A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism, by Jeffrey Sachs

Kori Schake is disappointed by a study that covers old ground and fails to deliver fresh ideas on governance

November 29, 2018
Netanhayu, Obama and other leaders
Source: Alamy/Getty

The debate about exceptionalism is the least interesting discussion in US foreign policy. Eminent economist Jeffrey Sachs is the latest moth to this flame, using that tired rubric to frame his book on the failures of US foreign policy and his recommendations for different, better policies. One need not even read the book to take his points, because the chapter titles so clearly trumpet their content: “from exceptionalism to internationalism”, “exceptionalism as a civic religion”, “the era of global governance”, “from diplomatic leader to rogue nation”. One could save even more time by noticing that the acknowledgements thank “the great truth-tellers in our midst, notably Noam Chomsky and Bernie Sanders”. Everything that follows is but an elaboration on the theme.

Sachs’ objective in A New Foreign Policy is to “set the agenda in the post-Trump era” by making sustainable development the guiding principle of policy. So much of what he writes has already been proposed elsewhere, both by him and by others, so it is not clear why the arguments are reprised here. Moreover, Sachs satisfies himself with assertions that are widely questioned by foreign policy experts, such as that “the world now has the established institutional machinery to sustain global cooperation, thanks to more than seventy years of the United Nations and its various component institutions”.

Nor would a number of his other claims – about alternative outcomes to the First World War absent of US involvement and the inevitable economic intertwining of Europe and Asia – withstand the scrutiny of historians. They would also be likely to dispute his statement that “to understand Gorbachev’s vision we must go back to the age of the Romanov tsars”, or that lack of Western debt relief was the sole cause of Russia’s drift to authoritarianism.

To be sure, careful policy analysis and creative proposals are needed in all the areas that Sachs covers: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia-US relations, North Korea, China, focusing aid on sustainable development. But Sachs fails to provide either fresh ideas for policy progress in these areas, or a plausible political strategy for building the support to get his recommendations adopted.

The section on US economic statecraft describes: how trade has driven US jobs offshore (although technology will supplant them before protectionism can bring them back); the effects of different tax regimes and how international actors negate them; how to understand the trade balance; and the staggering level of US debt. Yet even in his actual area of expertise, Sachs makes no attempt to assess the merits of alternative policies.

A New Foreign Policy is not an academic book, it is a political jeremiad. The condescension with which Sachs dismisses policy choices that he disagrees with would be easier to bear if, rather than cheerily informing the reader that he watched the mistakes being made close at hand, he made some effort to wrestle with his own moral culpability for urging rapid privatisation of Russian state assets before the rule of law had been established, enriching and entrenching oligarchs while making other Russians cynical about both free markets and free societies. The politically unworthy are not the only forces that have pursued reckless, destructive policies that now degrade US authority to lead.

Kori Schake is deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and author of Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony.

A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism
By Jeffrey Sachs
Columbia University Press
272pp, £13.99
ISBN 9780231188487
Published 24 August 2018

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