At the start of the school year, Stephen Brooks likes to ask students at Dartmouth College to look around the globe and choose a region where they think the U.S. could pull back. Would they shrink the U.S. footprint in Western Europe, East Asia or the Middle East?
Most students used to say Western Europe. That was before Vladimir Putin's Russia annexed Crimea and became involved in Eastern Ukraine. Now, most students say if they had to, they'd scale back in the Middle East, a region so troubled, the U.S. might not be able to do much to help.
Brooks says this exercise is meant to get students thinking about the big picture, something the next president will have to do, too.
"The biggest things on the table right now for any president is not the crisis of the day, but rather the overall position of America in the world," said Brooks, who co-authored America Abroad: The United States' Global Role in the 21st Century.
With the presidential election just over two months away, NPR is looking this week at the current debate and the tough choices facing the next U.S. leader. We've called on our correspondents around the world to explore U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, America's financial relationship with Europe, the rising military tension in the South China Sea and U.S. efforts to spread its cultural influence in Africa.
All this is part of our series, A Nation Engaged, which addresses the full spectrum of issues in this year's election.
Engagement Or Retrenchment?
In his book, Brooks and his co-author, William Wohlforth, argue that the U.S. has advanced its interests by playing a "globally engaged role" in recent decades, helping to shape the security environment in key regions of the world and promoting an economic order that has benefited the U.S.
The choice for the country and for the next president is whether the U.S. will continue to play this role, Brooks says.
Conservative critics of President Obama say his administration has already ceded this leadership role.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute was hoping this election campaign would focus on ways to restore the U.S. position, though the debate has not gone the way she had hoped.
"There are two parties when it comes to foreign policy but they are not the Republican Party and the Democratic Party," Pletka told NPR. "They are the isolationist party and the internationalist party."
Her party's candidate, Donald Trump, has been questioning the value of longtime alliances, even suggesting that he would not automatically defend the small Baltic states, which are NATO allies, if they were attacked by Russia. Trump told The New York Times in July he would come to their aid if NATO partners "fulfilled their obligations to us."
Pletka says she understands why some Trump supporters wonder, "Where are the Germans? Where are the French? Where are the British? Why should we always be the ones to step in?"
But "Americans are better," she counters. "Americans have always stood for freedom and Americans have always stood for countries where big outside powers have tried to chew them up."
The Future Of Old Alliances
At another Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security, former Navy captain Jerry Hendrix is also worried about Trump's global views.
"He's a self-described deal maker. There isn't anyone that he doesn't think that he can sit down at the table and be able to get an advantage on," says Hendrix, who describes himself as a realist Republican. He fears Trump is giving "short shrift" to the global alliances and international system that the U.S. has helped to build over the past 70 years.
The U.S. alliance structures both in Europe and in Asia have held off major wars and arms races, Hendrix says, adding they are critical now in this new era of "territorial acquisitions," with Russia taking parts of Ukraine and Georgia, and China building artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Allies in Europe and Asia are already nervous that "a more retrenched, isolationist view has gotten some traction" in this presidential campaign, according to Michèle Flournoy, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security.
A Democrat and former Pentagon official, Flournoy says a new president will have to spend time reassuring allies and partners around the globe and shoring up U.S. credibility.
"These are not free riders," Flournoy says of U.S. allies around the world. She believes Hillary Clinton would be able to reassure these partners.
"My impression of her, watching her as secretary of state, is that she's very much an internationalist," Flournoy said in an interview. "She believes in the power of U.S. leadership to bring coalitions together to solve shared problems. And I think what I saw in her time after time in the [White House] Situation Room is her ability and desire to integrate the different elements of power."
Democrats too, though, are debating just how forward-leaning the U.S. should be. Some see Clinton as too hawkish. Flournoy acknowledges that the U.S. interventions of the last 15 years, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, have been more difficult than anticipated, so it may be time for some stock-taking. She says the next president has a huge inbox, filled with more security challenges than we've seen in decades.