Next president’s foreign policy cheat sheet

James Jay Carafano

Trigger warning: America’s place in the world is worse than it was eight years ago.

And that worries most Americans. This July, the Pew Research Center found that terrorism and foreign policy ranked among the top three issues on voters’ minds.

That’s not the norm for national elections, where economic concerns usually predominate. It’s also the reason that when CNN brought the two principal presidential candidates onto the same stage, it was billed as the “commander-in-chief forum.”

Here’s another abnormal situation: there is much bipartisan consensus on what our biggest foreign policy headaches are.

They all focus on threats to the stability of three regions of the world critical to U.S. economic and security interests: Europe, the Middle East and Asia. A meltdown in any of these regions would severely burn the U.S. Nor can the U.S. risk having its influence muscled out of any of these places.

The horrors that make headlines — from ISIS atrocities and al Qaeda attacks to cyberthreats, refugee hordes and nuclear missile tests—arise from the bad guys’ efforts to increase their power and influence in the three regions.

And we know who the biggest bad guys are. The Pentagon calls them the “four plus one.” The four are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Transnational terrorism is the plus one.

This is neither a new Cold War, nor is it 1914 all over again. But add up all the competitive challenges the U.S. faces today, and it’s a daunting opposition force.

There are no do-overs in foreign policy. Rather than argue about how we got to this point, we must look ahead and figure out how to live in the world we have.

The next president will need to devise and execute effective foreign policy strategies for all three regions.

And foreign policy is always more effective when the nation bargains from a position of strength. The U.S. shouldn’t go looking for dragons to slay, but it must be able to demonstrate that it can protect its vital interests.

Every year, the Heritage Foundation objectively evaluates U.S. armed forces against the threats they face and their ability to act in key regions of the world. Heritage’s 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength grades the military as only “marginally” capable of protecting U.S. interests in a two-conflict scenario. We have to do better.

Rebuilding the military won’t come with double digit increases in defense spending like it did in the Reagan years. We don’t have a “just in time” defense-industrial base that could quickly produce what’s needed, even if there were a huge influx of “new” defense money.

Our massive federal deficit will limit how fast and how far we can ramp up defense spending. But we must send the bad guys a strong signal that playtime is over and America is back.

In each of the key regions, we need strategies that will build firewalls against bad behavior. This is at least as important as dealing with the threats directly.

For Europe, that starts with strengthening bilateral relations with a line of countries — from Iceland to the U.K. to the Nordic countries and Baltic States and in to Central Europe — that see global challenges and opportunities more or less the way we do. That’s the key to strengthening NATO, the anchor of security for western democracies. Together, these two initiatives will give us and our allies both a strong military deterrent and a constructive political voice.

In the Middle East, the firebreak starts in Tunisia and extends through Morocco, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. We will also need to right what have become very shaky relationships with Iraq and Turkey.

In Asia, the U.S. is anchored to the region by its strong relationships to Japan and South Korea. The U.S. also has a strong common cause with Japan, Australia and India to thwart China’s attempt to rewrite national boundaries and international norms to suit themselves.

From a global Islamist insurgency to transnational criminal cartels, there is no shortage of foreign-based problems that the U.S. must address. But effective foreign policy requires building a strong base from which to work.

That base is a military — respected by friends and feared by enemies — and statecraft that builds bilateral alliances dedicated to bringing peace and stability to regions critical to out national interest.

James Jay Carafano is the Heritage Foundation’s vice president, foreign and defense policy studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies.