In the past two decades there has been a decline in U.S. influence in international affairs. Through an unnecessary invasion of Iraq, an endless war in Afghanistan, and abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accords, the United States frittered away its unipolar moment as the world’s super power and has been marginalized or ignored as other nations work together to address, in some instances, existential threats.
The current situation is not unlike the decade of the 1930s when, reacting to the horror and destruction of World War I, the United States adopted an isolationist policy, attempting to withdraw from involvement in international affairs, except for a certain level of international trade upon which our economy depended—and still depends.
The Neutrality Acts, a series of laws passed in 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939, banned exports of arms and munitions to the belligerents engaged in ongoing conflict, mostly in Europe, and prohibited loans to nations at war. Only in 1939, when U.S. merchant ships began suffering submarine attacks, was the government allowed to provide Lend-Lease support to those nations being attacked by Germany.
The League of Nations, established in 1919, was based on U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for establishing peace and stability, but the United States never became a member. (Interestingly, Wilson’s second point was freedom of the seas.)
The United States wished to limit its involvement with the world, but the rest of the world did not honor that wish. Submarine attacks and the Sunday-morning air attack on Pearl Harbor dragged a reluctant nation into the fray. The United States entered the conflict on the Allied side, and active American involvement helped to turn the tide against the Axis powers. The isolationist policy was replaced by one of active U.S. international engagement, and acknowledgement of the need for U.S. leadership on the global stage.
The 1940s saw some of the United States’ most notable achievements in international affairs and cooperation: the European Recovery Plan, known as the Marshall Plan, provided more than $12 billion (equivalent to more than $120 billion today) to rebuild Western European countries; the Bretton Woods Agreement, leading to the formation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (originally the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development); leadership in forming the United Nations; and a key role in founding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). None of these initiatives could have been successful without active U.S. participation and leadership. That leadership depended on the U.S. diplomats who laid the groundwork for leadership summits, kept records of the meetings, conducted preliminary negotiations that lead to decisions, and followed up and implemented the policies the leaders decided upon.
As 2021 looms nearer, the United States must recommit to an active leadership role in the international community and reenergize its diplomatic capability to ensure our national defense, strengthen our economy, and promote our democratic values around the world.
Re-engaging with the World
One of the principal contributors to World War II was the general absence of the United States from the international scene in the years following World War I. In contrast, U.S. leadership following World War II helped prevent, deter, manage, and control international conflicts around the globe for more than half a century, thereby averting the specter of a World War III. History shows that U.S. leadership on the world scene is essential.
For the United States to reclaim an international leadership role, its status as an exemplar to the world, and ensure the defense of our nation and its values, it will need to engage with the international community. Decisions to ignore, marginalize, or withdraw from a number of international associations or agreements need to be re-examined. This does not mean subordinating national interests to the interests of other nations; in fact, U.S. national security in many instances is improved as a result of involvement or participation in international institutions or agreements, such as the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Drafted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994, UNCLOS lays down a comprehensive set of rules governing the use of the world’s seas and oceans and their resources. It recognizes that the problems in the world’s oceans are interrelated and must be addressed holistically. The United States was an active participant in crafting the convention and recognizes it as customary international law regarding use of the sea. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard abide by the convention, but the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, primarily because of opposition from some legislators who feel it impinges on national sovereignty. It does not. Numerous national leaders—including former President George W. Bush, multiple secretaries of state, and Pentagon leaders—have argued for ratification. It is long past time for the United States to ratify it.
While climate change poses an existential threat to life on the planet, in a more immediate sense, it is creating security threats that also must be addressed. One of the regions where this is most acute is the Arctic Ocean, which is becoming more accessible because of climate change, warming seas, and resultant ice melt. This has, in turn, opened the door for rival states—particularly Russia and China—to exert more presence and influence in an area that was the northern ‘first line of defense’ during the Cold War.
Another potential global hot spot that requires a coherent strategy is the South China Sea. For a long time, China has moved to exert control over this key economic and strategic area, and they claim the entire sea as sovereign “blue territory”—even areas that are clearly within the exclusive economic zones of the other nations that border the sea. Since 2013, China has manufactured more than 3,200 acres of new land in the Spratly Islands, and built military installations on several of them.
The South China Sea is not just an important sea line of communication for Asia, but for the world. In 2016, over $3 trillion in global trade—some 30 percent—transited the South China Sea, including a huge quantity of oil, and $2.2 trillion of annual trade with the United States. In 2017, 40 percent of global liquified natural gas shipments passed through the South China Sea. In addition to being a key trade route, the South China Sea is also one of the most resource-rich bodies of water in the world, with an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas under its surface. It also has about 10 percent of the world’s fisheries.
The U.S. Navy conducts frequent freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, and has encouraged other nations in the region to be wary when negotiating with China over navigation rights in the area not to surrender their rights to ‘innocent passage’ and ‘transit passage’ in accordance with UNCLOS. The United States has not, however, developed an effective response to China’s increased naval capabilities or belligerent behavior in the neighborhood. There is a lack of clarity, for example, as to how Washington would respond to a conflict between China and the Philippines, despite a defense treaty with Manila.
What To Do
The following steps would help the United States resume its place as leader of the Free World, ensure economic and national security, and continue to serve as an example for all people yearning for representative government, peace, and a better life.
UNCLOS is the most comprehensive set of rules on the peaceful use of the seas and its resources. Congress must ratify this treaty.
Ensure Security in the Arctic
Working with the other Arctic nations, the United States should develop comprehensive plans and strategies to ensure that no single nation can exercise dominance or control of the Arctic. This includes engaging with Russia to prevent that nation’s military dominance, and with China to control illicit fishing. Chinese illegal fishing is often accompanied or followed closely by militarization as Beijing seeks to cement its status as a global power.
Push Back Against China in the South China Sea
While continuing to ensure freedom of navigation in this key economic and strategic region, the United States must work with regional parties to seek peaceful resolutions to territorial disputes and adherence to international norms. Re-engaging with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be an excellent first step to re-establishing U.S. influence and leadership in the Indo-Pacific region.
Invest in Diplomacy
As former Marine General and Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously said when he was the Commander, U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Other national security leaders have echoed those sentiments over the years. It takes decades to recruit, train, and season senior-level diplomats. Their experience, knowledge, and insights are critically important to representing the United States to the world, and to interpreting foreign governments and world developments to leaders in Washington. The State Department’s budget is a fraction of the Pentagon’s, but it deserves priority and consistency.
In the past century the world has seen what happens when the United States leads and when it does not. The world’s oceans and seas are the economic lifeblood for the United States and most of our allies and partners. Restoring American leadership in the international arena, especially in the effective, cooperative use of the seas, requires active and meaningful engagement across a wide range of issues. It is time for a hard-headed assessment of America’s place in the world, and a realization that no country can go it alone.