The Atlantic

The Blob Meets the Heartland

Foreign policy should work better for America’s middle class.

For most of my three and a half decades as an American diplomat, the foreign-policy establishment (known unaffectionately in some quarters as “the blob”) took for granted that expansive U.S. leadership abroad would deliver peace and prosperity at home. That assumption was lazy, and often flawed.

Riding the waves of globalization and American geopolitical dominance, we overreached. We deluded ourselves with magical thinking about our capacity to remake other societies, while neglecting the urgent need to remake our own. Unsurprisingly, the disconnect widened between the Washington policy establishment and the citizens it is meant to serve.

Globalization and the deregulated flow of goods, services, and capital didn’t lift all boats. Instead, much of the American middle class—the engine of our country’s historic rise—wound up shipwrecked by income stagnation, automation and outsourcing, economic inequality, educational debt, and crippling health and housing costs. The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened these dislocations, making a reset of U.S. foreign policy’s relationship with the middle class even more urgent.

By the time I left government several years ago, well before the pandemic broke, it was already well past time to reconnect foreign policy to domestic renewal. Now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I share my colleagues’ interest in playing a part in this effort. The result is a new report, “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class,” the culmination of a systematic, two-year survey of three heartland states—Ohio, Colorado, and Nebraska.

William J. Burns: The United States needs a new foreign policy

Led by a bipartisan task force of seasoned policy makers and experts, our team sought to determine what changes to U.S. foreign policy are needed to advance the well-being of America’s middle class. The group’s starting point was something of an unnatural act for Washington’s foreign-policy elite: listening—rather than preaching—to middle-class citizens.

The Carnegie Endowment is a venerable institution, but it is better known in foreign capitals and the Acela corridor than in most parts of America. Mindful of the old Ronald Reagan adage that the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” we partnered with researchers at public universities to conduct hundreds of interviews across all three states. The team talked with state officials and labor leaders, with small-business owners and mayors. We analyzed the economy and different trend lines. We were well aware that the middle class in each of those states is hardly monolithic, and that economic realities, social structures, and political attitudes vary widely across all of them.

The conversations we had showed more nuance, pragmatism, and common sense in the heartland than the hyperpolarized and partisan policy debates display in Washington. People appreciated being asked their views about how foreign policy could serve them better, but many also expressed frustration that reaching out had taken so long. As one straightforward Nebraskan put it, “We didn’t really expect anyone from Washington to pay attention, especially after you folks have screwed things up so badly.”

Many of the ranchers and soybean farmers our team interviewed in Nebraska applauded efforts to push back against the predatory trade and investment practices of China, but worried about the damaging impact of tariffs and the loss of overseas markets. Manufacturing workers in Ohio didn’t necessarily see how foreign aid affected them in the abstract but appreciated the importance of U.S. support for Japan after the 2011 tsunami, which badly disrupted the supply chain on which Honda—the biggest manufacturing employer in the state—depended. Many of the Coloradans and Ohioans our researchers spoke with accepted the need for greater restraint in military spending, but people in Colorado Springs (the home of three military bases and the U.S. Air Force Academy) and Dayton (near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio’s largest single-site employer) saw cuts to the defense budget as existential threats to their local economy.

Most of those we interviewed saw the value of America’s allies and our country’s active global leadership, but they expected other countries to invest more in their own military and contribute a greater share of the costs of securing peace. They were also skeptical of Washington’s foreign-policy extremes—its episodic crusading impulses as well as its bouts of isolationism.

At a time when nearly 60 percent of Americans expect their children to be worse off financially than they are, the middle-class citizens we spoke with sought practical solutions. They saw the opportunities created by expanded trade and foreign investment, and felt the inevitable effects of technology and automation on traditional manufacturing. What they sought was a level playing field to help them compete. As one woman in Marion, Ohio, put it, “We will do what we can to reinvent ourselves and look to the future, but just let us have a fighting chance.”

Jim Tankersley: We killed the middle class. Here’s how we can revive it.

The Carnegie task-force report offers an array of detailed recommendations to help ensure that U.S. foreign policy delivers for the middle class. Three broad priorities stand out.

First, foreign-economic policy needs to aim less at simply opening markets abroad, and much more directly at inclusive economic growth at home. For decades, the economic benefits of globalization and U.S. leadership abroad have skewed toward big multinational corporations and top earners. This needs to change.

The U.S. government has to help ensure that the advantages of globalization are distributed more equitably, by supporting industries and communities disadvantaged by market openings. A crucial step is to create a National Competitiveness Strategy to guarantee that government—at all levels—plays a more active role in helping our people and our businesses thrive in the 21st-century global economy. Rather than focus simply on reducing the costs of doing business in the United States, we ought to emphasize enhancing the productivity of our workforce, investing in education, and reinvigorating research and development in biotechnology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and other key pillars of our economy in the decades ahead.

Another important dimension of this new approach is to think beyond the manufacturing sector—as important as it is—and also address the concerns of the majority of middle-class households whose members work in other sectors, including services. We need to modernize trade enforcement tools to ensure that we can take earlier, faster, and more effective action against unfair trade practices, and put the onus on government—not small and medium-size businesses—to initiate enforcement measures. The objective should be a far more resilient middle class, served by a foreign policy that helps it compete better, and cushions it against the impact of economic shocks overseas.  

U.S. foreign policy should also look beyond trade and prioritize other issues whose economic and social impacts are acutely felt at home. Diplomacy and international partnerships ought to be the first line of defense against the looming threats of climate change, cyberattacks, and future pandemics. A crucial component of immigration reform is active diplomacy that aims to help ensure border security, create safe gateways for the workers and immigrants who add dynamism to our economy and society, and anchor people in Central America and Mexico to a sense of security and economic possibility.

Read: Immigrants give America a foreign-policy advantage

Second, this is not a time for restorationist fantasies or grand bumper-sticker ambitions in foreign policy. The people interviewed in the Carnegie study had little appetite for a new, all-consuming cold war with China, or a cosmic struggle pitting democracies against authoritarian states. Those impulses would be the best way to widen, not narrow, the disconnect between Washington’s foreign-policy establishment and Americans beyond the Beltway.

What the Americans we talked with seem to be looking for is a humbler foreign policy, more restrained about using military force and more disciplined about employing diplomacy first. Values and human rights matter, from their perspective, and America ought to invest in rebuilding the power of its example. But the U.S. should adopt a temperate agenda, forthright in standing up against repression, while honest about the limits of its capacity to transform other societies.

Finally, accomplishing this agenda will require breaking down the silos in which domestic and foreign policy have long operated. That will demand organizational and cultural shifts. It will take time and effort to build a generation of practitioners with the fluency in both domestic- and foreign-policy making to manage their interaction effectively. And while efforts to integrate the security and economic dimensions of foreign policy have made some progress, they need to be accelerated and better fused with domestic-policy making.

For individual agencies, such as the State Department, opportunities exist to deepen partnerships with state and local governments on global economic issues, as well as on problems of climate change and public health. A State Department urgently committed to diversity and reflecting the society it represents will deepen its domestic roots. And it can further strengthen its connections to its constituents through assignments in the offices of mayors and governors, and in businesses across America.

Many years ago, when I was a young diplomat, Secretary of State George Shultz used to invite outbound U.S. ambassadors for a brief, predeparture chat. He would gesture to the large globe in his office and ask the new ambassador to “point to your country.” Inevitably, their mind on their new assignment, the ambassadors would put their fingers on the country to which they were headed. Shultz would gently steer their fingers back across the globe to the United States. He’d remind them never to forget where they came from, or whose interests they served. Not a bad reminder then, and even more important now.

William J. Burns is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

This article was originally published by The Atlantic. Sign up for their newsletter.