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Election 2020: Foreign Policy Challenges

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Election 2020

Foreign Policy

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Elections and Voting

James M. Lindsay, senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at CFR, discusses foreign policy issues to consider when voting in the 2020 primary and general elections.

​​​​​​Learn more about CFR’s resources for the classroom at CFR Academic.


James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President, National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to today’s session of the CFR Winter/Spring 2020 Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We are delighted to have Dr. James Lindsay with us today to talk about foreign policy as we are in this election season. Dr. Lindsay is senior vice president, director of studies, and the Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he oversees the work of more than six dozen fellows in the David Rockefeller Studies Program, essentially the research arm of the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, Dr. Lindsay served as inaugural director of the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, as deputy director and senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program in the Brookings Institution, and as a professor of political science at the University of Iowa. He also served as director for global issues and multilateral affairs on the staff of the National Security Council in the late ’90s.

Dr. Lindsay has written widely on American foreign policy and international relations. His most recent book, co-authored with Ivo Daalder, is entitled The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership. I commend that book, as well as his prior books, to all of you.

So, Dr. Lindsay, thanks very much for being with us today. I am just going to throw this open into a very broad question to you to talk about foreign policy in the U.S. elections, because we, obviously, have just seen two primaries—the primaries take place and we’re headed to Nevada on Saturday, so we are in the midst of it. So over to you.

LINDSAY: Well, thank you, Irina. It’s great to be speaking with all of you today. I’m happy to talk about particular foreign policy issues, but again, given that we are in the beginning of the formal part of the nominating campaign I thought I would focus my opening remarks on some broad observations about elections and foreign policy. And really, let me take the time to sort of sketch out three general propositions.

First point I would make is that who Americans choose as president matters greatly for the practice of U.S. foreign policy. However, the reverse seldom holds true. You think about President Donald Trump. He has pursued a different foreign policy than Secretary Hillary Clinton likely would have, just as Barack Obama pursued a different foreign policy than either John McCain or Mitt Romney would have. And if you want to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan defeating Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was quite different from Jimmy Carter’s. In the American constitutional system presidents have great discretion on foreign policy, so it’s their worldview, their personal preferences, and their priorities that drive the foreign policy agenda. And I think as President Trump has shown, the president can often undo what his predecessor has done.

But as important as presidential elections are for U.S. foreign policy, foreign policy issues rarely decide the outcome of those elections. Most Americans vote based on their party affiliation and concerns about domestic issues like jobs, taxes, and health care. Just to give you an example, the Elizabeth Warren campaign last fall took to charting down all of the questions asked by people on the campaign trail at meetings and townhalls and things like that. And they toted up more than six hundred questions, and only about 5 percent of those questions from voters were about foreign policy.

So you often hear if you read a lot talk that there are going to be—there are U.S. presidential elections that might turn on disputes over foreign policy, and that’s really sort of the white whale of American politics: often talked about but rarely seen. And it doesn’t look like the 2020 election is going to be an exception to that rule. Now, President Trump no doubt will tout what he sees as his successes in foreign policy and his challengers will attack what they see as his failings abroad, but at the end of the day it doesn’t appear that foreign policy is going to be the pivotal issue that will determine the outcome in November.

Second point I would make is that when you’re looking at the campaign going on, it can be easy to overstate the policy differences between the Democratic challengers and President Trump, and to understate the policy differences among the Democratic challengers themselves.

Now, it is clear that there are some big issues that divide the Democratic challengers from President Trump. Climate change would go to the top of that list. It is clear that all of the Democratic challengers argue that they will take significant action, both domestically and abroad, to handle the challenge posed by climate change; President Trump argues that climate change is a hoax. But a number of other issues it’s not so clear how different the Democratic challengers are from President Trump.

Let’s take the case of the so-called endless wars. On the issue of leaving Afghanistan, of reducing America’s military interventions overseas, many of the Democratic candidates sound a lot like President Trump.

Or you could take China. The Democratic critique of President Trump’s policy toward China isn’t that he’s wrong to take a tougher line in dealing with China; the critique has generally been that they would go about it in a better way—that their technique or their tactics would be much more effective.

Likewise, President Trump has been very hard on what he calls free-riding allies. The fact is candidates on both sides of the aisle going back a number of years have been critical about allies not doing enough, not spending enough—referring to NATO allies. And everyone agrees that the allies need to spend or do more.

When you get to issues like trade, there really do seem to be significant divisions among the democratic challengers, with Senator Sanders and Senator Warren charting a course on trade policy that sounds in the aggregate a lot like President Trump. That is, very skeptical of trade deals. They believe trade deals have worked against the American worker, while helping American businesses. And their argument is that we need to do trade differently. And so in that sense there’s a real division between, again, sort the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party and what we might call the Vice President Biden wing of the party, which is much more open on trade issues. So there is significant differences among the Democratic candidates on the issue of trade.

Third broad point I would make, and then I’ll end, is that history suggests that what candidates say they will do on the campaign trail isn’t always what they do once in office. Let me give you a couple of examples. Bill Clinton ran for president back in 1992, criticizing NAFTA. But when he became president he helped push Congress to enact NAFTA. George W. Bush ran on the promise that he wasn’t going to engage in nation-building, and then ended up with an historically large nation-building effort in Iraq. Barack Obama ran saying he would not use force without congressional authorization, and then intervened militarily in Libya without congressional authorization. Donald Trump wanted to take U.S. troops out of Afghanistan when he came to office, but in a pivotal decision his first year in office he decided not to do that.

And my point here is not about personal honesty, but about the distinction between campaigning and governing. Governing is about—campaigning is about promising. Governing is about choices. Presidential candidates can wave away complexities and complications. Presidents, however, have to confront them. As President Trump put it in August 2017, when he announced he was going to go against his instincts in keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan, quote, “All my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office. And the fact is, they are.” So one of the great unknowns for all presidents—all challengers is, the real question of once they sit in the Oval Office what choices will they, in fact, make? And being able to predict that is very hard to do.

And I guess I will stop there, Irina.

FASKIANOS: Jim, thanks very much for that. Let’s open it up to the students now for questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time the floor will be opened for questions.

Our first question come from Fordham University.

Q: OK. So my name is Patrick Rizzi and I’m currently a student at Fordham University, who’s actually applying to intern at CFR in Washington, D.C. this summer.

But I had a question on foreign policy, which is that over the past couple of years I’ve worked at Georgetown Preparatory School’s Summer Scholars International Policy Course, where they focus on a different region of the world. And this year they’re going to be most likely focusing on Taiwan and Hong Kong. My question is, do you believe that ongoing events in Hong Kong as well as the coronavirus outbreak, while that’s in mainland China, could affect foreign policy issues discussed at the national level during the 2020 general election?

LINDSAY: I’m sorry, Patrick, I missed a word then when you were speaking about Hong Kong.

Q: OK. So my question is: Do you believe ongoing developments in Hong Kong and in East Asia, the whole especially, also the coronavirus outbreak, even though that is in mainland China, could be significant enough to impact when foreign policy is discussed at the—at the general election level this fall in the 2020 election?

LINDSAY: Certainly I would expect that when we get to the general election in the fall the issue of China is going to come up. And it’ll be the issue of China and trade, it’ll be the issue of China and its role in the world, the issue of China, its treatment of its citizens, issues related to China’s behavior in East Asia. And how that conversation will go will obviously depend upon what the events are at the time. However, I don’t think that that conversation’s likely pivotal to the outcome of the election.

But there’s one thing really important in your question, Patrick, that we should focus on and keep in mind for any administration, is that presidents come to office, or presidents are in office, and have an agenda they hope to enact. But that agenda can be affected by things they don’t anticipate. So for example, you know, if we were to go back two months ago, no one was talking about a coronavirus and how that might affect not just events in China but potentially the global economy, as potentially the Chinese economy slows down and has a ripple effect. So one of the challenges of being in the White House is that you are trying to sort of enact your policy preferences, but events can change or scramble the choices that you face. And again, President Trump isn’t the first president to encounter new developments on his watch. Perhaps most famously, how much the world changed for the George W. Bush presidency between September 10 and September 11.

OPERATOR: OK, thank you. Our next question will come from Washington and Jefferson.

Q: This is Buba Misawa from Washington and Jefferson College.

And my question was: Would foreign policy be a smaller issue because the media defines it so, or is just realistically that foreign policy is not that important to the American public?

LINDSAY: I would suggest that voters in trying to make a decision about who to select focus on issues that they feel affect them directly. And for most people, that has to do with so-called bread and butter issues: whether I can get a job, how good my schools are, things that affect them directly. And as your question suggested, a lot of foreign policy issues are issues that, for most Americans, are quite abstract. That is, there may be things that are on the news, but they don’t operate with people’s everyday lives. So I think it’s much more to do with how people make decisions than it has to do with the news that is presented on the television. So I wouldn’t suggest that if the news media were to start covering foreign policy 24/7 that that would necessarily change how people vote.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from King Fahd University. Please make sure your line is not muted.

Q: OK. Abdullah Al-Zahrani, KFUPM.

Me and my colleague Hussein Asadli (ph) think that deal of the century was a failure and is used as a propaganda for President Trump campaign. Obviously, it’s not accepted here in Middle East. So what changes would other candidates do to make the peace process work in the region? Thank you.

LINDSAY: I’m sorry, I missed the first part of your question.

Q: The deal of the century was a failure.

LINDSAY: Oh, you’re referring to the Trump administration’s plan for the Israelis and the Palestinians, correct?

Q: Yes. Yes. Correct. I think it’s used as a propaganda for President Trump campaign. And it wasn’t accepted in Middle East. So what changes would other candidates do to make the peace process work in the region?

LINDSAY: I would say that the Democratic challengers have uniformly criticized President Trump’s peace plan. The consistent theme of those criticisms is that it is one sided against the Palestinians. And there has been a common response among Democratic challengers that what they would do is to work with both Palestinians and Israelis in pursuit of a two-state solution. This, however, takes us back to a point we discussed a few questions ago, that the world that a Democratic challenge would inherit in January of 2021, assuming that a Democrat beats President Trump in November of this year, could look very different. It’s not clear what is going to happen on the ground in Israeli and in the West Bank. There has been talk that the Israeli government will go ahead and annex parts of the West Bank. It’s unclear whether that will happen or not.

But obviously the state of play that a new president would inherit in 2021—again, assuming we had a new president—could be very different. And so the choice that a president could face could be very different. Again, this is one of the great challenges for any candidate on the campaign trail talking about foreign policy, is that events can change so dramatically between when you’re in Iowa and when you were sworn in on inauguration day. And that’s very different from domestic policy in the United States. Most domestic policy issues won’t change between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and inauguration day, because most domestic policy changes are driven by congressional legislation. And quite honestly, right now it’s very hard for Congress to pass major pieces of legislation.

But again, foreign policy is different. It’s different because presidents have more discretion. It’s different because other countries have a say. They can change their policies and what have you. So candidates are speaking to the state of play as it exists today, but again what the world looks like and the nature of the challenge could be very different eleven months from now.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Next we have a question from Kentucky Wesleyan College.

Q: I’d like to briefly welcome participants from Hong Kong University. And my question concerns China. On February 15 the U.S. defense secretary stated the United States must, quote, “prepare once again for high-intensity warfare against China and Russia, primarily China.” I’d like to ask what you think he meant. And secondly, should this be an issue the Democratic candidates take up in the campaign? Thank you.

LINDSAY: That’s an excellent question. And it goes back to the national strategy—National Security Strategy that the Trump administration rolled out in December of 2017. And it argued that the United States had entered a new global context in which China and Russia in particular were strategic competitors, and that the United States needed to adapt its policies to recognize that fact. That has been the argument for increasing defense spending, for reducing America’s military footprint in the Middle East. And it has been the argument for modernization of both conventional and nuclear forces.

Now, I think it is clear that in—certainly in Washington, among both Democrats and Republicans, there is an emerging consensus that China is contesting U.S. interests around the world and the United States needs to prepare for that eventuality. Now, of course, the big question is what is the best way to deal with that challenge? And that could be usefully stated in a campaign. I would say to this point thus far, it’s not a topic that any of the candidates have pursued in great depth.

 FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Vanguard High School.

Q: Hello, Dr. Lindsay. Hello, Irina. This is Mark Klarman from Vanguard High School.

Sort of a small, two-part question. As I’m helping my students research, I’m wondering where the reliable sources are for measuring public opinion on foreign policy. And the second part is, are there significant issues—rather, has there been significant change in public opinion in any particular issues under the Trump administration so far?

LINDSAY: OK, great question, Mark. Happy to answer it.

There are actually lots of places with good information about what the public thinks on foreign policy. The gold standard is the survey produced annually by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I should do a disclaimer here. I’m on their advisory committee. But there’s also great work done by Pew, great work done by Gallup. So there’s no shortage of questions asked. And the challenge, of course, is determining what it all means.

Now, to your second question, what is I think clear from the public opinion data is that a consequence of President Trump’s election and his policies has been a firming up of support for what might be called traditional American foreign policy. And what’s remarkable is that support among the public for alliances is up. Support for trade agreement is up. Support for doing something in climate change is up. And what’s interesting is that on a number of the issues that the president staked out his intent to do things differently, the public has moved in the opposite direction.

Now, can we take it back to the question of what it all means. And I think it’s important to sort of separate out the difference between what people’s opinions are and the intensity of their opinion. In politics, squeaky wheels get the grease. And that’s important to recognize, because the fact that large numbers of people may favor continuing with NATO or believe that we should do something on climate change, doesn’t necessarily translate into pressure on presidents to do that. In politics—and again, I guess, maybe the analogy would be if you look at gun control issues, where public opinion polls show overwhelming support among the American public for tougher gun control measures, but they never seem to pass through legislature because you have people who are on the opposite side of the issue, and feel very deeply about it.

The same thing applies in foreign policy. The fact that the average American, or a majority of Americans, think that trade agreements are actually on the whole a net benefit to the United States doesn’t mean that there aren’t people on the other side who feel intensely that they’re bad, and they use their efforts to move the political debate in the direction that they favor. So it’s always a bad bet to go from taking a statistic on the public thinks about this and then expecting policy to reflect it lockstep, particularly in foreign affairs where presidents have a great deal of discretion to act as they see fit.

FASKIANOS: And, Jim, do you want to talk about sources? 

LINDSAY: If you want—let me just a say a couple things. First off, is CFR.org, we have a whole Election 2020 initiative with things like interviews with—or answers from the candidates on a variety of foreign policy questions. We have a bunch of videos on particular issues. We have videos from the times when presidential candidates have spoken here at the Council. You can also find things like my blog, The Water’s Edge, which covers a lot of this. We just did a—we’re wrapping up a podcast series, special series on my podcast, The President’s Inbox, looking at major issues in foreign affairs. So there’s a lot of content out there. But, again, CFR.org.

Q: I’m very familiar with it and appreciate it a lot.

LINDSAY: Well, thank you.

FASKIANOS: And you should also subscribe to—Jim, he didn’t mention it, but he has a podcast series called The President’s Inbox, which is a really great wrap up for—as well as The World Next Week, that he does with Bob McMahon.

All right, so next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from Chapman University Fowler School of Law.

Q: Hello. This is Tom Campbell.

And I very much appreciate the presentation. My students and I are in a course I’m teaching on separation of powers. And the subject on which I’d like to hear Dr. Lindsay’s response stems from the Senate resolution on Iran following a similar, not identical, House resolution on Iran expressing the will of Congress that the president get approval from Congress before taking any military action against Iran. And this obviously was in the context of General Soleimani but anticipated other actions might happen. The president says he’s veto it, and no doubt that he will. But what was significant was the Senate vote was 55-45, indicating that a majority of the Senate supports this principle, even in face of the president of the majority’s own party. And a majority of the House does as well.

In the past, when Congress members have tried to sue the president under the War Powers Act—this happened with President Clinton and most recently as well with President Trump—they have been denied standing because a majority of the House and Senate did not support the lawsuit. Now it might be there is a majority to support such a challenge, were the president to act in a manner that might be interpreted as violating the War Powers Act. My question: Do you pick up any appetite, any interest for a legal challenge for any exercise of military force by the president that might be construed as a violation of the War Powers Act? Do you see any movement in Congress or individual members of Congress towards bringing another legal challenge?

LINDSAY: I don’t see any signs that members of Congress are going to turn to the courts. If they do, my suspicion is they will be as unsuccessful in this challenge as they have been in past challenges. You laid out the rational by which courts have chosen not to hear these cases, or to dismiss them. And I don’t have a sense that he reluctance of the Judiciary to involve itself in war powers issues has diminished with time or with events.

Q: OK, thank you. One quick comment I’d make in addition is the challenge—the challenge to the president under the emoluments clause. The D.C. Circuit threw out the case because there was not a majority. In other words, the most recent premise was not political question but absence of a majority of the House or Senate bringing a lawsuit. And that evidently would not be available if there were, in fact, a majority bringing the suit.

LINDSAY: Understood. Well, again, I take it you’re a lawyer and I am not a lawyer. I will simply note that in this particular case, we’re talking about war powers, as you know, there are a variety of ways in which courts can refuse to hear cases. It’s not just issues of standing. You can invoke the political question doctrine. You can argue that the issue is moot. It seems to me—my broad point simply is that the judiciary has seemed reluctant to want to involve itself in these decisions. And that wasn’t always the case. I’m sure you know about early cases by the Supreme Court—things like the flying fish case, where the Supreme Court saw no—or had no reluctance to rule. But I think the balance of jurisprudence suggests that the courts aren’t eager to take up these cases.

Q: Thanks very much.

FASKIANOS: Tom, I’m going to put you on the spot, since you did serve in Congress. What do you think your colleagues, or colleagues as they are now, should be doing on this decision?

Q: I think they—I think they should bring a test case. The War Powers Resolution has never been resolved as to whether it’s constitutional or not. No court has ruled on the substance. So as Dr. Lindsay correctly noted, the courts have no desire to rule. They try to avoid it. They use political question doctrine, in one case. I and thirty-seven colleagues, actually, sued President Clinton over the bombing of Yugoslavia for seventy-nine days. The War Powers Resolution gives the power to the president only for sixty days, after which to continue the insertion of United States military into hostilities the president has to obtain the approval of Congress. But the federal court in Washington denied us standing.

One of the premises thought—and this is why I emphasize the most recent decision—the dominant premise was that it was thirty-seven members of the House not 219, not fifty-one senators. And the court left open the possibility that if there were a majority of both Houses speaking on behalf of the institution, then that might have standing. I would note that the court was clearly not inclined to take the case, that Dr. Lindsay’s perception is one I share, regrettably. But if the premise on which they based that conclusion, their unwillingness, is removed by the situation that I just described, then they’d have to fish for another excuse. Perhaps they would.

But I’d end by saying one of the least-satisfying arguments was, well, this is—this is something that would embroil the judiciary in a highly politicized question. And I think perhaps the judiciary’s greatest recent—recent being fifty years ago maybe—but more—greatest demonstration of its inherent virtue is in defying President Nixon and standing up to the assertion of executive authority. So when it comes to a fight between the branches, only the judiciary can resolve it. So that’s—I would say that Congress should try yet again, put a resolution through getting the approval to bring such a lawsuit. And that will take away that premise. And then maybe the court will, as Dr. Lindsay predicts, find another premise. But at least we will have stripped away one obstacle.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

LINDSAY: I would simply note, on this score, that the court’s reluctance to take up these cases has been pronounced since really the end of World War II. I was always most struck by the court’s ruling in Goldwater v. Carter. This is a 1979 case that was brought by Senator Goldwater and several other senators after President Carter terminated the treaty—mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, arguing that he didn’t have the authority to do so. And what’s really interesting about the ruling in the case is that several of the Supreme Court justices argued that this was a political question, not a legal question.

But I would say from the vantage point of being a non-lawyer, the question of who has the authority to terminate a treaty would seem to be a legal or a constitutional question. But the members of the Supreme Court, or several of them, didn’t see it that way. And I recall that Justice Douglas, William O. Douglas, once wrote that the federal courts do not sit as an ombudsmen, refereeing the disputes between the other two branches. That is, again, this reluctance at times—not always, but at times, certainly in foreign policy—to try to decide where power lies on particular policy issues.

Q: If you’ll indulge me for thirty seconds more, Goldwater versus Carter was a D.C. Circuit opinion upholding the right of Senator Goldwater and his colleagues to proceed, then reversed per curiam without opinion by the Supreme Court. There were dissenting justices, as you correctly noted who said that the court was right in not taking it. But the court itself decided not to issue an opinion. So the last thing that’s interesting, I think, and one could infer from that that whereas some justices felt the political question kept that issue away, the court itself did not muster a majority for that point of view.

LINDSAY: Well, I know. It was the ’72 ruling in which the justices themselves disagreed over their rationale.

Q: There was actually no opinion by the Supreme Court. It was reversed and dismissed per curiam.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. OK. So I’m going to now move onto the next question. Thank you. Thank you, Tom. Thank you, Jim.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Rutgers University.

Q: Hello? Hi. I’m a student here at Rutgers University. My name is Maria Fezia (ph).

And I’ve been hearing all these reports saying that China is now looking to strengthen their foreign policy ties with Latin America, and there’s been a huge upsurge in that, and that they’re investing tens of billions of dollars in Latin American infrastructure. Will China’s, like, not newfound interest, because it’s an interest that’s been accumulating over—since, I believe 2008—will this help the U.S. continue to strengthen their foreign policy relations with Latin America? And if so, what could be the next way to do that?

LINDSAY: I could I get you to repeat the last part of your question? I’m sorry, the connection on my end right now is a bit iffy.

Q: If China continues these interest of pouring all—of investing all this amount of money into Latin America will this help—will this not—I don’t want to say scare, but lack of a better word—will this help or open America’s eyes into helping or strengthening the ties of foreign policy in Latin America, and continuing the better—the relations that they have right now?

LINDSAY: Well, let’s sort of take a step back. What you’re describing is part of a much larger Chinese policy known as the Belt and Road Initiative. That is, China is looking to invest heavily in other countries. It has done a lot of investment in infrastructure projects. Think port development. Think railways and the like. And Chinese investment along these lines has been driven by this particularly to invest in countries that provide it with raw materials, of which countries in Latin America happen to fit the bill.

Now, the Belt and Road Initiative has certainly caught the attention of a lot of U.S. officials in the administration, on Capitol Hill. And it has raised the challenge of what the U.S. policy response will be. To a great extent, that policy response has been heavy on warnings to other countries about the dangers of taking these investments from China. The response that we have heard from many countries—it’s not just in Latin America, though it’s been there, think Africa and elsewhere—is that, one, we’re sovereign countries. We’re able to make our own decisions about who we’ll take investments from. And, number two, these Chinese are offering us something. What exactly is that the United States is offering, besides criticism?

So in that respect, as we talk about the Belt and Road Initiative, you talk about a U.S. policy response, the question is going to be, what is the United States offering as a positive response? And there, looking on the campaign trail, I haven’t seen a lot of discussion by any of the candidates on that. And clearly from the Trump administration, its talk about this issue has been mostly focused on the dangers for other countries and why it’s bad for them, as opposed to this is what the United States is going to do for you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

Q: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question come from Washington University at St. Louis School of Law.

Q: Hi. My name is Michelle (sp).

So I had a question from a continuation from one of the previous questions someone asked. And it was regarding the lack of knowledge that the general population has on foreign affairs. So I was wondering how we can shape the Democratic debates, since they’re watched by pretty much every party, get people more engaged on how they are affected, either positively or negatively, by foreign policy issues.

LINDSAY: How would you answer your question?

Q: I would try to ask more questions from the debates moderators, but other than that I’m not sure how to get more people involved.

LINDSAY: In terms of the debates specifically, I think it’s very hard to use the debates as an educational vehicle, especially when you have multiple candidates. Because if you look at—I guess we’re going to be going to, is it, the ninth round of Democratic debates. And for a while there, we were having as many as 10 people on the stage, and it really sort of functioned more as sort of serial press conferences rather than your real engagement. When you get down to two people, I think the debate can function a lot better. I think the more you have, the more difficult it is to do—especially, again, because you’re not doing just foreign policy issues. You’re doing all sorts of issues.

And at the end of the day, I mean, the—there is no lack of opportunity to want to learn about the world. One of the great things about the internet is the multiplicity of avenues you can go to. The Council on Foreign Relations with its website, CFR.org, provides tons of information about the world that is out there. But I think it’s safe to say that, again, for most people, foreign policy’s not their cup of tea. And they tune in or learn about foreign affairs when they see some issue that affects them, or they think is going to affect their world. And you can see interest go up.

So I don’t know that there is a solution to the question you asked in terms of how do you get people to know more. I think what you do, like the Council on Foreign Relations does, provide a lot of information. But a lot of it has to be self-generated on the part of people that they want to learn.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Georgetown University. Please make sure your line is unmuted.

Q: Yes. Can you hear me?


Q: OK, great.

FASKIANOS: We can. Go ahead.

Q: So you kind of touched on my question a little bit on BRI, but I wanted to be even more specific on 5G security. So I think that the administration has been somewhat but not quite totally successful in challenging BRI, especially in the 5G realm, since allies like Britain is allowing China to build the 5G infrastructure. What do you think is a better approach to get allies, and especially Western countries, on board? Because it’s not that we don’t want China to rise; it’s more so of a security issue that affects our intelligence and how we collect and gather it. And also, how much do you think this would play into the election debate?

LINDSAY: On the latter question, I don’t think it will play into the election debate at all. That doesn’t mean it won’t be discussed, but I don’t see it as an issue that’s likely to move many voters one way or the other.

On the—on the 5G issue, it’s obviously a very complicated one, and there are disagreements among experts as to the degree of the security threat that is created by countries buying equipment from Huawei in building their 5G networks. You can see the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom obviously being one of America’s closest allies, where the British have made a decision that they believe they can allow the purchase of certain kinds of equipment and they can hive off the threat. That is a position that the U.S. government hasn’t accepted. And so then you get into very detailed assessments about risk that I think you even have experts disagreeing about.

The broader question—and it’s a hard one to answer—is the extent to which the Trump administration might have found greater reception in allied capitals for its campaign against relying on Huawei for 5G technology if it had developed better relations with those allied capitals on a lot of other issues. If you go back, just take the campaign more broadly, one of the standard complaints made by Democratic challengers is that Donald Trump has often acted unilaterally and dismissive of our friends and allies, in fact antagonized our friends and allies. And their argument is that this has made it harder to get the allies to work with us on issues where we should be working together. I’d sort of call it a fundamental or a meta critique by Democrats against President Trump’s foreign policy. Again, that one, it’s hard to prove in any formal or objective sense, but I think it goes to the heart of a lot of Democratic criticisms of the president.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we have a question from King Fahd University.

Q: Hello, Dr. Lindsay.


Q: My name is Abdullah Al-Zahrani.

And my question for you is, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has promised to pull the United States out of foreign conflicts in the Middle East and end endless wars. Sanders is now the favorite to win both the primary and the general elections. Will he deliver on his promises if he is elected, or will he fall short of his promises much like Donald J. Trump? Thank you.

LINDSAY: Well, Abdullah, the answer is it’s hard to say. I mean, I should note it’s a long time between now and November, so I don’t know who will be the nominee or how that election will come out. Obviously, Senator Sanders, like a number of other Democratic candidates, has argued that he wants to reduce America’s military footprint abroad. And should he become president of the United States, he will, A, have the opportunity to do so; but, B, he will have to confront the consequences of doing so. Indeed, in campaigning candidates spend a lot of time thinking about how their policies are going to fix things and they can ignore the question of how their policy may create new problems. But obviously, when you become president you have to deal with those consequences. And should Senator Sanders become President Sanders, we’ll see how he weighs off the competing costs that he faces.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Washington and Jefferson College.

Q: Hello again.

My question is, there’s been enough strategic ambiguity created by President Trump around the world with allies and enemies, whatever you can call, and I’m still puzzled by the fact that you think there are no ways in which we can educate the public to be an attentive public in foreign affairs, especially how the Gulf War played out in this country where there were lectures and lectures informing people about our foreign policy and interventionism and all this. So I’m puzzled with your answer. I get your point that maybe the public is more interested in its bread-and-butter issues, but this is puzzling for you to suggest that there are no ways of educating people as the young woman from the University of St. Louis was trying to allude to. Thank you.

LINDSAY: Well, as I mentioned before, there are lots of ways for Americans to educate themselves on foreign affairs. I work for an organization which has invested enormous amounts of time and energy to provide people with more information about foreign affairs, but ultimately it’s up to individuals to want to learn more. I think this is a case in which there are lots of avenues by which to learn about the world, and I’m very proud of the work that the Council on Foreign Relations has done—you can find all of our work at CFR.org—on these issues. But again, that said, you can provide resources for people to learn more about the world, but they’re not required to.

FASKIANOS: I will just weigh in here. As, you know, part of this conference call series, the Academic Conference Call Series, one of the things we are trying to do is reach out to colleges and universities across the country, and to raise the awareness of and interest in foreign affairs, as well as through our other outreach programs where we are working with religious leaders, and state and local officials, and locally based journalists. I think it is incumbent on all of us who are leaders in our community to mentor and to help, you know, talk about why foreign policy matters here at home, and to direct people to places that have nonpartisan information such as the Council’s website, as Jim said.

But this is something that we’re working very hard on. We’ve got podcasts. We are releasing a series called World 101, which will help Americans better understand how the world works. You should go online to look at those modules on everything from trade to globalization that are basically primers on these issues. But really, it is a big country out there—over three hundred million Americans—and so—

Q: We do appreciate—

FASKIANOS: —we all—we all need to do our part because foreign affairs is important and does matter. And to the students, too, on this call, you know, writing to your congressman demanding more accountability for votes that they take on various issues, or your local senators and councilmen in your communities, I mean, we all have a stake in this to weigh in, and each person has a voice and should use their voice—in a respectful way, of course—but to bring people—

Q: Indeed. May I have thirty seconds? Indeed, your program has become part of my course on foreign policy, so you’re doing a great job. But I’m also talking about other community debates that could be engaging, as we did with the Gulf War. So I’m not really discounting your contribution at all. This is great for me and my classes.

FASKIANOS: Yes, no, no, no, I wasn’t. But I’m just saying that we—everybody needs to be working to raise Americans’ understanding and interest in the issues at hand.

So, all right, let’s—I think we have time for one last quick question, maybe from Rutgers?

OPERATOR: Thank you, ma’am. Our last question will come from Rutgers University.

Q: Hello. My name’s Melanie Egot (ph) and I had a question regarding climate change.

So Trump has repeatedly questioned the science of climate change and has gone as far as withdrawing and pulling back from environmental regulations that were implemented by previous administrations. So with that being said and acknowledging recent domestic and even international climate issues that we’ve been having—for example, the wildfires in Australia that have killed hundreds of people and over a billion animals already—do you think that the Trump administration will look at climate change from a moral lens instead of a political lens? And if so, do you think that they would take a different stance on climate change policies?

LINDSAY: Big question, great topic. I don’t see any evidence that the Trump administration is going to change its position on climate change, whether we’re talking about rejoining the Paris Climate Accord or we’re talking about changing regulations here internally that govern the emission of heat-trapping gases. This is an administration that’s decided that climate change is not an existential risk, doesn’t pose an existential risk, and is not taking steps to diminish the emission of heat-trapping gases or to invest in the kinds of technologies and programs needed to help people to adapt to climate change that is already underway.

And I think on that score it’s important to understand that climate change is not a risk for the future, but as you point out with your reference to the wildfires in Australia climate risk is already manifesting itself around the world. And we are likely to pay a very high price for our slowness in responding to what has been a problem that we have known about for quite some time.

Q: Thank you.

LINDSAY: And again, you can find more about this on our website, CFR.org, particularly my colleague Alice Hill, who works on a lot of issues dealing with the need that we’re going to have to adapt to a changing climate.

Q: Unfortunate, but thank you.

FASKIANOS: Yes. And Alice Hill is just out with a book on this issue on building resilience, so I commend that to all of you.

So, Jim Lindsay, thank you very much for your terrific insights with us today, talk about foreign policy and this election season, and to all of you for your questions and comments. You can follow Dr. Lindsay on Twitter at @JamesMLindsay, as well as subscribe to his two podcasts, The President’s Inbox and The World Next Week. Both of those are on the website. And he also authors or blogs, so you can find his blog on our website as well, at CFR.org.

Our next call will be on Wednesday, March 11, at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Michael Spence, distinguished visiting fellow here at CFR and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, will lead a conversation on “Economic Growth and Global Inequality.”

In the meantime, I encourage you to follow @CFR_Academic on Twitter, visit CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com for new research and analysis, as well as our Election 2020 portal which is also on the website, this hub. You can find the candidates’ responses to CFR’s foreign policy questionnaire. You can see what statements they’ve made on foreign policy. There are special editions of Jim’s President’s Inbox, a video series explaining different issues, as well as the tracker of the candidates’ positions on foreign issues and much more. So I commend that all to you.

Thank you again for being with us, and we look forward to gathering again on March 11.


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