Restoring Trust: How Can the American Public Regain its Confidence in its National Security Apparatus?

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This event took place on Monday, June 11, 2018

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for coming out today to what I think will prove to be a fascinating conversation. I'm Nick Gvosdev. I direct the U.S. Global Engagement program here at the Carnegie Council.

We are assembling at a very interesting midpoint between two consequential meetings which may have a very big impact on the future direction of U.S. foreign policy. We've just completed what I think is probably the most contentious G7 summit since maybe the 1970s or early 1980s, really putting the United States at odds with its closest economic and military partners from that summit. The president is now in Singapore and I assume at about 9:00 Eastern Standard Time tonight is when he will have his face-to-face one-on-one meeting with Kim Jong-un, and we'll see how that plays out. So we could really see some major shifts occurring in the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and certainly America's allies and partners both in Europe and Asia as well as America's competitors are looking to see what the long-term impact of these meetings will be and what it portends for the future.

This also raises the question and brings us back to our topic today. I don't know how many of you saw the photo that the German photographer took at the G7, which I think is now seen as the iconic summary of that meeting of lecturing Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a more defensive President Trump with his arms crossed, and other G7 leaders ranged about, but what I found very fascinating is that that image is a political Rorschach test in the United States in terms of how people are reacting to it.

You have some people saying: "This is terrible. Look, this shows that we have a major wedge with our allies, and the liberal order that the United States has shepherded for the last 70 years is coming to an end."

Others are saying: "This shows the president standing up for Middle America against the rapacious trade practices of free-riding allies in Europe and Asia, and he's standing his ground."

This one image is being interpreted very differently. It comes back to this question of expertise and trust, which is: How do Americans validate policy choices? A number of people have said the G7 was not a success; others have been saying it went very well.

We obviously have the pundits on the cable news programs, particularly this last Sunday, spinning, but what is resonating? How do American voters and how do American political leaders assess the direction of U.S. foreign policy, and where is the impact of these choices, and what is the basis of trust?

Are we saying that we trust the judgment, or if we enter it as people like Tom Nichols have suggested in The Death of Expertise, we've entered this post-Google age where there is no expertise and everyone feels that the Internet allows them to possess all the information they may ever need on any subject, and there is no need for expertise. [Editor's note: For more from Nichols, don't miss his Carnegie Council podcast on this book.]

We will have a real test for this for the president coming to Singapore this evening—tomorrow morning Singapore time—because the reports are that in the first meeting with Kim Jong-un he will not have staff support, he will not have Korea experts with him, he will not have nuclear experts with him, and the sense that the two leaders, or at least the president, feels that he doesn't need expertise in order to conduct at least this initial meeting with Kim Jong-un.

To discuss this issue, we have brought two leading commentators on U.S. foreign policy—you have their bios in front of you—Kori Schake to my left and Colin Dueck to my right. Kori in a way provides three panelists for the price of one on this subject because of her background, first—

KORI SCHAKE: I was worried about what that noun was going to be.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: —because currently she is the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, a bona fide member of the expert community. Many of you may know her from her columns in Foreign Policy, the podcasts, or from a variety of her writings or her appearances.

So she is a bona fide member of the expert community, but she has also been a practitioner at senior levels of the U.S. national security establishment. She served as director of the Policy Planning Staff and was a senior member of the National Security Council staff for strategic prioritization, so she has the practitioner expertise.

But finally, you've also advised candidates. You've been involved in the nuts and bolts of trying to get people elected to office, so you understand the basis by which candidates have to be able to—it's not enough to say "I have a great policy," you have to connect that to a majority of voters to say, "Please endorse this policy" or "Endorse my candidate to carry out this policy." So in many ways you are a three-in-one—expert, practitioner, and campaign expert.

Not to then slight Colin, professor at George Mason University, probably one of the, I would say, leading analysts of American foreign policy, particularly of the last post-Cold War period, and specifically Colin has really developed an in-depth appreciation and understanding of the debates and schisms within the Republican Party since the end of the Cold War, both among Republican elites but also among the Republican base, among the voters, what direction should policy go in, and we have seen these play out in the George H .W. Bush administration, in the George W. Bush administration, to what extent in the Trump administration these cleavages are still there, and then how this has also impacted in Democratic administrations as well.

For Colin, in some ways this is a return to that first—Colin and I were together at Oxford at St Antony's College, and you may recall that seminar we convened at St Antony's after the unexpected upset in 1994 when 25-plus years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives was upended, and a lot of our British colleagues wanted to have a sense of what did this mean and what was this wave coming from the American heartland and all of these familiar members of Congress and more importantly familiar congressional staff were disappearing and being replaced by people who were relatively either unknown or untested in foreign affairs. I think this is sort of a similar issue today, which is: What's happening in the American heartland and among American voters, and are we entering into new territory?

Let me just say that there is so much on the table that we're not going to be able to cover everything in one session, but I think we'll have a good conversation. I'll turn the floor over to Kori first and then to Colin, and then we'll open it up for general comments.

KORI SCHAKE: Thank you. As Nick said, I sailed on the pirate ship McCain in 2008 as John's defense advisor on his presidential campaign. I think about that as where the tsunami we are living through now starts, both because of the way John chose Governor Palin, who in a lot of ways exemplifies the kind of reckless populism that we are seeing central to Republican Party politics right now, but also because it was the first campaign that had to take into account the two big failures of experts, the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis.

My answer to the question of "Can the American public regain its confidence in its national security approach?" is the American public is right: We were wrong about big, important things and reckless about the consequences, and they're sick of hearing it from us, and they're not wrong to be critical in that regard.

One big piece of what's happening is the genuine failure on the part of experts to think in a careful way about the consequences on the American heartland of a series of choices that have to do with two big drivers, and the two big drivers are the end of the Cold War and the go-go financial consequences of the Information Age.

Let me start with the end of the Cold War. Simon Nixon, The Wall Street Journal's Europe guy, made my hair stand on end a couple of weeks ago by suggesting that maybe we've got the timeframe wrong on the end of the Cold War. Maybe we're mistaken to think the Cold War ends when the Soviet Union collapses. Maybe actually now, maybe that Renaissance painting from the G7 is when the Cold War ends because in the intervening 25 years what you see is a United States that is growing more and more confident that it has the right answers, that the arc of history is bending toward not just justice but that our values are universal and we are unconstrained by the challenge of another great power.

It is not—as President Trump says in his National Security Strategy and as gets carried through to the Defense Department's national defense strategy—that we're in an age of great-power competition, it's that great-power competition is the nature of the international order. What was different about the prior 25 years is that there were no great powers to contend against us. All of the prosperous, strong countries of the international order were actually America's allies and aligned to how we would like the international order to work. So what we are looking at as the return of great-power competition is in fact the return of another great power, the rise of China.

This enormous technological upheaval that I am reasonably confident bodes well for our country and for our friends in the world—because in the near term authoritarian states have found really ruthless creative ways to harness these technologies to social control, but I don't think that's the way to bet your money. Schake's theory of authoritarianism is that there is no government so consistently good at its job over time that it can prevent my nephews from downloading pornography. The incentive structure is just aligned too strongly to my nephews. They are going to find a way around any kind of controls people can throw up.

That is the nature of the Information Age. All of us are walking around with supercomputers in our pocket. All of us can take pictures—or better yet, videos—of police when they are carrying out their function, and we're going to have a big, loud, typically disputatious American argument about everything that's going on.

That is in fact what we are doing right now. It feels incredibly enervating. It's exhausting. I'm yearning for a boring Midwestern governor to get elected president so that I can just stop paying attention to every day's indignation.

But this revolution that we are going through, first of all, we started it, which Europeans always remind us, but second of all, these are fundamentally democratizing technologies, and they are going to benefit societies in which the government doesn't have all the power. It will benefit people being able to hold authorities accountable, and in the longer term that is enormously advantageous, not just to the United States but to the values that we stand for and try to propagate in the world.

The 2008 financial crisis is the other big driver. If you haven't yet read a book written by a pair of economists called This Time Will Be Different—it's a hard slog; it's 400 pages of economists talking, but it is really extraordinary. What I drew from reading it is that there has never been a financial crisis that a country took less than 10 or 12 years to claw its way back out of. If they are right, we are still in our domestic politics looking at the long shadow of the 2008 financial crisis. [Editor's note: For more on this book, see authors Reinhart and Rogoff's 2009 Carnegie Council talk.]  

In the Schake tribe, we have a near-perfect political focus group. Namely I have 32 cousins who live in rural Ohio outside of Cleveland, and talking to them in the run-up to the 2016 election, they don't want to hear it from foreign policy experts, they don't want to hear it from economists, and they don't want to hear it from the political establishment who they feel like has not solved their problems.

Parenthetically, they are predominantly life-long Democrats who voted for John Kasich because he actually does care about the opioid crisis, he actually does care about junior college education. Interestingly, in my boring Midwestern governor theory, I'm not sure John Kasich is that governor, but the great thing is that the experimentation that everybody has going—because the president isn't the only person who has to find a way to turn the key in this lock and address voter exasperation.

If you look at American polling about politicians, everybody hates Congress, everybody hates whatever president past or present, but respect for local and state government is soaring in the United States, and that suggests to me that people think their local and state governments have a better handle on the problems that are genuinely worrying them. That, of course, is why a federal structure of government is so advantageous because everybody experiments.

We are a reckless political system. Every other democracy has sorting functions where elites can prevent reckless lunatics from catapulting to the top of the system, and it is both the great strength and the great weakness of the American political system that we don't, that anybody can get elected president, and that's just the risk you run as a country. But that also ties our political system much more tightly to public attitudes, which is wonderful. The exasperation that Americans have, we actually have political means to address in the very near term. Nobody else has to go in front of voters every two years, and that's what makes our system both so melodramatic but also so good at solving problems.

The last thing I will say is that what President Trump has done extraordinarily well is ask basic first-order questions: Why do we defend allies who don't appear willing to defend themselves? Why isn't trade policy more advantageous for American manufacturing?

I think the president lacks a grasp of basic economics. He doesn't seem to realize that services comprise 73 percent of the American economy, but he's right to ask these first-order questions, and it is the failure of people like me to answer them in a way that my Uncle Eddie finds satisfying in the midst of this revolution, and that is what's driving the upheaval in American politics.

The good news is that our political system is holding up really well in this time of craziness, and actually we have the means to sort this, and everybody is busy trying to find a way to be the person who can answer that question because that's what's going to get people elected this autumn and in 2020.

I think I'll stop there, my friend.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Colin.

COLIN DUECK: The term that has come up a lot the last couple of years is "liberal international order" or "rules-based liberal international order." It's this thing that we worry about, particularly academics, foreign policy experts, think tanks, foundations, and some leading politicians, both here and overseas.

The fear obviously is that Trump is challenging the liberal international order, whatever that is. This debate almost takes on a kind of theological quality at times. It's an -ism. What does it mean?

Normally people use it to mean something beyond the United States playing a leading role, but a set of rules, economic, diplomatic, that bind the United States deliberately. But the term has actually drifted a little bit in its meaning over the years. You want to ask yourself, for example: Does it mean that we're talking about sovereign democracies cooperating with one another as allies, or does it mean that we're continually ceding sovereignty to transnational institutions? There is a genuine debate over that, for example, between left and right, but that's a legitimate debate. That's a debate that can happen between honest, well-intentioned people.

Similarly, you could ask yourself: "How dogmatic are we going to be about the regimes that need to populate that system? Do they need to look exactly like us, or can we allow for more pluralism within that system?" Can we allow, for example, for constitutional monarchies in the Middle East? There are some regimes in the Middle East that are allies of ours that are not profoundly inhumane, they're also not Jeffersonian democracies: Jordan, for example. Is that acceptable, or do we have to insist that everybody looks just like us? That is another example of a legitimate debate.

What has happened I think over the years—and Kori is right—is that the foreign policy expert community has narrowed what it considers to be the range of acceptable perspectives to the point where the general population I think has become very frustrated on multiple grounds, and this comes from both left and right.

One of the things that has happened is obviously—whether it's through the Trump campaign or the Bernie Sanders campaign on the left—a lot of Americans just don't believe that this liberal order is serving their material interests when it comes to free trade and globalization. As it turns out, a lot of people, including in Ohio, believe that globalization has hurt them more than it has helped them.

That was a revelation to see that in 2016 not just on the left but on the right you could make that argument and win the Republican nomination because we used to think that the orthodox Republican position was pro-free trade. As it turns out, you can have a candidate who comes along with a ferocious argument against free trade and wins the whole thing. That blew us out of the water.

I can tell you from being on the other side of this—I was working for a different Republican candidate—what Donald Trump did was he identified a set of gaps between elite opinion and popular opinion on one issue after another, and he just drove through those gaps like a Mack truck, quite frankly, as blunt as he could be. Free trade was one of them. Immigration was another.

The standard view of Republican elites in DC is to pay lip service to what Republican voters think, but in reality Republican elites are pro-business. They favor more or less open immigration traditionally for decades. What many Republican voters were saying was: "We don't. We view this as a challenge. We view it as a challenge economically and maybe even culturally."

Obviously, that's an issue where Bernie Sanders supporters feel very different, and that's an issue where there's a difference between left and right.

However, as it turns out, there is also a difference between elites and public opinion on both sides. The elites of both parties tend to be more pro-immigration. The public opinion, the voters, the grassroots, particularly on the Republican side, is much less pro-immigration. It just is. So if the elite of the party insists on a pro-immigration platform, eventually some political entrepreneur is going to come along and identify that gap and run with it, and Trump did that. So, free trade was one; immigration was another.

Foreign policy is a third. I remember quite vividly the moment when Trump said in one of the debates—I think it was in an exchange with Jeb Bush—that Iraq was a mistake. It was an unforgettable moment, even if you weren't for Trump or working for Trump, even if you were actually working on a different Republican campaign. Who else talked that way? Maybe Rand Paul, but he didn't have a chance. To have the frontrunner of the Republican Party not just say it, but shout it. If you recall, he actually shouted it. He sounded angry.

I'm not questioning the sincerity or the insincerity of Trump's statement. I don't know what was really on his mind, but he said something I guarantee you millions of Republicans at the grassroots level around the country felt the same way: Iraq was a mistake. That's what they felt, and here was somebody who actually had the guts to say so. My candidate didn't say that.

If the elite of the party was out of touch with the base of the party, somebody was going to discover that. So we have to ask ourselves: What is it we're defending when we say "liberal international order"? What exactly are we defending? What's the concern? What's the worry?

My own point of view, I think probably like Kori and Nick, is that there is a core set of institutions that really are valuable and that have done a great deal of good, the fact that the United States has a forward presence in the world going back to the 1940s, that it supports allies, that it has democracies that it has nurtured over the years, starting with Germany and Japan, that it has trading arrangements with these countries. The world has been freer, more prosperous, and safer as a result of that role. In my mind, there is no question about that.

But there has been a set of aggregations around that role, particularly since the end of the Cold War, that have frustrated a lot of people because they seem like a failure. Then you start to get candidates coming along who say: "Well, this isn't working. It's just not working. It's not in your interest." Then, of course, the risk is that you throw out the baby with the bathwater. How do you preserve the baby? If the baby is America's forward role, we don't want to see that dismantled. For example, if NATO was to actually be dismantled, that opens up incredible opportunities for Vladimir Putin. That's not going to be a safer world.

But how do we bolster NATO and meet what I think are actually some of the valid voter concerns? Why doesn't Germany spend more on its own defense? Is that actually such an outrageous thing to say for an American citizen who is, let's say, lower middle class or working class in Ohio? I don't actually think that is such an invalid concern. Trump says it in a very blunt way, but it's probably how many Americans feel in both parties. You can reflect on it as a first-order question: Why doesn't Germany spend more on its own defense?

We're having a debate, and it's characteristically lopsided, it's ferocious, sometimes it's unfair on all sides. It's all-American. It's rambunctious, but it's a democratic debate, Trump supporters, Trump critics, Democrats, Republicans. I actually think it's useful. I think in the long run, like Kori suggested, this is going to be a useful time to knock open some previously unanswered questions or unasked questions and try to tackle them and say, "Well, what do we really believe?" because Trump is a kind of destructive force. He's a wrecking ball. He smashes things.

His supporters actually like this about him and say: "Hopefully, it's a creative destruction. Hopefully something good comes out of it." The people who are entirely worried about him don't see that possibility at all, but at a minimum it has cleared the way, as a wrecking ball does, for something new.

Trump may not be the one to rebuild something new in a way that is entirely constructive, and we don't know who will. Maybe it'll be a Democrat, maybe it'll be a Republican. The real question in my mind is: What comes after Trump? Who's next? What's that foreign policy going to look like? Because I don't think we can go back to pre-Trump. I really don't. We cannot pretend that this hasn't happened.

I really think that if elites in either party run in 2020 or 2024, just saying, "I hate Trump. Let's pretend this never happened," it's not going to fly. It's really not. We have got to digest what has happened intellectually and politically and try to understand whatever valid concerns there are and then create something more constructive over which there can be honest and well-intentioned disagreement.

I'll stop there.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you, Colin.

Let me just start with a framing question to both of you, taking actually your closing point, Colin, and moving forward with it. With the American expert community, the American foreign and national security expert community, the American economic expert community, trade community, as we move into 2018 and 2020, are they going to look at these trends and be—and I can't remember who the French politician was who said it: "The mob is running in that direction. I must follow them in order to lead them" versus an expert community that says: "We've gone off the rails, good first-order questions, wrecking ball, and now we have to be constructive, and we need to bring you back."

As both of you said, there is a sense among a number of voters that the system hasn't worked, it hasn't served them. "All right, you've had those feelings, but now we've got to bring you back to reality."

What do you see, particularly in your circles and among your contacts, because the other lesson I think of the 2016 campaign and what we're seeing to this day is that you have people who say, "I want to speak truth to power," and then others who say, "I want to cultivate power. Maybe I'll speak truth or maybe I won't because I hope to get in and then maybe shape from the inside."

What do you see happening with the expert community and American political leaders as we move forward?

COLIN DUECK: Trying to shape from inside, by the way, can be an honorable choice. There are some perfectly capable, honorable people serving in the Trump administration right now. There are some who are first-rate.

But at the end of the day Trump has made it clear as president that he, like any other president, is going to call the shots. In his case, it's very clear. When he imposes tariffs on Canada, that's his decision. It's not what the orthodox economist would recommend, and he knows it, so he doesn't have a lot of orthodox economists around him.

On the question of what would economists say, I was talking to a colleague down the hall at George Mason University, and I asked him this very question. He gave me a great economist answer, which was: "We should fan out"—and he meant this in all sincerity—"into towns that are hurt by globalization and explain to them the benefits of globalization from an economist's point of view."

I just sort of stood there and blinked at him and tried to be polite, and it reminded me of why Donald Trump won the election, because Trump is so much more persuasive and forceful and uncannily effective in the way he talks about these things. The truth is, look, globalization does bring mutual gains. Economists know this, and they are very capable of explaining why. But it also creates winners and losers in a relative sense.

For example, a lot of working class or lower middle class Americans have not—and some economists now say this—benefited as much proportionately as the wealthiest Americans or, for that matter, as the wealthiest or rising middle classes in other countries like China and India. So when Trump comes along and hits on that sense or that resentment, he's not wrong. Whether or not he has a positive program in relation to trade is a different question. He may not. But he hits on that resentment, so a lot of people will say: "That's the guy. He at least understands my complaints. He gets it. I haven't talked to anybody who gets it. He seems to get it." That's populism. That's a sense of being reconnected to popular concerns.

I'm sorry to say that I'm pretty sure that the standard expert response is wrong, which is to say: "Let's go out and explain to the public once again why the public is wrong and the experts are right." We've seen that that just doesn't work. So there has to be some way—and I'm not sure this is the president to do it—of squaring the legitimate concerns that are out there, the concerns about the downside of globalization, the people who are hurt by globalization, the people who are displaced.

This is a revelation for Republicans, by the way. For Republicans to figure out, somebody like a Kasich, how do you talk about that and respond to it in a constructive way in practical, nitty-gritty terms, what policies do you pursue, and yet at the same time without wrecking your alliances, without wrecking all the benefits from free trade and from this great system of allies we have overseas?

KORI SCHAKE: I want to really reinforce Colin's point about how we talk about it because I think both in domestic politics and internationally the condescension of elites and allies is a lot of what's driving the exasperation. So it's not just that Germany spends 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense while wanting American soldiers deployed in Germany and an airtight guarantee for us. It's that Germany trumpets the superiority of its social welfare programs over ours, and you Americans—it's the condescension of that conversation.

The same holds domestically. My Cousin Larry said: "I don't care that my TV is cheap. I have a 22-year-old son living in the basement who doesn't have a job." Thereby did I lose the argument about free trade.

Colin's right. We actually have to approach this with empathy for the experience of our fellow Americans and solve their problems, which is what politics is supposed to do. We very often, especially when we're talking about America's alliance relations, mistakenly believe there were halcyon days in the past where American statesmen stood astride the world and didn't have grubby local political concerns to constrain them. I don't see when that period was.

It was a big struggle for the Truman administration to get the Marshall Plan through Congress, and they made all sorts of disgraceful horse-trading deals to get it through, and it was great for our country that we did, and it was great for a lot of other countries as well.

My sense is that how you have the conversation really matters, and elites both domestic and international have actually got to stop condescending to people who are genuinely worried about how the economy is changing and how the social fabric of the country is changing, and they're scared, and they're not wrong to be scared. So that's one thing.

The second thing it seems to me about what's going on, I absolutely agree with Colin's diagnosis that President Trump speaks the things that other more polite politicians won't say out loud but that people are actually feeling. I as a conservative used to get exasperated with the Obama administration holding law class to explain to all of us lesser mortals about why their policy was the only one that could possibly—the nature of our discourse needs to, we need to actually be more acknowledging that people, that our fellow Americans can disagree with us and still be right.

The third thing that I would say, though, is that what I think I see in the polling about American public attitudes—in particular the polling done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. They do an annual survey of American public attitudes on global affairs. Last year, a year into the Trump administration, they saw striking shifts in American attitudes on all of the president's big three—on allies, on immigration, and on trade, 15 percentage-point swings in American attitudes over the course of a year.

That's a tidal wave of changed attitudes, and in all three cases the shift was in the opposite direction of the president's policies. It's too soon to tell is the honest answer, but my theory of the case is that what is happening is that the president is asking first-order questions that everybody else was too polite to challenge or too much a part of the globalist elite, of people like me, to challenge, and it is making my Cousin Larry and my Uncle Eddie pause and think about these issues in a way they haven't before.

Upon consideration of the big, loud, messy, angry public debate we are having, they are coming to conclusions that immigration is actually good for this country and that we don't want to be the people we see separating families at the border or bouncing out people who want to contribute to our society and who are the revitalization of how we think about ourselves as Americans.

They don't like free trade in the abstract, but they do want an American economy that's humming along. Even among Republicans you see a shift in favor of trade again. Lastly on allies you see the same thing.

So one of the things I am eagerly watching is to see how polling responds to our president's shocking treatment of the Canadian prime minister and the fact that he was isolated among the six countries that are our closest friends and economic partners in the world. If, in particular, Republicans are okay with that, if John Bolton's tweet of that Renaissance painting of Merkel leaning on the table and the president isolated and obdurate, if Republicans think as John Bolton tweeted out, Yeah, our man's standing up for us, then actually this is going to be a very different conversation than if Republican reaction is, "Aren't those the guys who took in every American who was on an airplane after September 11 and took us into their homes, and don't we actually kind of like the people we have a 3,500-mile largely unguarded border with?"

We'll see. We're about to get a very interesting Rorschach test of where the Republican Party is, and it actually says a lot that I'm not prepared to bet my money on which side my fellow Republicans are going to come down on that.

I'm sorry. One other thing I should have said. I'm going on too long, but the other big factor in this is the choices that my sister's political party is about to make because if Democrats have a landslide, first of all, that will be data point one on the turn of the kaleidoscope about American politics, if Republicans are willing to cross the line and vote for Democrats.

Of course, it always depends on who that Democrat is. If Republicans can resist the temptation to flock to the Bernie Sanders' direction of the Party and actually care about small businesses and speak a language that is going to draw Republicans across the line and if, as is likely at the moment, Democrats retake the House, it'll matter a lot whether a Democratic-controlled House sends virtue signals and spends all their time talking about President Trump or whether they have the discipline to actually have a legislative agenda that they pass and make a Republican-controlled Senate take a position on about how to solve the problems that my Uncle Eddie and Cousin Larry are experiencing.

Questions

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

This was so enlightening, and thank you for bringing in your family from the Midwest because often enough many of us don't have relatives that we can ask about this.

Let's ask a big question about national security because aren't we seeing a shift from Eurocentric American foreign policy following upon the Second World War and the end of the Cold War—although what is the role of Russia now?—and the turn to Asia? North Korea, that little, puny country, has so much power over us? And China, the giant, you're saying is the opposite number now.

What is happening to American national security priorities?

COLIN DUECK: You're right. There is a long-term shift, very long term. In a way we're moving back to pre-1500, if we can wrap our heads around that, in other words, an era where Europe has been the center of the world. Even during the Cold War, Germany was the ultimate prize. Now we're in a world where Europe is really secondary. It really is, actually. The center of gravity has shifted to the Pacific, and the sheer weight of China's economy is pulling everybody in, and it's creating security challenges for the United States, too, particularly as China converts that into political and military weight.

That's the number-one long-term challenge, which in an odd way Trump seems to believe on some level, that we need to focus away from—and Obama did something similar, the pivot to Asia. So we're sort of fumbling toward this sense. Americans have this feeling that China is now the number-one challenge. It's not that people want to go war with China, and China doesn't want to go to war with the United States, but this is the number-one challenge.

I think you're right. We're moving toward a world where it is going to be more Asia-centric, more Pacific-centered. That is frustrating for Europhiles and Atlanticists.

It's not to say that Europe isn't still a key center for American activity in the world, and the Middle East is a sort of third theater, but that is part of the challenge for what people call the liberal order: How do you manage a liberal order, when the single biggest actor in the Asia Pacific is not liberal?

China plays by its own rules. It's not going to play by our rules. They've made that very clear, and they have the power to resist and say: "No, we'll push back. We'll play by our own rules." Massive industrial espionage, intellectual property theft, territorial aggression in the nearby waters—China can be pretty aggressive, even though it doesn't want open conflict with the United States. That is probably not going to go away. That will be a challenge for whoever is president.

KORI SCHAKE: I have a slightly different view than Colin on this end, which is I think it's still an open question whether China can continue to rise without liberalizing and whether we are really willing to shift our interests to Asia. Let me take the two of them separately.

First, there has never been a country that has succeeded in becoming sustainably prosperous without becoming politically liberal. It's Hegel's philosophy in action, that as people have their basic needs met they become more demanding political consumers. China is, of course, the great outlier to that because for the last 40 years they have been becoming more and more prosperous, and there doesn't appear to be any important alternative power center arguing for liberalization.

The space I am watching and I encourage you to watch about how this plays out is that I think what is going to force the liberalization of the Chinese government is moms demanding safe baby milk, because in an authoritarian society where power is concentrated so tightly at the top, and there are none of the canary-in-the-coal-mine mechanisms that free societies have—investigative journalists, local government demanding that the federal government do its job right, elections. Hong Kong has just put limits on the number of mainland Chinese who can transit into Hong Kong, because they are buying all the safe baby milk because people in mainland China have no confidence that their government is keeping their food safe. That's a classic rich-world complaint. You see Chinese beginning to act like demanding political consumers in the ways that are possible for them.

So I'm reasonably confident that the Chinese government, if it is going to grow more prosperous, will also be forced by the Chinese themselves to grow more liberal. But it's a great social science experiment we are running.

The second thing is that per capita GDP in China is $8,748, which is fantastic, but it's the rough equivalent of Equatorial Guinea. It's not the equivalent of South Korea, it's not the equivalent of Japan, it's not the equivalent of Germany. China has been a magnificent manufacturing base for precisely the kind of thing that has put my Uncle Eddie out of a job as a United Auto Worker. They are the manufacturing base of the world right now.

As Colin points out, they have not been stewards of that in a way that is encouraging Apple Computers to manufacture things in China. So you begin to see the ebbing away of international investment, especially in the kinds of services and up-the-value-chain kind of production that drives the G7 economies. So whether China can get through this middle-income trap without all of the rest of us stopping to help them is actually a second open question.

The third very good question you raise is: But Europe? We have had the luxury of not caring about Europe because after the end of the Cold War it was the world's safest place. That is less true at the moment given Vladimir Putin's behavior.

You begin to see—so for all of President Trump's angry anti-European [rhetoric], you have seen greater investment militarily, greater investment financially in the security of Europe by the United States in the last 18 months because we can afford to ignore Europe and pivot to Asia if Europe is stable and secure, but too much for us in terms of the people we like in the world and in terms of the thrumming of the American economy actually requires a stable, prosperous Europe.

We are now slightly recalibrating, and I think you'll see more of that. Also, Europeans are recalibrating. Every NATO ally in the last two-and-a-half years has turned the corner and is now increasing its defense spending again because they're nervous, too. Five NATO allies are putting brigades of troops into the Baltic States because we're worried enough about Russian behavior.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

What would both of you think of the current and possibly near-future status of the national security apparatus as it pertains to the Justice Department and the FBI?

COLIN DUECK: I don't have much to say about that.

KORI SCHAKE: I think this is a time of enormous strain on the checks and balances in American democracy, and I'm thrilled that for the most part they are succeeding with flying colors. I actually think President Trump's behavior has activated the antibodies against him being able to, for example, politicize the Justice Department. But I am genuinely worried about it.

President Trump succeeded with the first immigration ban in doing something I would never have thought possible. Namely, he made an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) member out of me because I was shocked at my government's behavior and wanted to both support the governmental rule of law that is essential to democracy in America but also the active, vibrant civil society that holds our government accountable for us.

I always think I am the median American voter, that what I do everybody else does, but I think in this case I'm two-thirds of the way convinced that Donald Trump, for all of his efforts to undermine the rule of law in the United States is actually going to end up being good for democracy in America because he is reminding us of all of the things we take for granted, the norms of comportment of our elected leaders, that we need to actually demand of them and not take for granted that these things happen automatically. That is a source of enormous vibrancy in American society.

QUESTION: Thank you. Enlightening comments. Fotis Boliakis.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement, what was the timing about cancelling it and the connection to North Korea? Was it something that he did not want it to be used by North Koreans, and that's why he cancelled it before the trip? What was the meaning of it?

KORI SCHAKE: You have just proved yourself a better strategist than the president of the United States because they actually weren't connected and ought to have been. What drove the timing on cancelling the Iran nuclear agreement was that the president would have had to certify that Iran was in compliance with its obligations under the agreement and that remaining part of the agreement was in America's national interest.

Everyone in the administration, including Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence; Mike Pompeo, [then] the director of the CIA; and Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense, had testified before Congress—again to those great checks and balances of American democracy—that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the agreement. The president, however, had campaigned on leaving the Iranian nuclear agreement.

The best guide to what Donald Trump is going to do is actually what he campaigned to do. I think that's how to understand the personnel changes of the last six months, that he was tired of feeling like he was being hemmed in by people who didn't win an election in this country and were trying to prevent him doing what he told the American people he was going to do, and that is frankly to his credit.

You will remember when the agreement went into force President Obama didn't deign to get it approved by Congress, and Congress, not trusting the president's overarching desire to get an agreement with the Iranians and the European countries, had required every six months for the president to certify that not only was Iran in compliance but that it was in America's interest. That latter part was what President Trump was unwilling to do.

COLIN DUECK: Can I just add to that? There was a serious case against the deal. That's one of the reasons why it couldn't get through Congress. It wasn't capable of winning two-thirds support.

It's harder to get out of than to get into. Iran really has taken that time to take advantage of the sanctions, continue to push the envelope in the region—support terrorism, support its proxies. We were told that one of the benefits of the deal in 2015 would be that it would trigger domestic changes inside Iran. What happened in the meantime is that Iran became more aggressive.

I think there was a valid critique of the deal and also a valid debate over whether or not to exit. You can imagine being against the deal in 2015 and then saying, "Well, I think it's still very difficult to get out of."

KORI SCHAKE: The secretary of defense's position.

COLIN DUECK: Exactly. There are different nuances that people have taken.

Because Trump is not risk-averse, he's willing to gamble that Europeans will have to go along with it, that European companies will have to go along with it. Europeans don't like it. They don't necessarily have to like it, but Trump is threatening them in saying: "It's not just the United States. Major European companies will be threatened if they try to continue to do business with Iran."

I think one other short point is it may have been intended—I don't know, there is a variety of stories—to give Trump a little more leverage going into the North Korea negotiations today, which is to say, "We are willing to walk out of arms-control deals that we don't like, so don't think that we'll just have to say yes to anything." That's a possibility.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: For concluding the open part of this discussion, Colin, taking that last question of gamble and asking both of you to address that question, which is the president's willingness to take risks. I think experts generally tend to be more risk-averse in that. They can think of second and third order effects where things can go wrong.

Just your speculation: Do you think these gambles will pay off, the G7 gamble, that Europeans: "You don't like it, but you want to deal with Xi Jinping and Putin, go right ahead, or you can take the gamble"; with North Korea: "We want you to denuclearize. If you don't want to play ball, we still have the 'fire-and-thunder option' perhaps in reserve." This sense of gambling, where do you think it might end up?

COLIN DUECK: That's exactly what it is. The Trump foreign policy experiment is a gigantic gamble, which is why a lot of people weren't willing to get onboard in 2016. The DC policy community tends to be more risk-averse than that.

Trump said a lot of things. A lot of it was actually quite vague when you get right down to it. He said NATO was obsolete. He didn't lay out a detailed policy platform saying, "I will dismantle NATO," and as it turns out he hasn't, as Kori suggested. In fact he has reinforced it in some ways. There is more of a U.S. military presence on the ground in Poland and the Baltics than there was two years ago.

But he's willing to push the envelope on multilateral trade, arms control with adversaries, with allies, and I think all you can say—we're not soothsayers—is keep an open mind. He may actually pull off some wins. There may be catastrophic consequences. It's actually too soon to say.

I'm very skeptical of people who claim after even a year and a half that they know for a fact how it will end up. When I read the thousandth article saying "Inevitably it's all a disaster and it's going to be a disaster" or "Everything's great"—it's like The Lego Movie: "Everything's awesome." I would take either one of those with a grain of salt. We have to wait and see. Most of this hasn't actually played out yet. It may be a mixture of the two.

My impression of Donald Trump actually is that he is not interested in major military conflicts overseas. He says repeatedly, "I want peace." He wants peace with everybody. He wants peace with Russia. He wants peace with North Korea. He's willing to threaten bloody murder to get it, so he's not risk-averse in that way. He is risk-acceptant in terms of pushing the envelope on specific policy outcomes to get what he wants. I don't actually see somebody who is hellbent on war. That is not my impression. He is a very blunt New York businessman who thinks that the United States has been ripped off and that he's the guy to readjust the situation. That's not somebody who is necessarily looking for war.

We could end up in war unintentionally. That's a big danger. That's a danger at any time. It was a danger in 1950 in Korea.

I would just withhold judgment if you can and actually empirically watch and see what happens before concluding that it is all terrific or that it's all a disaster.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Last word, Kori?

KORI SCHAKE: I agree with everything that Colin just said. This is the reason 85 percent of what I know about the subject I know from reading Colin.

I write a column for The Atlantic, and I had the fun of teasing through the other day this issue of risk tolerance and risk aversion. I know many of you know Kahneman and Tversky's prospect theory, the notion of what makes for winning streaks and losing streaks, which is that we have different levels of risk tolerance based on whether we're winning or losing.

How you get a winning streak is once you start to win you're confident and you then make safer and safer bets, so you win more because the probability of a good outcome is higher. Inversely, if you start losing, you start making bigger and riskier bets because you want to restore what you have lost.

I actually think that's where the president is on foreign policy. He looks to me like his risk tolerance is growing with time, that his risk tolerance on the first Syria strike was less than his risk tolerance on the second Syria strike. His willingness to alienate America's friends is accelerating and not decelerating because he's not getting the outcomes he wants. He wants Angela Merkel to stop scolding him, and she's not, and therefore he's getting more outsized reactions to her.

I am actually more worried than I think Colin is, although I take his very good point that we need to judge the president on outcomes. For example, if you think the outcome on the Iranian nuclear agreement is, as the president rightly surmised, we can force Europeans into compliance because nobody can afford to be outside the dollar market. But if that makes Europeans unwilling to keep fighting alongside us in Afghanistan or joining a war on the Korean Peninsula if we start one, that's a pretty big downside risk, and the resentment that our closest friends in the world feel toward us right now actually also matters.

The third thing is, if the Iranians restart their centrifuges, which if I were a betting man, I would bet that the footsies they are playing with Europeans is if Europeans don't continue to abide by the agreement, that is, not fold to American secondary sanctions, Iran's going to restart those centrifuges, and then what do we do?

Here's my last bad outcome because I'm someone with a grisly imagination—which every good strategist is, you always have to imagine the monsters under the bed—which is the erosion of dollar primacy and creation of a new Swiss system, which the Chinese and Russians are playing around with and could be an enormous problem for us, which will be the function of us overusing secondary sanctions.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you, Kori. Thank you, everyone, for coming out. Thank our speakers.

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