California Forum

Pitching American primacy for 2016

Tribune Media

Basketball fan-politicians like President Barack Obama often use sports metaphors when talking politics. As 2014 came to a close and his last electoral cycle passed, he pointed out “my presidency is entering the fourth quarter.”

The fourth quarter of a presidency is the foreign policy quarter. During most presidencies, it is when his leverage over Congress is at its ebb, his political considerations minimized and the time used to crystallize a legacy. For all presidents, this is the time to set the geopolitical gears in motion.

While his team plays the fourth quarter and the clock ticks down, the new 2016 presidential teams are positioning themselves for an electoral shootout. Each team – and there are many – needs to prepare to enter the Oval Office ready not only with a solid and popularly supported domestic agenda, but also be able adjust to what is left behind at the buzzer and to articulate a clear foreign policy plan and vision.

So far, of the multiple presidential hopefuls in both parties, only Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have worked on foreign policy in the executive branch. While some of the others have been on congressional committees or in statehouses that deal with other countries, Clinton and Biden have deep, long established, and very real global experience, knowledge and networks.

Presidential contenders will question their judgment and record. They will have media surrogates, party activists and former colleagues attack their policy roles and decisions – relying on damning words from people like former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and his book “Duty.” Gates wrote that Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Clinton critics will repeat their Benghazi mantra.

Lacking foreign policy experience is not a deal killer for 2016 presidential candidates not named Biden or Clinton. After all, the last three presidents did not take office with vast personal foreign policy expertise. What they lacked in experience, however, they made up for with foreign policy bench strength.

George W. Bush gave America comfort in his candidacy during the 2000 campaign, for example, by preemptively and very publicly presenting an A-team of seasoned foreign policy hands like Colin Powell, who gave Bush street cred. The current crop of 2016 candidates all have a large crop of experts to cull for advice and support, like Stanford’s Condoleezza Rice or Brookings Institution’s Strobe Talbott. But advisers are not there to formulate a worldview for a candidate – they are there to help analyze conditions, strategize action, present options and articulate the president’s foreign policy perspective.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was right when he told a breakfast meeting last month that “the next president of the United States needs to be someone that has a clear view of what’s happening in the world, a clear strategic vision of America’s role in it and a clear practical plan for how to engage America in global affairs.”

That vision needs to go beyond meeting whatever threats arise against the United States and her allies – it needs to be a positive vision with a forward agenda that reflects America’s ability to meet today’s challenges, her historic greatness, superpower stature and global leadership potential. Any candidate who believes America is in decline need not apply.

Some presidential candidates will try to shorthand the details of a vision and rely on references to America’s “exceptionalism” or fall back on the established formulations of America as the “indispensible” nation to justify either their global “interventionist” or “isolationist” postures. Certainly, the hopefuls will be willing to engage in the question of whether America should unilaterally go it alone versus seeking partners and working multilaterally with international institutions. But the devil is always in the detail.

Presidential debate moderators and journalists should drill down into a candidate’s meaning when they use the term “exceptional” or “indispensable.” Indeed, we live in a time of globally competing ideologies. America’s approach and allies are actively challenged by authoritarian systems and controlled economies like China’s.

Regardless, much of the world still feels America is indispensable. Many resent this country for it but also prefer to see America’s unique and leading role as a global obligation to act and intervene around the world, allowing other countries a free ride on such expensive U.S. sacrifice.

“Indispensability” is a passive characteristic. A more active one is the concept of “primacy.” Where candidates come down on the position of maintaining or pursuing global primacy will be more important than if they believe in American greatness. Indispensability is a condition, primacy is a decision and a privileged, conscious option that needs national cultivation and sacrifice. “Hey, we’re No. 1!” – but what are the costs? What are the benefits?

To commit to primacy, America should lead a new league of growingly transparent and corruption-fighting democracies guaranteeing universal human rights. A “league of democracies” – a proposal by academic colleagues – could be made up of global rule-making, law enforcing, liberal democratic value promoting, trade growing, cyber securing, global commons protecting nations focused on maintaining the primacy of our ideals.

American leadership needs to get well beyond the peace dividend bump in status and security that followed the Cold War’s end; it needs to continue defying reactive instincts to the “rope-a-dope” strategies used by ideological competitors like al-Qaida and the Islamic State that try to draw the U.S. into wars and occupations that sap her strength, diminish her moral standing and weaken her global resolve.

This next level of leadership needs to project a steady voice that resonates at home and abroad. That voice needs to cut through what researchers call “weaponized media” in an Internet-enabled environment that is fragmented and full of effective counter-narratives aimed at undermining liberal democracy, human dignity, minority rights and free markets.

That voice needs to drown out the competing noise like the globally broadcast television network Russia Today, which is working hard to make the West appear hypocritical and morally bankrupt. It needs to counter actively whatever appeal exists in Islamic State YouTube recruiting videos and beheading footage.

A loud and clear American voice needs to be further strengthened with a comprehensive approach and full commitment to a full-court press on defense, diplomacy and development. These are the standard foreign policy tools available to every president, who must be willing and capable of wielding them judiciously and in the right proportion.

Before his time runs out, Obama will need to deal with the immediate crises in Ukraine, Europe and the Middle East. He will set in motion many long-term approaches to generational challenges like the threat of radical terrorists, nuclear weapons, climate change and competing rising economic powers – mainly China. His work will try to put in place a number of policies to free the next president politically to pursue a domestically-focused agenda in the first term. Every White House quickly learns, however, that foreign policy has a way of forcing itself into the daily diet of newly elected U.S. presidents.

George W. Bush was sincere in his desire to follow through on his promised “humble” foreign policy approach, but those best-laid campaign plans blew up with the World Trade Center’s twin towers. As “war president,” his work was dominated by global conflict and geopolitics, burying his strategies to restructure entitlements and overhaul education.

Daily headlines will continue to define much of what a president needs to deal with and react to in foreign policy. This is the tactical “firefighter” work done by the president and his team. There are also long-standing strategies that the U.S. pursues – an Asian rebalancing, a special British relationship, recognizing and promoting Israeli security, an unwavering commitment to collective defense of allied nations. These and other long-standing policies will continue well into the 21st century.

Politics are dynamic, however, and policies evolve. Come 2016, the next president should consider adding new positive foreign policy priorities. The world is vast and competing interests many, but here is one consideration: Just as Obama chose to make a Rebalancing to Asia a priority, the next president should consider initiating the “Americas’ Century.”

For too long, the United States has taken its hemispheric interests for granted. After all, her neighbors do not pose a security risk and trade barriers came crashing down with the North American Free Trade Agreement. There is a new opportunity to change things for the better and improve relations exponentially in The Americas.

Normalizing relations with Cuba opens the door to vastly improving Latin American relations overall. Havana was the first step and Obama took it, paving the way for the next president. If we have neglected, exploited or misunderstood our neighbors to the north and south, then it is time to recognize our demographic changes at home and the need to work on economic, political and human development in our own immediate neighborhood.

Ottawa and Mexico City are not that far away, and our legal and trade structures allow us to build even closer ties to each other – recognizing that we cannot let our strongest trading partners be our weakest links. Look south to look forward and tap that growing U.S. linguistic and cultural patronage. Actively elevate the Organization of American States to make it a more robust institution and convening body. The OAS forum could call frequent and substantive Americas’ summits to deal with real regional political, economic and security issues that should no longer be undermined by Cuba or Venezuela.

A focused, friendly and future-oriented Americas’ policy could also inspire Puerto Rico to run its long-awaited referendum for U.S. statehood. The idea of a 51st state would not only be a flag company’s dream but rekindle a seemingly dormant manifest idea signaling the seriousness of the U.S. commitment to the Americas.

Strengthened international institutions, regional ties and a foreign policy that decides on pursuing primacy for the Americas’ and global democratic partnerships is a powerful, positive and achievable one. There must be some 2016 candidates who would be fans of this fresh, sporting approach.

NBA teams have already played exhibition games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and a move to start a pro team there is underway. Obama will not be in office for the tip-off of the first home game there, but with any luck his successor may be tossing up the first ceremonial jump ball in San Juan or perhaps tossing a first pitch at a Major League Baseball game in Havana or Caracas.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.