America's Changing Role in the World

ANTALYA, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 15: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) attend a working
ANTALYA, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 15: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and US President Barack Obama (R) attend a working dinner on the 'Global Changes: Terrorim, Refugee Crisis' during the G20 Turkey Leaders Summit on November 15, 2015 in Antalya, Turkey. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Every day, it seems Americans awaken to a crisis signifying a world out of their control.

In Europe, our allies and partners are coping with Russian aggression, ranging from cyber attacks and energy coercion to conventional military might and a renewed emphasis on nuclear weapons. At the same time, Europe grapples with the world's most significant migration crisis since World War II. In Asia, satellite images of China's aggressive island-building activities are widely viewed as corroborating that nation's designs to control the air and sea space far from its shores.

Meanwhile, North Korea's Kim Jong-un continues his family's legacy of dangerous provocations and nuclear ambition. As significant as the security situation is in these two regions, no area of the world is in greater tumult than the Middle East. From the destabilizing role of Iran to the chaos of Libya to the complete destruction of Syria and its implications for Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and beyond, the upheaval appears endless.

The international system is shifting in ways not yet fully understood. Critics have pointed out the Obama administration's failure to articulate its vision for the U.S. role in a world evolving along so many dimensions. Yet the administration is not alone: No significant historian, analyst, or politician has done so either, including the administration's harshest critics.

Policymakers should keep three factors in mind when devising such a vision.

The first key factor shaping the role of the United States today is the paradox of enduring superpower status combined with lessening global influence. The United States will likely remain the world's sole superpower for at least the next 15 years. The nation boasts enviable demographics, economics and innovation, natural resources, cultural reach, and of course military power. At the same time, its ability to shape the behavior of other actors is lessening. How well the United States can wield power, and how much it chooses to do so, will vary by region and issue.

Non-state problems, for instance, are particularly difficult to tackle with existing U.S. foreign policy tools. Moreover, driving long-term solutions, such as improved governance capacity in places like Iraq, takes a generational investment and typically a whole-of-government and multinational approach.

The United States has proven neither particularly patient for nor adept at such lengthy and multilateral strategies. On the other hand, where there is an assertive nation-state competitor -- such as Iran, Russia, North Korea and China -- traditional U.S. security strengths tend to be more influential. Even in these cases, however, the United States has had difficulty deterring a wide range of provocations and coercive actions that run counter to its security interests.

A second factor that should inform the vision for U.S. foreign policy is the constancy of American public support for international engagement. If there is a theme in American grand strategy that has persisted for the past 70 years, it is that taking a leading role in the world is generally to the benefit of U.S. interests. Those interests have themselves remained remarkably consistent: ensuring the security of U.S. territory and citizens; upholding treaty commitments, to include the security of allies; ensuring a liberal economic order in which American enterprise can compete fairly; and upholding the rule of law in international affairs, including respect for human rights.

Each presidential administration has framed these interests somewhat differently, and of course each has pursued its own particular path in seeking to secure them, but the core tenets have not varied significantly. An isolationist sentiment will always exist in American politics, but it is unlikely to upend the basic consensus view that what happens elsewhere in the world can affect us at home.

Equally important is a third factor that policymakers should take into account: a selective engagement approach to U.S. foreign policy is unavoidable. Despite the enduring, modern American consensus for international engagement, the United States has never had the wherewithal nor the desire to act everywhere in the world, all the time, or with the same tools of power. We have always had to weigh risks and opportunity costs and prioritize.

The current budget environment makes this problem harder, and realizing greater security and military investment, through increased budgets and/or more aggressive institutional reforms and infrastructure cost cuts, should be pursued. Nevertheless, when it comes to the use of American force to achieve our ends, we should be prepared to surprise ourselves.

As Robert Gates famously quipped in 2011, we have a perfect record in predicting our next crisis -- we've never once got it right. Democracies, including the United States, can prove remarkably unpredictable. Policymakers need to understand this reality and not lead the public to expect a universal template that governs when and where the nation may act in support of its interests.

The paradox of superpower status and lessening influence, the American inclination toward international engagement, and the near-inevitability of selective engagement are realities that American policymakers and would-be presidents would be wise to understand. Discerning the shifting nature of the international system, and designing an effective set of American security tools within it, are monumental tasks, but they are not unprecedented. It is the same task that faced "the wise men" who helped shape the U.S. approach to world affairs at the end of World War II.

Our circumstances today are equally daunting, requiring a similarly reexamination of our strategies and capabilities for securing U.S. interests. Ensuring the nation is prepared to lead effectively -- and selectively -- will require leadership from Washington and partnership with likeminded nations and entities around the world.