The US flag flies at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 20, 2009. Photo credit: STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images.

The US flag flies at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 20, 2009. Photo credit: STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images.

US 2020 Visionary Survey

The US and Americas Programme at Chatham House and foreign policy experts from across the United States and Europe share their views on United States foreign policy in 2020:

As we look ahead to the next decade, what is a pivotal US foreign policy issue you will be watching? How do you imagine this issue could be addressed?



  • In-depth view
  • 19 Dec 2019
  • 25 min read


Leslie Vinjamuri, Head, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House

In 2019, Secretary Pompeo announced the formation of a Commission on Unalienable Rights stating, ‘the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy.’ The Commission, chaired by Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a well-known human rights scholar, will be releasing its report in 2020.

The Commission is ambitious. At least two dilemmas motivate its work. First, human rights often come into tension with each other, ‘provoking questions and clashes about which rights are entitled to gain respect’.  Second, ‘nation-states and international institutions remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.’

The first will be easier to resolve in theory than in practice. This is also the most contentious aspect of the Commission’s work. Human rights have been the product of political struggle and the careful adoption of frames that resonate widely. To ensure its relevance and its utility, but also to limit the prospect of a backlash, the Commission should avoid narrowing the scope for human rights in ways that are out of sync with current political and social norms.

The second challenge is equally significant. The United States has a long- standing ambivalence towards international institutions. But the Commission should recognize that any attempt to restrict the legitimate authority of international institutions will set a precedent not only for America, but for other states as well. America’s disengagement from international human rights institutions threatens to undercut its ability to influence human rights practices across the globe.

An essential goal for the Commission should also be to answer the critique from leaders across the Global South that US support of human rights is highly selective. A principled but also pragmatic human rights agenda should designate rules of the road for managing trade-offs that arise when human rights are incompatible with other foreign policy goals. It should also tackle the difficult and controversial question of sequencing human rights, and, finally, elaborate the conditions that make a foreign policy that stresses human rights successful.

Creon Butler, Head, Global Economy and Finance Programme, Chatham House; Director for International Economic Affairs in the National Security Secretariat and G7/G20 ‘sous sherpa’ (2017-19)

The global economy faces arguably its greatest set of challenges since WW2 – most notably the transformation required to address global warming, but also the need to provide an effective data, tax and human rights framework for the digital economy and to find a way to address legitimate national security threats in international trade and investment while preserving global economic integration.  Tackling these effectively will be much harder, if not impossible, if the multilateral economic system is fundamentally weakened, or its underlying principles changed.  The system’s future is therefore one of the most important foreign policy issues facing the US over the next decade.

At Davos in 2018 President Trump said, ‘America First does not mean America alone’.  But it is now clear that by this he means achieving US economic goals through a series of bilateral transactional agreements and coalitions of countries who share a particular US priority. This would seem to leave at best a minor role for the multilateral system.  At the same time, pressure continues from China and other emerging economies for increased influence to match their rising ambition and economic weight.  But it is now less certain than at the start of the decade that such influence, if achieved, will be deployed in line with the system’s founding free-market, non-political principles.

The US has a major opportunity to influence the multilateral economic system’s future for the better when the president hosts the G7 Summit at Camp David next June.  But critical to success will be a willingness to choose topics which both the US and its closest allies see as first tier global priorities and to take a long-term, evidence-based approach which draws on the capabilities of existing international organizations and frameworks.   

Megan Greene, Dame DeAnne Julius Senior Fellow in International Economics and Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government (M-RCBG) at the Harvard Kennedy School

If you are going to worry about one foreign policy issue over the next decade in terms of both potential impact and probability, it must be centered around China. The trade war between the US and China will continue to play out, but I am more concerned about China’s actions that led to it: government subsidies of high-tech industries, intellectual property infractions and forced technology transfers to become the world leader in machine learning, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Whoever achieves this status will have an edge in security and defence as well. And all of this will play out against a backdrop of China’s growing efforts to create spheres of influence around the world—partly through the Belt and Road Initiative—and its militarization of the South China Sea. Part of China’s ambitions will continue to be shaped by its economic prowess. Over the next decade, we can expect China’s economy to slow and its debt burdens to continue to rise to staggering levels—a challenge as China will continue to try to integrate its command economy into a (somewhat) free-market global economy.

Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics in the Department of Political Science, Columbia University

Nowhere is the gap between expert knowledge and leaders’ understanding greater than in the area of cyber conflict. The nature and use of cyber weapons is enormously complicated. As one high level official said to me, ‘This stuff makes my brain hurt.’ Exactly what cyber weapons can do depends on fast-changing developments of technology, software and organization on the part of both the attacker and the defender. Furthermore, cyber weapons are constantly being used around the globe, and private actors are both important players and many of the targets. Compounding this, it is extraordinarily difficult to separate offensive from defensive moves because the same tools and intrusions that are used for espionage and checking on what the adversary is doing can be used to disrupt and disable his systems.

All this creates great opportunities for misunderstandings and mischief. These are multiplied by the fact that in a severe cyber conflict each side will find that the crucial communications and information systems are degraded and perhaps used for deception.

Political leaders are extraordinarily busy and have little technical training. By and large, understanding of cyber dynamics is inversely related to one’s position in the national security hierarchy. In a cyber crisis – and it is hard to believe we won’t have one – leaders are likely to be flying blind. Perhaps the best hope is that a frightening experience will lead to strong international controls.

Amy Pope, Associate Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House and U.S. Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, National Security Council (2015-2017)

As we look forward to the 2020s, there are fewer politically intractable, unresolved challenges faced by states—including the United States — than dealing with the impacts of forced migration — migration caused by conflict, natural disaster, extreme poverty and other factors.  This foreign policy issue is one of the few that directly impacts domestic politics and very rarely in helpful or productive ways.  The benefits of a diverse and pluralistic society are lost as the negative politicization of migrants increases public support for isolationism and nationalism.

All signs suggest that the situation will not improve anytime soon.  The impact of climate change on migration now and in the future suggests the picture will become more bleak, destabilizing regions including in the Western Hemisphere.

To take one example — a coffee leaf rust outbreak in 2013 exacerbated by unusually warm and wet conditions destroyed coffee crops throughout Central America, costing half a million jobs and approximately $1 billion in revenue over the last few years.  Combined with endemic violence, political corruption, and a lack of governance, it is no surprise that Central American migration to the US southwest border reached highs not seen in nearly 20 years this last summer.

The Trump Administration was the only state not to agree to the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration last year.  It has cut or diverted assistance meant to reverse the drivers of migration in the Western Hemisphere.  It has slashed its refugee resettlement ceiling to a number not seen since 1980.  Yet it is providing no meaningful solutions to address the problem.  Unless the US brings a holistic approach to the problem, it will be overwhelmed once again by the consequences.

Jack Snyder, Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Columbia University

Thomas Jefferson said that he would prefer ‘newspapers without a government’ to ‘a government without newspapers,’ since free speech would suffice to regenerate democracy.  A few disappointing years later, though, the parlous state of American newspapers led him to remark that ‘Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.’

Facing similar problems today, should we double down on unfettered free speech as the remedy, or should we censor ‘fake news’ and ‘hate speech’?  Neither.  The best solution is to put our main news platforms and broadcasts in the hands of high-quality professional journalists, and let them exercise their judgment about what is newsworthy.  Laws against libel, incitement, and fraud have long provided effective tools to deal with egregious abuse of the freedom of speech.  As for less inflammatory varieties of misinformation, research documented in Harvard media scholar Yochai Benkler’s Network Propaganda shows that even in today’s free-wheeling social media, unfounded extremist rumors can be damped down as long as the main institutional anchors of public information are in the hands of real journalists.

In the US context, bringing back the pre-1988 Federal Communications Commission’s broadcast ‘fairness doctrine’ would be a step toward saner discourse.  In the meantime, Facebook and other tech platforms have voluntarily added professional journalists to help curate their newsfeeds.  Let’s keep the pressure on to reinforce that trend.

Dalia Dassa Kaye, Director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation

Every US administration since the 1979 Islamic revolution has been entangled with national security crises linked to Iran. The Trump administration has pursued particularly confrontational policies, withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement and establishing a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign that is squeezing allies and adversaries alike, with no clear endgame.

If this most confrontational approach to Iran we’ve seen in decades produces increased tension and instability, and political strengthening of the Islamic Republic in its confrontation with the United States, the key question in the coming decade is whether American policymakers will be open to trying something new. Can the United States forge a different relationship with Iran? Its ability to do so could have a transformative impact on a region that continues to vex the United States and our allies.

The first step to reimagining the US-Iran relationship is for the United States to develop a viable Iran strategy. The strategy needs to rethink longstanding containment policies and address Iran as key regional player (with limits), not just a nuclear problem. A sustainable US Iran strategy will also need to be based on changing realities within Iran and the region, not just policy wish lists in Washington. Forty years of policy failure is too long and the stakes for continuing to get Iran wrong are only growing costlier.

Peter Westmacott, Associate Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House and UK Ambassador to US (2012-2016)

Iran is one of several foreign policy issues which will need careful watching over the next decade, particularly if the tensions which have characterized President Trump’s relations with allies and international institutions in his first term continue for a second.

Despite European and other pressures not to do so, President Trump has resiled from the 2015 nuclear deal and instead applied additional sanctions as part of a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran directed at ensuring a better deal or regime change or both. Iran has responded by resuming enrichment and launched attacks on shipping, Saudi oil facilities and a US drone.

The Trump administration sees recent economic difficulties and social unrest in Iran as evidence that its policy is working. But the president seems keen to meet in person with President Rouhani in order to seal a win and resume negotiations. So far, however, he has declined to offer the sanctions relief which Iran says it requires up front. Creative diplomacy will be required on both sides, by other Persian Gulf states, and by potential intermediaries in Europe or further afield if the danger of further escalation and even a regional nuclear arms race is to be avoided.

Lindsay Newman, Senior Research Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House

The greatest foreign policy challenges of the decade(s) ahead facing the US and the world will be the cross-cutting ones – climate crisis and economic inequality.

China presents a multi-dimensional disruption to the liberal international order led for the last 70 years by the United States. American policymakers are in an extended conversation around how to adjust to a rising China, particularly as its priorities intersect the US’ own on technology, security, resource management and politically-sensitive arenas (including human rights).

Reports of Russia’s decline remain greatly exaggerated. While Russia may no longer represent an economic rival to the US, its ability to tactically interject (Venezuela, Libya, information/interference operations) and strategically shift the conversation (Syria) will likely impact US national security so long as Vladimir Putin leads.

In the nearer term, there will also be much discussion around the future of multilateralism. French President Emanuel Macron’s statement of NATO’s “brain death” brought a jolt because of its resonance, not despite it. A US administration’s recommitment to predictability in its international engagements (NATO, WTO, Paris Climate Agreement) would represent a major step towards alleviating these concerns.

Without coordination from each of these – US, Europe, China and (potentially new) multilateral institutions - we will be poorly-positioned to address the existential risks of climate change and economic inequality, with technology able to both harness solutions (renewables) but also exacerbate the trends (automation, artificial intelligence). Indeed, we will continue to feel the reverberations of these twin threats, with governments only able to respond reactively (as we have seen recently with the protests across Latin America and the Middle East), in the absence of a coordinated, global best practices efforts to address them.

Robert Howse, Lloyd C. Nelson Professor of International Law, New York University School of Law

As an international trade scholar, I'll naturally be watching US policy toward China. But this is much more than trade. Last month, America spoke with one voice when the Congress passed almost unanimously a bill condemning human rights violations in Hong Kong with stiff sanctions for further oppression from Beijing. The administration was in delicate talks with China to abate the trade wars; yet the risks to economic relations did not deter US legislators from standing up to China on human rights and democracy.

Ironically, our trade predicament can be traced back to a decision of the Clinton Administration to end pressure on China about human rights, betting on liberalization driven by China's integration into the global economic system, notably the WTO. Now we find ourselves entangled in economic interdependence with a rival political and economic system. The mix of geopolitical rivalry, conflict of systems, and high interdependence is a dangerous one-take Huawei/ 5G, for instance. Technological realities and multinational networks of commerce and data mean we cannot simply isolate China, but partial decoupling, as is happening with the Trump Administration's policies on national security and economic relations, may serve to reduce tensions.  

China is making its global influence felt. The US doesn't have a competitive alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative, which is shaping economics-and politics-in Africa and elsewhere. Not only are we not out there building the world's infrastructure; our own is crumbling or absurdly outdated, public education system a disaster, health outcomes some of the poorest in developed countries.

An additional complexity is that we also need China's cooperation.  The crucial area is climate change.  China's emissions increases (primarily from burning coal) are wiping out the efforts of others to halt climate change.  President Obama was pushing China to get on board with a cooperative solution, but the current administration is in deep denial about the coming climate catastrophe. The cataclysmic disruptions­­ ­–of populations, resources, land masses –we will face in the coming decades will require us to work with China, and other regimes that see the world in a very different way and don't generally act in accord with our interests. ­

Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe, The Brookings Institution

One of the greatest challenges facing the United States is domestic political polarization, which is affecting how the US responds to foreign policy questions. In recent years, Russia, Ukraine and Israel have become subject to partisan divisions. Where there is strong bipartisan agreement about countries’ bad behavior – such as China and Turkey, American leaders risk making short-term decisions that could have negative long-term consequences. The failure to live up to its own values at home, especially on good governance, affects the ability of the United States to speak with a moral voice abroad. Polarization will remain a problem for years to come, irrespective of who wins the 2020 presidential election.

Anna Wieslander, Director for Northern Europe, The Atlantic Council

I will be watching closely the US commitment to the defence of Europe. Within the next decade, there is a possibility that the transatlantic bargain, which has tightly bonded American with European security, will not hold. This would imply a decreased American engagement in Europe with regard to diplomatic efforts, troop presence and readiness.

It might be that a re-elected president Trump loses his interest in European allies and blames a US withdrawal from the continent on their lack of defense investments. It could also be that the US keeps an engaged approach, but simply is over-stretched by increasing tensions elsewhere in the world, such as the Indo-Pacific.

In either case, Europeans need to be prepared that the Americans might not lead the defence of Europe as has been the plan since NATO was founded 70 years ago. Rather, European allies might need to respond first to a major war or conflict. To address this possibility, Europe not only needs to invest more in defence, but do it with the aim to manage and maintain a strong response and resolve by own means. For that to realize within a decade, preparations need to start now.

Micah Zenko, Former Whitehead Senior Fellow, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House (2017-2018)

Over the next decade, the foreign policy issue that will be most consequential will depend upon who is elected or appointed to positions of power in Washington, D.C., and what those people believe should be the organizing principles for America’s engagement with the world.

In the United States, the Executive branch has growing and nearly limitless foreign policy and war-making powers, which has been tolerated by Congress’ diminishing interest in fulfilling its oversight role. The elite decisionmakers who serve in the Executive enter office with pre-conceived notions of foreign policy priorities, and generally adhere to those priorities as unforeseen challenges and opportunities emerge.

Therefore, the person inaugurated as president in 2020, 2024, and 2028, will have overwhelming power in determining America’s global openness, interest in pursuing multilateral cooperation, commitment to supporting treaty allies and partner countries, and faith in the utility of military force. The extent of agreement between likely presidents and presidential candidates about America’s role in the world will further decrease in the next decade, which makes the quadrennial election outcomes so immensely important. Whoever rules Washington will determine how America will connect with the outside world.

Marianne Schneider-Petsinger, Research Fellow, US and Americas Programme, Chatham House

The US’s trade policies will continue to have important implications for global economic growth and governance of global trade. How the US and China resolve – or at least manage – their trade dispute and the race for technological leadership will matter far beyond the world’s two largest economies. Issues related to levelling the playing field, tackling forced technology transfer or IP theft, and dealing with state-capitalism are best addressed via the WTO. But the organization is currently not fit for purpose to deal with the challenges posed by China or 21st century trade issues such as digital trade. To fix the system, the US stands a better chance of success by working with allies such as the EU and Japan. Future trade deals – whether bilateral, regional or multilateral – present an opportunity for the US to build a more sustainable and inclusive world. How labour and environmental provisions – and their enforcement – are included in future agreements will be a critical issue for global trade governance. At the same time, the US needs to reconsider how to more effectively help those hurt by trade liberalization and technological change. Addressing those challenges will help to re-establish a bipartisan consensus on trade and support restoring US leadership on trade.