U.S. Foreign Policy Needs a Realism Rebate

Dr. George E. Bogden


There have been many reasons for shutdown drama in Washington in recent years. But the fight over a foreign aid package is a new one. It underlines President Biden’s lack of leadership in bringing this critical spending across the finish line. In Biden’s parlance, Congress’ refusal to pass the latest multi-billion-dollar package is not the result of politicians responding to widely-held public sentiment. Instead, a cadre of cynical “isolationists” are content to watch Western civilization burn. Declaring it’s always “Weimar o’clock” has become as grimly predictable as the failures it coincides with. This tired rhetoric certainly won’t persuade more Americans to support spending on foreign aid.

Here’s what might: assuring Americans of a tangible “realism rebate” by publicly committing to pivot our foreign policy to demand more of our allies and expect more of ourselves moving forward.

Let me be clear: I want to see an aid package passed. I’ve spent years investigating the origins of Ukraine’s plight; Kyiv needs our support urgently. So do the Israelis and the Taiwanese. But I also pride myself on being a resident of the real world. In the realm I inhabit, wishful thinking doesn’t get legislation passed, and dismissing legitimate concerns pushes reasonable people farther away. Condescension breeds contempt.

I’m not sure the Biden Administration fully grasps this. They wax poetic about defending democracy abroad but seem annoyed by its presence here. They also appear incapable of accepting that skepticism about foreign aid is simply a reality of our modern political landscape. It can’t be lectured away or pressed into submission.

And let’s be honest: today’s incredulity is well-earned.

Americans want a reprieve from kicking the can through spending that just leads to more spending six months down the road. That’s not to say they aren’t willing to devote resources to anything. But they do want to know what the goal is, assess what victory looks like, and have assurances they’ll be getting actual value for money. Their attitude is hardly wild-eyed isolationism. It’s rational. It’s an acquaintance with reality. And the reality is what Biden needs to engage with more if he wants to secure public support for foreign aid while avoiding a shutdown two weeks from Sunday.

That’s why, before any talk of Democracy Dividends overseas, the administration must first focus on delivering a Realism Rebate here at home.

First, that means demanding more of our allies.

The Europeans are our friends. We need them. For too long, however, many treated our commitment to their security as an entitlement. That must end immediately. Arrears to our alliance, not just in NATO, must be paid. Nations that refuse must face consequences. Beguiling guilt trips won’t suffice. And, when their leaders complain privately of needing to spend the funds on domestic concerns, they must be publicly shamed and reminded that U.S. funds are being diverted from similar priorities. Had the Europeans not freeloaded for decades and let their own capabilities atrophy, Putin would never have invaded Ukraine. Now, on the second anniversary of German Chancellor Scholz’s “Zeitenwende” speech, it’s worth remembering that nations like Germany continue to miss the bare minimum target of spending 2 percent of their GPD on defense.

Second, it means demanding more of ourselves.

It is difficult to remain a step ahead of events while shooting oneself in the foot. As just one example, the administration must let go of lingering fantasies about the Iran Nuclear Deal, which led it to take Tehran’s proxies off the terrorism list that are now killing U.S. servicemembers. It means not undercutting an ally embroiled in a war against terrorists by publicly musing about recognizing a Palestinian state. And, most of all, it means no longer making threats we aren’t prepared to act on. Friends and foes impatiently gauging our government’s next move are left to wonder whether Mr. Biden has run out of feet to fire upon.

In short, it’s time to take a more realistic approach to the world—one that Americans can understand and buy into. They deserve a strategy—not necessarily a grand one—but a plan that indicates how their tax dollars will make a true difference, distinguishing where costs can be outsourced to able allies. They also deserve a laser-like focus on how their government can engage better, smarter—and not always more—in the limited arenas where our interests dictate intervention. They certainly deserve the assurance that this administration will define success before blindly engaging in the future.

Reframing the current anemic debate on spending might resuscitate the collapsing foreign policy its meant to support. Convincing the American people that a “Realism Rebate” lies just around the corner would, at the very least, indicate to them policymakers are listening. And if the current shutdown drama teaches us anything, that must be priority one for the Biden Administration if it’s actually serious about getting an aid package passed now or in the future.



George E. Bogden is a Blankley Fellow at the Steamboat Institute and an Olin Fellow at Columbia Law School.

March 12, 2024