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Making American Foreign Policy Unexceptional

A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism, Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Press, October 2018, 253 pages [1]

President Donald Trump’s campaign and years in office thus far have elicited plenty of pre-mortems on his foreign policy, as well as postmortems on the “liberal international order,” on which he is allegedly turning his back. International relations scholars, foreign policy think-tankers, and journalists continue to debate the nature of this order, whether it actually existed and was a force for good, and Trump’s influence on American grand strategy.

In the last two months alone, four books on the subject have been released, all of them by renowned scholars. Arguing that the U.S. grand strategy of the last three decades has failed and is ripe for re-thinking are Harvard University’s Stephen M. Walt with The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy [2] and the University of Chicago’s John J. Mearsheimer with The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities [3]. On the liberal internationalist side is the Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan with The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World [4] and Ivo H. Daalder’s and James M. Lindsay’s The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership [5].

Now, as if on cue, an economist has poked his head into the room to offer his unsolicited two cents: famed aid and development scholar Jeffrey Sachs (I hope my economist friends will recognize that playful jab was meant only in jest). Sachs is a professor at Columbia University, a special advisor to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and perhaps the most famous economist of the 21st century. His new book is entitled A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism [1], and there is much inside to be celebrated. I never thought I would utter the words “I agree with Jeff Sachs,” let alone put them in print, yet here we are.


What Sachs has accomplished is to offer a third way of sorts for foreign policy debate, looking beyond the usual dichotomy that dominates popular discourse. He calls for a truly internationalist foreign policy, but one that eschews a forward-leaning military posture, celebrates openness, and doesn’t see the world in a zero-sum manner.

Sachs describes three competing visions of American foreign policy. The first is represented by the liberal internationalists, or exceptionalists as he refers to them. These are largely the current establishment foreign policy elite, those who see America as the indispensable nation—a current that runs deep in American history—that should forcibly assert itself on the world stage, steering events to our liking and benefit. In this telling, America should be the unrivaled world hegemon.

The second vision is realism, represented largely by folks active in the academy: Walt, Mearsheimer, Barry Posen at MIT, and others. Realists argue for a much less militaristic posture and the acceptance of balance of power politics. For Sachs, this is a step in the right direction, but he remains unsatisfied with realism. “[L]ike the exceptionalists, the realists argue essentially for ‘peace through strength,’” he writes. “They believe a new arms race is the necessary and inevitable price to pay to keep the balance of power and preserve U.S. security.”

Sachs calls his preferred vision internationalism, distinct from the liberal internationalism of the exceptionalist camp. “Internationalists argue that global cooperation between nations is not only feasible but also essential to avoid war and sustain American and global prosperity.” Internationalism is the way to avoid conflict, while boosting economic growth and dealing with global collective action problems, such as climate change.

Sachs’s internationalism differs from the liberal internationalism of the foreign policy elite in that it rejects American exceptionalism, which is “passé, a throwback to the years after World War II when the United States dominated the world economy and was far ahead of the rest of the world in military and civilian technology. Times are different now.” Internationalism is about finding a “safe position for the United States without the claim of global dominance.”

There is much to like in Sachs’s conceptualization. He condemns America’s militaristic posture and the role it has played in fostering instability, particularly in the Middle East. Wars often cause more problems than they solve, and we would be smart to avoid them. He proposes some practical steps to rein in the warfare state, such as restructuring the CIA to act solely as an intelligence agency instead of an unaccountable paramilitary organization.

Sachs recognizes the role that our own actions played in poisoning relations with Russia. As he explains, there is an information asymmetry inherent in any state’s action. What one party considers non-aggression, the other may consider aggression. NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union is considered by Russia to be a threat to her long-term security. Despite this protestation, the U.S. has obstinately pushed ahead on this issue.

He also rejects the China hysteria emanating from the Trump administration, liberal exceptionalists, and even some realists. For Sachs, China’s rise represents an opportunity to cooperate on big issues instead of a march towards an inevitable conflict. The exceptionalist view on China is “based on the false idea that global economics must be about winners versus losers, the United States versus China, rather than about mutual gains through trade and technological advance.”

Obviously, one doesn’t need to agree with everything Sachs says to find his contribution valuable. I am sympathetic to realism, but also a fan of openness, trade, and international cooperation. These positions are clearly reconcilable. As political scientists Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky argued [6] in a seminal 1997 article in International Security: “Restraint is a modern form of isolationism: we adopt the military policy of withdrawal, but reject its traditional economic protectionism.” Choosing a security policy of restraint doesn’t preclude [7] global economic interdependence. Foreign policy realism, liberalized economic policy, and diplomatic cooperation among states are not inherently at odds with one another—though obviously the devil is always in the details. Realists do tend to be clear-eyed about constraints, the realm of the possible, and the allure of ideologies such as nationalism, which certainly can feed skepticism of Sachs’s ideas about internationalism.

Nonetheless, to my mind, Sachs’s book is a welcome entry into the ongoing foreign policy debate. Many political camps will find much to like: progressives, libertarians, restraint-minded conservatives, and socialists, all of whom concur to varying degrees that U.S. militarism has often not been a force for good. It is well past time we moved past exceptionalism.

Jerrod A. Laber is D.C.-based foreign policy writer and journalist, and a contributor to Young Voices. His work has been published in Defense One, The National Interest, and the Columbus Dispatch, among many other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber [8].

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Making American Foreign Policy Unexceptional"

#1 Comment By Mel Profit On November 19, 2018 @ 9:57 pm

I haven’t the slightest idea what this man is talking about

#2 Comment By Mel Profit On November 19, 2018 @ 9:58 pm

Say what?

#3 Comment By polistra On November 20, 2018 @ 1:59 am

Sachs was a major part of our 1990’s attempt to conquer and colonize Russia. Now he’s against the same sort of colonization when the wrong man is in charge of it. This isn’t ethics or policy, it’s pure dynastic loyalty.

#4 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On November 20, 2018 @ 3:41 am

I wanna commend you, J.A. Laber, on one heck of a clear article, based on practical reason in your fair review of what Jeffrey Sachs has to say.
I agree with J.Sachs-here is a fella that is dealing with reality when we look about the world today, from economics, trade, threats of war and so on.
A coupla thoughts if I may: how in the world can one disagree with cooperation rather than constant threats against other nations?
How can Trump be so taken in by those that advise him? Well, it’s because he knows next to nothing and wants to show how tough he is-so he threatens and bullies other nations.
Don’t y’all see? It’s all ABOUT exceptionalism! That’s the advise he gets and that’s how he talks and acts…”we’re America…we’re the power…we’re better..!”
Ah, but the interests and safety of the American people and of American troops are factors that his hard-core, and yes, I call ’em hateful advisers-hate toward other so-called challengers across the seas, that is, are of no concern. Look at ’em: Bolton, Kushner, Pompeo…know what I mean? Thanks

#5 Comment By nico On November 20, 2018 @ 5:11 am

Always nice to see moderate thinking encouraged on TAC.

One issue I take: “Sachs is a professor at Columbia University, a special advisor to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and perhaps the most famous economist of the 21st century”

I think that Thomas Piketty claims that title after selling more than 2.5 million copies of Capital in the 21st Century (even if many of those copies lay unread on coffee tables.)

#6 Comment By Jon On November 20, 2018 @ 9:49 am

What may help this shift away from our aggressive military policy is to create a basket of reserve currencies represented by SDRs instead of relying solely on our USD. Such a basket would consist of USD, British Pound Sterling, Euro, Yen and Renminbi. Through such a change, the pressure to prop up our currency through military spending would not be as great.

#7 Comment By SteveM On November 20, 2018 @ 11:33 am

Re: Jeffery Sachs. Too little too late from a key enabler of the parasites and oligarchs that raped the Russian economy in the 1990’s.

Funny how “scholars” like Sachs are lauded for finally realizing what has been obvious to the politically and economically curious hoi polloi for years.

With that out of the way, Sachs and his fat and happy Elite cognoscenti pals can again retreat to the Palm for thick steaks and double martinis while engaging in self-congratulations for their superior insights and intelligence.

It’s good to be them…

#8 Comment By TomG On November 20, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

Thank you, Mr. Laber. Reading this piece and the TAC post today by Mr. Derensis on our national debt, I’m hard pressed to see how any real conservative (if we know what that even is these days) wouldn’t be on board with Sach’s approach. Makes more sense than anything I’m hearing from either party and offers a sane way forward.

#9 Comment By Tomonthebeach On November 20, 2018 @ 1:02 pm

It should be very clear by now, especially after embracing a chickenhawk like Bolton, that the administration is not anti-globalist but pro world dominance. Trump wants to cajole or intimidate every world power to dance to the USA’s tune or suffer dire consequences. Although this article suggests that Sachs’ view is consistent with my observation, I wish it had been a bit more frank about the administration’s goals.

#10 Comment By david On November 20, 2018 @ 3:44 pm

Policy restraint is the only choice going forward for US, whether you choose realist,internationalist, or isolationist. The fiscal and economic state of the country just could not sustain the current trajectory.

Better to do it now voluntarily and methodologically rather than being forced to so hazardously in future.

#11 Comment By KD On November 20, 2018 @ 5:27 pm

A thought experiment:

Put 100 pacifists in an enclosed area (let’s call it a globe) and then introduce one predator which eats the pacifists. Then close the box.

When you re-open the box, do you think we’ll discover pacifists or predators?

#12 Comment By bt On November 20, 2018 @ 8:32 pm

What Sachs Describes sounds a lot like the Obama approach.

Which was mocked mercilessly by those on the opposing team as weak, weak, weak, and “leading from behind”. And interspersed with frequent accusations that the Kenyan Usurper President did not believe in American Exceptionalism.

How dare he not believe! We are God’s Shining City on a Hill and so on and so forth.

#13 Comment By Jeeves On November 20, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

So if I’m getting this right, Russia fears NATO expansion because it has asymmetric information about…? How bellicose the Latvians are? Putin has used NATO expansion as the standing pretext for Russian aggression. He has also made sure that the information available to Russians remains asymmetric, often by murdering dissenting journalists.

#14 Comment By Houston Parks On November 20, 2018 @ 10:35 pm

This review led me to put Sach’s book on my Kindle. What a disappointment and mistake! A tenth of the way in and I wish I had my money back. Sach’s is tired thinking of the left, an apologia for 100 years of so-called Progressive bashing of American and its outsized world role. He doesn’t have new thoughts for a new foreign policy, just advocating for Obama’s foreign policy and never missing a trite opportunity to bash anything and all thing Trump and, along the way, denouncing American tradition and hubris. I am very disappointed, as I was looking for a fresh approach to reducing America’s over-reliance on military solutions and insight to how to begin to stabilize and bring more peace to the globe. I did not find that in this tired book. What kind of strange publication is The American Conservative, claiming to be conservative but advocating for the unilateral humiliation of the foremost nation advocating for freedom and stability?

#15 Comment By Habib On November 21, 2018 @ 4:11 pm

SteveM: What a nasty son of a gun you are. P. S. I agree with you.

#16 Comment By SteveK9 On November 21, 2018 @ 8:50 pm

We could make a very good start by deciding not to attempt the destruction of all of Israel’s enemies.

#17 Comment By rosemerry On November 25, 2018 @ 4:09 am

I was a little surprised to see the change in Jeffrey Sachs,as we saw in so many others who ruined the world then repented. The treatment of Russia since the USSR imploded is shameful, and the comment of ‘jeeves’ above is typical. Surrounding Russia with bases and bringing into NATO former partners of the Warsaw Pact is not really threatening? Try for once to consider others’ points of view-the USA never sees that as possible, let alone desirable.