NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest issue of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Council.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Hi, everyone. Good to hear you again. I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council.
We have today a very special guest, Ali Wyne, speaking to us today about, hm, how is the new administration doing? Are they delivering on the promises of foreign policy and making what we need at The Doorstep impactful? What is the report card? We are going to do some grading today.
Ali Wyne is a senior analyst with Eurasia Group's Global Macro team. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute.
Thank you so much today for joining us, Ali.
ALI WYNE: Thank you for having me. I am delighted to be here.
As we were saying beforehand, I think this podcast could not come at a more opportune time. We talk a lot, not just in Washington, DC, but in the foreign policy community about the nexus between what we do at home and what we do abroad, this divide between domestic policy and foreign policy, but I really do think that, as this podcast is trying to, we need to bring home what we are doing abroad and not just explain to the American public to rationalize our engagement in the world, but we have to do a better job in the foreign policy community of explaining how we are going to pursue a foreign policy that views the lifting up, the empowerment, of the middle class, the redress of some of these socioeconomic fissures that we have seen that, a foreign policy that regards those domestic imperatives not as hoped-for byproducts of what we do abroad but as explicit objectives. It is a long way of saying hat's off to you and Nick on doing this podcast. I think it is incredibly important.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think it is important that we have you on today to help us analyze the last three weeks.
ALI WYNE: I will do the best I can.
TATIANA SERAFIN: There has been so much activity. So much has gone on. We already live in a crazy news cycle, so help us break down what the Biden-Harris administration has been able to achieve in these last three weeks. There have been some successes and some challenges, but let's start with the successes, because I do want to celebrate the fact that despite everything going in the world—oh, my gosh; we can talk about the coups, the riots, and the protests—progress is being made, I think. What do you think?
ALI WYNE: I completely agree, and I am sure we will have ample time to discuss challenges that the administration is likely to face.
Speaking as a congenital optimist, not only by way of my personal disposition but as someone who is bullish on the United States and its regenerative capacity, let's start with the aftermath of January 6. I imagine we will talk about the attempted insurrection in due course, but the Constitution held. There was a peaceful transfer of power.
I think that it is important to emphasize those points. Imagine if those outcomes had not obtained, and imagine the kind of discussion that we would have been having, and Secretary Blinken has talked about this point. He did an interview with Wolf Blitzer recently in which he said that this attempted insurrection on the Hill of course does not look good for our image and it does undercut our ability to speak about the importance of democracy, democratic values, and democratic governance. But again, the Constitution prevailed. The peaceful transfer of power, which is a sacrosanct tradition in the United States, prevailed, so good news item number one.
Good news item number two—and we can talk about particular countries and particular challenges, but I thought I might start with a macro framing, and then we can drill down to particular countries and particular issues.
At a broad level I think it is very, very important that the administration has talked about this inextricable linkage between domestic renewal and external competitiveness. We often talk about domestic renewal and external competitiveness in silos, and I think what the Biden-Harris administration has been arguing consistently is that those silos not only don't obtain, but they actually are very dangerous.
One of the reasons that the United States in recent years has lost some of its relative heft, some of its relative influence, and some of its relative competitiveness, not only vis-à-vis China in particular but also vis-à-vis Russia and other competitors, is that the power of America's domestic example has plummeted.
I think back to this last year. I lost count—we all have—of the number of headlines that we saw in major newspapers and major magazines chronicling the reaction of outside observers to developments in the United States, whether it was the drama around the presidential election, whether it was America's mismanagement of the pandemic, whether it was issues around racial injustice, or whether it was growing income and wealth inequality.
We often talked about COVID-19 as an accelerant, both in terms of accelerating geopolitical trends but also accelerating and placing into starker relief domestic trends. The socioeconomic fissures that COVID-19 placed into sharp relief last year are not new. It is not as though COVID-19 caused racial injustice or caused income inequality, but it did place them in sharper relief.
Again, if you add those fissures which were placed in sharp relief, drama around the election, and the mismanagement of the pandemic, I think that a number of observers abroad said, "What's going on?" and there were in fact many headlines that talked about the rest of the world's bewilderment, sadness, and despair. There is a recognition I think in the Biden-Harris administration that our ability to compete and our ability to be sustainably competitive vis-à-vis China, vis-à-vis Russia, is going to ride more than anything else on the restoration of our domestic example.
If you look at a quote I have here, [it] gets to this point about this intimate connection between what we do here at home and how we are perceived abroad and our influence abroad.
Here is a quote from Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and very likely the incoming head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs at the beginning of the year in which she said that President Biden "will have to grapple with the widespread view that in key domains the United States does not have the confidence to be trusted."
I think even many of America's most fervent well-wishers—I will stop here because I realize I have been going on at some length—in Europe and the Indo-Pacific rightly, after looking at what has transpired in the United States in the past four years, say to themselves: "If the United States is having such a difficult time managing its crises at home, how can it be entrusted, and more importantly why should it be entrusted, with giving counsel on the far broader imperative of constructing a post-pandemic order?"
I think if you look at the statements that are coming out of the administration, if you look at the individuals who are staffing the administration, and if you look at the messaging and the actions that have been taken, I think that again and again it is: "What can we do to restore the power of our democratic example and our domestic competence so that the rest of the world trusts the United States to be a stable power and a credible catalyst of collective action?" That I imagine is going to be a bedrock of this administration's messaging, a bedrock of its actions, and I think that emphasis is very encouraging.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think we have seen some of this already—and Nick, I know you want to jump in. I just want to mention that Biden just had a conversation yesterday, the first conversation since the election, with President Xi Jinping, and he pressured him on human rights and on China's actions abroad. I think that is a little bit, but it is also just talk.
Nick, have you seen action?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to pick up on what Ali said about people coming in to the administration. We obviously have in some ways, although not entirely, almost an Obama administration family reunion with everyone coming back in after a period of absence.
But touching on this point that I think Tatiana right now raised, which is operationalizing all of this. It is one thing to say: "We want a foreign policy that supports the middle class. We want to lead by the power of example. We have to fix our institutions at home."
What is your sense of a roadmap? How do we move from slogans to operationalizing this? Are you seeing anything that would suggest a pathway forward for how we might have a different way of organizing and implementing U.S. foreign policy?
ALI WYNE: Definitely. Nick, you and I have had these conversations before. What I see and am encouraged by is—we have had this conversation in the context of this notion of great-power competition—my sense is that the administration is thinking about how the United States can become more strategically competitive but how it can do so pursuant to a more affirmative vision.
Particularly about the way I think the Trump administration spoke of great-power competition, I think that there was a concern that U.S. foreign policy might be beholden to or captive to China's and Russia's maneuvers. I think it is very important that the United States manage a resurgent China and manage a revanchist Russia within the context of a more affirmative vision. That is to say: Where is it that we are trying to go? What is it that we are trying to accomplish? I would submit that a sustainably strategic and competitive U.S. foreign policy will begin with investing anew in America's unique competitive strengths at home and abroad.
What are those competitive strengths? At home it is our ability to attract immigrants from across the world. It is our ecosystem of innovation. It is our system of higher education. So we have a number of unique, I think, competitive advantages at home.
I would also say—and we can talk about this point later—that the United States also has an ability, halting and incomplete, but nonetheless it has an ability to engage in introspection as a catalyst for renewal. The United States has obviously been through many periods of domestic trial and tribulation, and the present period is no exception, but we have an ability to reinvent ourselves to address the socioeconomic and cultural issues of the day, and abroad, of course, the postwar order.
I know that the postwar order people roll their eyes, but the postwar order by virtue of having been around now for coming up on 80 years offers a form of sticky leverage. It has been there for so long, and it now has diffused sufficiently that even though it is creaking from without and within, and even though it is fraying under a number of pressures, it still is quite a formidable bulwark. I don't think that the United States and its allies and partners will simply be able to wave a wand and resuscitate it. I think they are going to have to take some of the building blocks of that postwar order and rejigger and reassemble them so that the system becomes more adaptive to transnational challenges.
But the postwar order is still a formidable source of inertial sticky leverage, and thus far there is not any, as far as I can gather—China and Russia in particular disclaim the legitimacy of that system, but they have yet to put forward an articulate conception of what an alternative would look like. So the existence of this predominantly U.S.-led postwar order is an important competitive advantage.
Our network of alliances and partnerships—again, it is a network that is under fray, particularly after what we have seen transpire in the past four years, but it is nonetheless a very important source of potential leverage.
What I think that the United States should be thinking about is: Okay, how do we invest anew? Jessica Chen Weiss of Cornell University and I wrote an article for The New York Times a few months ago. We were focusing on China, but we exhorted the United States to pursue an asymmetric affirmative strategy, asymmetric in that there are certain competitive advantages that I think are unique to the United States and we need to invest them anew, and affirmative in that I think when the United States focuses on restoring the power of its democratic example, when the United States thinks about how in partnership with its allies and friends it can catalyze collective action to address the transnational challenges of the day, that type of affirmative vision at home and abroad is more attractive.
I think it is also more sustainable because it is difficult to sustain yourself in perpetuity solely on the basis of what you oppose and who you oppose. I think defining yourself in oppositional terms can certainly catalyze important discussions, but it can't sustain you indefinitely. It is only when you say, "Here is what we are striving towards at home and abroad," that you can sustain yourself and be competitive.
So what I see—and again, we are only a few weeks into the administration—are a lot of discussions taking place about what the United States can do to strengthen its democratic example, to strengthen its economy, and to address issues of racial injustice. You really cannot overstate the importance of those initiatives.
If you look at the Cold War—I have actually been doing a little bit of reading on this for my book project—while we often talk about the role of containment and the role of foreign policy in bringing down the Soviet Union, some of the leading Cold War historians say that it was ultimately the power of our domestic example that helped us to prevail.
Here is an example that I have been reading about: Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Brown v. the Board of Education obviously is a landmark Supreme Court verdict that was rendered in 1954, and we remember it primarily and understandably as a domestic victory, as a moral victory at home.
It actually had very, very significant foreign policy ramifications. In the early years of the Cold War you had this wave of decolonization. You had a number of newly liberated populations who were looking at the United States or looking at the Soviet Union, and they were asking: Which of these two powers offers a more compelling vision for these newly liberated publics, many of whom were not white?
In Brown v. Board of Education the Truman administration filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court. What I find so fascinating about that amicus brief was, while it talked about the scourge of domestic injustice, the amicus brief that the Truman administration filed with the Supreme Court pursuant to Brown v. Board of Education emphasized the foreign policy import of this case. It said: "The Soviet Union keeps needling the United States and says: 'Look, you decry the Soviet Union's treatment of various minority populations, but look at the way in which you treat your own minority populations. Look at the way you treat African Americans.'"
So this amicus brief stressed that if the United States is not able to take steps incrementally to redress racial injustice, that this scourge is going to continue to undermine our soft power abroad. It is going to continue to undermine our democratic example.
So when the verdict of Brown v. Board of Education came down in 1954 newspapers across the nation touted it not only as a domestic victory, but they said this is going to be very, very powerful foreign policy ammunition against the Soviet Union because now every time the Soviet Union says, "Look at the way you treat African Americans," we can hold up this verdict and we can say: "We have a long way to go. This is only the first step, but it's an important step." It was basically a way for the United States to say: "We reckon, however haltingly and however incompletely, but we acknowledge that our rhetoric doesn't often live up to our ideals. We acknowledge the criticism. We legitimate the criticism. We take actions to address the criticism."
I think the example of Brown v. Board of Education is very compelling because I think today we again have that opportunity/imperative, and I think the rest of the world is going to look very keenly: What does the United States do with rising income and wealth inequality? How does it grapple with enduring issues of racial injustice? How does it deal with a whole host of other domestic issues?
I think the greatest contribution that the United States can make to its external competitiveness is restoring its reputation as an actor that is capable of acting competently when crises arise and that is capable of regenerating and reinventing its governance and its politics so that it can address domestic crises as they arise. As I said earlier, the United States has been through many periods of domestic trial and tribulation. The present one is no exception, so it certainly has the capacity, but I do think that a number of observers abroad are concerned by perceptions of democratic decay, especially in juxtaposition to what is occurring in China vis-à-vis the pandemic.
Last year I believe China was the only country with a large economy that registered positive economic growth. It is projected to grow at about 8 percent this year. Last year its exports reached a record high. So China seems to have more or less contained COVID-19 within its borders. It is exporting vaccines. It is registering robust growth. If anything, the rest of the world is presently more economically dependent on China than it was prior to the pandemic. So again, what we do here at home is critically important. I hope that we can get that connection right.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just to jump in on that, by getting the connection right, do you think that there are people within the Biden team who can get that connection right, who can make that doorstep argument, because again the risk I think is that a lot of Americans are going to hear familiar phrases about alliances and leadership, and they are going to say: "Okay, now what's in it for me? Why are we doing it?"
Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, prior to the speech the president gave at the State Department, went out of his way to stress that our foreign policy is going to be based on what benefits Americans and the middle class. Again, is this just talk or is the Biden team going to be able to do what would be a major reorientation of focus away from Zbigniew Brzezinski's "grand chessboard," where we are just doing this in the international arena, to "How does this benefit Peoria and Boise and Savannah and Brooklyn?" rather than how does this just play out on the grand chessboard? Do you have much of a sense of that?
ALI WYNE: I think if you look at the individuals who are coming in at the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council, this theme underlies a lot of the appointments.
You mentioned Jake Sullivan. Another one of my printouts that I wanted to quote from—I would recommend for anyone who is listening, if you have not already read this report, I think it is a report that gives us a lot of clues about how the Biden administration is going to conduct its foreign policy. It is a very recent report. It came out in September 2020, and it is a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report entitled, "Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class."
I bring it up for a number of reasons: (1) just because of its relatively recent publication date; and (2) just on the basis of the title alone, without even delving into the substance of the report, it aligns very well I think with the themes of your podcast. Also, I don't know about all of the authors, but at least two of them are now in high-ranking administration positions. Salman Ahmed, who was one of the co-editors of the report, is now directing policy planning at the State Department, and Jake Sullivan, one of the authors, of course is the national security advisor.
If you will permit me, I think this excerpt is important. I want to read just a brief snippet from the report that I think gets to your question, Nick.
Here is a brief excerpt from this report that I just mentioned. I remember when I read it, my eyes lit up. It was really music to my ears. Quote: "National security strategists and foreign policy planners in Washington, DC, crave neat organizing principles for U.S. strategy, but there is no evidence that America's middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring U.S. primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world's democracies and authoritarian governments. In fact, these are all surefire recipes for further widening the disconnect between the foreign policy community and the vast majority of Americans beyond Washington, who are more concerned with proximate threats to their physical and economic security."
That to me is a very important message. In terms of the individuals who are staffing the administration I think they very much hew to that messaging, and I think we are seeing a lot of actions that are aimed at: First of all, the immediate priority for the administration is we have got to get out of the pandemic. Any kind of conversation about what do we do vis-à-vis China, what do we do vis-à-vis Russia, what do we do in foreign policy, first is we have to get out of the pandemic.
The Biden Administration I would imagine is going to be spending a lot of its time—not only its first 100 days but I think a lot of its first 365 days—dealing with the pandemic, and I think the administration has articulated quite ambitious targets, but increasingly I think they seem to be plausible targets—getting 100 million shots into the arms of Americans in the first 100 days, potentially, I believe hopefully by summer or maybe the beginning of fall at the latest, inoculating 300 million Americans, so I think getting out of this pandemic, which is first and foremost a health crisis, but also then rejiggering the American economy. I think the administration is going to be focused and is taking a number of measures to that effect, very aggressively trying to rein in the pandemic.
Then, in terms of how we position ourselves abroad, I know that the administration is undertaking a very serious review on how we can refigure supply chains that funnel vital commodities to the United States because one of the lessons of COVID-19 is that the United States depends inordinately on a select number of countries to provide essential medicines and to provide inputs into highly sensitive military technologies, and I think that the administration wants to make sure that the United States, not if another pandemic arises but rather when the next pandemic comes—we know that COVID-19 will pass but other pandemics will come—what can the United States do so that Americans don't have to wait on or depend on medicines and essential pharmaceuticals from other countries? So that type of review is underway.
There are other reviews about how the United States can restore its edge technologically. What steps can the United States take so that it is at the cutting edge of developing technologies that are going to be central to the global economy? I was just reading an article the other day—and I kind of chuckled, because the debate about how the United States can regain certain momentum vis-à-vis 5G is still very much ongoing—that said: "Forget about 5G. The debate over 6G is already beginning between the United States and China."
Those technologies are going to be essential to Americans' prosperity. If the United States is able to take steps—not unilaterally—in partnership with friends to shape standards for developing emerging technologies, I think those initiatives will be important for Americans' prosperity.
Again, we are only a few weeks in, but the sense that I get—if you look at individuals who are going to the administration, two very prominent ones who were involved with this report from the Carnegie Endowment that I just mentioned, if you look at statements from Secretary Blinken about the imperative of revitalizing American democracy, and on and on—is that there is not only an abiding rhetorical commitment, but there are a number of initiatives that are already underway about how the United States can make democracy more inclusive, how we can make the State Department more representative of Americans, how we can make all of government look more like all of America, and how we project a different face.
One last comment and then I will stop so we can talk about other topics: I don't want to be Pollyannaish. I think the administration recognizes that we have a lot of catch-up work to do. If you look at Jonathan Kirshner's essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, I think he makes a very compelling point: You can't un-see the Trump presidency. You can't pretend that the Trump presidency didn't happen.
When Donald Trump's presidency was a hypothetical to be considered rather than a reality to be managed, I think a lot of U.S. observers were able to go to their foreign interlocutors and say: "Don't worry. He's not going to get elected. We're just having an unusually chaotic or entertaining electoral cycle, but don't worry." But (1) he was elected; (2) if you look at how many votes he got in 2020, he received either 10 or 11 million more votes than he did in 2016. He expanded his base. His base didn't shrink. So I think a number of America's well-wishers abroad are asking: "Who is to say that in 2024 or in 2028 the United States might not again elect a president who more or less hews to that type of 'America First' outlook and pursues accordingly a certain domestic policy and a certain foreign policy?"
The reality of Donald Trump's election and his subsequent presidency set a precedent that, as Jonathan Kirshner argues, can't be un-seen, and that cloud of suspicion is: (1) going to hang over us no matter what we do; and (2) I think it is difficult to overstate the damage that America's reputation suffered and continues to suffer as a result of how it mismanaged the pandemic.
It's staggering. The United States accounts for roughly 4 percent of the world's population, but something like—according to the Johns Hopkins map, if my calculations are correct—a fifth of COVID-19 fatalities and a quarter of global infections. These are huge disparities.
So we have a lot of work to do in terms of restoring not only the power of our democratic example but just restoring the perception that we can be minimally competent in managing crises when they arise, and that type of restoration is not going to happen overnight. It is going to take a lot of time.
There are questions about the baseline continuity of our engagement with the world. What is our relationship to international institutions? What is our relationship to multilateral agreements? I don't want to be Pollyannaish. There is a lot of work that we have to do to demonstrate that we are back.
I think that we also have to keep in mind that as much as the rest of world looks at what the United States is doing, we are still the world's foremost power. As America's relative preeminence declines and as greater questions arise about its baseline foreign policy conduct, the rest of the world is not going to sit idly by. The rest of the world has to attend to its own vital national interests, and so I think that what we will see—and we have seen examples, whether you look at the passage of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a major, major trade agreement, you look at the investment agreement that was signed between China and the European Union, you look at a number of trade and investment initiatives that are underway, and you look at a number of climate change initiatives that are underway that don't involve the United States—is that we will have to conduct our foreign policy from a place of greater humility, recognizing the amount of damage that the past four years have inflicted on our reputation, and we will also have to recognize that while the United States is still a very important actor—it is the single most important actor—that it is but one of many actors, and that the rest of the world is not going to simply wait for its directives and that the United States will have to be much more energetic about reinserting itself into discussions about how we address transnational challenges.
The administration has its work cut out for it. I don't want to be Pollyannaish. There is a lot of rebuilding, digging ourselves out of a diplomatic hole, that has to be done, but when I look at the individuals who are staffing the administration, if they can't do it, we are in a lot of trouble.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just on that point about the type of world that we are moving in and going to, as you said, the type of people who are staffing and their mindset, one of the things you said is that it's not only that the United States—and I think Tom Nichols used this in a previous Doorstep, where he talked about this is like when you have a friend, a spouse, or a significant other who is engaged in a terrible act against you, that trust is ruptured and you never quite go back to the way things were, but also that the nature of the world itself is changing, not simply the power as you said but in some other areas.
There has been a series of pieces we have been looking at on The Doorstep Twitter feed this week that call into question that this is not a case of "Well, when the pandemic's over we go back to the way things were." So we have Sophie Eisentraut at the Munich Security Conference coining this concept of we're entering a world of the "polypandemic," that there is this series of challenges that we keep hitting, including the pandemic, climate, and economic issues.
We have this interesting piece in Foreign Policy by Carolyn Kissane about climate statecraft, that if you are going to focus on climate change, it really causes you to reorient your priorities, which countries matter, and which issues matter.
When Leslie Hook and Henry Sanderson did their Q&A at the Financial Times about climate, energy, and great-power competition, one of the things I thought was very striking was to say that the groups of countries that may matter to us are going to change. For example, they said if we are going to go with green energy and battery technology, Bolivia becomes a lot more important, whereas Saudi Arabia might not be so important in the future, so the sense of which countries matter.
Devi Sridhar has been talking about if we don't deal with the pandemic in a global sense, we will see it continue to recur, and therefore we are going to have to focus on areas of the world that we might not think of as priorities because we are going to have to make sure that COVID-19 does not continue to mutate.
Is there a sense too that this is a team that can say: "Look, for the last 30 years these have been U.S. foreign policy priorities, including great-power competition, Russia, and China, but in the 2020s we may have to leave comfortable, well-grooved foreign policy things about, 'Well, the Middle East is where it's at,' and other things toward looking at a series of countries and issues?"
Therefore, as you said, going back to your own piece that you and Jessica wrote, about having to change the way about even thinking about countries like China, where when it comes to climate, environment, and other things, we may have to find a way to work with them in ways that a new Cold War with China don't produce.
That is a lot to throw out there, but what is your sense—is this a team that can pivot? Is this a team that can end one era in American foreign policy and say we're going to have to usher in a new one? After that, I think Tatiana will want to then say—because we already have some of these new challenges that are popping up even within the last three weeks that are different than what we might have expected—but is your sense that this is a team that can pivot to redefining American foreign policy as the environment changes?
ALI WYNE: I think so. I think that we are seeing already in the actions that have been taken and in the statements that have been put out this recognition. Thankfully, we have extended New START. I know that when the election result was still unknown there was a lot of trepidation. I think there was concern that if the election outcome had gone a different way that we might not have extended New START.
New START, from what I can gather, basically is the last major existing pillar of the global nuclear nonproliferation order, so if the United States and Russia had not extended New START, this nonproliferation order really would not have had much to speak for itself.
It is telling that if you look at administration officials and the way in which they have talked about engagement with Russia, I think there is a compartmentalization which is important. In one bucket we have to speak out against the crackdown that is taking place against dissidents such as Alexei Navalny. We have to remind the international community that the Russian incursion into Ukraine and subsequent annexation of Crimea are illegitimate. There is obviously a very active discussion about what type of steps the United States might take in response to the SolarWinds hacking campaign, which from what I can gather is one of the worst hacking campaigns against the United States in U.S. history.
One of the pillars of diplomacy is recognizing that the inevitability of strategic tensions does not obviate the necessity for basic cooperation. We often talk about autarchy in an economic sense, but if we extend the notion of autarchy or hypernationalism, imagine a situation of diplomatic autarchy.
Imagine a situation in which—and I find this prospect absolutely terrifying and I hope that it never comes to pass; we hear a lot about the prospect of de-globalization and decoupling—we were to experience hypothetically something akin to diplomatic decoupling. Imagine a situation in which strategic competition between the United States on the one hand and China and Russia on the other—just taking those three countries since they are broadly considered the three great powers engaged in great-power competition—or maybe even a Sino-Russian entente, became so intense that merely entertaining the possibility of cooperative vistas on the transnational challenges of the day became perceived as a manifestation of strategic weakness or became perceived as a manifestation of competitive weakness. That type of scenario would be disastrous.
It is by now a clichéd point to make or even a banal observation, perhaps even insipid, but I don't think that the banality of the observation diminishes its basic truth. I don't envision a situation in which the United States can assure its own vital national interests if it is unable or unwilling to cooperate with China and Russia on any issues.
We can enumerate at least a partial litany, the familiar litany: climate change; arms control; pandemic disease. For all the talk about de-globalization, if you talk with epidemiologists, they predict that while COVID-19 will eventually pass, at least in its very acute form, other pandemics are not only likely to come, but they are likely to occur more frequently because of patterns in human behavior. As urbanization accelerates and as deforestation continues and human beings come into closer contact with animal species with which they had previously had minimal contact, pandemics are likely to become more common.
Climate change is continuing apace. Arms control—we should all toast our champagne glasses now that New START has been extended. There was an op-ed the other day I think in Politico magazine by, I think, Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky. They make the point that while we should all celebrate the extension of New START, the existing bilateral nonproliferation framework between the United States and Russia is still wholly inadequate if you look at not only the modernization of the nuclear inventories in Washington and Moscow but occurring alongside the development of emerging technologies, increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence-powered military systems, if you talk with James Acton, James Johnson, Rebecca Hersman, and many other scholars who have been looking at this increasingly lethal nexus between increasingly sophisticated nuclear inventories on the one hand and increasingly sophisticated emerging technologies that are racing beyond the human capacity for comprehension.
I think if you look at the administration's actions and statements on extending New START with Russia, a very important step, and even in the discussions with China too, of course, there is a lot of discussion about the intensification of strategic competition, but where cooperation is in the U.S. national interest on climate change and pandemic disease. So I think the administration in its actions and its statements—if you look, for example, at the readout from President Biden's recent phone call with President Xi, there is again that compartmentalization, on the one hand, denouncing China's conduct vis-à-vis Hong Kong, vis-à-vis Taiwan, and in the South China Sea, saying that the United States is not going to sit idly by in view of China's "wolf warrior" diplomacy and its deepening authoritarianism.
That is one compartment, but also recognizing that there are certain transnational issues that are going to grow more intense where the United States and China will still try to salvage the baseline of cooperation. That is really the essence of diplomacy.
What I worry about in U.S. foreign policy is if hypothetically we were to reach a point—we are not there—at which compartmentalization was rendered impossible, in which the United States, China, and Russia, the three great powers, retreated into diplomatic autarchy, in that situation cooperation on transnational challenges could be seen as an exhibition of weakness.
I will stop with an article that I read the other day which kind of spooked me. It was an article that came out in Bloomberg just a couple of days ago. I think it was citing a study or a report published recently by Bank of America, and it was talking about how the new road to global supremacy lies through actions to deal with climate change. It was talking about how the great powers, the United States and China, in particular, in terms of trying to harness the green technologies of the future, the clean energy technologies of the future, whether you look at solar photovoltaics or certain sophisticated batteries, but it was saying that with the United States and China, there is a risk that as their strategic competition becomes more all-encompassing that even climate change now is going to go from a potential arena of cooperation to a potential area of competition. When I read that the road to global supremacy lies through efforts to fight climate change, I said, "Goodness," because COVID-19 has demonstrated the risk of viewing transnational challenges within the context of great-power competition or subordinating the fight against those challenges to alleged strategic imperatives.
Nick, you and I have talked about this point before. Again, I will revisit my own naiveté from about a year ago. When the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 was no longer an epidemic but rather had morphed into a pandemic, my thought was: Okay, now that the World Health Organization, the premier global health organization, regards this health crisis as being sufficiently grave to warrant the designation of pandemic, certainly the United States and China would engage in emergency coordination akin to that which they engaged in after the global financial crisis.
You remember: Lehman Brothers collapses. There is a very swift recognition across the world that if we don't act soon, this fast-moving recession could morph into a global depression on the scale of the 1930s, so the United States and China engaged in emergency bilateral coordination. They activated the G20, and we were able to press pause on this financial crisis.
COVID-19 had the opposite effect. COVID-19 set in motion a series of events that brought the U.S.-China relationship to its lowest level since normalization. That is not a good precedent for dealing with climate change or for dealing with nuclear proliferation.
But to come back to your question, I get the sense from the statements that I have seen, the actions that have been taken, and the readouts that have come from calls—not only between President Biden and his counterparts but phone calls that Secretary Blinken has had, phone calls that Jake Sullivan has had—that we are clear-eyed about strategic competition. We recognize that strategic competition is going to intensify, but we recognize that there are certain transnational issues that bear on the welfare of the American middle class, that bear on the basic structure, foundation, and resilience of global order where we need to talk. I think that so long as we can preserve that compartmentalization, we can manage the challenges associated with great-power competition in a sustainable way. That is part one.
Part two, going back to what I said earlier, is making sure that the United States is not beholden to what China and Russia are doing. When you design a foreign policy that is oriented around China and Russia's maneuvers you cede to Beijing and Moscow the strategic initiative. What I think would be more effective would be, as I said earlier, deciding where we want to go at home, deciding where we want to go abroad, and, having determined those affirmative vectors, seeing where and how selective contestation with China and Russia might advance those affirmative vectors.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I want to jump in here because we are almost at time, to tie it all together and to say that I do believe that some of these transnational issues are going to become more important because the new generation rising in politics and in thought leadership does not understand this idea of great-power competition or the Cold War. They have no conception of it. This is not just in the United States but across the world.
On a positive note, I saw an article in The New York Times that I think I shared with both you saying that Europeans are worried about the ideas that the United States is promoting in terms of racial justice, the Me Too movement, ideas that started here that have gained power and traction around the world. I do not think that the prominence and importance of social media in promoting ideas has really been digested in foreign policy circles at all, perhaps because compartmentalization is still taking place or perhaps because it is a reunion of the Obama administration, which by the way did not get such a great report card on foreign policy initiatives.
With that said, your grade, Ali, and your grade, Nick, on the first three weeks of the Biden-Harris administration on foreign policy as we end this Doorstep podcast, on a grading scale between A and F.
ALI WYNE: This is maybe an overly bullish or perhaps the congenital optimist in me, but I say for night now I would go with an A. I will justify this for a number of reasons. I am excited by the emphasis on reckoning with real domestic issues at home. That article, Tatiana, that you just mentioned is a demonstration that even when the United States is reckoning with very difficult problems at home in a way that is messy and sometimes is very disappointing, but our reckoning inspires movements as well.
Look at Black Lives Matter. I was reading an article the other day that said that as the United States was reckoning with racial injustice after the murder of George Floyd last year, Black Lives Matter protests inspired movements across the world. So even in our low moments when we are not acquitting ourselves well ethically or morally, the way in which we handle those issues still is a moral touchstone for the rest of the world.
I think the emphasis on saying, "Look, we're not going to brush aside these thorny, ugly domestic issues that we are experiencing but are going to reckon with them fully," is a very encouraging tack as well as designing a government that is more inclusive at all levels. We have to restore the allure of public service, and we have to have an administration that reflects the ethnic, religious, and demographic diversity of the country. I think that there are a lot of initiatives underway in particular about how we can restore the State Department and the Foreign Service.
I am encouraged that in dealing with China and Russia that this compartmentalization is taking place so that we are clear-eyed about competitive dynamics but that we recognize the imperative of cooperation on transnational issues.
I think also the emphasis on humility. I think it would have been mistaken if the administration had come in and said: "Well, we're back. The last four years didn't happen." I think a lot of the statements have been that we really made a lot of mistakes. We need to be humble. We need to recognize that the rest of the world in many ways has moved on, and so we are going to factor those realities into our foreign policy. Maybe my grade will change, but based on what I have seen these first few weeks I feel very excited and very optimistic.
I think the reception in much of the rest of the world is also telling. When you engage with interlocutors in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, again they are not Pollyannaish, and they say this administration has a big hole to dig itself out of and that there is a lot of work to be done, and "We are a little bit reluctant to make common cause with the United States because of the past four years; How stable are you," and on and on, so there are still a lot of reservations. But I think that a lot of capitols are breathing a sigh of relief. There is a lot of excitement about getting back to business with the United States.
I will make one last comment. I think that some of the challenges for the administration—and we didn't talk as much about those—will be: (1) accommodating to and accepting the extent to which the rest of the world might not factor in the United States as heavily when it is making its own decisions on big issues of the day; and (2) that the rest of the world might not always share to the same extent our threat perceptions and policy priorities vis-à-vis China and Russia.
So there are going to be instances in which the United States might want allies and partners to go a certain way, perhaps to decouple a bit more from China or to not go through with Nord Stream 2 and in which we find that we experience setbacks. What that means is that rather than assembling grand coalitions to counterbalance China and Russia I think that what the United States will have to do is think about how it can assemble smaller, "mini-lateral," as it were, issue-specific coalitions. Are there small coalitions that we can stand up that think about enhancing the integrity of supply chains? Are there coalitions that we can establish to cultivate alternative sources of 5G infrastructure, and on and on?
I think two of the big challenges will be: (1) accepting the extent and accommodating ourselves to the extent to which the rest of the world has moved on and might have a fundamentally different view of U.S. stability and democracy, and that adjustment will be hard; and (2) recognizing that there is not always going to be transatlantic strategic convergence or Indo-Pacific convergence and recognizing that there will be limits to what we can do unilaterally in persuading our allies and partners to come onboard with our views. Those challenges confront every administration, and this administration is no exception, but I think that the early actions and the early statements give me at least a lot of reasons for encouragement.
TATIANA SERAFIN: What about you, Nick?
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I would probably say an "incomplete" at this point. I would like to share Ali's optimism. He is an optimist to my pessimist as always.
ALI WYNE: I am.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I am kind of where Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations is, that this is an ambitious program, but it's going to be a tricky balancing act. Let's see how it plays out, but I think this is probably why we will have you back on, Ali, as the months go by and we will be able to assess how this goes and to see how balancing these different poles and pushes, the domestic side, climate, great powers, economic, and how all of this is going to come together.
ALI WYNE: I would love to.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And how this is going to play to our constituency. How can it relate to the middle class? Is it being relatable? Is that article you mentioned true or just rhetoric? Actions speak louder than words.
ALI WYNE: Absolutely.
TATIANA SERAFIN: That is where I'm going to leave our podcast today.
Thank you so much for joining us, Ali.
ALI WYNE: My pleasure.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you, Nick. We will see everyone in two weeks.