Center for American Progress

The First 100 Days: Toward a More Sustainable and Values-Based National Security Approach
In this article
 (Photoillustration: Chester Hawkins)
(Photoillustration: Chester Hawkins)
See also:
Interactive: The First 100 Days
 (Photoillustration: Chester Hawkins)

Interactive: The First 100 Days

the CAP National Security and International Policy Team

Introduction and Summary

Regardless of who wins the November 2020 presidential election, the president will be sworn in during an unprecedented set of national crises—most urgently, a pandemic that has had a profound effect on the daily lives of all Americans and has left more than 215,000 dead. With the nation still grappling with the educational, social, and public health consequences of the coronavirus, the next administration will take office during the worst economy since the Great Depression. The next administration will also have to lead a nation badly divided—one with little faith that government can be held accountable or effectively address issues such as structural racism and economic inequality.

Meanwhile, the president who takes office in 2021 will lead a country diminished in the eyes of the world. While the Trump administration was embracing nationalist, authoritarian politics and badly mishandling the pandemic, the world moved on without us, and “America first” increasingly meant “America alone.” At precisely the moment when the United States needed to be working alongside its allies and partners to solve global challenges such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising authoritarianism, the Trump administration retreated from advancing U.S. interests and defending our values to instead hiding behind fake walls and empty bravado. The next administration and its national security team face the immense challenge of reversing this dynamic and reviving the United States’ sense of purpose in the world.

Yet January 20, 2021, will also bring tremendous potential for positive change. This potential lies not in America’s past but in its present. The extraordinary mobilization against structural racism and injustice that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has shown the world that there is a United States still worth identifying with. The next administration has the opportunity to demonstrate that democracies are the most responsive to the needs and aspirations of everyday citizens. And it should seize that opportunity to promote a democratic renewal at home and abroad.

If a new administration takes office in January, Americans’ hopes for a new and better day will be high, and the world will be watching for early signs of what the next four years will bring. Behind the scenes, the president-elect’s transition team will have been preparing for months to transition from campaigning to governing—recruiting and vetting top personnel, reviewing a daunting inbox, and deciding how to implement the president-elect’s policy priorities across the federal government. And if President Donald Trump is beginning a second term, all eyes will be looking to see whether and how his governing style changes as the incumbent who is no longer constrained by reelection concerns.

These ideas go a long way toward reorienting U.S. foreign policy and national security toward a more progressive path.

In January 2020, the Center for American Progress set out to consider what a progressive national security agenda could look like in either scenario. CAP convened experts from across the national security policy, legislative, and advocacy community to examine the top policy challenges and opportunities that a new national security team will likely confront and to consider concrete ways to advance progressive ideas in the first 100 days of a new administration. As this group considered what would be necessary to advance such a progressive national security vision, it became clear how much rebuilding of U.S. capacity and international credibility would need to happen as a prerequisite to progress. Because, regardless of who wins in 2020, the president and his national security team will have to govern during an ongoing pandemic, with hollowed-out institutions, strained global alliances, a worsening climate crisis, and a much more competitive world. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that national security is about far more than just defending against traditional security threats or negotiating diplomatic agreements. It is also about safeguarding Americans and their way of life. The COVID-19 crisis has also shown that principled U.S. leadership at home and abroad still matters, that international cooperation is essential, and that without that leadership, the world struggles to galvanize collective action, with awful results.

Yet even before the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S foreign policy and national security badly needed to reorient itself to better address the challenges of this century, correct a grievous imbalance of priorities, end the wars that have spanned two decades, and connect more directly to what the American people actually want. The next administration will face an important opportunity to reorient U.S. foreign policy to meet this moment. In doing so, it will need to put democratic values at the center of its foreign policy and prioritize working with our democratic allies and partners to tackle the world’s most urgent challenges—whether it is rising authoritarianism and democratic back-sliding, rapid technological change, or the complex economic and security challenges posed by China. Given the growing competition between democratic and authoritarian systems and its direct impact on the global order, intensive action will also be needed to strengthen the foundations of our collective democracies so that we can more effectively shape the direction of that order. In the past, the United States has risen to these moments by renewing its approach at home and abroad—and it can do so again. With this vision in mind, the past few years have clarified some important shared ideas across the progressive community, including the need for a return to American diplomacy and less militarization of our foreign policy; the strategic importance of living our values at home and abroad; the importance of the fight to defend the democratic world; the urgency of restoring faith in our national security institutions; and the need to focus on the challenges facing the next generation, not the past.

Over the past several months, the CAP National Security and International Policy team worked to develop an actionable plan that could serve as a roadmap for the early days of a willing administration—the first executive actions, human capital and budget investments, and policy initiatives. When considering how to scope this plan, we identified five key pillars of action that not only reflect the reality of the world that the next administration will confront but also the progressive values that are necessary to put the United States on a more principled and sustainable path internationally:

  1. Rebuilding and modernizing our national security institutions to provide the tools and resources necessary to meet today’s national security challenges.
  2. Living our democratic values at home and abroad and prioritizing the defense of those values.
  3. Ending the current wars responsibly and leading with diplomacy—not military action—to resolve conflicts.
  4. Recalibrating our global relationships, including with U.S. allies, competitors, and adversaries.
  5. Tackling global challenges such as climate change, migration, arms control, corruption, and the need to build a new multilateralism that advances the collective good.

The next president and his national security team will need to prioritize among these pillars and align them with his domestic policy priorities. As CAP built this 100-day plan, we were mindful that the line between domestic and foreign policy is no longer as stark as it once was. Challenges such as climate change, pandemics, and competing effectively with China will require substantial domestic action. This plan touches on what necessary steps the United States must take at home to put it on stronger footing in the world, including investing in its economic competitiveness, strengthening its democracy, and taking bold steps on climate change. CAP will continue to deliver additional bold, progressive ideas in these areas in the months ahead.

This plan is by no means exhaustive. It will, of course, take more than 100 days to end wars, reinvent institutions, tackle global challenges, reset relationships, and bolster democracy. This plan is designed to be a starting point and a constructive contribution of concrete and actionable ideas, not a rigid prescription. CAP does believe, however, that these ideas go a long way toward reorienting U.S. foreign policy and national security toward a more progressive path.

The past four years, and many before, have demonstrated that the United States needs to take a different approach to the world to better advance our interests and defend our way of life—an approach that prioritizes democratic values, delivers real results for the American people, and tackles big, global challenges head-on. There will be a natural impulse to take an incremental approach during these unprecedented times, but this is precisely the moment to take bold, necessary action. CAP hopes that this plan will contribute to a meaningful shift.

Rebuilding and Rebalancing Our National Security Tools and Institutions

Today’s U.S. foreign policy tools and institutions are in serious need of repair. At the same time, America’s overreliance on the military to solve most problems is increasingly disconnected from the national security challenges we face. It is time to reexamine what it means to keep America safe and what we need from our national security institutions to do so. This chapter lays out recommendations to rebuild and restore trust in our national security institutions and rebalance our national security tools to end the cycle of overreliance on the armed forces to manage problems that should be handled by civilian agencies.

Read the full chapter here.

Living Our Democratic Values

Protecting human rights and upholding democratic values has been a perennial goal for presidents of both major political parties in the United States. Yet the current administration has abandoned our democratic allies and values by embracing authoritarian leaders, enabling corruption, and engaging in a transactional foreign policy. The next administration must take immediate steps to reverse harmful policies and halt human rights violations in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, demonstrating through words and deeds a renewed commitment to living our values.

Read the full chapter here.

Ending the Wars Responsibly

The president who takes office in January 2021 will face ongoing U.S. military involvement and humanitarian crises around the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in armed conflicts across the Middle East. Despite conflict fatigue at home, ending direct U.S. military involvement will not “end the wars” and will lead to profound consequences for innocent civilians. A more responsible approach will require a commitment to lead with diplomacy, enhance transparency, and develop a more sustainable and resilient approach to ongoing threats, including terrorism.

Read the full chapter here.

Recalibrating U.S. Global Relationships

America’s international reputation has suffered greatly from the current administration’s abandonment of alliances, disregard of democratic values, and mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The next administration will need to make a concerted effort to rebuild relationships with democratic allies and partners, offering a new vision for global engagement with democratic values at its core. The following chapter provides recommendations to restore democratic partnerships, compete more effectively with adversaries, and recalibrate relationships to fit today’s challenges.

Read the full chapter here.

Tackling Global Challenges

Climate change, unprecedented human migration, new technologies, and an ongoing pandemic are just some of the issues the next administration will face from its first day in office. Working with international partners to tackle these problems will be essential to achieving meaningful progress. The next administration will need to return to multilateralism—with renewed commitments to rebuild the trust that was lost over the past four years—to tackle this growing list of global challenges.

Read the full chapter here.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


the CAP National Security and International Policy Team

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