The Doorstep: Defining the Role of the U.S. on the Global Stage

Apr 20, 2022 30 min listen

Global war, inflation, and a COVID-19 resurgence--the Biden/Harris team has been put on defense for first two quarters of 2022. Policies are reactive, promises made a year ago tabled. This week, Doorstep co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin reflect on what has happened to the vaunted Biden/Harris "foreign policy for the middle class" and how midterm elections will up-end the narratives the administration expected to put in place. Where do we go from here?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, doing something a little bit different today.

Nick, it's you and me trying to figure out where we are at in the world, what American citizens want from the world, what are we doing in the world.

We want you all to give us feedback. Please join us at our Twitter handle @DoorstepPodcast and share your thoughts. We would love to hear from you.

We are almost out of the second quarter. So much has been happening, I feel like we have lived five years in the last four [months]. We want to take a pause and try to see what our audience is thinking, reflect a little bit about what's going on in the world.

We want to talk to you about a great event that we have next week here at The Doorstep and ask you to join us for our next book talk with Amy Webb, author of The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology and also a founder of the Future Today Institute. Amy thinks big picture: Where are we going to be in 50 years? So never mind tomorrow—I don't know where I am even going to be tomorrow—but in 50 to 100 years where is technology taking us? It is going to be a great book talk. Please join us. Go to carnegiecouncil.org to sign up. That is next Tuesday at 6:00pm ET. Thank you all.

Nick, let's start out with—and I want all of our audience to know—the pandemic is still here. I know it's not on the top of the headlines, but I am just recovering from COVID-19, and I cannot believe it because I already had it. I am vaxxed and boosted. I think we are not talking enough about the challenge that the pandemic is going to continue to bring not only the United States but the rest of the world.

Yesterday, no more masks on airplanes. What are you going to do? Are you worried? Are you scared? What are you hearing on your end of the world?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
First, to put this into perspective, it speaks to a problem in how we process news and information, that we can only process seemingly one big story at a time. For a time, it was COVID-19, and then COVID-19 dropped off because of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and that dominated headlines, now that the invasion is sort of settling into things, the pandemic comes back as people suddenly start paying attention to it again, and then they will be looking at something else.

We are seeing a lot of change and disruption—prices, inflation, supply chain, bottlenecks, concerns about commodities, and climate. A year ago this time, we were talking a lot about climate and the UN Summit, and the pandemic featured into that because we were looking at the pandemic as part of an environmental issue.

First, just to the point about COVID-19, there is this sense, as you said, that we have been living through seemingly five years' worth of news in four months, but it also speaks to the question: Can we process the fact that multiple things can be happening that are important and critical at the same time and that events don't happen neatly sequentially where we can say, "This is over?"

The question with the pandemic now and with the mask mandates on transportation being struck down by a federal judge as an overextension of the authority of the Centers for Disease Control, sitting alongside these very dramatic images we get out of places like Shanghai and other cities in China that have gone back into massive amounts of lockdown, where we have seen people confined to apartments; we have seen the footage of drones flying through the city telling people to stay inside, we have seen food riots; we have seen these almost dystopian conditions at these COVID-19 isolation centers, particularly even in some of the journalists that have been confined there and have been able to get those images out do suggest that we don't quite have a handle on the pandemic.

Is the question that Americans in particular are just more willing to roll the dice now and say, "We're going to accept the higher level of risk?" What happens in a few weeks if cases spike and this has an impact on the transportation industry—not that people do or don't want to wear masks on flights but simply that flights are being canceled because crews aren't available because people have gotten sick, or people have tested positive and therefore aren't cleared to fly?

At this point I think we are also again looking at how this factors into vaccine mandates, how this factors into requirements of being able to access public spaces, vaccines, tests, and other things. All of those issues that kind of disappeared from coverage for a few months I think are all going to come back, again against the backdrop of trying to avoid an escalation in Ukraine that could turn very ugly for the world, and trying to deal with the fact that people in other parts of the world are already seeing the invasion hit their doorstep pocketbooks with higher prices for food and fuel and things like that. You put all of this together, and does it lead to a more combustible late spring/early summer for us as we move forward?

TATIANA SERAFIN:
You mentioned the gas prices. I want to riff on that because I was looking at the Fox News webpage, and they have a map of the United States with all the prices in different states on a sliding scale. I thought it was fascinating to have that on your front page when there is so much news going on. However, that speaks to the point that we are in a midterm year. We mentioned this on our previous podcasts.

I was looking at Biden's poll numbers and they are atrocious when you compare them to all of the past few presidencies. It is amazing how low he is polling. I do think that maybe these issues, as you said, aren't top of the headlines—and maybe this is a news problem and a reporting problem that we can talk about separately—but it is definitely being spoken about at the doorstep, and people are taking all of these mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and inflation pressures into consideration when they are looking at leadership and how the United States is doing at home and abroad.

I want to ask you: What is your sense of what Biden is up against as the representative of the Democratic Party in the midterms? What are you hearing? What are you seeing? It's April. We have campaigns in full swing here.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
It's going to be a real challenge. It is always a challenge for the president to have his party retain control if they control both houses of Congress in a midterm election, but you have these pressures building up, partly because again—

Go back to our podcasts that we did with Tom Nichols and Judah Grunstein right at the beginning of the Biden administration, when we were looking at this question of the turn, the end of the Trump administration and the beginning of the Biden administration. Look at the sense that Biden ran on a platform of restoring a degree of normality and restoring the American system and the way it operates. We had all of this talk about foreign policy for the middle class. We were going to have this new focus on climate. We had our podcast with Carolyn Kissane talking about climate statecraft and the first steps there. The Biden administration came in with a sense that they were going to try to move forward on a number of issues, and really they have moved into reactive mode as events have overtaken them, and they are now being I think assessed on their ability to deliver.

But again, we are back to media perceptions, which is the extent to which the media—not just the broadcast media and the print media but social media—create or set expectations about how to interpret the reality around you. The tone has really moved dystopian. It has moved to the idea that things are terrible, that we have all of these crises, the pandemic, and the fact that the Biden administration was blamed in 2021 for not getting a handle on the pandemic. Partly they were hoisted on some of their own campaign rhetoric's petard that they were going to do a much better job, but the pandemic had other ideas, particularly the Omicron variant, as to how it was going to be handled.

You could put this anti-Trump coalition together, but to then become a governing coalition is much more difficult, and we saw how much of the Biden administration's proposals did not have a unified coalition in Congress to pass them into legislation quickly. That has contributed I think to this sense that the world is coming apart.

We had our very dramatic podcast last year with Afghan journalists literally as Kabul was falling to the Taliban. As much as there was a strategic and a doorstep logic behind getting the United States out of Afghanistan, the imagery of how that happened I think has contributed as well to a sense that the Biden administration is faltering or is having issues, and as you said also, not simply the campaigns have started in April, the campaigns are perpetual now.

Several of our guests last year—I am thinking particularly of when we had Aubrey Cox Ottensteintalked about generational issues. That is playing out in this as well, that the president and the generation that he is from—we are seeing this with Speaker Pelosi, with Senator Feinstein, and others—really raising the question that the Baby Boom generation is not necessarily leadership that is agile and nimble enough for moving into the 21s century.

Tatiana, you commented on this a few weeks ago. When you look at the contrast of European leadership, particularly these very dynamic prime ministers, women prime ministers in Finland, in Sweden, in Estonia, and other leaders—President Zelenskyy himself, 44 or 45 years old—we are looking at the tail end of Generation X or first-wave Millennials coming in. It conveys a very different image, and I think that is playing out, at least subconsciously, as well when we consider the fact that in the United States—not simply looking at the midterms but looking at the presidential race in 2024—we may very well have two Baby Boom candidates slugging it out for the White House. I think that subtly sends a different message in comparison with what we have seen in Europe.

We talked in our last broadcast about the French elections, and even there we are looking at younger candidates obviously representing very different perspectives on democracy and France's role in Europe and transatlantic relations, which creates a dynamism that is there that I think we are going to be running into some issues with our politics here.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
You mentioning all these things just had me thinking, the United States, China, Russia, all really old leaders, versus a lot of these smaller countries—New Zealand and Latin America also—in other parts of the world much younger leadership coming to the fore, which I think people aspire to and want to see.

I think a huge—as I am writing this piece on social media and the war in Ukraine—part it is the image of a young President Zelenskyy that is driving the social media coverage. If he was 100 years old, like some leaders, I don't think he would be getting the same amount of kudos. It is the vigor not only physically, because it is physical presence, it is also the ability understand social media, understand new forms of expression, to be able to Zoom in around the world, to be able to engage with crypto, and to be able to engage with TikTok. These new ways of communication—and Twitch, where gamers are all over the Ukraine war. Who would have ever predicted that a year ago?

I think we need to understand and maybe think about whether the United States might be too big or our systems too entrenched in ways like Russia and China that we aren't really nimble. I don't know. Do you think I'm taking the analogy too far?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
It's a concern that some of my colleagues and I have had. This was something that Derek Reveron, Mac Owens, and I touched on in a book we wrote a few years ago on America as an incidental superpower. In our last chapter one of the things that we hit on is kind of the ossification certainly of the U.S. national security apparatus—not nimble, not responsive—but you could say our politics as well.

At the state and local levels, we see people using these new tools much more effectively, but at the national level, because they don't follow the long-established bureaucratic scripts, they are unpredictable, they can careen off in unexpected directions, and I think that there is a suspicion—again, as you said, the comparisons that we have seen over the last 60 to 70 days between an autocratic, aging, isolated President Putin, everyone at the other end of the table and it is all very structured; and we have seen President Zelenskyy very open, engaged, using social media to really give everyone a number of weeks back when he was on the streets of Kyiv with his cabinet—all very informal but saying, "Here we're in the fight and we're not giving up," and what that has done for boosting morale and boosting assistance.

Obviously I think Ukraine isn't happy with the level of assistance that it has gotten, but one really has to credit the messaging particularly by President Zelenskyy in shifting attitudes. When you look at the first days of the invasion, the predominant attitude in many places in Europe, even in some segments of the United States, was: "Ah, this is going to be a very quick conflict. Ukraine needs to settle. Ukraine needs to offer a bunch of concessions. We can't get involved."

Partly this has changed that narrative, where you now have the latest reports of the United States committing not a few pieces of equipment here and there, but some really major defense deliveries to Ukraine designed to change the balance on the battlefield. An older president in Ukraine might have taken that advice, well-meaning as it was, from the Biden administration, which I think in retrospect would have been fatal, of advising President Zelenskyy to leave Kyiv in the first days and go to Lviv, prepare a government in exile, or something like that. I think that would have been disastrous.

Let's bring it back to the doorstep as we look at our own politics: What kind of politician, what type of campaigner, how do you reach voters, how do you create and craft messages?

In the last 30 years we were dominated by the James Carville/David Axelrod/Lee Atwater types of how you shape candidates. It is image control and very structured. Then of course, as we saw in the 2016 Clinton campaign, hyper-polling and really trying to message.

Are we moving to where we are going to look for candidates and political figures that have this openness and authenticity about them that moves us away from the data-driven, highly scripted, and poll-tested imaging? I think it remains to be seen how that is going to play out here.

But definitely President Zelenskyy—and I think again we talked about this on an earlier podcast—and the extent to which other leaders around the world are trying to emulate him, down to Macron adopting a similar casual—

TATIANA SERAFIN:
He could not wear a T-shirt.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
No, he can't wear a T-shirt the same say, no.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
No.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
But that speaks to again the impact that he has had.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
I think that is huge and going to be a game changer.

I have to tell you—and I will bring it to the doorstep too—in terms of messaging and the use of social media, I do think the younger generations not only use social media just to use it, but we have seen, for example in Ukraine and Russia, influencers who have huge followings on Instagram or TikTok pivot from telling how to wear makeup and dress to raising funds, to showing what is going on in their towns and cities.

I do think that there is an increasing political activism. I have mentioned this for a couple of years now, but I do think that where this might be for me a tipping point is that Amazon union, the first union out of New York based solely on efforts of young generation, including a student from my college, Marymount Manhattan College, who very quickly and swiftly turned it around and has inspired, by the way, on the ground students of mine to say: "Hey, I'm at Starbucks. Let me start a union." It has gotten this talk. We just avoided a doorman's strike here in New York City, they got what the pay increase they wanted.

I am wondering if we are not only seeing a tipping point where youth are even going to be more active in this political midterm season because of what they are seeing on the ground around the world and being interconnected like never before—even with all this polarization I stand by my thesis—but also this idea that you can not only advocate and message, but you actually can make change with these unionizations actually being voted for.

So it is moving just from talk to actual implementation, and I think that is a huge difference, when people see that their actions can actually resonate and happen and not just be talked about in a nice Twitter image. I think that is making a huge difference and may be a huge pivot point in the midterms. What do you think?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
I think it goes back to points that Tia Tyree raised with us last year and then Joseph Marks earlier this year about the new tools for mobilizing, organizing, and connecting. As always—this was I think our cautionary note from Tom Nichols—you have to make the jump from the virtual to the real-world space in what you do, but we are seeing how that is playing out.

Again, the question is: What will mobilize people? Is it going to be the environment, the economy, what is happening in places like Ukraine, or their own sense that the system isn't giving them the fair shake that they deserve and therefore they are organizing and finding ways to get around the traditional blocks that prevented people from being able to connect to each other, primarily the geographic block, that you actually had to be reasonably proximate?

Again we are seeing with some of these organizing efforts that people are dispersed and that they are able to connect through these tools without having to have either geographic proximity but also increasingly having to go through state-controlled or government-controlled nodes, that you can reach people directly.

One of the things, going back to the war in Ukraine, is the amount of information that we are getting as regular citizens that is not mediated through governments, this whole rise of open-source intelligence community of experts who are able to take all of these social media postings and get us a real picture of what is happening.

In a way, we ended one cycle that started in 1991 with the Gulf War, where the CNN jumped ahead of traditional broadcast networks to show what a 24-hour satellite cable network could do in terms of broadcasting, and then—you are right—TikTok, Twitter, Twitch, and all of these other platforms are showing the next wave of information retrieval, in this case from the war in Ukraine, where you are pulling things directly from people's social media feeds, people are going out and recording, and in some cases inadvertently social media and technology leakage because so many people with their phones, geolocation, their Fitbits and the like, and suddenly you are able to put a much different picture together.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
Not always accurate, so fact checking is important. I have to say that as a journalist. We have to always fact check information. Don't take anything you see on social media at face value. But I do think as a tool you are absolutely right. The other T is Telegram; that's where I get all of my information about what is going on.

But it is not just the social media connection. Once again, I am going to give you how it is also happening, that it has jumped to action. I have people in my own sphere who not only fundraise and bought stuff here in the United States but have literally taken suitcases and carried them over to borders in Poland, crossed over, and delivered them. It is an on-the-ground effort from the United States, direct doorstep U.S. effort, flying over to direct doorstep there, again border crossings in Poland and also Lviv. Now, with Lviv being attacked very close to the West—that is the westernmost city that has been attacked, for those of you in our audience who might not know the geography of Ukraine—but it is also this action that has been inspired.

I have never seen anything like it in my research. There are little bits and pieces that have happened, but this mobilization—I am not going to call it mass mobilization, but if you look at the numbers of people and the Ukrainian diaspora who are doing this, you can call it mass mobilization within the diaspora—is incredible.

I think this is going to be—and we will keep looking at it here at The Doorstep—social media turning into on-the-ground activism. What we wanted to see last year is actually happening. This Ukraine war has not only transformed the way war is conducted—digital warfare, information warfare—but also I think how societies are going to respond to crises. It is going to challenge organizations like the United Nations. Zelenskyy put a direct challenge to the system, and it is going to mobilize I think the youth, which I believe have already been mobilized—my thesis—into even more mobilization for the midterms.

That is what I think. Nick, do you have any other comments before I remind people to sign up for our book talk?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
I think that we are going to see as we move forward in the next number of months—what I am looking at is kind of doorstep perceptions of what is important and the set of issues that people are going to begin to prioritize. We have had some assumptions about those priorities. Gas prices, food prices, and inflation will rise to the fore, but it is not clear yet what people are going to say: "Well, what matters most to me at the doorstep?"

That will feed into the campaign season here in the United States for the midterms because I think both parties are gearing up for elections in which they think that there are a set of doorstep issues that will get them across the finish line, but they seem to be concluding that what those doorstep issues are are going to be quite different, whether it is the economy, education, foreign policy, and so on. It is going to be interesting to see how that gets shaped over the next number of months.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
Yes. We will keep talking about these issues. Please continue to follow us on our Twitter handle @DoorstepPodcast.

A reminder again of a great book talk, The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology. We will be speaking with author Amy Webb next Tuesday at 6:00. Please visit carnegiecouncil.org for signups.

Thank you, Nick, for today.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV:
Thank you.

TATIANA SERAFIN:
We welcome again our audience. Please send us your questions. Where do you think we are in the world and what are your doorstep issues for the midterm 2022?

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