Joe Biden in Iowa, July 2019. CREDIT: <a href="">Gage Skidmore/(CC)</a>
Joe Biden in Iowa, July 2019. CREDIT: Gage Skidmore/(CC)

The 2020 Election & the View from Overseas, with Nikolas Gvosdev

Aug 22, 2019

As the 2020 election begins to come into focus, Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev details the foreign policy cleavages in the Democratic Party. Plus, referencing Nahal Toosi's recent article in "Politico," he discusses the worries that many in Europe have about a Trump reelection or a progressive candidate who also questions the status quo. What's the view from abroad on this turbulent time in American politics?

ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.

We’re back today with part two of our podcast with Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev, director of the U.S. Global Engagement program. Nick is also a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.

In part one, Nick and I spoke about ethics and the U.S.-China trade war. Today, in part two, we look at the 2020 Election, specifically the Democratic candidates and foreign policy. We also discuss the view from overseas about the prospects and consequences of a successful Trump reelection campaign, and American politics more generally.

Nick wrote a blog post about this topic for the website of our Ethics & International Affairs journal. You can find that and a lot more from Nick at

For now, here's my talk with Nikolas Gvosdev on foreign policy and the 2020 election.

You wrote another EIA Journal piece, looking toward the 2020 election—we'll get into that specifically, but I just wanted to follow up from something we talked about in June. We talked ahead of the Democratic debates about the candidates' foreign policy perspectives. Unfortunately, there wasn't a whole lot of talk about foreign policy at the debates. I think there was a little bit more at the NBC debates than at the CNN debates. It was pretty ridiculous. They went through about an hour and 20 minutes before they got to foreign policy.

But putting aside those debates or maybe just thinking about what you saw, has anything new jumped out at you from the candidates and their foreign policy views?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV I think what you're seeing as we see some candidates drop out and consolidation beginning to occur, the Democratic Party still has two cleavages in foreign policy that it needs to address how it's going to handle them. The first is between what we might call the "restorationists"—Vice President Joe Biden I think would be the leading figure of that, which is: "The Trump administration has taken us in a bad direction. We need to reverse course and go back to where we were prior to 2016"—versus other Democrats who say the whole reason that Trump was able to get as far as he did was precisely because there is unease at where the country is going. There was unease about the country's foreign policy, how it intersected with domestic policy, with domestic concerns, and that the Democrats must move in a different direction. They can't look to restore or to say that the future is that Joe Biden will be able to deliver a third term of President Obama, that things have changed.

The other cleavage is—and we saw this, by the way, in the 2004 primaries, and they surfaced again in the 2008 primaries—those who oppose what President Trump has been doing because they think it's a bad idea—these are bad ideas, they're wrong for the country, and therefore they must be opposed in the way that you had some Democrats who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning and said the Iraq War was a bad idea—versus those who say the president is asking some of the right questions, he's just a poor executor. You saw this again in 2004 and 2008, which was that it wasn't that the Iraq War was a wrong thing to do, it was that the Bush administration bungled it.

Now you're seeing again on some of these issues like trade that there are some within the Democratic field who lean more toward at least Trump's rhetoric on trade. They lean more to Trump's initial positions on things like wars overseas but believe that he is a compromise candidate and that his character flaws are evident, his personality, and the like, but that if they were elected they might still be interested in revising trade deals, being less willing to intervene militarily, raise similar questions about burden sharing in the NATO alliance, and the like. That's a cleavage that may end up becoming more visible as there are fewer Democratic candidates still standing as we move into the primaries.

That's going to be difficult to overcome. You can try to overcome it if the Democratic candidate in 2020 runs essentially as, for lack of a better word, a phrasing that my colleague Tom Nichols has noted, almost as a "national salvation" candidate, that the Trump administration is just such an unmitigated disaster for the country that it needs to be replaced, and we'll worry about specific policies later, the important thing is you just need to have not-Trump in there come 2021—versus a primary and then a general election campaign where you either run as "I'm going to restore what was prior to 2016," assuming there are people who believe that, yes, we've gone in the wrong direction and the like, or a candidate who says, "Trump is a bad candidate, he's a bad person, but on things like trade and alliances I'm going to more or less be a more moderate version."

That's something that the Democrats will have to begin to hash out. I think right now there has been an unwillingness—for good political reasons—to really want to amplify those divisions, but they're there. I think the Democratic Party has been through this before.

As I said, we saw this in the 2004 and 2008 campaigns, whether it's the president's ideas are bad or the president's ideas have merit and they're just being poorly executed. We'll see if that's something that the next set of debates decides to explore or if the candidates and the debate sponsors choose not to move in that direction.

ALEX WOODSON: I think they're coming up in mid-September, so we'll see how that goes.

Your article touched on this a little bit. You were writing about Nahal Toosi's piece in Politico. The headline kind of says it all: "'People don't want to be stupid twice': Foreign diplomats brace for Trump 2020 win."


ALEX WOODSON: How are foreign diplomats bracing for this? Basically, a lot of foreign diplomats, I guess a lot of Americans, too, are thinking that Trump has pretty good chances in 2020. What does this mean in terms of how people are preparing?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV I'd quibble a bit with your second point, which is I think that there are a number of Americans who believe that—they can't envision Trump being reelected, so therefore these things don't really matter. You could put anyone at the—the proverbial, "You could nominate a ham sandwich against Trump, and the ham sandwich would win."

What the piece says, which I think is very critical about diplomats, is that diplomats considering that maybe the ham sandwich might not win, for good reasons, and what would a second Trump administration look like?

In 2017 at one of the meetings of the Loisach Group, which is this U.S.–German dialogue that's cosponsored by the Munich Security Forum and the Marshall Center, there was an unwillingness among some at the table, both Germans and Americans—it was almost as if it was too horrifying a prospect—of "What would trans-Atlantic relations look like at a point when Angela Merkel was no longer in office as chancellor and there was a second term of the Trump administration?"

It was, "Well, no, that can't happen. Yes, at some point, Angela Merkel will retire, and there's no way. Trump will be removed. He'll either be impeached or the Republicans in the Senate will figure out, or the cabinet will figure out a way to remove him," and that was really the hope—or that his appointees will constrain him. Where we are in 2019, all the so-called "adults in the room" are gone, and it was clear that they could not restrain the president's impulses, so there's no longer a General Mattis as secretary of defense, there's no longer a General McMaster, and so on.

Angela Merkel's retirement is proceeding along. She will step down. She already has a party successor, and at some point within the next 18-24 months she will cease being chancellor of Germany, and now the final piece of the puzzle, which is that despite his negatives and the like, President Trump—or at least some of the people in his campaign—are laser focused on how they can win the Electoral College. They're not worried about a majority of the popular vote, they're looking at Electoral College strategy.

What does that mean if you get a second term of the Trump administration? What does it look like to have another four years of the Trump Administration? I think the diplomats that Nahal is quoting in here and that she had been talking to are saying, "We need to pay attention. What does this mean for American leadership?"

When former Vice President Joe Biden went to Munich earlier this year to the security conference essentially his theme—and of many of the members of Congress who went with him—kind of reprising the John Kerry line from 2004: "Help is on the way. Just hold on. Change is coming."

That may happen. The signs I would say are still tipped toward a challenger prevailing next year, but I think other countries are saying, "Well, if that doesn't happen, we need to have a Plan B. Either that means being more transactional in our relationship with the United States, seeing this as a transactional relationship, or looking to cut our own deals with China or Russia, or forcing other countries that have depended on the United States for security and economic assistance to look to themselves and to each other."

But of necessity, that will weaken the link to the United States, and in the long run that could be very troubling for U.S. foreign policy, which for the last 80 years has assumed that a strong trans-Atlantic relationship is the engine by which the world order runs, that as long as Europe and the United States are together on an issue, on any sets of issues, they have the preponderance of influence in setting the global agenda.

So, a Europe that becomes unmoored from the United States, particularly with Britain leaving the European Union and France and Germany turning more to each other, runs the risk of Europe becoming a separate power center from the United States in the international arena.

ALEX WOODSON: The other part of this, too, is that even if Trump loses in 2020, the president that comes in might also—as we were just talking about—they're not going to be Trump, there's no other Trump, obviously, but they might have these similar views on trade, any number of issues.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV There's a whole variety of issues where questions that Trump has raised cannot be dismissed simply because Trump was the one who raised them, and therefore to say, "Well, because I don't like Trump on immigration, I don't like his personal character, I don't like his views on ethnic minorities or anything else, that these questions are therefore off the table." I think you'll see other political figures, some of whom are passionately anti-Trump and define themselves in very strongly anti-Trumpian terms, nevertheless echoing or repackaging some of these themes.

You can see again among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party the critique of free trade, the critique of America as the indispensible linchpin of a global order which requires forward American deployment of military force, themselves questioning it.

Then, as we've discussed many times before, the generational and demographic shifts within American politics, the idea that NATO is the overwhelming alliance that defines the U.S. role in the world, and the American relationship to Europe.

As I said before, one potential casualty of a second term Trump administration is to rupture the trans-Atlantic relationship as we've understood it, but on the other hand you may have rising generations of American policymakers as well as rising generations in Europe that question why that trans-Atlantic relationship is more important than both North-South relationships, so Europe to Africa and the United States to the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

To envision this, "The Squad" over the next 20-30 years becomes more or less what American politics starts to look like, so that Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley are no longer just four "Squad" members but Congress increasingly begins to resemble The Squad in terms of age, demographics, and so on, and the policy community begins to resemble that more, then some of these assumptions that—

Again, this goes back to why I think you see some unease in Democratic circles about anointing or pushing former Vice President Joe Biden as the standard bearer for 2020, because of a sense that perhaps he's of the past as well and that the views that he has on foreign policy in particular are not views that they share. I don't know that Congresswoman Tlaib or Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez would say that they share a lot in common with where Joe Biden would take U.S. foreign policy.

That also is this idea of Trumpism after Trump, perhaps not called "Trumpism" for obvious reasons, perhaps not called "America First" for obvious reasons, but retrenchment or refocus—I can see younger Democratic politicians talking about a refocusing of America or changing America's orientation and not using some of the loaded language associated with Trump, but where the policy outcomes would be similar.

ALEX WOODSON: Just to wrap this up, there's the adage, "Politics stops at the water's edge." Trump has broken that norm over and over again. He just tweeted out that Representative Tlaib hates all Jewish people, and there's the whole thing with Tlaib and Ilhan Omar not being allowed to go to Israel. He was criticizing Nancy Pelosi during the Normandy ceremony in June.

I assume that the rest of the world is paying attention to this. How is this disunity viewed in the rest of the world?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV It's interesting because it forces Americans to consider that our politics are not exceptional and that we may be returning to a situation that precisely was one of the ones that George Washington warned about, which is, you don't want American politics to be defined by internal domestic coalitions lining up with coalitions outside of the United States and other countries and other political movements where those cross-border coalitions matter more than the internal linkages.

The famous "Politics stops at the water's edge," associated with Senator Vandenberg, saying, "Look, we disagree with FDR on a variety of domestic issues, but when it comes now to foreign policy you can't have Republicans and Democrats. There can only be Americans. There must be a unified face to give to the rest of the world."

But what we've seen over the last number of years is a sense that countries which previously were told, "You deal with the United States as the U.S. administrations come, administrations go," more clearly incentivized now to think, Well, certain administrations, certain political movements are more advantageous for us than others.

The whole lesson of the 2016 election in terms of interference and manipulation is that these tools are available not simply to Russia or to China but now to any actor, and will you see people saying in other countries, "We would prefer Trump because we think we can have a better relationship with him, and making sure he's reelected is more important than this approach that says we have to deal with whoever's in power in Washington," and when you have more Americans who take the view of, "If I didn't vote for the president, then in some ways he's not president, or he's not my president, and therefore I don't feel that sense that whatever he wants to do in world affairs is incumbent on me as an American to support even if I disagree with it."

This, by the way, is a state of affairs that most other countries are used to. They are used to the idea that their domestic politics are connected with their foreign policy and that as different parties come in they have different orientations, but for the United States I think it's an unsettling experience, the idea of non-Americans in some ways having a metaphorical "vote" now in our elections, and that we're inviting that as part of it and that we're taking our domestic political divisions and exporting them into relationships overseas.

ALEX WOODSON: Thank you very much, Nick.


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