A discussion of the foreign policy challenges awaiting the winner of the 2020 election and the critical issues for Americans to consider as they cast their vote.
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
CHANG: I’m Juju Chang. I’m the coanchor of ABC News’ Nightline. I’m here to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations’ special U.S. foreign policy forum. And I’m here with four distinguished panelists who I will introduce to you in a moment. First, a little bit of housekeeping though. I just wanted to start by reminding you all that this is an on-the-record conversation. We will get a chance to learn about foreign policy priorities throughout the afternoon. It’s an hour and a half; we look very much forward to getting your questions. As you know, the Council on Foreign Relations is a nonpartisan source of information for global affairs and foreign policy. We are really looking at helping everyone on this call today make informed choices at the ballot box in November and to communicate those policy priorities moving forward. I also wanted to point out to you that [CFR’s] Election 2020 [site] is a valuable resource to citizens as well as journalists. There are candidate trackers with CFR’s award-winning website, www.cfr.org. Richard Haass is very happy that I’m hawking the website right now. And I want to also take a moment to thank the Carnegie Corporation of New York for their generous support of the Election 2020 series.
So with that, I’m going to introduce to you the candidates—not the candidates, the people speaking about the candidates—the panelists today. I’m going to start in alphabetical order with Reuben Brigety. Reuben is the vice chancellor and president of the University of the South. Now you have each of the panelists’ bios at your pleasure, you just click and read, but I don’t want you reading while we’re talking. So I want to just give you some highlights of everyone’s CV. Reuben served for a time at the State Department. He was dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He was the permanent representative of the U.S. at the UN Economic Commission for Africa. He spent time at USAID in development, obviously; he was a researcher with the arms division for the Human Rights Watch. And in 1995, that was a while back, he was a distinguished midshipman graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Look, you didn’t think I’d bring that up, did you Reuben? And he earned his PhD in international relations from the University of Cambridge.
And I bring that up because Richard Haass got his PhD, you know, in England as well. I don’t know what they have against American institutions of higher learning. Richard is our fearless leader at the Council on Foreign Relations. He’s also a veteran diplomat and thought leader, often seen on Morning Joe, as you know. I’ll give you a few highlights of his career. He was chair of the multiparty negotiations for Northern Ireland, for which he won the Tipperary International Peace Award. He worked at the State Department as a principal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He also was the U.S. coordinator for policy on the future of Afghanistan and the U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, as we pointed out, special assistant under President George H.W. Bush, on the National Security Council. Also again, PhD from Oxford, the Rhodes Scholarship, all of that, and author of fourteen books, the latest of which is called The World: A Brief Introduction. Very modest undertaking there.
Jami Miscik is our next panelist. She’s CEO and vice chair of Kissinger Associates. It is a strategic international consulting group that basically helps their clients assess and navigate emerging global geopolitical and macroeconomic risks. Prior to that she served as a global head of sovereign risk at Lehman Brothers. And prior to her private sector career, she spent twenty-two years in intelligence at the CIA, as the deputy director of intelligence under Tenet. And she really helped determine the content of the president’s daily briefing at that time; also served at NSC—is also now vice chair, I should point out, of the Council on Foreign Relations Board of Directors. So much to discuss with Jami.
And last but not least Fran or Fran Townsend is vice chair, general counsel, chief administration officer at MacAndrews and Forbes Incorporated. Before that, corporate partner at Baker Botts; served as assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism and chaired the Homeland Security Council as well; spent time at the Justice Department under the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush; a frequent contributor on CNN—or previously on CNN—now on CBS.
So hopefully you’re familiar with all of our panelists’ body of work, and now let’s dig into this foreign policy conversation. And Richard, I guess let’s start with you—let me have you set the table. There was a presidential debate two nights ago, lots of drama, lots of conflict. Not a lot of foreign policy, say for a few glancing references. So set the framework for us today. What do you think. Let’s say the next debate is all about foreign policy—what are the global affairs and foreign policy priorities for the next administration?
HAASS: Well, thank you Juju for doing this and let me thank the three people I’m doing this with, and let me also thank all of those who are part of this meeting. Even though the issues of foreign policy did not figure prominently the other night—I’ll leave to you whether that was a good thing or a bad thing—the fact is that whoever is the next occupant of the Oval Office, whether it’s President Trump or Vice President Biden—by which point he would be President Biden, if it were to happen—again, even though these issues did not figure prominently the other night, they will figure prominently in the days and nights of whoever is sitting in the Oval Office.
And let me emphasize just three things, and they’re all priorities; two are priorities and one is a reality. One set of priorities is to be revival of great power competition, continuing with the United States and Russia. Indeed, one of the first decisions the next president is going to have to make is what to do about a soon to expire nuclear arms control agreement with Russia. And then more broadly, the new president is going to have to figure out how does the United States deal with a rising China? How do we deal with them economically? How do we deal with them in the strategic sense in Asia and beyond? How do we compete with them economically, but also internationally? China has, as you know, its large Belt and Road infrastructure initiative; how do we react to that? So great power rivalry, which a lot of people thought was essentially going the way of history when the Cold War ended thirty years ago, has shall we say returned and then some.
The second set of issues, in some ways, reflects the current situation—and Fran Townsend will talk more about one of them—which are all the global issues that define our life. We’ve got infectious disease and the pandemic; we have those everyone living in California knows so acutely, the effects of climate change; we just now marked the nineteenth anniversary of 9/11; we still face the realities of terrorism. Just today, the Washington Post ran a very long story about how the North Korean nuclear and missile threat has actually increased dramatically over the last three and a half years. We have an internet that is essentially unregulated and is obviously being used to interfere in our politics. So in every one of these issues, the new president is going to have to decide what does the United States do about these global challenges, and how do we do it? To what extent do we join existing organizations or treaties? To what extent do we try to create new ones? What do we do alone? What do we do with others? And I think that’ll very much be on the agenda.
And then quickly, I’ll just mention, Juju, and then I’ll stop, is he is going to have to deal with China, with Russia, with these global challenges at a time there’s not much in the way of a political consensus in the United States about what to do about these issues—even how important they are, how much more resources ought to go to them—and he’s going to have to deal with the reality that COVID-19 is still going to be very much front and center in our country. Tens of millions of people will still be out of work. We’re going to be divided politically, perhaps even more divided than ever because of the election. We’ll obviously have all the racial tensions in this country, and all the other issues of health care, infrastructure, schooling, immigration—all these other issues remain unresolved. So what this all adds up to, and it’s the reason we’re doing this event, is that the new president is going to inherit this world of extraordinary foreign policy and international challenges at a time this country is going to have its hands full with domestic challenges. But what we’ve learned is we can’t ignore these foreign challenges or we ignore them to our peril. The world is not going to give us a few years to sort ourselves out, and then just sit there waiting for us. So that to me is going to be the extraordinary inbox facing either Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden.
CHANG: Richard, that’s a great table setting. What I’d love now is to get our participants involved, and you number in excess of thousands, so I want to ask a U.S. foreign policy forum poll. Three questions. The first of which is, when considering whom to support for president in foreign policy, is it a big factor, somewhat, not a factor? Second question is: which of the following do you consider the greatest threat to national security? And the third question is, and all you have to do is scroll down on the right, how much emphasis should the United States place on foreign policy? And then I will re-ask the poll at the end of this discussion and see if our panelists are able to move the needle at all on these results. So go ahead and submit.
And while you guys are thinking about the poll, let’s give Jami a chance to come in on a question. And that is, Jami, you spent so much of your career in intelligence: give us a sense in broad strokes of how the intelligence community has fared during this administration as an institution, as a whole? And what do you think the response will be from the intelligence community and the national security community in the event that either of these candidates wins?
MISCIK: Well, thank you. It’s great to be here, and to speak about intelligence, which is something I feel passionately about. You know, I think it’s been a very difficult period of time, not just for intelligence officers but for a lot of what we would call our national security career professionals, whether they’re FBI, Foreign Service officers, uniformed military people, and certainly, those people I served with at CIA. I think that, you know, from the second day of the administration, when President Trump went out and stood in front of this marble wall in the lobby of CIA headquarters that pays tribute to the people who have sacrificed their lives on behalf of protecting this country, gave a speech that was political in nature, not the nonpartisan approach that intelligence tries to take to the issues. And so I think it was a rocky start, and I don’t think it has improved very much since then.
I think for the people there, you know, they put their heads down and continue to try and carry out the mission, which is protecting national security. And I say that for the intelligence officers, Foreign Service officers, FBI—across the board. And one of the reasons that they put the National Security Act together in 1947 was to make sure that those critical functions were not dependent on changing parties, changing administrations. And so I think, you know, we need to honor that public service that those people have provided. If there is a second term for President Trump, I think they will do what they’ve been doing for the last several years, which is continue to do their job to the best of their ability: make sure that they are supporting cabinet level and other undersecretaries, assistant secretaries throughout the administration who do value the intelligence that they’re providing. And I think if the presidential election goes to Joe Biden, he’s going to be somebody who they are very familiar with, you know; he has been in Washington for a long time, he has served as vice president, he has received the president’s daily briefing. I think that he would be appreciative of their efforts, and I think that morale would increase as a result of once again having the president’s attention.
HAASS: Juju, you’re on mute.
CHANG: Thank you. I want to give everyone the results to the poll, instantaneous. Clearly, this is a well-informed group. It’s a 70 percent victory for [foreign policy being] a big factor in the decision in the election. And the second question is interesting, 38 percent climate change, 35 percent China, 20 percent Russia, and 79 percent of you think that the U.S. should spend more time and resources on foreign policy—self-selection, I suspect.
Reuben, I wanted to get you to talk about some of the things we were talking about before we came on, which is this idea that the nature of American leadership on the global stage has changed and what the implications of that are, and that how in many ways domestic policy is an extension of global policy. Reuben?
BRIGETY: Sure, well, thanks Juju. And it’s a pleasure to be with everybody both on the screen and out there in cyberspace. You know, I knew a guy once who said that foreign policy begins at home—hat tip to my friend Richard Haass. And what is meant by that, I think what he meant by that, but he’ll correct me if I get it wrong, is that not only do we have to tend to the obvious sources of the power that we deploy—our economic strength, our military power, etcetera—but also that American leadership, any leadership, leadership is not the same thing as dominance. Dominance is the ability to force somebody to do what you tell them to do. Leadership is the ability to invite others into your vision for the future, so that they see an interest in following along with you. And for a century, a large portion of the strength of American leadership has derived from the way in which we have lived our values at home. That’s what gave Soviet dissidents hope during the Cold War. It’s what has allowed our colleagues from across East Asia and also Latin America to want to embrace aspects of democratic governance and respect for human rights. And what I would say is—I’m going to make a slight disagreement with you, Juju—I actually think there was plenty of foreign policy on display at the debate the other night, in this sense—is that we showed the world that that debate was an encapsulation of much of the dysfunction that has governed the American domestic political scene for years, not simply during the Trump administration. And if we are going to continue to be a place that can rally the world to our highest hopes and aspirations, then I would say that the next thirty-seven days and the next couple of months after that are actually vital because the world’s going to be watching us with a degree of intensity that they have not done in a very, very long time.
And I would submit that those of us who identify ourselves as foreign policy professionals are always having our eye on the horizon, our respective areas of interests—for me, Africa—or for Russia, or China, or whomever. But all of us as foreign policy professionals and all of us as average citizens need to call our government and our country to account over the course of these next several weeks. And we need to insist on these following things. One, that we simply will not have violence in our streets. And we will not allow violence to be part of the political discourse here, regardless of the ideology or the propensity of any group. I think we need to call and insist upon our political leaders to actually break down their entrenched political partisan positions as it relates specifically to ensuring the integrity of this election process. And the third is, I can’t believe I have to say it, but I think that we all need to continue in our respective ways to reiterate what political leaders of both political parties have done the last twenty-four hours, and that is to categorically reject white supremacy, as a fundamentally illegitimate ideology in the twenty-first century America, and that we all insist on an America that is built for everybody. And I think we all need to sort of take on that responsibility as citizens to make our voices heard in this particularly perilous moment.
CHANG: Thank you, Reuben, for that. I appreciate your thoughtfulness on that. Fran, let me have you pick up on this idea of the peaceful transition of power, as we were discussing—the idea of election integrity, what will happen on November 3, and what, you know—just to throw another idea into the hopper for you—the idea of Russian interference that we’ve been grappling with for years. Take it away.
TOWNSEND: Sure. So, look, we know in 2016, the Russians interfered. And we know from several directors of national intelligence, there was attempted interference in the 2018 midterm elections. We know that there have been attempts at influence on this election by Russia, China, and Iran, all for different reasons. And the interference takes many forms, whether it’s interference using public media and trying to take advantage of divisions in this country that already exist and exacerbating them, or whether it is in an effort to sway voters one way or another as to one of the candidates or political parties. This isn’t going to stop, right? It’s a vulnerability that’s a natural function of a democracy, where people can speak and have opinions and express themselves. Our adversaries, none of which are functioning democracies, are taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of a democracy. We ought to recognize that our strengths now are also our weaknesses in terms of our adversaries and be alert.
I think the social media companies are trying to do more to weed out those who are trying to use social media to influence voters as they did in 2016. The federal government through the Department of Homeland Security has a much more robust program to work with state and local officials. I think we forget in this country, the federal government doesn’t administer an election, in any sense. The responsibility, the legal authority to administer an election is with your state and local representatives who are less resourced and less able to understand the threat. And so it’s really important what the federal government now does, which is share that threat information and help them plug vulnerabilities at the state and local level, whether it’s with polls, registers, election machines, and they’re helping, they’re working cooperatively together because that’s really where the responsibility is.
I’ll pick up on what Reuben was saying: many state and local police departments now, sadly, have felt the need to do riot training and drills in the expectation of, you know—in this election, unlike others, we ought to expect that we’re not going to wake up the morning after the election and know for certain what the result is, where one candidate has conceded and another one has claimed victory. It’s likely that we’re going to have a protracted period of uncertainty while mail-in ballots and absentee ballots get sorted through. There is likely to be litigation. And it’s in that period where I think the police departments are worried that there will be domestic violence. I couldn’t agree more with Reuben. I think regardless of party, we all ought to be outspoken about the fact that there needs to be calm. We need to be respectful of each other. We need to wait for the lawful outcome of the election.
The other piece to that, though, Juju, is I worry about our adversaries around the world. They’re planning for that period of uncertainty, too, and how may they take advantage of what may be perceived as a vacuum in leadership? Will China decide that’s the moment to be aggressive in the South China Sea or against Hong Kong or in Taiwan? Will Iran choose that moment to be aggressive vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or Israel? What will Russia choose to do to try to sow discontent here, and I think that the vulnerability is not just domestic, I think it’s worldwide.
CHANG: Fran, thank you for that. Richard, let me turn the page a little bit. According to our poll, the participants, I think rightly so, believe climate change and China are two of the highest foreign policy priorities. You’ve talked a lot about climate change and policy moving forward. Joe Biden said he would reenter the Paris Accords. I know you don’t think that’s enough, but what steps need to be taken by either candidate in the next administration?
HAASS: To be clear, are we talking about climate change, China, or both?
CHANG: Climate change, well you could do both. I was going to leave China for Jami, but you could do both.
HAASS: I’ll leave it, happy to leave it. Look on climate change, I think going back into the Paris Agreement, I think it makes sense, but nobody should kid himself or herself. Even if the United States were to do that, the Paris Agreement is an inadequate framework. It essentially leaves each participating country, leaves them the choice of how ambitious to set its goals. So each country does. And even if everybody lived up to the goals they set, we still would only make a dent, and we would not stop, much less reverse, climate change. So again, going back into the Paris Agreement is more at this moment symbolic than significant.
And the real question is, can we find some mechanism globally, to get the world on a better trajectory? I am skeptical. I think it will be very hard to get the major countries to agree largely because they’re in such different places, in terms of their economic development, in terms of their political situations. I think a more likely approach is going to be certain areas of national effort reflecting technology shifts, regulatory policy, mileage standards for cars, different standards about which fuels can be used, and so forth. And ultimately, Juju, I think there’s going to be a big issue about, rather than thinking about some Paris-like approach, do we have some narrow approaches—for example, certain countries in this or that trade agreement might come together and say, if you want to export to this block, you have to meet certain climate standards. But if you persist, for example, in using coal as the fuel for your manufacturing, you’re going to have to pay a tariff for it. So my guess is if we’re going to make progress on climate change, it may not be with something that looks like Paris or the UN General Assembly, it might be much more a combination of national efforts and now more multilateral efforts. All of which is to say this is going to be complicated, it’s going to take a while, and it needs to be a priority, because even if we start to act now, it’s going to be years and years before it has the kind of impact that we want and need. But I don’t think there’s any quick thing that can be done. I also think, I’ll just say one more thing, it can’t be done unilaterally. What’s so common to all these challenges like climate, like infectious disease, or anything else, is that no country can do more on its own than it can do with others.
So I would actually think that what the most important thing that could happen early on in the next administration, regardless of who wins—I think it’s likely to happen if Mr. Biden were to win, less likely to happen if Mr. Trump were to win—is that the United States would spend the first few months, one, addressing the sort of domestic challenges that Reuben and others have been talking about, but two, talking to allies and partners saying, okay, how do we address these challenges that affect us all? How do we adjust, for example, climate change? What can we do together here? So I actually think the first few months of the next administration would be well served by repairing our alliances. The United States wakes up every morning with an enormous structural advantage. We have several dozen countries in Europe and in Asia, who are partners. They have shown over the last seventy-five years their willingness to work with us. And if we are going to make real progress against such collective challenges as climate change, the best way we could start is by sitting down with our allies and partners in Europe and in Asia, in particular, the world’s largest economies, and basically seeing if we can come up with an approach that everybody is willing to sign up to.
CHANG: Well, Jami, as promised, one of our thorniest partnerships is our relationship with China. How do you think the U.S.–China relationship is playing out in this election cycle, and what advice would you give the next administration on how to repair what’s been going on? Aside from blaming China for the pandemic, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of bridge-building.
MISCIK: Well, I think the Chinese party officials have become accustomed to rhetoric on China going up during election cycles, and then when a new administration comes in, they govern in a different way than their rhetoric indicated in a campaign. I think they’ve been surprised over the last four years that some of the rhetoric actually was the way they governed, and that has been a real adjustment in our relationship. But I’d say a couple of things—China lost a lot of support it had domestically here in the United States. The business community has gone from being a major proponent of cooperation with China, economic ability to do business in China, to one where they are now beginning to either be more neutral on it or even negative about, no, we are not having a fair playing field while we do our business there. And they’ve kind of lost a key component of support here in the United States. And I think that surprised them with the speed with which that turned.
I think you’ll also have seen in the aftermath of the coronavirus, there were some pretty intense diplomatic moves made by the Chinese that were off-putting to a lot of countries. You know, Australia asked for an international team to go in and investigate the origins of the virus, and Chinese diplomats threatened embargoes on Australian goods. Same sort of reaction you saw in countries in Europe as well. So I think this wolf-warrior diplomacy, as it was billed at the time, has had a backlash, and you’ve seen China try to recalibrate.
So I would say that the next administration, regardless of party, this is now a bipartisan issue that people think we need to change our relationship with China. I don’t think it’s binary. I don’t think it is going to be an all-good relationship or an all-bad relationship. I think we have to call out behaviors that we find unacceptable, whether it’s in cyberspace, intellectual property theft, and the like, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together on other issues where we do need to cooperate, what Richard was just talking about in terms of climate change—all those issues that are in the global commons.
I think that we also have to have a government here in the U.S. that wants to engage internationally and multilaterally to be most effective in that relationship with the Chinese. One of the areas I think we don’t spend nearly enough time focusing on is, you know, for years in the technology sector, the United States played a huge role in setting international standards. If we don’t continue to play that kind of a role when it comes to new technologies, whether it’s quantum computing, you know, rules around the use of artificial intelligence, we’ll do a disservice to ourselves by doing that. So I think like-minded alliances, alliances of countries who see things similarly in terms of what we would like to see be deemed unacceptable in IP protection or AI advances is the way to go in dealing with our relationship with China. But not all good, not all bad, and certainly not the start of another cold war.
CHANG: I’d be curious, you know, I’m a little bit early to go on to questions. But I want to ask this question to you, Jami, now because it’s the one that’s gotten the most votes. It’s from Oz Sultan. He’s district leader for the Seventieth Assembly in New York City. Many of his Muslim constituents are concerned about the ongoing genocide of Uighurs in the exportation of slave labor. How do you see that factoring into trade policy negotiations and the efforts to prevent another Holocaust?
MISCIK: There’s a lot packed into that question, and I’d certainly defer to others, as well. You know, I think one of the things we have to recognize, and Reuben was saying this earlier, you know, what is it that we stand for? What are the issues that we believe we project to the world that we will condemn others’ behavior if it violates those standards? And I think we’ve done less of that than we certainly did during the Soviet days when, you know, we had a Voice of America beaming in, where we, you know, honored people who were dissidents trying to fight and have a voice. And I think we have to go back to a level of that. And I would say, not just in China, not just with regard to the Uighurs, but you know, elsewhere where we see those kinds of activities occurring as well. Holocaust deniers coming back to the fore, you know, a whole host of things that, frankly, we have not put at the forefront of foreign policy for quite some time. But I defer to others as well.
CHANG: It’s a great question. But I do want to once again turn the page, there’s so many topics to get to. Fran, I alluded to the fact that you are co-chair of the [CFR Independent] Task Force. We’re all living under this pandemic. We all have questions about COVID response. Can you preview for us a bit this Task Force report that’s coming out next week?
TOWNSEND: Sure. Thank you. I had the privilege of co-chairing the [CFR Independent] Task Force with Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was the secretary of health and human services under the Obama administration. And we went into the Task Force recognizing the unusual circumstance that the pandemic was going to be ongoing when we issued the report. And so as much as you want to be able to look at how we’ve handled the current one, how we can prepare better for the future, we had to be able to talk about what was really ongoing. You look at now, I’m sitting in New York City with many of our of our participants. New York state has seen its first day since the infections leveled off of a thousand infections; infection rate is up 3 percent; children are back in school. And so the Task Force really looked at a number of issues, right: the failures, what were the major failures, and that was really the testing and tracing and the American ability to protect vulnerable populations—minorities, the poor, the elderly—and our obligation to do better by those very vulnerable populations.
We looked internationally. Look, China and the WHO didn’t distinguish themselves, but in fact, that doesn’t mean that we walk away from either, right? As Jami points out, there are issues on which we need to be able to cooperate with China, like climate for example. And the WHO, we ought to look to how can we participate and strengthen it as opposed to walk away because it’s a necessary global institution. And I think the last point I would make in terms of the Task Force, you know, there’s this pathbreaking COVAX initiative, it’s international—150 countries who have come together to develop and distribute a vaccine fairly and equitably. And this notion of vaccine nationalism, which we’ve heard a lot out of Washington, is quite dangerous, right? We are much stronger when we work cooperatively with our partners, because after all if we’re not the ones to identify and develop the vaccine, we’re going to want to participate, and we don’t want someone else holding it. And so the Task Force looked at all those issues and talked about both what we should be doing now to help bring the current pandemic to a conclusion and how we can do better in the future.
CHANG: Reuben, let me segue to Africa with you because when I asked you about foreign policy priorities there, you mentioned COVID response, vis-a-vis development, but also other priorities. Lay out for us, as we’re looking at, you know, the continent with such complexities, where we go from a foreign policy perspective.
BRIGETY: Sure. Well, let me say a few things in that regard. So first of all, you could argue that COVID has basically been sort of like, you know, kind of plastic jello placed over foreign policy writ large, in that it’s sort of frozen a lot of things kind of in place until we’re able to kind of get through all these sorts of things. So one can kind of plausibly argue like what’s on the other side of it, as Richard said, whether it’s a return to great power competition, or as Jami noted, the importance of better rethinking multilateralism, but there’s been a lot of kind of stasis because we’re all trying to figure this out. That’s also true in Africa, writ large.
Now, the good news with regard to COVID in Africa, such as it is, is that it has not, as yet, had the same devastating pandemic impact on the continent as did say Ebola in West Africa in 2014, or as did the AIDS pandemic in the 1990s. A lot of theories about why that’s the case—some countries have been hit harder than others, South Africa probably being chief amongst them. It’s probably because of the relatively young population in Africa, as opposed to, you know, people congregating in nursing homes or older populations in Europe and the United States. So that probably bodes well for the continent on the other side of that, which then begs the question: okay, so then what’s next?
I think there are kind of a few things that are going to be pretty obvious. One is the continued jockeying for influence on the continent by China and others. And the second, and I’ve written about this elsewhere, and I feel really quite strongly about it: the United States needs to have a modern Africa policy. One that doesn’t see Africa as we did during the lens of the Cold War, as simply yet another place where great power politics basically take place without a full understanding of both the aspirations and conditions on the ground for interlocutors there, and one that does not simply see Africa as a place where, you know, it’s simply a matter of development assistance or humanitarian assistance. The Chinese, the Indians, the Israelis have all figured out how to make money through increasingly mature economic relationships on the continent, and the United States is behind in this regard. And the current administration, I think, fair enough, was at least—we can reasonably say they were slow to the mark in developing an Africa policy, so slow that one can plausibly ask them what, I mean, what is it now and what the actual content of it could be for the remaining part of this administration. Let me just conclude by saying this: in the administration in which I served, they had essentially four priorities for U.S. engagement on the continent—democracy and governance; social issues, such as health and education; security partnerships; and then ongoing economic trade. And those are essentially bipartisan issues that have transcended Republican and Democratic administrations, and they’re pretty good ones. And we need to figure out how to get back to that and adapt it for the second quarter of twenty-first century.
CHANG: Excellent, thank you. I just want to turn now to questions and point out that this panel goes until 4:30, and the Council has a very strict policy of ending panels on time. So I just wanted to forewarn everyone, and of course, you should stay for the poll results. But I’m asked to now take a question from someone who has their hand up. I’m told we have dozens of people with their hands up. So, Krista, go ahead.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Brian Fonseca.
Q: Hi, everyone. My name is Brian Fonseca, I direct the Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Exceptional comments, so I want to thank you all. As you might have guessed from my location, and of course in the spirit of the interconnectedness of domestic and foreign policy, my question has to do with American foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. Latin America hasn’t come up yet. The geopolitical competition and global challenges that Richard laid out, is absolutely playing out in this hemisphere. Even the China tech competition that Jami pointed out, in Latin America is leaving the U.S. in the dust. So here’s my question. Will the reelection of Donald Trump unlock new approaches to the hemisphere, particularly in areas like Venezuela and Cuba, where his administration has termed the “Troika of Tyranny” or will the election of Vice President Biden shift U.S. policy towards the region beyond just those key actors and maybe focus on a more broader portfolio in the region? After all, Latin America was an important part of Vice President Biden’s foreign policy portfolio during the Obama administration. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that. Thank you.
HAASS: Juju, I’m happy to jump in first. Look, I don’t think any of us is in a position to say what a reelected President Trump will do, or what an elected Joe Biden would do. We don’t have crystal balls. I think what we can do is say some things about Latin America, what the Latin America that individual will see from the Oval Office and what he what he might want to do about it. I think the good news about Latin America, is unlike say, the Middle East and some other parts of world, geopolitics are not raging. I’m not worried when I get up in the morning that I’m going to see a headline that Chile invaded Argentina. That’s not the threat in Latin America.
The threat, more than anything, has been not so much strong governments, but weak governments. Governments that can’t provide security to their citizens, that aren’t strong enough to handle gangs and cartels, that in many cases can’t provide a lot of the services to their citizens—one of the reasons we’ve seen populism often come back with such vehemence in Latin America. And what COVID-19 has done is added a whole overlay of that. We’re seeing far more people now slip back into poverty in Latin America, and governments are finding themselves with diminished resources facing even greater challenges.
To me, the big question for the United States, whoever is in government, is what can we do to help governments in the region deal with a lot of these internal challenges. I would love to see a major economic initiative with Latin America, a major trade initiative. That’s been, I think, missing for way too long. Also a security initiative, the sort of thing the United States partnered with Colombia for years to build up capacity—Fran knows about this from her job at the White House—I was involved in it at State, but Plan Colombia, the idea that we work with local countries to give police forces, military forces the capacity to strengthen judicial systems, to strengthen the penal systems. This helps countries’ governments deal with the internal demands on them. So I would love to see an initiative along those lines for Latin America as well.
On Venezuela, I think there, I don’t have a solution. I don’t think there is a solution right now. It’s certainly not military intervention. I think we can help the neighboring countries deal with the flood of refugees—Colombia, Brazil, and others. But I think the long-term challenge there is going to be to try to influence the trajectory of that country through sanctions and incentives, to try to encourage certain types of behavior, discourage others, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves: it’s going to be a long difficult slide, given the presence of Cuba, given the Chinese, given the Russian involvement in that country—intelligence forces, security forces, and economically—I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to get Venezuela to move in the direction we would like to see it move.
CHANG: I’m going to alternate between raised hands and chat questions. So this one is the next chat question. The most popular one, from Cody Allen. We’ve seen many question whether the role of secretary of state has become more politicized and partisan under Secretary Pompeo’s leadership. Do you see this as a new and/or worrying trend? It’s gotten more than fifty votes. Who’d like to take it?
BRIGETY: Let me take an initial stab at that, if I may. So when I was dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs, which is physically across the street from the State Department, my personal office could become something like a speakeasy for Foreign Service officers. Every week somebody would come knock on my door, open it, and close the door—from a very junior diplomat to a very senior person—and close the door and say you have no idea how bad it is.
CHANG: What were you serving in the speakeasy?
BRIGETY: (Laughs.) Water, so far as you know. At any rate, and I use that as a way of saying some things. First of all, being a secretary of state is inherently political, because you speak personally for the president of the United States. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not when you are doing the business of the country around the world, speaking for the president, that everybody up and down the chain, from the most junior diplomat to our adversaries across the table, can be certain that you are speaking for a country whose interests essentially are derived from the public interest of the country, and doing so in the context of the Constitution.
Now, here’s the thing. I completely respect that surely on this call, and much further abroad, that there are many people who are of different political persuasions, who may think differently on this. What I can tell you is that, in particular, the issues surrounding Ukraine that were adjudicated during the impeachment of the president, had a profoundly chilling effect on the nature of our professional diplomatic corps. I suspect also on our intelligence community. And you saw that play out with the extraordinarily brave public servants that testified during those hearings, who saw their oath of office as being more important than anything else. And so particularly as it relates to the operation of the State Department under this president—it’s not a partisan comment, by the way, there have been giants of American foreign policy on the opposite party, the Republican Party, that understood the value of diplomacy and negotiation and persuasion as a means of advancing America’s interests in the world, both in and of itself, and also the architecture, the mechanics of diplomacy in order to do that. And so I, quite frankly, seeing just how profoundly weakened our diplomatic corps has been in the last couple of years, I have yet to be persuaded how that can be altered under the current administration in Foggy Bottom, although I would love to see evidence to the contrary.
CHANG: Does anybody else want to take a crack at that question before I move on?
MISCIK: Yes, Juju, if I could just jump in and support everything that Reuben just said, but also do another bit of a commercial. In addition to being the vice chair of the Council, I’m also the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Foreign Affairs has an article written by one of this country’s premier diplomats, Bill Burns, talking about diplomacy and the state of it. And one of the statistics he cited in there—he had a coauthor as well—was that one quarter of the Foreign Service officers have left since 2017, and more than 60 percent of the career ambassadors. And I think that just speaks to declining morale and the real loss that we will have as a nation if that trend isn’t reversed. It goes on to say that because of these losses, we are now facing a senior leadership of career Foreign Service officers that are much whiter than our country. We need to get a diversity element back into that mix, because so many have walked out the door being disheartened by what they have seen.
BRIGETY: Can I just add to that one thing, I’m sorry, Juju, to come back to this. You can’t separate what Jami just said about the decreasing diversity in the Foreign Service. You can’t divorce that from, quite frankly, the very serious messages that are coming out of this White House. So for example, when the president of the United States calls the entire continent of Africa an s-hole, it’s hard to imagine how you can be an American diplomat, particularly an American diplomat of color, particularly one serving in Africa and defend that—you just can’t, right, and particularly as it relates to a number of others. I can say this because I’ve had this conversation with so many young diplomats to include Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who coauthored that article with Bill Burns. It is antithetical to the country that we represent ourselves to the world of our being, and which is why I said at the beginning we have got to figure out a way to get back to a purposeful and meaningful articulation of an America that is for all of us, because it’s actually really important to our projection of power abroad.
CHANG: Thank you, Reuben. I’m going to move on to the next hand-raised question. Krista.
STAFF: Great. Our next question comes from Farnaz Fassihi.
Q: Hi, thank you for having this panel. I’m Farnaz with the New York Times. I want to ask you how you assess the Trump administration’s sort of unconventional policies in the Middle East—from exiting the Iran nuclear deal, to moving the embassy to Jerusalem, assassinating Soleimani—how do you assess that? Do you think it has long-lasting impact beyond this administration? And will a Democratic administration walk any of these back?
CHANG: Richard, would you like to take that on?
HAASS: I will take on, yet again, the Middle East. Let me try to unpack that in a few plays. It’s hard to speak about the administration’s quote unquote “Middle East policy” and come up with one adjective that applies to all of it. I think it’s had a couple of dimensions. Several, I think are problematic; one has been positive. Problematic—the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. I’m well aware of its flaws, pointed them out at the time. That said, I think to have left it unilaterally as we did was a mistake particularly because we didn’t have something preferable to put in its place. And that ought to be the standard, anytime you get out of something, I think, you’ve got to be confident that there is something better to substitute for it. I haven’t seen it. What we’ve done is put in place all sorts of sanctions against Iran, we’ve hurt Iran economically, but I think the idea of sanctions leading to fundamental changes of policy, much less a change in regime, is simply not a realistic foreign policy strategy. And now, several years later, what we have is that Iran is beginning to go beyond the borders or constraints of the 2015 agreement and is now closer to putting into place the prerequisites of a nuclear weapons program than it was when the administration came into office three and a half years ago. So I think that is just an objective reality. And we’ve isolated ourselves, as we saw the other day in the UN, more than Iran.
So I think one of the challenges for the new administration, to me: it’s less about whether to get back into the 2015 agreement, it’s can the United States working with the Europeans, in particular, present Iran with a set of choices, which among other things, says we would be prepared to relieve some of the sanctions—but only on the condition that we extend some of the most significant limits on your nuclear program, that they would have to be extended in duration and obviously be verified. And that to me is the direction to go in, rather than now, I don’t want to see Iran break out of the agreement. If Iran gets close to nuclear weapons, I think it leads to war, or it leads to nuclear weapons elsewhere in the region, or both. And if you thought the Middle East couldn’t get worse than it already is, just watch that kind of scenario. So I think we need a new strategy towards Iran.
Elsewhere the administration seems intent on pulling back U.S. forces from the region, from Iraq, from Syria, and so forth. In the process I think we’ve raised major questions about American reliability with the Kurds. The pulling out of forces also from Afghanistan looks less like a peace agreement than it does like a withdrawal agreement. I think we have to ask, what does all this do for our ability to push back against terrorism? We shouldn’t think terrorism has disappeared or been eradicated. What does this do for confidence in the United States?
One area where I think we’ve made some progress is obviously the recent normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Israel. That is to be welcomed, obviously, but it doesn’t deal with still, what I think is the bigger challenge to Israel, which is not it’s normalization with Arab states, as welcome as that is, but is coming to terms with the Palestinian issue. It’s the demographics of the Palestinians that ultimately pose a threat to Israel’s long-term ability to remain a Jewish and democratic state. And that’s why ultimately a two-state solution is not a favor Israel would do for the Palestinians, but it’s a favor Israel would do for itself. And I don’t think that this administration has done Israel any favor by taking the pressure off that or coming up with a quote unquote “peace plan” that really is a nonstarter because it would essentially allow enormous amounts of annexation. So I think who’s ever in office, he’s going to have to deal with the unresolved realities of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and the growing pressure posed by Iranian behavior both in the region writ large, with terrorism and the like and militias, but also in particular its nuclear program.
CHANG: Richard, before you leave the region, though, I just want to pop in a question from Tom G., who asks: if the U.S. cares about human rights and effecting a positive change in geopolitics, why have both parties continued financial and political support for Saudi Arabia? Does this relationship really make the world safer or more stable? Just briefly, and then we’ll move on.
HAASS: Look, it’s a big question. In some ways, it gets back to the question you asked Jami. I think in a lot of these complicated relationships, we have real issues over human rights. And the issue is how do we balance our concerns there, our profound disagreements there, at the same time not making the entire relationship contingent upon it. We can’t do that with China given all of our strategic and economic concerns. We can’t do that with Saudi Arabia for the same reason, but that is not an excuse for giving Saudi Arabia a pass on human rights. So I would think that an alternative administration would look for ways quite properly [inaudible] somewhat from Saudi Arabia over human rights, at the same time, still maintaining the relationship where our interests coincide.
CHANG: Krista, let’s take the next hand-raised question.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Dan Caldwell.
Q: I’m Dan Caldwell from Pepperdine University in California. And first, Juju, I’d like to compliment you. Clearly, you should have been the moderator for Tuesday’s presidential scrum rather than Chris Wallace because you’ve been able to maintain control over these unruly panelists.
CHANG: Thank you. It’s a lower bar.
Q: But my question is for Reuben. Reuben given your education at the Naval Academy that Juju mentioned and then your service in the navy, what role do you think that the United States military should play in achieving the objectives that you mentioned, as well as assuring the election integrity that Ms. Townsend also mentioned?
BRIGETY: Well, I think the good news is that they’ve been doing it. I simply have to commend all the service chiefs in the aftermath, for example, of the killing of George Floyd. They all put out statements about how important it is for everybody in the respective services to have conversations and to talk and to listen. I actually sit on the task force of the chief of naval operations to think through matters of diversity in the navy. And I think that the service chiefs actually kind of get it. You know, David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, banned all Confederate iconography on every Marine Corps installation. They were over, we’re done, that’s it. And I think that General Milley, quite frankly, probably stung from the infamous Lafayette Plaza incident, has made clear that the military will remain apolitical and will not be used as political pawns in the aftermath of this election, and there has been some reporting through kind of unnamed sources—but I think you can probably take them at their word—that there may very well be senior resignations, people prepared to break their sword over this, if they think the military or they’re being given orders that would cause them to violate their oaths to the Constitution. So that’s all good news.
The worry is or one worry, well, look at it this way: one worry is not only the nature of potential unrest in the streets from kind of ordinary citizens, but quite frankly, I mean, there have been, I hear from my own networks of people, of veterans that either work for private security firms or for other sorts of things or that associate with some NGO groups, not large numbers, I mean, but a few and enough to be concerning, that may or are being asked to participate in these sorts of ongoing concerns. And we just have to be very, very careful about this, which is why I think it is crucial for all of us to make loud and clear in our churches, to our family groups, whatever—the greatest democracy of the world will not tolerate that. We just can’t. And we have to be both supportive and also demand accountability of our law enforcement agencies as they try to contend with this issue.
CHANG: Let’s go to Alex Renner’s question next. The biggest votes on this question, from Alex from the Asia Group. His question is: in the event of a Biden win what could the Trump administration do during the lame-duck period to set the tone for the Biden administration’s foreign policy? What potential actions would you find most concerning in that intervening period prior to the inauguration?
HAASS: I think a lot of us could take this one. I’ll just kick it off, you know, all of us have worked in transitions. This is an interesting question. I was talking about it earlier today with some of our fellows at the Council. Transitions are another example where we have traditions, there are norms, there’s a historical precedent, but there’s very few rules, much less laws. It’s an area then of discretion. Now, historically, if you recall, was it 40 or 50 years ago we reduced the length of the transition. Presidents used to not come into office until March. We moved it back to January in order to shorten the period by two months or so, in order to reduce the scope for this. Travel had sped up. We no longer needed to give people that amount of time.
Imagine we have clarity sometime by mid- or late November. That still means then we’re facing virtually two months in which a lot can be done, and particularly in the realm of what we’re talking about here today, in foreign policy, presidents have enormous discretion. And a lot of attention has been given domestically, to things like the pardon power, and presidents can give pardons and awards and all sorts of other things. We may have a Supreme Court appointment and so forth. But in foreign policy, a lot of things is negotiations, getting out of certain things, particularly things that were brought about in the first instance by executive action. So I think that’s difficult, I’m not going to minimize it, Juju. I think it’s a dicey period.
It’s one thing obviously if Mr. Trump were to be reelected, then it’s just a continuity. And the question is how we interpret a reelection as a mandate, what he decided to do, there’s that set of challenges. But if it were to be a rotation, go to Mr. Biden, then the real question is the administration could do quite a lot against Iran if they chose to do it, against North Korea. Presidents have enormous discretion to use military force, to pull out of agreements and so forth, and there I think we’re in an area without clear historical precedent. I’ll give you a reason why—Mr. Trump, you may love this, you may hate this, depending upon your views, but whatever else he is, he’s a departure. If you look at every post–World War II president beginning with Harry Truman through Barack Obama, what they had in common was far greater than what distinguished them. They were all playing the game, if I may say, roughly around midfield, maybe within the forty-yard lines. Donald Trump does not. So I think we have to accept the possibility that he would be willing to use this period to leave an imprint or build a legacy to create certain facts for his successor and in the realm of foreign policy, he would actually have significant scope to do it.
BRIGETY: Can I add something to that, Juju? I mean, Richard’s right. I mean, President Trump is playing—surely not between the forty-yard lines and maybe not in the same field. Here’s another distinction between the presidents. We have never had a president of the United States who was personally in debt to the tune of four hundred-plus million dollars to creditors yet unknown. And that is in and of itself—there’s nobody else in the United States of America that could possibly get a security clearance with that level of debt. It is inherently a security risk. And so, I think, there is a very real question if President Trump is not reelected, how he could be made personally vulnerable because of that debt in ways that could, quite frankly, continue to be a serious concern for American national security, particularly as it relates to various aspects of our intelligence community and sources and methods. I think it’s a real, real worry.
CHANG: Many commentators said that he would have had a hard time getting a security clearance with that. I want to go to the next hands-up question, Krista.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Stephanie Stapleton.
Q: Hello there, I’m Stephanie Stapleton. I’m a PhD student at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. I’m studying international conflict management and my question hits at a lot of what Richard has said about nuclear weapons. So I focus my research on international arms control agreements—we’ve seen a lot of those fall under the current administration. So I’m curious, you know, where in the future do you see arms control constraints come in, with, I guess, a lack of American leadership? So how does the world respond? How does the U.S. respond to the growing threat of the proliferation of dangerous weapons?
TOWNSEND: Juju, I’m happy to take the first crack at this and Richard can comment here. I will say, you know, as Richard said about presidents, you know, of each party playing inside the forty-yard lines—on proliferation it’s a perfect example of one of those topics. You know, the control of nuclear materials and weapons was a huge priority. We started the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the Bush administration; it was seamlessly picked up by the Obama administration and run further down the field. And so on many of these issues, traditionally, presidents of both parties will pick and choose—cyber was another one, just to give you an example, of a national initiative started under one administration and handed off to the next. I don’t think with what we’ve seen with this President is that you can assume that he will give the same level of attention, detail, or priority to it, and there’s evidence of that. And the real question, I think, this is one—what direction arms control policy and proliferation policy goes in—is very dependent on the outcome of the election.
HAASS: Juju, let me say two things, if I may. It’s a good question. Let me divide it into two realms. One is so-called vertical proliferation, one is horizontal. Vertical is dealing with the inventories that exist, say the United States and Russia, in particular. As I said in February, there’s the question of what do we do about the then to expire New START agreement? I would hope we would extend it. But then even if we do down the road, there’s two big questions. One is new weapon systems that weren’t covered by that agreement—technology’s dynamic. How do we deal with that? Secondly, to what extent do we maybe expand it as China’s inventory grows, to what extent does bilateral arms control need to become trilateral or multilateral arms control. So I think who’s ever president is going to have to deal with the technology as well as the structural conversation. And then in the horizontal proliferation, we’ve already alluded to one, which is what do you do about Iran, which is now closer than it was to getting to a dangerous point? The other I mentioned it, I think before, is North Korea. There’s a long history of dealing with North Korea, whether it’s threats, whether it’s incentives, diplomacy, and so far, nothing has worked. North Korea continues to progress down that road and the question is still going to greet the new president: what do we do about the fact that North Korea now has dozens and dozens of nuclear weapons, missiles of increasing range and accuracy in increasing number, and essentially posing now a direct threat to the United States? What are we going to do about that? So these horizontal proliferation challenges are getting more acute. At the same time, I do think we’re going to face some very big questions, particularly what to do about Russia and then on the side, China.
CHANG: Richard proves the point that once an arms control analyst, always an arms control analyst.
HAASS: I apologize.
CHANG: I loved that we heard from a PhD student though, so let’s hear from a medical student, probably for Fran. Rob Blum is a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and asked: what do you see as the future for global medical engagement by the U.S. with organizations such as the World Health Organization and other countries to prevent future global health challenges? How would this answer have been different nine months ago?
TOWNSEND: Sure. Look, I think that our experience in the current pandemic has pointed out the vulnerability of a lack of cooperation and international standards. It’s also pointed out when you see the failures on the part of the WHO, the weaknesses in that system. But that ought to tell us that, and underscore, the need to strengthen the international system, not walk away from it, right? If you step back for a moment from the current pandemic and ask yourself if we had walked away—imagine we had walked away from WHO, not now, post the outbreak of the pandemic, but before, would we have been better served? The answer is positively not. Despite their, you know, faults, we need a strong WHO, and we need a strong international regime. You’ll see, and when the Task Force releases its report on October 8 there are examples, international cooperation resulted in a place like South Korea meeting basic international standards, and they were far more effective at testing and tracing than any other country. And that was a result of their preparation pursuant to international standards. And so, I think, too often, we hear rhetoric that suggests, you know, international standards means lowest common denominator. And I think it’s misguided, right? Because what it does is it raises the bar for everybody. And to the extent other countries are better prepared, we in the United States are better protected. I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of explaining why that’s so important. And I hope people will take that lesson at least from the Task Force report.
CHANG: Reuben, if I can put you on the spot briefly, take your foreign policy hat off for a second and put your university head hat on, and give us a sense of how COVID is playing out on campus.
BRIGETY: Sure, well, let me take a step back and get to that. So my wife is actually an ICU physician. And before we moved here to Tennessee, she spent six months on the front line of the COVID response at a hospital in the Washington, DC, area. And for her and her colleagues, it was just straight up combat. Still is for those that are still valiantly treating so many others. And so, as a result of that, it’s incomprehensible to me that as a country we waited, frankly, to respond rapidly when we saw what was happening in China and across Europe. And then even here in the United States, parts of the country where I am right now in the South, waited while we saw what was happening up in New York, and also in Seattle, as if somehow the virus will treat us differently, that the pathogen treats us differently as Americans than it does Italians or treats Northerners differently from Southerners. It’s all the same, which gets back to Fran’s point that we are all better off when we collectively are addressing these sorts of public health problems. Here at the University of the South, we’ve actually been very fortunate that we have a partnership with a lab in Chattanooga that allows us to test our entire student body population once a week and have the individual results back within six hours of administering the test. And that has been, and I’ll say that for two reasons. One is that it has been absolutely essential for our being able to open and remain open. We are now halfway through the semester with a positivity rate of about 0.12 percent.
CHANG: And it all goes back to testing and tracing.
BRIGETY: It’s back to the broader national point, right? We are the United States of America. We put people on the moon, right? We’re the home of Jay-Z and Beyonce—like we created the iPhone. Pick your thing, right, like there are all these things we’ve been able to do and we can’t figure this out even when other countries have? We have got to get our act together on this. I look forward to the Task Force of the Council [inaudible].
CHANG: Thank you for that. Krista. Let’s go to our next hands-up question.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Mojubaolu Okome.
Q: Good afternoon. My name is Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome and I’m a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. And I live in Brooklyn, New York. I just wonder what the grand strategy should be for the next administration in terms of foreign policy and also recovering America’s, I think, big battered image in the world. What are the top three priorities that you would recommend for the next administration?
CHANG: Jami, let me toss that to you. The grand strategy and the big priority.
MISCIK: We have the intelligence person doing policy, I love it. You know, I think we have to come into our foreign policy understanding truly what our strategic national interests are. And we have to have a longer-term view of it than we tend to take. So you know, what is our long-term strategy vis-a-vis our interest in Asia, our interest with China, our interests as we just discussed in the Middle East. So that’s kind of priority one. We have to know what we want and what we’re worried about.
Number two is we have to be ready for the challenges that we’re going to be presented with and we can’t put our head in the sand, ignore them, pretend they’re not there. And some of them are easy to anticipate. You will have major changes of leadership probably in Iran with the supreme leader, in Saudi Arabia with the king. You know, what will that mean for us?
And third, we have to, as we were talking about earlier, understand what it is we want to stand for. And I think that is very different between the two potential administrations—either a continuation of the Trump administration or a new Biden administration. But the one thing I would caution a new Biden administration on would be to not make the mistake that you’re going to pick up where you think you left off four years ago. The world has changed, it has moved on. There are all of these experts who are advising the potential new administration, but they need to be doing it with a 2020 vision looking forward, not from where they left off four years ago. And I think that’s a danger. Not only has the world moved on, but their view of us has changed dramatically. Even our allies are not as likely to want to follow a U.S. lead, or trust a U.S. commitment as much as they would have been ten or twenty years ago. And so I think we also need to keep that in mind when we’re coming up with a strategy for our foreign policies.
HAASS: Juju, can I say one or two things?
CHANG: Of course.
HAASS: Not of course, I always ask.
CHANG: I’d never shut you down though, Richard.
HAASS: So let me just build on what Jami said. Let me suggest, there might be two ways to think about grand strategy. One is what we do, the ends, and the other is the means. I would think with the great powers, particularly with Russia and China, what we need are relationships. I think like Jami said they’re not all or nothing relationships. We need to figure out where we push back, where we compete, yet we don’t want to preclude areas of limited cooperation where it serves our interests to do so. I put the real premium on diplomacy. It’s easier said than done to design and execute such a relationship, but that’s what we need.
And then secondly, we’ve got to narrow the gap between global challenges and the mechanisms in place to deal with them. Fran was talking about health being one, with climate change, with digital, with proliferation, every dimension of international relations right now is this large gap between these global challenges and the global institutions in place. We have got to narrow that gap. All of this will now require, I think, two things. Two things that we do—one is, we’ve got to do it with others, we can’t do this unilaterally. The idea that the United States can simply impose its will or that we have the necessary capacities is simply flat out wrong. And second of all, since Reuben alluded it to before, we do have to put our domestic house in order. We are simply not going to have the bandwidth as a country to play a large international role unless we sort out some of our domestic issues. We’ve got to figure out a way to deal internationally at the same time that we improve domestically.
One other point, and it’s been a thread in this conversation: I think we’ve also got to figure out that middle ground where we stand for principle, we stand for our values, but we cannot transform the world and make it in our image. When we tried to do that in the Middle East, we ran into a buzzsaw. So we have to some extent deal with the countries that exist. We can’t make our goal with China to overthrow the Communist Party of China as the secretary of state and now the House of Representatives, the Republicans in the House, seem to want to do. We’ve got to deal to some extent with the world that is and then nudge it in the right direction rather than try to transform it.
CHANG: Excellent. So I’m going to just be mindful of the clock. We have about four minutes left. And then I want to give the end results of the poll. And in those four minutes, I’m going to give you two questions that are very dense, and then you can answer them both or try to address them. One is from Edwin Williamson, retired Sullivan and Cromwell, State Department legal adviser under Bush 41. That was his full disclosure. He says, “when I compare Obama-Biden and Trump foreign policy records, I find Trump’s much more successful—Middle East, Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, etcetera.” Whether or not you disagree, to what extent does Biden get credit or blame for the Obama foreign policy? Or how much should one consider Bob Gates’s observation that Biden has never been right on a major foreign policy issue? And then Joel Hicks asked a good question, too, which is if there is any possibility to return to U.S.-led multinational institutions to address global challenges in the future. I know there are two giant questions and we have three minutes left. So whoever would like to take it, jump in.
BRIGETY: Let me start by noting that Edwin Williamson was a proud graduate of the University of the South.
CHANG: (Laughs.) I love it.
BRIGETY: (Laughs.) I mean, look, here’s the thing. I think that the president was elected in part on a particular vision of the world, “America First,” and that doesn’t just mean that we’re going to be looking after our interests—every country looks after their interests. The question is whether or not we are going to be bringing other countries along and the extent to which we’re actually articulating a set of values going forward. And so, to your point, if you think that the nature of what the president has done with regard to NATO or leaving the Afghans to their devices, or what we did with regard to our Kurdish allies in Kurdistan, if one thinks that those are all positive things, then you have your answer for the election. I don’t, but I’m just a guy. And so I think that it’s probably worth our asking, you know, again, I much prefer a foreign policy that tends to be more, that could have a greater degree of bipartisan consensus because I think it gets to Jami’s point that the rest of the world is learning that they can’t count on us in important ways. And we have got to figure out a way to kind of get back to a foreign policy that is sustainable over multiple administrations.
CHANG: I’d love thoughts from as many of you before we go to the poll.
TOWNSEND: Let me say this. I mean, I understand the tone of the first question, right, because I think it’s oftentimes difficult to divorce the person and the policies. And so I think there is some frustration among the president, understandable frustration among the president’s supporters, that even when he does something positive or good, he doesn’t get credit for it. I will tell you, an early question brought up Soleimani. And as Jami can attest, for decades, since going back as far as the Beirut bombing, multiple administrations have used the intelligence community and the FBI to target him. This was nothing new. This was not at all unique to the Trump administration. And so, look, there are some things he has done, and he ought to get credit for it, and many, to Reuben’s point that we can not be pleased about. On multinationals, I sort of answered that earlier. I think there’s strength in that cooperation, but I think it’s going to require strengthening those institutions.
MISCIK: I’ll weigh in quickly. You know, just to take North Korea as an example. I think it’s worthwhile to have opened a dialogue. And I think, you know, there’s credit to be given on that. Do I think that the dialogue has led to results? You know, not if you look at what, I think it was Richard who referenced the Washington Post story talking about the growth of North Korea’s missiles and nuclear stockpile during this timeframe. But, you know, starting the conversation? Probably a good idea.
CHANG: Excellent. Richard, can you be brief?
HAASS: You ask that as though you’re skeptical about the answer.
CHANG: Uh huh.
HAASS: In my experience, vice presidents for the most part influence but don’t set the foreign policy of their administration. So, I think one can look at how Mr. Biden has voted, but I also think he ought to be looked at for what he advised not necessarily what the Obama administration did. For example, he favored the provision of arms to Ukraine, something this administration did, unlike Barack Obama, who opposed it. Then more important, I think if he is elected, he’ll be facing a different world and one has to ask him what he’d be prepared to do about it. And since I’m an optimist, sure, there’s an enormous potential role for the United States in leading multinational responses to global challenges. Indeed, it won’t happen otherwise. There’s no one else who can fill our shoes and lead, and there’s no way we can do it unilaterally. So if there’s a happy answer, when one looks at the future, it will only come about with collective effort that the United States participates in and more often than not leads.
CHANG: I have to say, I’m encouraged by the number of people who are still with us; the participants number well over a thousand. It just shows the interest and the intensity of the interest in foreign policy in this election cycle. Let’s go to the poll results, because I do want to see where we landed at the end of our discussion. I can’t thank our panelists enough. We’re supposed to retake it I knew that. So does this change your position at all when considering whom you support? What is the biggest foreign policy challenge? And how much emphasis should the U.S. have? Let me start by reminding everyone that this conversation was on the record and will be posted to the website. Thank you to the Carnegie Corporation. Thank you to each and every one of the panelists who provided such context and perspective and experience—a wealth of it. And when we have the poll results we’ll share them, hopefully soon. Richard, any closing thoughts for you? We have less than two minutes.
HAASS: I’d like to thank the moderator. Her doing this and she has late night duty most nights of the week with Nightline, and I’d like to thank my three colleagues. I’d like to thank the people who came into the meeting for your interest and really do think of us as a resource. And by us, I mean Foreign Affairs magazine, foreignaffairs.com, and CFR.org. What we do on the website, again, what we’re trying to do day in and day out is provide context, provide analysis, provide background on these challenges. And I think what we’ve learned is that they matter. Nothing stays foreign for long, nothing stays local for long, whether it’s terrorism, or wars, or computer viruses, or physical viruses, or climate change. It all comes here. So we’ve got to have a foreign policy in the United States that’s engaged with the world. And as Thomas Jefferson said, unfortunately he couldn’t be with us today, but as he said, democracy depends on an informed citizenry. And what we are committed to is to help more Americans get better informed about this world that for better or worse, will affect our lives.
CHANG: And the results are still rolling in, they’re beginning to plateau. And you see that now 75 percent believe that it’s [foreign policy] a big factor in their decision. Climate change, I think, ticked up a little bit on the results. 44 percent say climate change is the number one foreign policy criteria and how much emphasis should the U.S. pay? A great deal more is the overwhelming consensus. Once again, I’m grateful to everyone who took part on today’s panel and to the staff at CFR who are incredible at the logistics behind the scenes. And thank you so much, and I hope that this helps inform you as you head to the ballot box in November. Be well, everyone.