Taiwan’s airspace.
A long-term U.S. strategy to address these and other challenges is necessary. In fact, much of the required infrastructure is in place to address these challenges. Joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement with 11 countries, making it the third largest free-trade agreement, should be an easy first step. U.S. membership would make the CPTPP an even more formidable association.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a relatively informal strategic forum of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, could evolve and expand into an association of like-minded nations, committed to regional and international security, to include providing loans and lines of credit to countries for infrastructure and economic development projects in the region and beyond. India independently has established an Indian Development Assistance Scheme (IDEAS) that would provide lines of credit, primarily from private-sector funds and multilateral financing, to neighboring countries needing investment.
The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” that former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe advocated in 2017, focused on free trade and open sea routes in the South and East China seas, in line with U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea that started in 2015. Ensuring that these sea lanes, which account for more than one-third of global shipping, remain open is an economic security imperative.
The world is watching. Our adversaries hope that political partisanship and polarization will distract the U.S. from its global leadership role and cede the playing field to authoritarian governments determined to prevail. Our allies and partners need assurances from the U.S. — through its actions — that this will never happen.
Joseph R. DeTrani is the former director of the National Counterproliferation Center and a veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency. The views expressed are the author’s and do not imply endorsement of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or any other U.S. government agency.