The Doorstep: Reviving Democracy & Re-establishing Alliances, with the Atlantic Council's Ash Jain

January 15, 2021

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this latest issue of The Doorstep. I'm Nikolas Gvosdev, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council.

Today we're welcoming Ash Jain, who is a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, where he oversees the Atlantic Council's Democratic Order Initiative and D-10 Strategy Forum. We spoke with Ash last fall, and we are so excited to have him on our podcast this winter to talk about this D-10 initiative, what democracy means in the world today, and how that is going to be carried out by the new administration taking over next week.

We have so much to talk about, right, Nick?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, we do, and I think a great starting point is to ask Ash to give us an overview of how the question of democracy, both here at home in the United States and around the world, is likely to play out in a Biden-Harris foreign policy approach.

ASH JAIN: Terrific.

Thank you, Tatiana and Nick. Great to be with you again, and I look forward to today's discussion.

I think it is such an interesting time. Obviously there is so much happening that is in flux here as the Biden administration begins to take office, starting no doubt with the events of the last week, which will have a tremendous impact on the way America relates to the world and how the world perceives America as Biden comes into office.

If we are going to talk about democracy and how America can support democracy and work with democratic allies, we have to start by taking stock of what just took place.  How do we think about the impact of the storming of the Capitol and the response since then, impeachment, and these developments?  I think it would be worth taking some time to consider those issues even before we begin to talk about how Biden can come in and how to reframe and reengage allies and partners.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Absolutely. To get to some of your first points, I have been looking at some of the pictures and coverage from Der SpiegelThe Guardian in the United Kingdom, and around the world, and how people are viewing seeing troops sleeping in the Capitol. This is not just what happened last week but what is going on this week and what we expect to happen, and even before, as you say, we can move forward with policy, how this has shaken perception of the United States in the world.

What are some of the things you're hearing? I read this morning an editorial from the German foreign minister in Der Spiegel that this has shaken democracy around the world and not just in the United States. Are leaders around the world not only worried about the United States and our relationship but also their own democracies? Where do we stand today, January 14, 2021?

ASH JAIN: That is exactly right. We are in a situation where the incident of the Capitol being stormed and incited by the president of the United States—the world is aghast. They never thought something like that could happen here. They never thought that America as an example of democracy around the world would be facing this kind of domestic insurrection and that the symbols of American democracy would be under assault, not from an external enemy but from within and from people who are so angry and so agitated that they are willing to use violence to advance their own beliefs.

Certainly I am hearing the same thing. Allies are quite concerned about what they are seeing, both in terms of what it means for American leadership in the world and for democracy in general. Our allies want America to succeed. They want democracy to be seen and perceived as successful, and many people point to the United States as the world's longest-standing democracy, and it has always been seen as a model or moral example that they would like to see—not necessarily that everything was working perfectly before but that it was at least a symbol of a stable and functioning democracy.

After what they are witnessing, the run-up to the storming of the Capitol, the assault on democratic norms and institutions that President Trump has led over the past several years, they have been concerned all the way through. But what is even more shocking for our allies is to see how much political support Trump continues to maintain, even in the face of what he has done. That's why I think the impeachment proceedings and the aftermath are going to as important in shaping perceptions of America as was the actual event that took place last week.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Ash, if I can ask you to build on that, both with what happened at the Capitol but also with what the outgoing administration is trying to do and how allies and partners are reacting. Last December in The National Interest you laid out what you thought might be the democratic community agenda for the Biden administration, and since you wrote that piece obviously our European allies, particularly Germany, seem to be hedging a little bit by signing their trade agreement with China, although it is not yet ratified, so it still gives us some potential to influence how that plays out. But of course, the outgoing administration seems to be quite interested in constraining and boxing in the new administration. Building on this question of legacies being left, not simply the storming of the Capitol and the impeachment process, how much maneuvering room do you think the new administration will have to pursue a more democracy-focused agenda around the world?

ASH JAIN: I think what we're seeing here in these 11th-hour policy moves is a desire by the Trump administration and by Secretary of State Pompeo to box in the new administration on particular issues that they care about, whether it is with regard to Iran or some of the other issues on Taiwan and Cuba.

In reality, though, I think most of these policies can be easily reversed, at least over the course of the early months of the Biden administration. Some of them will be immediate, some others may take some time. There will be some review processes that will be required.

But I don't think that what Trump and the administration are doing right now in the closing days is going to have that significant of an impact on Biden's agenda. He is going to come in with an opportunity to make a fresh start. There are a lot of things he can begin to do right away to reinforce America's commitments to alliances and to multilateralism, to show that we're back in a position where America is going to be a leader, is going to be reengaging in international institutions, and is going to be looking for a new approach that departs sharply from the "America First" kind of overview that Trump brought into office.

Biden's own way of engaging is to act with humility, and I think you will see that in the way that he and the Biden team will reflect and engage in the world. It is a humility that comes from a sense that America certainly has been a leading force in the world but can no longer be seen as unilateral or going it alone. The United States is much better off working closely with allies and partners, and that requires a sense of shared partnership, listening, and engaging, and I think that is related to the events of the last week. Our democracy has been tarnished, and it would be in keeping with Biden's engagement style to come into office projecting this kind of humility and humbleness about what we have just faced and the need to rebuild and restore our own moral example here at home and to rebuild our approach to the world that is more reflective of the America we want to be as much as the America we have today.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think what you say is so interesting, restarting, reimagining, or rebooting the moral example here at home. This ties into what we are trying to do at The Doorstep, to show the connections between our domestic life and health and our relationships around the world.

But I do think one of the things we should look at perhaps is: What does Biden have to deal with in terms of this populism that I think has given rise to a discontent here at home and how he can deal with these problems, which are clearly going to be paramount, and we haven't even touched on the pandemic and the economy? Some populist leaders in Europe are starting to distance themselves from Trump, but it always seems that people do distance themselves, and then they don't. You mentioned this continued political support. Do you see a death knell for populism, or do you see it continuing to tug at the edges of democracy and unravel it a bit?

ASH JAIN: Good question. "Trumpism"—and by that I mean this American populism—isn't going away when Trump leaves office on January 20. He still retains a wide body of support. Polling certainly demonstrates that. There is still a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. It is amplified by what Trump has done in the past couple of months by trying to suggest that the whole system is rigged and that the whole election system is fraudulent. That is going to remain with us.

The agitated population that wants to see political leaders continue to make these drastic changes and pull at the institutions of governance is going to be part of the political forces that will shape our domestic politics and will be something that will be in the background as Biden takes office and begins to govern. It will also impact the way Congress will be forced to take into account as it begins to vote and implement things that the Biden Administration will be asking for. So I don't think it goes away, but I do think what we are probably witnessing is the apex of the populist movement here in the United States. Trump's election was a kind of shock to the system and the culmination of this populism that we started to see see in Europe when the Brexit vote took place and the rise of some of the other far-right extremist parties and then following in the same time period other populist leaders in Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, and places like that.

These things ebb and flow, and there are no linear movements in terms of how this will play out, but it strikes me that we are starting to see the populist movement now on a downward slide. It reached its height when they succeeded in getting Trump elected as president, and it will still be a force to contend with, but it seems to me that the trend we are on is that populism will begin to dissipate. A lot will depend on what kind of policies and what kind of domestic responses Biden—and working with both sides of the aisle in Congress—can do to try to at least address some of the concerns that fueled populism to begin with—domestic economic grievances, a sense that the country is beholden to special interests and corporations, or whatever the theory or in some cases conspiracy theories are. We are not going to be able to rid people of those beliefs completely, but I think there are things that can be done to show that government is more responsive to what people care about.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is an interesting point you raise there, Ash, because it is very clear that the Biden administration learned some of the lessons from the 2016 campaign about foreign policy. The Biden campaign was very clear about talking about a foreign policy that serves the American middle class. We have some of your colleagues going into government, whether it is Jake Sullivan going in as national security advisor, having been very interested in this question of the domestic sources of foreign policy, and Susan Rice, who some people would think of as an interesting choice to head the Domestic Policy Council, but someone who might be doing those interconnections there.

Bringing this back perhaps to the D-10, is there a sense that this D-10 proposal—that we bring together the 10 major democratic states of the world, not simply in the West but also in the East—is not just a political grouping but is an idea that the populations of the D-10 states will see benefits from this type of association? Do you see that as something moving forward, that this is not just going to be democracy for democracy's sake, but that democracies working together will in fact generate these positive outcomes and blunt the appeal of these, frankly in some cases—going back to your point about Europe, Tatiana, as well as what we saw in the Capitol last week—authoritarian streaks in these populist movements that are not committed to democracy? So if you can show that democracy is producing these benefits, do we think that we might see a better outcome?

ASH JAIN: The first point to make here is that there is a direct connection between what's happening at home and the way we conduct foreign policy. As you said, reflecting on the idea that foreign policy needs to serve as beneficial to the middle class, American voters and voters in other democracies need to see that what we are doing and what we are investing in around the world does pose benefits for themselves. Otherwise, why should the American taxpayer, why should the American people, invest both "blood and treasure," as they say, in terms of projecting overseas if there are no benefits that accrue from that?

I do think it is important that when Biden comes into office and begins to shape a new foreign policy that they take the extra effort to make the case and demonstrate clearly how America's role in the world does provide these direct benefits, and there are ways to make that case. Having people like Susan Rice and Jake Sullivan in these positions, where they have thought very deeply about this challenge, I think it is clear from their experiences, writings, and the way they have been talking about these issues that they very well know this is a high priority, and so the connection between domestic and foreign policy will be center of mind as the administration shapes its approach, which is a good thing because that is part of what has fueled this kind of populism and disillusionment with American policy. I think the starting point is more about engaging people and doing more to bring the public along as we demonstrate and engage in the world.

Where we are today provides plenty of opportunities to do that, starting with the pandemic. The fact that we have done very little to project and engage leadership in dealing with the pandemic has been—I think it is easy to see the connection to how that hurts the American public. If there is no coordination on vaccines, if there is no coordination on responses to the spread of the virus, border controls, economic reinvestment, and all the other things that have been impacted by the virus, then that is to the detriment of the people.

So I think Biden can come in with an opportunity to say we're back in the leadership role, and the first thing we are going to do is take control and work together with allies and through the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions to make sure the virus is being controlled, the vaccines are being distributed, and therefore there will be direct benefits to those of us across the country who are still stuck in our houses and waiting for some relief. I am optimistic that there will be a chance to demonstrate that connection early on.

That feeds into the question of how we do that and what structures do we need to make sure that is done in a visible way that demonstrates that we are back. That's where I think the D-10 format can play a particularly useful role.

We have already seen that Boris Johnson is going to call for a G7 summit virtually very early on once Biden takes office—I don't know if the date has been set, but I think it's sometime in early February—which will be a chance from the get-go to show that the United States is reconnecting in a visible way with allies. The G7 exists. It's the place to start from, so it makes sense to use that format to show a reengagement and a reaffirmation of the need to work with allies.

Further down, I think there is going to be some thinking about whether the G7 is constituted in the way it should be. Does it have the right countries at the table, or are there others that need to be there to make this relevant for the challenges we face today? The fact that we have only one Asian participant in the G7—Japan—clearly demonstrates that it is a relic of a previous global order. Today's global challenges stem from Asia. China is top of mind in terms of the challenges we are going to be facing. It has been very active over the past several years in various ways in terms of challenging democratic norms.

Having a set of allies and partners at the table to talk about challenges from Asia and other challenges to democracy, you need all of the world's major democracies to be engaged if you are going to be successful. The D-10 brings in Australia. It brings in South Korea. It could bring in India, as the British have suggested. Having leading, powerful, and the most engaged democracies at a table where they are confronting these kinds of challenges will be important. The D-10 is a concept that allows for the right people to be at the table.

For Biden I think it provides an opportunity to show a new paradigm of leadership. It's not just reverting back to the old structures and trying to retrofit them into what has already been there but rather bringing a new way of engaging. It is not just who is at the table, but it is about using the format, using this structure, to address the core challenges that we all need to work together in order to solve, whether it is authoritarianism, the pandemic, trade and global economic concerns, or technology. There is a wide range of issues, and we can get into that, but certainly the D-10 is important as a starting point for showing that there is a new format and a new kind of priority being given to cooperating with democracies.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: As you were saying that, I was reminded of a column in Nikkei Asia that Parag Khanna released earlier this week, talking about cooperation between the European Union and Japan, the U.S.-Australia-Japan Blue Dot Network, about as you were saying the shift towards the Indo-Asia Pacific basin and that these are efforts among the democracies not to be hostile to China but as he puts it to accelerate these linkages, technology, and supply chains without dependence on China, how much this depends on this concept of democracies working together, and that in the end this will also generate real concrete benefits, economic benefits, for the countries involved. Again, it looks like a very ambitious agenda and one that aligns with what you have been writing about with the D-10.

You talked earlier about Congress and you talked a bit about our domestic environment. Do you think we have the spirit or the vision to be able to grasp this opportunity and move it forward, or are you concerned that the Biden administration is going to be so consumed by fighting fires and reacting to events that the ability to move on this D-10 agenda is going to be hampered, regardless of whether Boris Johnson may end up being more of the motive force? Since you are in Washington with your finger on the pulse there, is this something that will excite people? Is this something that can inspire them to say this is a vision for America in the mid-21st century, or is it going to be, "Let's just get through the problems of this day, this week, and this month, and not worry about the future"?

ASH JAIN: That is always the challenge of governance. Any new president or new leadership comes into office thinking it has all of these grand new ideas that it wants to put into being, and then reality hits, and the day-to-day crises have to be addressed first. The attention of senior leadership, from the president on down, has to first turn to: "What do we do about the issue we're facing next week?" or the latest flare-up, whether it is at home or something specific overseas. There is this tension between making sure that we are addressing the immediate priorities and immediate crises even while we try to lay out a vision and a plan of action that projects this new vision and new style of engagement.

There is the risk that the vision could be hijacked, but I do think the Biden team has had ample opportunity to think about what that kind of strategy and vision should look like. The people it is bringing into these positions are very competent. Many of them—Kurt Campbell, Jake Sullivan, Tony Blinken, and others—have written about the need for America to project this kind of new leadership in the world with allies and partners, so I expect we are going to see efforts early on to try to do that, not just with photo ops but with concrete measures that provide a way to showcase a new kind of American leadership and engagement in the world.

We will have to see how it plays out. These things are certainly still at the early stages of being shaped when it comes to policy. The team is just coming together now, and it will take some time for the right people to be in place, to be Senate-confirmed, and for Biden to have onboard who he needs to begin to implement any kind of new vision. So we will see how it plays out, but I do think the team is well aware and probably inspired to take this on and rise to the moment when we see the need for a new kind of American moral leadership.

TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting. Your positivity I think is reflected—and we spoke about this in the podcast last week—in the markets, which seem to be only rising globally and not just here in the United States. There is this sense perhaps globally that America is back in a way that maybe we are not seeing in the headlines or in the pictures that are being produced. That is what we hope here at The Doorstep to do, to try to look more big picture and to try to look forward to what are the stories people are missing that may offer a path forward.

You mentioned working with WHO and working with institutions that have been neglected over the last four years might be another impetus here for the markets to be positive despite news of new variants, the South African variant of COVID-19, and new lockdowns on travel. And I keep saying, "And yet," here comes the vaccine rollout, albeit slow, I agree, and perhaps lack of coordination. And yet, here comes China trying to help. Maybe we do work with them in a new way. I think this is reflected a little bit in the markets; I don't think we should forget that.

A little bit too—and this is something I have been thinking about—how to engage young people in the foreign policy conversation. I wonder what you think of this idea. I am going to throw it out there because this is a big issue that I think might actually get young people involved in these discussions. It is how the tech giants are dealing with free speech. Viscerally the reaction of some has been positive to get Trump and some of his supporters off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Of course, for others it has been not so great because of free speech issues and Parler now saying it is not going to operate.

But tech, free speech, and being on the Internet is such a powerful issue for the younger generation, and we have world leaders coming to the fore and saying: "Hey, Twitter, you shouldn't be doing that. You should maybe be more regulated. Maybe you are a private company, but you are providing a public service."

I wonder if you have looked at this issue as one of the issues the D-10 perhaps can look at and issues of engaging young people to be part of this domestic and foreign policy conversation, to see the links with the world, especially if they are going to be taken away if a Facebook decides all of a sudden, "Yes, we're not going to take content from your K-pop band in South Korea," or "TikTok, you're going to be banned." This is the issue that drove youth in the fall, and now it seems that the United States has said, "No, you can invest in Chinese companies," and the TikTok ban is probably going to fall apart.

Might this be a way we can try to engage the next generation of foreign policy thinkers? A lot of people have been saying, "Oh, Biden has a lot of Obama leftovers."  How can we get some young, some new thinking in? Have you thought about that, Ash or Nick? I would love to hear what you think.

ASH JAIN: I think this whole question about social media engagement and what should be allowed, what kinds of conversations are permissible, and what goes too far are the kinds of things—Gen Z has grown up with social media. It is just part of their being. It's probably a set of issues that is tailor-made if you want to get younger folks engaged in conversations where they may not be as active on some other things when it comes to public policy. So I think this is an excellent opportunity to reach out and get input from young people, who probably have an opinion one way or the other, since this is what they see and use on a daily and very frequent basis.

It raises some tough questions. There are no easy answers here. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Parler, obviously they are privately run, so at one level they have the right to decide who they want to allow to engage and what kind of content they wish to permit or not permit.

But on the other hand, they have taken on a life of their own. They are in some sense substituting for the public square that used to be the place where opinion was expressed before technology. When the Constitution was written and the First Amendment was drafted, the way in which speech could be curtailed was by suppressing people speaking out in town squares or maybe trying to write newspaper articles.

Now we have so many more ways of communicating and reaching people immediately and widely. The question is: Who should be in charge of deciding what content is permitted and who is permitted to engage? Is it Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg? Are they the ones empowered to make those decisions, or should it be some kind of a board or commission?  What is the role of government? I think these require a lot more study and a lot more analysis.

The most important thing in my view—this actually relates to our conversation earlier—is that these decisions shouldn't be made in a vacuum and shouldn't be made individually. It doesn't serve anybody's interest if Facebook has one policy and Twitter has another, and then European regulators have one set of rules for hate speech, and it is different in India and Canada. These are all globally linked, so they require some coordination and uniformity to be effective.

That is where I do think, whether it is the D-10 or some other structure, there need to be discussions about technology norms and social media norms that are not just being made individually by countries but rather among democracies, who all should come at this from a shared starting point, that we want to protect free speech, we want to protect the ability of people to engage, but we also don't want to give latitude for people to promote and incite violence. Then there are all the gray areas. If you are not inciting violence but are expressing views that are unpopular or filled with hateful rhetoric, should that be allowed or not?

My conversations with younger people, including my own son, who is starting college this year, is that there is less tolerance for the idea that you should be able to express hate speech. There are tough issues to untangle here. How far should we be going in preventing or deterring people from expressing views that we find uncomfortable?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I like your idea of a multilateral approach to discussing these issues. I think we need to do more of that. I am very much looking forward to how the new administration does reengage with the world.

I think this has been an excellent discussion, and we have so much to look forward to in the next few weeks, so much change coming.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Ash. I really appreciate your time and your ideas.

ASH JAIN: Thank you for having me. This has been a great conversation, and I hope we get a chance to continue these kinds of conversations in the future.

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