By Will Moreland
Months after the 2016 election, foreign policy professionals continue to seek an explanation behind the resurgence of “America First” sentiments. Looking at a world that was more secure, democratic, and prosperous than any point in human history, experts failed to fathom the discontent brewing at home. Complacency that globalization’s rising tide would raise all boats obscured many Americans growing insecurity regarding economic progress and inequality. Today, amidst calls for walls and trade barriers, proponents of a liberal international order must engage these grievances without falling prey to protectionism or militant nationalism.
Yet, a possible path lies in the days before World War II. Then, as now, the United States faced rising foreign autocratic challengers and a lack of faith in the country’s future at home. In that moment, a handful of Americans, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, planted the seeds of “national security liberalism,” prioritizing domestic threats to average Americans as much as those from abroad.
The Economics of Security
Looking back, the litany of challenges before the United States was not so different from those of the present day. Only a fragile optimism marked a nation still in the shadow of the Great Depression. Abroad, authoritarian advances had liberal democracies on the proverbial back foot.
As Franklin Roosevelt redirected resources toward military preparedness, concerns arose that the New Deal’s end was imminent. However, Eleanor Roosevelt – assistant director of the new Office of Civilian Defense – propounded a version of national defense that embraced liberalism as a core precept. As Matthew Dallek recounts in Defenseless Under the Night, for Mrs. Roosevelt domestic economic and social issues were inherently tied to national defense.
A combination of pragmatism and idealism guided this thinking. Devoting resources to tanks achieved little without initiatives ensuring soldiers were healthy enough to crew them. Yet, as Dallek describes, Roosevelt also saw a larger purpose; ensuring Americans were “well housed, well clothed and well fed” was necessary to restore trust in the American system by making “every place in this country a better place in which to live, and therefore more worth defending.”
The First Lady’s case proved enduring. As Bruce Jones and I detail in The Marshall Plan and the Shaping of American Strategy, after World War II, US policymakers built a liberal international order out of a conviction that security could not be divorced from economic health. Avoiding a repetition of the 1930s required a system of mutually reinforcing political and economic security.
Fade into the Background
Notwithstanding the Cold War’s economic competition, issues of trade and growth gradually became separated from security policy. The intentions were often noble, such as seeking to “better balance competing domestic and international interests” in devising US trade policy that led to the creation of the US Trade Representative. Nevertheless, the insulation of trade began to remove economics from the horizon of US security practitioners.
Though flashes of pushback emerged against this bifurcation, security and economics never truly reconnected at the strategic level. Foreign policy considerations of macroeconomic issues came through a security lens. Thus, Russian economic liberalization was tied to the strategic aim of a democratic Russia; and management of the 1997 East Asian financial crisis was designed to prevent global financial crisis. But these decisions were not inherently considerate of the lives and livelihoods of Americans at home.
This mindset persisted over the decades. As Jake Sullivan, foreign policy advisor to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign, noted, foreign policy professionals sought to sell the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a strategic deal, but few “paid any attention to the details.” Instead, globalization and free trade were assumed to pull everyone forward. However, long-simmering discontent proved sufficient not only to defeat the agreement, but to propel an America First movement powerful enough to capture the presidency.
Against this modern rejection of internationalism, Eleanor Roosevelt’s approach stands as a beacon. In a country still wracked by the Depression, she did not peddle protectionism. Reviving this Rooseveltian notion would explicitly acknowledge the interconnection of security abroad with economic security at home. No longer can foreign policy professionals take solace in macro trends at the expense of more tangible and personal accounts; as Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, relayed in the, perhaps apocryphal, story of the constituent responding to his representative: “Your GDP ain’t my GDP.”
Faith must be restored that the international order can function with all citizens in mind. Reform, though, is not a wholesale rejection of the existing system. As Trump voters in agricultural communities and export industries are already discovering, the current order offers real benefits to Americans. But nor should the system be set in stone. Just as the Nixon administration revisited the Bretton Woods arrangements, the present order needs reform – particularly it if is to meet the needs of American workers.
While foreign and security policy thinkers will also struggle for answers, they must get back into this business more thoroughly. No longer can they ignore these questions, especially in this more competitive world.
Here, the current administration, despite its hostility toward the liberal international order, has opened a conversation. Key officials from Nadia Schadlow to H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn have written of the need to protect Americans in a more holistically competitive world. While supporters of the international system will remain skeptical of President Trump, they must engage in this discussion; and, with an eye to Eleanor Roosevelt, stake out a liberal internationalist perspective that unites both security and economics for all.
Will Moreland is the International Order Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He also works at a leading Washington DC think tank on issues of American strategy and the liberal international order. Will earned his MSFS from Georgetown University.