The Doorstep: Assessing Trump's Legacy on Biden's Foreign Policy, with George Mason's Colin Dueck
March 26, 2021
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone. Welcome to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, a senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow at Carnegie Council and very excited today to welcome Colin Dueck, professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. We very much look forward to hearing what you are working on and also to have you here today to speak with us about Biden's first hundred days: What is the Biden-Harris administration doing right? Are they achieving their goals? Are they connecting? What they really wanted to do was connect foreign policy to domestic policy. Is that working?
At this halfway point in the hundred days—a little bit over—we wanted to have you on and have your expertise to help us understand what's working and what's not working. Also, fortuitously, he speaks in a few hours. What do we expect him to say would be my second-half question. I am also looking forward to what the Facebook, Twitter, and Google chiefs are going to say to Congress today. We can maybe throw in a little bit of tech and disinformation talk at the end of today's session.
I am very excited to welcome you. Thank you for joining us today. Could you start us off on what's working and what's not? Where are you at this 60-day point?
COLIN DUECK: Great. Thank you, Tatiana. It is nice to be here and nice to see Nick as well.
Just a big-picture, hundred days, what has gone right and what is wrong, I think that team Biden, including on foreign policy, got the message from the Trump years that you can't just go back to 2015–2016. You can't go back to Obama's second term entirely. In other words, there has to be some connection to voters' concerns, pocketbook concerns, middle class and working class concerns, whether it's trade policy, interventions overseas, and the way you frame, talk about, and think about foreign policy. I think that message got through. So in a way there is a bit of a Trump-ish element to it, even though they have rejected much of what Donald Trump did as president. So that is interesting.
From my point of view, I think there are some things they are getting right that actually are continuous. There is a recognition on China that we cannot go back to five or ten years ago. You cannot have pure free trade with a country that does not practice free trade. There has to be some recognition that the Chinese Communist government plays by its own rules, and so we are going to have to adjust in order to counteract those challenges. There is some continuity there.
As you probably saw, there was a verbal exchange in Alaska just a few days ago, so in some ways actually the Biden team is harder on top Chinese officials than President Trump himself was. But we will have to see how that plays out. What exactly is Biden going to do in the coming months and years on China? What will they keep and what will they dismantle when it comes to some of the changes that were made under Trump?
Where I have some concerns about where Biden may be going wrong—and you're going to get differences of opinion on this because part of it is your perspective politically. I worry that national debt is now mounting to the point that it is so excessive that it is going to cause problems long-term for our country with spillover effects on foreign policy, defense, and other areas. We already saw last year a massive increase in debt. It's a long-term trend no matter who is president apparently, but it is certainly increasing even more so now. So debt is a concern, but that is going to depend partly on your own domestic policy preferences.
Something else I do worry a little bit about with this team is that there is such an ordinate emphasis on verbal reaffirmation of liberal norms. It is a liberal internationalist framework. The people staffing it are from that point of view. That is a perspective that puts tremendous emphasis on getting things right verbally from a liberal point of view. The problem sometimes is action, action to match the words, gaps between capabilities and commitments, and thinking that the words in themselves are self-executing, which they are not.
So we have a lot of statements of concern. Go down the list. There are statements of concern about a long list of countries and issues, but what will the Biden team actually do about it? That's an issue, and I have a feeling that that is not going to go away.
So there is a mixture of some good and some bad so far. We will have to see how it all plays out, but there is a lot more to talk about for the next hour.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I wanted to pick up with that question of continuity, which I think a lot of people on both sides of the aisle don't necessarily want to look at, that for Democrats and particularly for progressives the idea that the Biden-Harris Administration would continue anything that was started under the Trump-Pence team is anathema. For some conservatives the idea that the Biden team doesn't represent that radical of a break in certain areas of foreign policy and domestic policy from what preceded it is something—I think the media environment wants to emphasize the discontinuities.
But this question of continuity. A few days ago a former Doorstep guest and friend of the Doorstep, Politico's Nahal Toosi, rhetorically asked: "Are there things from the Trump Administration that the Biden team ought to be embracing?" As she put it, "Are there parts of the foreign policy and domestic policy agenda that people should expect that the Biden team will continue, things that were started under the Trump administration?"
You have already talked a bit about China. I think that has been something where people have seen and have commented on this degree of continuity. Are there other things, particularly for conservatives, where they can look at the Biden approach and say, "This isn't something that would have been too different" from not only to say a Trump administration, but if there had been a Rubio or Cruz or Jeb Bush administration in 2016 for that matter, points of continuity there?
COLIN DUECK: Exactly. Just to take a step back, in a way the single biggest point of continuity is that the United States has a global system of military bases and alliances. It has a forward posture in the world that is still there, so for all the concern about Trump—and I think initially there were some pretty good reasons for it especially; he did in fact say, "NATO is obsolete." But NATO continues. It still exists, and in some ways it has been bolstered actually in locations like Poland.
So there has been continuity, and the Biden team continues to double-down on that, saying, "We love NATO." Whether you think that is good or bad, there is a school of thought on both the left and right today that says we really need to reexamine some of these basic assumptions. We need to scale back on a lot of these military commitments overseas.
But the fact is that there is tremendous continuity in terms of just that fundamental forward posture. Trump did not dismantle it for all the controversy around him. Biden certainly does not propose to dismantle it, so there is underlying continuity, and a lot of conservatives want that continuity.
Conservatives are themselves divided over this issue. That has become more clear in recent years. There is a wing of the Republican Party—libertarians but also some others, some of the populists, somebody like a Tucker Carlson, I think—who really question fundamentally why we need these military alliances and commitments overseas in such a sweeping way.
But actually a lot of conservatives to this day, particularly in Congress and in DC and in think tanks are very much in favor of it. So there is a spectrum of opinion on that. It kind of depends on what sort of conservative you are talking about.
Just one other area I will point out. Another shock from the Trump era was that so many blue-collar Republicans really are quite skeptical of free trade and globalization. We had thought up until 2016 that free trade was the standard Republican position. If anything, it was Democrats who were more skeptical. However, Trump turned that upside-down with this withering critique of free trade and economic globalization. Republican politicians noticed that, to say the least, so now that is up for grabs as well.
So there is an area of continuity, too, which is to say, I don't see either party at the moment enthusiastic about any new big multilateral free trade agreements. There is an underlying sense of protectionism, a focus on domestic priorities, and a focus on jobs, whether it's Trump or Biden. Wasn't it actually Biden who campaigned on "Buy American" last year? I don't really think either party embraces free trade to the same extent that some presidential candidates did only a few years ago.
Whether that is the conservative position is up for grabs. That is one of the interesting things about the times we are living in. There have been generations in the past where the Republican Party was very much closely associated with high protective tariffs from its formation, from Abraham Lincoln through William McKinley, through the 1920s. That was the Republican position. It then became a free trade party in the 1950s with Eisenhower, and over the years it has become the free trade party, but that may be up for grabs. What it means to be a conservative in America really is up for debate today I think on issues like free trade.
TATIANA SERAFIN: That's so interesting, the trade that you are talking about, because I just was reading again this morning about the ship stuck in the Suez Canal, and how that is going to impact oil prices and goods coming through there because they can't move it. It is stuck, and I don't know which day it is.
This really brings home the fact that we are interconnected in a way that I don't know that Main Street typically thinks about, and I certainly think the pandemic brought that to the fore, when people couldn't find toilet paper in the stores or basic goods and you realized many of these goods came from China.
I do think the conversation on Main Street is the fact that we are interconnected, but is there a will, and are companies going to change that? I am not so sure. The parties might be wary of this idea of talking about more free trade agreements, but I think—I don't know, but it's my hypothesis—that it exists, and companies are not about to change their supply chains.
What do you think about that?
COLIN DUECK: I think there is something to that. I think in the end the general public actually is more sensible than sometimes they get credit for. I think you probably see it the same way. In other words, a common view, if you really dig down into these polls, the way really people talk about issues like globalization, is mixed feelings, and when I say "mixed" I mean mixed. In other words, most Americans in both parties will say, "Yes, on balance we understand that trade brings certain benefits for the United States." We are not trying to embrace a full-blown return to the 1930s. I think people are sensible enough to see that.
At the same time, they do worry that globalization overkill has at times cost America jobs. China is a great example. This is where Trump I think really did find a gap between elite opinion and popular opinion, at least on the Republican side. I can tell you from working on different campaigns, he hit that gap in a way that nobody else did.
He had a point actually, which was that jobs were lost in manufacturing and other areas because of competition from China. There is some truth to that, so there has been a kind of waking-up process politically I think that is now pretty widespread, and Chuck Schumer doesn't really disagree with Donald Trump on that one. So here we are.
When it comes to the supply chains you are discussing, there has been a partial dialing back. The Trump team waged a sort of economic campaign against China. It was controversial. It involved protective tariffs. It had let's say some success. People debate how much. But it has certainly changed the conversation. It set the agenda, and you will notice that the Biden team has not really undone those sanctions comprehensively.
There are legitimate concerns about economic interdependence with China. If, for example, you are dependent on a one-party dictatorship on public health issues that are going to ultimately hurt Americans, that seems to me is a valid concern. It has been highlighted, and it has become very vivid for people on both sides of the aisle.
But are we going to completely stop trade and investment with China? No, clearly not. We are certainly not going to stop trade investment completely with democratic partners in Canada, Europe, Japan, and South Korea.
So there has been a sort of correction. There has been a step back, but globalization often moves in these waves, where it is one step back, two steps forward. I think that's what we are in right now, an unexpected correction of a shocking kind in the form of Donald Trump, but I don't believe we are going to go back to a system—if it ever existed—where there is no economic interdependence between nations. That is not realistic. As a matter of fact, economic interdependence is ancient. It's moving forward at the same time.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I like, Colin, your point there about mixed feelings because I think that sums up The Doorstep view on so many issues, which is that—and you have seen this in years past in various think tank reports and speeches made by politicians and leaders that Americans support engagement, Americans support alliances, but that support is usually defined as 100 percent full-throated. Even this week in Brussels, Tony Blinken speaking at NATO cites the Chicago Council polling data, which says that 80-plus percent of Americans support alliances, and says, "See, this is why we're back in." Then, of course, the nuance is that they support alliances, but there are mixed feelings about dependencies and who is pulling the weight and what obligations and the like.
Building on this point you said of the unexpected correction that Trump in some ways represented over the last number of years, do you think that this is a kind of permanent correction, that is, that we will still be thinking about a Trump effect for years to come, that is, that even as America reengages with the world, "Build Back Better," all of these slogans, there is always going to be an asterisk that says, "Yes, but keep in mind Donald Trump and Americans' mixed feelings about this?"
We are only 60 days into the Biden administration, but moving forward is there a sense that the Trump years will represent a definitive point of change, or is this largely going to be a blip? Again, how does this play out not only with the Biden team but also given the fact that approximately half the country did not vote for Joe Biden, and control of the Congress is split? Are there legacies from the Trump years that are going to continue to be influential as we move forward?
COLIN DUECK: Sure. Look, I think there already are legacies in the sense that the Biden team has had to incorporate some of what Trump did, quietly in a way, and in some cases not quietly in this direction of greater sensitivity to Middle American pocketbook concerns.
I would be skeptical of anybody who claims to know for a fact—and I am a political scientist, so we sometimes have these people rattling around in the halls—whether 10 years from now we have gone in a much more isolationist direction or whether that has been utterly repudiated. I really do not think we can safely predict that. As a matter of fact, I think the sensible, accurate thing to say is that there are multiple paths forward that are possible. There are multiple possibilities here. There are different scenarios.
You could imagine, depending on events, depending on leadership, and depending on trajectories, that in 2025 you get a kind of president who is a pretty muscular internationalist or somebody who is very, very different. As you go further and further forward in time, even more so. The range of possibilities opens.
Trump has already had a big effect that cannot be erased. Whether that starts to look more like an outlier or whether it looks like an indicator of a long-term trend remains to be seen, but I do think that at least on the Republican side if you listen to politicians, actually a lot of them got the message that they sound more Trump-ish if you think about people who might run for president three years from now on the Republican side. It is not that most of them are isolationist at all, but there is a little more of an American nationalism, a more populist element, the way they sound on trade, international organizations, and the way they sound on military intervention overseas. They have got the message.
By the way, the question of engagement partly is a question of how do you want to be engaged. There is a longstanding dispute between the liberals and conservatives over how to be engaged. On an issue like Iran, the mainstream Democratic position is that the way we engage is through negotiation—as Obama did—to reach a nuclear arms control agreement. I think Biden would ideally like to reconstitute that agreement.
Most Republicans in Congress and even outside I think are very skeptical of that agreement. It's not that they are against the United States being engaged overseas. They just think it was a bad agreement. They are more hawkish on Iran, and they would like to see a harder line on Iran, which is actually exactly what Trump did.
So there are different ways of being engaged between left and right, between Democrats and Republicans, that are part of this story as well. I don't see Republicans suddenly becoming Democrats. Put it that way. They are not going to suddenly convert to liberal policy preferences across the board. So these kinds of debates will continue.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I am glad that you brought up Iran, because I do want to talk about different areas of the world that maybe you are seeing where you mentioned there is talk but will there be action. We do want to look at as the United States becomes more of a multiracial society with many different immigrant groups with many ties to many countries, what about policies in Latin America, in the Middle East, in Africa, areas where they are not in the press all the time but we should be looking at? Is there anything that you feel that is missing in either the rhetoric that is coming out of the administration or actions or both?
COLIN DUECK: Great question. By the way, I think Latin America does not really get enough attention in presidential administrations of either party. This is a longstanding problem. There the top priorities tend to be migration issues, counter-narcotics, transnational organized crime, and trade and investment.
Again, Trump introduced this radical shift even from previous Republican administrations by framing migration as a threat. If you think back to, say, George W. Bush, he actually had a keen personal interest in U.S.-Mexico relations. I think if it had not been for 9/11 he probably would have made it more of a priority. But actually Bush, as a previous governor of Texas, believed in strong U.S.-Mexico relations, free trade with Mexico, that legacy going back to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and then 9/11 shifted focus.
One of the things that has been revealed again over the last few years is that the two parties see the issue of migration very differently. I will just draw your attention to public opinion polls that suggest that whatever other areas of agreement there are—for example, terrorists are a threat, nuclear weapons are a threat—when it comes to illegal immigration there is no agreement. Democrats do not see illegal immigration as a national security threat. In fact, that would be seen as almost an illegitimate way of talking about it.
But when you look at these polls, Republicans—I tend to study more the Republican side—see illegal immigration as a national security threat. That is not how your average DC Republican foreign policy expert thinks, but it is how a lot of Republican voters think. Trump recognized that. I am not getting into his sincerity or insincerity on it, but he recognized that, and he spoke to it. It is one of the reasons he won the nomination.
What you are seeing with Biden—this is one area where there is discontinuity—on this area a dramatic shift from the Trump administration's immigration policies. Trump, as you know, instituted some remarkable shifts in U.S. immigration policy, including this "Remain in Mexico" program. Biden has gone in a very different direction, a sharp difference. So the two parties are now polarized on this issue, left versus right. This was not in previous generations a polarizing issue between the two parties, but it has become one. There is a sharp difference between the base of the two parties as well as their leaders on this issue now.
Here you have discontinuity, you have intense partisan disagreement, and you have really popular concern. I think there is genuinely strong feelings at the base of both parties on this issue that are opposed. Is that going to affect your policy toward Mexico and Central America? Absolutely. You are going to get one kind of a policy under a Donald Trump—or frankly, whatever Republican comes next—and a different kind of policy under Joe Biden. So migration and immigration are transnational issues that overlap with U.S. foreign policy and with our relations with Latin America.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of, I just saw comments on the increase at the border, and the reason that there have been more people coming in is very simple: There are jobs here. The United States is hiring. That is contrast to this "Oh, we need to close the border maybe" argument.
It is polarizing. I think this is a big discussion point that maybe is not getting enough attention, and I have to tell you I ask because we are talking here at The Doorstep about grading the current administration on how they are doing on foreign policy initiatives and how they are engaging with domestic policy with their goals. I asked my students yesterday in classes, "What grade do you give Biden-Harris?" Their answer was a C because of what is happening at the border, because migration is not being handled perhaps any differently than under the Trump administration because there are still children dislocated and displaced from their families, and they do not see any effort to change previous policy.
If you look at it in that grading sort of way, what grade would you come up with on this issue of Biden-Harris on the border?
COLIN DUECK: I would give them a C at best, maybe closer to a D, although for different reasons. I have a slightly different take on this one.
It seems to me that most Americans would like to have a functional immigration system. I actually came to the United States from Canada years ago, and I was struck at how long it took me to become a citizen. I am sure many people have had that same experience.
But we do not really have a functional immigration system in this country. The asylum system in particular it seems to me is broken. It's broken. You have had millions of people over the years who have tried to enter and have entered the United States, and the fact is that there has not been an orderly way to process that or keep it legal. That is not something that I think most Americans think of as a positive thing.
The American public in general I think of as humanitarian and fundamentally open to the idea that historically it is a country of immigrants, but it is also a country of laws, and when you have an asylum system and an immigration system that is fundamentally dysfunctional, it's a problem. I think a lot of more sensible progressives and Democrats understand this and have realized that if Biden goes too far in the direction of being seen to almost welcome a surge of migration, this is going to be a problem politically for Democrats in the midterms. They know this, so you will see in sympathetic press like The Washington Post, this is said explicitly. There is a nervousness, and for good reason.
It is not that everything Trump did was terrific on this issue, not at all. But as so often with Trump, he asked questions that actually a lot of people are asking: What would it take to have a functional immigration system? Are we satisfied with the one that we have? I think on this issue Biden is basically in a lot of ways rolling back the Remain in Mexico program and sending mixed signals as to whether migrants should come or not.
Yes, a lot of people come here for economic opportunity. That is probably the single biggest reason. Some are fleeing violence. You have innocent people who just want a better life for themselves and their family. And yet, we have laws. So how can that be squared? I am not sure that it can be squared by sending out mixed signals and saying, "Well, yes, come, no, don't come." That's what we're seeing.
I have to tell you I am not a big fan of how Biden has handled this so far. I actually have students who would give him probably a C at best for a lot of the same reasons that I am describing, so C, maybe closer to a D actually, now that I think about it.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Of course, it is not as if the Biden White House doesn't send mixed signals on a variety of issues as some staffers are finding out about their recreational habits suddenly becoming disqualifying for holding employment in the White House.
Colin, you made an interesting point, and I wanted to continue with another issue that I think has been something that a lot of people have been focusing on. Dina Smeltz, who is at the Chicago Council, has just sent out the results from obviously a competitor organization, in this case the Pew Trust, essentially saying that the number of people who see climate and environment as national security issues—not as moral issues and not as humanitarian issues—is going up and has dramatically spiked, probably as a result of the pandemic.
I just wanted to get a sense from you about how that shift in messaging may or may not play out. There was another commentator who said: "We're seeing a real change. Environment is no longer Al Gore lecturing you about why what you're doing is bad. Environment is now either national security, or 'this is the opportunity of the future.'" You were talking about pocketbook issues, and you see a real effort to try to connect environment and climate to "We can all make money, we can all have good jobs and good wages in this area." Do you think any of this is going to resonate with Middle America? Do you think that you are going to see a shift on this issue?
Again, leaving aside the policy question, because as you said Republicans and Democrats may often have different policy prescriptions, but at least the framing of the climate/environment/energy issues in those terms, do you think that will have salience over time?
COLIN DUECK: I am struck how on the issue of climate change the Pentagon, which you would think of as being one of the more hard-nosed institutions in American life, has long since come to the realization that climate change is real, that it poses security challenges for U.S. forces overseas, and even U.S. bases inside the United States, and that it can exacerbate or contribute to civil conflict that may pull you in in unexpected ways, so you have to take this seriously.
There is no question that there is an increased awareness in recent years of how big a challenge this really is. As you say, you are going to get dramatic differences in opinion across the ideological spectrum on how big a problem and what exactly to do about it when it comes to policy prescriptions. I think that is only going to continue with the current administration and in Congress.
But just the recognition that this is real, that it actually causes challenges, and that there is a security element to this I think is spreading, and it will be interesting to see in the future whether Republicans can rally around a position that is different from Trump's but also is, let's say, different from Biden's. In other words, explicitly recognize that you have a problem, that climate change is real, and that maybe you want an approach that is a little more free market-oriented as opposed to what you would see from progressives and maybe less expensive in terms of the big spending bills we are going to see, but a conservative approach to climate change.
What would that look like? What would a sensible conservative policy approach to climate change look like? That I think is a great question.
We just have not seen that over the years, and the main alternative has been on the left, which has been running away with it. That argument has been quite persuasive to a lot of people in the Midwest and around the country. It does have a certain middle-class resonance. If climate change is actually happening, and if the environment is being damaged to the extent that it seems to be, maybe something should be done about it. Recognize the reality.
On that issue corporations have come around in a dramatic way over the last few years. I remember when I was growing up, environmentalists were in that bucket of politically fringe movements in a way almost, but it seems like over the years it has become more respectable and more and more taken up by corporate leaders themselves who are onboard with dramatic shifts in policy. So the Biden team I think has built on that. Oddly enough now actually a lot of congressional Republicans are not as close to the corporate world—I am talking about the big multinationals—as are the Democrats.
TATIANA SERAFIN: That's interesting. We follow climate here very closely because it seems to resonate also with the younger generation.
I am wondering if you can speak to differences in what you see in priorities of Gen Z Republicans versus Gen Z Democrats, if you have looked at that issue at all. I think that is also an issue that is not parsed, but in all of the problems and issues in foreign policy and domestic policy discussions we have had today, that is one area that I don't think people are looking at. Yes, there is a difference between Republicans and Democrats, but what about the younger generation, which is rising as voters and as leaders? I know Biden is not young, but the cabinet is younger. What are you seeing as the differences in this rising generation?
COLIN DUECK: There are public opinion polls that indicate that there are differences. The most striking one to me is that the youngest generation of Americans tends to be more skeptical of military intervention overseas, and that is on both sides of the aisle, so Republicans as well. I see this among my students in class as well, undergraduate as well as graduate.
If you think about it, it makes sense. What has their life been? It's not like Nick and I growing up in the 1980s seeing Reagan face down the Soviets, which might give you some optimism as to the possibility for a sort of muscular foreign policy.
What they have seen—I'm talking about let's say students in their 20s—their entire life is frustration, frustration in Iraq, frustration in Afghanistan, frustration in Libya, and we can't seem to do anything right when it comes to military intervention. So the youngest generation of Republicans—I'm not saying it's monolithic; there is a variety, and there are some who are still pretty hawkish. But it is striking that 20-something Republicans and even 30-somethings, it seems to me, tend to be more skeptical based on their observations.
I think that ties into a broader sense that they ask themselves: Why is it a given with the foreign policy elite of the country in both parties that things have to continue to be the same way they have been for 70 to 80 years? Why would we have to have the exact same commitments overseas that we had starting in the 1940s and 1950s? There is an almost theological element to it. It is sometimes argued as if we must maintain every single commitment we have made and acquired over the equivalent of a full human lifetime, and I think the youngest generation in particular says: "Why? Conditions have changed. Wouldn't it make sense to respond and adapt? The Cold War ended 30 years ago." That is something I hear, and I think that has crept in more and more right, left, and center.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think the point, Colin, you just raised about the Cold War ending—it's going to be 30 years this year that the Soviet Union dissolves. In December we will celebrate 30 years. The idea that, Tatiana, as you mentioned, Gen Z by generational definition was born after the end of the Cold War, so it's not even a question of: "Well, I don't really remember it." It didn't exist. They didn't exist when the Cold War was happening, so this is no longer the touchstone by which you define what America does in the world in the light of the end of the Cold War.
I think, Colin, as you said, it is definitely a part—and Peter Beinart raised this a couple of weeks ago—that this is the core of the Gen X, to the extent that we can see a Gen X position in foreign affairs, the Gen X generation in policymaking. It is the end of the Cold War, and you take the 1990s as kind of the definitive period. America is astride the world. There are no near-peer competitors. All roads run through the United States. Everything is going to work out. And as you said the younger generations are dealing with 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, financial crisis, a sluggish recovery from that economic crisis, and then the pandemic.
That goes back to I think something else you talked about, this idea of Donald Trump raising questions, Donald Trump as disruptor. Trump broke decisively with Republican orthodoxy about Iraq and Afghanistan in the campaign and made a big point about wanting to try to wind down these involvements with mixed success.
The Biden team essentially is coping with whether or not it should continue in Afghanistan, should continue that drawdown. What is your sense about in some ways what was the doorstep issue of the 2016 campaign, which was the "forever wars," that America seems to be involved in these conflicts that never seem to be resolved and are always lurking? Is Joe Biden going to be able to finish what Donald Trump ostensibly started to do, which is that we won't be talking about America's involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria come 2024?
COLIN DUECK: Exactly, and Biden right now is going through the exact same dilemma that Trump and Obama did, which is you come in and you don't want to be the one who has lost Afghanistan, so you have this searching debate over what do we do now. I get the argument for we can't just walk away. It is clear that there would be a human rights disaster and the Taliban would want to take advantage of it, and we have to be clear about who they are.
But at the same time it has been 20 years. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 20 years. It is at best a stalemate, and a number of the major objectives clearly have not been achieved and probably are not going to be achieved. It is not going to be turned into the type of political system that we would like to see.
At what point do you say: "Look, we've taught the Taliban a lesson: 'Don't ever consider providing refuge for terrorist attacks on the United States itself. Having learned that lesson, maybe we can wind this down.'" Trump oddly enough was actually for ripping the bandage off and negotiating with the Taliban, an extremely unpopular view with Republican foreign policy leaders prior to Donald Trump.
So here we are again in a situation where you have these debates inside each party. I think you are seeing it play out on the Democratic side as well. The national security establishment tends to want to walk it slowly and be careful. Progressives I think are ready to be gone from Afghanistan the day before yesterday. Why are we there? There is no disagreement with Trump on that.
This is another area where these divisions cut across party lines. I myself have come to look at Afghanistan a little differently over the last few years.
Just to go back to your point about the end of the Cold War, over the past 30 years the big-picture geopolitical change has been the rise of China. This is blindingly obvious now. It was not obvious in 1991, but it is obvious now that we live in a world where you could even say there are two superpowers and that China is one of them. This is such a massive gravitational force, the economic weight that it throws around worldwide on every inhabited continent—Europe, Africa, South America, Australia, and North America. China's influence is in a completely different league from what it was 30 years ago, and it is an authoritarian challenge to the United States and its allies.
The idea that we are not going to really focus on that as the number-one challenge even now I find baffling. And if we do need to focus on it, which I think we should, we are going to have to make some tough choices on other topics. Afghanistan might be one of those areas.
There is a point where you must face reality, which is that multiple presidents have tried to say let's shift to the Asia-Pacific, let's try to draw down in Afghanistan. It has been very uneven, but it seems to be a bipartisan trend. Obama: pivot to Asia. Donald Trump. Joe Biden. That is probably not a coincidence. There are some very powerful structural arguments in favor of winding down counterinsurgency efforts in the greater Middle East and shifting the focus to China.
TATIANA SERAFIN: It is going to be so interesting to see what happens in the next 30 days to get to 100 days and to see what Biden says this afternoon in a couple of hours.
Thank you so much for your time today, Colin. It was a great conversation. I hope you join us again to keep grading the administration on how they are doing.
COLIN DUECK: Yes. I was pretty tough on them on the immigration issue, but I might give them somewhat higher grades on others.
Thank you. It was great.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you. This was a great conversation. We appreciate you coming on, and we thank everyone, our listeners and viewers who have been contributing feedback to us as we continue this dialogue of why what happens in the world matters to you on your doorstep.