Resilience, Peace and Security

4 trends that will define the future of US foreign policy

A man walks past the U.S. embassy in Sanaa after the road in front of it was opened by the police March 4, 2015

From oil prices to economic reforms, these trends will shape US foreign policy Image: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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United States

“When America sneezes, the world catches a cold.” The expression might be a bit of a cliché, but it’s still accurate: what happens in the US affects other countries. Which is why whether you live in London or Luanda, US foreign policy matters.

But it’s a foreign policy that’s coming under increasing attack – from those opposed to so-called American values and from Americans themselves. A 2013 poll from Pew Research found that 52% of Americans wanted the US to “mind its own business internationally” – up from just 20% in the 1960s, at the height of the Cold War.

 Percentage of Americans who think the US should mind its own business internationally

Three years after this poll was taken, the temptation to lean towards isolationism is still there, according to experts from the Global Agenda Council on the United States.

“The economic, political and security strategy that the United States has pursued for more than seven decades, under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, is today widely questioned by large segments of the American public and is under attack by leading political candidates in both parties,” they wrote in the Washington Post.

And this, they argue in a new white paper, is a mistake. For while the liberal world order – in large part shaped by US foreign policy – has not been without its problems, it has also produced huge benefits for many people. “The past 70 years have seen an unprecedented growth in prosperity, lifting billions out of poverty … democratic government has spread to over 100 nations … and peace among the great powers has been preserved,” the white paper notes.

In the same white paper, experts from the council identify four trends that could define the future of US foreign policy – and with it the future of the liberal world order it has helped create.

The push for global economic reform

The multilateral institutions established in the wake of World War II have played a key role in framing today’s liberal economic order. And after the financial crisis, they are needed more than ever. But the world today is not the same as when 730 delegates met in Bretton Woods in 1944 to form institutions such as the IMF. Today, they run the risk of seeming out of touch.

“A multilateral economic institution in which Benelux countries have a greater voting share than China cannot expect to play a central role in the global economic order of the 21st century,” the white paper notes. And as one of the largest shareholders in all these institutions, the US should be leading the way in bringing about change, which could define its foreign policy strategy in the years ahead.

A changing security landscape

It’s not just the economic landscape that has changed: the security one has, too. After decades of relative peace, at least compared with previous generations, the past couple of years have seen cross-border aggression in Europe, tensions between regional powers in the South China Sea, and an increased Islamic terror threat.

In the past, the responsibility for navigating these challenges would have fallen to the US. But, according to the white paper, defense budget cuts mean this might no longer be possible: “As a result of budget cuts, America’s ability to continue playing this vital role in all these theatres is increasingly in question.” And these changes won’t just affect US foreign policy: “Given the role that the US plays in providing the underlying security that allows the liberal world order to function and flourish, continuing down this path not only threatens US security, but also the order itself,” the white paper warns.

America’s energy revolution

Once the world’s largest net oil importer, the US is today the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. It is, many argue, an energy revolution – and it has big implications for US foreign policy. “Energy security is not only an achievable goal for US policy; it is close to reality – one that can and should affect the way the United States engages with the rest of the world.”

 World's top oil producers

This revolution could, for example, be an opportunity to reinforce relationships with European and Asian allies, allowing them to lose their dependence on other sources of energy. “Market forces will decide where the physical supply of gas goes, but even without direct supply of gas to a given country, the growing production of shale gas in the US can exert a profound and positive impact on allied economies in Europe and Asia,” the white paper notes.

The private sector

America’s most valuable foreign policy asset is not its economic clout or its military capacity. Far more influential is its role as a cultural leader. More than ever, people want to send their children to US universities and countries want to create their own Silicon Valley.

 Number of international students in the US over time
Image: Institute of International Education

But unlike its other areas of influence, these are more difficult for the US government to control: “These soft assets of education, innovation and entrepreneurship are not controlled by Washington but, rather, reside in complex networks of private actors.”

Whether the US government can work with the private sector to capitalize on this soft power will determine the shape of its foreign policy for years to come.

The white paper can be read in full here.

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