In A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism, Jeffrey D. Sachs argues that the Trump adminstration is a particularly severe episode in a centuries-long tradition of misguided exceptionalist US foreign policy. Instead, he suggests that the US could and should re-commit to international institutions and multilateralism in a book that offers a broad alternative vision not only to the approach of the Trump administration, but to past US foreign policy more generally, writes Anton Peez.

A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism. Jeffrey D. Sachs. Columbia University Press, 2018.

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‘If, today, we were again called on as an international community to adopt […] a declaration of human rights’, German chancellor Angela Merkel asked at the centenary commemoration of the end of World War One in Paris, ‘would we be up to the task?’ Her answer: ‘I fear not.’ Merkel’s pessimism regarding her colleagues’ commitment to upholding the post-war ‘legal order and […] framework for international cooperation’ is surely in no small part fuelled by recent US foreign policy.

Jeffrey D. Sachs’s A New Foreign Policy is a broad critique of US President Donald Trump’s approach to global affairs. Sachs’s book is ultimately a plea for greater US involvement in the world, mainly through the United Nations and within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework. This, the author argues, is not only desirable from a moral perspective, but also offers a remarkable return on investment compared to a foreign policy of costly ‘endless war’ (37).

Based on a series of op-eds in the Boston Globe, Sachs’s central thesis is clearly structured: Sachs sees the Trump administration as a particularly severe episode in a centuries-long tradition of misguided exceptionalist US foreign policy. Exceptionalism is defined as ‘the inherent right to make and break the international rules of the road’ – a notion of which ‘America First is a racist and populist variant’ (x, 2). Consequently, the US has in the past resorted to regime change around the globe due to its military superiority. Sachs advocates for a withdrawal of the US from wars abroad, particularly in the Middle East. As for the US’ past economic edge, Sachs finds that aggressive protectionism will accelerate American decline relative to Chinese innovation and civilian R&D in particular. Finally, Sachs argues that the global agenda of the twenty-first century – countering global warming, managing migration and achieving the SDGs, most prominently – will be impossible to solve without global cooperation and significant contributions from great powers. This can be achieved by assigning greater value to the UN and to development aid over defence spending – the author contrasts the US’ annual contributions to the UN regular budget with its Pentagon spending, at $580 million versus $700 billion (181–82). Sachs’s conclusion from these points is that ‘America First’ could not come at a less opportune time.

Image Credit: Flag, National, 48-Star, USS John D. Ford (DD 228), 1945 (Naval History and Heritage Command CC BY 2.0)

This volume is part of the first round of popular writing on the Trump administration’s foreign policy, alongside titles by Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay (among others). More academic volumes include Harold Koh’s examination from the perspective of international law and an extensive essay collection by Robert Jervis and colleagues on ‘chaos in the liberal order’. A long-time advocate of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and current director of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), Sachs’s contribution to this literature is the emphasis on the UN system in general and the SDG agenda in particular.

Sachs analyses US foreign policy towards Russia and China in particular detail, using the lens of the security dilemma to argue that ‘what looks like an offensive action to [the US] may be a state’s attempt to defend itself’ (15). This is a helpful perspective. Sachs’s contrast of US support for smaller Eastern European states post-1989 with the ‘rejection of basic financial support’ for Russia as an amplifier of Russian scepticism towards the US is well-taken (118, 175). Rather than following an arms race logic, the US, Russia and China should solve global challenges through diplomacy and the UN, the author argues (15–19).

Nonetheless, despite the rigorous critique of US foreign policy past and present, Sachs spends surprisingly little time on legitimate doubts regarding China and Russia’s willingness to participate in the cooperative world order he envisions. The Trump administration certainly has thumbed its nose at many of the norms of international society, but Russia and China’s recent track records are anything but laudable.

For example, the March 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea is notably only critiqued implicitly, despite detailed tallies of US interventions since 1890. Recurring operations such as the March 2018 Skripal poisoning and subsequent Russian denial also go unmentioned. As for China, the book appears to take an October 2017 foreign policy speech by Xi Jinping at face value, favourably citing it as ‘a call for global cooperation’ (119–21; see also 58–64).

This is to say that while a human rights-based critique of past and current US foreign policy certainly is warranted (see, for instance, page 40), the same standards should be applied to other great powers. A noteworthy illustration amid Sachs’s extensive and accurate criticism of the US reduction of the UN budget would have been the joint Sino-Russian pursuit of cutting human rights monitoring in UN peacekeeping missions. This would have fit Sachs’s dual argumentation of strengthening the UN and upholding human rights and the SDGs – however, it goes unmentioned.

As with all books on the ever-developing Trump presidency, the reader wonders how the author would judge current events. Sachs does not seem to have yet commented on the withdrawal from Syria and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s subsequent forceful resignation, which combines Sachs’s support for a US withdrawal from Syria on the one hand, and his questioning of Trump’s psyche and shrinking circle of experienced advisors on the other. Sachs’s claim that ‘we should all shudder’ at the notion of a Cuban Missile Crisis-style Executive Committee meeting under Trump (105) seems increasingly appropriate in the face of the many dismissals and resignations of foreign policy and military advisors over the past months.

In her Paris speech, Merkel declared that ‘institutions can easily be destroyed – but building them up is incredibly difficult’. Sachs underscores this point by returning to his bottom line – a wholehearted plea for US support for the UN not only from a moral perspective, but also for offering a sound return on investment and an alternative to the US’ ‘wanton addiction to war’. A New Foreign Policy suggests how the US could and should re-commit to international institutions and multilateralism. Despite the abovementioned doubts, Sachs provides a broad alternative vision not only to the Trump administration’s foreign policy, but to past US foreign policy more generally.


Anton Peez (@antonpeez) is a Doctoral Researcher at Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), studying norms in international politics. He holds an MPhil from the University of Oxford and a BA from the University of Frankfurt. His thesis examines the interaction of coercion and state capacity in effecting compliance outcomes.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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