The Doorstep: Connecting U.S. Foreign & Domestic Policy in 2021, with Judah Grunstein

December 18, 2020

TATIANA SERAFIN: Hi. This is Tatiana Serafin, Senior Fellow with the Carnegie Council.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hi, and I'm Nick Gvosdev, also a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council, and we are the co-hosts of The Doorstep.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to today's episode, our final one in 2020, and a special one, where we look back at our last few episodes and make some predictions for 2021.

Here to help us today is Judah Grunstein, editor-in-chief of World Politics Review, to give his insights on what we can expect in U.S. foreign policy and how we can connect that to your everyday life. What does it mean for you as we take on a new Biden-Harris administration and where America will be?

Thank you so much for joining us, Judah.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I would like to start out by talking about a report that just came out this week from the Carnegie Council called "The Public Response: Contributing to a New Narrative on the Future of U.S. Global Engagement."  I think this report ties in what we have been doing this fall, looking at where we are in the world and what America could do to reengage in different regions and also in different topic areas, such as the environment.

Nick, can you talk to us about the report and some of the key findings?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Sure, thank you. I think the key findings are that Americans don't want to be isolationist, they don't want to turn away from the world, but they are leery about a foreign policy which essentially requires the United States to be everywhere and to do everything. They want the United States to play a leadership role but not necessarily as President-elect Biden has suggested in the past, to be at the head of the table.

There is a desire for greater cooperation and coordination in certainly trade among fellow democracies, particularly in the areas of technology, energy, and climate change. There is some distrust about being overly dependent on China and concerns about how countries like China source and produce the goods that they may be buying. But there is also a desire not to move into open confrontation with China but to try to work with China to deal with a number of the pressing global issues, starting with the pandemic and then moving ahead with climate change.

I think this report also has something that ties in, Judah, with what you have been writing about, which is this search for a new social contract, as it were. There is a sense from these reports we have been doing from Carnegie, the focus groups, the polling data, and this third report which was released this week, which is that engaged citizens and voters have a sense that there is some disconnect between governments and their concerns, and they are looking for that reconnection. Knowing that you have been writing about this in World Politics Review and elsewhere, maybe you could give some sense of your take on this search for a new social contract.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Sure.

I want to say that everything you just outlined in terms of the results of the polling and the focus groups that you have all been running tracks perfectly with everything I have seen from places like the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Last year I think the Center for American Progress also released polling.

In general, and I think perhaps to the surprise of some of the people who work and focus on foreign policy, the American public is pretty well informed and has a pretty sharp take on what America can and should do in the world and has a smart take and their finger on the pulse in terms of how what America is doing in the world affects them and their day-to-day lives. I think we have already seen with regard to the Biden administration and some of the picks—I am thinking in particular of Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, but also Tony Blinken—have spoken a lot about a "foreign policy for the middle class" and the way in which American foreign policy has to translate into real gains and benefits for people in their daily lives.

I do think that is a very clear response to the way in which Donald Trump leveraged foreign policy. There is this conventional wisdom in the foreign policy community that foreign policy does not play a role in American domestic politics and was irrelevant in the months before the presidential election, and we always complain that there are no questions at the presidential debates about all the burning issues.

But in a very real way Donald Trump managed to leverage foreign policy as a domestic issue, and he did it by mobilizing patriotism, nationalism, and the paycheck and day-to-day concerns of Americans. So I think this emphasis by the Biden administration is a real response to that. 

We also see that Susan Rice, a longtime foreign policy and national security hand, has been named to a domestic policy role in the Biden administration. So again, I think these conduits, channels, and bridges between foreign policy and domestic policy will be clear under Biden.

We can talk more about it over the course of the show, but I think, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic and to address some of the economic fallout, the role of government in the private sector is going to be radically increased. That is going to feed in a positive feedback loop to what America does abroad and is going to have to feed into the benefits that people see in their day-to-day lives.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting that you say that. I will name another person that he named—Katherine Tai for U.S. trade representative. She very succinctly said—I have to refer to the whole quote because I think this hits home to what we have been talking about: "I am very proud to be an advocate for American workers, to stand up for their ingenuity and their innovation and for America's interests across the globe. I look forward to harnessing the power of our trade relationships to help communities lift themselves out of the current crisis."

Directly to what you are saying, here we have a senior trade representative, so someone very much involved in foreign policy and very much involved in China, which happened to be one of our first topics as we started The Doorstep. China's effect and influence on the U.S. consumer and the U.S. worker has played a big role over the past few months and I think will continue to be looked at.

It is quite controversial. There are two points of view—China as threat or China as potential cooperative partner in trade, potentially in the environment.

What are some of your thoughts, Nick and Judah, on China?

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Should I jump in, Nick?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Go right ahead, Judah. One reason why we are having you as our end-of-year guest as the editor of World Politics Review is that you have that holistic global vision to be able to help our listeners walk through these issues, so take it away.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Right on.

Again, this is the $64,000 question. It has become the central issue in terms of American foreign policy and really global policy, the global geopolitical and international arena, because Europe is very much recalibrating its posture toward China as well.

I think again we have seen a sea change in the way in which China is perceived, and that preceded Trump's election. I think there were expectations during the campaign in 2016 that Hillary Clinton, had she won the election, would also have toughened up America's posture toward China. I think in this case Trump is both symptom and cause. Again in a positive feedback loop, his hostility to China I think definitely has affected Americans' perception of China. Pretty much across the board in all the polling I have seen, the perception of China has gotten more negative. But I think also he was not the initial cause of that.

Again, it seems to vary both within the China desk community and within the broader foreign policy community. In the China desk community, although it is not as far a divergence—they used to say the "China hawks" and the "panda huggers"—there is still a part of the community that holds out the idea that China and the United States can still cooperate on a broad range of topics, most notably climate change.

Then there is a much more sobered part of the China-watching community that has a hangover from: "Let's all get along. China is going to liberalize as it gets more integrated into the global economy."  They are rubbing their eyes and saying: "Wait. This didn't happen. We really need to wake up to the fact that China has a competitive agenda with the United States."  

There is some disagreement over whether China wants to replace the United States and whether they want to replace the global governance system that the United States has led and helped build over the past 40 to 50 years, and whether they want to use that system to its own advantage and maybe change the emphasis and the norms so that system does not focus so much on human rights, for instance, and what governments are doing within their countries. China definitely has a very thought out plan in terms of reaching out around the world with investment, infrastructure deals, and providing money and loans that are not attached to conditions like human rights and things like that, so it is a very formidable competitor.

In response, the question facing the American policymaking community is: How do you address that? How do you compete in a way that plays to America's strengths? How do you do it in a way that confronts China where it needs to be confronted, that pushes back when China overreaches in terms of unfair trade practices, in terms of retaliation against allies like Australia, which we have seen recently?

How do you do it also in a way that leaves open the possibility of working together on areas where we need to? And most importantly, how do you do it in a way that minimizes the potential for escalation and misunderstanding leading to armed conflict?

I think everyone agrees that it is not in either side's interest for anything to get to conflict, and there seems to be a consensus agreement that China is not looking for conflict, it is not ready for conflict, and it would not risk doing anything that would start a conflict until it is absolutely sure that either the United States would not respond or would not be able to respond effectively.

I think in general that risk is not necessarily as elevated as some people might think, but there is always the chance that a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea could lead to a collision or a confrontation, and then hotheads on both sides could get out of hand.

All of this goes into the real complexity of managing that relationship, which will be crucial and fundamental for how the global economy and global geopolitics develop over the next 20 to 50 years.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think what is really interesting, to bring it home, is that we have seen through our Carnegie report that the individuals we polled said they were willing to pay a little bit extra to know where their products were sourced and if they were sourced from democratic communities. There is that piece of data, and there is the other piece of data that more people are buying more on Amazon from China, Chinese-made products, than ever before during the pandemic. There is this divergence in what people are hoping for and what people have actually been doing over the past couple of months, and I think this might be also reflecting problems at the top in how to deal with China that you have addressed. Do you agree with that?

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Absolutely. I think those traumatic first weeks of the pandemic underscored for everyone that in general accessing cheap products from China is fine. It has some economic impact on various sectors of the economy that have to be accounted for more effectively than they were previously, and that I think led to Donald Trump's rise.

But suddenly with the pandemic we had this moment where we were shocked to find that we were in a huge crisis and that the items that we need we have become totally dependent on China for, things as banal as disposable face masks. All the time in the past decade that we have been reading about the danger of high-tech supply chains and the risk of backdoors in computer chips that might lead to vulnerabilities in U.S. national security, but all of a sudden it's these 2 x 4 pieces of fabric that we toss out after we use them that we cannot get our hands on because China has that part of the market cornered.

How do you respond to that? Disposable is cheap. Bringing it back home means paying domestic wages. It means meeting regulatory hurdles, not necessarily on the quality of the mask, but maybe on pollution of the factory that is producing them. All sorts of things raise the costs that make it much harder.

I think there will be a balance struck between, for instance, maybe joint stockpiles between democratic countries for certain strategic products, maybe again a joint effort among Western democracies or Western and Asian democracies to have certain subsidies and industrial policies that allow domestic producers to meet those national security needs without raising the cost on consumers. But it is hard to wean ourselves off of cheap products. We have all gotten into the habit—two clicks, and it's on its way, and it gets here quickly.

That sort of effort is a cultural effort. It's a social effort. It is a question of changing our behaviors and changing our expectations. We have done that in the past. It has taken things like massive economic shocks, wars, famines, and things like that. Whether what we have all gone through in the last year will be enough, I am not so sure, and I wonder how long the memory of the traumas of the pandemic will actually last. I think the economic impact will last much longer. I am not sure how much some of the things we have learned will last.

To my mind the proof—and I will wrap it up—is that when we hit this second wave two or three weeks ago here in the United Kingdom where I am, but I think I read in the United States as well—the first product that disappeared off the shelves of the supermarkets was toilet paper once again, when everyone knew that it was unnecessary and that we were all going to have plenty to go around. I think our memories will be shorter in terms of the traumas from the pandemic, and that might make it even harder to deal with these questions of supply chains and strategic supply chains in products that have an impact on national security.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting that you say that. I'm like: Wow! Toilet paper as a national security issue.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I mean mainly that the memory was so short. I expected that at least one thing would be different during this second wave—no one would panic about toilet paper. But they did. Memories are short, and I think that come this time next year, should things go well with the vaccine and life is back to normal, I expect movie theaters will be filled, restaurants will be filled, and there will be a real economic comeback, and I don't think people will be taking the steps that you need to take in terms of inconvenience to source products from somewhere other than China.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think it's a great point you have raised about the short-term memory and how quickly we forget, or we panic about something and want a big policy change, and then a few months later it falls by the wayside.

I think some of the things that you have said right now are going to be interesting tests for the Biden-Harris administration, because everything that you have laid out in this past answer all requires tradeoffs. It requires managing political tradeoffs between different constituencies and interest groups, and you need to have a process for that.

I know that we re-tweeted on The Doorstep podcast Twitter account your observation about Vietnam, that the China hawks and the strategic community have always looked at Vietnam as this great—"We need them as a partner against China"—and yet domestic economic producers in the United States look at Vietnam and say: "Vietnam is a competitor. They're not a friend. They undercut us" in a variety of areas from catfish to clothing.

How are you going to reconcile all of these things of: "Work with China here but compete with them there. We don't want to buy certain goods from China."  But then as you laid out so eloquently, the point then is: Well, who is going to make it, under what standards, with what wages, and what price are you willing to pay for disposable masks and so on?

My reservations are looking at how the Biden administration is moving forward and also with the uncertainties of how Congress is going to shape out. I don't know that there is going to be an ability to be able to have that kind of far-reaching, far-seeing approach. As you said, industrial policy is something that has to be coordinated with the other U.S. allies in Europe and in Asia, and that is something that will take a lot of political capital, which the administration may not have.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I would add that the Vietnam example is a great one because you throw on top of that the democracy concerns. That has been at least rhetorically a central focus of the Biden campaign, this need to rehabilitate America's advocacy for human rights. Vietnam has been a clear example where strategic interests are balanced against values and ideals and not always to the great honor of the United States, but that is an aspect of statecraft that we are familiar with.

I think this question of tradeoffs is going to be central in terms of when we talk about a new social contract. The pandemic underscored—and we are all aware of it—the degree to which the preexisting social inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic and the way in which the full brunt of the pandemic—

Let's remember, in the early days of the pandemic, the people who first had the disease were global travelers, businesspeople, elites, politicians, and people going from Asia to French ski resorts and then back to the United Kingdom. That was the early days of the pandemic because that's who travels. That is who has the kind of mobility to be exposed to it. But later on, we saw the full brunt of the pandemic hit frontline workers, essential workers, where poor people, minorities, and women and men are concentrated in terms of jobs and exposure.

I think when you talk about tradeoffs, tradeoffs are a hard political sell. No politician wants to be in the position of saying: "Listen, we have all got to tighten our belts. We've all got to roll up our sleeves. We've got to do without." I don't think any American president wants to campaign on a platform of "Let's do without."

What does that mean? I think that the tradeoff in terms of the American social contract and in the wealthy economies but also in the developing economies means that the elites and corporations are going to have to contribute more in terms of taxes, in terms of the social services, and the social safety net, that will get our societies through. I don't see any other viable political sell, and that means through the government and a bigger government role.

So again, this question of tradeoffs on foreign policy, tradeoffs on domestic policy—who is going to pay the costs? I think that is going to be a real point of contention because no one likes to give up privilege, no one wants to pay higher taxes. I think that is going to be a real point of contention in the next year or two years, especially once the lockdowns and other social distancing measures are relaxed.

We have already seen a lot of social protest movements in spite of those health measures. I think once things get back to normal, normal might be a little more social protest and social contestation.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is so interesting what you said. A report just came out from Forbes yesterday that the world's billionaires—all 2,200 and so of them—are $1.9 trillion richer over the past year.

To your point, I think there is this opportunity for some help from these elites in particular. One, MacKenzie Scott, Jeff Bezos's ex-wife, gave away over the last couple of months, if you saw that report, $4.2 billion to areas of need including social services that you mentioned, and one that I want to talk about is food banks because of this idea of food insecurity and this divergence that has been caused by the pandemic. Where you are in the United Kingdom, I recently read about the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) actually providing food over the Christmas holiday to some people, the first time in 70 years that UNICEF has been engaged in the United Kingdom.

I wonder if not only should we be leaning on elites, but we should also try to reengage with international institutions like UNICEF in 2021 and beyond to try to meet some of the needs that have been exposed during the pandemic.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: We just ran a feature, an in-depth article by Daniel McDowell, who is at Syracuse University, on the financial response by governments and central banks to the pandemic. What was fascinating to me is that on an aggregate level, the impact of the pandemic has been a lot less than people worried. In the developed economies, especially between furlough schemes in Europe and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in the United States, a lot of the initial pain was mitigated. Aggregate savings has not been depleted; it might even have gone up. Credit card debt has not gone up. When you pull everything together, the picture of the economic impact looks not that bad. There has been an increase in savings, which means there might be an immediate boost in demand when people can go shopping again and things like that.

But then when you look in a more granular way at the day-to-day stories that we are reading about, the impact and the misery is heartrending. You have people going to food banks who never did. I have seen record lines of people for drive-through food banks stretching for miles and miles down the highway in the American South.

What we do about that, I don't know. To me it's remarkable. I had not seen that about UNICEF delivering food in the United Kingdom. We already see a certain injustice globally in terms of the distribution of the vaccines, which are going predominantly to wealthy, developed economies rather than to developing economies in the Global South. The impact there economically is much greater. The governments have fewer resources to go around. A lot of the economies there are in the informal economy, so they do not respond very well to furlough schemes and things like that.

I really don't know. I think one of the huge vacuums over the past nine months has been any kind of coordinated multilateral response to the pandemic, whether financial, humanitarian, or global health governance. I think with the Biden administration we are going to see a much more active United States trying to organize and lead something like that, and I think that will have to include things like debt forgiveness for developing economies and humanitarian aid in the form of vaccines but also, where necessary, food and direct financial aid to governments to help their populations. I don't see any other way around it because of the degree of the economic fallout.

TATIANA SERAFIN: One of the other areas where I think we also have to have global cooperation—it's big in our report, and everybody talks about it—is climate change.

What do you see coming up in 2021? Have you seen a movement to create new conventions or new discussion points on this? We read a little bit that China was trying to take the lead as the United States pulled back. Is there an opportunity with John Kerry now as a "climate czar" for us to get back into the game?

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I think definitely the United States will be more active and more present. One of the more reassuring developments over the last four years is the counterfactual to the idea that the world depends on American leadership to get anything done. The United States pulled out of the Paris Agreement, and it had essentially zero impact on the rest of the world with maybe the exception of Brazil.

Perhaps there wasn't as much ambition in terms of advancing the goals that had been set out in 2015. There certainly was some disruption to the summit meeting systems, in part due to the pandemic as well, but for the most part the world shrugged off America's absence and continued to move ahead, announcing pretty ambitious goals. Whether it's China, the European Union, Japan, there has not been a drop off in terms of the rest of the world. That can only bode well now that the United States is going to be back in the game and will be a more active participant.

We have all read and seen the new buzzwords, "Build Back Better," the "Green New Deal" and things like that. I do think there is a huge opportunity. Big Oil was already on the ropes before the pandemic. The hit to demand has made it clear that the energy sector has to get into the 21st century. Demand will definitely bounce back once economic production comes back, but again the time horizon for Big Oil is in 20 to 30 years, trying to have something viable in terms of renewables and green.

If there is an opportunity after the pandemic—and it coincides well for Biden in terms of him taking office—it is that it is easier to redirect the kind of capital investment that is needed when there has been this kind of disruption. We are at a point where renewables are beginning to become competitive, they are beginning to come online in the kind of scale where they can make a difference, and so we will see. I think that should be an emphasis, particularly in the developing world.

One of the big themes of climate change diplomacy is: How do we use our experience from the mistakes that we have made over 200 years in developing Western economies to try to guide developing economies along a more sustainable path because they are building from scratch in a lot of ways? Hopefully that will become a mainstream part of the conversation. We have seen it over the last nine months.

Hopefully that will not be an area where there is that short memory, Nick, that we talked about earlier, and maybe hopefully there there will be a more long-term memory.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: What you are saying right now reminds me of some themes that Ambassador Ray discussed in the previous episode of The Doorstep, when he was talking about opportunities with Africa. With a number of African countries you have this kind of ground-floor effort where you can go in and invest and work, but they can leapfrog certain stages and move ahead. He saw this certainly as a zone of opportunity for the United States.

Tatiana, I know you have some more issues we wanted to get to.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Let me add one last thing. This is an area too where the United States can learn from other countries. We just ran a piece recently on Uruguay's renewable energy sector, what they have done, and how they have done it. It is a pretty impressive record that they have accomplished there.

So again, coming back into the game can also mean learning from and figuring out what other people are doing right and how we can learn from that. I think a certain amount of humility as well is in order for the United States.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think as 2021 comes into play and we are looking ahead, hopefully we will see more cooperation versus isolation. That is the theme of this conversation for me today.

In our few moments left could we each talk about what is going to be the big "Aha!" in 2021, for you, Judah, and for you, Nick?

I am going to start. My big one is going to be—and I believe this, and I have said it throughout this fall—that Gen Z is going to take more of an active role based on what they learned in the social protest movements, not just in the United States but around the world. Gen Z has been leading the social justice movement protests across the board, and I do think global connections are going to continue to be made. Despite antitrust efforts against Facebook and Google, they are going to be around, and they are going to continue to link people.

As you said, Judah, as we come out of the pandemic I think we are going to go back to where we were before if not even further because we have all been communicating online. There has been, as we talk about, this "borderless" Internet. You are in the United Kingdom. I couldn't tell. Nobody can tell where you are. We are talking. We are having a conversation.

I think Gen Z is going to propel the foreign policy conversation, the "doorstep" conversation next year, in a more engaged way than we have seen before. That is my 2021 prediction.

What about you?

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: I agree 100 percent with that. No, not 100 percent; 90 percent. When you were talking about the younger generation and Gen Z, the first thing I thought is that they are the digital natives.

Where I might diverge from you is that for me I think the coming year and this whole period what we will look back on, perhaps even more than the pandemic, is the Aha! moment that tech is the genie that got out of the bottle, and what are we going to do about it? I am not at all confident that ten or even five years from now we will have a borderless Internet. People are talking a lot about a "splinternet," where you will have a China-sourced, China-based system, and a Western or a democratic-based system. Countries like Russia are putting up their own great firewalls.

So I am not as optimistic for a global Internet, and I believe that the coming five years, historically when we look back on it, will be defined by the battle between government and Big Tech and society and Big Tech in terms of antitrust, regulation, democracy, misinformation, and data privacy. I think those key issues will be the battleground that will determine a number of trajectories for human society around the planet.

I am not confident about a global Internet. I am not sure that the Big Tech companies—Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon—will necessarily survive in the form that we know them. I am not 100 percent sure of that. I think there is huge gathering pressure to rein in the power that they have over our lives because the more people learn, the more alarming it gets. That is my 2021 prediction.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just briefly I want to piggyback off two things that both of you said to inform my predictions for the future.

The first, Tatiana, from yours is that I do think 2021 is going to be the start of major political transitions, primarily generational. There may be older generations hanging on. I would assume Speaker Pelosi will be reelected, for instance, come January, but there is a point at which younger generations are poised to move in.

That is significant because, Judah, as you said, digital natives, generations that have grown up post-Cold War with no memories, their views of the world are not framed by that, and I think we will see that in Germany, when the transition happens there. We could be looking at the beginnings of a transition in Russia if some of these concerns about Putin's health turn out to be correct, that he may not be able to stay in power until 2036 as some people have assumed. That is the first.

The second one, Judah, is a more pessimistic one coming off of your earlier comments, and it is the possibility that we could have an unintended clash in 2021. My worries are that as the Biden-Harris team gets settled, as they start to be more activist in the world, they are running up against other powers that have gotten used to America being pulled back. No one is looking for conflict, but there is that risk of the unintended conflict.

We had that 20 years ago in 2001 with the EP-3 incident between the United States and China. If that were to replay today with the change in relative power between the United States and China, it may not be resolved in the same peaceful way perhaps that it was resolved in April of 2001. So my worry prediction for 2021 is an unintended crisis breaking out.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much for your time today, Judah. This was a really fun conversation, and I look forward to 2021 and having you back for our 2022 conversation.

JUDAH GRUNSTEIN: Yes. Hopefully I will have gotten one or two things right.

Thank you so much. It was a great pleasure.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you very much, and thanks to all our listeners. We wish you all the best in the coming new year, and we will be back in January.

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