Analysis | Restoring America’s position as team captain

Why international cooperation is in the nation’s best interest

Caroline Donnal

Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers virtual remarks at the UN Security Council VTC on the cessation of hostilities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 17, 2021. Representing the United States at the Security Council that day was Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis (on screen), acting alternate representative for special political affairs at the U.S. Mission to the UN and distinguished resident fellow at ISD. (Image: State Department Photo by Freddie Everett/ Public Domain)

Since the end of World War II, and until “America First,” U.S. foreign policy championed a system of alliances, international institutions, and multilateral diplomacy. This strategy served two ends. First, it solidified American leadership of the world order it created, and second, it allowed America to best confront its greatest threats to national security. While the Biden-Harris administration has committed to renewing America’s position of global leadership, we must ensure that Trump-era policies of abandonment and retrenchment are anomalies, regardless of the party in power.

What really made America great — Liberal institutionalism, partnerships, and alliances

The Trump administration touted two mottos that were naturally in tension: “Make America Great Again” and “America First.” From a foreign policy perspective, these two agendas were largely incompatible: it was, in fact, America’s championing of cooperation and liberal institutionalism that first propelled the nation to its position of greatness in 1945. As victors in the Second World War, American policymakers had the opportunity to fashion a new world order, prioritizing principles they believed best served the nation and world. The result was a global system of institutions, partnerships, and alliances that amplified America’s democratic principles abroad and solidified its position of global authority. At the center of the order, U.S.-led institutions locked states into agreements in exchange for membership: dues included tacit support of western, liberal ideals and acquiescence to US leadership, direction, and at times, hypocrisy. The United States prioritized compromise, cooperation, and open markets, reassuring allies who joined the system that America would not seek to control them but would also not desert them.

Alongside institution building, policymakers forged alliances and partnerships that multiplied America’s global reach. Bilateral relationships enabled vast overseas expansion of U.S. bases, and material and political support to allies with shared priorities further entrenched American influence. In military conflicts since Korea, America has benefited from the international legitimacy that multinational military operations confer. Coalitions like NATO, a subject of much scrutiny and criticism under Donald Trump, continue to provide America with a security network of like-minded nations.

More recently, the United States, leading a global coalition of over 80 members, partnered with Iraqi and Kurdish-led Syrian forces in their fight against ISIS; these partners bore the brunt of the conflict, making our commitment to them that much more significant. I experienced this reality firsthand in 2018, while visiting northern Syrian as a member of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. At a market, a young Kurdish man with whom I’d been speaking looked at me and asked, “Is America going to leave us?” quietly telling me that if the answer is yes, “we will lose everything.” From a human perspective, we know this story’s sad ending. From a policy perspective, this abandonment was a tragic misstep and signal to our coalition of partners, and the world, that America is not always a reliable, or charitable, partner.

Prior to the last administration’s pivot to isolationism, America’s relationship with the liberal world order was largely symbiotic: Western ideals and democratic principles spread while America’s global reach and leadership grew. This is not to say the system was without faults — this reality will never change. Yet every four years, a U.S. administration has a choice: withdraw and rail against an imperfect system, or fight to restore and reshape it from within. If history has taught us anything, it is that the latter is in both the nation’s, and the world’s, best interest.

Teamwork makes the dreamwork — Confronting a transnational security agenda

The second element demanding a return to its position of global leadership and cooperation is the transnational nature of today’s security threats. A range of issues at the top of the list — terrorism, migration crises on multiple continents, a global pandemic, climate change — demonstrate that our greatest security threats do not recognize state boundaries. Twenty years into this century, globalization is not something we can simply “opt out of,” as the COVID-19 pandemic has so intensely demonstrated. There is no “America First’’ policy or level of isolationism that could keep this novel virus from sweeping our nation. Washington did emerge in the crisis as a global leader, but this time only in COVID case counts. Unable to control the pandemic at home, the Trump administration failed to help allies and friends and watched as Beijing moved swiftly to fill this void. Imprudently, Washington announced its intent to withdraw from the World Health Organization, at a time when the loss of life and tragedy demanded both symbolic and real international cooperation. Although painful to learn, the clear lesson of 2020 is that putting “America First” is a strategy fated to fail; we need partners and mended fences, not walls, to confront our most pressing security challenges.

The system is flawed, but change occurs from within

The Trump administration usedfree riding” allies, uneven burden sharing, and the domestic fervor for “America First” to justify its condemnation of international cooperation. While there is a degree of legitimacy to these grievances, America cannot simply pack up and go home, even if we wanted to do so. We need not remain hidebound to the precise parameters of the post-World War II world order; modern circumstances indeed necessitate change. Yet the basic principles of global cooperation and institutionalism must endure. Our nation’s modern greatness was born on these principles and the transnational nature of today’s security threats demands we work side-by-side with partners and find new ways to negotiate with adversaries. As policymakers in the mid-20th century astutely realized, the United States cannot fundamentally change the system from the outside, and leadership of it drives America’s global power. Teamwork can be painful, but for the United States, it is the nation’s best hope to confront a litany of global security challenges, and to do so from its prized position at the helm.

Caroline Donnal is a master’s candidate in Security Studies at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and a certificate candidate in the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is completing her capstone course under Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, focusing on multilateralism and U.S. leadership, with an emphasis on U.S. engagement with human rights at the United Nations. Caroline is a Captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author and do not reflect policy or position of DOD or USG.

Read more on U.S. approaches to multilateralism in this Transition Note from Kelly McFarland:

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