Daniel Kurtz-Phelan discusses the May/June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine with contributors Daniel Drezner and Rebecca Friedman Lissner. With the role of the United States in the world in question, both at home and abroad, the latest issue of Foreign Affairs focuses on strategic missteps in U.S. foreign policy, and prescribes ways to secure the liberal international order.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. Hi, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, the issue launch for the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs. The issue theme—all of you should have a copy of it—is “Searching for a Strategy.”
I am Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of the magazine.
And we’re very pleased to have two of the authors from the lead package, Dan Drezner and Rebecca Lissner. I encourage everyone to read the introduction to the package that Gideon Rose, our editor, wrote. He describes it as an intervention for the U.S. foreign policy establishment. (Laughter.) Things have been going poorly for a while. We’ve been having trouble really recognizing that. The hope for this package is that it would deliver kind of a shock to the system of the debate and force people to really reckon with where we are and where we’re need—we’re going to need to go going forward.
Our sense is that so much has been focused on the chaos of the news cycle these past couple years, and it’s been hard for people here and elsewhere to really step back and think about what it all means and what we’re going to have to do going forward. So the prompt we gave to the authors of the lead package was to really start from the end of this administration or the beginning of the next—of the next term at least, and to talk about what really is going to need to happen—what U.S. foreign policy is going to have to do to recover from the changes not just under this administration, but over the past couple of decades, because I think most people agree that things have gone wrong not just for the last couple years but for much longer.
I will do very brief introductions. You have longer bios of both the speakers in your packets in you want to know more.
Far right, Dan Drezner is a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is called The Ideas Industry. But I actually want to flag his book before that, which is called The System Worked. And I say that because that book is really about optimism in the wake of the financial crisis—(laughter)—which is notable because Dan has been one of the great optimists of the foreign policy community. And the piece in this issue, called This Time is Different, is deeply, deeply pessimistic. So if you know his past work, it’s even more of a shock to read such a—such a pessimistic piece from him.
And then Rebecca Lissner, to my right, is an assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. She was previously a fellow here at CFR. She co-authored the piece called The Open World with Mira Rapp-Hooper. They are now at work on a—on a book on the subject; just signed a contract, I believe. Is that—is that right?
KURTZ-PHELAN: So you can look for a longer version of this in the coming months. I would describe her piece as cautiously optimistic, so there should be a nice tension between the two of them here. (Laughter.)
But, Dan, since you’re the pessimist, let me start with you. You know, a couple years ago there were predictions about what would happen in the Trump administration. That included new wars all over the world, whether in North Korea or against Iran, new wars in the Middle East. People thought that our alliance system would unravel altogether, that NATO would no longer exist. There was this whole list of predictions about the dire effects of changes in U.S. foreign policy. One way of looking at where we are now is that not that much has changed, right? We’re not starting new wars. Our alliances still exist. Things have proved more resilient than, I think, many people expected a couple years ago. So why should we still be pessimistic? Why the gloom?
DREZNER: Right. So in some ways if this series of articles was supposed to be the intervention, I’m the one that’s slapping the person—
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right. That’s right.
DREZNER: —across the face many, many, many times, probably more than anyone else would.
To answer your question, I think two things. First, to be honest, I think that’s defining U.S. foreign policy down. You know, if we’re celebrating the fact of, hey, the Trump administration hasn’t, you know, dissolved NATO, and the WTO still exists as an organization, see, everything is fine, I think that’s really damning with faint praise. So, you know, that’s one response.
The second response—and the analogy I always use—is that think of the Trump administration as inheriting a car and literally, like, you know, flooring the gas and driving as harshly as possible, and not doing anything that normal people do to take care of their car. They’re not changing the oil. They’re not checking the tires. They’re not taking care of all of these things. Which, if you do that, you can still drive the car for a while, but eventually the car is going to break down, and indeed there’s going to be a sort of systemic breakdown.
And in some ways that’s of a piece with what I’m arguing in the—in the essay, although to be fair—and I do stress this—that I think in some ways a lot of the problems that have led us to where we are now predate Trump. And you know, the sort of equation is a very simpler—simple one, which is polarization plus praetorianism equals incoherence. (Laughter.) Which is that polarization—and I don’t—you know, I’m sure you’ve heard that word ad nauseum. There’s no denying, though, that basically over the last thirty or forty years we’ve seen an increased degree of political polarization in the United States to the point where you know, hardcore Republicans don’t want their children to marry outside of their political persuasion and the same with Democrats. So the degree of distrust across the—across the aisle is considerable.
The second thing that’s going on is the fact that as this polarization affected elements of the U.S. government, particularly Congress, what wound up happening was that Congress ceded voluntarily more and more authority in terms of foreign policy to the president. And in some ways this goes back to even, you could argue, the Smoot-Hawley tariff. So, as a result, we now operate in a world where presidents have more and more authority to execute foreign policy, but because they can’t necessarily get anything done through Congress essentially each president, once they get elected, you know, gets to run the foreign policy machine and also gets to rubbish what their predecessor did. And I think in some ways we saw this start with Obama because his sort of signature foreign policy accomplishments—think the Paris Climate Change Accords or the Iran deal—did not require congressional buy-in, which therefore meant that when Trump came in he could immediately reverse all of these things. And while we might question the policy wisdom of these actions, we can’t question the legality of them.
And indeed, I think the other striking thing about this is Trump’s National Security Strategy, which whether or not he adheres to it or not is not terribly important. What is fascinating—and happy to have Rebecca correct me if I’m wrong—this is the first National Security Strategy I’ve ever read that actually trashes the previous National Security Strategy. (Laughter.) You know, if you actually read the previous documents, there are subtle shifts, but, like, the Obama one didn’t say, oh, George W. Bush was an idiot or anything like that. This document actually says all the previous ones were wrong, and therefore we need to change course.
So my concern is not just with Trump, although I can go on ad nauseum about that. My concern is that imagine a U.S. foreign policy in which the monopoly of foreign policy is being run by Donald Trump, and then being run by Bernie Sanders, and then being run by Tom Cotton, and then being run by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You know, our foreign policy—it’s impossible to have a grand strategy if your grand strategy is only four years old or can only last for four years. And so that’s—my concern is not that—and by the way, I really strongly recommend Rebecca and Mira’s essay, which is outstanding, and there are parts of it I really embrace. I just doubt the ability of any administration to adhere to that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And say something about praetorianism, too.
DREZNER: Oh, well, the praetorianism is the notion that the executive essentially has been invested with all this authority. That’s what I meant.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. So it’s—so it’s not military control that worries you specifically.
DREZNER: No, although that is one of the other trends, is the fact that essentially almost the bulk of U.S. foreign policy is now run through DOD, in no small part, again—and that has to do with domestic politics as well, which is the one element of the foreign policy budget that Congress is perfectly willing to vote for is the Defense Department. And so they wind up with the only—they wind up being the only agency with operational capabilities, which again causes, you know, a sort of deformation of foreign policy to the military. And this is not a slight against them; they’re very good at a lot of things beyond warfighting. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say diplomats are pretty good at some stuff too, and it would be nice to give them some resources.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Fair enough.
Rebecca, I want to get into the specifics of the—of the argument you and Mira make for a new grand strategy. But before that, I want you to react to Dan’s pessimism. Your piece is in some ways—recommends some checks on some of the most exuberant hopes for American foreign policy and its transformational power over the last couple of decades especially, but there still is a kind of core of optimism about what America can achieve and what its position in the world is going forward. So tell us why Dan is too pessimistic.
LISSNER: Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s always a pleasure to be back here at the Council.
So Mira and I look at many of the same trends, especially on the domestic level, that Dan looks at. We also survey the international scene. And even though we’re looking at much similar data, we do ultimately reach a slightly more optimistic conclusion.
And we basically start from the premise that there’s no going back to foreign policy business as usual once Donald Trump leaves office. And that’s not just because we cannot do it, but also because we should not do it, because the United States has changed and the international environment in which the United States operates has changed. And those changes take on a few forms.
So internationally we see the rise of China, the resurgence of an acute geopolitical rivalry that the United States has not experienced in the post-Cold War context.
We see the advent of emerging technologies like advances in computing and artificial intelligence that are changing conflict dynamics internationally. They are enabling new forms of authoritarianism, what some people call digital authoritarianism, and they’re also stressing the relationship within the United States between the U.S. federal government and Silicon Valley.
Moreover, internally, exactly as Dan said, we are suffering from a condition of acute political polarization that does seem to make any kind of strategy difficult.
So what that means in total, I think, is that U.S. strategy is going to be harder to sustain, but it’s not going to be impossible to sustain. And at the end of the day we just can’t accept the strategic nihilism that I think Dan’s argument would ultimately lead us towards, right, which is that, yes, the American public, American elites, American legislators are highly polarized. It’s problematic. But that doesn’t mean we should just give up on grand strategy, right? The United States is going to continue to be the world’s preeminent power into the next decade and likely beyond, and that power needs to be harnessed to a clear sense of the national interest and what the purpose of the United States is in the world.
And so our goal in this essay is to basically define what that should be, begin to lay out a strategic blueprint for where the United States can go after Trump in such a way that’s robust both to these international changes, but also seeks to begin to forge a new consensus that might provide for some bipartisan agreement that provides a foundation for a way forward.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And what is that new consensus?
LISSNER: So that new consensus is around what we call a strategy of openness, and it has several characteristics that are basically political, military, and economic. And the idea, basically, is that politically and openness strategy requires that all countries are free to make independent political, economic, and military choices; and that is to say in geopolitical terms that the United States has to resist the construction of closed spheres of influence in strategically vital regions, in particular in the Asia sort of Indo-Pacific region, as it’s now called, and also in Europe. The absence of closed spheres of influence means that there will continue to be free flow of international commerce, for example through the global maritime commons, but that also applies to space as well. So, all in all, this is a vision for American foreign policy that seeks to maintain an international system that’s open and that’s free, but it also retreats from some of the more aggressive instantiations of a sort of universal liberalism that has typically characterized American foreign policy and resulted in highly assertive democracy promotion efforts overseas.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Before I get Dan to react to that, I want to—I want to press you with one more question on the specifics of this. I think it’s—you know, we see a lot of—a lot of manuscripts, a lot of pitches coming into Foreign Affairs right now that make a broad argument for restraint, and for doing less, and for giving up some of the most grandiose ambitions about what America can achieve in the world. People are much more hesitant to specifically say what we should not be doing. I think one easy answer is no more wars in Iraq, which is a—is a fairly easy one.
LISSNER: Right, sure. Everyone agrees on that. There is some bipartisan consensus.
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s right.
DREZNER: Yes, there is.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So that’s an easy one. What else should we not be doing that we are doing now? Is it we should not be speaking out about human rights in Xinjiang, in China? What are the things that we—that we stop doing?
LISSNER: Right. So I think it’s important to clarify that by no means is this openness strategy a wholesale retreat from American liberal values, right? In fact, it’s actually predicated on the argument that the best way to promote American liberal values like democracy and free markets overseas is actually by living them at home, and also helping democratic allies and partners to fully realize those values within their own political systems. So we are by no means giving up on liberalism or democratic capitalism or anything like that. And in fact, there is sort of an embedded theory of how we can advance it, but through different means than have been typical right now.
I think there are myriad examples of, you know, how a strategy of openness would militate towards a different approach than the one that is the current policy. I mean, thinking just about Iran, for example, I mean, there the threat and the pursuit of regime change seems to be a guiding principle of the Trump administration’s policy, and that is coming at odds or at the expense rather, I should say, of much more achievable goals, for example the maintenance of caps on Iran’s nuclear program, for example, through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. So one just very clear example would be rather than insisting on this strong version of regime change in Iran, the idea that we can only live with a different Iranian regime, instead an openness strategy would tolerate the Iranian regime as it exists now and seek to stem the security threat that it poses through steps like the Iran nuclear deal.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, Dan, let’s explore your nihilism in a little more depth. (Laughter.) Is your—is your skepticism about that kind of strategy simply about our ability as a foreign policy apparatus, as a—as a political system to execute it, or does it go beyond that? Do you see changes globally that make it unlikely that such a strategy will succeed?
DREZNER: I first have to start by saying, as you pointed out at the beginning, you know, I’ve normally been thought of as more of an optimist in terms of writing about international relations. I mean, I wrote a book about a zombie apocalypse that said the zombie movies are too pessimistic; we’d actually, you know, hold our own, relatively speaking. And I had no idea how much fun it is to be a nihilist. This is the disturbing thing about writing this, which is to say that, like, I got to work a lot of stuff out. And now—you know, and I talked about this a little bit in The Ideas Industry, you know, in our business pessimism sells, right? Because if I make this argument, one of two things will be proven correct. Either I will be right, in which case I warned all of you, or I’m wrong in which case your—this only didn’t happen because I warned all of you. So I can’t lose in this scenario.
I’m sorry what was the question again? (Laughter.) No, the—in terms of what Rebecca and Mira are proposing, I would say first of all I actually like it. I’m not saying that I disagree substantively with it. And I’m not trying to make a claim on whether or not on the merits it’s a bad policy. I actually think it makes a lot of sense. My question is whether or not we are actually capable of executing it. And I think I have three concerns, I guess, you know, if I were to articulate it.
The first—and this is one that always comes up. And it’s—you know, Steve Walt’s essay, I think, touched on this as well, which is it’s all well and good to say we should be pursuing a restraint strategy, or a more restraint strategy. The question is, how do you get from A to B? And that’s always the awkward part. And in some ways, we’re seeing this with the Trump administration, in terms of Trump’s desperate efforts to try to get out of Syria, or, you know, reduce alliance commitment elsewhere. You know, he’s doing it in the most ham-handed possible way, even if he might have a valid point about being overstretched in certain places. And so my concern would be, if you can pursue this policy of openness, how do you go from, you know, our sort of current hegemonist foreign policy to that? I think that will be an awkward process, and I think more attention needs to be paid to that.
The second thing I’m somewhat dubious about in terms of, again, not of the content of the policy but its political viability, is the economic part of the openness strategy, which is I’m not convinced, in fact, that either leading officials on both sides are going to be embracing a common focus. Obviously the Trump administration is certainly, you know, for all their rhetoric claiming that they’re pursing these trade wars to get a larger deal, Trump has been very articulate in saying: No, I think tariffs in and of themselves are good. Protection, you know, brings strength.
He said this—it’s been his one, like, consistent theme since he started entering the campaign. And similarly on the Democratic side, if you listen to Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, they sound just as protectionist at this point. I’m particularly disappointed in Bernie, because he sounded like this in 2016. He’s got some good foreign policy people since then and he made slightly different noises on that. But, you know, now in terms of saying he doesn’t want to ratify the new USMCA, and so on and so forth. I’m skeptical of whether or not the economic openness can be—can continue.
And then finally—and, again, this goes back to the nihilism part, even if you articulate this policy, I am extremely dubious of the president’s ability to credibly commit to it, in the sense of how often are you going to see other countries look at us and think: Well, sure, they say this now, but will that last past 2024, 2028, or so forth? How do you lock in these policies? And without congressional by-in, you’re not going to be able to do it.
LISSNER: So can I jump in on a couple points about polarization.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Of course, yeah.
LISSNER: So not to sound more optimistic than I actually am but let me draw out sort of two potential points of happiness and light, perhaps, in this otherwise very dire, polarized picture. So one is that political polarization has a number of a really negative foreign policy consequences. And Dan up here in this piece does an excellent job of laying them out. Kenneth Schultz also recently has a piece in The Washington Quarterly that was quite excellent, enumerating all of the foreign policy dangers that flow from partisan polarization. And of course, that’s a central part of our work as well.
However, there is one thing that polarization might be good for, which is when the two parties do agree on something it sends a very strong signal. So that suggests to me—
DREZNER: Which is also Ken Schultz’s point—an older Ken Schultz point.
LISSNER: Which is also—yes, yes, yes. Exactly. And so that suggests to me that if we can arrive at some points of bipartisan consensus, that actually may be a source of strength and a way in which we can begin to overcome this polarization problem. And thinking about, you know, U.S.-China policy right now, you know, certainly there’s a lot of debate amongst the parties. And also between each of them, about what exactly the United States policy towards China should be, what tools we should use in order to advance it. But there’s also a basic agreement, I think, between both parties that, you know, China does seem to pose a competitive threat to the United States, and that our policy of sort of more or less accommodation and attempts to integrate China within the so-called liberal international order, seems to have failed.
So that could be a source of strength, if both parties can begin to agree that U.S. grand strategy should reorient itself towards a more competitive stance towards China. Of course, always going to be a lot of contentions around the execution of that strategy, but that could be a way in which we actually send a pretty strong signal by virtue of bipartisan agreement around the sort of core strategic narrative.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So replaying the early Cold War with China standing in for the Soviet Union.
LISSNER: There are elements of that. I think—I think it will be interesting to see how that debate plays out, because there is a highly ideological version of that, in which China is at the helm of an axis of authoritarian powers, that begins to sound very much like Cold War redux. I think there is a less ideological version of it that just sort of recognizes the way in which American and Chinese interests do come into conflict with each other in some areas, while also continuing to seek some cooperation in other areas.
The second thing I’ll say about polarization is that, you know, we’re talking about it today in a domestic policy context. But of course, this is at its root a domestic policy problem. And it’s a highly intractable one but may not be a 100 percent intractable one. And that is because there’s some political science research that indicates that economic inequality and also the unequal distribution of the benefits of foreign engagement both contribute to greater partisan polarization. If we can start to come up with a domestic policy agenda that begins to get at income inequality, and also begins to think about how we can more evenly distribute the costs of foreign engagement to include international trade, or the perceived costs of things like international trade, that may be an in-road to start to diminish the degree of polarization, particularly as it relates to foreign policy.
Because actually foreign policy wasn’t always quite so polarized. And even when domestic policy was highly polarized, people’s domestic and foreign policy preferences didn’t always entirely correlate with each other. So we could even get back to a wonderful past where we’re highly polarized on domestic policy but perhaps less so on foreign policy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Because we all hate China.
LISSNER: Yeah, perhaps. (Laughs.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s the optimistic version. Do you buy that?
DREZNER: Let me put it—two items of pushback, I would think. But again, I cannot stress how much I want Rebecca to be right about this. But that said, I’m dubious about it for two reasons. First, without disputing the question about inequality necessarily leading to these sorts of responses in terms of foreign policy, the truth is that a policy that addresses inequality in the United States is going to be inevitably a progressive policy. I have yet to see a conservative version of that that doesn’t revolve around things like protectionism or, you know, in some ways ethnic nationalism, to be blunt. So my concern is that that’s not going to end polarization.
And in some ways, my concern about polarization is that—I agree with Rebecca that really in some ways foreign policy was sort of the last preserve of bipartisanship. It’s not the leading indicator on this. My concern is that actually you’re seeing polarization not just affect foreign policy in terms of visions of grand strategy, but literally affect it in terms of concrete alliances, which is to: You are now going to have—and I wrote about this this week for the Washington Post—you’ve got allies that have a much bigger stake in Democrats winning than Republicans, and vice-versa. So it would not shock me if, you know, our NATO allies would very much prefer a Democrat to win. Our allies in the Middle East, on the other hand, very much want a Republican—you know, want Trump to be reelected.
And if you take a look at the sort of public opinion polling on this, what concerns me is that a lot of our alliance commitments and sort of overall international commitments are now breaking down on polarized—sort of polarized divisions. And that also is something that undercuts the sustainability of some of our credible commitments.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So let me—I’m going to ask a couple more questions before I’ll go to the—to members for their questions. And I want to ask slightly different versions of the same question to each of you.
Dan, I’ll start with you. I apologize for tarnishing your new brand as a nihilist, but—
DREZNER: (Laughs.) It’s quite all right.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I want to get you to look forward a little bit. Let’s say in 2021 there’s a—let’s say, a Schultz-Bloomberg administration that makes you National Security Advisor and asks you to contend with all of these trends and the context that you find yourself operating in. What are the steps that you would take to either react to this new reality, if it’s insurmountable, or to try to correct it?
DREZNER: What’s that old line from The Simpsons, “The politics of failure has failed.” We need to move forward. I think—and one thing I do say in the piece is that I think if you are going to generate anything along the lines of, you know, a sustainable grand strategy, you need to tell the president something the president doesn’t want to hear, which is: If you are going to do this, you need to get buy-in from Congress and you need to get buy-in from the American people. And also, frankly, to some extent, from the foreign policy community, because people will look to—you know, to foreign policy people to some extent as sort of a cue.
President’s traditionally don’t want to do this. They like having this authority, particular given that they can’t do that much in terms of domestic policy. Foreign policy is one of the few areas where they have some degree of autonomy. But I think in order for this to actually—to generate any degree of sustainability, you need to actually invest political capital in having this sort of longer-term conversation in which you get members of Congress to feel like they are part—or, they have some co-ownership of this, and also where you try to explain to the American people, at least to some extent, that things that happen outside of the United States are also important to them.
I don’t blame most Americans for being rationally ignorant about foreign policy. Americans are busy people. You know, they’ve got—they’ve got bills to pay. They’ve got families to take care of. You know, they’ve got Facebook posts to read. These are really important things. You know, investing in things like interest in foreign policy might not seem like that much. You have to make the case for why—and in some ways this is really difficult part—you have to make the case why an awful lot of the current system that we’re bemoaning the erosion of actually benefits the United States.
And I will say, if you want me to sound a note of optimism, this is one area where I think the Trump administration by its own witless incompetence has actually made, you know, liberal internationalism slightly greater again, which is to say if you take a look at public opinion polling on this, you ask about American attitudes about trade, about, you know, alliances, about basing U.S. troops overseas, about immigration. The entire—the public has shifted away from Donald Trump. Now, my concern that is entirely a polarized response. And if so, that will end when Trump leaves. But it’s at least somewhat cautiously optimistic that there are arguments you can make, akin to what Rebecca is saying, that might actually generate some interest and some acceptance by the American people.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So people know what NATO is now in a way they did not three years ago?
DREZNER: Right, exactly. And some ways—and the trade narrative is an interesting one here also because you can argue when we were pushing for greater trade integration, you know, the media narratives would always focus on the factories that are being closed because of competition from China, and therefore isn’t this a tragedy? Because it’s always easy to point to concrete losses, whereas the benefits are more diffuse. What’s interesting about Trump’s stuff is that it’s—the media narrative has flipped. Now you’re pointing to the nail factory in Missouri that has shut down because steel prices have gone up so much. And so it actually does allow you to make the case that, by the way, you know, you might be skeptical of free trade, but I guarantee you the alternative is way worse.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, Rebecca, same question. Administration of your choice. You are—you are in the White House and you are asked to put in place the strategy. What are the steps you take? And I hope you’d especially react to Dan’s argument here about retreat being really hard. Even if we end up in a better place, how do you withdraw from certain commitments in the short term?
LISSNER: Right. So I think one of the pathologies of the debate about grand strategy in this country is that we tend to essentially polarize it, right? It’s sort of either you’re a primacist, liberal engager, right, or you’re a restrainer. And what our article is very consciously trying to do is stake out a middle ground. Yes, this is a relatively more restrained American strategy, particularly if you compare it to the high-water mark, let’s say, of the George W. Bush administration. But this is by no means a strategy of restraint.
And so I think there is—you know, part of the problem in thinking about what you would do in the next administration is we don’t exactly know what the wreckage will be in January 2021 or perhaps January 2025. And so in that sense, it’s hard to know from what you are seeking to build back better. But nevertheless, I think that what we lay out is actually eminently achievable, because a lot of the adjustments that it envisions are sort of fundamental in a normative sense, but practically I think much more gradual. And you know, to Dan’s point about the need to sort of co-opt and also integrate, you know, the American public, and members of Congress, and so on in the execution of this strategy, I think there’s quite a bit to like here for a lot of different potential coalitions.
So, you know, for people who like to promote democracy overseas, well, an openness strategy does not seek to promote democracy in the same way that has been sort of post-Cold War norm, but we do seek to support democracy, which is to say to work with our allies to strengthen their democracy, to help them resist coercion by aggressive powers like Russia and China. We seek to modernize our alliances. So by no means is this a strategy of retreat of the kind that, you know, Steve Walt typically argues for, or John Mearsheimer typically argues for, which has to do with really withdrawing from American forward positions and withdrawing from our alliances.
No, we’re saying we need to stay in those alliances, but to modernize them for twenty-first century challenges—most notably being the persistent threat of sub-conventional conflict, which is to say conflict below the sort of legally defined use of force threshold. And that is another thing that, I think, is very much consistent with what American policy has been to date, but actually hasn’t been fully executed and put at the fore.
And finally, a great deal of what the openness strategy is about is preventing close spheres of influence that close off markets to the United States, and also close off the global commons that are necessary for globalized international trade. So there again I think there’s actually quite a bit that everyone can agree on in the need to preserve access to international markets, particularly in places like Asia, where so much of international trade flows through as being essential to American prosperity.
KURTZ-PHELAN: What is the hard conversation you would have to have with the president? What is—what is your version of the conversation Dan is having? Is there something that a president will want to do whether it’s speaking up about human rights in China or running some kind of naval operation to South China Seas, something that has been part of U.S. foreign policy across administrations, different parties, that you think will have to stop?
LISSNER: I think it really does center on this ideological question and I think there is an understandable inclination to really shroud American foreign policy in this somewhat missionary language about promoting democracy overseas, and I think that’s become ingrained. There are a number of interest groups within the United States, particularly in the NGO community, that really push for it.
There are members of Congress that push for it, and in the absence, I think, of a real conversation with the American people about our sort of hard-nosed interests and how they relate to an internationalist American foreign policy, I think the default option has just been to speak in more ideological terms and also to begin to vilify other states that don’t share our same democratic rules and procedures, right.
So I think the great temptation, as you were saying with your comments about the early Cold War, is to try to galvanize the American public to try and bring together both parties around this idea of sort of this looming authoritarian threat. And, to me, the hard conversation is the one that says we need to resist that framing and instead look at it in a slightly less ideological lens and, basically, from a more realistic perspective.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. I have a lot more questions but I’m going to cede the floor to members to join in the conversation. A few reminders—this meeting is on the record so anything you say will be live streamed and potentially reported on.
Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Stand, state your name and affiliation, and please make it a question, not a—not a mini speech, and we’ll get to as many as we can. So who would like to go first? We’ll go there. Mic right behind you.
Q: Hi. Sarah Leah Whitson, Human Rights Watch.
Two questions. One is I’m interested in hearing your comments on whether you think it is new or different the extent to which foreign governments are engaged in shaping U.S. foreign policy, particularly given that the American public has, largely, checked out of the issue because they have to read their Facebook posts, and the extent to which you think this is a dangerous trend or new trend.
And second, I wonder what you think a way can be to make Americans more engaged on foreign policy. You know, is it a way of linking the expenses of the Department of Defense to what’s not being spent on schools that’s not working? Is it a way of bringing home the stories of people whose lives are destroyed by American foreign policy like a school bus full of children in Yemen? That doesn’t seem to be working. So what is the way to get Americans more engaged on these issues from a minimal perspective of not doing harm?
DREZNER: So the first—to answer your first question, I don’t think that foreign intervention into U.S. foreign policy debates is in any way new whatsoever. I mean, there have been—you know, think back to the Clinton scandals in terms of the use of the Lincoln Bedroom, if memory serves, in terms of foreign lobbyists, or even the 1970s there were allegations about South Korea using lobbyists to affect the way Congress thought about it.
What is different now is two things. The first is, is that the elite conversation is sort of—the role that elites play in terms of foreign policy has been somewhat eroded because expertise in general has been devalued. So, as a result, this is a much more populist conversation, which means that what foreign governments are also doing is trying to influence the degree to which ordinary people think about this.
And the second thing is, is that the cost of doing this has been lowered dramatically and, again, this is because of social media and because of the way in which cyberspace is a realm that simply didn’t exist forty, fifty years ago.
So I think—I don’t think the activity is new. I think the method has changed, and the other thing—the way I would put it is that it’s not that Russia wasn’t trying to do this stuff before 2016. What’s different in 2016 is they were pushing on an open door because, among other things, certain campaigns had no problem with it and so that’s an equally problematic aspect of it.
In terms of how to get Americans more engaged in foreign policy, I mean, that’s the $64 billion question, and while I would love to have a quick and pithy answer to it, I think the problem is is that the best way you can say it, in my opinion, is to say that walls won’t work—that if there has been a dominant theme of the Trump administration since 2016 it’s the notion that if there is any foreign threat whatsoever our answer to that is to build a wall of some kind—whether it’s an actual physical barrier or tariffs or greater visa restrictions at the border or, you know, sanctions placed on other countries, that these walls will somehow protect us and keep us immune from these greater global forces, and that’s an illusion.
That’s a mirage. It’s not going to work. It will instill just a false sense of security. So the fact is we have no choice but to engage the rest of the world. The question becomes how do we engage the rest of the world in such a way that it would advance our interests, and then I’d tell them to read Rebecca’s essay.
LISSNER: Just briefly. So on the question of foreign government intervention, I would, largely, agree with everything that Dan said and I would just add a sort of finer point on it, which is, basically, that polarization makes it easier, right. When those fissures are so deep that becomes an entry point for foreign governments to start to meddle in American politics and it makes it easier for them to sow divisions between Americans.
So the combination of polarization with these new technological domains that make such intervention easier and also, frankly, the persistence of American military dominance, which incentivizes other powers to pursue these kind of asymmetric strategies—all those things together I think make the foreign intervention problem newer and more acute and, moreover, the presence of polarization is going to make that problem harder to solve, right, because we have already seen demonstrably that when a foreign government assists one party, that party then lacks the incentive to solve the underlying problem because it would seem to call into question the legitimacy of their own election.
And that’s not partisan. That’s systemic, right. If Bernie Sanders is, you know, the next presidential nominee from the Democratic Party and Russia intervenes on Bernie Sanders’ behalf, I mean, not saying anything about the character of Bernie Sanders, but there is going to be a structural incentive for the Democrats to, you know, resist anything that would call into question the legitimacy of their own election just as Trump has done as well.
On the question of getting Americans more involved, so one thing—and I think Dan hinted at this as well—is the focus on these sort of intermestic issues, right—the places where foreign policy and domestic policy begin to intersect—and I think the immigration debate—
KURTZ-PHELAN: Did you coin that? I like that.
LISSNER: I didn’t, but I’ll take credit for it. And the debate about immigration policy, I think, is a good example because in many ways it is a national security issue but it’s also more tractable and I think much more immediate and also more human-centric than a lot of the national security debates that we have. And for all of those reasons, I think that it has captivated the attention of the American people in a way that many of our longer-standing foreign policy debates have not. Thinking about those sort of broader national security debates, I think the bad news is that people pay more attention when threats appear more acute.
So, you know, thinking somewhat anecdotally about this sort of height of American interest in national security over the past few years, I think it really peaked around the height of the North Korea nuclear crisis where it seemed like a real possibility that the U.S. might launch military strikes against North Korea, and, you know, speaking anecdotally, I was hearing from people who never think about foreign policy and getting incoming engagement from people who never think about foreign policy who were trying to plot their escape routes from San Francisco if there was an incoming ICBM.
So that type of thing does capture people’s attention and that’s, basically, the unfortunate truth, I think—that the more threatening the international environment seems the more American people will begin to pay attention. But I don’t think that’s something we should wish for.
DREZNER: Just one last thing, which is I agree with Rebecca, by the way, that, unfortunately, the way to get Americans engaged in foreign policy, unfortunately, sometimes is to scare them. It’s to make them think this is really important, and one of the things I haven’t talked about in my essay that I would want to scare people for is the notion that a lot of the sources of American power have rested on structural pillars that we have taken for granted and that have been longstanding—the fact that we can attract the best of the best from the rest of the world, the fact that our institutions of higher education are without peer, the fact that, you know, we are—we generate the best in terms of culture, that we’re the epicenter of global finance, and so on and so forth.
It is worth telling Americans what will happen if those things start to fall apart and it’s a tough conversation because everyone who is here has taken for—you know, we all grew up with this kind of world. The idea that we can envision a world without it is extremely difficult. But I do think it’s something that we need to start considering.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. Next question. I think there was one in the front table here. We’ll go back there.
Q: Juan Ocampo, Trajectory.
What could be done to make the policy prescription that Rebecca lays out actually have a higher chance of succeeding, particularly if we don’t focus on elected officials? You know, Congress and presidency, et cetera, are going to go through the cycles we’ve been talking about. There are other groups that can influence—business, educators, people like yourselves. What she—what she and her colleague lay out is—it’s a nice narrative but it’s not tweetable. So maybe there’s other ways of trying to—
LISSNER: I would beg to differ.
Q: Yeah. Well, I don’t know. But, anyway, what could make it increase the odds, if you will, that it actually comes to pass?
LISSNER: Well, barring any kind of policy interventions by the U.S. government, it’s hard to imagine how it would come to pass. Certainly, there are external actors that could influence. You know, for example, I think the business community has an important role to play in sort of insisting on the continuation of open global commons, for example, for maritime trade, also in space where the proliferation of commercial and civilian satellite technology makes it really essential that activities such as the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite tests and, even more recently, the Indian anti-satellite tests, which create huge amounts of space debris that are threatening to civilian space infrastructure—that those types of things don’t happen. I think there’s a broad common interest here.
But, overall, I would actually say that the constituency outside of government that’s most important in executing the strategic vision that we lay out is actually the tech industry because so much of the coming geopolitical competition, we argue, is going to be in the technological domain, and getting the balance right in terms of the relationship between Silicon Valley and the tech industry writ large and the U.S. federal government is absolutely essential, and a big part of that is going to be the alignment of interests, right. The tech companies have this sort of supranational self-image. They have extensive foreign business interests and, as a result of those two things, are frequently not in alignment with the U.S. national interest.
And so, to me, finding a way for the United States to harness its domestic innovation base in a way that redounds to our national interest and to our national security interest is going to be absolutely vital and that really does have to do with the actions and decisions that are going to be taken by nongovernmental actors, particularly out in California.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, Dan, despite his august title, is not just a tweety IR nerd. He’s also a master of Twitter. So I’m confident if anyone can figure out how to tweet this, you can. What’s the answer?
DREZNER: Oh, God. Don’t put me on the spot like that. You know, well, you got to do some hashtags, right? I mean, I hear that’s big on Twitter. I meant, you know—
KURTZ-PHELAN: You can answer at greater length than 280 characters. That’s fine.
DREZNER: Yeah. Exactly. Sorry.
LISSNER: It’s hard for us to character count up here anyway.
DREZNER: Exactly. Yeah. That’s what I’m trying to do. It’s, like, I need to get my phone.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Do you want to answer any other components about that?
DREZNER: No. No. No. I thought her answer was extremely good.
KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. We’ll go to the question in the very back.
Q: Ed Cox, New York State Republican Party.
Often, grand strategies are redefined by specific crises and we have one in front of us now in Venezuela where you’ve got the Monroe Doctrine—a grand strategy involved—you’ve got humanitarian concerns, and you have our liberal democratic values concern. How would each of the panelists advise a president what to do under these circumstances?
DREZNER: I would tell the Trump administration, and this is a bit of pathology that goes far beyond Venezuela with them, is that while in no way am I endorsing the Maduro regime or the—within Venezuela, they have radically overestimated what sanctions can accomplish in these instances, which is to say that this administration has fallen in love with so-called maximum pressure campaigns with North Korea, with Iran, with Venezuela, and I get why in some ways.
The U.S. sanctions machinery has become—this is an—you know, a sort of hidden success story in terms of U.S. foreign policy, which is we’ve gotten much better at applying economic sanctions than we did twenty years ago. There’s no denying that. The problem is is that we’ve created this incredibly sharp tool and we’re not using it correctly or we have overestimated what it can do.
So just as the tool has gotten sharper, everyone’s demands for what it should do have also gone up dramatically. So sanctions are not going to cause regime change in Iran. They’re not going to cause the North Korean regime to buckle. The very fact that the Maduro regime, which is in far worse straits than either of those two, has persisted, the fact the military hasn’t abandoned Maduro, should warn the Trump administration to some extent the limits of this, which means you need to start thinking in a slightly longer-term policy about what you’re going to do with respect to Venezuela.
In some ways, I think the Trump administration, both with respect to Iran and with Venezuela, their position has been we will apply maximum pressure. The regime will buckle. This problem will solve itself or we will, you know, then go on to the next stage at the end of 2019. You at least need to have some contingency planning of what happens if the regime sticks around for a while; what happens if you have outflows of Venezuelan refugees. The hypocrisy of this administration simultaneously not—you know, talking about closing the southern border and yet welcoming, you know, the fact that other bordering countries to Venezuela have taken in refugees is truly, you know, given the holiday, chutzpah on the highest degree.
So I would like to see a much longer-term sort of policy vision in terms of what happens if Maduro was around for a while. Not to say that, therefore, you drop the sanctions and engage with him, but what is your long-term policy in terms of trying to get regime change.
LISSNER: And I would just add that I think Venezuela is a case study in sort of two broader points that American strategists really have to confront, going forward. First is that American relative power will not be as great as it was sort of in the height of the unipolar moment, as Charles Krauthammer famous called it in Foreign Affairs in 1991, but we will remain preeminent. I think the United States is going to be the most powerful nation in the world for the foreseeable future.
However, that does not lend itself to maximalism of the kind that Dan was just describing, right. Great power doesn’t always translate into unilateral ability to dictate outcomes in other countries, and this is a lesson that I think the United States has learned the tough way over and over again through the attempt to apply a range of tools—military, economic, and otherwise. And so it does require a different approach to thinking about, especially when our goals are maximalist, something like regime change, how can we approach that in a way that is more congruent with the way diplomatic power ought to be applied and is more congruent with the lessons that we’ve learned by trying to make outsized demands that aren’t always possible to achieve, and this just speaks to the broader question about the operation of American power into the future under a situation of greater constraint.
The second, if I could just quickly—
LISSNER: —a broader point I would make here is that it speaks to the vital importance of diplomacy. I mean, this is another internal contradiction, I would say, of the Trump administration policy, which is they have all but gutted the State Department both in terms of personnel, especially earlier on leadership and also funding, and yet this is precisely the type of crisis where diplomats would be most useful, right.
If we agree that sanctions aren’t going to do it on their own and military force is an extremely unpalatable and likely unsuccessful option, then what we need is really vigorous diplomacy and that’s what the United States is now much less capable of doing. So looking to the future, rebuilding that capacity, is going to be absolutely vital to dealing not only with this crisis, which is likely to be with us for a long time, but also future such crises.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Rebecca, let me piggyback on that question quickly. It would strike me that Venezuela might be a case where openness would lead you to a much more restrained policy where you might say, look, what is happening within Venezuela’s borders does not—is not really our business as long as it’s not spilling over in huge destabilizing ways. We should actually look for ways to allay humanitarian problems, build diplomatic bridges to the Maduro regime, but meddle much less in the political machinations within Venezuela. Does that strike you as a misapplication of the principle? And if so, why?
LISSNER: No. I think that’s, broadly, right. You know, to say that we need to pursue a strategy of openness rather than democracy promotion is to say that democracy promotion on its own is not a reason to get involved in Venezuela, right. Just the mere fact of their—the Maduro regime is not a reason that the United States needs to involve itself.
However, there are plenty of other very legitimate reasons why the situation in Venezuela could actually end up harming American interests and so our policy there should be guided more by attenuating the effects of those unfortunate sort of results of the Maduro regime’s ongoing hold on power rather than focusing solely on the question of who is at the head of the government as the organizing principle for our policy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Next question in the—at the middle table.
Q: Herbert Levin, Council member.
A recent article purporting to tell us what’s going on in our education said that less than 20 percent of the high schools in the United States, both public and private, are even offering a foreign language and that less than 10 percent of degree-granting institutions in the United States—not Harvard or Fletcher—have a foreign language requirement. Do you think the dumbing down of the American populace and the Congress is because of the failures of the American educational establishment?
KURTZ-PHELAN: You’re both educators so—
LISSNER: Do you want to start?
DREZNER: Finally we can blame kids for everything. So that’s good.
LISSNER: Yeah. Right.
DREZNER: I would say it doesn’t help, you know, which is an understatement. I mean, my understanding is it’s not just that. I mean, I think if you polled Americans and gave them the basic citizenship test—you know, if you polled native Americans—there’s some appalling number, which I don’t want to say because I’m not entirely sure about it and that’s how fake news gets started.
But there’s no denying that one way over the long term and if you really want a long-term viable, you know, strategy what U.S. foreign policy is like, you do start in some ways with education. Not in the sense of, you know, brainwashing people into thinking that, you know, this is the way the U.S. foreign policy should look but, rather, educating children to the fact that there’s more on this planet than just the United States and that in fact we have a history in terms of foreign policy of how we’ve engaged with a variety of these countries.
So, yeah, there’s no denying that a more informed electorate would probably generate a more robust foreign policy debate and, frankly, a more responsible foreign policy debate. So I’m certainly in favor of promoting more education, not just about the U.S. history, which I think is also something that needs to be emphasized more, but also, you know, the rest of the world.
LISSNER: Let me take your question in a slightly different direction, which is in addition to educating Americans, the American higher education system also educates a lot of people from other countries and, yet, we do not have an immigration system that allows us to capitalize on that knowledge that’s being generated.
So I think a lot of this, when you’re thinking about the long-term competitiveness of the United States, very much requires us to look inward at the ways in which our domestic policies are actually hindering our own success—basically, the threat that comes from within—and this is one area where it’s particularly acute because the United States is in a more favorable demographic position, for example, than Japan or some of our European allies. But we have some long-term demographic problems and those are problems that can be best solved through a sensible immigration policy.
So I think that’s absolutely vital not only to educate our own citizens and also other citizens better but to actually reap the rewards of that education and through a policy that allows us to actually keep those people in the country and integrate them into the American workforce.
DREZNER: I would just add very quickly, you know, from an interest group advocacy perspective, one of the few areas where the United States has a, you know, real export competitiveness is, in fact, in higher education and if you were trying to reverse engineer a policy that would debilitate that, you would have the Trump administration’s policy on immigration.
KURTZ-PHELAN: A question in the very back.
Q: Thank. I’m David Braunschvig, Braunschvig LLC.
Rebecca, I’m curious about with respect to your view on openness, you are an advocate of less ideology and more realism. So to back test that, instead of thinking of what you would do if you were part of the National Security Council a few years from now, a few years ago, now you are asked by the president, your boss, what should we do, if anything, about China building stationary aircraft carriers in the South China Sea. OK.
So if you really want to be realistic you say, well, not much. We’re going to have conversations, et cetera. If you want to have an effect and forestall what actually has happened, then it may be something a bit more assertive. What would that be?
LISSNER: So if I understand the premise of your question correctly, then I think I disagree with it, which is to say that realism doesn’t necessarily imply restraint and I think ideology doesn’t necessarily imply assertiveness. So one of the things that we talk about in the article is the absolute importance of keeping the South China Sea open to maritime transit and the way in which the Chinese attempt to stop military passage through the South China Sea is actually a violation of international law. And here I should say I’m speaking exclusively on my own behalf, not on behalf of the Navy or the U.S. Naval War College, which is the necessary disclaimer.
But when we’re talking about potential future threats to openness, we indicate that any attempt to use those bases in the South China Sea as a means of shutting off maritime commerce and transit or freedom of navigation for military vessels would be a red line as far as our openness strategy is concerned.
Now, we can have a debate about what might have been done to prevent China from annexing and doing that island-building campaign. Certainly, an openness strategy is consistent with what would have been a more assertive deterrence policy that would have, ideally, stopped it from happening in the first place. But I also think there’s a broader insight to the openness strategy, which is that China is a rising power.
China will, therefore, assume a growing role in its region and that American strategy will be on firmer ground if we, basically, accept that truth. So that does not mean that we need to wholly accommodate China or cede the field to them. But in order to make sure that China doesn’t see the only pathway to influence as being a violent conflict that upends the entire international system, which has historically been the way that rising powers have asserted themselves on matters of international governance, I think we need to find ways to seek discreet cooperation and, where possible, even co-optation of China in creating new regional and international forms of governance that acknowledge their greater power and prestige in their region.
DREZNER: I would just add, to double down on what Rebecca just said, I would strongly recommend you read the other two essays in our sort of portion, which is by Kori Schake and one by Steve Walt. Even Steve Walt, who is the most, you know, fierce advocate for the restraint strategy—if you read that essay I think Walt would agree with everything that Rebecca just said actually because his point is if you’re going to focus on, you know, a great power, it is China.
And so, you know, if even the greatest advocate of restraint would probably say we need to actually, you know, consider pushing back against China in terms of the South China Sea, that suggests it’s not at odds with her strategy either.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Yeah. It’s a really striking commonality among the pieces.
Last question over here. Sorry, in the back, this side of the room.
Q: Hi. Cathy Taylor, Kentanna Group.
Let’s accept the premise that polarization is really a risk for our country both internally and abroad in terms of our national security strategy and our foreign policy, and let’s assume for a moment that there is a leader in 2021 who is a reasonable unifier. I said assume. Given the lag and the frothy process of policymaking and the lag, I should say, between policymaking and impact to citizens, do you really believe that Washington can cure the polarization problem in America and, if not, what group’s institution mechanisms will play a role in our society in really curing the deep anger and frustration that exists far across our country, and how?
KURTZ-PHELAN: You have ninety seconds to solve that problem.
DREZNER: Well, look, I’m a nihilist so I guess I’m supposed to say that you can’t. But if I were to temporarily put my optimist hat back on, I guess I would say that elections have consequences. And so in some ways, the election itself would, hopefully, be the object lesson that people in Washington would draw.
If, and this is—you know, so here’s the most optimistic way I can think about this. If I told you that the U.S. economy would be growing at about 3 percent a year, unemployment would be below 4 percent a year, and inflation would be below 2 percent a year, and the incumbent lost an election, what does that tell you about what the incumbent is saying? There must be something really unpopular and really problematic in terms of the rhetoric being espoused by that candidate.
And so, you know, depending upon how the election itself plays out, that is one way in which you can teach, you know, politicians in both parties, oh, this gambit doesn’t work. You know, one of the problems we have now in terms of debating about Donald Trump is that, you know, you always base it on the previous election. Donald Trump surprised a lot of people in 2016; ergo, he must be some kind of political genius who, you know, has tapped—you know, somehow found the taproot of American populism. I think that’s a load of crap, to be honest. I think he lucked into things for a variety of structural reasons.
So if he loses in 2020, and that’s a big if, though, you know, then this winds up being a slightly different conversation where I might be more optimistic about Rebecca’s strategy actually potentially, you know, gaining hold not just in Washington but across the country.
LISSNER: Yeah. In brief, I mean, I mentioned earlier, you know, measures to try to reduce income inequality, measures to try to attenuate the facts of trade but more so automation on certain segments of the American population, both could help. I think as a matter of political leadership, though, a lot of it will have to do with trying to reinstate the sense of common identity as Americans, right. Dan referenced earlier the statistic that, you know, Americans now fear their children marrying outside of their political party.
Well, a lot of that has to do with the fact that partisan identity has become so much stronger as other forms of collective identity have become so much weaker, right. People—you think about the sort of Bob Putnam Bowling Alone type thesis and, you know, people’s religious ties, people’s communal ties, all of those things have attenuated and, as a result, this sense of I define myself as a Democrat, I define myself as a Republican, has become much stronger.
So I think the greatest unifying message that the next president can deliver is one about the commonality of all of us and the salience of our identity as Americans, which is something that all citizens fundamentally share, and I think can start to reorient at least that component of what is actually, you know, a much larger and beastlier problem.
KURTZ-PHELAN: In answer to that question, I would recommend a couple pieces in our—in our previous issue, our March/April issue, one by Jill Lepore called The New Americanism, and then a fascinating debate among Francis Fukuyama and Stacey Abrams and a handful of others on how we craft a national identity that don’t give you an easy answer to that question but get at it in real interesting ways.
Let me second Dan’s recommendation that you read Kori Schake’s piece and Steve Walt’s piece. I think the four pieces together add up to a really interesting debate—a really interesting picture of where the foreign policy discussion is in America right now.
Thank you so much to Dan Drezner and Rebecca Lissner. Thanks to everyone for coming today. (Applause.)