Making Foreign Policy Relevant Again: Connecting International Affairs to Citizen Concerns
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This event took place on Friday, September 21, 2018
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs to an ongoing program of the U.S. Global Engagement project.
For those of you who were here when we had our last event in June with Kori Schake and Colin Dueck, that event took place amidst major events that were happening in U.S. foreign policy, the G7 summit in Canada, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, and a number of issues were raised at that point.
We reconvene right as we're basically at the cusp of a trade war with China, so I think some of that again highlights this question of the importance—even if people don't realize it—that foreign policy, foreign economic policy, foreign security policy, can play in their day-to-day lives. It's apropos for today's session, which is the question of making foreign policy relevant again, to connect the concerns of the citizenry and the voters to U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. posture in the international arena.
Again, for those of you who were here in June—and if you weren't, certainly go back onto the resources page of the Carnegie Council and call up either the video or the transcript of that event, because one of the things that was very interesting in what Kori and Colin had to say is to trace some of this disconnect between the foreign policy apparatus in the United States and the voters by pointing out the questions of expert failure over the last 10 years, things like the global financial crisis, the Iraq War, how that was handled, leading to a crisis of confidence and people questioning whether or not the foreign policy community really was connected to the interests of the citizenry. Both Colin and Kori pointed out that we have these areas of disconnect.
This session is now about reconnection. If the last session was about diagnosing the problem, this session is to begin looking at the question of how do we make the foreign policy formulation of the United States better connected, if possible, to the concerns of voters.
We are, of course, right before what will probably be a very momentous midterm election. We're going to see I think—my own prediction—this could be as momentous as, say, the class of 1974 or the class of 1994 in terms of bringing large numbers of new people into the political process both as voters but then as people being sent to Congress, which will then raise the question of whether or not "business as usual" will continue.
For this panel, we have brought two other members of this study group that we are running at Carnegie together, Asha Castleberry and Ali Wyne. Their biographies are here, and for those of you who are either watching live or will be seeing this in recorded fashion their full biographies will be connected by hyperlink so that you can look at their background. Why I'm not going to do a quick read is I first of all can't do justice to their breadth and length of experience, but more importantly as you'll see from here—and hopefully everyone has perused this—the number of things that they're involved in and how all of this interconnects, their experiences, their backgrounds, what they're doing now, and I think this will lead to a very rich discussion.
What I have asked each of them to do is to have some opening remarks and to let them take this question of making foreign policy relevant again, and then we will converse a bit among the three of us, and we want then to draw everyone here into the conversation to close.
So Asha, why don't I turn to you first, and we'll go to Ali after.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes. Hello. Thank you everyone for having me here this morning.
My name is Asha Castleberry. I'm currently a professor at Fordham University. I'm also a military veteran, so I'm really excited to talk about this question as far as connecting the American people to foreign policy, which is definitely needed around this time.
After going through the 2016 presidential election we've seen where more Americans have been thinking more inward in terms of their issues and lashing out at the international community and resisting these foreign policy issues. The big question from that point on into 2018 is what can we do to bring them all in?
The one big thing I would say that is an issue that is easy to bring the American people more into why foreign policy matters in terms of policy decisions and how it impacts them at home, is trade. The trade war is a big issue. That is a more direct impact to them in terms of their pocketbooks.
For instance, you're seeing where steelworkers right now are protesting against the current tariff issues. I would say that is a good starting point, and from that point explaining why it's important to have a healthy relationship with China and work with them and not necessarily make these unilateral decisions in terms of the trade issues we're having with them. We do have one, and we just have to think of a better approach on how to address the issue.
I think that's definitely a good starting point in making them think more about abroad. The best way to explain it is not just through media but also through the educational systems getting out there throughout the nation and getting out of this East Coast bubble to explain to the American people why this is important and what we need to do moving forward. That in my opinion is the best approach as far as explaining to the American people why foreign policy matters and why our U.S. global leadership has to be strong and very decisive in terms of their soft power. Shifting now to something a little bit more complicated, the rest of the issues in my opinion when it comes to foreign policy are a little more complicated to explain to the American people why it's important and what we need to do moving forward.
For instance, when you think about the Russian aggression as far as their hard power and soft power, if you explain to them why it's important to counter Russian aggression in Syria, that may not resonate among the American people. But if you talk to them in terms of, "Okay, this is important as far as countering cyberthreats in terms of Russian aggression," that may resonate, may not resonate, but it's a good starting point.
The best way in my opinion to draw them in is to have them be part of the fight in terms of how we can best counter Russian aggression online both in the private and public sectors. In the U.S. military you're starting to see more people being recruited to be cybersecurity officers. That's the best route to have them be part of the fight. Remember, only less than 1 percent of the American people serve right now, so we do need more people. If you look at the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), we have $717 billion right now. This is the time to recruit more people. So have them be part of the fight.
But you have to explain to them why cybersecurity threats are important and how they've impacted us because it's very challenging. If you look at the type of threat, it's a nontraditional threat. It's not a physical threat where someone in person can actually feel the threat. It's more nontraditional. It's influential, it's decisive.
I think that's why some Americans tend to be like, "I wasn't really impacted by a cyber threat during the 2016 election," so there definitely needs to be more of education and explaining to them why this threat has impacted them and how it has also created internal political instability right now.
There is a lot of explaining to do in terms of foreign policy because the American people have to understand how this impacts them directly. I'll stop right there.
ALI WYNE: Nick, thank you so much for organizing what I think is a very timely and important conversation, and it's really a pleasure to be here with you and a special pleasure to be alongside somebody who is a friend and a mentor and someone I really hold in the highest esteem.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Thank you.
ALI WYNE: It's a pleasure to be with you.
Nick, I know you said that you wanted to focus a little bit more on getting past the diagnostic, and I promise that I will in due course, but I think it is important to focus a little bit on some of the diagnostic issues in terms of understanding how we do make foreign policy more relevant for the American public.
Since the rest of my remarks are probably going to leave us in a little bit of a bad mood, why don't I begin with the good news first, and then I'll get to the bad news later, and then we have some potential remedies going forward.
I think the good news is that there is still, if you look at polling data—and I particularly commend polling data that has been done by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in recent years—there is residual support in the American public for an internationalist role. I think that we should be careful not to overstate the proposition that Americans are turning completely inward, that they're isolationists, and that they want to come home.
If you look at polling that the Council and other organizations have done—Pew's Global Attitudes Project, Gallup, etc.—you find strong support for trade. In fact, one of the recent polls done by the Chicago Council found a record level of support for free trade among Americans, which I found to be a surprising but encouraging finding. You find strong residual support for maintaining our alliances. You find strong support for an active international role. How you define "active" is where some of the granularities begin to differ, but broadly speaking there is strong public support for an enduring active role in international affairs. I think we should begin with that foundation, that we aren't seeing a fully isolationist turn in the American public.
But—this now gets to Nick's point—I do think there is a disconnect between the foreign policy establishment such as one can be conceived and the American public. I want to emphasize that while—and I'll get to the impact of candidate Donald Trump and then President Donald Trump later in my presentation, but I think it's important to observe that this disconnect long predates Donald Trump's foray onto the political stage. I would say that it really began to open up in earnest in the 1970s.
I would recommend to you a report by Harry Krejsa, who is now working at the Pentagon, on issues of cyber policy, but he was up until recently working at the Center on New American Security. He put out a really good report—the title is "The History and Future of Heartland Security"—and he makes the point that in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and then for about three decades subsequent, the United States government did a good job of embracing globalizing, embracing a more active role in foreign affairs, embracing advanced technology, but simultaneously investing in social safety nets at home to make sure that individuals who were being dislocated by globalization were protected. For a complex array of reasons that Harry lays out in the report and that others have mentioned, starting around the mid-1970s you begin to see a gap open up. The United States, starting with the mid-1970s, we continue to embrace globalization, technology, and a more active role in international affairs, but there is a comparative underinvestment in those social safety nets that had protected Americans before.
Just to give you some statistics, while it's true that in the postwar era we have seen tremendous aggregate gains in American prosperity, the foreign policy establishment tends to emphasize the aggregate benefits. You look at the increase in—I don't know what the exact factor is—a multiple-fold increase in America's Gross Domestic Product in the postwar era, you look at America's wealth. If you look at America's innovative apparatus, it had experienced extraordinary aggregate gains. The problem is, if you're only looking at the aggregate perspectives, you're not looking at distributional effects. Particularly since the mid-1970s those aggregate gains have been increasingly concentrated.
Two points of data that jumped out at me when I was doing some research for this discussion this morning: Between 1929 and 1970 middle-class incomes grew faster than upper-class incomes. That trend started to reverse in 1971 and has been accelerating since. Another point: Median household income since 1975 has increased by less than 0.5 percent annually. While we see again aggregate gains in prosperity, a lot of Americans in the middle class say: "Where is that trickle-down for me? I haven't seen the gains in my day-to-day welfare."
I think the foreign policy establishment tends to emphasize the aggregate. I think that Americans, particularly in the middle class and the lower classes who are really suffering, who have seen a growth in income inequality, and who have seen wage stagnation, say, "What about the distributional benefits to me?"
I think a second reason for the disconnect—and I think a growing disconnect between the foreign policy establishment and the American public—is one that I think has acquired particular salience over the past two decades. We look at America's record of military interventions since 9/11.
The foreign policy establishment rightly emphasizes that American foreign policy has many components: There is a military component, there is a diplomatic component, there is an economic component. The difficulty is in terms of making foreign policy concerns salient or relevant to the American public. A lot of the economic and diplomatic components of U.S. foreign policy are quieter. They don't make the headlines. They're more incremental. They don't really capture the news. You're not going to turn on the radio or turn on the television and hear a lot about the quiet, incremental diplomacy that's going on behind the scenes, even if it's critical to advancing American national interests.
The most visible manifestation of our foreign policy is military intervention, boots on the ground. It's what we hear. If we lose a soldier, we hear about it on the news. If soldiers are injured, we hear about it. We hear about boots on the ground.
I think the American public tends to view, and—understandably—they tend to think about American foreign policy largely through its most visible manifestation, which is our record of military interventions abroad, and that record leaves something to be desired if you look at the past roughly two decades.
Take Afghanistan. In Afghanistan the United States has lost roughly 2,200 soldiers. We have spent over $840 billion in Afghanistan. But if you look at a major metric of how successful we have been in Afghanistan, you compare the Taliban's share of territorial control immediately prior to September 11, 2001, and the Taliban's share of territorial control today, and they're roughly the same.
So the American public says: "We've lost so many of our soldiers. We've invested nearly $1 trillion in this theater. One, how is it connected to my day-to-day life, and even if I believe it's not connected to my day-to-day life but I think it's important for America's national interest, what progress are we making?" So that's Afghanistan.
You look at Iraq, where we've been for 15 years, and a U.S. Army spokesman has said that we'll be there indefinitely to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but our intervention in Iraq helped to spawn the Islamic State, whose various mutations now threaten to tie down our forces indefinitely in Iraq and Syria. So again the American public says: "What is the benefit to me materially?"
The American public says: "Well, I look at this record of military interventions. One, I don't see how it really connects to my day-to-day welfare, and also, even if I were to accept that it's important for U.S. national security, our record leaves something to be desired."
I would also say that the foreign policy establishment, particularly in the aftermath of the Cold War—I mentioned at the outset of my remarks that this disconnect in earnest began to open up between the establishment and the public in the 1970s, but an important part of that disconnect really began to gain salience in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.
I came of age during the 1990s, and there was a tremendous amount of triumphalism in the aftermath of the Cold War. We feel that democracy and capitalism, if not inexorably ascendant, are confidently rising. This is the golden age of peace and prosperity. This is prior to 9/11. The economy is booming, and so on.
I think that the foreign policy establishment at the time—when it was really embracing globalization in earnest, it was promoting democracy around the world—did not sufficiently appreciate the tensions that would arise between a more full-throttle embrace of globalization and the latent resurgent power of nationalism. I think that what we're seeing now is that that latent power of nationalism is really coming to the fore, and it has a couple of components.
While it is true again that our embrace of globalization and technology has generated tremendous aggregate gains in productivity and income and economic welfare, many Americans have lost their jobs. You see the hollowing out of the middle class, in part due to trade but largely due to automation.
I think one of the reasons that trade is kind of a convenient bogeyman is that it is easy to say if we blame a particular country—we blame China stealing our jobs, Mexico stealing our jobs—but I would say if you look at the data, roughly 85 percent of the manufacturing jobs that were hemorrhaged between 2000 and 2010 were not due to foreign trade, but they were due to automation. You can't put a face on automation.
So a lot of Americans fear the rise of the robots: "Automation is going to take away my job." So they feel a loss of agency over their lives economically.
There is also a demographic anxiety. There is also a socioeconomic anxiety. The prevailing demographic constituency in the United States fears that with the foreign policy establishment's embrace of open borders and the influx of immigrants, they feel that their political purchase is going to be marginalized, and that anxiety is very acute.
There is also an outsized fear of terrorism that comes with the embrace of open borders. If you look at the actual data, it suggests that the public's concerns about terrorism are inflated, but nonetheless there is a very palpable concern. You look at economic anxieties, you look at demographic anxieties, cultural anxieties that now inform this nationalism, and then enter Donald Trump onto the political stage.
I think it's important to emphasize that Donald Trump did not cause populism. Donald Trump did not cause the resurgent populism and nationalism that we are seeing, but I do think he as a candidate and now as president has tapped into those sentiments very effectively, and his "America First" doctrine—whether or not we agree with its merits, and we can have a discussion about that in the question-and-answer period—has resonated emotionally with a sizable segment of the American public.
What is the America First doctrine? I want to quote here from a very insightful essay by Rebecca Friedman Lissner, who is affiliated with Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania and her colleague Mira Rapp-Hooper, who is a fellow at Yale Law School. They write in an essay that they published in The Washington Quarterly earlier this year: "America First is at its core a message animated by nationalism and nativism. Its economic nationalist creed seeks to reassert domestic control over the economy by pulling back from international trade, unshackling from multilateral regimes, and stemming immigrant flows. In so doing, the argument goes, the United States can regain sovereignty by cultivating a pure national identity and improving the lot of average Americans."
So analytically we can debate America First, but if you read that quote, what the president is doing and what the purpose of this America First doctrine is resonates with people emotionally who feel that they have lost agency over their lives, who feel dislocated by globalization, and who feel buffeted by forces that are external to their control.
I'll close by saying that if we in the foreign policy establishment want to make foreign policy relevant for the American public again, if we want to have the public play a greater role in shaping an activist role or a robust international role, part of the challenge is one of explanation. I don't think the foreign policy establishment has done a nearly good enough job of explaining why Americans should care about foreign policy.
I was just telling Nick at breakfast earlier this morning that I attended an event yesterday in which one of the speakers—he was a very high-ranking government official and has served with great distinction, he was the senior foreign policy advisor to Secretary Clinton during the campaign, Jake Sullivan—and at one point he said: "I was knocking on doors, and I was talking with the voters." Jake Sullivan, like many, is a proponent of this notion of a "liberal international order."
He says: "I was talking with a voter and I"—meaning Jake Sullivan—"said to this voter: 'Well, we need to invest in this liberal international order. It's under duress from without and from within.'"
The voter said something very interesting. The voter said: "I don't know what the liberal international order is, but I can tell you I don't like the constituent parts. I don't like liberal, I don't like international, and I don't like order. So, if you put the three together, I'm certainly not going to like the concatenation of the three."
People laugh, but I think there is a very serious point to be made, that rhetoric matters. The language that we use to convey the importance of our engagement with the world matters. So explanation is part of it, but explanation can only go so far. You have to make an emotional case. You have to connect with people where they are emotionally.
If you go to very significant segments of the American public and people say, "I'm dealing with opioid addiction, my wages are stagnant, I haven't seen a gain in my real income," and you say: "Well, your fears and your anxieties are analytically misplaced," you've already lost the public.
You need to meet people where they are emotionally, and then, once you've made an emotional connection, think about how we can make a case based on where they are emotionally, based on where they are in their lives. How to then make the case of saying that given your emotions and given where you are right now in your life, an activist foreign policy, a robust foreign policy matters.
I know I've already overstepped my time, but why don't I stop there?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: One of the things that both of you brought up—I want to pick up on your last point, Asha, and use that as a jumping-off point. You talked about foreign policy issues needing to impact people directly. That is, they can't think of it as something that is disconnected if it's to be made relevant to them, and if it's to be important. You opened with we now are facing a trade war. This becomes a pocketbook issue.
But then I also really picked up on this point about—and it's not just military service, although that's one component, but the larger issue as Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say, a lot of people just "don't have skin" in the foreign policy game, and in some way our foreign policy establishment is to blame because we've made it easy for people not to have skin the game.
We have said: "Don't worry about—let some people in Washington handle this. We'll take care of it, and you don't need to be involved, and therefore if you're not involved, you're not invested in it." If you're not invested in it, then you don't see how it impacts you, and I think that's one of the things that we're grappling with.
I think, Ali, the point that you raised here, that people are looking this record and saying, "Well, how does this matter to me?" and I think we still have not been able to make a case. My worry is that people too easily fall into—we have these time-tested statements: "America has to lead," for example. That is still trotted out by politicians.
Then you have people saying, "Why?"
"Well, America has to lead because if we don't, then what?"
As you said in your remarks, people who feel a loss of agency, who are concerned that the ground is shifting under their feet, don't necessarily see why this matters to them.
Let me throw this out as an opening question and not to put you too much on the spot at this, but do you see anyone at this point having digested these lessons, either politicians—it may be still too early, but we already have a sense how the 2020 race may be shaping up—or groups that are addressing this and moving it forward, or are we running the risk that, Ali, as you said, that people are content to use Donald Trump as, "Well, this is a Trumpian factor"?
People may have seen this very interesting piece a few months back by Lawrence Freedman saying that it's a mistake to think that this is just Trump and that somehow whenever Trump finishes his term in office that we just go back to the way it was, that this is an interruption. Do you see anyone who is really grappling with this and saying what an agenda for a 2020 or 2024 campaign would look like to connect these issues?
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I believe that, I don't really see the best approach in terms of the politicians, how they are connecting foreign policy and domestic issues and showing how this impacts you, but I do see where you see more discussions talking about how to address the economic inequality.
There are a lot of schools of thought, and one that has definitely been becoming more comfortable with [some] is actually socialism. A lot of candidates are coming out and saying, "Hey, I support this," and they're actually winning some of these seats.
One is, "Okay, if I tell the voter, 'Hey, we need to achieve a higher minimum wage or we need to address more economic equality,' that sells to American people." I think it's because they're hitting on that emotional point there.
It does scare a lot of conservatives as far as like: "Whoa! We're embracing socialism? This is not so good."
An article came out not too long ago actually about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on how can she actually connect what she's doing with a foreign policy agenda. It was talking about some ideas but didn't really talk too much about, "Here are some solutions" or "Here are some ideas that she can do to connect." It was more talking about, "Okay, don't side with the Palestinians or Israel, don't do this or that," but it didn't necessarily give a thorough approach on, "Okay, these are the foreign policy decisions that the liberal side of the house should run with."
I think that what you're seeing is less talk about foreign policy and more talk about economic anxiety and how to address that, and that's becoming more and more comfortable to the American people.
ALI WYNE: I would echo what Asha said. I think the discussion among politicians and among policymakers, and understandably I think it's lagging some of the discussion that's occurring in the think tank community and other places.
I will say what I find encouraging is that in the immediate aftermath of 2016 if you look at some of the publications that were coming out of the think tank community, I think that a number of them—I wouldn't say all of them—were emphasizing the imperative of just better explanation of why Americans should care about what we're doing in world affairs. Better explanation is a component, but explanation alone doesn't suffice, again because it's not connecting to people emotionally. I was concerned initially when I saw a spate of reports coming out saying that the failure has been one on the foreign policy establishment's part, of marketing, of education.
I do think, though, there is now, if you look at a number of the pieces that have appeared in recent months, the one that Asha referenced by Daniel Bessner, a historian, that was published in The New York Times, I think the title was "What does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez think about the South China Sea?" The idea was, what would a progressive or more liberal foreign policy grand strategy look like?
There have been a number of pieces in that vein. There was a piece by Dan Nexon that he published in Foreign Affairs recently in which he makes the argument that we need to stop thinking of domestic and foreign policy as a binary. He says that people posit a false binary. He said that if you want people to care about foreign policy, you have to tell them how it affects their day-to-day lives, namely domestic policy, and if we want to lead more by the power of our example than the example of our power, then we need to do a better job of demonstrating to people why the American model works if we want to be credible abroad. So Dan in his Foreign Affairs piece is positing that we need to think about domestic policy and foreign policy in a more integrated fashion.
There are now more and more pieces, more and more discussions that are starting to say: "We get it. We are not reverting back to pre-2016. We do need to forge a new foreign policy consensus."
How you operationalize that consensus is very difficult, to go to something, Nick, that you just said. We often hear this exhortation bordering on almost incantation at this point: "America must lead." But America must lead to what end? What are America's objectives in world affairs? Why should America lead? I mentioned some polling that the Chicago Council has done or that Gallup has done, excellent polling, very illustrative.
We should play an active role in world affairs. I imagine that everybody in this room would have a different understanding of what "active" means. How do you operationalize active? For some folks it might be militarily active, economically active, and diplomatically active. For other individuals it might be one of those components or not others.
I think there is a near-consensus, which is good, that we are not, as Lawrence Freedman said, going back to pre-2016. I think there is a consensus that we need a new consensus on foreign policy and on making it relevant to the American public, but I think where we are struggling is—and we will continue to struggle, and 2018 and 2020 will be helpful to this end in clarifying the contours of the conversation—how do we operationalize that proposition.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: If I can just jump in with one other point, and then I want to bring everyone else into the conversation, is the risk that we run that everyone says we need a new concept that will suspiciously look a lot like the old one?
I look at two things: I look at the National Security Strategy that the Trump administration released, which is an uneasy marriage of—it opens with: "We need to take care of Americans, America has done too much, freeloading allies are draining American vitality, America is leading so that others can benefit." The rest of it is, how much of the old Republican national security could we squeeze into this? So we'll take, but we still need to do all these things in the world.
Similarly, the Center for American Progress report, the first salvo of a Democratic/liberal approach, opens up: "We need to recognize we can't go back to pre-2016." Particularly I think what struck me about that report and its attempt to cater to a Democratic candidate—"Here. Here's your template to run for 2020"—all of these things about anxiety and the crisis at home, and then very much, "But the way to address it is just to take what we used to do and do it better."
Is there a risk that we're going to run—what happens when as we're starting to come to this new consensus, as we begin to get a sense, and then that new consensus leaves out things that the American foreign policy establishment says we still want to do these things. We still want to intervene, for instance. We would like to have a forward, robust engagement policy.
The consensus says we should pull back a bit. As you said, the polling data says Americans don't want to go isolationist, but they'd like to be more selective.
I'm reminded of an event in 2007 when we were having some debates about this in Washington, and the question came up: "Well, if you have to prioritize"—I think the statistic was that we had 150 countries in the world where there was some degree of U.S. military engagement—"how would you prioritize?"
And someone said, "Well, they're all important."
Is that the risk that we run, that we start talking about a new consensus, that economics matters, dealing with the concerns at home matters, inequality matters, and American can't do everything. We saw that President Obama was trying to struggle with this and always was running up against, "Yes, we ought to do less, but here's still everything that we ought to be doing, and we're not really prioritizing."
Is that a risk that we could still see a disconnect as we move forward of this embrace of "We should do things differently" but suspiciously look a lot like we used to do it prior to 2016?
ALI WYNE: I'll take a crack at it. I think that is an appreciable risk.
I think it's important to recognize in the establishment's defense that there is a lot of inertia. I think that for a long time we in the foreign policy establishment could afford to proceed with a certain inertia and revert to some of these familiar exhortations—invest in the liberal world order—because we didn't see and we didn't anticipate this visible and potent a manifestation of discontent with those formulations. It's hard to overstate how jarring the election has been in this regard.
If we had been having this conversation 10 years ago—10 years ago we were in the throes of a global financial crisis. There were many discussions in the think tank community and the establishment community about the frailty of the postwar order and how do we reconfigure U.S. foreign policy. But at the time—and I would say from 2008 roughly up until Donald Trump's election—that discussion was primarily focused on pressures from without: How do we make the international system more accommodating of emerging powers? China's resurgent and wants a greater say in world affairs. How do we make the system more accommodating? Russia is in some respects resurgent, India is resurgent, Brazil.
The discussion from the period between the onset of the financial crisis and Donald Trump's election was primarily focused on how do we reformulate America's role in world affairs to deal with external challenges. Some people were prescient in this regard, but I don't think that most observers would have anticipated that now we're having this conversation.
I think the principal challenges to America's role in world affairs, the principal challenges to this postwar order—I know that's one of the abstractions whose invocation I was saying we should be avoiding—now come from within the principal architects of that system.
I work at the RAND Corporation, and one of my colleagues, Michael Mazarr, led a two-study on behalf of the Office of Net Assessment basically assessing the health of the international order and how do we revitalize it, a very in-depth and I think exceptional study that I would recommend to all of you, but I was very struck by his finding.
He says, and I'm quoting now from the summary of the study: "The most serious hazard, namely the most serious hazard to the postwar order and to America's role in it, is social and economic." It's an internal challenge. "If Western and global populaces continue to lose faith in the political and economic values and systems that have been central to that order, it will be hollowed out from within and lose much of its influence."
I do think that there is a risk that inertia will propel us to revert back to some of those old formulations, but if we revert in that way, I think that we'll be in for a pretty rude awakening. I think that 2018 and 2020 will be a referendum on many issues, but I think that they'll be a referendum in part on whether that inertia will fly or whether we need to recalibrate fundamentally.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I think we definitely do run that risk as far as trying to balance out our global leadership in the international community as well as trying to address our internal issues. I feel that in terms of our economic challenges they continue to be exacerbated for many Americans. As that trend continues it's going to be harder for us to defend our interests in the global arena.
I would say for the voters, as far as foreign policy and pocketbook issues, always look to the budget. If you look at the budget, you will see that that is the starting point where you can initiate the debate and try to build a consensus on how to address these issues. For instance, going back to the new NDAA, we spent up to $717 billion toward defense. That's a lot in terms of modernizing our military, going toward overseas operations, and contingencies. There is a lot going toward that. Meanwhile, we've cut away a lot of money from our social programs.
The voter has to understand that you have this administration that wants to benefit you in terms of emotional approach or the rhetoric: "We're here to help you. The America First doctrine is all about helping the American worker"—or whatever—"first." But if you look at the budget, it doesn't necessarily reflect that. I know we're in a race with China as far as defense expenditures, etc., and I'm not really necessarily too much against about increasing defense expenditures—I'm of course military—but at the end of the day we have to be more effective when it comes to our money in our global leadership because the more we pour into that and that trend continues to be exacerbated in terms of economic failure internally, it's going to turn into a big mess. Especially it's going to be very challenging to balance the two. So internally we have to address those economic issues.
Going back to the report from the RAND Corporation, there was an interesting publication released several months ago about the new generation in terms of being disconnected with national security and more concerned about retirement and addressing student loan issues, which continues to bubble. If that continues to increase over time, how can they be more into addressing issues abroad? There definitely needs to be some sort of policy decisions that effectively address these economic issues because the people who suffer are going to be more and more disconnected with foreign policy and national security, especially with our global leadership in the international community.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Asha, your point about the budget reminds me of that Colin Powell quip, which is: "Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what your strategy is."
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Drawing upon some of Asha's remarks, just this week there have been more articles about China, a growing Cold War with China, on the one hand strategic because of the South China Sea islands and other things, but also the trade issues and how they affect everyone. The big corporations are negative on all these tariffs.
When the price of oil changes and so forth it affects consumers internally, and then people are very interested in what's going on. Or if you're a soybean farmer and the tariffs are going up so high. Aside from the abstraction of the foreign policy elites, there are bread-and-butter issues coming up every day that we read about and we think about, and that people in the rural areas are very concerned about because it hits their pocketbook more than it hits most of ours.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I definitely agree. What is very interesting moving forward is that you're starting to see a growing number of people who are becoming more concerned about these trade wars or the increase in terms of the tariff issue. I think that's a pivotal point as far as getting more people more engaged in foreign policy. I think the foreign policy establishment should take that point and broaden it to engage more people as far as the concept of why it is important to maintain our alliances and get along with China, addressing the situation.
That's definitely a point where the foreign policy establishment should take advantage of in bringing people into the foreign policy dialogue.
ALI WYNE: Just to build on what Asha was saying, I think your point is extremely important. It's interesting. China recognizes that it can engage in one-for-one, tit-for-tat retaliation on tariffs.
The United States, I think if you look at the figures last year, we imported roughly $505 billion worth of Chinese goods. China imported roughly $130 billion of American goods. So if you just do tit-for-tat, at some point China's options are going to run out much faster. So China realizes: Okay, I'm going to soon run up against the limits for what I can do in terms of one-for-one retaliation. Are there other ways, asymmetric ways in which I can retaliate?
It's interesting that the tariffs that they had imposed have been targeted at—you mentioned soybean farmers—the agricultural and industrial heartland, and those are constituencies that have been disproportionately important. When Donald Trump was a candidate, they were very important to his gaining momentum, and as a president they have been core to his base. So China is designing its retaliatory strategies with American domestic sensitivities in mind.
As a broader note, you mentioned the notion of a growing Cold War with China and referenced trade. What worries me about the trade war is that it's actually something of a misnomer to call it a trade war because what's really at stake is not deficit figures. What's at stake is competition over the commanding heights of frontier technologies. Trade and trade imbalances are a proxy for that.
But what we're seeing right now is that the United States and China had taken for granted for a long time, and the foreign policy establishment in this country had taken for granted for a long time, that deepening economic interdependence between the United States and China was good, it brings the two countries together. Because outside of trade, there aren't that many organic forces that bring the two countries together. Trade interdependence has been a very crucial force bringing the two countries together.
My concern is that if the two countries economically begin to decouple, what are then the stabilizing forces for the relationship? If you want to talk about issues that would really affect not only stability in the Asia-Pacific but global stability and begin to have, I think, effects on Americans, I do think that a permanent or even protracted economic decoupling between the two countries could hurt Americans' pocketbooks big-time.
QUESTION: Arlette Laurent.
The questions you've raised on the panel, whether America should lead, yes, but America should not mislead. The fact that the present administration has left any number of international agreements is extremely nefarious for the United States and for the whole world, actually. So many international agreements, whether they are practical or whether they are more political, does have an enormous impact on the United States and on the international community.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: I agree. I do think that to a certain extent it does impact our global leadership, and it is unprecedented. We are seeing that we're pulling out of all these multilateral and some bilateral agreements.
But going back to that point again, I think the problem is that the American people have to understand how this impacts us directly in terms of pulling out. How does that negatively impact me overall? I think that's where we're having a challenging point right now. How do they feel? Maybe the establishment definitely sees that, Okay, this is impacting our global leadership, it doesn't look good, we're embracing unilateralism. But at the end of the day, I think the American people are having an issue and sometimes probably don't even think about it as far as seeing that there is definitely a liability in pulling out of these agreements.
QUESTION: Hi, there. I'm Mark Duncan.
I just wanted to touch upon one thing that you both discussed. It was the post-1970s disconnect between domestic concerns and foreign policy and the fact that people are more worried with materials of domestic factors like retirement and personal security.
Is it really a question then of trying to enlist the public in foreign policy and make it relevant to their concerns, or is it simply like factor it in? If people have personal economic security, are they simply pacified then, and do they just leave foreign policy processes and experts to their own devices, basically?
ALI WYNE: It's a really important question, and it's one that I think many folks are grappling with. I was having a conversation not too long ago with somebody who said that we tend to talk about a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, and the question is, where does the public fit into that consensus?
You could make the argument that during the Cold War the public was confronted with an existential menace in the Soviet Union and was willing to defer to the preferences of the foreign policy establishment, even if U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War might have compromised domestic interests or might have undermined Americans' welfare at home. But there was an existential menace, so the public says, "We defer to you."
Then, in this kind of halo period—for which we understandably wax nostalgic—but a very brief interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the global financial crisis, I think that because it was an area of relative peace, prosperity, rising economic tide, I think you can make the argument that perhaps the public, even if the public was wary of certain adventurism abroad or was wary of an overly activist foreign policy because domestically conditions were reasonably good economically, that maybe the public adopted a more passive role.
During the Cold War the public might have been grumbling, but they realized that there was an existential menace, so we defer to the establishment. Then, for about two decades after the collapse of the Cold War, we may disagree with the policy, but we we're feeling pretty good at home, so we're going to adopt a more passive role.
I think that what we're seeing right now is a perfect storm. We don't have an existential menace in the form of the Soviet Union. Yes, China is a formidable competitor, but it's not a full-on adversary and a determined antagonist in the way that the Soviet Union was.
So you have an absence of an existential adversary that has historically disciplined U.S. foreign policy, and you also have the bubbling up of some of these concerns that we've been discussing—economic anxiety and demographic anxiety. So absent an overriding adversary that can focus the American public's attention and permit that deference to what the establishment preference is, and given these increasingly salient socioeconomic concerns, it's not clear to me that the establishment should rely on a passive American public.
We do need to incorporate the public more into these conversations, and I would say that an important opportunity to do so involves actors at the subnational level. Something that makes me very excited about the future of U.S. foreign policy is the growing involvement of states, of cities.
If you haven't already, there is a really terrific book, a new book by James Fallows and his wife Deborah Fallows. They traveled extensively over the past few years. They visited small towns and cities across America, and they find that while the image of America that's often presented to the world is one of dysfunction—we look at the national-level politics and we dysfunction, we see intense polarization. But if you actually go to the grassroots level, you look at what's going on in cities, you look at what's going on in towns and in neighborhoods, there is a tremendous amount of policy innovation, really exciting policy innovation in all kinds of realms—education, energy, health care, and so on. The problem is that because it occurs at the grassroots level it does not command as much attention, and because local journalism is unfortunately being gutted right now we hear even less about it.
I wouldn't say my only hope, but I think an important point of hope for me in terms of how we revitalize American foreign policy and make it more relevant to the public is investing more in those and drawing more attention toward those subnational actors who are doing the important work of connecting our domestic policy to foreign policy.
One last point. A good example of this is the aftermath of the United States' decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. When we did that, that decision inspired a lot of consternation abroad, but in the immediate aftermath of that decision at the national level there were many states and cities saying, "We're still onboard." So there's a lot of city-to-city diplomacy in the realm of climate and a lot of state-to-state diplomacy. I think looking at the role that subnational actors can play in U.S. foreign policy goes toward your point.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
I want to talk about that "halo" period, particularly the Afghan and Iraq War, which perhaps doesn't quite deserve that halo. I think one of your speakers mentioned that people in these small towns said, "What did this do for me?" The answer is it did a lot of things, and it did it to them.
We forget about the negative externalities of war, things like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), opioids, and so on, and coming back during a period of automation, when there are no jobs waiting for them, which wasn't so very different from what happened right after World War I. As a matter of fact, it's striking how similar historically the periods are in that respect.
I do not remember—even though I was an American history major—the Democratic candidate John W. Davis's 1924 foreign policy platform, but I think it is not well-known. What happened was a period of prolonged isolationism from both parties and the lack of engagement by the American people. It only took an external crisis to revive.
ASHA CASTLEBERRY: Yes, I do agree that we have benefited from some of our military strategy or current operations going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you've noticed lately, the threat level in terms of asymmetric attacks within the United States has continued to drop. One reason is because we are defeating ISIS in the Middle East.
There are some challenges. It is not a perfect environment, especially when it comes to Syria, but I would say that in terms of the infrastructure that President Obama established and then the subsequent administration continued, that security infrastructure to defeat ISIS, you are seeing the benefits where the threat level here in the United States has dropped.
It was at a peak at one point before the 2016 presidential elections, and from time to time you will see that there is some sort of attack from a lone wolf who is a sympathizer to ISIS here and there, but I would say that it has dropped. So we have benefited from that.
But once it becomes silence that, okay, there are no attacks, but we have ongoing wars going on overseas, the American people become disconnected about why are we still there. But then it's more reactionary. When an attack actually happens, then, okay, we're failing.
But I feel that right now we're somewhat benefiting from the fact that the asymmetric threats in the United States have dropped considerably since we've continued our operations against ISIS and somewhat with regard to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but definitely against ISIS, which was a big problem definitely here for asymmetric attacks in the United States.
ALI WYNE: Something that Asha just said really resonated with me, this notion of "silent" warfare. I think one of the concerning trends—I at least, certainly when someone says "war," I associate war with boots on the ground. We still do have many thousands of boots on the ground, but increasingly war is being delegated to the realm of technology, to the realm of drones, and increasingly war is being conducted that circumvents formal legal processes.
The problem is, if war is occurring but there aren't boots on the ground, it's drones from the sky. If war is ongoing but it's not declared, then a disconnect opens up between an American public that thinks we're not at war, even though—Nick, you gave the statistic earlier—I think we have Special Operations forces deployed in something like 149 countries, roughly three-quarters of the world's countries. We do have residually many boots on the ground in the Middle East. We're expanding a campaign of drone strikes in Africa.
We are at war. How much of that is being reflected in the discourse at home is not clear. Being mindful that a lot of war is ongoing but is increasingly silent to the extent that it's not reflected in the discourse is important.
To your point about unfavorable externalities, absolutely. One of the trends actually in warfare—there's an article in Foreign Affairs by Tanisha Fazal and Sarah Kreps that talks about that one of the trends in warfare is that the ratio between the number of American soldiers who have been wounded to those who have been killed has been increasingly steadily.
Understandably, we tend to focus on those who lose their lives in war. We don't focus as much on those who live but live with crippling injuries, they live with mental trauma. So we have a growing number of veterans who are coming back home, and they are struggling. They're struggling to reintegrate into society, they're struggling to find work, and they aren't discussed as much. They aren't as much a part of our national conversation about warfare and about veterans, and I think that's a shame.
One last point on externalities is that I do think that in 2018 and 2020 we're going to have more of a discussion about the trade-offs, and we should have a discussion about the trade-offs between what we do abroad and what we do here at home. I think that we do need to have a conversation about which commitments abroad are essential to preserving our vital national interests and which ones are not.
I will say that in our conversation this morning we've critiqued some of the president's policies. I will say, though, I actually think it's good that Donald Trump as a candidate and Donald Trump as president has interrogated certain orthodoxies of foreign policy. It's appropriate, healthy, and actually imperative to, from time to time, interrogate certain shibboleths and certain orthodoxies of the establishment. The question is, once you have done that interrogation how do you proceed?
My concern with the America First doctrine and my concern with the way that the president has conducted his foreign policy is that having conducted that interrogation of certain shibboleths of our foreign policy I fear that his foreign policy is less likely to yield a measured recalibration of our role in world affairs than a more accelerated dismantlement of that role in world affairs.
There is an observation that Edmund Burke makes—and I'm paraphrasing it—to the effect of: "Rage and frenzy can tear down in half an hour what it took a hundred years to build up with prudence." There's something to be said for that, that we need to think about let's interrogate our role in world affairs, let's bridge this gap between the foreign policy establishment and the public, but let's not do so in a wrecking-ball fashion. Let's think about which aspects of our engagement in world affairs are working to the extent that they benefit the American public, which ones are not working at all, and which ones are working partially and how do we make those better.
But it's deconstructing our role in world affairs, and if something is working, let's amplify it, if something is not working, let's perhaps scale it back, if something is working partially, let's have a conversation. But to say that because parts of our engagement in world affairs haven't been working that we should dismantle the postwar system and completely reverse foreign policy seems to me to be an overreaction.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that actually is a good summary point to close. We are a little past our closing point for the formal discussion, but I know there are still some people who had issues. I think we're all going to still be here, but I want to give people a chance who need to leave to go to work or other things the opportunity to do so.
At this point we'll close the formal discussion but invite everyone to continue conversing with our speakers and finishing coffee and the like for the morning. I want to offer to you both our gratitude for your comments and insights this morning and to thank everyone for coming.