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U.S. Foreign Policy in the Trump Administration

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Robert D. Blackwill, Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at CFR, assesses the Trump administration’s foreign policy—including relations with allies and policies toward the Middle East, North Korea, Venezuela, trade, and climate change.

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Robert D. Blackwill

Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations


Irina A. Faskianos

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

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the CFR Fall 2019 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, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Robert Blackwill is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at CFR and a Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation distinguished scholar at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His current work focus is on U.S. foreign policy writ large, as well as on China, Russia, the Middle East, South Asia and geoeconomics.

Most recently, Ambassador Blackwill was a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation. During his time in government he was—served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic planning under President George W. Bush. He was responsible for government-wide policy planning to develop and coordinate the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Ambassador Blackwill also served as presidential envoy to Iraq and was the administration’s coordinator for U.S. policy regarding Afghanistan and Iran. After serving as the U.S. ambassador to India from 2001 to 2003, he went to the National Security Council.

Before that, he served as a Belfer lecturer in international security. He was an associate dean at the Harvard Kennedy School, and he also served as special assistant to George H.W. Bush for European and Soviet affairs. A very distinguished career. You can read more in the bio we distributed in advance of this call.

He is the author of the Council special report titled Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem, which was published in April 2019. We shared that with all of you in advance of this call.

So Ambassador Blackwill, thanks very much for being with us today I think you could just start off by talking about U.S. foreign policy writ large and maybe end with what grade you would give President Trump eight months since you wrote that initial report.

BLACKWILL: Thank you very much, Irina, and thanks everybody for participating. I’m going to speak for about 10 minutes because I’m more interested in what you have to say than what I have to say. And I trust I will be sufficiently provocative to stimulate our conversation.

Of course our current president is going to come up in our discussion, but I hope that’s not the only subject of our discussion because I want to begin in a more conceptual way with the issue which I think should dominate our preoccupation and yours for the period ahead, which is the rise of China.

If you are interested—and I take it you all are—in U.S. foreign policy and international relations, and you are not closely following China, in my judgment something is wrong. So if you’re interested in U.S.-China relations, I trust or hope that you’ve looked at the four crucial documents of the Trump administration: the National Security Strategy, the Defense Policy Strategy, and Vice President Pence’s two speeches. That’s a good place to start to try to understand the current administration’s policies.

Let me go on. No nation in the history of the world has risen so fast as China with such regional and global reach. It’s ascent is astonishing. Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew put it like this. “The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It’s not possible to pretend this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”

And in that context, and this is worth discussing—I hope some of you will chime in on it—Beijing, in my view, seeks the following strategic objectives: To replace the United States as the primary power in Asia; to weaken and ultimately dissolve the alliance system of the United States in Asia; to undermine the confidence of Asian powers in U.S. credibility, reliability and staying power; to use China’s economic power to pull Asian nations closer to it; to increase China’s military capability to strengthen deterrence against U.S. military intervention in the region, especially regarding Taiwan and to cast doubt on the U.S. economic, political and societal model; to ensure that U.S. democratic values do not diminish the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on domestic power, and to avoid a major confrontation with the United States in the next decade, to concentrate on its domestic economic development.

In my view, the Trump administration was the first to recognize that these are China’s strategic goals and that was an important contribution, I think. But I don’t think the Trump administration has a grand strategy or a comprehensive and integrated work plan to deal with the rise of Chinese power. And as far as I can tell, it has virtually no diplomacy regarding China.

I worry that both the United States and China currently strive for primacy in the Indo-Pacific. Washington possessed it for five decades, and I think in its bureaucratic bones and muscle memory still wants it, whatever it says publicly. And Beijing, mistakenly inspired by alleged long-term U.S. international decline, implements a grand strategy to acquire primacy. And I think that’s dangerous.

Nothing, it seems to me, is more necessary than to restabilize world order, but that will take both the United States and China in the first instance to manage their bilateral relationship in a way that doesn’t produce crisis, and I don’t think either one of them is doing that now. Let me say a few words about Russia. Zbig Brzezinski, in analyzing threats to America, warned that “The most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China and Russia, united not by ideology but by complementary grievances,” unquote.

So that seems to me to be something that should preoccupy us as Russia gets closer and closer to China. And the question is what is it that the United States should do to try to deal with Brzezinski’s nightmare of an alliance between China and Russia against the United States?

In my view, we’re going to have to—this is just my view, and I’d be of course interested in what you all have to say. To improve the current relationship between Washington and Moscow, both sides are going to have to moderate their current policies. And in that spirit, I’ll even give you my policy prescription for how to do this, because both are going to have to compromise. The United States, I think, should seek to negotiate an agreement with Russia in which NATO enlargement is over and done, and that the United States lifts its sanctions against Russia regarding its annexation of Crimea; Russia is readmitted to the G-8. And so that’s what the United States’ position would be, in my formula. And in return, Russia would end its interference in Eastern Ukraine, withdraw its military forces there, and there would be a deployment of a U.N.—a peacekeeping force. And of course Russia would stop its poisonous interference in U.S. and Western policies and culture. So that’s my deal. You probably have a different one, or may well. But that’s the way I’m thinking about that problem.

On U.S. alliances I’ll just say, because I do not want to go beyond ten minutes, that the United States cannot succeed in the world without its alliance partners. And back to where I began, it certainly cannot deal successfully with the rise of Chinese power without its alliance partners. But that’s going to require a change in the way that the United States treats its allies. It can no longer rely on its global and regional dominance to get its way with its allies. It cannot ignore the views of important allies as it’s done in the past, and it’s going to have to compromise with its allies much more than it has in the past. That’s going to be a transformation in the way the United States thinks about its alliance relationships, but it’s one that needs to be done.

Finally, let me just do a few sentences on Syria and Afghanistan to meet my ten-minute mark. First, on Syria, it’s important in my judgment to separate the process through which the administration announced its departure from Syria and the substance of its departure. Of course, the process was awful. The president, at 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday night, sent a tweet saying the United States is withdrawing from Syria and that, of course, then caused combustion all over the Middle East and beyond. So that’s of course not the way to deal with such a decision.

But there is an issue which I invite you to consider. The president is right that the Turks and the Kurds in Syria have been at each other for decades, and one could trace it back even for many more years than that. Does the United States wish to stay in Syria in perpetuity, forever, to keep them away from each other’s throat? That’s a question to consider separate from the issue of how it was done. Or to put it somewhat differently, do you favor long-term deployment of U.S. combat forces in Syria? I do not. In Afghanistan, I’ll ask the same question. Do you favor continued deployment of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan? I do not.

Let me stop there and see what’s on your mind.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Bob, that was great.

Let’s open it up to the group for questions.

OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from Washington and Lee University.

Q: Hi. So my name’s Gabriel.

You talked about how the U.S.—how we have kind of this fear of Russia and China forming an alliance against the U.S. However, there are a lot of probably just as many issues between the U.S. and China and U.S. and Russia as there are between Russia and China, so border disputes, especially regarding like the border between Manchuria and Siberia. Do you think that this alliance is a real possibility, considering the issues that Russia and China have with each other?

BLACKWILL: Good question, and one that we’ll have to see. There are certainly—and there are more than you had time to mention—substantial differences between Russia and China. But what I notice is despite those substantial issues, they are closer and closer in the way they conduct their foreign policy antagonistically to the United States. So it is what they do, and somehow one way or another they are overcoming those differences which you rightly mention. If you look at their diplomacy, they are in virtually lockstep now. Not entirely.

On the Crimea issue, China abstained at the United Nations, but mostly they are in complete concert on their diplomatic steps. Militarily, they are working very hard on stitching together joint exercises, contingency operations and so forth. So despite the fact that they have these differences, their antagonism to the United States seems sufficient that they at least for now are on a trend to overcome those differences.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

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

Q: Hello. My question is about your comment made earlier that you said both United States and Russia should have moderated their policies in order to improve their relations. Would you also argue that U.S.-China should moderate their policies as well? If so, what kind of policies the U.S. need to adopt to moderate its policies towards China? Thank you.

BLACKWILL: Absolutely. I didn’t have time to go into that. I was determined not to go over the ten minutes. But absolutely. My policy prescription is—importantly, includes that element. Let me say, I’ve just finished writing twenty-five thousand words on the future of the U.S.-China relationship, which will be published by the Council on Foreign Relations in early January, if you have a chance to have a look at it, and it has important—an important discussion of just what you mention.

Let me say, I won’t address how only the United States should moderate its policies. I want to talk about both of them, and here’s the way I look at it, at least. First of all, and the easiest thing to do is that both sides should moderate their rhetorical excesses in describing the other’s policies. That’s done both in Washington and in Beijing.

There’s a kind of escalatory ladder of rhetorical extravagance and that can end by the two governments simply agreeing to end it. Not—that doesn’t, of course, solve their differences, but it certainly, I think, would produce a better public setting for them to work on their differences. So that’s the first thing I’d say.

The second thing is, I mentioned that both countries, at least in my view, want to be number one in Asia and both countries deny it, but that’s my view by looking at their behavior, and if they keep on that—on that road, both of them, I really worry that we will have an enduring crisis and confrontation between the two. So—and I don’t want to go on too long on this, but the second is both sides need to show a lot more restraint than they have shown in recent years and that, certainly, includes the Chinese side.

You do have to ask about China’s behavior in the South China Sea, China’s behavior toward America’s allies, especially Japan, but not only Japan, China’s geoeconomic coercion against its neighbors, and so forth. On the U.S. side, you do have to ask about whether the United States is actually willing to psychologically and in policies actually willing to accept China as a coequal peer competitor, if you want to use that phrase, in Asia, and I think that’s still a challenge for the United States.

I mean, after all, America dominated Asia for more than a half century and it’s not easy for organizations to change their behavior. I could go on and, as I say, I’ll commend my piece to you if you have time to read it. But I conclude with diplomacy. There’s very little diplomacy going on now between the two sides. They mostly exchange views in public rhetorically and, of course, nothing is going to improve in the relationship as long as that’s the case, and both of them should return to Kissingerian—Zhou Enlai-Kissinger diplomacy of the 1970s, in my view, and try to work their way through an agreement to be more cautious in their international behavior.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Texas Woman’s University.

Q: Yeah, this is Michael or Mahesh Raisinghani. Thank you for your insightful discussion.

I just wanted to maybe see if you could share some details on that book you referenced that you’ve just written on the future of the relationship with China and what could be extrapolated to other countries with respect to U.S. foreign policy. Thank you.

BLACKWILL: Well, let me say—and this is something of a banality—but we’ve never— at least in modern American diplomatic history, we haven’t ever faced a situation in which, first of all, we’re dealing with China, and as Lee Kuan Yew observed, this is the biggest challenge in the history of the world for U.S. foreign policy. So there’s that.

You have instability all across the Middle East. You have the European Union in serious difficulty, far beyond the Brexit issue. You have a Russia antagonistic to the United States and interfering in European domestic politics, and then Chinese behavior throughout Asia and so forth.

And so everywhere—almost everywhere with the—and then I didn’t mention Venezuela and Latin America, of course, which has its own challenges, and Africa, which has its own challenges. And if they’re functional, you have to worry about nuclear proliferation. North Korea’s already done so and Iran may return to trying to do so.

And so everywhere one looks there are major challenges for U.S. foreign policy, and these are not challenges that are going to be met successfully by tweets. These are going to lend themselves to day-by-day hard work in diplomatic interaction and by also resolute American behavior.

And I’ll conclude with this, and, again, it’s often said but we have to return to it, the United States is a(n) anchor for many countries in the world and has been for well over half a century. But now, as we know from reading the daily newspapers, there’s a great doubt everywhere about American reliability and dependability and willingness to engage in the world. There’s a great doubt about that everywhere.

I was just in Abu Dhabi and other places in the Middle East and heard that refrain again and again, and, as I say, it’s being expressed everywhere. That has to be repaired because if there’s no trust between ourselves and our closest allies and friends, it’ll be very difficult to build trust with our competitors, if not adversaries. So this is an enormous strategic challenge for the United States. But it cannot be solved or at least addressed and moderated and managed without the United States.

The United States is—cannot be successfully a passive actor in this. This is a world which deeply affects the livelihoods and quality of life of Americans and, at least in my view, we need to go out in the world and try to improve these situations working with others, and I underline that—working with others. We can’t do it ourselves.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rutgers University.

Q: Hi. This is Richard Hyland from Rutgers.

Thanks very much for your really insightful presentation. Our question is whether you are not perhaps just a bit too optimistic or at least we are wondering whether the fact that China is turning into quite a dictatorial power that’s at war with the minorities in its own country, that has prolonged the presidency of Xi, that is suppressing free—the free press, is it possible that we are in a period like the 1930s in which war is a possibility?

BLACKWILL: Well, first, let me start by agreeing with your analysis of what’s going on domestically inside China, and you could have gone—I’m sure you could have gone on much longer in that—in that regard. But despite that, what is the—America’s alternative than trying to reach an equilibrium with China?

I don’t believe that war is inevitable between the United States and China. But I do think that it’s going to be very difficult to manage this relationship, and only diplomacy can do it, in my view, and, again, to repeat what I said before, America working with its allies to be dependable and resolute and so forth.

But I worked for George Shultz once in my life and with respect to your comment about too—being too optimistic, and perhaps I am, he once said in a meeting I was in at the White House—he said, pessimism is not a(n) option for policymakers. You have to go out and try to influence the world, and being pessimistic is not a recipe for improving the situation.

So I want to just agree with you that this is an enormous challenge for the United States to manage the rise of Chinese power and it could turn out very badly and it could turn out even into war. One thinks of Taiwan contingencies.

But that’s not inevitable. That’s at least partially in our hands and in the hands of the leadership of China, and I don’t believe either one of those leaderships wants a war. The devastating consequences for their domestic situation would lead them not to want a war, among many other things. Of course, it would be terrible for the globe.

So the question is how do you reshape the U.S.-China relationship to avoid conflict, and that’s a diplomatic challenge and it’s one that I think neither side is now successfully meeting.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Kentucky Wesleyan College.

Q: Thank you.

You mentioned the rhetorical excesses. Would you agree that recent comments of—in fact, comments for many months about the—a trade agreement just around the corner, which seems to be the president’s main concern, do go in the opposite direction? And then the second part of that question, how would you compare and contrast China today with the Soviet Union during the Cold War? Is it an implacable opponent that has to be contested and contained at every turn? Thank you.

BLACKWILL: Well, let me first say that Donald Trump is not the first president to misunderstand the likelihood for an agreement. But I do think that the issue, if I can broaden it bit, on trade is the following. The United States is very unlikely through a negotiation with China to successfully change the way China internally organizes its economy. That seems to me to be many bridges too far for the U.S. to accomplish.

What we need to do instead is to affect substantially Chinese external economic behavior, its theft of intellectual property, its violation of WTO standards. I could go on and so could you.

So my own policy prescription for the current situation is get the best trade agreement you can get now—it’ll probably be not a major trade agreement—and then go back to work on the next phase.

On the second part of your question, I’m not a fan of those kinds of historical comparisons. I will just say I don’t think we’re in a new Cold War, to use that phrase, from the situation with the Soviets. And let me just say that it may be—although I’m even skeptical of this, that we were implacable adversaries and so forth—but from the early 1970s on until the end of the Soviet Union—that’s two decades—U.S. and Soviet leaders reached numerable agreements between the two, most importantly on nuclear weapons.

So it is certainly true in the early days, in the ’50s and ’60s, that we were adversarial on every front. That did moderate as time passed. But my old colleague and dear friend, the late great Ernest May, the Harvard diplomatic historian—maybe the best one in the second half of the twentieth century—had a simple test to evaluate whether, though, such comparisons and analogies were helpful, and it was to draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and on the left side say how are these two situations similar—that is to say, the U.S. competition with the Soviet Union and the U.S. competition with China—and how are they different. And Ernest would say, you mostly find out that the way they’re similar is pretty short—that list—and the way they’re different is a very long list.

And so I think what the U.S. faces now with China has very few similarities to our challenges with the Soviet Union.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Georgetown University.

Q: Yes, thank you very much. This is Jill Dougherty, and it’s a really great briefing.

Our question concerns Russia and your prescription for how to deal with Russia, specifically, you know, ending sanctions, readmitting Russia to the G-8, and then ending any idea of NATO expansion. Russia does see, as we’ve been reading and hearing, that they do see the United States as a weakening power and China as a strengthening power.

What is to stop Russia from taking this, if we were to do this, and say it’s just an indication that the United States is, yes, indeed, much weaker and to, you know, kind of push that forward? It appears that—take advantage of that, let’s say—it would appear that they’re not being asked to do much in return. How would you answer that?

BLACKWILL: Well, first, go Hoyas, and let me—let me try to answer it. You’re absolutely right, that if the United States did all those things without any action by Moscow, then I think Putin—and I think you’ve characterized his view of the United States correctly, that he thinks we’re a weakening power—then Putin, of course, would believe that was just another indication that we’re a weakening power.

But—and I know it’s hard to digest everything over the phone, but I did say that in order for us to change our current policies—and by the way, I said the sanctions having to do with Crimea, not otherwise sanctions—I said they would have to end their interference in Ukraine, withdraw their military forces, accept a U.N. peacekeeping force in Eastern Ukraine and so forth, and stop their interference in Western politics, not just the United States but Western Europe and so forth.

And this, of course, would be a step-by-step process. We wouldn’t take them at their word that they were acting in the way they had promised. And this is not a recipe for the end of U.S.-Russian adversarial interaction, for sure. But I think the attempt would be to improve the relationship and to persuade, and now I’ll make my last point—and to persuade Russia that the United States is not a weakening power.

And, of course, it isn’t just in the U.S.-Russia relationship that Putin draws conclusions in that regard. It’s how America behaves in the world and around the world. And if we do seem irresolute, if we do tweet at 11:00 o’clock on Sunday night and change our policies a hundred and eighty degrees with no consultation with anyone, which, of course, President Trump has done—in fact, no consultation even with his own administration—then Putin will draw appropriate conclusions.

So in this—again, this is a conventional thought but I think it is important—in this globalized world, every country watches carefully what every other country does on a real-time basis. So let me give you an example in that respect. So the president announces his withdrawal from Syria, convulsing our relationship with the Kurds and all the rest. You are familiar with the details.

How do you think that’s read in North Korea as we seek to persuade North Korea that we’re a resolute—we’re resolutely opposed to their development and deployment of nuclear weapons? Or how do you think that is read by Iran and its calculations about how to deal with the United States?

So back to your fundamental question, we have to persuade Putin that we have revived, that there is no American withdrawal from the world and that United States remains an enormously powerful country—that’s an objective fact—and has the biggest economy in the world, the most developed and capable military in the world, and so forth.

But I fear, as we speak today, there is a major question all around the world about American reliability, stamina, and commitment to try to producing—to try to produce a more equilibrious world order, and that seems to be a major task for the United States.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Washington & Jefferson College.

Q: My name is Buba Misawa.

And there’s been a great talk about China’s role in Africa, and most of Africa argues that they are deliverables that are—measurable deliverables that China has offered Africa and the United States has not. So to counter that, what are the steps that you imagine the United States will do to deliver what Africans would see as China’s leverage over the United States?

BLACKWILL: I think that’s an excellent question and let me—let me try to respond.

First of all, I’m not one of those who condemns every Chinese project in Africa. Some of them, as you say, are assisting the quality of life of ordinary people in the nations of Africa, and so good for the Chinese in doing that if that’s the result of their policies and if they do it in a way that doesn’t mortgage the future of African countries through very high interest rates and so forth, so that’s it.

Secondly, however, that’s not true of all projects, and some of them, as you know—you, clearly, follow this closely—there is a curious relationship between where China builds soccer stadiums in Africa and the homes of African leaders. Well, that’s not a good use of resources and Africa—these are not free projects. So it’s not true in every case.

Finally, well, what can the United States do? Well, we’re pretty generous in our assistance. We’re not as generous as Norway and Denmark but we’re pretty generous. But it is true now that China has enormous resources to use in such ways, and I think that in addition to continuing to try to help Africa I don’t think it ought to be seen as a competition between the United States and China to assist African development.

I think both should try to seek to help with African development and also both should monitor the activities of the other. If the United States sees some of these development projects that they think are not in the interest of African countries, they should speak out about it. But they also—if they are in the interest of African countries—China’s economic development plans—they should commend China.

So it isn’t—I think—and this is true in other dimensions, too—it is true that the United States and China are likely to be adversaries for the foreseeable future and there will be a big challenge in managing the bilateral relationship.

However, that doesn’t mean that they need to see every single issue through that competitive lens. There are many issues. Climate is. Nonproliferation. There are many issues in which they ought to be working together, the United States and China, and African development is another one of them.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Next question comes from King Fahd University Petroleum and Minerals.

Q: Yes. This is Abdul Rahman from King Fahd University.

And my question is how does Donald Trump view the future of the relations between the United States and the Middle East and the Arab countries in lieu of the recent withdrawal—the abrupt withdrawal of the troops from Syria and the deployment of more troops in Saudi Arabia, which is, relatively, in a state of peace as compared to Syria, which is in an active state of civil war. Thank you.

BLACKWILL: Well, I think it’s a good question but it’s not one I can answer. The question was how does Donald Trump view this, and I do not know how he views this. My guess is, and I’ll do the most superficial guess, is that he has disconnected the two that you mention. One is the withdrawal from Syria and, two, is the increase in forces in the Kingdom in Saudi Arabia. It appears he’s disconnected the two.

The Pentagon, of course, has not disconnected the two and also is seeking to increase the number of forces we have in western Iraq to deal with the contingencies in Syria. But I apologize for giving you such a brief answer, but on the basis of watching the president and trying to follow carefully his actions and words over three years in office, I am at a loss to explain how he thinks.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Syracuse University.

Q: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us.

I just have a question about the United States as a police power. You advocated for the U.S. to work to improve stability abroad, but both China and Russia have criticized the U.S. as a police power. So do you believe that the U.S. can build better relationships between these two countries while also expanding their presence and kind of regaining their police power status?

BLACKWILL: Are you saying—ma’am, are you saying police power?

Q: Yeah, like as a policing power. A world policing power.

BLACKWILL: Well, obviously, we’re not. (Laughter.) You could have made that—and the Soviet Union used to make that argument, the world’s policeman, right, and that’s been a phrase that we have seen in the U.S. domestic political debate for many, many decades.

But you can hardly call us the world policeman today when we’re withdrawing from Syria. We are in the last years of our involvement in Afghanistan, in my judgment, one way or the other. I don’t know whether the withdrawal will be in next calendar year or the year after, but with a—there’s a perception out in the world which is quite different than the United States as the world’s policeman. I don’t know who is saying that, and I read both the Chinese and Russian public statements carefully and that’s not a frequent theme that they use either. Out in the world, the concern is exactly the opposite—that America is withdrawing from its global interactions and thus producing instability. if not destabilization. in parts of the world. That’s the concern now.

I agree entirely that there was a period when that theme from communist powers was very prevalent—America, the world policeman. And you have to go, by the way, all the way back to the 1930s when another questioner asked to find, again, with Charles Lindbergh and others arguing for us not to become involved in Europe in the 1930s and to become the world’s policeman.

So I don’t think there’s any danger of that now and, indeed, I’ll conclude with this and it's just something which we might all think about. Here’s a parlor game for all of us. Name a development which—at the end of October in 2019 name a(n) international development that you believe the majority of the American people would support going to war to prevent. What would that development be? And I will just name some candidates. Would the majority of Americans favor going to war with Russia over Lithuania? Would the majority of Americans support going to war with China over Taiwan? Would the majority of Americans support going to war with Iran over Saudi Arabia?

So I think the—and I think each of those requires some considerable thought of whether they would in fact so support. So—of course, that would depend a lot on the circumstances and how the administration presented it, but I think we’re very far now from the issue of world policeman.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Wheaton College, Massachusetts.

Q: Hi. My name’s Khadija Mohato (ph) and I’m from Wheaton College.

I just had a question about kind of more on the simpler side, but I think nowadays younger generations don’t understand the drastic impact of understanding foreign policy and how it will affect them more than us now. And especially in the political world now, with our president, I think there’s an overcast on just the focus on him.

So how would you advise—of your expertise and your past history, how would you advise us talking to students or just having simple conversations to students to basically open their—about how important concepts like this are and what they can do to just get more involved and be more aware?

BLACKWILL: Well, I very much like that question. I spent fourteen years on the Harvard faculty struggling with just that issue. That was a while back, but I think the issue—and I don’t think that there’s a magic formula about it. It begins though, I believe, with the study of history. And every analysis of the education of our young people demonstrates that they know less and less about history, including their own history. I don’t mean necessarily world history or China or Russia or what have you, or the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and so forth. Their own history.

I saw a poll the other day that 53 percent of Americans can’t name the three branches of government and so forth. And I don’t know a way to get at this, except through understanding history. And it used to be that we taught civics in our schools, which was a combination of history and political practice and societal development. We don’t teach civics anymore. And so my heart goes out to all of you who are on the line who are teaching foreign policy. That’s challenge one.

Challenge two, though, is—which is—may seem more—I guess less ethereal in a way, is I always ask students, my students when I first met them, and you clearly spend time with yours, tell me what newspapers you read in the morning. And if the answer is none, that’s a real problem, because that means they get their news from the networks and the blogs and so forth. And I’m indifferent to whether they’re reading a newspaper which is a liberal orientation or a conservative orientation; I just want them to read newspapers.

And I always tried to persuade my students who—of course they’re busy and they’re studying and they’re preparing for their exams and taking them and all the rest—but if you read it every day, if you read a good newspaper every day—and it doesn’t even have to be one from your own country. Americans can read British newspapers or Australian, the way they see the world—you will then begin to accumulate a basis of knowledge. So the first try, the first—my first policy prescription is history and know the past and how it produced the present, and the second is know the present.

But as I said, no magic formula, and good for you for trying.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of Minnesota.

Q: Hi. So my name is Sam.

And my question is that in the article Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem, you assert that what matters most is the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy over time and its consistency with U.S. national interests, not the personal qualities of its leaders. Given this statement, does the epistemology and ethicality of U.S. leaders such as Trump affect the implementation of U.S. foreign policy?

BLACKWILL: Well, let me say—(chuckles)—epistemology. Let me—let me say that if you read the entire report I have a lot of emphasis on his character and about which I do not approve, as you’ll see if you read the entire report. But what I—the point I was trying to make there is that we’ve had presidents—Richard Nixon comes to mind—who had deep flaws in their character and yet had successful diplomacy—the opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, the Middle East peace process after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. So I was trying to separate out, at least for purposes of analysis, the actions of government and the temperament and character of the leader in question. But of course, as you imply, there’s a relationship between the two and the one affects the other.

It’s remarkable, if you read the period of the Nixon years, how little his personal weaknesses did affect his foreign policy. But in this administration that is not the case, and if you read the entire report, you’ll see that I worry consistently about the effect of his character on our foreign policy. And the report ends—if you all read the last paragraph of the report, which I’m afraid is prophetic, I write—and this was eight months ago when I finished writing this report, took a couple months to publish it—I worry in the last paragraph of the report that things are going to get worse, that the combination of the way he conducts himself in office is likely to produce more and more problems in American foreign policy.

And I think, for that purpose, maybe I will even read the last paragraph of the report. It says, and I think it does address directly your question, “Unfortunately for America, given Donald J. Trump’s enduring lack of character, his refusal to learn, his uneducated biases, the chaotic and dysfunction way that he runs the government, and the diminishing quality of his senior advisors, the president’s foreign policy grade is likely to get much worse. But as Alexander Pope observed, hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Well, I’m afraid that hope has been extinguished by the president’s behavior and policies since I wrote that report eight months ago.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of North Carolina Greensboro.


Q: Oh, hello.

FASKIANOS: There you go. We can hear you now.

Q: OK, wonderful. Hi. This is Marcia Hale. Thank you so much for all the great information on the call today.

I just wanted to go back for a moment to the beginning of your talk when you were kind of exploring the different stands that the U.S. needs to take in terms of foreign policy and relationships with states such as Russia and take a more kind of collaborative stand, and wondering in that regard what kind of institutional change do we need to go from being the hegemon to a collaborator?

BLACKWILL: I think it’s a great question, and I think we’re running out of time, so I won’t go on and on, but I’ll say this. Wendy (sic; Marcia), I don’t think actually the United States was ever a hegemon, but it certainly had primacy in many parts of the world. And by that I mean it was the most important power, and in fact in most parts of the world, and it behaved in that way.

During those many decades in which it did have primacy, it did not believe—and this was across several different administrations—that the United—sorry, that the United Nations was an effective instrument of American national interests. And it also was, especially on the political, the geopolitical side, indifferent to many international institutions, not so much on the economic side, but on the geopolitical side. And I think now that has to change.

I think that one of our preoccupations now in our international diplomacy should be how to strengthen the Security Council and how to make the Security Council an instrument that its founders imagined it would be, which was an important means to secure international peace and security. That has not been the case for most of its history, as we know. Countries have acted despite U.N. resolutions. We have the—Iran and North Korea at the moment doing so, and others too, and the United States of course has done so in the past.

So I really like that question because it vivifies the changes in psychology the United States now needs to make that it’s lost its domination of the international system, which it enjoyed for about a half a century.

FASKIANOS: Well, on that note, I think we need to end. I apologize to all of you for—there were many questions still in queue and I’m sorry that we could not get to them all.

Bob, thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciated your analysis and insights. I commend to you all—

BLACKWILL: Good questions. Good questions.

FASKIANOS: Really, really good questions. I commend to all of you Ambassador Blackwill’s Council special report on Trump’s foreign policy, as well as keep an eye out for the one that we will publish that he’s authoring on China in January. We will obviously be talking about it in our Academic Bulletin as well as tweeting about it. So keep an eye out for that.

Our next call will be on Wednesday, November 6 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time. Thomas Bollyky, Senior Fellow for global health, economics and development and the director of the Global Health Program here at CFR, will lead a conversation on “Global Health and Its Role in Development.”

So again, thank you for being with us. Please follow us on @CFR_Academic on Twitter. Visit CFR.org for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events. We’ve just launched a new podcast called Why It Matters. I hope you will check it out. It’s available, again, on—you can read about it on CFR.org and you can go to Apple and Spotify to subscribe to that podcast as well as others—The World Next Week with Jim Lindsay and Bob McMahon, and some others. So please go there, subscribe and keep reading history.


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