The Challenge for the Next President: Reversing the Decline in U.S. Power

A top priority for the next President of the United States must be to demonstrate the strength and confidence to protect the nation’s vital interests at home and abroad. These vital interests are: (1) defense of the homeland; (2) prevention or successful conclusion of a major war with the potential to destabilize regions of critical interest to the U.S.; and (3) preservation of freedom of movement within the global commons: the sea, the air, cyberspace, and outer space domains through which the world conducts business.[1]

There is clearly a need to do something different. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of U.S. Military Strength graded the ability of the United States to protect its vital interests as “marginal,” an assessment that reflects both deteriorating U.S. capabilities and rising concerns in key parts of the world.[2] Further, it is clear that this Administration’s approach to defense and foreign policy is deeply flawed.[3] In practice, it has served the nation poorly.

Demonstrating American will and power requires a sound strategy. Strategy is the integrated application of ends, ways, and means to achieve national objectives. More fundamentally, strategy is the lifeline of a guiding idea to get from the current situation to a better end-state. A good strategy is practical—meeting the standards that it is suitable, feasible, and acceptable.[4] At the same time, it makes hard choices—and delivers results.

The gap strategy ought to include three core components.

1. Empowering Enduring Alliances

America needs allies. America’s greatest strength is strength in numbers: the number of free nations that share its commitment to peace, justice, security, and—above all—freedom.

Building strong alliances requires proactive action that reinforces rather than undermines the sovereignty of the state and at the same time strengthens the bonds of trust and confidence between free peoples, enabling them to act in their common interest. The focus of this should be on building enduring alliances, not just “coalitions of the willing,” with key nations in key regions.[6]

Deepening U.S. Relations with Its European Allies. The top foreign policy goals in Europe should include: living up to treaty obligations in order to defend, and when necessary liberate, NATO members; helping allies to develop military capability and capacity so they can better take responsibility for their own security; encouraging allies to increase defense expenditures; and helping nations to decrease energy dependence on Russia.

The next President must strengthen America’s Special Relationship with the United Kingdom through both diplomatic and military initiatives. The U.K. is America’s closest ally and its anchor to Europe. Issues that could be addressed together include: standing up against Russian aggression in Central and Eastern Europe, joint military and defense procurement projects, pursuing joint initiatives to combat Islamist terrorism in Europe and the Middle East, and discussing how the U.K. could be an even closer partner with the U.S.[7] By strengthening its relationship with the U.K. and anchoring its influence in Europe, the United States will be able to secure interests throughout the region.

The U.S. as an AsiaPacific Power. The crucial foreign policy goal in the region is establishing an order whereby all peaceable nations of Asia that play by the rules are treated equally, with the right to chart their own course without being dictated to by any aspiring hegemon.

In light of China’s recent bullying of its neighbors, the next American President should pursue increased intergovernmental dialogue with key players in the Asia–Pacific in an effort to preempt and counter Beijing’s aggressive moves to recast the liberal order of the past 70 years in favor of its extensive and extralegal territorial claims.[13]

U.S. efforts must start with the next American President strengthening security partnerships with traditional allies Japan and South Korea. Along with America’s forward-deployed military, they are the anchor of the U.S. as an Asia–Pacific power.[14] In addition, the United States needs to reassert its traditional support for Taiwan with fresh, militarily consequential arms sales, particularly submarines and new fighter craft.[15] Further, the U.S. must integrate these relationships with key states, such as India and treaty ally Australia

2. Rebuilding Defense

Diplomacy and economic power, even if skillfully deployed, are often most effective when supported by military force. They are not a substitute for military power, and in some instances are wholly ineffective or irrelevant without military power. Credible military power has a synergistic effect that makes the other elements of national power more influential and effective.[32]

Today, there is Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and radical Islamist terrorist organizations inciting violence across swaths of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. However, the U.S. is unprepared and ill-equipped to handle this reality. The military is being reduced to a size at which it will be able to fight one war at best. America’s technological edge is being challenged by prospective adversaries abroad and by a broken acquisition system at home. The U.S. defense industrial base, while still capable of producing world-class weapons systems, lacks the robustness to support a rapid and sustained defense build-up.[33]

If this nation is to protect its vital interests, deter conflicts with would-be regional hegemons, reassure allies, and respond to crises of all sorts, it needs a robust military of sufficient size, sophistication, resources, and readiness to deal not only with the known threats, but also with inevitable surprises.[34] In order to meet these demands, the next President will have to increase military readiness across the board.[35]

3. Making America the Engine of Global Economic Freedom

It is vital that the next President take a broad view of the tools available to advance America’s interests. The powerful role that freedom and free markets play in advancing economic freedom and opportunity at home and abroad must not be forgotten, with particular care given to America’s allies.

The next President should undertake the following steps to foster a stronger and more self-confident American economy and promote an economic agenda abroad:

  • Create a bold, consistent narrative about the benefits of free trade and market liberalization. This narrative should highlight positive consequences of economic freedom, including its positive impact on individual states, the value of imports to the national economy, the realities of the global value chains and their value to the U.S., and the salutary effects of economic growth on the environment.
  • Adopt an aggressive, free-market energy export agenda. This single initiative would boost the economy and reinforce U.S. foreign policy goals. From natural gas to oil, coal, nuclear energy, and associated energy technologies, the United States has the capacity to fundamentally liberalize global energy markets and in doing so dilute abuse of energy markets for political ends by countries like Russia.[41]
  • Repeal the Jones Act, a protectionist measure that has decreased U.S. competitiveness in shipbuilding, trade, and maritime services for 85 years. Repealing this act would greatly enhance the U.S. position as a global energy-market leader. It would also boost U.S. competitiveness across the maritime domain, particularly in regards to transporting energy resources.[42]
  • Endorse economic freedom in the Arctic. The next President should promote responsible economic development in an environmentally sensitive, and increasingly important, theater of economic activity.
  • Rethink the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The European Union has indicated that it is more interested in “harmonizing” regulatory practices than in promoting free trade and liberalizing markets. Therefore, the U.S. should proceed through negotiations cautiously.


The gap strategy identifies singular and critical priorities for the next Administration—strengthening enduring alliances, rebuilding defense, and repositioning the economy in order to protect and guarantee vital interests both at home and abroad. The strategy sets a demanding but doable to-do list. More important, it establishes a foundation from which the future President can act with greater freedom and more confidence in meeting the challenge of keeping the nation free, safe, and prosperous in the 21st century.

Full article: The Challenge for the Next President: Reversing the Decline in U.S. Power (The Heritage Foundation)

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