Hide table of contents

There is generally a lack of strong foreign policy thinking on the American political left, and attempts to fill this gap have usually suffered from some combination of being too vague and holding bad views. Effective Altruists are often not leftist, because leftist politics may be incorrect. However, we share some philosophical ideas on goals for foreign policy. And Americans broadly recognize that we need to improve our foreign policy. There needs to be a credible foreign policy alternative to the centrist establishment and the extreme antiwar left. It could be adopted by people across on the political spectrum, as foreign policy is less partisan than domestic political issues. And of course America’s foreign policy is extremely important for addressing global humanitarian crises, existential risks from nuclear war and emerging technologies, and other problems. Overall, it is a good arena for us to throw our weight around. However, I have so far seen little serious effort among Effective Altruists to develop and present substantial foreign policy ideas, aside from narrow issues like nuclear command-and-control, foreign aid, and cooperation on artificial intelligence governance.

Here is my recommended platform for American foreign policy. More detailed justifications for many of these positions can be found in the Candidate Scoring System. They are based on the goals of improving global well-being and ensuring a safe future for humanity. They will also support a growing American economy, elevate our moral status in the world, reduce our risk of being attacked, and protect our air and climate.

One thing that’s missing here is a general practical framework/philosophy for when America should go to war. This is a big topic which I would like to address more comprehensively at a later time.

Addressing our Potential Adversaries


Don’t quit engaging

America’s policy of engaging China has not and will not make them a more liberal country. However, it lifts millions of Chinese out of poverty, grows our own economy and probably moderates China’s international behavior, so we should not jump into a fully confrontational mindset. Zakaria’s view is a bit too dovish – we should be more worried about the threat of Chinese interference in foreign business, speech and elections, as well as military aggression. Still, we should broadly maintain an eclectic view combining pragmatic engagement (focused narrowly on issues like economics, peacekeeping and emerging technology, rather than a generic mantra of liberal progress) with determined deterrence.

Maintain our commitment to defend Taiwan

America must continue to ensure that China would incur more costs than benefits in an invasion of Taiwan. We should err on the safe side, recognizing that the CCP calculus may change in the event of domestic turmoil or other developments. Thus, deterring an invasion of Taiwan must include willingness on our part to deploy substantial economic, political and military force. We must support Taiwan’s military capabilities, particularly asymmetric ones, while ensuring that they do not pursue nuclear weapons.

Formulate realistic military strategy

America’s ability to militarily dominate domains adjacent to China is dubious at best. China has much less distance to project military power, and their economic strength relative to us is growing. Moreover, it is both unrealistic and undesirable for us to radically shrink our military commitments in Europe and the greater Middle East; the ‘pivot to Asia’ will never be fully completed.

Therefore, military strategy for deterring and defeating China must be based on the realistic use of limited assets. We should consider emphasizing the infliction of unacceptable costs rather than necessarily winning, and consider ways that air and sea denial (rather than control) may be adequate to prevent Chinese victory. This lighter approach (doctrine-wise) may correspondingly reduce Sino-American tensions.

Stand up for humanity

America needs to make it very clear that the concentration camps in Xinjiang are unacceptable, and ending them should be the highest immediate priority for Sino-American relations. We should also strongly oppose the campaign of sexual coercion against the Uyghurs, and maintain condemnation of police brutality in Hong Kong.

We should remember that the CCP can perceive human rights criticism and internal political dissent as an existential threat to their regime. This does not mean we should tiptoe, but it does mean that we should be realistic and prepared for resistance. Policy levers for negotiations can include sanctions on responsible individuals and firms, national-level sanctions and trade policy, and offering membership in international economic institutions. We should also combat the transnational Jihadist networks which contribute to the CCP’s perception of Uyghur threats and offer to cooperate on legitimate anti-jihadist efforts in the region if the internment and sexual coercion campaigns are ended.

Relax the trade war

Some economic retaliation against China’s unfair trading practices may be warranted. However, Trump’s trade war has mostly been excessive and ineffective. We need to step back, critically interrogate our own economic practices towards China to see if we are really getting the short end of the stick, and consider more measured alternatives.

Nuclear negotiation

America should pursue bilateral arms negotiations with China in order to arrest the growth of their nuclear arsenal.


America must maintain a strong commitment to NATO.

We must continue to offer support to the Georgian and Ukrainian militaries, but we should also seek diplomatic resolutions of the disputes in Donbass, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

We should also pursue renewed negotiations to reduce our nuclear forces.

North Korea

It is unrealistic to expect North Korea to give up its nuclear capability. We should seek a peace deal which recognizes this reality and offers sanctions relief in exchange for beneficial concessions.


We must create a deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and hopefully reduce their support for terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East, while removing sanctions on their economy . We should recognize that the JCPOA was a good deal and that withdrawing was a bad move. Rejoining our European partners in trying to uphold it is an attractive option, but it may be worthwhile to try and build a different deal instead.

Treating Nations Fairly

Don’t box Southeast Asia into geopolitical camps

America should not push nations like the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia into a simple dichotomy between pro-US and pro-China alliance. Instead, we should recognize that they are going to have their own complex and seemingly contradictory responses to Chinese influence. We should be present as a source of security that they can lean on without being too demanding, and should accept agreements with China to respect nonaligned free status for certain countries, like what happened to Finland in the Cold War.

Take Africa seriously

America should pay attention to demographic and economic projections which show a growing importance for Africa in the coming decades, and should not treat African nations merely as pieces of a competition of greater powers. We should allocate substantial diplomatic and related resources to supporting peace, prosperity and freedom on the African continent.

Revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

We need to take immediate steps to improve the peace process, including adding conditions on aid to Israel, pressing for a two-state solution. Still, the regular path to a two-state solution has dubious feasibility at this point (many experts believe it is simply never going to happen). We should consider the alternatives of binational confederation and Egyptian/Jordanian annexation (though these do not look easily achievable either). We should also consider the possibility that Israel will refuse to give up control of the occupied territories, in which case we would have to focus on ensuring that the Palestinians are treated better.

Fixing our Diplomatic Service

Rebuild the State Department

The State Department must get renewed priority so that we can solve more problems without going to war. We should adopt Elizabeth Warren’s plan for revitalizing the foreign service.

Foster diversity

American foreign policymaking has an empathy problem and should not be dominated by an Ivy League monoculture focused on a liberal hegemonic approach to international politics. We need representation from different parts of America, different parts of the world, and different sects of the academy, with conceptually eclectic and anti-ideological thinking. We also need ’genuine cognitive diversity’ to understand the complex modern world.

Improving the Fight Against Radical Islam

End the bombing of Yemen

America must immediately cease supporting Saudi Arabia’s inhumane bombing campaign in Yemen and must fully pressure Saudi Arabia to end it. Resolving the Yemen crisis must be the unequivocal number-one priority in US-Saudi Arabian relations.

Develop a serious path to victory or successful negotiations in Afghanistan

While negotiations with the Taliban are a good approach, they must be backed up by the implicit expectations that we are going to keep fighting if we don’t get a satisfactory deal and will be willing to re-engage if the terms of the deal are violated; the latter is a critical barrier to civil war settlement. In addition, we should be honestly prepared for negotiations to simply fail anyway.

Therefore, we need a clear strategic path to progress in Afghanistan. We currently have only 7,000 troops in Afghanistan, compared to previous levels of 100,000 or more. These low levels have continued for years and are too low to win the conflict. A new approach can include increasing troop levels to a larger fraction of their previous numbers so that the conflict is winnable. Another key issue is to follow the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s recommendations. The identification of best- and worst-performing reconstructive activities should follow Effective Altruist best practices in program evaluation. Also, the military officer corps should emphasize strategic thinking in Afghanistan in parallel to operational thinking, rather than leaving the former on the backburner. Finally, commanders should have more leeway to demechanize our force posture. Utilization of mechanized forces improves operational speed and safety but worsens the prospects for effective peacemaking; we must accept the risks and costs of a more human-focused posture in order to promote trust and resolution of internal conflict.

Maintain the fight in Iraq against ISIS and Iran-backed militias while respecting Iraqi sovereignty

Preventing the resurgence of ISIS and preventing Iranian proxy control of Iraq are important objectives. Our small force of 5,000 troops should continue working alongside the Iraqis and other forces in the coalition. However, this must only continue with Iraqi support. Iraq has not actually voted to remove US troops, as has been reported; however, using political leverage to discourage them from doing so is a very poor choice which creates a grave moral hazard and tarnishes perceptions of America in the region. If they ultimately decide that American troops should leave then it is time for us to focus on other problems in the world.

Continue our efforts against insurgency and terrorism in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa

Our withdrawal of forces from AFRICOM should be halted. We must support our African partners against Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and other extremist groups, in concert with broad efforts to reduce fragility in the region.

Support mediation and peaceful resolution of the Libyan Civil War

America’s neglect of Libya since the 2011 bombing campaign has contributed to the nation being in a continuous state of unabated civil war. Russian/Turkish mediation has not produced results, but European talks are beginning. America must signal support for this process, offer assistance to support a peace deal, and offer to credibly mediate if necessary.

Oversight and accountability

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force must be replaced with restrictions on executive authority. By ending the blank check that was issued in the aftermath of 9/11, we can improve congressional oversight of military activities. We can also recognize that our top-level priorities go beyond the narrow focus on counterterrorism and include more holistic national security and humanitarian priorities. In addition, the Overseas Contingency Operations Fund should be reformed with greater restrictions and oversight.

These reforms to the AUMF and OCO Fund should be moderate in severity and scope. Empowering Congress to take more control of our military activities is risky given the inexperience and flawed views of many legislators on the subject. However, in the long run, it is important to build a new relationship where the defense and foreign policy spheres are forced to gain trust that their military operations are effective and beneficial. In addition, we look towards new Democratic representatives with national security backgrounds to provide competent and fair new leadership.

Our drone strike campaign must also be brought under stricter oversight. Proposed strikes should meet a stronger threshold for greater benefits and lower risks of civilian casualties.

Sharpening our Military

Maintain defense spending

Given the breadth of challenges faced by us and our allies, our current military spending levels should be continued. Maintaining our spending (as opposed to cutting it) helps us prevail in wars against aggression, jihadism, piracy and insurgency. It costs money for us and may compel adversarial governments to spend more money on their militaries, but can also reduce military fiscal burdens and tensions for our allies. It could increase arms races, but will also deter aggression and minimize the risk of insolvency and uncertainty surrounding America’s extensive geostrategic commitments.

Revise nuclear doctrine

While No-First-Use is undesirable for us, we should adopt a policy of never using nuclear weapons except in cases of nuclear or existential attacks upon us or our allies.

We should also add our long-overdue signature to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Improve conventional deterrence

Sustaining conventional deterrence is a top priority for America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. But we can further improve our ability to use conventional fires to deter attacks, so that our reliance on nuclear weapons is lessened and the risk of nuclear escalation is minimized. Conventional deterrence is also very important in cases where we cannot credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons, such as a Russian invasion of the Baltic states.

We should consider increasing our emphasis on potential systems like Long Range Precision Fires and Conventional Prompt Global Strike. We should remain open to using cluster munitions/DPICMs and land mines in situations where they can lessen the need for tactical nuclear weapons. Autonomous weapons are also acceptable.

Reduce waste and overextension

Procurement needs reforms to target contractor bloat, inefficiency, delays, and abuse. Cost-plus contracting should be used less frequently.

We should close some unnecessary bases in the Middle East and generally scrutinize our overseas military bases more rigorously to see if they are really worth keeping open. Stronger congressional oversight of base posture is the most obvious way to achieve this.

The Air Force should prune rare legacy airframes and standardize on fewer types. Congressmembers should not insist on preserving spurious programs which create contractor jobs in their districts, unless it is very important to preserve contractors’ institutional knowledge for predictable future programs.

Lighten our environmental footprint

The military should take steps to reduce its carbon emissions, considering reforms such as those proposed by Elizabeth Warren.

Sound transgender policy

The military should not be politically pressured to exclude transgender personnel. Whereas transgender personnel can be included without significantly affecting readiness, they should be accommodated. While gender reassignment surgery and other transgender care can be costly for the military healthcare system, they can be personally beneficial and can simply offset costs that would otherwise be paid by civilian healthcare for the same person, so this should not be regarded as a major downside.

Addressing Humanitarian Crises

Fight extreme poverty and disease

America must redouble its commitment to disease treatment and prevention, elevating the status and funding of initiatives such as PEPFAR, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and relevant UN programs. We should also strengthen our efforts in other forms of foreign aid.

Whereas a fetus is not a human life, the Mexico City Policy, which is intrusive and inadvertently increases abortion rates anyway, should be completely ended along with other efforts to restrict foreign reproductive care.

Bolster peacekeeping operations

Peacekeeping is a highly valuable activity and we should increase our participation in these operations.

Support asylum

Global rights to asylum were badly weakened in 2019. As we fight for a more welcoming immigration policy at home, we must also engage internationally to promote refugee admissions and return rights in other regions.

Protect animal welfare

We should take steps towards an international treaty on animal welfare, particularly to improve farm conditions. We can also promote plant-based foods internationally in order to reduce inhumane farming.

Growing the Global Economy

Build more trading relationships

Trade is good for the economy and is likely to promote peace as well, and it should generally be increased. Fostering business with Africa could be an important way to reduce their youth unemployment, which was recognized last year as one of the biggest political and economic challenges for the continent. The Trans-Pacific Partnership must be revived for both economic growth and geopolitical advantage in the Indo-Pacific.

Insofar as trade can negatively impact certain subsets of the American population, that is something to be accepted and addressed as a matter of domestic policy, using tools such as vocational education, housing availability, increased immigration, and welfare compensation.

Maintain modest labor and environmental standards in trade deals

Trade deals can be used to encourage reforms for the benefit of workers and the environment. But this should be done lightly on a prudent case-by-case basis, as strict labor and environmental requirements can penalize less-developed nations who are structurally unwilling or unable to implement progressive policies, and we may have little understanding of the constraints afflicting foreign polities and economies. And we should always remember that a flawed trade deal is still better than no deal.

Protect a few key strategic industries

We should be watchful for the way that trade can make us strategically dependent on supply chains from our potential adversaries, and establish a few protective measures accordingly.

Ensure fair representation in international economic institutions

Economic institutions with global influence should not be Euro-American clubs. China, sub-Saharan African countries, and other developing nations should have greater representation in groups like the G-7, G-8, G-20, World Bank and IMF.

Reign in austerity demands

Austerity measures are a bad response to recessions, and often do more harm than good by forcing dubious social cuts. International economic institutions should only demand austerity in rare cases where a nation has a strong economy but very poor finances.

Fighting Air Pollution Worldwide

Not only is climate change a major problem, but air pollution in its own right causes great harms to agriculture, human health and cognition. It is important that America take the lead in fighting it on the international stage.

Renew our international engagement

We must re-enter the Paris Agreement and continue to engage the international community on issues of pollution and climate change. We should closely consider the campaign proposals from Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, who have excellent ideas for international leadership on climate change.

Push for international carbon taxation

Carbon taxation (possibly including taxes on other greenhouse gases) is arguably the most important single element of climate policy, and its efficacy can depend on international coordination. A global carbon tax may be unrealistic, but coordination on a more limited international scale to emplace and enforce carbon taxes and border carbon adjustments is still important.

Provide green energy technology to growing economies

Much of the world’s future carbon emissions will come from growing economies in Africa and Asia. As America pursues a path of domestic reforms to fight climate change, we must also share and promote clean energy innovations abroad, helping developing countries profit from an early green transition that skips intermediate reliance on fossil fuel infrastructure.

This technology can include solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity, and nuclear power, as well as electric and hydrogen transportation. We should start with solutions that are effective and available immediately. Proposals for advanced new forms of nuclear fission can be worth pursuing, but they are expensive, take time to develop and will not be a panacea.


Draft was reviewed and improvements were suggested by Trevor Vossberg and Juan Cambeiro. A few ideas and sources were taken from Foreign Policy Generation.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

My sense is that the Warren plan actually reduces the State Department's ability to get fresh perspectives and fill the (current or expanded) ranks. As unfortunate as it is, donor-Ambassadors are currently the only senior people who haven't spent their whole careers at State, absorbing its prejudices, its paranoias, etc. There is no other route in from the outside. And while she does propose recruiting more outside of Ivy League colleges, she doesn't address the more fundamental problem that if you want to be a foreign service officer, your two choices are to either look the part at age 22 or come in at the entry level later in life, so it ends up being a very unattractive career choice for anyone who was undistinguished in college (or uninterested in foreign service at that time) but successful in their career later.

Thanks. I have rewritten it to be more qualified.

There is something to be said for the civil service. But she picks the wrong military program to emulate. The National Guard would be a better source of inspiration than ROTC, as it allows people to have other careers, but receive the basics of military training and progress appropriately in rank, and then be called into active service when needed.

The National Guard system wards off high achievers who want to be devoted to their (primary) job.

It makes sense because of the military's need for large potential reserves, intense deployments and long periods of low-intensity training and recovery. Would that apply to the civil service? I'm kinda skeptical.

I think you'd need to structure it somewhat differently. More like a permanent version of what the National Guard was a few years into Iraq and Afghanistan, where everyone knew they would eventually do a rotation, maybe a few, and they happened on reasonably predictable schedules. Less of the all-or-nothing model that you'd have if it's meant to be used solely as a massive reserve for WWIII.

Considering that military veterans are overrepresented in Congress by a factor of 2 compared to the general adult population, and most of those are not people who have primarily spent their careers in the military, I don't think the National Guard system does scare off high achievers, at least not public service-oriented ones. The bad reputation that the National Guard earned during and immediately after Vietnam may have had that effect, but I think that's specific to that era.

In the first paragraph you say "Effective Altruists are often not leftist, because leftist politics may be incorrect." Can you expand on what leftist politics are incorrect and how you judge what is correct or not?

See http://bit.ly/ea-css , specifically sections "Capitalism and Socialism", "taxation and budget" (wealth and corporate tax), "Trade", "Housing Policy" (rent control), "Healthcare" (drug price controls), and "Education Policy".

More from kbog
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities