What to Worry About in 2021

Monday, January 25, 2021

Cofounder and Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors; CFR Member

Partner, KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute; CFR Member

General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations; @PaulBStares


Senior Global Affairs Analyst, CNN

Panelists discuss potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2021, as well as their global political implications. This event explored the results of CFR's 2021 Preventive Priorities Survey.

GOLODRYGA: Thank you, Sam, and good morning, everyone. I'm delighted to be with you on such an important topic as we enter 2021 with a lot of wildcards, a lot of fires out in the world, that are going to be a threat to the U.S. and our allies. So, of course, we have this esteemed panel to talk about this all. This, of course, is CFR's " What to Worry About in 2021" conversation with Michèle Flournoy, who's the co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors; David Petraeus, partner in KKR and chairman of the KKR Global Institute; and Paul Stares, the General John W. Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations. I am Bianna Golodryga, senior global affairs analyst at CNN and I will be presiding over this morning's conversation. So, Paul, I think the best way to begin this conversation is to talk more about this survey. In this year's survey, in particular, the Preventative Priorities Survey, what stood out to you in terms of what foreign policy experts say they're most worried about?

STARES: Well, thanks, Bianna, and thanks for everybody on the call and particularly for those members who filled out the survey this year—we're very appreciative of that. So if I can just take a few moments to sort of give some background on the survey for those who may not be familiar about how we do this. So for the last thirteen years we've been surveying American foreign policy experts about potential sources of instability and conflict in the world for the coming twelve months. And we essentially provide them a list of thirty contingencies, which we think are plausible for the coming year. And we ask them to assess both the likelihood and the potential impact on U.S. national security interests. So it's basically a crowdsourced risk assessment. We aggregate the responses and then we swap them into three tiers of relative priority. The basic rationale here is that not all foreign policy crises are equally threatening to U.S. interests and we need to prioritize where we focus attention and resources. So this year, by far, the highest source of concern for those who responded to the survey is North Korea. People are clearly concerned about renewed tensions on the Korean Peninsula, presumably stemming from resumed nuclear weapons-related activities in North Korea and resumption of long-range ballistic missile testing. I think there's a general skepticism that President Trump was able to really defuse this crisis and it's just a matter of time before there's a renewed crisis.

Not far behind North Korea is, well, three contingencies were deemed to be highly likely in the coming year. One was a collapse of the peace process in Afghanistan. People think that this is extremely vulnerable and I think we've seen an uptick in violence in recent weeks and a general skepticism that the timeline, if you will, of U.S. withdrawal would be met. Secondly, an intensification of fighting in Syria as President Assad reasserts control over Syria as the civil war winds down. And I think people think that that's going to just get worse before it gets better. And the situation in Venezuela—it's also not improving. President Maduro has clearly hung in there and resisted the maximum pressure from the Trump administration. So that is another concern. Interesting, I think, the one contingency that stands out for me in this top tier is Taiwan. And this is the first time it's been, what we call, a tier one priority. In previous years it hasn't actually featured at all. I think last year was a tier two contingency and it's leaped into the top category clearly reflecting a general concern about the deterioration in U.S.–Chinese relations. And these, I should say, are in addition to what we call the hardy perennials each year—a potential cyberattack on U.S. infrastructure, possibility of mass casualty terrorist attack, U.S.–Iran is always on the top one, and sort of Russian intimidation of a NATO member. But they're the key highlights of this year's survey.

GOLODRYGA: I have to say and I told you, Paul, offline that I thought it was interesting that North Korea topped the list given, you know, just go back four years ago and we had an incoming administration where President Obama at the time told President Trump that this would keep you up at night. And here we are four years ahead and we're in the midst of a massive cyberattack in the U.S. caused by the Russians and yet it does seem that North Korea, at least for these survey responders, is still top of mind for them. So I just found that really interesting on this survey. I just want to let you know before we open it up to Michèle and David, about 20-25 minutes into this conversation, we're going to open it up for any participants that want to ask questions. But let's begin with Michèle and I want to start with Taiwan and the tensions between Taiwan and China really rising to a top-tier conflict for the first time and it's really reflecting the heightened concern over growing military confrontation between major powers. We just saw the previous secretary of state just in the final two weeks of office, you know, unofficially change the rule books with how the U.S. views Taiwan. In return China, of course, sanctions Trump officials. But I just was surprised by an alert I saw this morning that the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier strike group into the South China Sea. This comes the same day that China dispatched a fleet of thirteen warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers over Taiwan. How concerned are you about an increase in escalation between Taiwan and China and obviously the role that the U.S. will play?

FLOURNOY: I am very concerned about the risk of miscalculation between the U.S. and China given the heightened tensions and given that we tend to not fully understand each other in terms of resolve, interests, capability, and so forth. And Taiwan really has become the flashpoint because it is the number one priority for China but also because, as you mentioned, the departing Trump administration made a number of very aggressive moves with regard to U.S.–Taiwan policy that were really a departure from the bipartisan norm of several administrations and really sort of poked China in the eye on this issue and has now, sort of, increased the tensions in that area. But I would also say that the thing that worries me most, not only about Taiwan, but of all the tier one and tier two issues that Paul mentioned, is that, you know, what we've been going through as the United States. The mishandling of the pandemic, the incredibly dire economic impacts that it's had on us, and in the internal political divisions that have erupted in violence and attacks on our own democracy, that sort of narrative feeds a narrative of U.S. decline, which I don't agree with and I don't think is correct. But if you watch Chinese television or Russian television, you see the tapes of chaos over and over and over again. And if they really start to believe their own propaganda about us, that could increase their risk-taking behavior. It could make them think, “Well, the U.S. is distracted, they're weak, they're in decline, maybe now is the time to push and try to achieve our interests.” So that certainly, I think, is part of the context we have to watch on Taiwan, but also on the range of other threats that Paul mentioned.

GOLODRYGA: And with U.S.–China relations overall, it was interesting to hear Tony Blinken say during his confirmation hearing last week that he overall thought that the Trump administration was right to target China's bad behavior and address it. He just didn't agree with the tactics that the administration had taken. What are the more effective tactics that a new Biden administration could play in addressing some of China's aggressive behavior?

FLOURNOY: Yes, no, I agree. I think there is actually a lot of bipartisan consensus on the diagnosis of the China problem, the China challenge. But I think what you can expect to see from a Biden administration is a much more strategic and multidimensional approach that seeks to reengage China in a strategic dialogue, to have very frank conversations about our interests, what we're willing to defend, you know, what our capabilities to do that are, to try to reset deterrence with China, but also to have a channel to talk about the critical issues on which we must cooperate like climate change and non-proliferation and, oh, by the way, preventing a future pandemic. So I think it's going to be a more nuanced approach. I think it will be very tough, but it won't be so transactional and just trade focused. It's really going to be a comprehensive strategy and you see them bringing in old pros, people like Kurt Campbell, to sort of orchestrate that whole-of-government effort which I think is a very good sign.

GOLODRYGA: General Petraeus, one of the priorities in the Trump administration had been in one of his talking points, had been to bring U.S. troops home. And on the heels of that we obviously saw the negotiations with the Taliban and the agreement in Afghanistan that U.S. troops would be returning home and leaving Afghanistan by as early as May of this year. I know that there were some officials in the Biden administration who said that they were open to continue these negotiations and follow through on them. But in your perspective, is that a rational timeline? Can we expect to see U.S. troops home within a matter of months? And can the Taliban be trusted? And what's to be made of their relationship with the Afghan government right now?

PATRAEUS: Well, first of all, let me just say thanks, Bianna, it's great to be back with the Council and great to be with Paul and Michèle, as always. And let me make a couple of other comments, if I could, before I address the issue of Afghanistan, although I'll give a hint to that, the answer to that would be "no" and "no." No, we will not withdraw all the troops unless we want Afghanistan to collapse. And no, I don't think that we will see substantial progress. Keep in mind that the agreement that does exist is between the U.S. and the Taliban. It basically gives the Taliban more of what they want, which is less of us. They still don't recognize the duly elected government nor the Constitution of Afghanistan. So there's a long, long way to go in the negotiations that have finally begun between the Taliban and the actual government or the representatives of Afghanistan.

But first of all, if I could just note, I mean, I very strongly agree with everything, not surprisingly, that Michèle has said—the big threats for the U.S. actually are at home. It is the pandemic. It is the economic collapse in certain sectors. It's the hyper partisanship in Washington and torn social fabric across our country. And these are rightly what the president is already addressing and will focus on, I think, in the way ahead. Interestingly, I don't understand why North Korea is at the top of the list. The truth is that we made North Korea an issue. It was our rhetoric, it was a seeming assumption or an underlying fundamental that was accepted, which probably should not have been, that we could not live with a nuclear North Korea. Now, we may not like that, we will not accept it. But I think there is a resignation that North Korea is nuclear. It is going to have capabilities. Those will gradually get more range and accuracy and all the rest of this. But again, unless you do want to go to war and I think the conclusion was after the two summits and so forth, that North Korea wasn't going to give us anything. They certainly weren't going to completely denuclearize before we relaxed the sanctions, which was the negotiating approach, which, of course, was not one that was workable. If you can get back to some kind of dialogue and you can get back to a step by step starting with an inventory of what they actually have at this point. Having not been back on the ground, I don't think in well over a decade, I remember it was, I think, the year before I was a CIA director, that was the last time we actually had boots on the ground inside North Korea. So I think we're just going to try to manage that. And I think we will try not to overreact, which is what arguably might be leveled or assessed about what we did before.

I am also not concerned about the collapse of the peace process in Afghanistan, I'm concerned about the collapse of the Afghan National Security Forces if it turns out that we have drawn down too far. We're down to 2500 troops, that's less than half of what the commander on the ground, General Austin Scott Miller, I know well, Michèle knows well, for many tours in Iraq and Afghanistan during our times in government. He assessed that we needed 5500-5600, at a minimum, to provide the “advise, assist and enable” for the Afghan security forces. And I'm concerned that there could be a point at which there's a crumbling. There has been an erosion of security without question. You could see a crumbling, and again, the worst case that could come about would be a collapse. And then you're into a scenario where the international organizations, the NGOs, even our own forces, and perhaps diplomats, are starting to be evacuated from a country that desperately needs all the help it can get. It is not Iraq with $100 billion in oil revenue a year that can go on by its own if others forsake it. So that is, I think, a real concern. And I suspect that that will be one that would be fairly near the top of Jake Sullivan's list to assess and now for the new secretary of defense, of course, Michèle and I both know as well, Lloyd Austin, for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. So that is one that I think bears careful watching. And it's not the peace process, which I don't see making even incremental progress at this point in time, it's what happens to the security situation on the ground now that we have given the Taliban what they wanted at the negotiating table and really didn't give much to us in return. They certainly haven't reduced the level of violence as you look at the assassination and suicide bombing that are taking place there.

I really come back to what Michèle was just describing and it's all China, all the time. It's the U.S.–China relationship, which is the most relationship overall. And I'm not just talking about the threats to one another, I'm talking about in every aspect. And I agree with Michèle, this will be a nuanced policy most likely. Again you have Kurt Campbell back, Tony, Jake Sullivan and others that know this very well. It'll be to engage, cooperate, and I'd add, pandemic to the topics that Michèle highlighted for cooperation. There will be a competition and, of course, we have to sort out what's going to happen in the technology space, which arguably is in a fracturing mode and, you know, arguably has been described by some as a technology Cold War if the relationship overall may not be. And then obviously there's going to be a deter, and if necessary, defend, and the possible flashpoints do include, obviously, Taiwan and why Michèle highlights the necessity for clear communication, avoiding misperceptions, miscommunications, understanding each other's core objectives and national interests and all the rest of that. And it will be, I think, coherent, comprehensive and whole of governments with an "S" on the end. So it'll be all of the elements that can be brought to bear together with those of all of our partners and allies around the world as well. And of course the Biden administration has stressed early on that it wants to reinvigorate these different alliances and partnerships. And again, the most important relationship around which that will happen, notwithstanding issues with Russia and the Middle East and Iran and all the others that can be managed, I think, the one with China, I think, is foremost. And again, if you think of the U.S. as the guy in the circus that puts plates on a stick and keeps them spinning, the China plate is bigger than all the others put together and it's the one that matters the most.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, I was really fascinated the day after Biden's inauguration and in his speech, the China Daily, obviously the state-run media publication there, the front page said, "Biden Vows to Reenter Paris Climate Accord." So you look at areas where there could be cooperation between the two and it was interesting that that stood out to the Chinese government as sort of the one, first at least, positive step in perhaps trying to simmer the tensions between the two countries. Obviously, we know that they are heightened right now. General before I move on with Michèle, to rush, I do want to ask you about U.S.–Syria policy because I don't believe that we have heard a specific plan yet from President Biden as to what a U.S.–Syria policy would look like and whether that includes keeping troops on the ground there in Syria. I know Brett McGurk is in favor of that and he's now the Mideast coordinator at the NSC. Are you in favor of a U.S. presence remaining in Syria?

PATRAEUS: Yes, because I'm in favor of an enduring defeat of the Islamic State and avoiding the kind of comeback of the Islamic State that we saw with the comeback of al-Qaeda in Iraq actually in the form of the Islamic State after our combat forces left, although that was not the cause. The cause was the highly sectarian actions of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who had been our partner during the surge and was a, you know, decent partner during that time when we did reconciliation and for three and a half years after the surge, having driven violence down by 85 percent during the surge, as Michèle will recall, and then it stayed down for three and a half years. And it was his actions that actually tore that fabric of society apart again and really reinstigated the whole alienation and the grievances of the Sunni Arabs when he went after the senior Sunni politician, the vice president, then the minister of finance, then a parliamentarian from Anwar province. But to come back to now, this really—let me take this out a little bit, because this has to do with the whole issue of ending endless wars. And I think it's really important to acknowledge that you don't end an endless war by ending U.S. involvement in it. You just end U.S. involvement in it—the war goes on. And so it's not a question of ending endless wars by pulling our troops out, it's a question of how do you end the endless war, how you at least drive down our commitment to it, and I would contend that what we should be seeking to achieve is a sustainable—and sustainability is measured in the expenditure of blood and treasure—a sustainable sustained commitment, which by the way, also will then lead our adversaries to conclude the perhaps they really should negotiate in somewhat good faith because we're not going anywhere and we've gotten it down to a point where it is, again, sustainable. We can easily afford, for example, 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. Remember, when I was privileged to be the commander we had 100,000 U.S. troops, thanks to Michèle and Dr. Gates and President Obama, and 50,000 more coalition. In Iraq we had 165,000 during the height of the surge, just U.S. men and women in uniform, and now we have 2500 there and another couple of thousand-ish in Syria. That is very sustainable to ensure that the Islamic State can't come back and that over time we actually do achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS, which is going to require a number of other activities by host nation partners on the ground, which we should support to some degree but we want them to do those for themselves. And I think what you're going to see is a bit of a gradual, I wouldn't say hardening, but at least some degree of acceptance that there's going to be a U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces area of northeastern Syria. There will still be that camp also down near the border between Iraq and Syria. And at some point in time when there's a recognition that we are not going away, we're not taking significant casualties at all—we lost more in training accidents, I think, last year than we lost in the battlefield—so this is a sustainable issue for us. A superpower can easily keep a modest number of troops, and by the way, also in places such as, again, modest numbers in Somali and so forth. We pulled out of Somalia, by the way, in the last few weeks and already al-Shabaab is expanding into the areas where we no longer have influence and no longer support the Somali forces that we had helped to build.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, and obviously maintaining a stable U.S. presence around the world not only sends a deterrence message to our adversaries, but also sends a reassuring message to our allies as well.

PATRAEUS: Absolutely. And I think you can look back in the past and where we have not done that, or perhaps where our rhetoric outstripped what it was that we were willing to do and suggest that sent the opposite message as well. And this is a time when, again, deterrence is going to be hugely important in that most important of all relationships as it is built and that's how I think you establish deterrence. After all, it is the adversaries' perception of your capability and your will to employ it.

GOLODRYGA: Exactly. Michèle, one of the more complicated relationships that Biden will be having to navigate is that with Russia and Vladimir Putin. We saw those mass demonstrations over the weekend in Moscow and over a hundred cities throughout Russia's eleven time zones following the arrest of Alexei Navalny. And all of his supporters, they're reacting not only to his arrest, but also to these new videos and investigative reports on just the level of corruption surrounding the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. And we've heard strong words from the U.S. State Department. President Biden has vowed to respond aggressively in ways that his predecessor had not. But my question to you is, in addition to strong words and sort of going back to a typical U.S. response, how else can we effectively navigate, or can we at this point, effectively navigate sort of a two-pronged relationship with Russia where we cooperate in areas we can, such as extending New START, which they both seem to agree on and also responding to the lawlessness and the aggressive behavior that we've seen over the past few years from Vladimir Putin?

FLOURNOY: Yes, it's a great question. I think one of the things you'll see from the new administration is an approach that puts allies front and center, doing as much as we by and through allies. So you're going to see them reach out, particularly to our NATO allies, and have, first of all show up. Second of all, have deep consultations through NATO, but also bilaterally. On this question of how do we assess the Russian set of threats, whether it's, you know, the, you know, the kind of threats to human rights and democracy that we've seen recently. Whether it's their gray-zone behavior, the poisoning of Navalny, the cyberattacks, the interference in democratic systems in Europe and here, and so forth. But how do we together assess those threats? How do we work together to be more effective in deterring them, preventing them, and when necessary, responding to them and so forth? But I think the basic premise is we're going to be much more powerful and effective if we work together, not just on a bilateral basis. So I think you'll see, already you know, President Biden has asked the new director of national intelligence to do a deep dive assessing Russian behavior across the board. I think that will be the basis for then engaging allies to come up with a shared strategy. And I do think you'll see them pushback, particularly on anti-democracy efforts from Putin, but also in, you know, we've just had this unprecedented cyberattack, the SolarWinds attack, and I think there'll be a lot of attention focused on how do we shore up deterrence in cyberspace, what kind of costs do we need to impose on Putin, and so forth. But Russia is a classic example of this blend of shoring up deterrence, reassuring allies, mobilizing allies to come alongside us, and the engaging both to press where we have issues with Russian behavior but also to pursue areas of cooperation like New START. I was very, very pleased to see that right out of the box, the administration acted to keep that strategic framework, which is very much beneficial to U.S. interests in place.

GOLODRYGA: Historically, when Vladimir Putin has been, sort of, backed into a corner, he reacts aggressively. And we saw that when there was unrest domestically in 2014 with the Crimean invasion. And I'm wondering, because I'm reading reports from neighboring countries, in particular, former Soviet republics, that are worried that an increased domestic unrest there will sort of put him in a position where he's got to deflect and perhaps act aggressively towards other countries and what a U.S. and global, you know, Western response would look like if in fact that happens,

FLOURNOY: Right. I mean, I do think you're playing three dimensional chess, not checkers with Vladimir Putin. And you have to think multiple steps down the road as you craft a strategy. And you have to make sure you have alliance solidarity for those multiple steps down the road. I think at the same time as we think about additional pressure, we need to think about shoring up deterrence in those areas where we think he might go under pressure. My own view is the thing we should be focusing on is his use of chemical weapons against Navalny. There is absolutely no international disagreement there on the prohibitions against that and that that was sort of outside the bounds of international norms and international laws. And I think that there's a strong case to be made about additional sanctions there. My own view, and again, I'm not an intelligence analyst, but I would like to see us put more pressure on the people who keep Putin in power—the folks around him who do have money in the West, who do have assets in the West that are vulnerable to sanction.

GOLODRYGA: And those are the names of the list that Navalny himself, some top people that his group finds would be more effective in sanctioning as opposed to the country as a whole and having citizens there suffer the consequences—

FLOURNOY: We should have no issue with the Russian people. Right? And we've got to get to Putin's decision-making, not just make the Russian people's lives more miserable.

GOLODRYGA: And to go back to what General Petraeus was saying it's all about deterrence too and he hasn't been deterred at this point. I want to end before we open it up to audience participation with General Petraeus and ask you about Iran. I know this isn't sort of a two-minute answer, but to get your perspective that you have President Rouhani saying the ball is in Biden's court, President Biden's court, to return to the nuclear agreement and to lift sanctions. The Biden administration has hinted that they are very eager to return to the nuclear deal. My question to you is, how likely is a return? And do you think as many detractors have said, with the initial deal, that the Biden administration could actually work a better deal out?

PATRAEUS: Well, clearly, that's, again, what was hinted at when you have the confirmation hearing for Tony Blinken, who also didn't imply that this is going to happen tomorrow or next week. That’s going to take some time. The ideal world, obviously, would be that there could be an effort that is pursued in conjunction with our partners in the region with the Gulf states and Israel so that we're not doing secret negotiations and they're not kept abreast. We'd want to ideally get a bipartisan support on Capitol Hill so it could actually be a treaty rather than another executive order because, of course, those can be a bit fragile if there's a change in the White House. The issues are well known that the agreement, of course, that was reached and signed some five years ago is now five years from the first of the sunset clauses. And then there are others after that. And what Iran does after that, of course, is open to question whether they truly do adhere to the Additional Protocol of the non-proliferation treaty. But, you know, again, what about their malign activity, which has continued to be as malign as ever in Iraq, which they'd like to Lebanonize. They'd like to use the militias on the street like Lebanese Hezbollah for muscle, and then they'd like to have a blocking veto in the Council of Representatives, the Iraqi parliament, as they do, again, in Beirut. They're obviously shoring up the murders, Bashar Al Assad in Syria, together with Russia and active to varying degrees with the Houthis in Yemen, among others. And then, of course, you have the increasingly threatening missile program with more range, more accuracy, and again, more reach, therefore already certainly able to range our partner Israel. So that's the scenario that you have and I'm not sure that I would assume that we're just naturally going to say, "Okay, if you all return to the conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement, that, you know, and you get rid of all the medium enriched, the 20 percent enriched, that you've done now, the 99 percent of the low-enriched, once again, and keep the Fordow site from being used for enrichment once it's been returned to etcetera, etcetera." All of which actually were quite good. There are many good features about this along with the, again, shortcomings of the sunset clauses and the fact that, obviously, Iran and reaped tens of billions of dollars of frozen reserves and was able to reenter the global economy to a degree. They never were completely able to come back in because of the looming possibility of sanctions once you had the Trump administration elected. So again, I think this is a much more complex issue than it seems than just they once again adhere to the provisions of the JCPOA and we once again just lift all the sanctions, because there's other sanctions that are connected to this as well and that has some connection, UN sanctions to the JCPOA, that also raised considerable concerns. And I think that the more you get into this and the more the Capitol Hill provides its advice and consent, that this is going to prove more difficult than perhaps it sounded on the campaign trail.

GOLODRYGA: And also making it more difficult, this is not a bilateral agreement, right? There are other countries involved—

PATRAEUS: Most of the other countries would love to see us go back to that. I think that's accurate to say, but again, I would love to hear Michèle's view on this.

GOLODRYGA: Why don't we hear from Michèle and then we'll get to Sam with our questions?

FLOURNOY: No, I agree. I think, you know, the administration feels some urgency to put time back on the clock in terms of, you know, lengthening the time it would take for Iran to go from materials to an actual weapon. And that timeline has shortened, you know, substantially with the departure of the Trump administration from the agreement. So I think there's pressure to get back into the JCPOA. But I also they've been very, very clear that simply going back to the JCPOA as is, is not going to be satisfactory because, you know, the timelines will be too short, they need to extend the sunset clauses. And there's obviously shared concern among the United States and certainly our European allies and other signatories to the agreement about Iran's ballistic missile program and about their malign behavior in the region. I also think you'll see this administration consult deeply with key partners in the region who may have a different view about how to approach Iran, but again, this focus on allies and partners and trying to, you know, reengage those relationships and have deep consultations and bring them along with a strategy, I think you'll see that effort beginning. The last factor I'll just mention is Iran has elections coming up, you know, within six months of that may also affect their ability to come to closure on something new going forward. So we'll see how the timing goes.

GOLODRYGA: Great. Sam, do you want to open it up?

STAFF: Our first question will be from Joe Nye. Please remember to state your affiliation.

Q: Joe Nye, Harvard University. I want to go back to Michèle's answer about Taiwan. I agree with the general point that all of you've said that I worry more about Taiwan than about North Korea. But there's a different kind of worry. How do we enhance our deterrence of any prospect that Xi Jinping thinks he might get away with something, and yet not to poke a finger in his eye? Now the difficult question is what concrete steps can we take that enhance deterrence that are not essentially so provocative that they have counterproductive effects? So I'd be interested in both Michèle and Dave's answer to what specific things they would recommend there.

FLOURNOY: Joe, it's a great to hear your voice and it's a great question, very insightful as always. You know, I think that we need to think in terms of deterrence broader than military terms. It's very important that we continue to show up in the region and, you know, do our part with allies to reinforce the UN Law of the Sea, the sort of international norms and rules of behavior of the Chinese military in the region. But I think with regard to Iran, the important message is clarifying our interests, that we don't want to see the status quo changed by force, and that it's not just a U.S. position. It's the position of the region, others in the region, and the international community. And I think there's a lot of diplomacy that we could undertake to shore up that message to say, if you took this step, you would, you know, there would be a response not only from the United States, but from the international community. And it would not only involve, you know, potentially military measures, but political and economic measures that China would pay a very, very high price that would be disruptive to its quest for greater international influence and also highly disruptive to trade and its economy. So I think we've got to sort of think about deterrence with a full range of not only our tools, but those of our allies and partners, and really work on a strategy in a way of communicating that consistently to China so that they understand the very real costs that they would incur if they moved against Taiwan, you know, in a way that was outside, you know, that was unacceptable.

STARES: Could I add, say a few words here, too?


PATRAEUS: And I will as well.

STARES: So there is a way, you know, Joe raises a very important point about how you deter China in a nonprovocative way. And, as he well knows, you know, there's two kinds of deterrence—deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. And so there's a way in which we can emphasize the latter, which tends to be less provocative to China, it essentially conveys to them the fact that they would not achieve their objectives certainly in a cheap or acceptable way. And to me, that is the way you reconcile this central challenge, if you will, with deterrence. I think there's a larger question here and Michèle touched on it at the beginning. You know, we're now in a long-term competition rivalry with China and Russia. History suggests these rivalries lasts a long time. In fact, if you go back to 1815, they last on average fifty-five years. And the last time the U.S. was in a major rivalry with a major power it was, what, forty-three years, forty-four years. So we'd have to think long term here. And we have to reconcile these sort of dilemmas that are central to that kind of rivalry. We got to figure out a way we can avoid war in the way we just described. We've got to figure out a way we can compete in a smart way so that we're not engaging in wasteful competition. We've got a huge deficit, ballooning deficit, other domestic priorities that we have to attend to, so we've got to figure that out. And again, as Michèle said at the outset, we’ve got to figure out a way in which we can do all this without compromising the prospects for cooperation on major global issues. And I think, you know, Henry Kissinger captured this central challenge better than anybody else in the 1970s when he said, "We have to find a way to reconcile the need to compete with the Soviet Union with the need to coexist with them." And until we resolve that central dilemma, we're going to consistently run into problems with China and Russia, too. So we have to think this through. We can't think in terms of short-term fixes, we've got to have essentially a long-term, properly integrated strategy.

PATRAEUS: And look, I agree with both of them very much, Joe, and as always, you have characteristically put your finger on the most critical issue, I think, that's out there, again, outside of our shores, noting all the actions that we need to take at home. This is a case where we clearly want to be firm, clear [inaudible]. [Dog barking] Sorry, I have one soldier left under my command and she is always on patrol at the combat outpost in Arlington, Virginia. But again, not provocative. Again, as Michèle noted, the need to engage, to discuss. There'd have to be various efforts, again, it should be a coherent, comprehensive whole of governments with an "S" on the end as both have explained. There are activities that can be taken quietly to help, again, with the denial component of this that follows, that is rightly putting forward, in addition to efforts for deterrence in other fashion. I should note here, in part just because my great respect for the president of this great Council, and I actually do disagree with him on what he put forward some months back, which was a public explicit declaration that, you know, an Article 5-kind of public declaration, again, that we are with Taiwan in the way that we are with our other allies around the world. And I think that could be the kind of provocative action that could result in some kind of undesirable activity. And again, Paul captured exactly right, how do you coexist in this kind of very difficult rivalry, but taking a lot of steps that can, I think, change the calculations a bit while ensuring that there is not a misperception or a miscalculation?

GOLODRYGA: It's interesting that Hong Kong hasn't been raised at all thus far in this conversation. And is that sort of an indication that is, unfortunately, a lost cause at this point?

FLOURNOY: I don't think it's, you know, I wouldn't say it's a lost cause. It's a very, very difficult case. But here again, I think, you know, with an administration coming in that wants to reinvigorate our focus on human rights and democracy, wants to reinvigorate working with allies to achieve common objectives, you know, again, I think there will be an assessment and some policy review to assess whether there's more that can be done to, sort of, moderate some of China's worst behavior there, but it's a very hard [inaudible].

GOLODRYGA: Sam, let's move on to the next question.

STAFF: Our next question is from Sarah Leah Whitson.

Q: Hi, this is Sarah Leah Whitson. I'm the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now. I wanted to talk a little bit about Yemen, which I haven't heard addressed. And I wonder whether you think it might be appropriate or more appropriate to focus on America's own malign activities in Yemen, which, of course, about three dozen former Obama, current Biden administration officials apologized for, for getting us involved in and a war five years later we're still involved in? And wonder whether you have any reflections of reckoning for America's involvement in this war as well as the ongoing malign activities of our own allies for whom we're providing weapons either by sale or by gift? And more broadly, whether you think it's more appropriate as a priority to focus on ending America's own harmful activities in the region instead of worrying about the harmful activities of others in other places.

GOLODRYGA: So I guess there's a U.S. and perhaps a static component there as well. I don't know, Michelle? David? Whoever wants it.

PATRAEUS: I'd be happy to start on this one having been the commander of U.S. Central Command versus in Iraq and Afghanistan. First of all, I mean, just in the region in general, we did actually withdraw from Iraq. And we found that we had to go back in and we didn't want to get engaged in Syria and yet we realized ultimately we had to. And the reason that we had to do that was because the rise of ISIS, the creation of a caliphate, that was of enormous size, in northern and western Iraq and in northeastern Syria, was causing such a massive refugee crisis for our European allies that domestic populism was the result and it was gravely undermining, again, the situation in Europe. So in a general sense, I would just offer that as just one example of what happens if you withdraw completely, and in that case, an administration that definitely did not want to go back into Iraq or go into Syria in the first place, ended up having to do just that. So I don't think it's a case of just us pulling out and everything will be sweetness and light. In fact, I think us pulling out can lead to, again, us having to go back in once we realize the consequences. I would say that if you take the greater Middle East, the same is true probably extending it to Afghanistan and perhaps to parts of North Africa.

When it comes to Yemen, with great respect, I come at this a tiny bit differently because I was a partner for the president of Yemen, Hadi, and, you know, he didn't initiate this fight, the Houthis did. They attacked Sanaa, the capital. They ran him and his new regime out of that capital city and then they ultimately ran them out of the entire country. Now, that wasn't because of us and you could actually argue that maybe if we had done something to help him early on and show them that it wasn't going to be easy that it might not have continued. That's arguable. But again, there's a lot of blame to go to the other side, especially for the initiation of that. There's certainly blame for those who have participated since then and the inaccuracies of some of the bombing attacks—a whole variety of shortcomings and issues. But again, I don't at all see the Houthis as blameless in this in the least. And I think you have to acknowledge a bit of that if you're going to have a balanced approach to a situation that clearly is an absolute humanitarian disaster and certainly one that we want to try to resolve. And now of course, Iran is very strongly supporting the Houthis and also arming them with weapons that are raining down on various Saudi cities and locations. So again, the proposition, as it was put, is not quite one that I would accept. I'd come at that one quite differently, I'm afraid, having been, again, the commander on the ground and having worked with the president of Yemen, who was actually quite a good partner in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula at the time, which was at that time, arguably, had the most dangerous individuals in the world.

STARES: By the way, I do expect the Biden administration to sort of reinvigorate the multilateral or the mediated UN efforts in to bring a ceasefire in a prolonged settlement—

PATRAEUS: Yes, which they should. I agree with it. Absolutely.

FLOURNOY: If I could just jump in that, you know, I think we have to acknowledge where we are, which is, you know, yes, the Houthis should be blamed for starting this. But the Saudi-Emirati intervention has been unsuccessful. You know, the war between the two sides has created an unparalleled humanitarian catastrophe. I serve as the vice chair of the board of CARE. And it's just, it's one of the worst humanitarian disasters the organization has ever tried to respond to. And it's continuing to go on with huge portions of the population at risk of famine and death just because they can't get basic, you know, supplies day to day. I think, you know, the UAE has acknowledged that the way forward is to try to negotiate a solution. I think the U.S. needs to press the Saudis and Iran and their, you know, backing of the Houthis to get to a serious negotiation at the diplomatic table. But in the meantime, I would say at this point, the U.S. should stop supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia that have been used so indiscriminately and have been responsible for killing so many innocent Yemenis. And we all have our focus should be pressuring all sides to get to a ceasefire and then to some kind of negotiated solution. This is a war that's not going to be won on the battlefield. And our complicity at this point, given all that we know in supplying precision weapons to the Saudis, who are using them for imprecise attacks that often have way too many civilian casualties, I think that just needs to stop. And we need to focus on a negotiated solution and bringing our diplomatic heft and those of our allies and others to bear on getting to that outcome.

GOLODRYGA: Clearly a really complicated issue and obviously yet another one for the Biden administration to tackle in the months and years ahead. Sam, I think we have time for a couple more.

STAFF: Our next question is from Ted Roosevelt.

Q: Thank you all for participating. And I'd like to address a question to General Petraeus. You articulated very clearly the need to continue to have troops remain in Afghanistan, for the obvious reason you'll have stability. To a large extent success in this is going to depend on having a partner in the Afghan government that has the capacity to deliver reasonable government services—its corruption is controllable, all the things that everyone on this panel understands far better than I do. How realistic is it to expect that our European partners will provide us with the ongoing support in aid, military, advice, to help the government there to provide reasonable, competent services so it will ultimately have the support of the significant majority of the Afghan people? I'm a little more skeptical about our ability to see that emerge.

PATRAEUS: Well, thanks, Ted. And great question. Hi, to you. Look, I think the support of our European and other non-NATO allied partners—so Australia, Japan, others that provide both boots on the ground, training, and economic assistance. In fact, Japan, as I recall, was number two to the U.S. during the time that I was privileged to command the International Security Assistance Force—look, they will continue if we continue. It's really quite simple. I've talked to some leaders of some of our European partners in recent months. And again, it really does depend on the United States forming the foundation or the base for all that is done, not just militarily, although that is essential, again, without security, nothing else is possible, and as I mentioned, security has eroded in Afghanistan. And we've got to halt the erosion and reducing forces further is not necessarily the way to do that. I'd also just offer if I could, Ted, that, you know, we should remember why we went to Afghanistan and actually why we stayed. The core national interest was to eliminate the sanctuary in which al Qaeda planned the 9/11 attacks and conducted the initial training of the attackers at a time when the Taliban controlled the bulk of the country. We have stayed because al-Qaeda has tried to reestablish that sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan. And sadly, now the Islamic State has an affiliate in Pakistan and Afghanistan and they would love to do the same. There's something very attractive about eastern Afghanistan to both of them. Obviously, we want to get to a point where the Afghans can secure the country. The fact that we have been able to reduce, from again 100,000 U.S. men and women in uniform, 50,000 allied, down to where we were before this final reduction was really quite significant. And the Afghans are absolutely fighting and dying for their country. Dr. Ashraf Ghani is a very good partner. He's the first to acknowledge the various challenges that they have. But at the end of the day, Ted, I think it comes back to the point that I made up front, which is that our European and other allies and partners around the world will stay engaged and will continue to support if we are leading that particular effort. And the question I have is just how low can you go, what is the sustainable sustained commitment that would be ideal for Afghanistan?


STAFF: Our next question will be from Jane Harman.


Q: Hi, everybody. Lovely to see you all. So listening to this, I agree with almost everything. But what is missing, at least it seems to me, is what is our overall strategy, new strategy for the Middle East? I would argue Trump really didn't have one; he focused on Israel a bit. I would argue that Obama didn't have one either. Bush had one with respect to going into Iraq and the domino theory. But most of what you're saying is tactical. And so is there an Obama Doctrine, excuse me, is there a Biden doctrine? And if there isn't one, do we need one?

GOLODRYGA: Quick question, Who wants to take a stab at it?

PATRAEUS: Michèle was the policymaker.

GOLODRYGA: Okay, Michèle.

FLOURNOY: You know, I think it's a fair criticism, Jane, and it's a very tough region, but I do think that this is a crowd of folks who would probably come into office sharing that critique in a way. I also think that things have evolved since the period of the Obama administration. So I think you'll see a fresh strategy review that really goes back to first principles about what our core interests are. And they certainly go back to, you know, preventing any kind of terrorist attack coming from the region against the United States or our assets or our interests around the world. But it's also broader than that. I think, though, you know, there's a very important opening that's occurred and this is one of the few places where I think you will get Democrats acknowledging that the Trump administration made a positive step—the Abraham Accords—to really strengthen the cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states. I personally think there will be limits to how far that can go without some addressing of the Israeli-Palestinian problems and the issue of a two-state solution. But I do think it's worth supporting. And then I think the third element will be trying to end some of these, you know, wars, whether it's Yemen, whether it's a negotiated solution in Afghanistan and so forth, but then figuring out what kind of regional posture do we need both diplomatically and militarily to try to contribute to stability without, you know, believing that we can have a large, you know, without pursuing large-scale military interventions, which I think history has taught us again and again, are not going to turn them, you know, the Middle East into a set of democracies, are not going to be successful in transforming the region. So I think it's going to be more humbled approach. It's going to be a more clear-eyed approach. But it's going to use all instruments to try to get after our objectives even as we also try to free up bandwidth both for focusing more of our attention relatively on the Asia Pacific. And of course, the most important thing for competing effectively is reinvesting at home, you know, reinvesting in the drivers of American competitiveness and influence here at home, which gets back to our technological edge, our economic recovery, and vitality and so forth.

PATRAEUS: I strongly agree with that. I do think, again, that you've got to have in the back of your mind this concept of, again, a sustained sustainable commitment because of the national interests that we still have there, whether it is the nexus with Islamist extremists or the free flow of energy resources, or just sheer stability in the region. And also noting, you know, recalling Michèle's comment about democracy, recalling Bernard Lewis, the great historian who said that "democracy was strong medicine that should be taken in small doses at a time in the Middle East." And all of that, I think, does lead to, again, a humbler approach to some of this. And I think we have certainly learned a lot of hard lessons over the past two decades that would counsel in that direction, but would also counsel that you don't, again, end endless wars by ending our involvement. There has to be some kind of durable formulation that allows you to do that. And with that I also say, thanks, Jane, for your eighteen years on Capitol Hill and your ten great years at the Wilson Center, which I know are coming to an end in a month or two here.

GOLODRYGA: We're all big Jane fans. We are at the eleven o'clock mark, and I know we want to stay on time. If I could just end by asking a question to the panel that you all began addressing and that is the issues here domestically at home. And what we've seen transpire over the past few months and few weeks, no doubt, was a big stress test on our institutions. And we, you know, I wouldn't say we passed with flying colors. When you have former defense secretaries send out public letters stressing that the current defense secretary and the troops not to get involved in our democratic electoral process, from a global perspective, what is the reaction and what harm has that done to our standing globally and what needs to be done to restore that standing the way, you know, many have viewed the U.S. prior to the past few months and years?

STARES: So if I can go first, I think it's done tremendous harm. And clearly repairing the social and political fabric of this country is priority number one, along with obviously bringing the pandemic under control. And I think we have to work to a sustained period of normalcy and back to business as usual in Washington without the pejorative sense that that term is often used or associated with. And we really have to rebuild our standing in the world as a result of what's happened over the last two or three weeks or four years, arguably, and that really is a central goal that we have to work on now.

FLOURNOY: I would just add, I think that's right. I think we have to rebuild and also sustain that. You know, I think it'll take a few election cycles for our allies to really trust that we have reset from the last four years and from, you know, a presidency that brought us to the point of insurrection. But I do think, to end on—and I'm an optimist by, you know, genetics or whatever—so to end on a more positive note, I really do believe in the resilience of the American system, the American people, and I do think that we will, if we play our cards right, and we invest in the drivers of our economic competitiveness, research and development, key technology areas, higher education, smart immigration policy, twenty-first century infrastructure and we get this country moving again, that's going to play huge dividends to reset the perception of the United States and to give us much more influence and to be a force for good in the world going forward. But that, you know, I do have faith that we can do that. I have a lot more faith in this administration than the last one in terms of having a strategy to do that. But it's going to take some time. And it's going to take a lot of effort. And I do hope that we can rally around this as a country going forward.

PATRAEUS: Look, I would echo first what Paul said. You know, it's hard to be a shining city on a hill if the hill is under assault. And that really was the case, needless to say. But I'm also hopeful. We have weathered those challenges, the immediate challenges—we have gotten through that, obviously, there are many, many more that lie ahead. But I hope that the stark nature of what we saw proves to be a moment of real reckoning and clarification. And that we can once again prove the resilience that Michèle highlighted rightly because I also believe very strongly in that. I'd like to think that for thirty-eight and a half years of government service, those were among the values that we were seeking to preserve and protect. And that ultimately we will once again validate Winston Churchill's assessment that you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after all the other things.

GOLODRYGA: Yes, I would agree with that as well. I'm an optimist. I'm a political refugee from the former Soviet Union. I like to say Russia has a constitution. It's not a bad one, but you know, it's meaningless. So at least hopefully this has been a reminder that it takes work to uphold our Constitution as well. And we all have work to do. On that note, let us end this conversation. I think it's been riveting. Thank you so much for your insights. General Petraeus, Michèle Flournoy, Paul, thank you so much and thank you CFR members and thank you, CFR, for having me host this conversation. Have a good day everyone.

PATRAEUS: Thanks, Bianna.



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