Council Special Report: Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem

Monday, April 15, 2019
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem, Council Special Report


President, Council on Foreign Relations; @RichardHaass

HAASS: Well, good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. Today we are here to launch a new Council Special Report entitled, as you can see on the screen behind me, Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem. A copy of this is awaiting you on your way—on your way out. It’s somewhere between Council swag and a party favor—(laughter)—which you are encouraged to read, because even though you will get the Cliff Notes at this meeting there’s a lot in this that you will only get through the—through the reading. So I recommend that you do it.

The author is, obviously, sitting next to me: Bob Blackwill. Ambassador Blackwill was the U.S. envoy to India. He has held senior jobs at the State Department and the White House. His public career—it really has been a life dedicated to public service. Began about half a century ago when he was in the Peace Corps in the newly-independent country of Malawi. Went on to, again, spend decades working in the State Department. And somewhere along those years he and I worked together more than once. And Bob is, I believe, one of the leading scholar-practitioners of this time in American foreign policy, and we’re fortunate enough to have him here as the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in American Foreign Policy.

So, Bob, welcome. Congratulations on this—on this report.

So let’s start with the question I like to ask when we do things like this, which is what prompted you to do this? Why this—why this study?

BLACKWILL: Well, like all of you, I have been following Trump foreign policy since he became president, and in some regards felt that the dominant punditry on Trump was preoccupied with two legitimate factors and one missing factor. The two legitimate factors were to discuss the deep flaws in our president’s character, and that’s often done. The second important factor is the preoccupation with the fact that essentially the president has no interagency process that serves him, the first president certainly since Eisenhower for whom that’s true. So those are both important and delineated factors. But the one that I thought is not always addressed is the actual substance of his policies, because they’re likely to be more important over the long run than either his character or the lack of an interagency process.

So what I did was I spent months in research to try to understand what his policies actually are. And when you have a chance to look at the report, you’ll see it has, I think, over 360 footnotes—(laughs)—you don’t have to look at those—and it concentrates on what he’s said and done, not on what the pundits have opined about what he’s said and done. There’s plenty of that in the footnotes that refers you off to a variety of people’s opinion about it.

And then I grade A to F each of eighteen polices. Now, I’m emboldened to do that because the president has used that metric. He gives himself an A+. (Laughter.) And he says that part of the reason for that is—and this is another quote—he is a “stable genius.” (Laughter.) Well, what I try to do in these eighteen different policies and processes is look at what he’s said, look at what he’s done, and then give him a grade. And it is, finally, an effort not so much to be exacting on grades—all of us know that university professors, when they give grades on essays, are not exacting—but just to emphasize the need to get past those first two deformatives to look at his actual policies, and that’s what I tried to do.

HAASS: And we will do that. Let’s just start out with, before we start grading it, let’s look at them themselves. So let me start out with what I would imagine to be the most basic question, which is, is there a Trump doctrine? Is there a thread or threads that define his foreign policy?

BLACKWILL: No. (Laughter.) Now, by the way, I have, as Richard said, worked several times at the White House, and some other vets—some other washed-up Jedi knights here in the—in the audience. Doctrines for American presidents are usually invented after their actions, not before their actions. And so it’s not unusual for an American president not to have a grand strategy or a doctrine, but this one is more difficult than most for a variety of reasons. But essentially, if you had to guess what he was going to do next—which is the essence of a doctrine or a grand strategy, as the scholars put it—I think you’re hard-pressed to guess what he’ll do next, since he vibrates between and among positions on the same policy question sometimes in the same week. And so at least for me, having examined his record as closely as I could, I don’t see any unifying themes. Let me just give you two examples.

The approach to NATO. We know, because we read the newspapers, that he’s often suggested that perhaps the United States should withdraw from NATO. And yet, his administration has strengthened the alliance through individual measures, mostly done by the Defense Department, in ways that make NATO defense more robust than at any time in the last fifteen years. So how could both of those be true is a question.

Just one other, Venezuela. He seems to have a visceral wish to withdraw from American use of force abroad. We see that instinctively on tweets. And yet, he threatens to go to war with Venezuela. So I just don’t think you can find a unifying theme or set of principles which are animating his foreign policy.

HAASS: But even if one signs onto you point that doctrines are often defined or discovered in hindsight rather than through the windshield, imagine his presidency were to end today and we were writing about Trump’s foreign policy legacy. What would that be?


HAASS: I’m basically asking the same question because I wasn’t thrilled with your answer to the first question. (Laughter.)

BLACKWILL: Well, you probably won’t like this one any more, right? (Laughter.) Well, that’s an unfair question because that—(laughter)—that, which of course is what someone always says while he’s trying to think of the answers that he’s going to give—(laughter)—he’s going to give to the question.

Well, you can’t cut the course off halfway through and tell students they’re done. I would give him at—and you’ll see I give individual grades for all of these, but I give him an overall grade, and it’s a D+, and—a D+. And I’m—you’ll see when you go outside.

HAASS: D as in Delta.

BLACKWILL: But I am a very hard grader.

But let me tell you what I think the most important legacy is, positive legacy is. He’s transformed the way American presidents talk about the rise of Chinese power, and that is enormously consequential. His predecessors—and this is documented in the report—all signed joint communiques with the Chinese leadership which said we’re in a strategic partnership while China was pursuing a grand strategy to replace the United States as the most important power in Asia. And to his credit, the president and his administration have adopted a different view, to expressly say to the American people that China seeks to replace the United States as the most important country in Asia.

The vice president at the end of last year, as you know, gave the toughest speech on China in half a century. And I commend him for that. He does not yet have a grand strategy to deal with the rise of Chinese power, but at least he’s identified it as the principal strategic challenge the United States will face in the decades ahead. And I give him great credit for that.

On the other side, the legacy—and we’ll see how his successor deals with it—is for the first time, again, in the history of our alliance systems, our allies doubt the reliability of the United States to fulfill its treaty commitments. And once that happens—and it is the case now, as many of you know—the question is, can his successor—can his successor rebuild that trust, or is this now a permanent deficiency in American foreign policy? I don’t know the answer to that, but I worry greatly that once trust is broken it is hard, we know, in our personal relationships to rebuild it after a violation of trust, which is so fundamental. He’s weakened deterrence in both Asia and Europe through his questioning of our alliance system. He’s made war more likely, logically, because of weakening deterrence.

So I think that’s the biggest positive and the biggest negative legacy he’s likely to leave behind. But we have to say he has nearly two more years, and I quote Pope at the end: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” But I’m very worried about how the president will conduct himself in the—in the remaining two years of his term, this term.

HAASS: Bob, you—almost circling back to your answer there, you—the title is Trump’s Foreign Policies Are Better Than They Seem, which is a relative assessment. It’s not an absolute assessment, which is not to say Trump’s foreign policies are good. And one—a D+ is not a great—actually, I would have been happy with it at times, but—(laughter)—but—

BLACKWILL: Says the Rhodes scholar. (Laughter.) Come now.

HAASS: We took pass/fail at Oberlin, just to make it clear. (Laughter.)

So where do you come out in more absolute terms? Or is it essentially—and maybe we can transition to that—it depends on which policy we’re talking about?

BLACKWILL: It depends on which policy.

HAASS: OK. So let’s, then—you mentioned China as the area of greatest success or accomplishment in terms of defining the nature of China. You mentioned Venezuela, and you have a line in it about the something—that the policy’s so good you suggest it’s as if it were carried out by another administration.

BLACKWILL: Yeah, I felt that about Venezuela because I think it’s been very artfully done so far. The president and his colleagues, and Elliott Abrams and others, have drawn in out partners in South America in a very intimate way to deal with it. They’ve used sanctions as an instrument successfully. There appears to be a unified administration view on how to deal with Venezuela. This is, as we know, not always the case. The president differs with his administration on a variety of policies. So I think it’s been so artfully done that if I step back I thought, well, maybe this has been done by another administration in an alternative reality because it doesn’t seem consistent. No tweets that undermine the policy. It doesn’t seem like this is this administration. But I congratulate them.

Now, having said that, do they really mean it that they want to go to war with the Venezuelan military? Do they—do they want another—start another small war? I hope not, because the B+ turns into an F if we use military force across that border into Venezuela, in my judgment.

HAASS: Well, coming back to that, you mentioned in your opening remarks about one of the two structural deficiencies is the lack of a(n) orderly, rigorous process by which policy is made. In many ways this administration has not yet been tested. They have not had the equivalent of a foreign policy three- or four-alarm fire, much less a five-alarm fire. A lot of their tests have been in some ways self-generated. To what extent are you concerned about this combination that they haven’t been tested and very rarely—you know this from your own experience and I know it from mine—do administrations get an A in their first crisis? There’s almost inevitably a learning process and reforms are made procedurally, sometimes personnel. And this administration, if it—one can’t assume it’s going to get through another two years without a crisis, that—the lack of an orderly process, how much of a liability should that be seen as?

BLACKWILL: It is a deep and persistent worry, I think, for all who follow the administration. Jack Kennedy had a very tough first year: Bay of Pigs, and then humiliated by Khrushchev in Vienna who thought he was a schoolboy—and he rather acted, we know now, like a schoolboy. But he learned from it. And of course, the culmination of that learning was the brilliance of that president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when he was the smartest person in the room. We have tapes that he secretly made, so we know he was the smartest person in the room.

I don’t see that learning going on now in the Trump administration. The president says very explicitly—and you’ll see the report is filled with his own quotes; not with what people think he’s doing, but what he actually says—and he’s very explicit that he thinks lack of preparation for meetings liberates his cunning. Well, maybe, but in a real crisis in which the balance of war and peace is vibrating, do I want someone who says, again, proudly, he doesn’t read any administration papers, doesn’t need them, he doesn’t need a process? Again, he says he knows more than the intelligence community. He says he knows more than the military. He disparages the State Department as an institution. So, if confronted with a major crisis of the kind you describe, of course a responsible citizen is worried about how he will react.

HAASS: You’ve looked closely, as closely as anybody, at these first two-plus years. Have you seen any signs of evolution or change, either in the president or, given as the personnel has evolved, has there—is there any evolution, or what you see in the spring of 2019 is pretty much what you saw in the winter-spring of 2017?

BLACKWILL: I think it’s getting worse as the president grows more confident in office. This is partly reflected in the merry-go-round of his appointments, where people come and go, and he’s had three national security advisers in two years and two secretaries of defense and two secretary of state and two director of central intelligence and so forth. And I think as he grows more confident he thinks even more that he doesn’t need the permanent government to assist him on understanding situations and making decisions. I think he is explicit he doesn’t think he needs the permanent government.

And that, of course, is dangerous because, again, my own experience, George Marshall—the wonderful George Marshall—used to have a habit, which was there were two factors that his colonel—his exec—had to have when Marshall was secretary of defense. The first was—

HAASS: Secretary of state.

BLACKWILL: No, secretary of defense. The first was—or maybe it was the chairman. No, but I think SecDef.

Anyway, the first one was had to be able to make a great martini because he had one martini every day at six o’clock. And the colonels would actually—who were competing for the job would spend months practicing how to make a great martini.

But the second was—

HAASS: We’ve adopted that at the Council, by the way, as—(laughter)—

BLACKWILL: Right. Second was—and Omar Bradley talks about this in his memoirs—the second was he would ask—when he came to a certain view after much reflection, he would turn to his exec and say: Why might I be wrong? Genuinely. Bradley says the first time that he—Marshall asked him that, he said, oh, General, I think you’re right. And—(laughs)—Marshall said: Colonel, when I ask a serious question, I expect a serious answer. All American presidents and leaders need a few people around them who will tell them when they are wrong and to listen to those people, and I don’t think that’s a quality of our current president.

HAASS: The initiative which thus far I would say probably represents the biggest area of I don’t know if it’s departure, innovation—I’m not quite what word to use—is North Korea. When I look at this president, where he is the first president to meet face to face with his North—the North Korean leadership. He’s had two summits. He’s articulated ambitious goals. He’s spoken of the North Korean leadership, shall we say, in an extraordinarily positive way. He’s outlined a vision for North Korea which is transformational. Obviously, it’s incomplete, and I heard what you said before. What is your take, though, on what’s probably up to now the initiative he’s most associated with in his foreign policy?

BLACKWILL: He gets a B+ in my opinion because he’s trying something different. But I think the media bias against him is so powerful on those first two factors that I mentioned before that the media is unable to give a fair account of his policies.

So the Hanoi summit collapsed, right? No, it didn’t. It was just two leaders got together and they couldn’t reach an agreement. How many summits have I—we been in where two leaders got together and didn’t reach an agreement? But this—as I said, because of the media bias, the summit—that summit collapsed.

I am struck by the fact that many of his critics—no names—who are deeply critical of his approach superintended failed policies in previous administrations. He inherited a series of failed policies on North Korea from his predecessors—all good people doing their best, but they failed. And meanwhile, the North Korean missile program went on and the North Korean nuclear weapons program went on. So he’s trying something different. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe his effort to engage the North Korean leader won’t work. But it’s certainly worth a try, and let’s give him time. And let us remember, no missile tests since he started this process with Kim. No nuclear weapons tests. So let’s see.

Now, finally, however—and this is further to your earlier question—well, what might we worry about? We worry about concessions to the North Korean government without corresponding measures on their part like, apparently, permanently ending U.S.-South Korean military exercises, major exercises, with nothing on their part. We worry about him accepting an agreement which is essentially cosmetic but doesn’t actually address the serious problem of the development of North Korean missiles and nuclear weaponry. But to this point I’m willing—since he inherited a failed policy, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and I give him a B+.

HAASS: Let’s—

BLACKWILL: I don’t expect everyone to agree with that, but—and but I hope everyone will look at the arguments in the report, and judge them yourself, and—but look not as his tweets and not at his statements that he is a “stable genius” and all the rest, but the policy itself. And then ask yourself: What is the alternative? What is the alternative to the approach that he’s now pursuing?

HAASS: Well, one on North Korea would be, obviously, that rather than demanding full and complete denuclearization, one would hold that out as a goal, but I think the big question is whether this president and this administration would accept partial or interim arrangements where North Korea made—basically ridded itself of certain capabilities in exchange for certain degrees of sanctions relief. And we’ll see.

BLACKWILL: Well, let me just say that’s—he’s set the table to do that. He’s set the table to do that. I don’t think it was necessarily wise to start there, but now if he has a third summit meeting let’s see if he moves to that more step-by-step approach. And if not, though, we all understand. If he fails in this attempt, as all his predecessors have—did, what are the alternatives? And what’s he going to do if this breaks down, if the North Koreans resume testing? And does that mean war on the Korean Peninsula? And of course, that would be catastrophic. So I’m willing to let him try to avoid that.

HAASS: Let me just raise one other part of the world and one other issue. I’ll do the one other issue first.

If you listen to the Democratic candidates, for them a if not the priority for quite a few of the candidates is climate change. For this president, climate change is mainly a subject of derision or worse. What is—what is your assessment on that?

BLACKWILL: F. F. Zero. Worse than F.

HAASS: OK. And then—(laughter)—can’t argue.

Last, let’s turn to the one part of the world or one of the two parts of the world we haven’t mentioned. We haven’t talked about Africa. But let’s talk also about an area that’s gotten more priority from this administration, unlike Africa, which has been the Middle East. And what you have had, I would say, is several things, but you’ve had probably the most unconditional, uncritical embrace of an Israeli government we’ve seen. Second of all, an uncritical, virtually unconditional embrace of a Saudi government despite several actions that one could argue were inconsistent with American interests or values or both. You’ve had—introduced tremendous uncertainty into the American policy and presence in Syria. And I would say have targeted at the moment, literally—I mean, figuratively, but in some ways I can imagine it could be literally, Iran; that this is, if one were going to take a poll as to the country where you could imagine the United States being in a conflict or supporting one, far more than North Korea I can imagine it being Iran. So say a little bit about your view of this president’s and this administration’s approach to the Middle East.

BLACKWILL: I basically like it. And one has to disaggregate. I didn’t give a grade for the Middle East writ large because some of the problem are so different than others, but I basically like his approach.

But again, I tried to measure his policies against my concept of U.S. national interest. So, for example, I support his instinct to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Syria and make the argument, which we could discuss, why I support that. I also support his other instinct in this regard, which is the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan. I also support that.

On Saudi Arabia, well, I’m a forty-one, Brent Scowcroft person. I was at the White House when Tiananmen Square occurred; of course, much more horrific than the assassination, terrible as it was, of a Washington Post columnist. And both the president and Brent were determined to try to salvage the relationship writ large. Highly controversial at the time, but it was their conviction. I think that the rush to rupture the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a mistake, and I outline why I think so in the report.

But let me just say one. The crown prince is thirty-two, is he? He’s going to be king of Saudi Arabia for fifty years. Well, what exactly are we going to demand of him for the next fifty years? He is the primary modernizing force in that society. And so I don’t argue that there’s not a good case against, but to condemn Trump’s policies because of his character deficiency rather than looking at what he actually does I think is too prevalent in our public discourse. And I think most of his policies—not all, but most of his policies are within the parameter of genuine debate. Well, I don’t agree with you on that, and Richard and I have had a discussion and we don’t agree on several of the issues in the Middle East, but it’s within the parameters.

Finally, Iran, where he gets a C. Again, it’s debatable. I think the current—the Iran nuclear deal had deep structural problems in the back half which would have allowed Iran to acquire an industrial-sized capacity to produce fissile material. That’s really dangerous. I think it was badly negotiated, just my opinion. And so I think that Trump’s decision to withdraw was, again, within the realm of reasonable action to debate. It is telling that it was, of course, not introduced in the Senate as a treaty, because they could not have gotten a majority. So this is not an exotic view that there was something wrong with the back half. (Laughs.)

However, I—why does he get a C, then? Well, first of all, I think he has no strategy to deal with the after effects of his decision to withdraw from the treaty, and he has no strategy to involve the other signatories of that agreement on an effort to try to strengthen it before Iran leaves it. Because if Iran leaves that agreement, what then is ahead for U.S. policy options with respect to the Iran nuclear program? And again, it looks as if it’s the use of force. So, as I say, these are all debatable issues, but I want to contest the ground on the actual policy itself rather than on these other factors that I tried to begin with.

HAASS: Let me just ask one last question and then I’ll open it up to our members, which is one other aspect of Middle Eastern policy. You just had the apparent, quote/unquote, “reelection” of Bibi Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel, and this comes on—in the aftermath over the last two years, as I described it, as an uncritical embrace: the movement—the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, changing U.S. policy towards the Golan Heights. Why are you so generous in your assessment of policy towards Israel when among—it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that you will now have a Netanyahu government that will proceed to annex parts of the West Bank, which will take the two-state solution—which I would describe as on life support—and essentially kill it off for all intents and purposes. And this, ultimately, will pose a threat to a Jewish democratic Israel. Why are you so generous in your grading there, Professor Blackwill? (Laughter.)

BLACKWILL: The administration gets a B. And it gets a B because the most important, in my judgment, mission of the United States with respect to Israel is with respect to Israel’s defense capability and its ability to defend itself against its neighbors. And the Trump administration has been as good, if not better than any American administration in the past on that score. That’s where I begin. I also supported the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And so they get a B.

I won’t go into any more detail on that. I’ll just say I now would give it a different grade because precisely his decision to endorse the annexation of Golan, which happened after this report went to press and which had exactly a predictable outcome, which is the prime minister of Israel has said that Israel is going to declare sovereignty over every settlement in the occupied territories—not just the four blocks, every settlement. And of course, that’s the death of the two-state solution. And I can have my opinion about what it does to Israeli domestic politics and culture and society, but that ain’t my line of work. (Laughs.) My line of work is what’s good for the United States, and that was a terrible decision of his—again, a function, as far as we can tell, out of a complete lack of process, and a wish apparently to intervene in the Israeli election on behalf of Bibi, at least it is speculated. But whether that was the reason or any other, I think it was a serious mistake. And it looks as if—we can’t know for sure—if Bibi does actually declare sovereignty over those settlements, all of them, looks like the president of the United States will recognize that sovereignty. You cannot walk that back once it’s happened. And so his grade would be much worse today than when the report went to press.

HAASS: I should say that early on in Bob’s Foreign Service career he served at the American embassy in Tel Aviv.

BLACKWILL: And saw great American diplomacy by the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter—great American diplomacy which we would not have had the Egypt-Israel peace treaty without that president.

HAASS: Let me open it up. Again, typical. It’s on the record. Raise your hand. Let us know who you are. Keep it brief so—because I expect that Bob has generated more than a little bit of—indeed, I’ll be—I’d be shocked if there weren’t—I don’t have my glasses on. I see in about one, two three, fifth or sixth row. Yes, ma’am. I can’t see that far.

Q: Robyn Meredith.

HAASS: Hi, Robyn. I’m sorry.

Q: That’s all right. The author of The Elephant and the Dragon.

Just I wonder if we could sort of take Trump out of it for a second, given that you say he’s better than we think but then you gave him a D+. It just means we didn’t—we think very little of him. But Trump has broken with U.S. foreign policy, postwar foreign policy, in a number of areas which we’ve—which we’ve touched on, so Mideast, China, our Asian allies generally, et cetera. If you think that Trump’s policies are better than we think, does it mean that you think that U.S. foreign policy—postwar foreign policy actually needs a rethink? Are there—do you disagree with major parts of it?

BLACKWILL: No, of course it needs a rethink. Incidentally, Trump’s approach to India gets a B+. (Laughter.)

HAASS: I was going to ask you that.

BLACKWILL: Of course it needs a rethink because the world order is in substantial change. And as I said before, I can’t discern any grand strategy toward the rise of Chinese power, although I congratulate them for recognizing the strategic intentions of China. So, yes. And that, of course, is rigorous and requires lots of thought and reflection and debate, almost none of which I can see is happening anywhere near the Oval Office.

HAASS: Well, before I call on someone else, one area I should have asked you on. You spent your career in the Foreign Service. Say something about this president and this administration’s approach to the Foreign Service and the State Department. That’s an institution you dedicated decades to. Why don’t—why don’t you speak to that?

BLACKWILL: Well, I remain mystified by Rex Tillerson’s slash-and-burn approach to the U.S. diplomatic service. I think the people who knew him and endorsed him in good faith were shocked by what he did to the Foreign Service, and it will now take decades to repair it because, obviously, when you cut the top off—which basically his policies did, and forced many gifted people into retirement—and you reduce the rate of inclusion, induction into the Foreign Service, which he did, it will take years to repair the damage.

It’s also—again, I don’t understand why whatever it is, a third of the senior State Department positions remain unfilled. I don’t understand what theory of the case is operating here. So that’s permanent damage until decades repair it.

HAASS: Mr. Pollack.

Q: Gerald Pollack.

What would you say about the impact of the Trump administration on the world trading system?

BLACKWILL: Well, I give him a C, but it begins with China. He’s the first American president to confront China’s predatory economic trade practices in a direct and public way, and I give him credit for doing that. Indeed, for those of you who follow this—and you obviously do—it is telling that the European Union in its communique with China of ten days ago for the first time calls China a rival, not a partner. They didn’t invent that; that’s emanating from the Trump administration, I believe. So I start there.

Now, again, perhaps he will accept a cosmetic agreement which doesn’t deal with the internal arrangements of the Chinese economy. But I think this is just the first inning on the issue of dealing with these predatory Chinese—(inaudible).

The other is, of course, the TPP is one of the two or three most serious mistakes he’s made, and he made it without analysis and, as you know, in the first days of his administration. And he has another—and NAFTA is in this category—another habit of saying agreements negotiated by his predecessors are the worst agreements ever, and then making minor changes in them and saying they’re the best agreements ever. So, finally, with the EU, it is my impression that the Democratic leaders of Congress have exactly the same criticism about protectionism from the European Union that the president has.

So I give him a C. But it’s halfway through. We’ll have to see whether the—this approach, which of course is bombastic—for him, international negotiation is a form of demolition derby, if I may put it like that. So we’ll just see how it comes out. But I give him a C.

HAASS: Sure.

Q: Charles Henderson at AIG.

I’d like to know what your grade is for south of the border, the border situation, and how you evaluate Trump’s response to that.

BLACKWILL: Well, that’s a domestic issue, which I don’t address. But he treats our two neighbors as if they’re strategic adversaries, and we haven’t had a president who did that before. But I don’t get, except in a phrase, into his immigration policy. It’s a domestic issue. Of course, it has implications beyond, so I really don’t.

HAASS: Though there’s probably an argument—I can’t remember if you get into it or not—about aid for countries, say, in Central America, that if you want to discourage immigration you might want to do something to help them deal with some of the challenges they’re facing.

BLACKWILL: Well, again—(laughs)—and I can say in this off-the-record—on-the-record setting, which is a matter of public—I was one of the leaders of the Never Trump movement. I co-wrote the declaration that the first fifty signed. So I don’t enter this with an idea of, well, let me find something good to say about the president. And I remain of the view that he’s unfit for public office. But that shouldn’t stop us from looking at his policies.

And I think it is legitimate to say to these governments in Central America: If you can’t stop or at least work hard to stop the movement of peoples northward toward the U.S.-Mexican border, then you are going to pay a penalty for that. And the idea that says, no, you can’t do that because instead you have to work on the fundamental societal factors that cause this doesn’t exactly deal with it in the short term. So I think it’s perfectly legitimate.

Now, should he have said it in public first? No. Should he have sent his ambassador, his envoy in to say to them if you don’t do something about this there’s going to be a consequence? Yes. The president is unfamiliar with what in olden times was called diplomacy. (Laughter.) He’s utterly unfamiliar with that. But the essence of his instinct I think is fine.

HAASS: Raghida?

Q: Raghida Dergham, Beirut Institute.

Ambassador, on this issue of personality and policies, what are other countries to do in order to understand where does the United States stand, whether it is Iran or Saudi Arabia for example? Because in some cases you spoke of the administration doing things, and I’m not sure if there is a 30 percent input by an administration—the administration, the institutions of the U.S., or the person. Please address this issue and the message of trust. Thank you.

HAASS: Good question.

BLACKWILL: I think it’s a very good question, and I struggled, as you’ll see when you read the report, with that question. But I think in the end we have to say what’s the administration policy, because we can’t really know in many cases, well, what’s been his effect.

I’ll give you an example. The administration builds up NATO military capability during a period when the president says there’s no threat from Russia. Well, how do you get at—(laughs)—that? And by the way, his policy toward Russia gets an F. And I can’t explain this curious infatuation he has with Vladimir Putin. I can’t. One wonders, but I can’t.

So I judged the—in most cases, what is the administration’s policy. Now, there are two exceptions to that because on both Afghanistan and Syria he had an instinct and the Pentagon has beaten him back. (Laughs.) I think it was a mistake for him to be beaten back, but in most cases I just—

Now, trust. It’s what I addressed earlier. He had perforated trust among our friends. They have—and the polls show this and they say it—they have no trust in the American president. And so that presents them, as you imply, with a dilemma of how do we calculate our policies when we don’t know what this man will do tomorrow. And then, when he’s no longer in office, how do you restore that trust? But I’m absolutely sure it’s not quick, even if it’s successful in the end of happening. And I think for the next American president after Trump leaves office, whenever that is, that is perhaps an international—in the international domain the biggest challenge immediately, is how to restore trust among our allies.

The United States cannot succeed in the world over time without our alliance system, and we cannot deal with the rise of Chinese power without our alliance system. And he’s assaulted the American alliance system from the day he came into office, and that is, I fear, very long-lasting and an enormous challenge for the next president.

HAASS: Mitch (sp), all the way in the back.

Q: Ricardo Tavares from Techpolis.

You just gave an F for the views of Russia and you stated very clear what you think about Vladimir Putin. But sometimes the administration seems to indicate sort of a flipside of Nixon’s policy; instead of, you know, getting closer to China to isolate the Soviet Union, getting closer to Russia to confront China. Do you think this would be a successful strategy, potentially?

BLACKWILL: No, and I don’t think there’s any evidence for it either. I don’t think—my impression is, again, from what he’s said and done, I don’t think the president is sympathetic to Russia on the basis of a grand strategy to get closer to Russia because of the rise of Chinese power. There’s no evidence for that. I don’t know why he’s infatuated not only with Putin, but with almost every autocrat in the world. No, almost. Try to think of one that he’s not sympathetic to. He’s in love with some of them, he says, but—(laughter)—no, he does say he is. So, no, I don’t think that’s a—

And let me make one other point about the Russia policy. The president says this is the toughest Russia policy ever. Well, that does not have the benefit of being true, OK? (Laughter.) But that’s not the question to ask, either. The question to ask is: Is the Russia policy commensurate with Russian violations of American national interests? That’s the question. And the answer is absolutely not. But it was also absolutely not in the Obama administration. Both have done so little to penalize Russia for their interference in our presidential election that we can assume they’ll do it again. And Obama didn’t do it, and now Trump hasn’t done it. And I think, again, a big deficiency in this policy that he—that he is carrying out.

But it is—you’re right—one example. And we had another question where the president seems unaware of what the policies of his administration are.

Q: Thank you. David W. Rivkin from Debevoise.

You actually just started to answer part of the question I was going to ask, his love for autocrats around the world. It is clearly in the long-term U.S. interest to have a more democratic world. And he on the other hand not just loves these autocrats; he has actively encouraged moves away from democracy in Europe, in Asia, in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. What do you think the long-term impact on U.S. interests, and what ability might his successor, whenever he or she takes office, have to try to reverse that?

BLACKWILL: Well, the foundation of American power, if I can begin in the most fundamental way, has several components. First of all is the unity of our society. And our president attacks and divides every day on that score, weakening the unity of American society, which in turn weakens our power projection. So that’s number one.

The assault on American values which he has undertaken on almost every American democratic institution—the Fed is the latest but, as we know, it’s law enforcement, it’s the media, it’s the judicial system, you know what they are—again, we have relied in our history on attempting to project our democratic values into the world. And with some successes and some failures, some flaws and some setbacks. He’s projecting quite a different set of values in the world. They’re autocratic. And he expresses that whenever he meets any one of these individuals. He calls them up and congratulates them on their election. Have a look to see who else he—a democratic leader that he calls up and congratulates on his election or her election. So I think he’s undermining the basic democratic underpinning of our own society, which in turn weakens our capacity to influence the world.

And how long will this last? I don’t know. Domestic politics is not my line of work. So I don’t—I don’t know, but I sure worry about it.

HAASS: Lucy Komisar.

Q: Lucy Komisar. I am a journalist.

You made a brief reference to Russia, and one of the issues I find difficult in dealing with U.S. policy is the problem of facts. It’s they’re not very clear, and sometimes they’re wrong. In your—last year’s report, Containing Russia, you wrote that in 2012 the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act—you refer to that in this report as well—a set of tough sanctions on eighteen Russian officials involved in the torture and death in prison of Russian human rights whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

HAASS: Lucy, a question? We got five minutes left. I need a question.

Q: Well, I want to say what he said.

HAASS: No, no. I need a question. We got—I need—

Q: OK. The question is that the statement that you made is counterfactual. He was not tortured to death in prison. The report on the Wall Street Journal says that.

HAASS: What is your—what is your question, Lucy?

Q: My question is, did you check out the claims of torture and whistleblowing before you wrote that line?


Q: Because all of the evidence that I have shown that they’re not true. Did you check out the evidence?

BLACKWILL: Well, I am flattered—(laughter)—that someone has read that report. And, yes, Phil Gordon and I, who wrote it, did our best to reflect what the commentary was on what happened to that poor man once he was incarcerated. Of course, one has to rely on indirect sources because the government of Russia lies. So you can’t believe what they say, and one just tries to put together whatever information one can. So did our best, and thanks again for reading it.

Q: Can I say—

HAASS: Ambassador Wisner.

Q: Frank Wisner of law firm Squire Patton Boggs.

Bob, one of the many reasons I’ve had of admiring you over the years is your sense of strategy and your insistence that administrations be judged on their strategic—on the strategies they pursue in foreign policy. If my memory goes back, you’ve said there are two pieces of this president’s policy or president’s administration you take issue with, personality and process. Only once did you talk about strategy, and you did so with regard to Iran.

So let me pause for a moment. When you talked about Iran, you talked about the nuclear deal. And yet, the administration’s policy has gone well beyond that, to talk about a variety of measures—pressure on allies, organization in the Middle East, emphasis on sanctions, recently the IRGC, all of them taken together. What is the strategy not just of the president, but of his administration? Are we aiming at regime change? If so, does that make sense strategically? Are we aiming at war? Does there—is there an American interest in a strategic outcome of that nature?

BLACKWILL: Frank, I can’t discern a strategy toward Iran, and I tried to say that. But I give the administration a C because that can be remedied, but going—continuing on a fifteen-year agreement that produces the outcome I described in the back half is harder to remedy. So I don’t know what—if they have a strategy, it’s hidden in an undisclosed location. But I, like you, worry about it because if you read what they say, in effect the administration is calling for regime change in Iran—in effect. Doesn’t say that, but if you look at what Iran has to do in order to satisfy the prerequisites it’s basically regime change. And I am trying to think of the last time the U.S. had a success when it called for regime change, but it had been a while. (Laughter.) It’s been a while.

And this makes me worry that we’re on a road where the destination isn’t clear. I’m looking for offramps. (Laughs.) But we’re heading down a road now if Iran departs from the agreement, I don’t—I tried to say this, probably didn’t say it well enough. I worry that the president will have a binary choice of either doing nothing or attacking Iran. If we attack Iran, with the exception of Israel and Saudi Arabia the whole world will be against us. And you do have to ask the question—my grandfather on the farm used to say, you know, if everybody disagrees with you, they might have a point. (Laughter.) And this, I think, falls, Frank, into that category.

HAASS: See, you can take the boy out of Kansas, but—(applause)—you can’t take Kansas out of the boy. A lot more questions. Don’t have time. So what I hope that is encourage you not just to pick up a copy of this report, or there’s one day watching this online to go online and download the copy, but to actually read it, because what you will get is the kind of rigorous foreign policy analysis that is not always present in our—in our conversation.

So, Bob, thank you for producing this, and thank you for today.

BLACKWILL: Thank you all. (Applause.)


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