Senior Vice President, Henry A. Kissinger Chair, and Director, International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Deputy Director of Research and Policy, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft; Research Scholar, Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University
Director of the Center on the United States and Europe, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Project on International Order and Strategy, Brookings Institution; Author, All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the Twenty-First Century and the Future of American Power
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan discusses the March/April 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine with contributors Kathleen Hicks, Stephen Wertheim, and Thomas Wright. The authors discuss the new issue of Foreign Affairs, which focuses on U.S foreign policy and asks the question, should America retrench?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Good afternoon. Good to see a full room. I was very sad about the prospect of this getting cancelled, because I was very excited about this conversation. So I’m glad we got it in, I think just under the wire before there are no longer events in D.C.
I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. Welcome to the issue launch for the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. The them, as I think all of you know, is Come Home America. And we have three authors of some of the lead pieces from the package. It is an issue that has some other big names in it, especially in the essay realm, including former Vice President and a presidential contender. We have three Nobel Prize winners in the issue. So it should be—
WRIGHT: None of us.
HICKS: That’s not us?
KURTZ-PHELAN: It is not the people up here, none of whom to my knowledge have won Nobel Prizes and none of whom have presidential aspirations, as far as I know. But this really is the greatest group we could have put together from this issue, because they really get—between these three pieces—get at the heart of what I think is kind of the big question for U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy today, which is really this question of whether we are overcommitted, we’re overcommitted, we’re overextended in the world, and whether we should be really embracing retrenchment or restraint in a new way. Let me very quickly introduce them. You have their full bios in your packets.
We have Tom Wright. Tom is a senior fellow at Brookings. Most notably he was talking about great-power competition before it was cool, I think it’s fair to say. (Laughter.) He wrote a book that came out three or four years ago on great-power competition and what it meant for U.S. foreign policy. By any means necessary? What’s the title?
WRIGHT: All Measures Short of War.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All Measures Short of War. Sorry about that. A great book. But has been really writing on these themes and questions for a long time. His piece of the folly of retrenchment. It leads off the package.
Then we have Kath Hicks. Kath is the director of the International Security Program at CSIS, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She was a senior Pentagon official in the last administration, and really combines, like few people in Washington, both the guts and mechanics of defense policy with the big strategic and policy questions. So was the perfect author for her piece in this issue, getting to less, which is about defense spending and what it would take to really reduce it.
And then finally we have Stephen Wertheim, who is a historian by training, if I have that right, but is now one of the founders of the Quincy Institute, which is really driving a lot of the discussion of the retrenchment and restraint today. A new think tank here in Washington that has really stood up really fast and become an important source of that view in this debate.
There are three other pieces by people who are not based in the D.C. area, so they were not able to be here, but including one by the great realist scholars Jenny Lind and Daryl Press, another by Graham Alison, and finally a piece by Steve Krasner, the great Stanford political scientist and Bush administration policy planning director. So all great pieces, but we’re really lucky to have these three here with us today. I’m going to spend about half an hour talking to them, and then we’ll hand it over to members for questions. So hold your questions until then and there’ll be plenty of time or discussion.
So I want to start with a question that I want to put to all three of you. I’ll start with Tom and we’ll go to your right from there. Which is really about how you understand the history of the last 25 or 30 years. You know, in some ways this argument is about how we see the errors or successes of post-Cold War American foreign policy. And I think all three of you have slightly different readings of what went wrong and what went right. So let me ask each of you to tell us what you think about that history. Is it largely a record of failure, as Stephen and the other retrenchers say, and whether you think it was largely a failure or not what were the chief mistakes and what were the greatest successes?
WRIGHT: Yeah, thanks. And it’s really great to be here. And thank you for including me in the issue.
Yeah, it’s a tough question to answer, I think. My colleague Bob Kagan has a thing he says about this which I think is a little bit useful, which is what thirty-year period would you choose in world history, right? I mean, if you could choose a thirty-year block, which one would you take? And the point is that they all sort of suck, right? (Laughter.) There’s sort of problems with each of them. If it’s the, you know, 1900s to ’30, or ’30 to ’60, you know, ’60 to ’90, they all have different problems. Some are better than others.
And I think that gets to an important truth, which is, you know, one of the first thing we learn about foreign policy when we start studying it, which is it’s largely a question of choosing between your mistakes or the downside, right? There’s really very little—very few options where it’s all upside or it’s the right answer and there’s a wrong answer. And, you know, Stephen and I disagree, as I think is evident in the articles. I think we would both agree that whether it’s retrenchment or not, each comes with its own set of downsides and tradeoffs, right? So you’re trying to choose which you think are more manageable, where you think the benefits outweigh those, rather than saying, you know, my problems don’t—my solutions don’t have problem.
Having said all of that, I think if you look back over the last thirty years, I think to me sort of the successes are, you know, the great sort of globalization that took place and rising prosperity around the world. And then the problem on the other side of that is that that essentially became unmanageable in 2008 or ’9. And I think what happened in the response of ’08-’09 was one of the great policy successes on a bipartisan basis in sort of the American era, since World War II. Interestingly, that success is an orphan. No one claims it, because it’s politically unpopular. But what they did I think—and as Dan Derzner has shown—it really avoided a great depression. So I think you see that sort of arc there.
I think the Middle East is, I think, the area of failure. And we can get into the reasons for that. I think Europe and Asia policy has been much more successful. You know, and so I see it netting out as pretty successful relatively speaking, but I wouldn’t sort of deny the problems that I think have arisen.
HICKS: I think I mostly agree with the way Tom would frame that, particularly at the end. You know, I see in general a trendline that has a lot of positive aspects that I think reflect good foreign policy approaches, and then some really egregious mistakes I think have to be talked about. So because you picked thirty years, that happens to correspond almost perfect with my time—(laughs)—working in this field. So obviously I’m invested in some ways, of course, in the answer, and not unbiased. But what I see first and foremost is, of course, coming out of the Cold War, just a tremendous ability of the United States to work with allies and partners abroad, manage a significant decline in U.S. presence overseas, its military forces, the peace dividend, as we called it in those days, to sort of try to create a pathway with Russia, and the Russian Federation, in terms of a way ahead.
You know, I think there were many—nonproliferation is a huge priority, which I think was a very successful—particularly through the Nunn-Lugar program—very successful approach. And nonproliferation in general has been, in general, a very positive aspect of the past thirty years. And then you get kind of more of the Steven Pinker lines, right, where you have global health improvements absolutely over the last thirty years. You have middle classes rising, in particular, of course, in China and India, helped significantly by the U.S.-led international institutions. And, you know, you have middle classes growing, et cetera. So there’s some good news stories in there.
If I get to 2001, I can’t—I can’t in any way defend the decision that was made to undertake the invasion of Iraq. I think that was a tremendous mistake. I don’t think it was a mistake that was in any way unavoidable. I think that was the U.S. foreign policy, the particular people who made those decisions, just making an egregiously bad choice on very little information and should be—there’s no shortage of what students should study around that for years and years to come.
Then I think what you have, following 9/11, is a lot of trying to manage through the implications of that decision, whether it has to do specifically with the implications for how the U.S. executed the campaign in Iraq, how it then executed the campaign in Afghanistan, where there was tradeoffs, et cetera, having to be made across them, or anything going forward in terms of the knock-on effects it had on U.S. foreign policy interests in lots of different areas. So to sort of use the frame maybe that Tom was hinting to, I think the Middle East is the area where the U.S. went wildly off the rails, and then was trying to recover.
Just stepping way back, I think what worries me the most—it doesn’t surprise me, because every decade of these thirty years we’ve navel-gazed, which is good, at how U.S. foreign policy has been executed to try to figure out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We’re very nervous of our own shadow. And I get that. But I do think the clock has not stopped. U.S. foreign policy is not over. The implications of any one of these decisions, negative and positive, will continue to play out.
And I think on balance the period in which the U.S. had a degree of supremacy—if you want to call it the unipolar moment—I think in many ways the U.S. did well with that period. Again, the Iraq decision a horrific example of what happens when you overreach on that kind of power differential. But we’re in a different era now. So the question really that’s most important is how do we manage through the era we’re in now into whatever that next phase—and this transition period—to whatever that next phase of the international system is. And that’s a really good area for us to be focused on.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So we’ll move to those forward-looking questions. But, first, Stephen, go through that history.
WERTHEIM: Sure. I think—you know, I recognize some of the—most of the successes that Tom and Kath pointed to. The reduction of extreme poverty around the world, that has to be considered to be a major success. And, you know, we haven’t seen—we should never take for granted the absence of great-power war. So I recognize that as a triumph. But fundamentally I have a pretty negative assessment of what the United States with an opportunity that it had coming out of the Cold War.
The United States, if it wanted to, could have worked to build a world of peace where the United States was not forward-deployed everywhere and did not start out by dividing the world up into about half the world that it sought to protect and another half of the world that implicitly or explicitly came to be enemies or antagonists. And I think what’s happened as a result of this pursuit of armed primacy from the 1990s, when the costs were not initially apparent because of the U.S. advantage. As that advantage has eroded, and also as the United States, not for disconnected reasons, became more and more engaged militarily in the Middle East, the consequences have gotten worse.
And now we face a point where primacy has produced exactly what it promised not to produce in the early 1990s, the existence potentially of hostile great-power competitors that may threaten the United States or it pretty expansively defined interests. I think that’s a manageable challenge, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about that. But this notion of great-power competition, I think, has been invoked not to acknowledge the failure of the primacy policy that came before, but to give it a new lease on life. And I think we need to take a much more critical look at that.
In addition, though, you know, as you look at—let’s say that, you know, U.S.—you don’t agree with my assessment of U.S. military policy. I think it actually made the American people less safe. We’ve seen attacks on this country which did not, in my view, need to happen. But look at the opportunity costs in terms of climate change for example, which we are now having to scramble to address and are not making nearly sufficient progress. That is a true threat to the United States, the American people, and a threat to humanity. It’s clearly not where our resources, our attention have been over the last thirty years.
And now we see other transnational challenges, like pandemics very much on our minds right now, which, again, could have absorbed more attention, as well as tackling the concentration of ungoverned wealth, which I think despite the reductions in extreme poverty around the world the form of globalization that the United States helped to set up through the World Trade Organization and other agreements has not benefitted enough of the American people. And now we see a backlash at home where, you know, a record of endless war-making in the Middle East has, I think, given rise to nativist sentiment in this country, and it’s been turned and weaponized against Americans at home. So I would say that the cost to our own democracy also weigh heavily in my assessment, since that ought to be one of the core interests of the United States in its national security policy, but in its overall policy domestic and foreign.
KURTZ-PHELAN: But in terms of the forward-looking question, let’s go to the Middle East first because I think there’s a degree of agreement between the three of you, and most of the foreign policy commentariat and policymaking class. There is a view that it is—our policy is overmilitarized, we’re overextended. But the question of what it would mean to withdraw or to right-size that presence I think is a—is a much more difficult one.
So, Kath, let me start with you. If you were looking over, say, a four-year presidential term, what would you want that presence to look like at the end? What would you really do to correct from the mistakes that you referred to, since Iraq?
HICKS: Yeah. The first thing I would just say is a significant degree of humbleness in answering. And I will answer the question. But in answering that question, I had a roundtable I held, I think it was, last summer. And I asked a broad range of people who were in the room to sort of talk about U.S. Middle East policy. And nothing will get people to clam up more than trying to get them into specifics around U.S. Middle East policy. And here’s how I would summarize. I did it in the room to their agreement, and I would do it here.
If you are to ask people if they believe in engaging in U.S. military assistance or intervention in something like a Rwanda, all hands go up. If you ask everyone in the room, today in particular, if they believe in something like the Iraq invasion, no hands go up. If you ask people to comment on U.S. policy in Syria, you cannot get—people get very uncomfortable very fast. And this is the hard reality of what it means to actually execute foreign policy. Not write theory about it. Which, I’m a political scientist, I’m good with theory. Not exhort about it. But actually execute it.
And here’s where it gets challenging, right? So I think the key elements, first, in my mind, are the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which has gone on for twenty years will need to end. And I think you can end that while still retaining U.S. military forces in the country in a way that is defensible both in terms of their own force protection and defensible in terms of politically with the American people. What exactly that size is, I’m not going to get into. But essentially I think you keep a small presence there, really more as a regional approach into your interests beyond just Afghanistan.
But by and large, the United States need to have determined for itself that I cannot move the ball any further in terms of Afghanistan. And oh, by the way, we’ve been way too militarized in our approach there for some time. Sort of ironic that it’s been President Trump who actually has sort of been this missing State Department voice, if you will. The voice of what—where is this conversation around where the political situation is going in Afghanistan. So that’s Afghanistan.
I think in Iraq there is a reason to believe the United States can maintain, for at least the moment, some degree of continued military partnership. I think the killing of Soleimani made that very difficult, so we’re going to have see how that plays out in terms of Iraqi politics. But there are some advantages, again, to having that ability to connect and partner as long as, and until, there is not an Iraqi state that can function in a way that protects its own borders, et cetera.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And that’s a thousand or a couple thousand troops?
HICKS: Yeah. It’s a small number. So, again, small ground force numbers. I think the United States has enduring interests in and around the Persian Gulf that are relatively easy to protect offshore, asterisk, the cost to do that is significant. And without having forward-positioned forces, it’s more expensive. So that’s something to be worked out. But that’s in the maritime realm.
And then I do think you get into these really tricky issues around, in particular—so that’s how I would handle, for the moment, the Iranian—Israeli-Iranian-Arab interactions in the military sense. Again, not touching on the full force of U.S. foreign policy.
I think when you get to Syria, that’s where we have—if there was a moment for more stepped-up military intervention from the United States, it has passed. That is very sad for me to say. I think there were points in time when the United States could have done more to avert humanitarian disasters like we’re seeing. But that is not today. We have let that moment go. And so I think continued emphasis on humanitarian assistance and having a much more forceful posture in terms of the political process, where the Russians have really stepped in and the U.S. has been absent, that is what I would want to see. I think all of that is achievable in a four-year term, to kind of get us into that posture.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to Stephen.
WERTHEIM: Sure. I mean, I think—first of all, a lot of what you say, I think, has been the view of many foreign policy experts and defense analysists for some time. Look, the United States is overcommitting relative to its interests to the Middle East. The question is, where are we now? What’s changed? Very little. And we’re seeing an increasing backlash from the American people, who are using the phrase “endless war,” which I think is—though we probably disagree on this—I think it’s a quite useful concept. I think it expresses a sense not just of the longevity of wars, but also the lack of purpose, the lack of an achievable objective or a legitimate objective that the American people feel. And I agree with them.
I think the question isn’t about scenarios, episodes. Would we want to intervene in a Rwanda-like situation? What about Syria? More difficult. Iraq? No. I think the question is a structural one that we should be asking. What are the interests—are there interests of the United States in that region that justify more than a dozen bases? That justify having intimate relationships with about half of the actors in the region, which have many problems of their own when it comes to values or when it comes to advancing American interests, and making enemies of the other half?
So does the United States really want to dominate the Middle East? Why is that worthwhile? And we’ve seen how it’s worked out. And I’d like to see if we’re going to maintain the posture of primary and having forward deployments and then keep asking in various scenarios: Should the prepositioned United States military step in to try to do good, even though we’ve seen how that worked out? I would want to hear what the plan is to actually have a better result from what we’ve seen so far. And I don’t think there is one. And I think that’s fine. I think that’s a good thing.
I think this is an opportunity for the United States to take a step back. Ultimately, we should want to use our diplomacy, our good offices in an even-handed way to help bring parties in the region together to settle their disputes in a peaceful way. I think that’s constructive. We ought to provide humanitarian assistance, be more generous in our refugee policies. That’s how you help people who are suffering. It’s very hard to help people who are suffering through bombing, bullets, and the like.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Does that mean pull those troops out of Iraq and close bases in Qatar? What specifically—
WERTHEIM: Yeah, it does. I mean, I think ultimately if we wanted to keep two bases in the region, that should be enough. Maybe Bahrain and Qatar, to provide what the United States really needs, which is maritime access in the event that regional forces or other powers don’t preserve openness to the global commons. But aside from that, we should be looking to not just end the war on terror in a pretty rapid way, so we don’t continue to a dynamic where there are mutual recriminations and then a desire for revenge. So, you know, I think within twelve to eighteen months U.S. forces—ground forces, at least, in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Syria should be withdrawn. Certainly in Iraq, where the Iraqis do not want the United States there.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Tom, anything you want to add, or do you want to wait for great powers?
WRIGHT: No, no. I’ll just make a few sort of framing comments that might add a little to what has been said. I mean, firstly, I think if you—if you look at public opinion and all of the surveys and sentiment in general, people are still, legitimately I think, concerned about terrorism, right? And I don’t believe that the terrorism threat is purely a function of the U.S. foreign policy. And I don’t think if the U.S. leaves that ISIS is just not going to attack the United States, right? And I don’t think that the reason al-Qaida attacked the United States in 2001 was primarily a function of U.S. foreign policy. But even if that was the case, I think it now it definitely is not.
And I think there still is a continuing danger. I mean, the timing here, when Obama sort of pulled troops out of Iraq—one can agree or disagree with that. You know, ISIS reemerged and did actually threaten here and key allies and engaged in some pretty horrific attacks. And so it is, I think, an ideological actor. I think the U.S. needs to retain the capability to prevent their resurgence and also to defeat them if they do reemerge. And I don’t think that’s going to change. I favor pulling troops out of Afghanistan. I’d probably go a little bit further than Kath on that. But I would distinguish between Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq. And I think we can, you know, debate what exactly the U.S. role needs to be there. We all agree it at the very most should be quite small. But I think there is a role to be played.
And I think if you look at public opinion may—when you pose a question, do you favor endless war, I’m sure they say no. But when you look at the Chicago Council polling, only two things they’re actually really concerned about is terrorism and China, right? Those are the two things. And the only region they really care about is the Middle East. So it’s like the—and I know you have polling data that would say they’re against sort of the interventions. But I think it’s quite complex. And I thin Kath used to, when we would talk about this, would use the phrase: We’re one mass attack away from sort of a huge demand to go back into the region, which is where Obama, you know, found himself. So I think it’s important to keep the eye on the ball on that.
The other sort of framing point I would make is that, you know, one of the reasons why the U.S., I think, has to pull back from the Middle East to some extent, again, is to do with the region and how it’s developed independently of U.S. foreign policy. They’re linked, but both Republicans and Democrats, I think, wanted to have reform in the Middle East in different ways. And the failure of the Arab awakening basically put an end to that for the time being, right? The hopes for indigenous change that Obama had, the hopes of the more coercive reform that Bush had. And I don’t think it’s really sustainable to have an intense engagement with no real hope of reform, right?
And MBS, MbZ and others are—you know, are problematic allies. And I basically agree with the points that have been made by other folks in the field that, you know, a little bit of diplomatic retrenchment from the region may actually have a positive impact on the mindset of some of those actors and maybe change the incentive structure in a positive direction.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I want to go to China before going to the audience. But let me first ask each of you to respond very quickly to a version of Kath’s point about humanitarian intervention. I mean, when we talked about the use of American force for much of the post-Cold War period it was really in response to humanitarian crises elsewhere, whether in Bosnia or Rwanda. I mean, interventions they made and did not actually make. Do you still believe that humanitarian intervention should be more a part of American foreign policy, and occasion for using force? Should that be something we still consider? Let’s start with Stephen. Just very quickly, because Kath’s point was very interesting.
WERTHEIM: I would never rule out humanitarian intervention in a situation like Rwanda, with grave abuses. At the same time I wish actually the Clinton administration has spent more time, in the case of Rwanda, actually looking carefully into what is it that the United States might have done to make a positive impact. At the same time, your question was, should it be a core part of American foreign policy, and perhaps the debate surrounding it? I think my answer to that is no. I think we have over-invested in this very narrow question where the cases of successful humanitarian intervention—a military intervention that clearly produced better outcomes for other people. There are so few in history, whether it’s from our own history or from the history of great powers who have also, since the nineteenth century more or less, attempted these kinds of things.
I don’t think that we should be making fundamental decisions, like where we position our forces, alliances we make—that is, defense commitments we make to put our people in harm’s way—based on a fear that, you know, there might be some terrible atrocity and we won’t be there to solve it. I think we need to get a little bit more comfortable with sins of omission, and there may be sins of omission, and pay more attention to the sins of commission that the United States is making when, for example, it is a participant in the Saudi-led coalition war on Yemen. So that, I think, is—actually maybe one of the reasons why the Yemen issue inspired bipartisan support as a kind of humanitarian nonintervention.
HICKS: Yeah. I think I basically agree with Stephen’s main points there. I mean, humanitarian intervention has not been core in U.S. foreign policy. Obviously we’ve had some periods where, and particularly as manifested through responsibility to protect, there has been a push for some to increase its centrality. (Coughs.) Pardon me. But that’s never really taken—and, again, Syria might be the case where we really saw how there was, if you will—if it’s a sin, it was one of omission more than anything else.
We always—those of us who work with the military always really try to be clear here about there is use of force and there is use of forces. And there are lots of ways in which the U.S. can use its forces and, more broadly, its foreign policy toolkit really, to try to helpful in humanitarian situations. That can include the provision of assistance, nonlethal assistance, food, water purification. You can think of all those things. You can think about the U.S. military assistance and, by the way, the PLA’s assistance, and the Ebola response.
So there are ways to bring to bear the investments we’ve made for greater humanitarian goals. But I don’t think there’re at the core of how we plan, and think, and organize ourselves, particularly with regard to the military. Use of force for humanitarian purposes I think is very complicated. There certain is—as Stephen said, I think they’re certainly—they don’t want to take that off the table, but I think you have to be very careful about, very restrictive about use of force in general. There’s a reason use of force is the most—the highest friction point in U.S. foreign policy.
It should be. These are our military personnel, let alone the significant not just lives but treasure that have to be invested. So that should be the point where we have the most friction. But we need to be able to keep ideas on the table for extreme exigencies.
WRIGHT: Yeah. I think one big difference between Stephen and me on this, and I’m open to correction, but my reading of our various pieces is that, I mean, I think the U.S. needs the option to be able to do this when required. And my understanding of your position is that the U.S. should get rid of the capability to do it so it won’t have the temptation. In other words you wrote a piece in the New York Times on sort of ending endless wars, which is sort of dramatic cuts to military capabilities so there wouldn’t be that option. I think—you know, I basically agree with Kath. I mean, no one’s—I don’t think anyone really has, except for a very brief time, made this an organizing principle.
But when you think of a couple of thousand Yazidis up a mountain, right, and do you want an option in very quick time to be able to remove the threat to them, or to compel the adversary to allow them to return to safety? Or multiple other examples where time is extremely short. I very much want that capability to be—to exist, right? And I think we can also talk about the chemical weapons usage and everything. There’s all sorts of problems with the use of military force in these cases. There’s all sort of hypocrisies, that certain types of killing would be allowed and certain other ones would not. And I acknowledge all of that.
But I think ultimately you want to have that as an option. And if you don’t have it as an option, I think we will see what David Miliband has spoken about, which is this rise in the age of impunity, where bad actors act, you know, really not caring about what the international community thinks. And it is U.S. military power, I think, that is a component of encouraging sort of restrained behavior on the part of these actors.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Great. Let me—let me close before going to members with two minutes from each of you on what is probably the biggest and hardest question on American policy today, which is—which is China. So let me—let me ask each of you to tell us how we should think about the challenge from China and then what we need in terms of both presence and alliances in Asia, and in terms of strategy more broadly to counter that challenge. Tom, we’ll start with you this time.
WRIGHT: Yeah. So I’ll do, like, a minute, a minute and a half, and then thirty seconds on the differences maybe between this. I mean, I think of this as sort of a clash as governance systems, right? I think that more broadly than the military competition, that our sort of open, democratic system is an existential challenge for the Chinese regime, right? That it’s not just decisions that are made by the executive branch, right? It is also the freedom of the press, right, with the revelations about the Xinjiang cables or corruption in China. It’s the open social media, the internet, you know, business. All of these things I think are challenging to the CCP. And they’ve reacted by increasing repression in China.
Their governance system poses huge challenges for us as well. And I think both are sort of understandable from their own perspectives. But we are locked I think in a more structural contest. There was a geopolitical and security component of that that we can’t ignore. And that brings me to the differences, I guess, you know, particularly, you know, with Stephen on this. Is that I think that the alliance structure in East Asia is a crucial part of U.S. strategy. I think you have to have a very sustained and deep presence in the region. You have to deter aggression. And then you also have to focus on all of these other sort of aspects of the competition. And you of course need to maintain cooperation in various areas, including global health, as we’re seeing currently, and on climate change.
One thing on just the global health dimension of this, which might be interesting, is I think we are seeing that is complicated by the contest with China. If you look at the World Health Organization, for instance, over the last few weeks, I think it has been affected by China’s influence, compromised even in certain respects at the leadership level, in terms of what they have said. And so we have spent the last twenty years saying really good for China to have more voice in institutions. We want them to be involved. We want them to be within the order. And then we have the head of the WTO saying there’s nothing to see here, this is an exemplary response. And so I think we’re only beginning to come to grips with that. Obviously we need China involved. But clearly there are complications as well.
HICKS: I think I would just complement what—with an E, but also with an I—(laughter)—what Tom had to say, by talking about us. Because I do think there is a contestation, for sure. I think there is a way for China to rise peacefully without—not without any friction or conflict, but without armed conflict. I do think having a strong deterrent posture—and we can have a whole side conversation about what that exactly means, because I don’t think it means what your grandfather’s strong deterrent posture was—I think all that matters. But I think what matters most fundamentally to the contestation that the United States is having right now with China, and can expect, is strengthening ourselves at home. And, boy, do we need a lot of help.
So we don’t present a particularly compelling model to the rest of the world. We can’t attract allies and partners as well as we used to be able to. And yet, that is the very center of gravity, if you will, of our strategic approach that we need to be strengthening. There’s lots of ways for us to induce others. We could not yell at them. We could—(laughs)—develop trade approaches with them that are mutually beneficial. We can lower barriers to commerce more generally. Lots of ways we can look at R&D investments back and forth. We can spur our own innovation economy. I could go on.
I think the key thing here is to not think about foreign and domestic policy has having in any way a bright line. I don’t think that’s the case at all. In fact, I think our foreign policy will fundamentally depend, in this contest with China, on the United States being very capable of galvanizing its own society and economy, showing the strength that that has, even as we are investing appropriately in our national security tools, which does include military forces.
WERTHEIM: Yeah, I would say that China throws up a whole set of very legitimate concerns over technology, governance, climate, trade, and also in the military sphere. I want to linger on that a little bit. But I’m uncomfortable with the frame of China or great-power competition. This is the thing against which—or, around which so many people in D.C. are orienting their activities. I think that, you know, the fundamental interest that the United States has in its relationship with China, the one that I would personally prioritize, is the fact that China is the—by far, the number-one emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. We emit more per capita, but they emit more total.
And so the most important thing we can do vis-à-vis China, it’s not to squabble over the South China Sea, which I do not think impinges on a core U.S. interest, but it is to try to move the Chinese in a direction that they have shown that in part they want to go. Not entirely. Which is, both green their economy and get rid of their coal-fired plants in China and join with us in an effort that involves as many different partners in the world that we can get to provide green technology and try to decarbonize the global economy. So I think, you know, when you put it like that. the China problem, it’s an issue—significant problem. But it’s a problem that is embedded in, I think, what really matters in terms of the interests of the United States and the interests of the world.
And so I think that implies something when it comes to the military side. And I think we can have a peaceful relationship with China moving forward if we really want to. I do worry, though, that if we try to guard—cling to as much military primacy in the Asia-Pacific as we can muster, we will end up in a containment-like posture toward China, or something that looks to them like a containment-like posture, not without reason. And then the security dilemma logic takes hold, and we get into arms races and the potential for great-power war. Or we’re back in the Middle East, doing the kinds of things that we did during the Cold War, Africa, et cetera, that continue the kind of endless wars that we’ve seen.
So I’d like to avoid very much a Cold War-like scenario with China. I think we can. And I think we should focus on the issues that matter most, in which, you know, we could use a cooperative relationship with China, and not the foreclosure of genuine diplomacy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I’m going to avoid the temptation to ask follow-up questions to that and go to members. (Laughter.)
Let me just quickly remind you that this meeting is on the record. So just be aware of that. Wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Stand, state your name and affiliation, and please ask one question. We’ll start in the back.
Q: Yeah. My name is Larry Korb. I’m at the Center for American Progress.
When you were talking about the attitudes of Americans toward some of these engagements, how do you think it would have been different if we had a draft and we had a—you know, a tax waged to fight these conflicts?
KURTZ-PHELAN: Kath, do you want to start?
HICKS: I just missed one word, Larry. What ways to fight these? If we had?
Q: In other words, in these wars we’ve fought since 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, we had a draft and we raised taxes.
HICKS: Taxes. That’s what I didn’t hear. Got it.
Q: (Laughs.) Yeah, OK.
HICKS: Yeah. Well, I can only assume running that counterfactual, that that would have increased the investment and focus in exactly what we were doing. And obviously there is the potential that if things had just kept going as they had, that there would have been pressure earlier to change the approach. So I think that’s kind of a given.
I do want to say, back to the focus on the U.S., I certainly don’t support going to a draft, but I do think the failure to have a connection, a societal connection, a process which the military service in World War II really substituted for, for so many years of the Cold War, I think that’s a real challenge we’re going to have to deal with. Whether that looks like something like voluntary national service, which I support—incented voluntary national service. So maybe it’s loan forgiveness, things like that, anything that really draws us together societally so we can connect and that we understand the implications of things like use of force and investments abroad—both on the positive and the negative side. I think that would go a long way to helping Americans.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Tom or Stephen, want to add anything quickly? OK. Let’s go to the front here. The microphone is right there.
Q: Jamie Rubin. Thank you.
I’m going to resist responding to guns and bullets didn’t save a million Kosovars and bring them back to their homes, and I’ll involve the war crimes tribunal trial of Milosevic and then his death, and basically a democratic government to that part of the world, and just ask all of you to be—if we’re going to be honest about this on causes, Stephen believes that our foreign policy caused the conflict with Russia and China. That’s what he said. Others would argue that it’s our foreign policy that prevents Russia and China from causing wars. And until we resolve that question, we’re not—and I commend you all for being so polite to each other when you disagree so profoundly. But we need to address the difference between our foreign policy causing the great-power conflict, which is essentially what you said—in addition to 9/11 and Trump—and your view that we need the foreign policy of the United States to keep peace in Europe and Asia.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Tom, do you want to start, and we’ll go down the line?
WRIGHT: Yeah, I mean, Jimmy, I mean, I agree with you. Firstly on Kosovo, and I should have mentioned that in the successes. I think, you know, the Balkans was a mixture of failure and success, but I think it was ultimately successful and important. And I think that is one of the reasons why we’ve seen some measures of stability. But on your broader point, look, I mean, I’m not saying that the U.S.—you know, that there aren’t parts of the policy that could be better. I think of course that’s always true. But yeah, I think fundamentally you’ve accurately described the difference, you know, between us.
I do not think that the U.S. is the cause of friction with Russia and with China. I think it’s quite the opposite. I think NATO expansion means that what we’ve seen in Ukraine is not occurring in the Baltic states. I think the U.S. has been a stabilizing force. I think, you know, Stephen and I fundamentally disagree on the role of alliances. I think you’re sort of basically against them if not formally then in the military structure that supports them, whereas I think Kath and I would see those as crucially sort of important. I don’t want to speak for you. (Laughs.) But I think there is a—you know, I think that is one sort of area of difference.
The only other point I would make is that with Russia if you look at, you know, the ’09, sort of ’10 period, that was an attempt at a genuine reset. And it failed. You know, and I think the people who say that a state of expansion or it’s U.S. aggression, really have to grapple with why did the reset fail? I mean, I was skeptical of the reset because I thought it would fail. (Laughs.) But if you believe in cooperation, that was an experiment in real-time. And, you know, ’14, all of that stuff came way later. So to me, that is a sign that what really is going on is events in Russia, rather than policy here.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Do you want to comment on that, Kath?
HICKS: Yeah, I would just—I definitely agree. If the question is around did the U.S. cause tensions fundamentally with Russia and China, or to create great powers, my answer is no. In fact, the criticism in some ways has been that the U.S., in the case of China, did too little, if you will, to prevent its rise. So I think, let me just jump ahead on that, to say: I still think the fundamentals of the debate are about what shapes Chinese behavior. The argument seems to be around the tactics. But I still would argue—I’ve yet to hear a compelling alternative from any American official in the Trump administration and elsewhere that we have a different goal, such as destroying China or something along those lines.
I do think fundamentally this is about how do you organize your carrots, and sticks, and relationships in ways that help manage through a potential conflict, not allow for sort of any kind of crisis to arise that’s military in nature, and also protect U.S. interests in so doing. And there, I think the U.S. has definitely had its problems. But I would not say being too invested in the South China Sea—(laughs)—has been one of them. So we can have a separate conversation about what the U.S. has and has not been doing in the South China Sea. But I think that’s China.
In the case of Russia it’s very clear that the Russians under Putin and the period that Tom referenced, under Medvedev, which of course in a way is under Putin but was distinct for sure in the way in which they were approaching the U.S. and others. But under Putin there has been from, you know, Georgia, to Crimea, to other examples, a clear sense that they did not feel their interests were taken care of. Are there things the U.S. could have done slightly differently? Yes. Should it have been about NATO expansion, the EU, or any other number of grievances? I think the answer is no.
The one I would point to in the military realm where I think the U.S. did itself a significant disservice with regard to the Russians is Libya. And that is a case where the U.S. and NATO I think pushed themselves forward on a military intervention without thinking through many things, least of which was the way in which the Russians would perceive that and then turn it against the West in terms of their own approaches to things like the invasion of and annexation of Crimea.
So I think there were missteps along the way, but by and large this is where the Russians want to be, and that is where they are right now. And in the case of the Chinese, I think the U.S. is still trying to figure out what that mix of tactics is, but it’s not fundamentally our fault that they are rising.
WERTHEIM: Yeah. I agree about Libya, to continue your—the politeness that you distain so much, rightly so by the way. I’m just kidding. So I’m being impolite to you, so I apologize for that.
So you know, fundamentally, I think the reason why the United States should be—made the wrong decision to maintain and even extend its alliances in the 1990s and onward and should be working to retrench today—it isn’t so much that alliances are guaranteed to antagonize other powers. I do think they tend to do that. But it’s because they’re not in our interest—our security interest. How many of you in the room or how many Americans feel more secure because we are treaty-bound to defend the Baltic states? Do we think that the Baltic states contribute to U.S. national security if there’s a—does anyone ask Estonia to step up? You know, fundamentally is that the solution when the United States is under attack?
So I think, you know, for me, that’s the bottom line. And if a war does break out, we should hope not to be involved in such a war. We should also act to prevent a war from breaking out. And obviously there are some differences in terms of the extent to which we think that alliances and the deterrence system, in fact, does prevent war. So that’s a valid debate to have. We should point out, though, first of all, that Russia has been an aggressor in terms of territorial expansion. It’s a different case when it comes to China. So, yes, the U.S. record vis-à-vis China I think has not been so adversarial over such a long period. But at the same time, all of the talk about what a peril it is that China is rising to the United States suggests that this is an issue with great potency. And our conduct toward China I think could get considerably worse, and more provocative. And I think we’ve seen that already starting to happen over the last several years. So we have to make a judgement somehow. Not easy to do.
And, yes, this is all very speculative. And that’s the game, unfortunately, that we’re in. We have to make a judgement about whether the United States should maintain both forward deployments and an offensive kind of operational strategy towards China. I proposed in my piece taking a serious look at a more defensive operational strategy, more like a mutual denial, in which the United States could help its allies defend themselves through A2/AD systems, and then potentially the United States could take a serious step back from its existing commitments, formal or informal.
I think with Russia it’s a little bit—sorry—just a little bit of a different case, where the United States did do things that consistently impinged on what Russia said were its view of its vital interests. And the Georgia and Ukraine conflicts can be read, you know, not as the sole provocation—and I’m also not trying to assign moral responsibility—but as an important causal part of that story that has so deteriorated relations significantly.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Quickly, does Kosovo past the test for you? Or do you see that as a case of costs outweighing benefit?
WERTHEIM: You know, it is a difficult case. I would actually want to make a closer—I’ve looked at it in some degree actually in my writing, and I think it’s a difficult case. It did, in the short run, intensify ethnic cleansing. You know, we could argue about the long-run consequences in humanitarian terms. There’s also a significant cost in the way it was done without U.N. Security Council authorization, just under NATO auspices, and a cost to great-power relations as well. So that’s a difficult one.
KURTZ-PHELAN: You two can have an impolite conversation after this. (Laughter.)
Let’s go to the middle—my left.
Q: Thanks. David Goldwyn, Atlantic Council and former State Department.
I wanted to ask you all about two of your other fellow contributors in the volume. Graham Allison in a pretty surprising article suggests that the way you operationalize foreign policy is to cede spheres of influence, both to Russia and to China. And Steve Krasner, more or less, says, good enough governance. That maybe defending democracy around the world is overstretched. So what does this mean, I guess I’d start with you, Stephen, for the defense of Taiwan, for the defense of the Baltics, and whether we should care about what happens in Venezuela in our own hemisphere?
WERTHEIM: Mmm hmm. OK, let me respond to that and also deal with another question. I mean, I think ultimately what I would like to see is as the United States retrenches in Europe and Asia, United States encourages its allies to step up and assess the threats that they face and develop mechanisms, rather than suppress them, to provide for their security. And maybe that’s a collective approach in Europe or East Asia. But I think until the United States does that, we are—you know, currently your question and others I think imply that there’s this kind of choice between, well, the United States will do it or there’s nothing—there’s nothing there to let, you know, potentially aggressive great powers have their way.
And that doesn’t have to be the case. We don’t have to—you know, in the Middle East I would retrench very quickly, actually, in order to kind of break the logic of the war on terror that we’re in, if I were so empowered to do so. (Laughs.) But, you know, Europe and East Asia, I would not. I think there should be a more cooperative approach, and one that reverses the posture of not just the Trump administration but basically every administration since the creation of NATO that kind of browbeats the allies for not stepping up, and then we don’t take the actions that would incentivize them to do that. And so they don’t step up. So, you know, that’s a kind of long-term answer to the question that I think is in some ways—I don’t want to dodge some of the specifics—but in some ways that’s the most important answer that I can give.
HICKS: (Laughs.) That was a little dizzying. I think what I would say is that that—you just described actually the full functioning of what it is to have defense-to-defense relationships, right? So I think probably there’s a conversation that will take more time than we have on this stage to understand exactly what you’re getting at. But yes, of course, the role of those alliances and relationships are, in part, to grow the capabilities of others. So to use your Estonia example, I actually am a fan of Estonia. I’m not necessarily a fan of endless NATO expansion. But I do think that’s an excellent example of an ally that has invested smartly in its future. It has grown incredibly good cyber capabilities. It is sharing those capabilities, hosting the NATO Center of Excellence, et cetera. And it’s a small country. Of course, it’s got a tiny population. Its ground forces are not its comparative advantage.
So working with the United States and others it’s going where its comparative advantage is, which is a high-tech, high-intellect society. That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to see from allies. Go to your strengths. The Poles have a much larger population. They’re going to have more forces they can put on the ground. The ground force is not the only metric, nor necessarily the most important metric, for most of the challenges that we’re going to see in the future. So let me just first say thank you to the Estonians, and then, second, say I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean in terms of how you think foreign policy has been executed around defense relationships. But I want to assure those in the audience, this is a major part of what anyone is trying to do at any given time, from an embassy perspective, from the combatant commander perspective, et cetera. Lots of particulars that we could get into there.
But to the Taiwan piece, I think what I would say the challenge of these sort of grand rhetorical yes/no, black/white approaches is these—on spheres of influence in particular—is that there are countries that are sovereign that have rights for their people, right? Taiwan is a particularly tricky case. The United States has a One China policy. I think that’s the right policy for the United States to have. If you’re looking at a Singapore, now let’s move a little future other, or an Estonia, or others, they don’t just sit in someone’s sphere of influence. These are free people. Hopefully they’re free, at least the ones we care most about. And they have rights as part of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, and as part of the U.N. Charter.
So I think this is where it gets really hard, of course. So I take Graham’s point about spheres of influence. I think what I would say is I think when you’re talking about countries on the periphery of another country, you do have to worry more, of course, about spiral dynamics and the potential for escalation, and the interests of great powers. But, by the way, there’s lots of great powers beyond Russia, China, and the United States. Lots of nuclear powers, unfortunately, as well. So that I think is something you have to consider. But I don’t think the world devolves or is simplified to two. There are now three great powers, the United States Russia and China. And that is how we should execute our foreign policy. And for everyone who lives inside those peripheries, I’m sorry, but you are now subject to the whims of your great power nearby. It’s so much more complicated than that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: What do you think, real quick? One more.
WRIGHT: So to two points. The first, in the spirit of Jamie’s question about being honest about the differences, I mean, I think the difference between the retrencher position and the more sort of alliance-oriented position is that, Stephen, your conversation with the allies will be, we’re leaving. We’re going to give you some time figure it out. You guys figure it out, but ultimately we’re leaving, right? And you’ll leave anyway, even if they say our preferred option is that you stay, right? And our position is, no, that you need that presence and you can have these burden sharing capability discussions between the allies, but the alliances are basically sacred, with democratic countries at least.
So I think that is a huge difference. I mean, what we’re talking about here is global posture and whether the U.S. is present in these regions or not. And it is a little bit binary the way it’s being framed. But I think that’s the debate. That’s the debate we’re having. And so I don’t think anyone should be confused that it’s about a sort of an accelerated Obama-esque discussion about you guys really need to spend more.
On the issue, I couldn’t disagree more, I think, really with Graham Allison and Steve Krasner on these articles. I’ll just say one thing about Graham Allison’s piece. I mean, I don’t think spheres of influence are a stable equilibrium. I don’t think moving from where we are to that is stable at all. I mean, saying, yes, you can have a sphere of influence and we’ll sort of discuss where it is empowers the hardliners. I completely agree with Kath on this.
If China can have one, if Russia can have one, why not Japan? You know, why not Saudi Arabia? Why not anyone else? Like, where does this basically end? I mean, the idea of trying to negotiate this under conditions of disengagement I think is an act of hubris as big as the Iraq War or any act of invasion of over extension, right? I mean, this is such as complicated strategy to execute that I’m just stunned that it’s sort of thrown out there in a way that we think we could manage it, right?
I mean, if we say to Beijing that they have the right to a sphere of influence in their region, that is an imperial act, right? It’s basically an imperial act. And we will be engaging in an act of imperialism, where we sit down and negotiate that over the heads of the people who live in these countries and these places, who are actually treaty-bound in many cases to the United States. So I think that’s not exactly what he was saying on that. But I think that it is basically sort of an unstable situation.
They may acquire a sphere of influence incrementally over time at some cost. If they do that, I’m not totally happy with that, but that’s OK, I think, if that’s where it ends up. And we can manage the problems that arise out of it. But thinking that we can sort of OK it in advance and then negotiate it I think is—I think is overly optimistic, to understate it.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s do a quick last question in the front here.
Q: Yeah, thank you. Chris Miller from the Air Force Academy.
With regard to the foreign policy and national security communities, there’s a truism that says that an organization or a community operates and heals itself to continue producing the outputs that it has produced. So when you look at things like shifting or increasing resources to diplomacy, the formation of DHS, but only after 9/11, future challenges we can easily see, how do we look ahead twenty-thirty years and shift the way our system looks at these things? Do we have to wait for another cataclysm, or are there levers that policymakers have to force the discussion?
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s a good, big question. Each of you get forty-five seconds to answer it. (Laughter.) So let’s start with Stephen.
WERTHEIM: Yeah. It’s a tough question. (Laughs.) You know, I think we have an opportunity right now at a time of significant change domestically and internationally to put our foreign policy on a much sounder footing and stop the downward spiral that we have put ourselves on by adopting armed primacy as a basically unquestioned objective in the 1990s. And I think if we do that, we can put our defense spending under control, and start to rebalance, and be a peacemaker in the world that does not over-identify with the use of military force when it starts talking about its presence or absence in the world. We heard a little bit of that in the previous two comments.
The United States does not need to be disengaged. In fact, I would have it be more engaged in many respects, including through diplomacy. But we have to have a fundamental shift of what we say our objectives are in order to make any of that possible. And it also requires a political coalition, frankly, to insist on that. So I think that’s clear. And it’s kind of beyond the scope of people on this stage to be able to bring about that change.
HICKS: Leon Panetta says—one of his great sayings is, you know, we deal with challenges either by crisis or by leadership. And unfortunately, it’s typically by crisis. I think there is a place for leadership to be played here. I think there is an opportunity for us to see that happen forthcoming. And I think a big piece of that leadership is having a much more significant understanding of the multidimensionality of the foreign policy challenges we’re facing, which is not unprecedented, but really are hitting us I think quite hard right now, and particularly in the space between routine statecraft and war.
And that should be the opportunity for us to understand, once again, that we need to reinvest in the State Department. How many times have we been through this, right, since the end of the Cold War, where we’ve pushed for that? Great opportunity investment for development, and aid, and trade. And I think there’s a lot of movement in both of those. We’ve seen good movement on the Hill side, bipartisan in both those areas, and to grow out things like—I do—I do think climate change is a huge issue for our foreign policy going forward. Lots of new skill sets, capabilities, and potentially even reorganizations that make sense.
WRIGHT: Yeah. I think we can maybe do five to ten years. I think twenty to thirty is basically impossible. But right at the moment we’re in, I think we’re looking at a sustained period of deglobalization because of a variety of factors. And that’s going to be very difficult to manage. We may want to arrest that. We may want to shape it in certain ways. I think we are looking at a prolonged period of competition with Russia and China, whatever form that takes. And I think we do see these accelerating transnational problems, whether they’re pandemics or climate, and I think those are, you know, things that aren’t necessarily all to do with resources either.
Like, it’s not as if we increase the budget by 10-20 percent for these things that they would be automatically easier to deal with. I think they’re sort of conceptual. And the way I think about it is that we’re sort of at a similar period now to where we were in, like, 1950 or so in the Cold War, in that a lot of the concepts we need to navigate this we haven’t invented yet. So we need to sort of invent concepts like they did with second-strike survivability or all of those things, arms control. We need to be working on what are the diplomatic concepts today that will help to sort of guide us through those trends that I don’t think will go away in the next sort of five or ten years.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Well, that is a great reason for Foreign Affairs existing, I hope, and having a job. (Laughter.) Thanks so much to all of you for great pieces and for attending. (Applause.)