Richard Haass and David Rubenstein discuss the most pressing foreign policy challenges to greet the Biden administration, including U.S.-China relations, cybersecurity, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the pandemic, as part of the first event in CFR’s Transition 2021 series.
The Transition 2021 series examines the major issues confronting the administration in the foreign policy arena.
RUBENSTEIN: Thank you very much. I'd like to welcome everybody to today's Council on Foreign Relations Transition 2021 Series meeting, "The First 100 Days and Beyond" with Richard Haass. I'm David Rubenstein, the cofounder and co-executive chair of the Carlyle Group and also chairman of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, and I'll be presiding at today's discussion. The meeting is the first of the Council on Foreign Relations Transition 2021 Series, which examines the major issues confronting the Biden-Harris administration in the foreign policy area. I will spend about a half hour in conversation with Richard Haass, who's the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and then at 5:30 will begin to have questions from all of you who are part of this dialogue.
I would also like to point out that this is on the record. There is media that's paying attention to this and obviously we have a fair number of members, so I want to make sure everybody knows that what you say and what you ask is on the record, as are everything that we say. Okay, so, Richard, let's start. Richard, the events of today are obviously something etched in everybody's mind right now and probably will be for some time, if not our lifetime. What do you think the reaction is going to be overseas when countries read about this and see this, and they no doubt seen it live, what do you think the reaction is going to be about our country overseas?
HAASS: Well, David, you know, the first thing to say is that everyone will see it. The old line, "the whole world is watching," that will apply here. I think a good chunk of the world, particularly our democratic allies, will be appalled but also worried about what it might portend for us. I think some of the world will feel a sense of schadenfreude, particularly the more authoritarian regimes around the world, because this will make it incredibly difficult for us to lecture them or put pressure on them by our example. Indeed, they will use this as justification for their own authoritarian tendencies.
I think for allies it will sap the trust that is at the core of an alliance. I worry that some foes might be tempted to say, "Is this a moment we can take advantage of the disorder, the disarray inside the United States?" There's no upside, David. This, at a minimum, has put an end to any notion of American exceptionalism. It shows that what has happened in other places—democratic backsliding—we're not immune from it. It can happen here. It is, to some extent, happening here. And I think it just makes it that much more difficult for us to be an effective actor on the world stage, and I expect we'll get to it, because it's not simply now the images we're projecting, but it's the domestic reality.
This is going to require now an inward-looking Europe for the United States where we are going to have to begin with, and not just dealing with the immediate problem, the order problem, but how did we get to this point? What do we do about it? And this is, shall we say, not the only issue on the agenda. So this has suddenly become an extraordinarily difficult moment in the history of this country.
RUBENSTEIN: As we were talking about before we started this program, the last time that something like this happened was when the British invaded in 1814, and they burned the Capitol and the White House and so forth. Nothing like this has ever happened before other than that incident, is that right?
HAASS: That's right, in terms of the seeds of our government. And I think the comparisons will be either to the events early in the nineteenth century that you just cited or to the Civil War. But again, we thought we were immune from things like this. You know, what we've learned and we're learning the hard way is we're not.
RUBENSTEIN: So you have no doubt, though, that on January 20, Joe Biden will be sworn in as President of the United States? Nothing is going to interfere with that, is that correct in your view?
HAASS: That is correct. I don't know what the physical ceremony will be like and that was already in doubt because of COVID. But no, there will be a transfer of power. Given what's happening now, it won't be quite the peaceful transfer of power that up to now had been our tradition. But yes, Joe Biden will become the forty-sixth president of the United States on January 20.
RUBENSTEIN: Before we get into the transition, I just like to give you an opportunity to talk about two things relating to the outgoing administration. If you were to make a debate and in the debate you were given the task of saying this is what the Trump administration did good in foreign policy, what would be the one or two things that you would cite as good things that they did in foreign policy—the two most important things, let's say, or three?
HAASS: I can mention a few things that they did well, though at the risk of prejudicing what I'm going to say, I don't think it offsets the things that have gone wrong, which maybe we'll get to as well. But I would say they get points, and they will get points, for having reset the conversation about China, seeing it more skeptically, its use of power at home and abroad. They will get some, I think, credit for having initiated arms transfers to Ukraine, given their situation vis-a-vis Russia. The trade agreement with Mexico and Canada—getting that approved by Congress was an important development. The continued improvement in relations with India and, obviously, also the normalization of relations between Israel and several of her neighbors. So I think, you know, all of those will be seen as pluses.
RUBENSTEIN: What would you say are the two or three biggest failures of the foreign policy of the Trump administration?
HAASS: Well, I would say the two biggest failures are not normally thought of as foreign policy, but they will have enormous foreign policy consequences. One is the inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the other is what we were just talking about—the deterioration, the degrading of American democracy. And all of that has tremendous implications, as we were just discussing, for how we are seen in the world and our ability to be influential in the world. In more narrow foreign policy ways, I think the biggest criticism will be that, almost like health care, this administration disrupted without replacing, and there was a disruption of alliances. There was the pulling back from any number of international agreements or institutions, and in virtually none of those cases was something better or enduring put in their place. So all sorts of situations, as a result, have left the United States with less influence, say, on global health or on climate change or in cases like pulling out of the Iran agreement and so forth. We have a situation that has deteriorated.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay. So, you know Joe Biden from your experience in government. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vice president of United States for eight years. What type of foreign policy perspectives does he tend to bring to the table when he is articulating things in the foreign policy or national security area?
HAASS: I think his biggest instinct, David, almost as default option—and it'll be a big contrast with this administration—is multilateralism, working with allies. That's how he sets the table for America's relationship with the world for American foreign policy. It's a rejection of unilateralism. It's a rejection of political-military isolationism. So I think that essentially—so he is implicit in that he believes in American involvement in the world, he's an internationalist. And his instinct is wherever possible to work with others, particularly Europeans, and also our partners and allies in Asia to deal with the various problems at hand.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, the transition so far has had its ups and downs because of the lack of cooperation of the outgoing administration. How much does that handicap the new team coming in, in the national security and foreign policy area?
HAASS: Look, it obviously slows things down because you don't exactly know what it is you're inheriting. I think some of the areas that could be most consequential is we—I do not believe that the incoming administration has anything close to a comprehensive understanding of the president's conversations with many of his foreign counterparts. And I'm not sure Mr. Biden will ever get an accurate readout of this president's conversations with Vladimir Putin or others, particularly in those instances where they were not staff in the room. So I think that might be ultimately the most problematic.
My hope is that there's been enough contacts, though again, not as many as there should be, with the permanent bureaucracy with civil servants that people have learned some things. Also, I think it's important to point out that the people who are on the transition, who are going to have senior roles in the new government, David, they're all experienced. They've been obviously following all the issues, though again, as someone has been involved in both sides of a transition, there's a level of detail that you never get as an outsider. So there's no upside to the fact that this has not been, if you will, a cooperative transition. What I can't exactly scale for you is just how much of a downside this will be. Whatever it is, my sense in the first couple of weeks, I think they will get over it. And say, one other thing, the fact that the Senate now seems like it will be 50/50—Democrats in control—could well speed up the process of confirmations. And you could see people getting into place sooner than what would have been the case otherwise.
RUBENSTEIN: What would you say should be, and are likely to be, the highest one or two or three priorities of the new administration in the foreign policy area?
HAASS: Well, my answer probably won't surprise us. For instance, I'm someone who once wrote a book Foreign Policy Begins at Home. I think a lot of the domestic issues—getting COVID-19 under control. Unless we do that, you work in the world of finance, I don't see how our economy, the real economy, gets back to where it needs to be with people at work. Unless we get COVID under control, we can't set an example of competence to the rest of the world. We simply don't have the bandwidth to do a lot. And then I think what's happening today, we've got to—again we can't resolve those issues any more than we can resolve issues of race and so forth in matters of weeks or months, but we've got to set ourselves on a course to address them productively in terms of what you might call more traditional foreign policy.
I would think there'll be an awful lot of allied consultations. You'll see reentry into things like the WHO, the Paris Climate Agreement. I think those would be the priorities. I tried to draw the distinction in an article I wrote for our magazine, for Foreign Affairs, about between repair with some things you've got to deal with immediately and innovation down the road. The one area where the administration may not have, though, that luxury might be Iran, where given that the steps Iran is taking to break out of the 2015 nuclear agreement, there may be a time pressure that you won't see, say, dealing with North Korea or dealing with China or some other countries.
RUBENSTEIN: Now the new secretary of state, Tony Blinken, is somebody I presume you know reasonably well. How do you think he will fare as secretary of state and is his strength that he really knows the president extremely well?
HAASS: He's got two real strengths going into the job. One is he's got a long and close relationship with the president of the United States. It's essential, that as secretary of state, when he speaks or she speaks, people see that as an authoritative voice. It's deadly if that is not the perception. Plus, Tony Blinken knows the billing. And that's essential now because he's inheriting a broken State Department and a broken Foreign Service. So one of his priorities over the next, presumably, four years will be to address that but the human, if you will, the human capital side of diplomacy. So I think those are his two advantages, in addition to being somebody who's obviously experienced with the issues. He's not coming out of a different world suddenly stepping into the foreign policy world.
RUBENSTEIN: Now the secretary of defense-designate, General Austin, needs approval from the Congress, both houses of Congress, because he needs a waiver, because he hasn't been out of the military for ten years or more. Do you think that will happen and do you have a view on him as a potential secretary of defense?
HAASS: I think it's likely to happen. I don't think it's 100 percent certain. What happened in Georgia probably increases the chance that it will happen. But again, I don't think it's a done deal. I think it's, you know, I think, given his background, he's obviously had command, a lot of experience in the Middle East. I think the two question marks or one was it necessary, given the other potential candidates, to bring somebody in from the military side so soon after he retired from active service? Was that a norm or a tradition we wanted to challenge? Was it essential? And a lot of people would say as good of a man as General Austin is, the circumstances didn't necessitate it.
And second of all, a lot of his experience has been in places like the Middle East and so forth, the greater Middle East, and a big part of the job is its two big parts of job—one is obviously the management side and the other is dealing with China and with Asia. And that's not, particularly China, is not something that he's specialized on. But this is a talented person of serious capacity. And, you know, my hunch is I'm confident that if he does get confirmed, you know, he will be more than able to handle what's coming at him.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, Jake Sullivan will be the national security advisor. He, I think, is forty-three years old. I think one of the youngest people ever to have that job. Do you think that's too young for that job? You've seen some of the people up close who had it like Brent Scowcroft. And what is the strength that Jake Sullivan brings to the table?
HAASS: I don't think it's too young because one, he's razor smart. And two, he's experienced. And three, he's got a good relationship with his boss and he also has a good relationship with his colleagues. And that's really important. This is a job where, you know, you've got to wear two hats. You've got to be the counselor to the president and advisor, but your first hat is to be a coordinator and honest broker, someone who knows how to make the trains run, who can see that implementation matches decision-making. And that's why you want someone who's experienced and gets along with his colleagues. So the fact that people like Tony Blinken and Jake Sullivan and others have a history of working together and working together closely, I think, is a positive sign.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, the special adviser to the president on climate change is John Kerry. That's a cabinet-level position. His previous deputy when he was secretary of state was Tony Blinken. Is it going to be awkward for Blinken to be the secretary of state and theoretically a more important position than the one that Kerry has and how is that going to work out?
HAASS: I think more important than that is how do you balance a narrow focus with a global focus? Let me just sort of talk about it this way. When I worked in the State Department several times, you had certain bureaus that had a writ that was about a single issue, say, human rights or arms control or what have you, and then you had geographical bureaus. And there was often tension between the two because, now as you might expect, those who had a narrow responsibility saw that as the central or pivotal issue and the question was, how do you balance that off against other concerns? And I think that'll be the challenge for this administration, particularly with climate because climate is increasingly going to be everywhere. It's not going to be a narrow box called climate, but climate-related questions are potentially going to be part of trade conversations, our relations with allies. Obviously, there's a big domestic component. So I think the challenge will be one of how do you integrate this in a way that on one hand gets the importance of climate right, but also understands that with certain countries, we've got other issues, say, with China, regardless of what it is they choose to do vis-a-vis climate change.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, one of the comments that has been made is that the president-elect has picked people who either worked in the Obama administration or people that he knows extremely well—no fresh blood, nobody he doesn't know well. Is that a fair criticism?
HAASS: Well, I think the proof will be in the pudding. It's not a team of rivals—it's a team. And the good news is that I expect you'll see relatively little leaking, relatively little controversy or friction, which can be a real sponge of time and energy. The question is how do you resist groupthink? How do you introduce innovation and so forth? And that'll be the challenge for this administration and whether they can reach out and whether these people, you know, Kissinger's old line that when you come into government, you know, you basically come in with your intellectual capital and then you deplete it. So putting out the question, I think, will be in many cases have they brought in adequate intellectual capital to be as innovative as we're going to need to be to deal with this rather extraordinary in-box that Mr. Biden didn't ask for but he's inheriting.
RUBENSTEIN: For many years since World War II, the most dominant country in Europe was the United States, effectively. Has that changed now because of so much concern by European leaders about the United States' willingness to play that role in the future? Do you think Biden can repair that?
HAASS: It's a good question, David. I think he can repair it in part, but there were already doubts in the minds of Europeans because of the Obama and particularly Trump presidencies. And I think the events of today will exacerbate and reinforce those doubts that this America is different. And even if Joe Biden is a familiar American foreign policy hand, the Europeans know, for example, from the Munich Security Conference, one of the questions in the back of their minds is going to be, well, what happens in four years? Could Trumpism return, be it with Trump or some other Republican?
So I think the problem is that the United States is not seen the way it was. We've been seen in a certain way now for, what, seventy-odd years, seventy-five years, and I think that there's now been an interruption in that. And I think President Biden will simply have to deal with that reality, and I think he can reassure up to a point by his deeds at home and abroad. But some of the doubts now are things he can't reassure about because there are doubts about the country—the doubts about our politics that go beyond what even the forty-sixth president will be able to address.
RUBENSTEIN: Do you think there is any realistic way to put the Iranian agreement and the revised form back together again or is that genie out of the bottle?
HAASS: I'm skeptical to be honest. I'm not sure the United States and Iran can agree on the details of doing so, exactly what would have to happen with what timing and in what sequence. I'll also tell you that even though I think it was an error to get out of the agreement unilaterally, I think the agreement itself is a flawed agreement. And I think too many of the deadlines and durations in the agreement are set to expire relatively soon in five or ten years on the nuclear side. So I'm not sure it's the best path to take.
That said, the president-elect says he's going to try it. Jake Sullivan said the other day on Fareed Zakaria's show that that was their initial approach. So I think they're going to take a run at it. I'm not sure it's possible, and if not, where I hope they end up is with something more implicit with Iran, essentially an arrangement, not a formal agreement, where Iran understands what—to use an old phrase—the red lines are, and what we may have to think about is some selective relaxation of sanctions to achieve a kind of informal tacit modus vivendi with Iran in this area to buy time until we could come up with a longer term, more formal agreement.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, the United States has had under the Trump administration a very close relationship with the Saudi royal family. Do you think that will continue under President Biden or how will the Saudis approach the U.S. relationship in this new setting?
HAASS: Look, it's going to be tough because there's some real differences, obviously, over human rights, and we've seen that flash up in the last couple of weeks when the Saudis arrested a human rights activists. There's still differences over Yemen. There's differences potentially about what kind of approach to take to Iran. What could be the wild card in all this, David, and I'm trying to think it all through, is what the Saudis do vis-a-vis Israel. That is, you know, Saudi Arabia now is the principal Sunni Arab country not to have normalized with Israel. Saudi Arabia has reasons for not doing so. Obviously, some internal disagreement in the kingdom, it's got a special place in the Islamic world.
On the other hand, if Saudi Arabia were to do it, it could obviously have real implications in a positive way for the relationship with us. And what I've been thinking about is, is there a way the Saudis could approach normalization with Israel? And just as the UAE said, we'll only do it if you take annexation off the table. Well, what might be the Saudi conditions vis-a-vis the Palestinian issue, say, vis-a-vis settlements or something else that could actually have a positive impact on the region? So I think it's a difficult relationship, above all for the human rights reasons, but I do think this area of dealing with Israel and the Palestinian issue is worth watching.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, one of the great mysteries of the Trump administration foreign policy to many people has been the unwillingness to say anything negative about Russia and/or Putin by the president. What is your theory about why that was the case? And do you have any view on whether the U.S. and Russia can come together in some agreements on some nuclear arms agreements or other things?
HAASS: Look, I'm aware of all the theories. I don't have any evidence for supporting one or another. I'll just sort of say I can't discern a clear foreign policy or national security rationale for our approach to Mr. Putin over the last four years. It was almost a split at times, David, between the president's policy and the administration's policy, because the administration did do certain things that were fairly robust towards Russia in terms of sanctions, Ukraine, some strengthening of NATO. I think for the short run the goal is going to be complicated to pull off.
On one hand, there's a real incentive to reach an extension of the new so-called New START nuclear agreement. I don't think it's in anyone's interest to have a new round of nuclear competition between the United States and Russia. But this is going to have to take place against the backdrop of Russia trying to tell dissidents what it's doing in Ukraine, what it's doing in the Middle East, and most recently, what it's doing to us, vis-a-vis the hack. So how the administration is going to basically—that's going to be tricky foreign policy. How you can, on one hand, try to stabilize the nuclear relationship in a larger context where, I think, the relationship is going to become much more combative. That will be the challenge for the administration.
RUBENSTEIN: Now, do you think the Chinese leadership is happy with the turn of events that there's a new president, or do you think they actually figured out how to deal with Trump and they actually wanted him to be reelected?
HAASS: I think both. I think on one hand, they look forward to a more traditional predictable United States. The danger for them is that a more traditional predictable United States could also be a more critical United States and a more effective United States. I also think, by the way, that for all the differences we're going to see between the two administrations here between the forty-fifth and forty-sixth president, I think there'll be certain elements of continuity in China. There's been a real change in the collective mindset here, if you will, in the foreign policy community about how to think about China. And I think there's a widespread view that what China is doing in Hong Kong and vis-a-vis the Uyghurs and so forth merits a very strong response.
People are worried about their military buildup, worried about what they have been saying and doing in the South China Sea or vis-a-vis Taiwan. Obviously unhappy with aspects of their economic behavior. Obviously, there's the view that the integration into the world economic system did not bring about either an opening up of the Chinese economy or opening up of its political system. So disillusionment, if you will, with China is widespread. So I think the challenge here, not unlike the challenge with Russia, David, though, this is in some ways much more consequential, will be how do we protect potential limited areas of cooperation with China in a context where the overall relationship will be highly competitive and then we got some very strong disagreements.
RUBENSTEIN: Do you think that Kim Jong-un will be sending love letters to Joe Biden, or do they have to do a lot more dating before that will happen?
HAASS: [Laughs.] My hunch is he wants to get some attention. If he doesn't get attention, he may be tempted to do what I used to call "station identification" on his part, launch some missile or whatever. I thought it was really interesting the other day that he gave a speech in North Korea, and it was a rare admission of how bad things had gotten from COVID to the economy. And he basically was saying that we've not even come close to meeting our goals. And that was a rare moment of public acknowledgement on his part of failure. So it's possible that, you know, we do have some openings in the way I describe things with Iran.
I can imagine a situation not where we, in the short run, tried to denuclearize North Korea—that's a non-starter—but we can't ignore it. So whether we could introduce something that I would call a "something-for-something" relationship where we get areas of restraint that we can monitor in exchange for some slight areas where we do a selective reduction of sanctions. I think something like that is not inconceivable. And an interesting question to me is whether COVID might offer something of an opportunity for that and with some of these countries with whom we have terrible relations, like North Korea, historically, whether there could be some COVID-related reaching out, and we could help once we get our own house in order with vaccines and the like, whether we could offer certain things on a humanitarian basis that might buy us some time politically.
RUBENSTEIN: We've had a special relationship with England for quite some time, obviously. But now the leader of the UK is somebody that was ideologically more in sync with President Trump, you might say. Do you think that Boris Johnson will be able to establish a, quote, "special relationship" with Joe Biden?
HAASS: I think Boris Johnson has his hands full at home. The COVID situation in the UK has gone from bad to worse. I was never a fan of Brexit, as you know. And the final, you know, the agreement that was finally announced the other day, I don't see results that in any way warranted what have happened. But I do think at some point it's going to threaten the integrity of the UK itself, beginning with Scotland, potentially with Northern Ireland. I think the one positive thing might be between the UK and ourselves might be in the area of trade, you could have something there.
But I actually think the UK has diminished its importance and the importance of the so-called “special relationship” with the U.S. by opting out of Europe. Because right now the UK can only deliver itself. It's no longer an important partner of the United States in the deliberations in Europe. So I actually think it's, in a funny sort of way, what Brexit has done is downgraded the significance of what was a special relationship.
RUBENSTEIN: So why do you think at the end of the administration it's considering labeling Cuba as a terrorist nation? Why with two weeks ago is that likely to happen or possibly going to happen?
HAASS: I haven't seen that Cuba's done anything markedly different in the last few weeks. It's problematic in all sorts of ways. We still haven't had a good explanation of what they were doing that was causing those health consequences for our people there. I don't know to what extent this is about domestic politics here, David, because it will be well received in certain communities to tie the hands of the new administration. But this has not been a big priority for the last four years, so the fact that it's happening now, you know, always danger to speculate as to motives. But I don't see foreign policy rationale for changing U.S. policy at this stage in an administration given that there hasn't been a major new development recently.
RUBENSTEIN: Final question before we take questions from our members. You've been in administrations that have been in power, you've been on transitions going in and going out. Is it more fun going in a transition, are you thinking to change the world? Or more fun leaving, because you think, hey, finally, I don't have to worry about every problem in the world in the middle of the night?
HAASS: [Laughs.] Well, all things being equal, it's more fun going in because that suggests your side won the election. So I will say when you go in, it can be quite overwhelming at times. I remember my first day at the National Security Council, this is 1989, when I went into the Bush 41 administration. I literally showed up at the Old Executive Office Building in my office, and the files were all empty. Why? Because all the documents have been taken out, boxed, and they were going off to the Reagan Library. And this was—and all the people had gone, they had now moved on to their new lives because they weren't going to be working where they had been.
And so you literally start on day one with empty file drawers. There's no one there to tell you what, you know, how to do what it is you're meant to do. So it can be quite, it's quite a moment of—a little bit you feel like the dog that caught the fender, that something you'd worked on for a long time and you wanted your team to win, and suddenly you realize the difference between campaigning and governing. Leaving, you know, on one hand, you're exhausted. You know what it's like to work for a one-term president, you did it for Mr. Carter. I did it for, again, Bush 41. That way, on one hand, you're physically beat. On the other hand, you're so frustrated over what could and might have been had you had four more years. So all things being, it's much more fun going in than going out.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, so let's have questions from our members now.
STAFF: [Gives queuing instructions.] We'll take the first question from David Petraeus.
Q: Richard, obviously, the priority for the administration has to be the U.S.-China relationship. When [inaudible] comes to foreign it will first be pandemic, the economy, the democracy at home and all of that. But then it's the U.S.-China relationship. It'll be much more multilateral. It will be comprehensive, integrated, and so forth. And that'll be the biggest plate, but there are going to be a number of other plates that will have to be kept spinning as well. And among those will be the plates of the endless wars, which many of the participants in the new administration will have tried to end in the past. They did end one and then had to reinitiate our presence.
How do you see the new administration—could they acknowledge that you actually can't end endless wars? You can end our participation in them, but that doesn't necessarily end them, and that we could actually have a fairly dire outcome in Afghanistan. It may be that we have withdrawn too many forces. And, you know, you could actually see a collapse in Afghanistan of the Afghan security forces. I don't think that in Iraq. You could see real problems in Syria if that ever got out of control again. Could you envision this administration that, of course, they had to run on saying we must end endless wars, but recognizing that, again, we may need to continue our participation in the endless wars, we have interest they're still. In the alternative, if we actually withdraw from them is that they not only continue but they get worse. How do you see them addressing this?
HAASS: It's a good question. It's one I've wrestled with, David. I actually think there is a decent chance that we will stay in Afghanistan. I expect, like you, I'm not a great fan of the phrase "endless or forever war." We call it open-ended presence. It sounds a little bit better. And that's what we've had throughout Europe and Asia for more than half a century on now. The costs in Afghanistan for us are very low for staying. The cost as you suggest, and I feel you're right, could be quite high if we were to leave both to the Afghans but also potentially to ourselves if it again became a venue where terrorism could be mounted. I am not a fan of the U.S.-Taliban agreement that was signed almost a year ago now. It seems to me it's a U.S. withdrawal agreement, not a peace agreement.
It might be hard for the administration to rip it up. But it might not be that hard for the administration to basically hold it up to the light and say, we're not doing any more withdrawals because the Taliban are not living up to the letter and spirit of this agreement. And I also think they don't necessarily have to introduce more forces on a permanent basis, on a stationing basis. That might be politically tough. But again, as you know better than I do, one could have a situation where we keep a few thousand people there all the time, which is the current level, and then we regularly introduce forces for several months at a time. So the actual numbers in real terms don't go down that much. We could also increase certain types of long-term support for the Afghan military.
So my guess is there's a way of working this one out and I actually think this could be an area also of some bipartisanship. It's an old-fashioned word in today's [inaudible] and an odd day to mention it. But I think it's possible. I think there will be some Republicans who will harbor exactly the same concerns you do there. I think it's harder to see us getting more involved in some Middle Eastern countries to reenter to certain things—in Syria, that I don't see. So I think there, in the Syria's, Yemen's, Libya's, what have you, I think our approach will be much more diplomatic. There could be limited counterterrorism things and limited supply to certain actors. But I think in Afghanistan there's a decent chance that we would stay. In terms of Iraq, that I don't know. I haven't heard much talk about it. But again, my guess is, I wouldn't be surprised the perversion of where we are is a version of where we end up being sometime down the road.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Franklin Moore.
Q: Okay, I think I've unmuted.
HAASS: You have.
Q: Thank you. For the last two hundred fifty years, the United States’ face in Europe and in the world has been of European Americans. That certainly is true over the last seventy-five years as we build alliances. Given that there is a push to increase the role of brown and Black people that come from cultures that are non-European, does this put pressure on us to look at allies overseas in some different perspective?
HAASS: Well, the United States has been heavily involved in various theaters because that's where our interests where most found, that's where they were most challenged. For much of the twentieth century it was obviously in Europe and Asia. And the United States, by the way, has maintained a heavy presence and commitment to Asia, even though there's not as much, I don't know what the word is, ethnic connection as there might have been or might be to Europe, but it was for various strategic and economic reasons.
We've gotten heavily involved in the Middle East not for anything to do with, I think, for ethnic reasons. But again, it's simply been the way that post-Cold War American foreign policy has played out either reacting to local events or in some cases initiating events in that part of the world. I would think the bigger challenge will be persuading the American people, regardless of their backgrounds, on the importance of America staying involved in the world at a time we face these enormous challenges at home from COVID, to the political division, to race, to infrastructure, to inequality, to public schooling, to health care, to you name it, and I think for President Biden, who believes in America being involved in the world, the question is going to be how do you make the case?
Not for overreach abroad, not for trying to remake the world but to avoid underreach. How do you continue to make the case in a way that persuades that we need to stay involved in the world to a considerable degree and why we can do that and still face or still address our shortcomings and needs here at home, and I think that will be the needle he will have to thread. But I don't think it will break down for the most part along lines that are related to color or race or religion or background.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Kahlil Byrd.
Q: Hi, there. Kahlil Byrd, Invest America. It's good to be on with both of you. Thanks for the conversation. I'm thinking about Janet Yellen, Antony Blinken, and [Jerome] Powell coming into a meeting and telling President Biden, once he's inaugurated, what the international priorities are. I think this question is probably for both of you. What is the list that they lay out for the new president to focus on from their three particular points of view? What is their shared list that you think the United States should focus on?
HAASS: David, do you want to take that first since it's more your purview?
RUBENSTEIN: I would say that getting, as Richard said, we've got to get COVID under control because until COVID is completely under control, the economy's not going to come back to the level that we want. My fear is that around the world right now, when history is written, it will be seen that during the Trump years, China became the dominant economy in the world. Not yet in GDP, certainly in purchase price parity, but they are the economy that is growing at a much faster clip than we are and probably are accelerating much more than we can. And I feel that many people around the world are going to talk to China much more than they did before about help and assistance.
So I would say that if I were the secretary of treasury, I would want to make sure the health situation is getting as much under control as possible to get the economy going again, try to deal with allies who may be looking more at China than they were before, and then one thing I would like to send a message to is I hope somebody who's actually been in the business world, who has met a payroll, built a company, would join the administration. Right now, there hasn't been anybody appointed yet who really has been an entrepreneur or businessperson. I hope that they will get somebody, not from the private equity world— I'm not a candidate—but somebody who really can bring a business voice to it and can speak to businesspeople around the world about what the administration is doing in that area. Richard?
HAASS: The one thing I'd say is, one, I think we need a competitiveness strategy. I think there's too much an obsession about what China's doing. In many cases, we can only have a limited effect on China's trajectory. We can have an almost unlimited effect on our own trajectory. And that requires us to really think hard and then double down on the drivers of American competitiveness. That gets you into such things as a smart immigration policy, which we have abandoned. We've got to think about the level of federal spending on basic research, which is, what, roughly 50 or 60 percent of our traditional levels. So we can go, you know, infrastructure. There's so many things we can and should do if we are going to get—and by the way, this is a good time to do it because we're coming out of a COVID-induced recession. There's things with green technology.
We obviously should be emphasizing and we obviously will that are a twofer that will help us economically and that will help us in climate. The one area I'm not sure the administration is going to be looking to enough that I would emphasize, I'm not sure you mentioned this [inaudible], would be trade. And whether, given the politics of trade here at home, we are going to have a sufficiently ambitious trade policy. And I think it also has potential politically, economically as an engine of economic growth and potentially, if climate concerns are introduced, as a way to promote our goals in that area. And I worry that it won't get the priority it deserves.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Janine Hill. Janine, please accept the unmute now button.
Q: I'm not asking you a question. Sorry.
STAFF: No problem. We'll take the next question from Hari Hariharan.
Q: Thank you. This is a question for both of you. In terms of the tension between the progresses in the Democratic Party and the centrists, if you will, how do you see this play out in the realms of economic policy like taxation? Is it going to be a [inaudible] the rich and spend a lot or how's it going to play out?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, let me take an initial stab at this. I do think that you'll see the Republicans being more worried about the deficit than they have been in the last four years. The deficit did go up dramatically and the debt's gone up dramatically, and I suspect that the Republicans in the Senate will try to block a lot of spending programs or stimulus programs that the administration might propose.
Secondly, the administration, I think, will try to do much more for people who are in the economic underclass than maybe the current administration did. I think that will get through the House, but I'm not sure it's going to get through the Senate quite as readily as the administration would like. And I think the third is the administration needs to make certain that its economic team is as unified as I think the foreign policy team is. Very often we've seen administrations that the economic policy team, like the foreign policy team, is at each other's throats from time to time.
At this point, the entire economic team hasn't been put together—the secretary of commerce hasn't been designated and so forth. But I hope that the team can present a unified front and try to get one or two things through. Trying to get too many things through as my administration did in the Carter administration years in the economic policy area is not likely to work. You've got to concentrate on one or two things, make it the highest priorities, and that's what I think they need to do in the beginning. Richard?
HAASS: I think we're actually entering an era where there could be something of a paradigm shift where we're looking for a larger role of the government in the economy. And I think we'll see it to some extent in taxes. We'll see it also in the degree of a safety net. And in some ways, I almost think that coming out of COVID we're backdooring our way into a form of a universal basic income. So I think that we're entering an era where no one's going to be saying the era of big government is over, but rather the era of bigger government has arrived. And the details are going to have to be worked out, and as David suggests, there'll be compromises to be made here. And all this for at least for the foreseeable future is going to be carried out against the situation of low rates. But, I think, all things being equal, I would think the general trajectory of the economy is a larger role for the government, and probably we will continue to rack up significant amounts of debt.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from James Gilmore.
Q: Well, Richard, thank you very much. I've enjoyed this very much. As you know, I'm ambassador to OSCE on behalf of the United States, and we've taken a pretty tough line versus the Russians and their policies in Vienna. You described and now we know the team that the president-elect is going to name, I guess my question to you is what approach do you believe that the new administration will take towards Russia? What strategic goals do you think they'll have and do you think there'll be a shift in the policy direction towards Russia by this new administration? Thank you.
HAASS: Look, it's a good question. Jim, I think, again, the priority in the short run will be to nail down the nuclear agreement, to extend it, then there'll be several years where one can try to resolve some of the outstanding issues that weren't covered by the agreement. I think in many areas, there aren't going to be breakthroughs with Russia in terms of Ukraine, in terms of—I think the emphasis will be looking for ways to help them, will be looking for ways to help NATO. I think things will get worse in the area of criticizing the Russians over political and human rights issues and, I think, this question of Russian behavior in cyberspace and so forth.
What we don't know, at least I haven't seen, is whether what they did began and ended with espionage. In which case, it was a dramatic hit on us. But I would say shame on us for making it possible. Or whether it went beyond espionage and whether they have inserted malware and the like that would actually have operational consequences either now or if certain contingencies ever materialized. As bad as the espionage is, it's qualitatively different from the latter. So I think in the human rights area and in the cyber area, we're going to have real differences with Russia.
So all things being equal, I think it's going to be a scratchier relationship and you're going to have none of the personal dimension between President Biden and President Putin. You may have something you didn't have quite as much of is a more normal kind of what you're doing—more of just a day-to-day diplomatic set of interactions because less will happen at the presidential level. And I think it may in that sense, you know, I never thought doing diplomacy with Russia was a favor. I always thought diplomacy was a tool that we employ. So I could actually see more regular diplomatic interaction between the two governments, even if there's less high-level interaction.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from Mansoor Shams.
Q: Hi, I'm Mansoor Shams. I'm founder of MuslimMarine.org. I'm a Pakistani-born American immigrant who ran away from Pakistan for exactly the sort of things that I'm seeing in DC today. Maybe it's the immigrant in me, but I feel we have this mindset in the United States that what happens out there in perhaps a third-world country can't happen here. It's impossible. So I'm not that optimistic right now. And with that said, and with two weeks still remaining in President Trump's presidency, why and how are you so content that we will have a peaceful transfer of power without any more curveballs given how many in the GOP in the House and the Senate have been complicit, even as of today, in promoting this widespread voter fraud theory and so on? And lastly, how do you prevent another attack on this fragile democracy? Had the House or Senate been significantly GOP, could this election have been overturned? And if so, how do we prevent that from happening in the future? Thank you.
HAASS: Look, it's a really important set of questions. And if nothing else, the last few years should have taught us to be wary of our own assumptions. And to be wary of givens and ruling things out because things have happened that were never on, you know, none of us had imaginations that foresaw where exactly we are. Maybe I'm naive, but I am hoping that today was so horrific, that there will be a bit of a coming back from the brink, because we are at something of a brink. So I do think that it will, you know, I think the political process will resume.
And I think that we will get through this. I think there's real logistical issues with reestablishing order and security over the Capitol, and there'll be legal issues and all that. But that's not my expertise. Let me take your question in a slightly different direction. What this says to me, and it's a moment initially for soul searching and then we've really got to do a lot about it as a society, is that a lot of the things that we thought we could take for granted about the resilience and robustness of our democracy, that turns out not to be so. And then the question is how did we get here? And yes, one could point fingers at the sitting president. But I would simply say that may be necessary, but it's not sufficient. Because the question is, why is what he has done had such an impact and such effect.
So I actually think this is a time for soul searching and probably for some type of a national effort to identify, and it could deal with everything from the absence of civics being taught in many of our schools, to how we regulate or don't social media, to how we structure our politics in many ways from funding to gerrymandering, and the weakening of the middle—what have you. I just think that if we're lucky enough to get through this, and I'm still optimistic we will, that we ought not to simply say, well, it happened once it can never happen again. I think we ought to take this as a warning shot across our bow collectively. And we had better think about what we need to do to make sure nothing like this ever, ever happens again.
RUBENSTEIN: Let me just add that to answer your question, for a coup to occur or anything like that, you invariably have the military supporting you. And in this case, I think the military, to its credit, has indicated it's not getting involved. In terms of the politicians on Capitol Hill, I think some of them thought it was a bit of a game to play to their base. I think it got out of control. And I think that they realize that now that maybe they went too far in encouraging this. But I don't think anything other than Biden being sworn in peacefully on January 20 is going to occur.
We're going through a stress test. It was a very serious stress test. And while people do not want to give Donald Trump credit for putting us in the stress test, I do think that the next year or two people will say what can we do to make democracy work better? We saw what some of the flaws are that the Founding Fathers didn't intend to happen, and maybe there will be some ways to improve this so that a future stress test won't even come close to what this one did.
STAFF: We'll take the next question from John Sullivan.
Q: Well, thank you very much for a great presentation and I [inaudible] much of what you've said. And Richard I sure hope you write up an article about your focus on the direction we got to go with innovation and technology and energy and all the rest of it. I think that you're right on track with that. I mean, it's what we did with Texas Instruments and the moonshot and everything else that spun off a huge number of industries. We need to do that again. But my question really is building on this question about American democracy and foreign policy.
The administration has at least indicated or hinted at that they would like to form something like a Democracy 10 group or a group of democracies to reengage the idea of democracy support or democracy promotion, a term I don't particularly like, but democracy development around the world. Do you think that is even realistic anymore? Can we take that stand now given what's happened in the last week? And you know, hopefully, it does play out to Joe Biden, and we can then take the position of saying, yes, this was a stress test for our democracy, we got through it so now let's get together and all of us build together. Is that possible?
HAASS: I have two reactions to that. One, is it's going to be several years before we are going to be in a position to give anyone a lecture about democracy and the rule of law. You've got to walk the walk before you talk the talk. And whatever else we are tonight, we're not a shining city on a hill. So it's some time before we're going to be able to do that and we've got to, to switch metaphors, “physician, heal thyself.” We've got to address and heal what has clearly gone deeply, deeply wrong with aspects of our society here at home. Putting on my foreign policy hat for a second, my enthusiasm for groups like networks of democracies is always finite. Most of the work that needs to be done in the world, we need non-democracies to participate, whether it's China or Russia or some other countries.
So I always thought it was an odd setting. If there's a narrow purpose of it, which is to promote democracy, again, I think the best thing you can do is promote it by your example. So you can show that democracies grow at higher rates economically, they deal better with infectious disease, they can resolve their problems better than others, and so forth. Active democracy promotion, I'm not against it. And I think there's a place for it. In the world of information, in particular, I think we should think about what it is we communicate and the rest and maybe ways to promote civil society around the world and so forth. But for the foreseeable future, I really do think that we're in a foreign-policy-begins-at-home moment. And we've got to right our own ship before we can resume that sort of a global role.
RUBENSTEIN: Richard, we are out of time, and I would like to remind people that January 13, next Wednesday, we will have a discussion of civic participation and education. The conversation will be called "A More Perfect Union," a conversation on civic participation and education. It's a Daughters and Sons event. So if you have daughters and sons who would like to learn about this, Richard Haass will be presiding over a discussion with three experts on that subject, and I highly recommend it for those who would like to have their children or grandchildren learn a little bit more about civic participation education. With that, we reached our hour of that we—
HAASS: David, could I just intervene for one minute—
RUBENSTEIN: Go ahead.
HAASS: —and prevail upon people. We were going to begin today's meeting rather differently before the events became obvious. And we were going to begin it with a conversation about this being the start of the centennial year, the hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Council on Foreign Relations. And we put up an entire website devoted to it. And we're going to be doing all sorts of events relating to it, conversations about foreign policy and so forth. So the most important thing I just wanted to communicate now, we're going to continue doing what I think is most important, which is we will speak truth to power. We will have fidelity to facts, we will remain a serious place, a serious resource for you, our members, and for others across the society and government, in classrooms and churches and synagogues and mosques where they know they can, with confidence, turn in order to get serious, nonpartisan, independent, authoritative analysis. And that is my and our commitment to all of you.
RUBENSTEIN: Okay, thank you, Richard, for a very interesting conversation. And I want to thank all the members for participating and thank those who had a chance to ask questions for doing so and continue to support the Council. Thank you very much.
HAASS: Thank you all. Thank you, David.