Academic Webinar: American Isolationism vs. Internationalism
Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at CFR and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Department of Government, and Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program and dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership at Chatham House, and associate professor of international relations at SOAS, lead a conversation on isolationism, internationalism, and America’s role in the world.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon and welcome to the CFR Winter/Spring 2021 Academic Webinar series. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. Today's meeting is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates. And as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Charles Kupchan and Leslie Vinjamuri with us to discuss isolationism, internationalism, and America's role in the world. We have shared their bios with you, so I'll just give you a few highlights. Dr. Kupchan is a senior fellow at CFR and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. In the Obama administration, he served as special assistant to the president and senior director for European affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. Dr. Kupchan was also director for European affairs on the NSC for the first Clinton administration. He is most recently the author of Isolationism, A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself From the World. And here is a copy of his book.
Dr. Vinjamuri is director of the US and Americas program and dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in international affairs at Chatham House in London, as well as associate professor of international relations at SOAS University of London. From 2010 to 2018, she was founding codirector and then director of the Center on Conflict, Rights, and Justice at SOAS. Dr. Vinjamuri holds a British Academy grant on the future of internationalism, a project that looks at the role of the US and other major powers to reform international institutions and governance structures. And together with Dr. Kupchan, she led the Lloyd George study group on world order. She is an editor and contributing author to Human Rights Futures.
So thank you both for being with us today. I am going to go first to you, Dr. Kupchan, to talk about the ideological and political roots of American isolationism, its evolution, and how you see what's happening today, put it into context, given the history.
KUPCHAN: Thank you very much, Irina. Thank you for organizing this. And thanks to all of you who have joined us today for the program and special thanks to Leslie Vinjamuri for participating. It is after hours in London, so she is going beyond the call of duty. And in the spirit of full disclosure, Leslie and I are good long-term friends, but we will not let that get in the way of mixing it up on the discussion today, right, Leslie?
VINJAMURI: Absolutely not.
KUPCHAN: Okay. We're still in what you might call the honeymoon period of the Biden presidency. And at least here in in Washington, among the people that I talk to, there is a sense that we're going back to something that resembles normalcy—whatever the hell that is—and that the US will return to the global stage, that liberal internationalism and American foreign policy that essentially gives the United States pride of place as the overseer, we're going to go back to that, we're going to reinstate the state of play that we had prior to the Trump era. And what I want to do in the next five, six minutes is simply say, I don't think that's going to happen.
I think in many respects, we are entering what I would call the third big era of American grand strategy. And to summarize the core of my argument, I would say that the first big era was 1789 to 1941, which was simply put the era of American isolationism when—with a couple exceptions in 1898 and 1917—the United States generally tended its own garden, avoided strategic commitments outside North America and then the Western Hemisphere, in effect, ran away from the world geopolitically, even as it engaged it economically and culturally. The second period ran from Pearl Harbor through the Obama administration. And this was the heyday of liberal internationalism, when the United States effectively ran the world rather than sought to run away from it. Roosevelt, Franklin put together a synthesis of an American grand strategy that was both power-oriented, realist, and idealist, American interests and American values, and he forged a bipartisan compact behind that brand of American leadership.
What I want to argue today and discuss with Leslie and the rest of you is the proposition that we're now in the third era, and that in many respects, Trump's "America first" was not some bolt from the blue, some detour, some bizarre hiatus from the norm, but in many respects, a continuation of the grand strategy that the United States adopted before 1941. Trump, in my mind, accurately perceived that for many Americans, there was too much world and not enough America, too many wars, too much free trade, too many international packs, too many immigrants, too much investment in Afghanistan, and not enough investment in Arkansas, and he then pursued "America first," and he ran on that platform as a way of addressing the sense among many Americans that the US had overreached. The problem, in my mind, is that Trump went way too far. He overcorrected for overreach. He jammed on the brakes, rather than easing off and trying to use a judicious pullback to put American foreign policy back into alignment with its political will. That to me, is Biden's core task over the next four years: how to correct for Trump's overcorrection. And how to find a new equilibrium in American grand strategy that represents the sweet spot between era one: doing too little, and era two: doing too much. How can the United States step back without stepping away?
And very briefly, I want to just take one second to outline why I think Trump's America first has strong antecedents in American history. The US was, for most of its history, isolationist. It was, for most of its history, unilateralist. It was protectionist until after World War II. It was guided by a nativist and racist view of the world. One of the reasons that the United States did not expand abroad, is that the American people did not want either to rule over or integrate into the body politic, non-whites. That's what stopped us from going into Latin America, to the Caribbean, to places like the Philippines, Hawaii. And then finally we start moving out after 1898. But it was with great controversy. And in part because of a backlash against going to places that were non-Christian and non-white, we retreated to the isolationism of the 1920s and the 1930s. So in many respects, Trump was harkening back to an earlier era in which the United States was much less willing to expend blood and treasure to extend its strategic reach abroad. As I said, I think Biden understands that right now he needs to correct for Trump's overcorrection. And I believe that he will put "America first" in the ash heap of history for the second time. Keep in mind that the first round of America first was in 1940 and 1941 when the America First committee blocked Franklin Roosevelt from trying to provide more assistance to those fighting Nazi Germany and interwar Japan. And so Biden, I think, will go back to being a team player. I think Biden will go back to being a liberal Democrat, and he will rebuild America's ties with liberal democracies around the world. And he will restore the United States to its traditional role as an exemplar, as a beacon to the rest of the world, after four years in which many countries were scratching their head, and asking themselves, "What has happened to American democracy? We have always looked to American democracy as a model. Now it's in shreds.” That, in my mind, ended on January 20.
But in other respects, I think one can see continuity in Biden's future as much as change. First, a continued pullback from the Middle East. I think Trump was right to begin to dismantle the forever wars, and Democrats and Republicans alike agree that we should stop our efforts to turn Afghanistan and Iraq into Ohio. Number two, I think there will be very little trade liberalization in the Biden administration at first at the beginning. And that's because it seems to me, there isn't much support for free trade on either side of the aisle. The one exception I see is the US trying to align with democracies around the world to push China to liberalize its markets, and to create a more level playing field on the trade front. But I would not hold my breath on a US-UK free trade deal, or on other major acts of liberalization, at least in the first and second year of the Biden presidency.
My final point here is that it's my assessment that Biden and the people around him understand that right now, America's first, second, third, and fourth priorities are all at home. We cannot turn our backs on the Trump era, we need to learn the lessons of the Trump era. And those lessons to me, say rather loud and clear, there are many unhappy Americans in the United States, and we need to figure out what the problems are. And so I see a president who is going to focus like a laser on the pandemic, on racial injustice, on investments in infrastructure, on investments in green technology, on worker retraining, on opening up new manufacturing lines in the industrial heartland. Because if we do not solve these domestic problems, the sources of polarization, the sources of illiberalism, a country that no longer knows its own mind, no longer shares a unified sense of what constitutes reality, we are never going to get our foreign policy right. And as a consequence, I think we'll see more effort, more time, more resources focused on the home front. That doesn't mean you can't walk and chew gum at the same time. It doesn't mean pulling out of Europe and Asia, as some in the so-called restraint school argue. But I do think it means a president who puts domestic priorities first, a president who allocates resources away from the traditional defense budget towards cyber, the pandemic, climate change, and other issues that are not part of the traditional security agenda. And in my mind, that's just as it should be. Because, as I said, if we don't fix the nation's internal problems and make that our top priority, our foreign policy will continue to be all over the map, which is where it's been for the last while. And that says to me that our main priorities are here in the United States. Leslie, over to you.
VINJAMURI: Thank you. And it's always good to hear Charlie, for many reasons. And I also, Charlie, was taking a very careful look at your Foreign Policy article that Irina and the CFR circulated to everybody who's on the call that was published just a few weeks ago, because it there's really a lot in there, and I want to address it in part. But I should say, first, thank you to Irina, who is the heart and soul of CFR, and certainly of the CFR in London, of which I actively enjoy being part, and it's great to be on the call with Charlie. I saw many names on the list that looked familiar, not least my dear former professor David Baldwin. And so I guess I'd say a couple of things.
First of all, on Charlie's way of breaking up the history of the US and its engagement in the world, I'm partly sympathetic with it, but in many ways, I think 2008 is really where we should date the beginning of a change that perhaps, although obviously, President Obama, President Trump, and I would argue even President Biden, were all very different from each other, the effort to recalibrate America's global engagements and America's way of thinking about its role in the world, I think, began earlier perhaps than Charlie dates it, but that things get in the way. And actually, things do get in the way. So part of the story of what happens going forward, we have our suspicions, and many of them certainly in Charlie's case are grounded in deep knowledge of the sitting president. But we also don't know what the unknowns will be, what will the world ask of America. But I do think that the effort to recalibrate, to recognize the deep problems in America's democracy that were revealed by the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the inequality, the desire to get out of the forever wars, the desire to think differently about America's Asia strategy, a pivot, an institutionalist strategy that was designed to manage the China problem differently by exclusion, arguably, the TPP, and that all of these efforts were part of a long term project, which was about recalibrating America's policy, which didn't turn out the way that Obama wanted them to. And certainly, President Trump had a different agenda.
A word on Trump, as somebody who's been sitting in London and in the UK through the entire four incredibly tumultuous and difficult years, not to even begin to pretend that they have been more tumultuous for those sitting in Europe than they have been in the US, but they certainly haven't been pleasant. And I guess, because the many of the readings are set up as being sort of this contrast between isolationism, restraint, and liberal internationalism—the one thing that President Trump’s America didn't read as to Europeans was restrained, or isolationist, or liberal. And so it's sort of in a category of its own, it was very active, as we know, relying on tariff wars to manage deep economic problems, frequently using force, even in unexpected ways, if you go back to his early use of humanitarian force to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, keeping boots on the ground much longer than he said he would, and being full of bluster, and throwing up many new strategies for dealing with old problems, not least in North Korea. It looked anything but restrained and anything like America was simply focused on the home front. It did look very much unilateralist and very much a policy that was dominated by the logic of "America first." But in terms of where do we go from here, a couple of things.
First of all, for better and for worse, the real world is far messier than the theoretical world of grand strategy debate in international relations, certainly, and this is probably a good thing. I would argue that restraint is simply not realistic in an era in where there are some global issues that range from highly consequential to existential in terms of their consequences for Americans, that America's soft power has already taken a battering and then squandered. And that America's allies don't really have the leadership ability or the material capabilities to check hostile powers, of which we have at least two: Russia and China, and probably many more. So there are multiple reasons for which the United States will need to remain actively engaged, which isn't to say that restrainers are suggesting that they shouldn't remain engaged in solving the big global challenges. But I think the imperative, and the instinct behind restraint is deeply flawed.
I would also argue that I don't think there are very many people that actually believe that, at least where I sit, that President Biden means a return to the way the world used to be. And I would say it's for a couple of reasons.
One is that everybody can see it. And I would argue, the vision of America from the near abroad and from the further abroad, is far worse than I think America actually is, in large part because the rest of the world looks at America through the lens of the media. And the media has a very single-track agenda and has had for the last four years. So people don't think America is coming back to where it used to be, because I think America is just fundamentally changed, and will necessarily be constrained and focused at home. But the second reason, of course, is that Europe has changed. Certainly, the UK has changed. It's finally now after the entire four years of Donald Trump's presidency being internally focused on exiting the European Union. It's now deeply focused on a foreign policy debate that's really just kind of emerged in the last couple of weeks about now that Britain is free, what will Britain's foreign policy be? But Europe is changed, and Europe's interest in sovereignty has changed, and Europe is not aligned amongst itself. So for any number of reasons, I don't think that people assume that the world is just going right back to where it used to be.
And the other thing I would argue is that—and this goes not so much to Charlie's remarks today, but maybe his comments in his Foreign Policy piece, which I think are really worth taking a look at when he sort of sets out his vision, and much of it I agree with. His first point that America must invest in its democracy and the problem of inequality and rebooting the economy in an inclusive way, in sorting out an immigration policy that's pragmatic, but values-based that gets the narrative about America right, that America needs to keep its alliances strong as force multipliers. And I guess the part of it which was really interesting to me and where I think there is a very substantial debate to be had, and maybe for this call, is about what America's commitment should be in terms of the other liberal international institutions. And whether America should turn to the framework, such as it exists, or whether there should be some new institutions created, one of which Charlie proposed was a concert. And whether the others should be the way to solve collective problems is sort of an ad hoc, pick it up and put it down, and maybe I'm being unfair, coalitions of the willing, and I guess I would argue not to exclude those as possibilities, but very strongly against abandoning the institutions that we have, work with them, sometimes perhaps work around them, but recognize that the problem is not the institutions, the problem is perhaps that the institutions went too far, in some cases, in misunderstanding the important role of sovereignty in international politics. But if that can be re-harnessed, there's no reason not to very clearly work through the institutions.
The other thing I would say is on the question of democracy, and I'm not sure exactly Charlie's views on this, although I suspect I have a sense from the readings and for many conversations, I think the democracy question can't be one that's simply about America's democracy at home, and I think it's an important point to make on the Holocaust Remembrance Day, that the world deeply needs America, not to use military force to overthrow dictators and wars of choice, but it deeply needs America to be back in the game of articulating a vision that is values-based, that pays attention to and gives priority to America's allies that share those values, that gives voice to those interests in civil society and creates the space for transnationalism that's been severely damaged and dampened through the Trump years, and that really works with democracies, in the first instance, to put forward global solutions to key problems, whether it's on technology, health, etc., before turning to a broader array of partners that will be necessary in order to really move the dial. So I'll close there, but I think the democracy and values agenda can't be one that's simply limited to the home front.
FASKIANOS: Thank you both. Great start to the discussion. And we want to continue it now with all of you. You can raise your hand at the bottom of the screen. If you're on a tablet, you can click on the More button and raise your hand there. You can also type your question in the Q&A box. I see we have a few there. But I'm going to first go to the first raised hand by Babak Salimitari. Please unmute yourself, and please tell us who you are and what institution you're with.
Q: Hi, can you hear me? My name is Babak Salimitari, and I'm a second-year economics student at UCI, University of California, Irvine. And Ms. Vinjamuri, I think you made a really good point about Europe not being the same Europe. I would argue that it was like that since the Iraq War. We saw that the great powers of Europe, whether that be France, whether that be Germany or Italy, didn't really do anything with the United States in Iraq. It was mostly Poland and Estonia or whatever, and England, but it was mostly small, Eastern European countries that went and put troops on the ground. And from there, I would say that we saw a big shift between transatlantic relations, and we're still seeing that shift. And we saw how Trump called Europe worse than China. So I was wondering, if we continue to see this shift from transatlantic relations to, say, India or Japan, and how we saw this big focus on Asia, how can that create problems between us and our oldest allies?
FASKIANOS: Leslie, do you want to take that?
VINJAMURI: Yeah, I'll add a comment. And then I'll certainly let Charlie, because Charlie's spent his career working on Europe, I just live here. Although I don't live in Europe anymore, apparently. So there we are. And, as is noted, by the downgrading of the EU ambassador in the UK, the latest diplomatic drama, talk about a storm in a teapot. But I think there are going to be a lot of them. It's a really, really important question. And I guess it depends a little bit—and I think you're right to draw that distinction about the positions that were taken with respect to Iraq, of course, Britain was in a different situation. But some of the changes, some of the other significant changes, I think, are more recent, and certainly, with respect to divisions between Germany and France. So that's not a new thing. But in terms of how it's played out internally, what it means for current issues having to do with European cooperation internally, but also with the US on China. But I do think that the fractures in Europe are longer than that I probably intimated in my initial remarks. But I guess there's a question now that the US has ceded that space, can it kind of go back in, and does it even want to go back in as a unifying presence to sort of bring Europe together, or has the absence of the US during these four years created the space for even greater division? And I suspect it's a bit of the latter, but let's see what Charlie says.
KUPCHAN: You know, it's a great question, Babak. I'm going to answer it with a question. And maybe some of you on the call could weigh in on this, or Leslie could as well. One question I have in my mind is, to what degree are Europeans and Asian allies going to simultaneously come back to the fold, welcome back the United States as a strategic guarantor, but hedge their bets? There was an interesting poll that came out of the, I think it was the European Council on Foreign Relations, that said that 51% of Europeans don't think that Biden will be able to repair the country's divisions and come back as a reliable ally. If you're South Korea, or you're Japan, or you're Vietnam, and you're looking at US politics, polarization, the switches from Clinton, to Bush, to Obama, to Trump, to Biden, you have to wonder is this a country on which we can count? And I don't know the answer to that question. I think that many allies around the world are breathing a sigh of relief and they can't wait for the warm and fuzzy feeling of American attention and American troops and reassertion of the alliance. But my guess is that deep down inside, they are also making judgments about, as I said, hedging their bets. They're looking at the United States, they're seeing a Senate that is about to go through an impeachment trial in which we're not sure whether we want to have a revocation of the filibuster. You know, I don't know, 50, 60 million Americans still don't believe that Biden won the election. And so, there are reasons for those abroad to be somewhat cautious about what's been happening here in the United States politically, and whether or not those problems are fixable anytime soon.
FASKIANOS: Question from Derek Suthammanont at Texas Tech University, "The world knows America can change priorities depending on what administration is entering. So Biden now is putting forth a lot of executive orders that are undoing what Trump did. And so, what strategies should the US and the world take to maintain stability given that, and what actions can be undertaken to prevent another era like Trump's?”
KUPCHAN: Maybe I'll take a quick swing it that. Leslie's right that the Trump story really didn't start in 2017. It started earlier, because Barack Obama, I think sensed the same thing that Trump did. And that is he, and his bumper sticker when he ran for re-election was "it's time for nation-building at home." And so he was already beginning to say, I think we've bitten off more than we can chew and we need to address domestic problems, but I think that those of us, and I put myself into this boat since I was in the White House then, just didn't appreciate the gravity of the domestic problems that we faced, and the costs of our activism abroad. I mean, we've spent $6+ trillion dollars on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the broader region, we're now unlikely to get $1.9 trillion stimulus package through because I'm guessing that Republicans aren't going to agree to go ahead with that. And so this is a conversation that does go back to the pre-Trump era. But I do think that, as I said, we need to listen more carefully to what we're hearing from the electorate. And my sense is that there are many members of the electorate who don't feel that American foreign policy has done particularly well for their interests, particularly on the economic front and the trade front. And that's why I think we need to recalibrate, because if we don't recalibrate, we may be in Trump 2.0 four years from now, whether it's Donald Trump or son of Donald Trump or daughter of Donald Trump, that is the purveyor.
VINJAMURI: I'll add something to that if it's okay, Irina. I read the question a little bit as what Europe and the rest of the world should do to guard against another kind of "America first," which is partly had Charlie answered it also. But I think we're certainly seeing this new and big debate in Britain, about which I find quite interesting, but puzzling at the same time about UK foreign policy. But it proceeded the Brexit. When Charlie was working on the National Security Council, Britain made the decision that America did not to accept the offer to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, Britain is now having a conversation about whether to join the CP TPP. Maybe I've missed kind of where it is this week. And Britain is hosting G7, it's hosting COP26, it's thinking very carefully about who its partners are and all of these things, and it's hedging on how much one relies on the US for exactly this reason. The problem, of course, is that it's really hard to work around and work without the material power authority capabilities of the United States. But I am quite convinced, listening to people, that that is exactly what they are trying to do. And then the other obvious mechanism is to really tie things in, through transnational endeavors that have substantial weight, and don't rely on the apparatus of the inner government to keep them going at times when people don't want to do that, don't want to play ball.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to John Mueller who has his hand raised. Thank you.
Q: John Mueller from Cato Institute at Ohio State. Question for Leslie. You talk somewhat in passing about existential threats to the United States. Would you explain what those are? You then went into Russia and China. Do either of them threaten the existence of the United States? And when you talk about trying to "check" China, what does that mean? Keep it from becoming ever richer or what?
VINJAMURI: So first of all, I should say, I know your work. And I've long admired it. And so I have some sense of where the questions coming from. No, I'm not suggesting that there. And maybe I shouldn't use the word "existential." But I do think that some of the global challenges, and climate is the obvious one, simply, can't, we know this is like stating the obvious over and over again, but we know that there are global challenges that the US needs to be part of, if there's going to be progress, and they need to be dealt with collectively. Do I think that Russia represents an existential, territorial threat to the United States? No. But I think that the cyber attacks seem to be, from what we're finding out, pretty extraordinary in terms of their capability, the risk, the financial devastation and disruption that they could cause. And the capabilities of some of America's partners in that area are not small, not least the UK but working together collectively, through the Five Eyes and any other number of alliances is key to America's success in responding to that kind of challenge. And I guess I'm on the side of those who think that yes, China is a very significant threat, and yes, the US will be better off if it works with others to try and counter that in a way that's productive and not more destructive and doesn't make the problem worse rather than better. So yeah, I'll leave it at that.
FASKIANOS: I'm going to follow on with a few China questions. And Charlie, you can take a swing at it. And we'll come back since we are on China. So Evan Medeiros at Georgetown wants to talk about America's China policy. What does Biden's correction from Trump mean for us China ties? Doesn't the growing US concern about China's rise and the near universal embrace of strategic competition mean that Biden will double down on Trump's China policy? And will he push relations in the direction of an ideological competition as a consequence of the correction? And then there's another question on China about the competition for science dominance. What is your view on the many arrests of Chinese American professors collaborating with Chinese universities in the science field? There are lots of, and China rising as a superpower, what are the prospects the US is facing to lead the world? So I'll put those all together for you to thread the needle.
KUPCHAN: A wild swing at that, and Evan knows much more about the topic than I do, so I answer with trepidation. I think that the most likely outcome is a continuation, if not an escalation, of US-China tensions. And that's because, number one, the underlying conflicts of interest aren't going away. Whether it's geopolitics or Hong Kong, or Xinjiang, or the broader security architecture in the Asia Pacific, or Belt and Road, and the giant sucking sound of the Chinese economy. I mean, we just saw the European Union make a deal on an investment treaty with China during the last few days of last year, even though Jake Sullivan, the incoming National Security Adviser had said, "Hey, wait, wait for us. Let's talk this over." And so I think that, in some ways, the United States will for the first time in its history face a true peer competitor. Yes, there was there was bipolarity, during the Soviet Union, but I think in China, there is a peer competitor, that that is more impressive when it comes to its scientific infrastructure, its ability to compete on 5G, on semiconductors, on a lot of the areas of AI that will be at the leading edge of technology and economy moving forward. That having been said, let me offer a couple of caveats, or things to watch for.
First of all, I think there will be a strategic dialogue, an effort to open a serious corridor of communication with China, which did not exist during the Trump era. And it did exist during the Obama era as you well know, Evan, since you were there. The second thing I would say is that I'm not someone who believes there is economic decoupling in the cards. There is, what I would, say irretrievable irreversible globalization. There'll be some repatriation of supply lines here and there. But I don't think we are going back to a world in which we see two economic blocs, and to me that's good news, because it gives China, and the US, and the Europeans, and everyone else, an interest in keeping the tension from spilling or spiraling up. And then the final point here is that, even though I think there will be a head of ideological steam on both sides, nationalism in China, bipartisan consensus to stand up to China here in the US, we also need China. And this is one of the reasons that, yeah, fine let's have a D10, let's bring the democracies of the world together. But if we're really going to tackle climate change, cybersecurity, extremism, North Korea, pandemics, what country do we need to work with? China, as much as any country. And so it seems to me that the Biden will, in the end of the day, try to balance a tough line on China with a pragmatic recognition that much of what he wants to do in the world cannot be done without China.
VINJAMURI: I would just add to that very quickly. I agree with pretty much all of that. I mean, I think that—two things one is what I'm waiting to see on the human rights question is, it's one thing to call it out, it's one thing for the US to call Xinjiang genocide. But it's quite another thing, what does that lead to? What does it prevent from happening on these broader challenges that Charlie's outlined? And what other instruments are leveraged behind that, if any? Or is it just that the name will be put out there? And if it is a harder edged policy, then the big question is, how will the Chinese react? For me, it is kind of the thing I can't work out because I can't work out what else you do, that doesn't have some really high costs in terms of the broader diplomacy.
On the EU—the EU story, and interestingly, and it was on the record, so I can repeat it, and I'm sure you've all heard it, but Anne-Marie Slaughter said in a call, she had been advising and urging the EU to push forward this EU-China investment deal in order to have more leverage over the US so that the US would work with Europe more on its China policy. So that's very interesting. Of course, I think the story that's told more often is that this was Germany's push, this is what Germany wanted, and getting Europe to be aligned internally, in a way that will allow for a transatlantic strategy on China is going to be really, really tough. I would say, even though the UK looks like it's moved towards the US, there's still a lot of people here that believe in the responsible stakeholder thesis and don't like the way things that are going, and I guess the bottom line there is that it leads to me to be pessimistic that the that the Europeans and the UK and the US are all going to get aligned and on the same page. I think the prospect of the US and the UK being aligned is much stronger.
KUPCHAN: Leslie, did the UK government take a public position on the EU investment treaty or did it stay silent?
VINJAMURI: I don't think it took a public position. But don't quote me. I mean, I didn't see anything that sort of spoke out against it. But I think that it's seen it as an opportunity, right, the fact that things are not going as well, for the EU and the US and China, I think there is a sense of an opportunity to align and to fill the gap.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Gary Prevost, who has his hand raised. We have like twenty questions, so we're clearly not going to get to them all. Hope to get through as many as possible.
Q: Gary Prevost at the College of St. Benedict. I thought one of the most important and creative approaches of the Obama administration was to talk to adversaries, longtime ones like Cuba, like Iran, and like North Korea, and at least on the first two, I thought there were very important successes from that approach. Do you see the Biden administration continuing that approach and extending that, for example, to deal with the issue of Venezuela? Some of you may know, I'm a Latin American specialist.
KUPCHAN: I think that, that Biden himself is a believer in the power of personal diplomacy. He likes to roll up his sleeves and sit down with people and take walks with them. And so I think you'll see him do that. With lots of different players. It's interesting to point out that Trump, in some ways kept the Obama strategy in certain areas. I mean, he actually went and talked to North Korea, he said at one point, he was ready to talk to the Iranians. So there was some of that in the Trump era. But yes, I do think you'll see a return to that effort to engage what you might call adversaries or difficult countries. And I would come back—I don't know about Venezuela, but in those areas where the United States sort of has important interests at stake, whether it is the Iran nuclear deal, or Russia and the START treaty, or China and climate change, again, I see someone in Biden who is ideological in the sense he's a real democrat and will speak up about violations of human rights in Venezuela and everywhere else. But he's also a very pragmatic guy who wants to solve problems. And to me that says, he will, in the end of the day, take an engagement strategy, even with countries that are not "friends" of the United States.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I'm going to go next to Thomas Kahn, who's at American University, he wrote a question, and it got two thumbs up. So I'm going to ask it. What does this new era mean for US-Israel relations? Will we protect an Israel under attack? Will the US continue to maintain its close alliance, albeit be more like it was under Bush and Obama than under Trump?
VINJAMURI: Got to do Israel, Charlie.
KUPCHAN: All right.
VINJAMURI: We saw the shift on the aid to the Palestinian authority returned to support a two-state solution, but in terms of how far that goes.
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that you'll see the Biden team pocket the significant progress that Trump made on Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbors. And one should not minimize the deals that were struck over the course of the last year or so that really do change the diplomatic landscape. At the same time, I think he'll go back to a more traditional American position on the peace process: support for the two-state solution, not drawing maps that look like the maps that Mr. Kushner drew. And we've already seen the benefits of that, when it comes to re-engaging the Palestinians, who basically shut down their diplomacy, because they felt that the Trump team was simply not sufficiently even-handed. So I think you're looking at something that looks a lot more like pre-Trump policy toward Israel. I don't expect there to be a lot of progress, to be quite frank, given politics in Israel, and given politics in the Palestinian community, I can see tangible progress on this, that, or the other thing. But if we're talking about something that looks like a deal, and a two-state solution, I would not hold my breath.
VINJAMURI: Can I interject one thing here? I guess it's a question almost for Charlie. If there is a move working in a consultative way, compliance for compliance, to move the Iran deal, to move back into the JCPOA, how much do you think that sets back the US-Israel relationship, the Abraham accords, etc.? What would the implications be of moving back into the JCPOA in the region?
KUPCHAN: I don't think it would be a big setback in the sense that, whatever the terms of the deal, the story's not over. Right? And so, yeah, okay, let's say they decide to go back to having X kilograms of enriched uranium, let's say they say, okay, we're going to turn off our new generation centrifuges. That still doesn't mean that everybody says, "Ah, let's breathe a sigh of relief.” There will still be a counter-Iran coalition. And in the end of the day, I don't think that Israel would like there to be another war. The big wars in the Middle East, the war in Syria, the war in Iraq, they haven't actually done a lot for Israel. And so I think everything else being equal, the parties in the region would like to see some kind of deal. Would they be comfortable with the original terms? Probably not. But my sense is that on the table right now is not let's just go back and reinstate the JCPOA, but let's have a conversation that builds on that. And it's going to be a tough conversation.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Katherine Marshall at Georgetown University asks about what do you see as the objectives of the announced democracy summit. If done well, what might it accomplish? And what do you see as the most effective ways to engage the G20 mechanisms?
KUPCHAN: Leslie, why don't you start?
VINJAMURI: Yeah, I mean, I'm puzzled by this whole democracy summit. As you know, in the UK, there's a conversation about the D10. And, A, will it happen? B, it seems like a lot of the proposals have, perhaps they're fluid, but that they've moved towards having a democracy summit that is focused on protecting democracy internally amongst all of those who are partnered to the summit. As opposed to perhaps, the initial idea of the D10 was a group of countries that would in effect, coalesce democracies that would coalesce to talk about 5G and cooperation on big issues with China on the outside, but very much the target, the object of those policies. So I think I feel like that agenda and whether it's actually going to happen are very much in flux. And it strikes me that the wiser way to go if it does go forward as the internal focus. On the G20—I work at Chatham House, I'm on leave from SOAS right now. And our chairman, Jim O'Neill, has got to be one of the biggest fans on the planet of the G20. So we talked about the G20 a lot. He thinks the G7 is just a ridiculous reflection of the global distribution of economic power. So I guess the argument and I—if you really want to take on the big challenges of the global economy, questions of technology, in particular digital trade regulation, that the G20 is the place to go, and also climate and trade issues. Other people, and I guess I'm a little bit sympathetic with the argument, think it’s too big and too clunky and very, very difficult to get anything done through the G20 absent a very serious short-term crisis of the kind that we saw when we first started talking about the G20. Which, of course, was after the financial crisis.
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I would agree with Leslie in that, if a summit for democracy is about us, it's a good thing. You know, I'll speak personally, but I'm exhausted and traumatized by what we've been through for four years. I took this to be a near-death experience for liberal democracy in the United States. Had Trump won, and he came close to being re-elected, I'm not sure we would have survived as a liberal democracy. So yeah, the system worked, but the system was tested to the extreme. And it's happening not just here. It's happening in the UK. It's happening in many parts of Europe where populism, angry populism, is seething just below the surface and above the surface in places like Poland and Hungary.
So if the issue here is, hey, we need to have a discussion about how to re-found liberal democracy and understand the sources of the illiberal turn, let's do it, let's do it tonight. But if this is about global governance and believing that we can run the world and solve the world's problems, by sitting the US down with Germany and Canada, and its traditional allies, and then bring India and South Korea and Australia in, and we're done, right, meal cooked, let's eat, it's not going to work. Right? The big challenges of global governance in my mind are reaching across political dividing lines, finding ways of having useful ongoing strategic dialogue with countries that don't share our view of democracy. And that's because we're not going to solve global problems unless we do that. Is the G20 the right forum? Perhaps. As Leslie mentioned, I've been thinking about other kinds of, coalitions, concerts where key players can sit down together and have a real ongoing strategic dialogue. But to me, that is the key here, not getting the world's democracies around the table that should be, in my mind, largely an internal as much as an external conversation.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So there are a few questions in the chat that all get at the same issue. Elizabeth Alfreno at Ohio University. Isolationism and internationalism are both important when running a country. So what is the prioritization of resources to focus on domestic issues versus foreign policy? How do you make a decision to focus on which one? And this gets to Michael Raisinghani’s question too: how would you balance foreign policy with given the internal domestic issues in the USA? And somebody else mentioned, you layer on top of this, the pandemic, which is pretty severe here in the US, and of course around the world, but we are contributing the most to this. So, how would you prioritize for the Biden administration?
KUPCHAN: Well, as I suggested in my opening remarks, I would certainly put the domestic priorities first and second and third and fourth. Because to me, they're the urgent national security threats that we face. Right? If you would, if you say, well, what poses a greater threat: China, and Chinese expansionism, or the stumbling of American democracy, the pandemic, the polarization? For me, it's what's been happening in the United States. So first things first. Now, does that mean that we can't spend money domestically and on foreign policy and defense spending at the same time? We can, and we will. But resources are not unlimited. I, like many of you, read Paul Krugman, who tells us that we can just keep spending, because it doesn't matter that we get bigger and bigger deficits. But at some point, doesn't the deficit get too big? Don't we need to make tough choices? My answer to that is yes. And especially when I consider the need to spend money on non-traditional national security issues, such as cyber, such as global health, such as climate. On diplomacy, I think our foreign policy has been dramatically over militarized. So even though I think we should radically reduce our military footprint in the Middle East, we need to increase our diplomatic footprint. That takes resources. So I do think that we are going to have to make some tough choices. To me, that doesn't mean that you just cut way back on spending on foreign policy. But it does mean that when push comes to shove, we're going to prioritize the domestic agenda.
VINJAMURI: I guess I would just add to that, I don't disagree on the details, but I disagree on the framing. I do not understand how you can talk about the pandemic as being a domestic issue. The pandemic is a global issue. It came across the border, it keeps moving across borders, you've got the UK variant, we have a South African variant, Brazil's, I mean, this is not a national problem. There is a national problem of delivery, which is frankly, not even a national problem, it's a state-level problem. It's a local problem, it's a problem for schools and hospitals or whoever is going to deliver it, and there needs to be a national policy, but it is a global problem. And unless the US is going to be very, very actively engaged in a global solution to a global problem, it's going to end up being a country that has border restrictions and border controls forever, as is the UK.
So I would change the frame and say, domestic, when it comes to unemployment and jobs and all those things, have to be right up front and center. But the global challenges in the immediate term, and I'm afraid and I've been afraid of COVID, whatever it is 2021, never mind COVID-19, since the day we found out about COVID-19. And because we could just be in this, we could be working from our bedrooms and living rooms forever if we don't take this as a global problem. So I think, yeah, really being very careful about the binary is incredibly important. And to Charlie's point about you can do foreign policy very much more cheaply if you get your diplomacy right. And you can get a lot of wins through development assistance, that might be a longer term game but have some very positive effects in multiple different ways. So choosing and backing off some hard power interventions is certainly a good idea. But national versus international is an incredibly murky way of framing.
KUPCHAN: Yeah, I didn't mean to make that clear distinction, Leslie, thank you for correcting that. And I do think it's important to point out that if you ask average Americans what they're worried about, and the fact that we're looking at the loss of at least a half a million, 500,000, Americans to the pandemic, that climate change is starting to have coastal areas disappear, that's going to require resources. And you're right, this is a global issue. It's not a domestic issue. But that's one of the reasons that I think we need to have a big discussion about the allocation of resources, because a virus is killing many, many more Americans than our wars, or 9/11, or other things that we have been spending $758 billion on when it comes to the defense budget.
VINJAMURI: And add to it, my last word, the other sort of key focus of our chairman, which preceded the pandemic, which is antimicrobial resistance. Talk about a big challenge with very high stakes for everybody. It's certainly one. And people aren’t talking about it right now because we're distracted by the pandemic and liberal internationalism. But I think it's really important, it's clearly really important.
FASKIANOS: And add to it the disproportionate effect on the black and brown populations, the minorities, and also the developing countries that can't afford the vaccine. So we have, the inequities are pretty stark. But to leave on a positive note, President Biden has rejoined the World Health Organization, the Paris Climate. So, hopefully putting those priorities back on the agenda for the US and for us to play a role on the international stage.
We are out of time. I'm so sorry. We have so many questions, and I feel terrible that we could not get to them. I think there are over thirty questions now. So my apologies, we will just have to have you back. We'll have to have part two of this conversation. But Charlie and Leslie, colleagues and friends, thank you very much for being with us today. This was a really rich discussion for the past hour. We really appreciate it, and to all of you for joining us. You can follow Charlie Kupchan's work on CFR.org. Follow Leslie Vinjamuri on Twitter @londonvinjamuri. Our next webinar will be on Wednesday, February 10, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Maria Carmen Lemos, professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, will lead a conversation on rising to the climate challenge, another big issue, and I encourage you to follow us @CFR_Academic on Twitter, and visit CFR.org for new research and analysis on global issues. So thank you all for being with us. Stay well, stay safe, and we look forward to convening again.
KUPCHAN: Thank you for hosting, Irina. Pleasure to see you, Leslie.