Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Congrats, You're a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

| Jan. 11, 2023

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.

It has come to my attention that the United States has a new Congress in session. It took some doing, but we even have a new speaker of the House, along with 86 new members in the House and Senate (48 Republicans and 38 Democrats). This column is for them (or, perhaps more accurately, for the staff members who will do the real work).

For starters, I know that many of you don't care that much about international affairs, and neither do most of your constituents. The United States' foreign-policy establishment may work overtime trying to manage the world (and spread liberal values when it has the chance), but most Americans remain ignorant of and largely indifferent to issues of foreign policy, save in the wake of tragic events such as 9/11. There's broad but shallow support for an "active role" in world affairs, but domestic issues are almost always considered more important by most Americans. It's a paradox: The United States plays an outsize role in the world and devotes a big chunk of the federal budget to foreign policy and national security, yet its citizens' attention is usually riveted closer to home.

I'm not going to try to tell you how to get reelected; you've proved that you know more about winning votes than I do. Instead, I'll stick to my lane and focus on a few things you might want to know about the wider world and the United States' position in it. (If you have a fundraiser to attend and are pressed for time, you could read a previous column of mine, on how to get a degree in international relations in five minutes.)

Here's the first thing you ought to wrap your brain around: The United States' position in the world ain't what it used to be. Don't misunderstand me, it is still the world's most powerful country, and its prospects are bright provided it doesn't make too many mistakes at home or abroad. Our military forces are still formidable (if not quite as omnipotent as they appeared in the 1990s), the U.S. economy is outperforming many others, and we retain disproportionate influence in the global financial order. U.S. support and protection is still welcome in many places, if not as widely as it once was.

Here's what’s different: When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the United States found itself in an unprecedented position of primacy. This was probably when many of you began your professional lives or started paying attention to politics. In this era, the United States was far stronger than any other single country and on relatively good terms with all the major powers in the world, including Russia and China. Future historians will debate exactly why the "unipolar moment" was so brief (Russia recovered, China kept growing rapidly, the United States squandered trillions of dollars in foolish wars, etc.); what you need to realize is that we are back in a world of competing great powers and rising stakes, where mistakes can have truly serious consequences. Competing effectively in that world requires a clear understanding of what our interests are, the ability to set priorities and stick to them, and a sober awareness of what U.S. power can and cannot accomplish. It also behooves us to keep our domestic divisions within bounds. Partisan warfare for its own sake is never a good thing, but it is increasingly an indulgence we cannot afford....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M."Congrats, You're a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up." Foreign Policy, January 11, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt