Domestic Political Discord Now the Greatest Threat to U.S. Global Leadership

For Release

January 18, 2017

Faced with traditional threats from opponents such as Russia and emerging threats from non-traditional adversaries such as the Islamic State, the United States needs a comprehensive foreign policy strategy that can provide stability and improve policymakers' ability to manage in today's more complex and turbulent times, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

The report asserts that a coherent international strategy will be difficult to achieve without a greater degree of domestic political consensus on the U.S. role in world affairs, and finds that political dysfunction is now the greatest obstacle to effective U.S. global leadership.

The United States is better positioned than any of its rivals to deal with the coming challenges–but it will need to shore up several critical vulnerabilities in order to protect and advance American security and prosperity.

“The next administration will have to deal with a growing military threat from both the Russians and Chinese, yet seek their cooperation on global security and economic issues,” said Andrew Hoehn, lead author of the report and senior vice president for research and analysis at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Dealing with these shifting relationships will, more than ever, require creative, multi-dimensional thinking and the ability to manage ambiguous relationships with governments that have both shared and conflicting interests.”

RAND researchers assess the challenges that confront the U.S. on the international scene and outline the core national interests that any foreign policy should satisfy. They also spotlight key challenges such as Russia, China, the Middle East, national defense, climate change and domestic policy issues related to national strength that will require attention from the Trump administration.

The report offers three plausible alternative strategic concepts, each reflecting aspects of the contemporary political debate: domestic renewal and international restraint; America as promoter of world order; and an agile America that adapts foreign and domestic policies primarily to become more economically competitive in a changing world. For each option, the report analyzes the underlying assumptions, objectives, degrees of international activism, budgetary implications, constraints and risks.

“Whatever the chosen path, U.S. leaders will need to break the political deadlock between funding requirements for the desired degree of international engagement and commensurate levels of taxation,” said Richard H. Solomon, a co-author of the report and senior fellow at RAND. “Without such political consensus, the United States will face heightened risks.”

The analysis finds that the U.S. will benefit by continued engagement in the international economy, but this will require more attention to the needs of those Americans who have benefited least from globalization.

The report, “Strategic Choices for a Turbulent World: In Pursuit of Security and Opportunity,” is the sixth and final volume in the “Strategic Rethink” series, in which RAND researchers have explored the elements of a national strategy for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in a fast-changing world and examined how U.S. thinking, institutions and policies must adapt.

This project results from RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program. Support for this program is provided, in part, by philanthropic contributions from donors.

Special appreciation goes to the Hauser Foundation for its generous gift in support of the “Strategic Rethink” series and to Rita Hauser for encouraging RAND to undertake it.

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