For decades, Americans have been able to count on a president who upholds basic principles – fidelity to American values, responsible stewardship of our national security institutions, a commitment to American alliances and the international institutions that our country shaped and that have ensured our strength and prosperity. Since the day President Trump took office, all of this has been at risk.
One of the many lies President Trump has peddled to the American people is that the United States, under his leadership, is more respected around the world. Opinion polls reveal a different set of facts. In a Gallup survey released last month, China’s leadership was held in higher esteem than America’s for the first time. Our standing in the world has plummeted.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. We have a president who is erratic on the world stage, escalating conflicts and belligerently threatening war – even a potentially catastrophic nuclear conflict on the Korean peninsula – from his Twitter account. He has alarmed our friends by questioning core alliances and breaking our commitment to keep international agreements. He has hollowed out the State Department, abandoned a rigorous policy process in favor of impulsive decision-making, and attacked the credibility of law enforcement and intelligence agencies that keep us safe. He has blurred the line between personal financial interest and national interest. And he has undermined values such as a free press at home, while downgrading America’s historic support for human rights abroad. China and Russia have stepped into this void.
Accepting this as the new normal would be dangerous. That’s why on Tuesday, on behalf of more than 50 fellow national security leaders and experts, we launched a new advocacy group, National Security Action, committed to restoring principled American leadership. We have spent much of the last year recruiting some of the most accomplished foreign policy and national security minds of our generation—the generation that will be called upon to repair the damage inflicted by the Trump administration. Many of us have been active and outspoken over the past year, but today marks the start of a new, more organized effort to spotlight the dangers of the Trump Administration while supporting an alternative, affirmative vision designed to keep America safe, strong and prosperous.
We don’t have to agree on everything, but what unites us is the knowledge that American leadership is indispensable. No ally or adversary should ever doubt America’s resolve or the credibility of our president. America is better off when we strengthen alliances such as NATO. We enhance our security and strengthen our economy when we rally the world to confront global threats, from stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to combating climate change. To paraphrase the saying, when America isn’t at the head of the table, we’re on the menu.
Our military will remain the most powerful fighting force the world has ever seen, but we should put diplomacy first, and only deploy our men and women in uniform as a last resort—with a clear plan for success, and with care to avoid civilian casualties. We know that conflicts are less likely when we fully fund and staff our State Department and development agencies. Our government should support—not undermine—the law enforcement and intelligence professionals who keep us safe. Instead of retreating into isolationism, we should advance efforts to open markets abroad, create jobs at home, and promote American innovation and industry. Rather than scapegoating and building walls, we should forge partnerships—including with Muslim communities and our neighbors to the south—to maintain our competitive edge, secure our country, and honor our founding ideals.
We also know that we can most effectively lead the world through the example we set. Fidelity to our founding ideals—including freedom of religion, speech and the press — is what makes us exceptional, and what gives hope to citizens around the world who seek dignity in their own countries. If we lose touch with who we are as Americans, we will lose the legitimacy to lead the world. We reject the false choice between welcoming immigrants and refugees and combating terrorists like ISIL and gangs like MS-13—we can and must do both.
Finally, we must not become inured to the corruption and conflicts of interest that characterize the Trump administration. Americans deserve leaders who are honest, trustworthy, and who abide by the rule of law. No one is above the law, and those who violate the Constitution or commit crimes must be held accountable. And as we continue to investigate why Trump conspicuously refrains from criticizing Moscow, we must support those in Congress who are trying to do what Trump won’t: confront Russia for its continuing assault on our democracy, and build our defenses to thwart it.
Having served in government, we had the privilege of learning that leadership is not merely an abstract ideal. It’s a down-payment against the specters that haunt our national security professionals—terrorist attacks, nuclear exchanges, global pandemics, a warming planet—and the surest means to achieve safety and prosperity for the American people.
Not long ago, the United States was the leader of the free world. Today, we begin this campaign because we know that America must be so again.
Ben Rhodes is former Deputy National Security Advisor during the Barack Obama administration and Jake Sullivan is Hillary Clinton’s former chief policy advisor. They are Co-Chairs of National Security Action.