Primacy requires partners

By Kay Bailey Hutchison

To remain preeminent, the United States must strengthen its alliances and work to build trust.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the U.S. Department of State on June 13, 2023. (State Department photo by Freddie Everett)

Most people, even America’s competitors, would agree that the United States is the leader of the free world – for now. But will the country still be the first among equals in 10, 20, or 50 years? What factors will determine whether the United States remains preeminent?  

The answer depends, in part, on whether Washington pursues the right foreign policy: one that emphasizes security, reliability, and alliances above all. Having a well-funded national defense gives the United States credibility. Military power is also the best tool for deterring conflict. Having fought a war of independence, our Founding Fathers understood that security is necessary for democracy to succeed. Fair elections, a strong economy, the rule of law, and a free press – none are possible without the protection provided by military power. Having a powerful military also allows the United States to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” as President Theodore Roosevelt described it. As the American CEO of a major international corporation put it recently, U.S. policy should be “to always go forward in peace, with heavy armor in the rear.” 

The next key to a successful U.S. foreign policy is trust. While the United States has made mistakes in its almost 250-year history, generally, when it has said it is going to do something, it has done it. Our allies should continue to trust that we will do what we say, and our adversaries should fear it. When that principle has been abandoned in the past, the United States has paid a heavy price.  

A policy that pays off

Sustaining U.S. leadership requires the support of the American public, since in our political system, voters get the ultimate say over what goals the government should pursue and how much it should spend on international priorities and national defense. As a consequence, for the country to succeed, Americans must embrace the notion of an engaged foreign policy. At various moments in our history, some Americans have questioned whether the country should maintain its foreign commitments, arguing that it should focus on problems at home instead. Almost every recent poll on issues this year rates concern about the economy as the most pressing. The staggering debt coupled with inflation could explain the current rise in isolationism. 

U.S. and Canadian troops working together in Afghanistan. Kabul, February 15, 2014. (Photo by Kenneth Takada/US Navy)

Why should American citizens care whether their country continues to play an important role on the global stage? The answer is that maintaining U.S. global leadership is essential to protecting Americans’ way of life. Asking working Americans to understand that nuance may be unfair – but that is why our political leaders must make the case. A world with more conflict would be worse for everyone, including those with no interest in politics or government. More conflict could damage our material well-being and threaten our individual freedoms. Investing in defense and foreign policies that deter such conflict is therefore in everyone’s interest. Take Ukraine, for example. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, the United States and its European allies responded by giving Ukraine weapons. This aid is meant to deter an even bigger conflict with Russia – one that, if it expanded to a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), could potentially involve U.S. troops. 

International relationships, treaties, and some alliances have produced significant long-term payoffs for the United States. Of its alliances, none can compare to NATO, the longest-running security pact in history. Since NATO’s founding in 1949, the United States has been the de facto leader of the 32-member alliance. Other NATO members look to the United States – which spends far more on defense than any other member (and any other country in the world, for that matter) – for leadership, coordination, and intelligence-gathering. No other NATO member has the will or capacity to take America’s place at the head of the organization. 

NATO illustrates the enormous benefits the United States gets from its alliances. Allies share risks and provide unity, amplifying America’s voice. While NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander is always an American general or admiral, the organization’s other members supply well-trained troops and first-class equipment for missions that the United States would have a hard time providing on its own. NATO also shares costs in other ways and aids the U.S. economy by purchasing American arms and hardware. Consider, for example, the F-16s and F-35s that are the alliance’s main fighter aircraft; U.S. allies and partners have spent billions of dollars purchasing them from a U.S. company, Lockheed Martin. 

NATO benefits the United States in still other ways. It is a political as well as a military alliance; every member is supposed to maintain a resilient democracy, the rule of law, and a free press, and engage in trade under rules we all agree are fair. NATO has helped deepen the relationships among its members so that they can negotiate their differences peacefully without imperiling their unity. And that unity remains strong. In the 75 years of its existence, the organization has invoked Article 5, its mutual defense clause, only once: after the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent mission to wipe out al-Qaida and stabilize Afghanistan was a NATO operation. Because the United States had worked hard to make friends abroad, those friends came to our aid when we needed them the most. 

A Marshall Plan poster, c. 1950. (Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation)

Unity at home

To sustain an engaged and effective U.S. foreign policy, the president and Congress must work together. America is strongest when it adheres to the principle that politics should stop at the water’s edge – a phrase used by Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, when he supported President Harry S. Truman’s proposal to create NATO and the Marshall Plan following World War II. 

When our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, their genius was to balance the powers of the new U.S. government among its different branches. That balance necessitates compromise. Although the president sets foreign policy and executes it through the military, the State Department, and the U.S. Trade Representative, Congress sets the government’s budget and is therefore very engaged in determining its priorities. 

Deciding whether to send troops into battle is the hardest decision any official can make, and when it comes to war, different presidents have handled congressional relations in different ways. Some, relying on their authority as commander-in-chief, have dispatched troops without getting Congress’ approval in advance. Others have gone to Congress first, believing the president is strongest when he has the Senate and House of Representatives behind him. 

Those who question whether the United States should still invest the time and treasure required to lead should ask themselves one question: If America does not do so, what other country will? Will that country work as hard to safeguard the interests of our citizens? To protect our national and economic security? Do we want to live in a world dominated by Russia or China? 

If the answer is no, then we must all do what it takes to ensure that the United States has the unity, support, and funding to continue to lead.

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