The Road Ahead for U.S. Foreign Policy: In Conversation with Professor Monica Duffy Toft

The Road Ahead for U.S. Foreign Policy: In Conversation with Professor Monica Duffy Toft

By Fletcher Forum Staff

The Fletcher Forum recently sat down with Professor Monica Duffy Toft, who directs the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School. With the Forum, Professor Toft shared her insights on US foreign policy as it stands today and the challenges posed by it. 

Fletcher Forum:What are the current challenges facing US foreign policy?

Monica Toft: I think there are three major challenges. First, in the immediate term, the current administration is trying to find its foreign policy “sea legs.” There is still a question of what the direction of US foreign policy should be, what the priorities are, and who our allies in the different theaters are.

Second, looking domestically, foreign policy has never been a priority for Americans. The economy has always been the priority. But we face a great number of threats, not least of which is in cyber, but also from global jihadism, climate change, and WMD proliferation. We are also still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq while trying to help defeat the regime in Syria and prevent a power vacuum from emerging there. In addition, there is the threat from the conflict in Yemen. The question is how to get Americans to care about these issues and come to at least a partisan consensus (bipartisan would be ideal); particularly at a time when domestically we are thinking about budgets and gross inequalities of income.

There is also a third challenge; which is the changing international environment and dealing with the rise of China, hostility from Russia, and challenges to what was the existing global order for 60 years. That order emphasized the rule of law, international norms and values, institutions, and alliances. The question is whether that order will be resilient enough to last and help protect and guard American interests; or whether it will suffer the fate of the League of Nations, with similarly dire global consequences.

FF:The current administration’s foreign policy appears in many ways to be reactionary. How can the US move away from a reactionary foreign policy?

MT: We need a sense of what it is that the United States stands for on a global scale and what we want to achieve. First and foremost, that entails the protection of the homeland and of US citizens. We then need to think strategically about how to best secure those vital interests. One problem is that we have not had a conversation to identify the primary, secondary, and third order threats to US sovereignty and the protection of the homeland. We also need to think through the interests of our allies, what threatens them, and how best to help them secure their interests.

A critical issue is that this administration has yet not released its National Security Strategy. It is currently working on the strategy, and once released, it will help guide US foreign policy and the tools and mechanisms used to secure US interests. But until we have a concrete idea of what this administration stands for, only then can we think about a strategy in practical terms (as opposed to ideal ones). We are in need of a national dialogue in which we identify a goal, form a strategy, and think about the tools we can use to implement it. For example, this administration seems to view “radical Islam” as a primary threat against which armed force must be brought to bear. I would hope that we could have a conversation about that, because an axiomatic resort to arms may not be the best route to defeating that threat.

On the issue of cyber, the problem is that most of the infrastructure is in private hands and the current administration doesn’t seem to be thinking through how to incentivize private industry to take the cyber threat seriously (the Obama administration did, but was warned off due to the need to prevent the 2008 recession from becoming a global economic depression). The question is whether there can be a partnership between government and private entities to help enhance the secure use of the evolving cyber domain.

We also need to think through the non-securitized, non-militarized ways to advance national security—namely diplomacy and trade—as well as good old-fashioned intelligence gathering. But given the current budgets and the fact that the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, and to some extent the Department of Veterans Affairs are getting big boosts while the State Department and USAID are being gutted, I am not optimistic that we will make progress on this front.

FF: What are the consequences of a foreign policy strategy that tends towards force rather than diplomacy?  

MT: Really there are two problems I see. First, over-reliance on the use of armed force has historically solved short-term problems at the expense of creating much bigger problems down the line: winning wars only to lose the peace. This is largely because the use of armed force promises to spare its users from having to understand the underlying causes of threats and contingencies by simply killing ‘bad guys.’ President George W. Bush’s famous “mission accomplished” speech in 2005 is a case in point.

Second, when you are the world’s most powerful military and largest economy, and when you’re armed with an unparalleled arsenal of thermonuclear weapons and live relatively safe from powerful adversaries geographically, the over-reliance on armed force can easily make you look like a bully. In other words, what seems to the United States as a necessary resort to armed force, will tend to be perceived, even by allies, as gratuitous use of force.

Ironically it is the US military that remains most reluctant, in almost every case, to advocate for the use of armed force as a first resort. Key members of our armed services elite have recently expressed deep concern about the diminished role and resources of USAID and the State Department; arguing that, as I would, a withered diplomatic and aid effort makes a resort to force more necessary over time and sets in motion a vicious and self-sustaining circle of violence demanding violent action, stimulating more violence, and demanding yet more violent action.

Such a strategy limits the tools for foreign policy. That issue has not just bedeviled this administration; the State Department and USAID have always been underfunded. It means that the Department of Defense becomes the only arm of the government that has the competence and the resources to act should a crisis arise. I am particularly concerned that there are professionals who have been serving in the State Department for decades that are leaving and retiring, while at the same time morale is low and there is little incentive for young people like our Fletcher students to go in and serve in an under-resourced State Department and USAID. This leads to a further decline of the institution in the medium-term, and in the long-term we lose professional expertise further hampering our capacity to act without having to resort to military force.

FF: What is the connection between domestic politics and foreign policy? Is there a way to connect these two separate conversations -- one about America domestically and the other about foreign policy?

MT: As I just argued, the dividing line between foreign and domestic policy continues to shrink and blur. But many Americans are unaware of this. It is therefore difficult to connect those two conversations, in part because the economy, not foreign policy, is the priority for most Americans. Where these two issues intersect most obviously is on immigration and migration issues. While there is a possibility of connecting the domestic level with the international level on the issue of immigration, because this issue has become so politicized, I am not optimistic; in part, again, because although we have good evidence that immigrants are initially costly, once settled they first become neutral in terms of costs, and after a few years become a powerful net gain to a host’s economy. But these arguments are difficult to support in the current political environment.

FF: What role can the Fletcher School and its students play to shift this narrative and build consensus?

MT: First, it is important to read a lot, listen to people, and have empathy. One of the things in this country that we have lost is the capacity and ability to listen to and hear what other people are saying, especially those with whom we disagree. People have been talking about feeling displaced and feeling as though the United States is not serving them anymore. It is therefore important to work hard to reach out to people across the aisle and read what they are saying and writing. If you wake up every morning and read the New York Times, Financial Times, and the Washington Post, try instead reading the Washington Times and Breitbart News to get a sense of what their readers are learning and how they are responding to current events.

For Fletcher students, I think it is important to get in touch with fellow Americans and understand why they feel the way they do and work with them to find common solutions. We have one of the strongest conflict and negotiations programs here at Fletcher, and we can use some of those skills in these efforts. These would include something critical about which you’ll rarely hear: understanding an issue and having “the facts” is no longer enough to change people’s minds. To do that we’ll need to start teaching our students not only to listen, but to advocate (understanding an issue and being able to change a listener’s mind about that issue are not the same thing). Writing about these issues and emphasizing a desire to change this situation is also important. Finally, Fletcher students should also think about running for public office themselves and, while in public office, should display empathy to understand where people are coming from. Only then can we achieve a consensus on the direction our country needs to go as part of an effort to make positive change.

Image "US Flag" Courtesy carolineCCB/CC BY 2.0

About the interviewee


Professor Monica Duffy Toft is Professor of International Politics and Director of Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Before joining The Fletcher School, she taught at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. While at Harvard, she directed the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs and was the assistant director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies. Her areas of research include international security, ethnic and religious violence, civil wars and demography. 

Monica is a research associate of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford and at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a supernumerary fellow at Brasenose College, University of Oxford, a Global Scholar of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Minorities at Risk Advisory Board and the Political Instability Task Force. In 2008 the Carnegie Foundation of New York named her a Carnegie Scholar for her research on religion and violence, in 2012 she was named a Fulbright scholar, and most recently served as the World Politics Fellow at Princeton University.

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