CSS Research & Policy Seminar – Monica Toft: “A Positive Future for US Foreign Policy and Strategy”

by Zoltan Feher

The Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) held its Open House and its inaugural Research & Policy Seminar on September 18, 2017. More than 75 students, faculty and staff attended the event and learned about The Fletcher School’s most recently established research center.

Following the introduction of the CSS staff and its planned programming for the academic year, participants attended the inaugural CSS Research & Policy Seminar. The Seminar will be a regular forum for Fletcher and visiting scholars to present unpublished policy-relevant scholarship on strategy, international politics, and US foreign policy.

The first Research & Policy Seminar talk was delivered by CSS Director and Fletcher Professor Monica Duffy Toft on “A Positive Future for US Foreign Policy and Strategy.”

Professor Toft demonstrated through a series of Gallup and Pew surveys that the image and reputation of the United States has deteriorated in past decades, but especially in recent years. In order to remedy this, America first needs to redefine its national goals. The United States today has a ‘whack-a-mole’ policy in international affairs – it is negative and reactionary. What we need instead is an open, non-partisan national discussion to define our new national goals.

Toft argues that America’s new national goal should be “to lead the world toward a future where all peoples have a say in their government, enjoy a fair standard of living, are subject to and privileged by due process of law, are secure from deliberate violence, and can benefit from these things sustainably.” Achieving this goal, however, requires patience, compromise, and a good combination of our grand strategic tools – diplomatic, economic, military, social, etc.

Accomplishing these objectives will be hard to achieve for several reasons. For one, the majority of Americans want the United States to remain No. 1 in the world, which might contradict a policy of patience and compromise. More importantly, American society is not only divided, it is riven. “The democratic process demands compromise and a knowledge of history, and the political elite has responded by refusing to compromise and by willfully distorting history,” said Toft.

The education system has also failed in this respect. Secondary schools do not produce critical thinkers, but instead leave that task for higher education, in which only a minority of Americans take part. As a result, those left out become angry and are susceptible to manipulation. Last, there is a wide gap between the thinking of foreign policy scholars and the general public. According to a Pew poll, foreign policy academics overwhelmingly (86%) favor U.S. involvement in the global economy, while only 49% of the rest of society support it.

One of the more immediate effects of these problems is the inversion of the lessons learned from the history of conflicts. Good foreign policy relies on diplomacy first, and the use of force only as a last resort. The same inverse lesson has been applied unfortunately in domestic policy, too – hyperpolicing, the securitization of policy, and the criminalization of mental illness, instead of community policing, a sufficient social safety net, and drug prevention programs.

Professor Toft outlined three recommendations. First, we need to re-invest in education, ensuring that secondary schools are as much about history, culture, language, arts, and politics as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and making university education more affordable. Second, we need to invest in research on consensus-building. “If Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland can do it, the GOP and Democrats can too.” Finally, the United States needs to work and share power with allies and turn enemies into friends, by rebuilding American diplomacy and the US Department of State.

Toft went on to quote Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ remark that the United States needs to inspire as much as intimidate. She concluded her talk with an idea reminiscent of John Winthrop’s City Upon a Hill: “America needs to fix democracy at home before pointing fingers abroad.”

Following Toft’s talk, a conversation took place with the participation of members of the audience. The thoughtful questions from attendees and the great turnout for the event should give us all hope that the national discussion that Toft is proposing will take place, and American society will be able to define its national goals for a better and more sustainable foreign policy and grand strategy. The Center for Strategic Studies will strive to contribute to the facilitation of this discussion.


Zoltan Feher is a diplomat from Hungary and a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, currently working as a Research Associate at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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