November 2, 2016 | Foreign Policy

No Time to Lose: Why the Next President Must Move Quickly to Reassert U.S. Power

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s true in life, of course. But it’s also an adage that the next president should heed as well. Whoever succeeds President Barack Obama will inherit a global security order in an advanced state of decay. Despite his best intentions, Obama’s eight-year flight from leadership has left America confronting a world that is markedly more violent and unstable than it was the day he took office. Adversaries from Russia to China to Iran are dangerously emboldened. Allies have lost faith in U.S. support. The extended deterrence that has underwritten international stability and prosperity since World War II is unravelling — and at an accelerating rate. Whether through miscalculation or design, the risk of great power conflict is higher today than at any time in the past 30 years.

Arresting this deteriorating situation should be an urgent priority for whoever walks into the Oval Office on January 20th. One concern in particular now preoccupies friend and foe alike as they await America’s next commander-in-chief: Has Obama’s abandonment of Pax Americana been an aberration, a temporary hiatus from the burdens of global leadership that will end with his presidency? Or was Obama merely the vehicle of a much deeper and more profound historical change, the harbinger of a more far-reaching and permanent downsizing of America’s international role that no successor will be able to reverse?

The world is unlikely to wait long for an answer. Quite quickly, probably no later than the summer of 2017, countries will have taken their measure of the new president. Should they conclude that it’s business as usual — that the decline, drift, and retrenchment of the Obama years is set to continue or even intensify, they will act accordingly. Revisionist powers will escalate their efforts to undermine the foundations of U.S. power and dismantle the American-led global system. Allies, too, will take their cues, engaging in a spectrum of self-help ventures that further undermine U.S. interests — from destabilizing proxy wars (think Saudi Arabia’s arming of Sunni jihadists in Syria) to the accommodation of U.S. adversaries (Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent embrace of China). How soon before the prospect of South Korean, Japanese, or Saudi nukes rises on the horizon?

The longer the slide toward chaos is allowed to persist, the more dangerous and costly it will be to stop. At some point, it may even prove impossible — leaving us to confront the stark choice between all-out war and full-blown appeasement.

Avoiding that fateful day of reckoning should be among the next president’s most urgent tasks. That means acting relatively quickly to distinguish the new administration from Obama’s and to alter the increasingly destructive dynamic of the past several years. Even as the new president develops policies for specific regions of the world, he or she should be looking for opportunities to signal an overall course correction that is focused on the ABCs of superpower strategy that Obama either neglected or derided as the detritus of the establishment’s outdated playbook: The steady assertion of American strength and leadership, the constant reassurance of vulnerable allies, and credible deterrence of determined adversaries.

The range of steps that the next president might take to rapidly project the image of resurgent U.S. power is lengthy, but a few ideas immediately come to mind: Announce in the inaugural address the intention to work in close coordination with Congress to end the idiocy of sequestration and increase defense spending to levels that are sufficient to address the myriad of rising threats we face. Initiate a series of regular consultative meetings with key national security leaders in Congress to develop bipartisan understandings not only on rebuilding the military, but on the underlying nature of the challenges confronting U.S. interests around the world. Maintain a long-term troop presence in Iraq even after the Islamic State’s caliphate is destroyed. Commit to deploying a missile defense system capable of defending the entire U.S. homeland from a North Korean nuclear attack. Communicate immediately to Iran through private channels that further threats to U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf will no longer be tolerated. The next time Iranian gunboats swarm one of our ships, they will face lethal force. And should Iran fail to heed that warning, follow through decisively and be prepared to escalate accordingly — and disproportionately.

Additionally: Make sure the Israeli prime minister is among the first foreign leaders received at the White House and leave no doubt that the days of public backbiting and “distancing” from America’s most important and capable Middle Eastern ally are over. While relying on the State Department and other relevant agencies to maintain an active diplomacy with China, Russia, and even Iran, focus the bulk of the president’s personal diplomatic energies during the first year on consolidating relations with allied nations — in NATO, the Middle East, and Asia, including trips to each region, if possible. The message should be unmistakable: Maintaining the strength and vitality of America’s alliances is at the center of our global strategy, not propitiating those who mean us harm. The distinction between the two sets of actors should be clear — and certainly not turned on its head as has too often been the perception under Obama.

Another point of differentiation from the Obama team: Try to do as much of this as possible without trashing the previous administration, especially overseas. Let the actions speak for themselves. Also: No more apologizing for past U.S. failures or alleged transgressions. And underscore both in word and deed that while America seeks productive ties even with adversaries where possible, the only basis for such relations can be reciprocity, not free giveaways. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the era of unilateral conciliatory gestures to moderate the behavior of sworn enemies is over.

The job of rebuilding American deterrence won’t be easy or cheap. It will not occur overnight. And given the extent of the erosion in the U.S. global position, it will unavoidably entail a degree of risk. But with committed presidential leadership and even a modicum of bipartisanship in Congress, it is also not mission impossible. Indeed, a generation ago, Ronald Reagan took office at another moment of profound crisis in the country’s foreign policy and proved how quickly American strength and global prestige could be re-established. Of course, Reagan being Reagan, he had the advantage that his very election itself sent a resounding message around the world that America’s comeback had already begun. In contrast, after this dismal election season, in which one of the candidates openly trucked in neo-isolationism and the other engaged in only the most tepid critique of Obama’s foreign policy, no such signal of a reinvigorated American internationalism will be forthcoming on election day. All the more reason, then, that the winner hit the ground running next January with a discrete set of steps directly aimed at convincing both allies and enemies that a new day has dawned in U.S. foreign policy.

John Hannah is the senior counselor for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.