Independent America, a three-year research project begun in 2018 by Eurasia Group Foundation research fellow Mark Hannah, seeks to explore how U.S. foreign policy could better be tailored to new global realities and to the preferences of American voters. The project is informed and inspired by EGF board president Ian Bremmer’s book Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World. Popular with the public but largely dismissed by the foreign policy establishment, an “independent America” outlook sees America focusing more on its own domestic challenges than on the challenges that come with global hegemony, convinced hat our country succeeds when it leads by example rather than by military dominance or economic coercion. The American public’s support for a more restrained and less interventionist foreign policy is politically diverse, extending well beyond the usual anti-globalism suspects. And yet, U.S. elected officials continue to fund small wars, arms sales, and troop deployments which are often counterproductive to the country’s long-term interests, security and prosperity. The Independent America project is currently comprised of the following three interrelated projects.
Vox Populi, Vox Peanut Gallery?
In a democracy, the voice of the people (“vox populi”) is supposed to be the voice of God (“vox dei”). In the United States, leaders are supposed to rely on the consent of the governed. And yet, as Ian Bremmer notes in Superpower, 82 percent of Americans opposed the war in Afghanistan, “making it the most unpopular conflict in U.S. history. We can’t promote democracy abroad while ignoring the popular will at home.” Although public opinion can be capricious and grand strategies must be developed to withstand changing sentiments, a fundamental premise of this project is that policymakers must be sensitive and responsive to the wishes of their constituents.
This first project seeks to (1) illustrate the chasm which exists between the interests and concerns of foreign policy elites and those of ordinary citizens, and (2) identify the reasons why Americans are increasingly disenfranchised from foreign policy decisions being made in Washington.
We are in the middle of what some are calling a “democracy recession” not just globally but in the U.S. as well. A recent Pew study found, in the U.S., “46 percent of those aged 18 to 29 would prefer to be governed by experts” and a study by Mounk and Foa in the Journal of Democracy reported one quarter of American millennials agreed that “choosing leaders through free elections is unimportant.”
Statistics like these abound. Yale political scientist Tim Snyder argued that “it’s no surprise that millennials don’t support democracy” because they reasonably anticipate they will be worse off than their parents. Snyder pointed to growing economic insecurity and inequality – as well as new voter suppression laws – as sources of frustration with democracy. As Ian Bremmer has pointed out, the display of “hanging chads” and the electoral dysfunction of the 2000 election looms large in the minds of would-be democrats overseas. Instead of prodding foreign governments to be more democratic, the United States could focus on being a better exemplar of democracy. This project seeks to understand how we can we model a democracy worthy of emulation, and develop a strategy of democracy attraction rather than democracy promotion?
A Country with a Hammer
There is an adage, “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” America’s military and economic might are metaphorical hammers, and like hammers they can be used for construction or destruction. Our arsenal has become more sprawling and sophisticated. Drones and long-range missiles give the illusion that the U.S. can intervene in foreign conflicts with little cost or consequence. This project embraces an alternative, affirmative vision for America’s might. With some of the money we currently spend on buying unnecessary weapons systems and maintaining overseas military bases, what kinds of investments could we making education or infrastructure, or healthcare for veterans? How much of our national debt could we pay off, or what kinds of tax cuts could we offer American workers?
By portraying in vivid detail the choices our elected leaders are making on our behalf, putting those choices in historic context, and suggesting alternative uses of American treasure and talent, we might be able to stage an intervention upon the current bout of interventionism.