NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the second edition of The Doorstep podcast book talks. I am your co-host for The Doorstep and a senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Nick Gvosdev.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council and co-host of The Doorstep. I am really excited to welcome Christopher McKnight Nichols today to talk about Rethinking American Grand Strategy.
What a perfect moment in time to rethink American grand strategy. We have a new administration that is moving and shaking a little bit this week, right, Nick?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, it is. Just today we had President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson signing a new Atlantic Charter for the anniversary of the signing of the Charter in 1941, trying to recommit to a new coalition of democracies, but instead of tackling simply rising powers it also talks about climate, technology, and how do we safeguard the future of the world.
Several days ago, which I think leads very much into our discussion with Chris this evening, a friend of The Doorstep and a guest on our podcast, Nahal Toosi of Politico, wrote a very interesting article, not critical in the sense of criticizing but a critically important piece, about the search for a grand strategy in the Biden-Harris Administration. Is there a grand strategy that animates the foreign policy approach of the new administration? That article provides an excellent way into setting our book discussion tonight with Chris, because this project that he has been running along with his co-editors has been about taking a different look at conceptualizing grand strategy. Usually we think of this as being done in Washington in a few closed-off rooms by small groups of experts thinking about the world as Zbigniew Brzezinski did as the "grand chessboard" where we move pieces on that board.
Instead this is a project which tries to get to the doorstep, tries to get down to the concerns of citizens and concerns of different social groups within society. How do they think American foreign policy ought to be structured? What are they looking for in terms of how America should engage with the rest of the world?
Chris, if you could give us a sense of how this project got started and perhaps some of the initial findings that you would like to share with our audience this evening.
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. It is great to be on with you, Nick and Tatiana, and to be with the Carnegie Council.
The project got started out of a series of conversations with other historians but also some political scientists and other scholars, thinking about the long history of U.S. grand strategy and, as you rightly noted, how it is very often conceptualized as limited to sorts of elites or elite opinion, the kind of thing that Henry Kissinger would do but perhaps not the kind of the thing that W. E. B. Du Bois would do or Saul Alinsky would do or be part of.
Historians and political scientists recognize those limits, and in fact many theorists who have worked on grand strategy for many years have also done this and practitioners as well. The phrase that we have heard and that we will be unpacking a bit more this evening I think is "Foreign policy begins at home," something that in U.S. foreign policy traditions and grand strategy thought goes back as far as the term "grand strategy," earlier in fact, but definitely to the World War II period, for instance. Linking domestic and foreign has been part of that equation throughout U.S. history and you could also argue in European grand strategy as well, and we can talk more about global dimensions.
But in any case, the project emerged from conversations about: "Let's rethink the history of U.S. grand strategy. Let's expand the parameters and see what might count there. Who are some of the hidden strategists who should figure in, including grassroots folks, including public opinion, and including the broader dimensions of what it means to be a democracy and practice a kind of democratic foreign policy?" This was something that Woodrow Wilson, for instance, in thinking about the League of Nations was very invested in in the World War I moment, and I write a chapter about that.
So we brought together a whole lot of historians and folks from some other disciplines at a conference at Oregon State University that I put together, and a number of people who did not consider themselves scholars of grand strategy. I think that is an important dimension of the work we have done on this project and in the broader kinds of op-eds and other work that has come out of this because by bringing together people who, say, work on environmental questions, race, gender, sexuality, and reproductive politics, you can more effectively look at the dimensions of grand strategy that do not factor into traditional diplomatic or "hard power" configurations.
I could go on a little bit more, but one finding that came out of the book—we could talk about a number of them. When we first came together in 2016 the former head of the Grand Strategy Program at Yale, Betsy Bradley, was part of these conversations. She is a public health scholar. She and I recently wrote an op-ed on how the United States needs a global public health grand strategy, so maybe we can talk a little bit about that.
But it was 2016 when we gathered, and one of the most important things coming out of the conference that I did not expect was thinking about public health grand strategy and planning for—wait for it—the next pandemic. At the time I was working on the 1918 flu pandemic, and we were thinking about the lost promise of the moment of 1918 when the United States did not take a world leadership role in public health, and the United States again, despite the significant role that it took in world shaping international organizations out of Bretton Woods and the United Nations, etc., the United States did not take a very strong position in global public health after World War II either.
One of the things we argue in that project is that you need to look at some of these things in moments of crisis or in peacetime, which is the traditional way that scholars of grand strategy history have considered this. Definitionally it is about matching long-term aspirational ends to necessarily limited means. That is a paraphrase of a John Lewis Gaddis-meets-Paul Kennedy definition. If you broaden that a little bit further to grand strategy in other settings, you can think about that in terms of public health, so trying to solve the next crisis or at least create the conditions so that you are ready for a Donald Rumsfeldian "known unknown." We know there will be another deadly pathogen. We don't know when, and we don't know where, so stockpiling resources, having allies and partnerships in place, and being ready for that just makes good sense. But it is much easier said than done when it means allocating a lot of resources in a current moment for a challenge that you do not yet fully perceive and that might look like a waste in terms of domestic politics. That is where our foreign-domestic interconnection is essential.
TATIANA SERAFIN: There are so many issues that that brings up for me. In particular the global health grand strategy is super-important and I think falls into this idea of—and you said it—we don't have all the resources to do everything we want to do. So how do you choose? There is the global health grand strategy. There are perhaps 20 or 30 other ones we can discuss. In your research in this book what were some of the best practices of choosing how we determine the strategies and rank them almost? I think that's what it has to come down to.
I come at this—I am going to say this because in your book many of the authors say grand strategy sounds so verbose and grandiose and, oh, my god, it's like a showstopper on Broadway, but really what it is is that if you are a business you have a goal and you have strategies to meet that goal. So theoretically you have a doctrine and you have strategies, that is, the ways that you meet that goal. It is not really "grand" in the sense of grandiose. It is a way to get things done, as you said. But in that respect you do have to choose what you are able to do with the limited resources you have.
Did you find any best practices in the historical record? You go from The Federalist Papers all the way to today. Did you find any best practices?
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: It's not the most prescriptive project, but I think there are certainly best practices that emerge in the historical record, and I think that is a nice way of putting it in some ways too.
I will take a step back. There is a framework for understanding it. Hal Brands' definition, for instance, of grand strategy is that it is an "intellectual architecture" for achieving that means-to-ends relationship that you aspire to. And the ends have to be big or sweeping. If they are limited, they just don't fit. They're not grand. That does not mean it's not strategy, and that's where I would suggest looking to other kinds of theorists to help us think through just a little bit more what that is.
Carl von Clausewitz is the famous figure here, and Clausewitz argued something like "Tactics are the art of using troops to win a battle, and strategy is the art of deploying your armies in battles to win wars." Then grand strategy is that next level. This is what other theorists have said, not just winning the war but shaping the peace if it's a nation-state.
But if you are thinking on a more granular level of the ways you are describing, and we are thinking about foreign and domestic connections, I would point us to other kinds of examples. So what is a best practice here, and how can the Biden administration take that on, if we were advising them on this?
One good example is the Cold War. Arguably the Eisenhower administration was the closest to what we are hearing out of the rhetoric of the Biden administration now in terms of trying to match domestic and foreign policy goals so that there is a domestic consensus or domestic public opinion positive drivers pushing foreign policy.
What do I mean by that? A lot of specialists know this story, but your average American absolutely doesn't, which is that the State Department filed amicus briefs in the Brown decision of 1954 to end school segregation. Why did they do that? Because the United States was losing the Cold War propaganda battle against the Soviet Union because the Soviet Union could very plausibly say: "Look at lynchings, look at segregation. This nation is not living up to its democratic ideals at home. How can you possibly follow their example abroad?"
One of the kinds of best practices is to deeply inform foreign policy prescriptions with rhetoric matching reality at home. That does not always result in positive popular opinion. That is an interesting challenge here, and I will point to one example where that may not be the case—immigration. It is the archetypal place where the domestic and the foreign meet. It is neither one nor the other ever.
That is the one place where the Biden Administration is having some problems with public opinion because, one, the Trump presidency very effectively weaponized the concept of new immigrants, even the most skilled immigrants, "other-ing" them and weaponizing the politics of immigration and migration.
The second level there is that it is an unclear dimension in terms of the positive short-term benefits for the American population. Economists agree that immigration is good for virtually any country, but your average politician doesn't. That is a place where figuring out how to triangulate public opinion between domestic and foreign is a real challenge for the Biden administration, and that was a challenge back in the Eisenhower years as well. They wound up with some fairly racist sets of policies that look bad in historical hindsight related to people coming across the Southern border, for instance. Operation Wetback is the classic example of that. We can get into that if we want, but the point is that this domestic-foreign is messy, but in terms of best practices it is the way to go because for a successful foreign policy, if you are not committed to those ideals at home—
Another example from Eisenhower is infrastructure, which is something Biden is pursuing. The interstate highways were pursued under Eisenhower, not just as a means of creating prosperity at home and having better transport as well as leisure practices and people driving and doing all kinds of things but also as a way to be prepared in case there was an attack, to move military forces. Eisenhower was uniquely capable of making that case to the American population, but that is exactly the kind of corollary you see the Biden administration pushing, and you have not seen that in several generations in U.S. foreign relations.
If that is a grand strategy, if there is to be a successful Biden grand strategy, one of the best practices from the past is a much closer connection between domestic and foreign, looking for places where there is real popular opinion support for those policies and then trying to make the case—as we are seeing with Biden abroad right now—for how that informs foreign policy, the deep principles that inform those commitments abroad so that foreign audiences, international leaders, then see the kind of reciprocity between the two.
You see that as well if you look at what Biden is up to right now. He is on a kind of listening tour. He is not giving the sorts of speeches that Donald Trump did, for instance. He is also not giving the kinds of sweeping speeches that Barack Obama did. He is out there trying to build consensus and, he would say, show that "America is back," but in so doing that is actually embodying one of those principles of cooperation and collaboration: listening, taking onboard as an ally and as a partner, and not perhaps taking the "big stick" out in a Teddy Roosevelt kind of sense.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: It was interesting that you pointed out that this project got started in 2016, which really was a disruptive year in terms of the election, both in the primaries and in the general, where you had candidates—Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and Donald Trump in the Republican primaries—who advanced critiques of American grand strategy and U.S. foreign policy as out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans, whether it is not providing enough protection for American workers or it is about allies and partners freeloading off the United States. We found that this critique had resonance in both parties, and you start this project right at a time when people are beginning to say: "Well, what should be? Do we need to rethink the sources of American grand strategy?"
It is the impetus for our own project here at Carnegie in Global Engagement, and this point you raise too about making foreign policy and domestic policy interlink. Just to take an example, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) ran and ran for reelection again, initially she was portraying, "I just have a domestic agenda," not a foreign policy one, and yet when you look at her domestic agenda all of it was connected to foreign policy—climate, human rights standards, and trade. All of these things were connected.
Now, as you said, we are coming into the Biden administration. Whether by deliberate emulation, happenstance, or a happy mix of the two, are you seeing resonance from some of the things that your project generated in what you are hearing coming out of the Biden Administration in terms of how it is trying to make these connections between foreign and domestic policy?
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: You put it very aptly there. I think the AOC orientation to progressive politics at home fits very neatly with a kind of global progressive perspective. My colleague, collaborator, and co-editor Liz Borgwardt wrote a book called A New Deal for the World: America's Vision for Human Rights, and her argument there and in a chapter of this book about Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is very much about that, that the New Deal at home had this international corollary. In fact, arguably it is was more important in terms of advancing the Four Freedoms and some of the ways in which FDR committed the United States to the world community and to building a world order even before the war had ended. You noted the Atlantic Charter. The Atlantic Charter comes in August 1941 before the United States is formally in the war, committing the United States to end the "Nazi tyranny."
That set of commitments is very much—well, take a step back—in the longest tradition of American foreign policy, which is to attempt to embed the meaning of America, its ideals, in its foreign relations. It literally and figuratively meant that American diplomats wore humble suits, did not have epaulets in the 19th century, and did not have formal ranks. They therefore could not be seated with those in the more monarchical systems that had higher ranks. Eventually the United States gives up on that because they want their diplomats much closer, but the point being that they were trying to really walk that walk. You see that in a lot of different eras from different politicians, but it is absolutely inherent in that.
You don't see that in the formal policymaking. That is what's a little bit different with the Biden administration. Generally speaking, as you know as well as I do, the foreign policy planners don't hang out with domestic policy folks. The infrastructure people who care about highways are not the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) people. And they try to police those boundaries pretty securely because those portfolios matter and they only have a limited amount of time, but Biden is very self-consciously constructing this administration, and in populating it with individuals has been pushing that.
I think you can see in the public reporting precisely what you have been noting. Ben Rhodes and Jake Sullivan, now the national security advisor, right after Donald Trump was elected, said: "Wait. Something has happened here. Democratic domestic and foreign policy got removed from the broader public."
However you want to troubleshoot the 2016 election if you are them, one of the ways they wanted to push forward with a new orientation was to think about what Biden has called a "foreign policy for the middle class," and that comes out of a number of different documents and things that scholars have also written about, people involved in my volume, the point being that they thought Democratic foreign policy was losing folks certainly since 9/11 in terms of thinking about rash interventionism, what are the real benefits of continuing to have large-scale troop deployments, what some of our colleagues have pushed back against and called the "forever wars," this sort of endless commitment to U.S. base structures abroad and actual boots on the ground, people fighting and dying, for what, protecting what, and articulating those goals and ideas.
I think what you see out of the Biden administration—and you can see it in his policy platforms on foreign policy—is a real commitment to a small "d" democratic foreign policy that connects democratic ideals at home and policies just like you are noting with AOC, with a foreign policy that actually talks about the ends and says, "Look, we don't need troops in Afghanistan anymore," and thus you see the pullout.
That is not popular—it depends on which group you want to say, but some parts of the Democratic Party and certainly lots of Republicans don't find that especially popular—but articulating those ends and saying we don't have a sufficient reason to remain or the end doesn't justify the means in this case any further—and let's not talk about, say, the sunk cost of this, but just talk about what it means in 2021. That is very popular, and that is the kind of thing that Sullivan and Ben Rhodes were talking about in 2016 and 2017.
I think moving forward if he can actually operationalize this with the administration, that is likely to have real benefits because that is reorienting the administration to a wider swath Republicans and Democrats really want to see and making clear what those investments are in foreign relations and potentially what they mean as a benefit for the middle class at home.
One problem is it is very hard to articulate why humanitarian relief in a particular place will benefit the middle class in the United States. Some of this is more political rhetoric frankly, but we have seen that over the course of U.S. history and frankly world history. Of course some of it is political rhetoric designed for particular ends, but some of it I think is genuine, meaningful, and fits with this longer rethinking of U.S. grand strategy, something that Biden is very clearly invested in doing and pushing all of his political capital in to do. This is it for him. This is his final go-around after five decades in Congress and in public service, so he seems really invested in making some moves that frankly the Obama administration wasn't willing to.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Interesting.
TATIANA SERAFIN: To your point about him being really committed to this, Pew Research just came out today—I don't know if you saw it—"America's Image Abroad Rebounds with Transition from Trump to Biden." It was looking at totally different countries across the board and seeing a dramatic uptick from France to Japan to Canada to Italy, to the United Kingdom, where we are today, and Australia, a sharp increase in the U.S.'s position in the world.
I saw another headline I want to share with you, again to the point: Is the view of the United States changing, and did it really happen that fast under Biden? I was looking at some headlines before we met today, looking at Biden's announcement to giving out global vaccines. Al Jazeera actually had the subhead: "The U.S. president casts the plan as a bold move that shows the country recognizes its responsibility towards the world." I have not seen that kind of a headline in the last four years. "The country recognizes its responsibility towards the world." I don't know. Can we sell that to the American public?
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: Some of it will be hard, I agree with you, and history suggests that it is an uphill slog on that. I love teaching this to students because when you triangulate foreign policy polling on, say, humanitarian relief or large-scale development projects abroad, in the specific Americans often support it if you can give them a strong case for why one specific intervention matters, but in the abstract, as we all know, Americans tend to think that much more aid is given by the country and that that is not beneficial to the nation. In fact it is the tiniest smidgen of the annual budget.
But zooming out even further, so the 30,000-foot view, I think you are highlighting precisely the right things. The Biden administration is slowly building through vaccine diplomacy, now buying 500 million Pfizer vaccines and distributing them globally, a kind of genuinely altruistic global public health strategy that you can then make the foundation for some of the other, more difficult pieces.
In the midst of a pandemic I think this is one thing that can be sold. Americans want to be part of the solution if for no other reason then for selfish reasons—that they can travel globally, that the world economy will be working, and that they will benefit tangibly most likely from this. Even if they don't necessarily believe in vaccines, they know other people do. That seems like a place to start, but it certainly isn't where you finish.
The harder sells there I think will be about global cooperation, say, in thorny moments of interventions or terrorism operations, thinking about combating China or at least thinking more robustly about a competing Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S. infrastructure model is something that, say, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other organizations can also attempt to move forward with, or you could imagine other things.
For instance, Biden has said he wants to have a "global summit of democracies." What does that mean? What does that practically mean in terms of the payoff in policy and international relations? And then—back to your point, Tatiana, which is a good one—will that sell with the American population? What if it is a hundreds of billions of dollars commitment? What if it is several trillion dollars over a decade? Is the wider American population going to be unhappy with that?
That gets to Nick's earlier point: How invested are the people in the country in the grand strategies, in that big-picture thinking that frankly transcends generations. If the archetypal grand strategy is containment and it started with George Kennan in 1946 and 1947 and really ended in 1989, 1990, and 1991 arguably with the end of the Cold War, what is that comparable strategy now? Not every president can have something that robust. Virtually none can, in fact.
And what is the commitment of the people to pursuing that? Because if you think about the long-term costs to the United States that we are still bearing in terms of base structures and collective security, some people might doubt those Cold War commitments in a way that they didn't in 1980 or in 1963.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just a quick two fingers and then a question based on your comment right now, and that is to go back. It is interesting how Eisenhower is really the archetypal figure in some ways because it was during the Eisenhower administration that the idea of selling humanitarian aid to the American people not simply as "We're doing good for the rest of the world," but "We're going to buy up surplus food from American farmers, we're going to require that food aid be carried on American-flag carriers," therefore creating even with that an economic incentive for America to be more supportive of relief efforts.
What you were saying just now got me thinking, and it goes back to some very key chapters that you have here in the book from different contributors, which is discussions that we normally are not used to having when we think about grand strategy, so race, reproductive rights, questions of gender, and the whole emergence of the women, peace, and security field. Most people think, Well, that's about building schools in Afghanistan, but it's also about the idea of tapping into the full capital of your society and not having that be segmented.
So on the one hand it seems like we're trying to broaden the definition of grand strategy, bringing in the environmental dimension. We had Carolyn Kissane on a few weeks ago talking about climate statecraft, for instance. But is there a risk also that this becomes a box check, that someone says: "Did we cover gender? Check. We haven't mentioned about race, so race and grand strategy, check." Is there a sense also that this could devolve—as you mentioned about bureaucracies—that this becomes almost a bureaucratic bargaining? So someone comes in and says, "I'll see your reproductive rights if you put in something about pipelines and oil." Coming at this question again of broadening the definition of grand strategy and making it more holistic and making it more connected, but how do we also avoid what the U.S. government can also be very good at, which is the box-check exercise?
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: There are no simple answers to that one. I suspect no matter what the best of intentions of folks are, we will wind up with some box checking. That is the very nature of bureaucracy.
But if you look at the way that grand strategy is taught, and let's be reminded that Jake Sullivan actually was teaching it at Yale in their Grand Strategy Program before he went off to be the national security advisor, and this is true with a host of other people coming from different kinds of programs. They are experts in this, and hopefully we can rely on their thinking in terms of these rethought larger understandings of grand strategy for greater public benefit.
Remember all the debates about Donald Trump and adoptions policy? Our chapter on reproductive politics notes that for a long time adoptions policy has been thought of as: Oh, that's something separate. That is outside the domain. That's cultural. That doesn't fit with hard-power politics and military force. But actually adoptions policy gets at reproductive questions. In some societies it is very problematic and deeply argued and felt questions about who is producing children and for what ends, what groups should or shouldn't be allowed to have children, or what gender they should be, really difficult kinds of questions.
You can go back to the Kissinger years, you can go back to different policy planning throughout the Cold War, and you will find reproductive politics embedded in the policy planning, but what we don't tend to find is when you are talking about what have been the big U.S. grand strategies. Reproductive politics, sexual orientation, and gender drop out, and they shouldn't. They should always be there. So if you are just conceptualizing it, if you are policymaker or if you are a regular citizen, I would say you should be thinking about these things and not just in the box-check sort of way, but really in a much more substantive way.
Race is a great example of this. The United States has had a very bad history of having a diverse diplomatic corps and Foreign Service, and it has gotten a lot worse in the last few years. The Foreign Service has been gutted. People fled the Foreign Service, particularly women and particularly people of color. The last time I saw some of the numbers on this it was 80 percent white men or something like that, or 80 percent white-identified individuals, and something very close to that, a very large number were men overall.
In any case, that is not representative of the American population, and one of the things we argue in the book about our definition of grand strategy is that any strategy that does not fit with the real world in some fundamental ways has problems, and the implementation of those strategies, if it doesn't fit with the world that we live in, has significant problems. So if your Foreign Service or your cabinet are not representative of your population, the kinds of views that they have, their worldviews, and their principles, you have a problem.
So, okay, back to our current moment. One of the things that the Biden administration has pushed proactively is getting the most diverse set of individuals into the cabinet. That is demonstrably true. Whether or not that will pay off is an open question, but certainly the premise there or the core set of assumptions is that by having a more diverse group in there, including some "team of rivals" folks—they don't all agree. It is not populated by the opposite party, but it is populated by some people who don't necessarily agree—you will get better policy. You will at least get more representative sets of views than pursuing that inherent compromise set of problems that any administration has.
Those are ways in which it is not so much about the box checking or the categories, but more about how you analyze. The hope is that these individuals come in with different worldviews, different experiences, and different expertise to enact then more effective strategies.
There is one other piece of that puzzle I think which is getting back down to the grassroots, and this is a real challenge for democracies. The old argument coming out of the Cold War was a question about: Do democracies do grand strategy better than communist structures or totalitarian governments? And you can have a much more unitary grand strategy coming out of a top-down one-party system.
Democratic politics leads to a kind of inherent set of challenges in U.S. policymaking and foreign policy of democracies, but on the other hand, when you have the people behind these policies it would appear that grand strategies are capable of more success, that that buy-in from a broader public—back to the Eisenhower years, for instance—can lead to, you are exactly right, more effective kinds of humanitarian outreach, more buy-in to those commitments that are less obviously self-serving for the nation-state, and that in the long run may be to the best interests of the country.
Why did Eisenhower do that is a good basic example. Because Truman was so vilified for the Marshall Plan, particularly from the farther right of the Republicans. Eisenhower was able to co-opt those people, like Robert Taft and the more conservative wing of the party, pull them in, and say: "Look, we are going to put the flag on this. It is going to go out with U.S. troops, but we are committed to this kind of project, and it is going to benefit the nation." And he could sell that. He was a unique salesman in that he was a war hero and was often thought of as apolitical, but I don't buy that claim—we can chat about that.
But in any case, that is the kind of thing that Biden is trying to do, this politics of the middle class. He is trying to push that forward and find a sort of consensus there. It is much harder in our current moment, I would argue, but that is background to your question. With the lens of race, with the lens of reproductive politics he can certainly populate an administration that then can embody the core commitments of those constituencies, those kinds of arguments that then may resonate in different places in different ways so he can build up something more cohesive than, say, having a very homogeneous administration, which is what you saw under the Trump administration. They were great at driving their core group, their base, out to support their policies, but not good at ever reaching across the aisle or even finding new allies regardless of their party affiliation.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is such a fabulous segue into some of the great questions we have in the chat, if that works. I will read them out and introduce also the questioner.
I want to go to this particular question because it talks about who is the domestic population? A question from Matthew Taylor—thank you, Matthew: "How much confidence do you have that the domestic population can effectively inform foreign policy, especially in light of recent domestic events?"
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: That is cause for concern. January 6 changed I think how a lot of us think about the United States at home and abroad. I would start looking outward-in. As we all and as the questioner knows, the world community looked to the United States and saw January 6 as a kind of symbolic moment of fracture in American society, domestic politics, and foreign policy. It would suggest that there is a group of Americans who are not committed to democracy and not committed to the rule of law in the way that it has traditionally been understood or at least in the recent past. So, yes, one should have doubts.
The way that those of us who are experts on U.S. foreign relations and U.S. foreign relations history think about this is that very often foreign policy has been the domain of elites, as we were noting earlier, and the American population when polled, surveyed, and tested knows very little about foreign policy. It is notoriously bad going back through all of U.S. history on, say, finding other countries on the map or naming world leaders. This has been lamented in every generation. It is a simple fact of American history, and the United States largely by dint of geography has not had to cultivate, say, multilinguistic skills and doesn't travel as much to other nations. If you are in Central Europe, you can't avoid other languages moving around. You absolutely can avoid that in the United States, and there have been politicians for generations who have said that they do not care much about having passports or traveling abroad, America is where everything is, etc. I do not need to rehearse that story. We all know it.
But that doesn't mean that the wider population does not have beliefs about core values for foreign policy, or what Mel Leffler, a historian of foreign relations, often talks about, the core values, "vital interests" of the nation. That is something that Donald Trump tapped into very clearly with his rhetoric, and this is something that I have written a lot about as well, about isolationism and nationalism. He made an effective argument that by focusing singularly on the interests of Americans that would be a better outcome for the nation as a whole, that the nation was being duped into kinds of deals abroad and that the longstanding commitments of troops in other places, which again have not been very popular since roughly 2006 or 2008, certainly at the end of the Bush years, but also in the 1990s. You can think about Clinton's wariness to put boots on the ground in Kosovo.
There were more interventions in the Clinton years than in virtually any other presidencies, but they were on a much lower scale. The goal was to have fewer deaths and to achieve U.S. ends through other means, including military means but certainly not limited to them. He mostly wanted to do economic policies.
All of which is a way of wrapping our minds around the fact that Americans do have beliefs and core values that Donald Trump was able to tap into, and that is what Biden is trying to do with this middle-class effort.
If you look to the history, there is a great chapter in our book by Michaela Hoenicke Moore which looks at grassroots foreign policy, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home." She argues that that phrase is a book published by an adviser to FDR in November of 1944, James Warburg, who, looking at how U.S. commitments might unfold after the war, was suggesting that the United States needed to take a world leadership role and prevent future holocausts, for instance. But also he feared a kind of inward turn of nationalism: "Okay, we've done this. The United States has accomplished this. Now stop."
One of the things that Michaela Hoenicke Moore finds is that U.S. GIs coming out of their war experience also had very similar thoughts: Yes, the United States should be committed abroad. But they were very reluctant to have U.S. troops committed abroad. So they had a much more you might call "soft power" approach. And GIs wrote to their representatives. They were very engaged in these questions. They may not have known quite as much or they may have known more than the average American about the world. We can quibble with that level of knowledge, but the point is that they had firm beliefs about the U.S.'s proper foreign policy or even grand strategy in the early Cold War, and you can find this in the historical record elsewhere. We just tend to ignore it a bit. This is Nick's initial point. Americans care about foreign policy. Americans may not know that much about the world, as I noted, but they do care.
So finding ways to connect with them—and this will be the big challenge for Biden—and then educate them somewhat on some of the issues that they maybe don't know about: particular regions or ethnic groups in other countries that need support, what's going on in Myanmar, why they should care about different groups in China and human rights violations, for instance, or what that says about production of different technologies. That is an educative opportunity for an administration for people who already have core values and commitments.
I have some optimism that there is a broader swath of people beyond the January 6 folks who care about foreign policy and care about the U.S.'s role in the world, and—back to Tatiana's earlier point—when you look at this Pew polling, Americans are on the other end now of the "Mind your own business in the world" moment. That was happening in the late 2000s or around 2010. Americans wanted to withdraw more. Now we are looking at the other end of that, that Americans seem to want the United States to be doing more in the world and to be more assertive in a variety of ways, mostly cultural and commercial, not military. Those commitments I think can be built on by this administration or by another.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think your point about not having military engagement is important. We have Shellie Garrett commenting that elections in the United States are won on domestic issues, and foreign policy is not really a winner except in wartime, and really this new generation—we talk a lot about at The Doorstep how this new generation, Gen Z—does not know what war is. It is just not a thing. So their relationship to foreign policy is going to be very different. It is not this traditional Cold War framework. They don't even know what the Cold War is—"What?"
It is going to be a different kind of framework, and it is not a wartime where you usually care about foreign policy. It is more—you have been talking a lot about humanitarian, you touched a little bit about the environmental issues in the beginning, and gender and race issues that cross boundaries. We saw the Black Lives Matter protests take over the world last summer.
We have not really touched on this, and I want to maybe mention it a little bit—maybe it's part two of your book—this idea that the world is more interconnected in invisible ways than we talk about. We have been talking a lot about the tangibles—what you see, what we are doing—but there is this intangible connection. The fact that I have a friend in London and I have a friend in Mumbai, and we are all talking about watching Mare of Easttown, a British actress playing in a Pennsylvania town. Media, movies, and films, the amount of movies that we watched over the pandemic year that crossed boundaries—international films, national films—so there is this invisible connection.
I also give the example – Nick has heard this a bunch and maybe some of our audience has—my Girl Scouts are learning Korean because of K-pop. They don't care who Kim Jong-un is. They care about what they know about Korea, which is K-pop.
So here are all these invisible connections. Does it fall under soft power, and how much is soft power becoming more a part of—or should be more a part of—our grand strategy discussions?
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: There is a lot there. You are putting your finger on a whole lot of the important through lines of the current moment.
As a historian I guess I would first step back and say it strikes me as a scholar that in the 1918 flu pandemic and the World War I era too the world was effectively globalized then. The virus, the flu, comes out in February and March of 1918 and by the summer of 1918 it has traveled virtually around the world except for a few pockets that were able to quarantine, and then it gets into those areas as well, and that is by dint of rail and seagoing transport and the fact that people are traveling all over and goods are traveling all over. If we have been effectively globalized for at least a hundred years, then, yes, the other connections are these invisible ones. They are cultural. There are certainly commercial dimensions to them too. They are intellectual. They are ideological.
If you are thinking about grand strategies in U.S. foreign relations, they very often have centered, even well before globalization, on ideology. The U.S.'s commitment to democracy and the kinds of freedom, albeit very often imperfectly pursued in the United States, have been things that were transcendent. They are almost universal, depending on your leader or your moment. I think those somewhat visible but mostly invisible kinds of commitments and ideas then really have pushed the global community since the American Revolution.
If you think about some of the shows you're mentioning or K-pop or these technologies and apps, the Internet itself and where it has developed, we could slowly enumerate the ways in which there is an America-centric or just American dimension to each of those components, which is why you saw, say, in France a pushback against Euro Disney years ago. This kind of Americanization travels with these invisible elements. They are not without really deep-rooted problems as well, and that is something that is worth noting when you think about a grand strategy of soft power because very often soft power is rejected because it has a kind of coercive and co-optative element.
That people in Mumbai care about a fictional situation in Pennsylvania in the midst of a pandemic that is absolutely heartbreaking and devastating India is a nice distraction, but it leads them to privilege the United States in an interesting sort of way perhaps, at least in subtle ways. I am trying to suggest that we need to interrogate assumptions about those invisible dimensions.
But what you are noting about soft power is absolutely right. One of the really transcendent elements of U.S. power in general is that it need not be military and it need not be formal statecraft. What the United States hoped for in the days of Washington, when he wanted to be a nation that could stand on its own when the United States was a weak power, has been absolutely attained by 2021 in that the United States does not need to project very much military power anymore because of these subtle ways in which U.S. culture and commerce operate globally, very far afield from the formal halls of statecraft.
But then how do you operationalize those in a grand strategy? One of the things we saw in the Trump years, which virtually all commentators thought was a problem, was not having Radio Free Europe and not having a cohesive grand strategic or just strategic dimension: What does the United States want to achieve in its communications abroad? How does it want to promote its version of democracy or any version of democracy to counter the waves of white nationalism and nationalism and parochial visions of what it meant to be a nation-state that had been emerging and surprised a lot of commentators in the last few decades?
Those kinds of shows are part of that because they do bring us together in exactly the way you describe, Tatiana, but how do you incentivize that and channel that through formal structures of government is a much more difficult set of questions. It was much easier in the Cold War when you had a singular "other." Fighting ideologies with ideologies, with culture, and with commerce is much more complicated. That is one reason I don't envy Jake Sullivan and those folks trying to figure out how tactics, operation, strategy—you can deploy apps and Netflix and not that you ever could really, but you could attempt to channel it or push it in some way that might achieve more of your ends.
I think also what I started with, that slight skepticism and understanding the problematic dimensions of American culture's role in the world is really important certainly in the eras I have studied most intensively. One of the things you saw in the 1920s from Latin American critics of U.S. foreign policy, Manuel Ugarte, an amazing Argentine writer and lawyer, argued that the United States had become like Rome, but it was this new kind of Rome where it didn't need to ever be there. It was always present and never fully present, this kind of visible/invisible dialectic of American power.
It has been around for a century, but policymakers still haven't figured out how to fit that neatly into grand strategy, and I think that's our 21st-century challenge. If the United States can figure that out, it can effectively work through all kinds of challenges of great-power rivalry and competition and alliance structures as well, I would suggest, but it's definitely not a simple equation.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Let me just interject, Tatiana, before you get to the next question, because as you were talking I am reminded that the Munich Security Conference just released their newest report, Between States of Matter, and that partly is based on polling data, which again lines up with this question about the visible ties but also speaks to generational shifts, something that the Munich Security Conference was very attuned to, seeing this emerging generational change as the things that matter change. We are not talking about war or the Cold War of large armies facing off against each other across the Elbe River, but it is now things like my ability to travel, the safety of my data, the question of whether or not I am going to get sick, and the question about whether or not goods that I expect will be on the shelf when I get there. I think those are all part of this transition.
But I don't want to take away from the continued questions coming in.
TATIANA SERAFIN: We have a couple. I am very conscious of time, so we will just do one more, and then we are going to talk about part two, the next book.
We have a question from Louis Furmanski positing: "Should we really be looking for a grand strategy, or is that just a distraction and taking away resources from other important objectives on climate and global health?" Kind of a meta question, but a good segue into book two I think.
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: It's a good place to land right now in this conversation. Should we look for a grand strategy? On the one hand, policymakers will always want to call their strategies "grand." When we were talking before this we were talking about doctrines. Every president wants a doctrine. There was this famous moment early in the Clinton administration where they enacted this series of debates with Warren Christopher and a host of others. The "Kennan Sweepstakes" it was called because they wanted to come up with a new grand strategy. They wound up with this unwieldy term, "democratic enlargement." That doesn't catch on, but it does in some ways embody a kind of economic democratic promotion ethos that suffused post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, at least during the Clinton years.
Searching for those kinds of guiding doctrines or core principles is useful. National Security Strategies are useful in articulating values and trying to orient all arms of government towards particular ends, and I would say grand strategies, yes, they are grandiose. This is where Tatiana started. They sound like this big thing, and of course you want to have a grand strategy. Why just have a strategy? Okay, fine. Fair enough. Enough skepticism there.
What are they useful for? What are some of the main challenges of American democracy today or for most other nation-states and their systems of government? Long-term planning. Just in my lifetime we have gone from people who cared about the next generation or several generations down the line to much more short-term thinking—the next election, the next month, the next news cycle. In historical terms this is about a velocity of change. It is the way technology is interacting with news cycles and politics, and it is a trap. It is insidious. We are in a lot of trouble because of this.
Grand strategy can help get us out of it potentially because it is a way for policymakers to pause and reflect, bring together experts, not necessarily in government but from all walks of life. It can coalesce around regular people's views: What do people want? You could even talk about focus groups if you want to go all the way down to that level. But in any case, it is a way to do sustained policy planning to think about the aspirational long-term ends, and what the necessarily limited means are to achieve them.
Does the United States want to tackle those questions that you presented? Can the United States effectively deal with climate change? Can the United States—as I started out—effectively develop a global public health grand strategy to stop the next pandemic, much less help end this one right now? Only if there is meaningful long-term planning.
This really got set up in the middle of the 20th century. Do keyword searches for "grand strategy," and you will find they rise in the 1930s through the late 1940s. It says the United States is contemplating a new world role for itself in shaping the peace after the war. Grand strategy takes off. That's when you first see the National Security Council. That is when you first see a burgeoning American bureaucracy around trying to plan. You have had ebbs and flows of that over time, but its great strength is trying to think through the unknown, to plan for those things that you don't know will be there but to anticipate them sufficiently that you can at least deal with them when they arrive.
Do you need to have a grand strategy to do that? Arguably not, but attempting to find one, à la Eisenhower: "It's all about the planning and not about the plans. First contact with the enemy, all plans go out the window." But if you are not doing that kind of planning—and we certainly saw that in the Trump administration, eschewing planning, diminishing the role of experts and people who know a lot about area issues—is not going to help create more meaningful strategies to then solve those big problems that are multigenerational.
Can they be solved? Well, the jury is still out. None of us may live to see it, but if you want to have any hope to do that you need something bigger than a short-term strategy. You need something much bigger than tactics or operations.
So I would say you need to strive for a grand strategy. Maybe it's like striving for objectivity—you will never get there, you will always be biased. But if you look for that, if you aspire to that, you can get somewhat closer.
That is exactly what we are seeing with this administration because they come out of a framework of thinking about policy planning in this sort of way, and they have learned the lessons of the Obama administration. We know about the diminishment of "the Blob" in those years and "Don't do stupid sh*t" as a set of principles.
Not screwing up is not a long-term strategy. Not having rash interventions may be smart, but it is not a long-term strategy. It is a short-term strategy: You don't invade here. You do invade there. It is very hard power-centric. It is not about these soft-power questions or that long-term advanced planning. For one of our most cerebral presidents in Barack Obama, you did not see the kind of policy planning that you are already seeing under Joe Biden.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Which leads us to: What's next? What's next for you?
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: We were talking about this earlier, and I am curious to know what you all think if we have a moment for it. One of the things that we didn't tackle as much in the book that I hoped for us to is to think about artificial intelligence and to think about questions of the next levels and issues related to cybersecurity. So if you are thinking about a domestic-foreign corollary, hacking of U.S. elections, the potential for ransomware attacks as we have just seen on infrastructure, these are enormous challenges, grand strategic kinds of challenges, as we look forward as the world is even more interdependent and globally connected. So that is one area that I would really like us to focus on with some more chapters and deep thinking.
Another area that we touch on in the book and we have talked about a little bit today is the environment, human-environment interactions. Certainly global climate change is a huge challenge, but also thinking about some of the more subtle ways in which they intersect. For instance, as permafrost melts off there is deforestation, and we have a whole lot of other challenges, not least new deadly pathogens that get back to public health questions, but there is a host of other ways that people interact with their environments that seem really important to continue to consider in rich, deep ways, in grand strategic terms.
What would you all add, if I can ask you a question as we begin to wrap up?
TATIANA SERAFIN: On my mind is Tuesday's Internet shutdown, talking about these invisible connections, and it was all because one company's servers were a little bit skewed. The company is called Fastly. Funny name for a company that failed. That's on my mind, the fact that what we are doing now over Zoom would not exist if we didn't have these connections, and how easy are they to just disappear and go out if the server blows out? I think those interconnections should be explored more. That is under infrastructure. It is Internet infrastructure, so the intangible tangible.
Also, crypto. What does that world bring us, and how is it going to change us? I think that is big and has not really been talked about.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think we are dealing with this whole idea of the "decentralization epoch." People can connect and route around the traditional ways that we have interacted, and Tatiana just mentioned Zoom, which gets rid of the need for geographic, physical proximity, but is this sustainable? Do we become dependent upon it?
And again, how do people connect? Do they connect as citizens of a territorial state, or do they connect as Tatiana said about the K-pop connections or the Mare of Easttown connections, where people are connecting in ways that traditionally we didn't think they would connect, but again what are the positives and negatives of that?
I think, Chris, in the end coming back and recommending that everyone pick up their copy in either hard or digital form because the questions that this raises are, I think, critical for us to grapple with, and as you said the Biden administration is really—we are at the end of a 30-year cycle in international affairs—the first administration grappling with this new environment of the mid-21st century and a changed political environment, and they are going to trailblaze either by what they do or what they fail to do and will influence what will happen afterwards.
So thank you very much for putting this project together, you and your co-editors, and for taking the time out to be with us this evening to discuss this and to be a part of our Doorstep conversation.
CHRISTOPHER McKNIGHT NICHOLS: Thank you very much for having me. It has been great to be on with you.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you.