America's Foreign Policy in a Changing World (It's the End of the World As We Know It)

Secretary Clinton's departure from Foggy Bottom last week prompted the foreign policy community to partake in what's become a regular transition tradition: debating America's role in the world and offering up a rash of "grand strategies" to influence policy. It's undeniable that we are facing a pivotal moment in our foreign policy -- a moment reminiscent of the post-World War II era, the Cold War "new world order," and the years following 9/11. But the only thing experts agree on is that we are facing this moment, not how to approach it.

One school of thought -- the "restraint" perspective -- asserts that the U.S. (and Europe by extension) is following an inexorable arc of decline, on the cusp of being replaced -- first economically, then politically and culturally -- by China and an emerging band of rising powers sometime in the next decade. Barry Posen, Gideon Rachmann, and others argue that our best course of action is to acknowledge that America's superlative moment is over, and to enact a strategy similar to Britain's after World War II -- stick to a narrow national security mandate, protect core interests, but down-size the military and abandon our broader global program.

Equally vocal are "deep engagement" advocates, a viewpoint well-captured in the recent Foreign Affairs article "Lean Forward," which posits that our long-term prosperity, security and influence is contingent on maintaining broad security commitments, ensuring an open world economy, taking responsibility for combating a "wide range of global threats," and continuing to lead the liberal international order.

But deconstructing future policy choices into a simple binary framework -- engage or pull-back -- does not do justice to the increasing complexity of our global environment. Instead, I would propose a third approach: pursue a dynamic and flexible strategy based on key global trends that will define the world in the next 20 years. What are these trends?

First, we know that power will be increasingly diffuse. U.S. hegemony will start to wane and a host of new states located outside the traditional North American-European axis will begin to emerge. None will be fully powerful in their own right and able to challenge U.S. supremacy ("first among equals" seems to be the term du jour); but as a bloc they will exercise newfound economic and political clout and demand concomitant respect.

Most experts also agree that economic primacy will shift -- the relative decline of the West will usher in a rash of emerging powers. Nipping on the heels of China and India will be Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey. This upsurge will be fueled by the unprecedented ascendance of a global middle class, rising from one billion today to as high as three billion by 2030, as well as the concurrent rise of what Tom Friedman calls the "virtual middle class."

Third, demographics matter -- as Jack Goldstone presciently wrote in "The New Population Bomb," where populations are growing and where they are declining will critically affect a country's security, economic prosperity and future prospects. This means that Japan and many parts of Western Europe are in serious trouble, China's demographic dividend has run its course and raises significant questions about its economic model, and India is poised to reap a decade of additional productive economic growth (assuming it can tame its bureaucratic-industrial complex).

Let us not also overlook the disruptive effect of new technology (where will tomorrow's Arab Spring take root?), the perils of climate change, the rise of mega-cities and the ascendance of the urban over the rural, greater resource scarcity as well as new energy potential.

For the U.S. these trends point to several important implications.

First, it becomes even more imperative that we continue to invest in an international set of institutions (Bretton Woods, United Nations) established in the wake of World War II. While it is inevitable that their composition will change as Western influence diminishes, they will continue to be an auspicious venue for advancing US priorities. After all, we designed and built them in our vision -- their underlining disposition will continue to tilt in our favor.

We also need to form new strategic alliances with emerging powers. The Asian pivot is just a starting point; we need to systematically partnering with a new generation of emerging states as the keys to maintaining U.S. influence in the global system. It means doubling down on our development efforts -- food security, global health, poverty reduction. We should not limit ourselves to partnering with like-minded democratic states; instead we should pursue a "hedging" strategy and seek to include as many countries as possible within our economic web of influence. In this century, our economic interests will be even more bound up with our security objectives -- as history tells us, there is no way we can maintain our military supremacy without continued economic vitality.

We have to recognize demographic realities -- a young, productive population is the key to maintaining the vitality of our economy. Policymakers must explore ways to keep America's working age population relatively high, through creative means, especially immigration.

Finally, we need to be prepared for a world marked by heightened environmental volatility. Temperatures and ocean levels are rising and weather patterns are increasingly erratic -- we may not be able to predict where the next large-scale typhoon or hurricane will hit, but we can undoubtedly take important, systematic steps to build domestic and global resilience to withstand shocks.

This is not an argument in favor of either a deep engagement or restraint approach. Rather, it is a call for us to recognize that the world will be increasingly fluid, dynamic, unpredictable and multi-polar in the coming decades, and that we need a sufficiently flexible approach that will factor in anticipated trends and allow us to adapt to changing circumstances. For the next century to be as prosperous for America as the last, we must fully embrace the notion that our future prosperity is intricately linked to how we choose to engage the world today.