The Doorstep: What Does Biden's "Omnipolicy" Mean for the U.S.? with Politico's Nahal Toosi
May 7, 2021
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, Nick Gvosdev, senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also senior fellow at Carnegie Council and journalism professor at Marymount Manhattan College, and today we are so excited to welcome back Nahal Toosi, who covers foreign policy and national security at Politico, to share with us her thoughts on what has happened over the last seven months.
Literally almost to the day it has been seven months since you were here, and wow, we are in a different not just planet, universe. How has it been for you?
NAHAL TOOSI: I am not going to lie. It is kind of nice not to have to worry about waking up early and checking the tweets. It is very much like: Oh, I know that there is not going to be a totally wacky tweet that is going to shape my entire day and maybe my entire week. It just feels a little more calm, I will say. But there is still a lot going on.
TATIANA SERAFIN: So much going on. I would like to start with your latest piece on Biden's trip to Europe and who he is planning to meet or not, or Putin or not. I love your ideas of where they could possibly meet. Could you share what is happening with our audience because we want to bring them the news that maybe they are not thinking about yet and should be?
NAHAL TOOSI: Yes. I try to stay ahead of the curve. We are thinking about: How will this potential summit that President Biden wants to have with Russian President Vladimir Putin shape up? First of all, is it going to happen? Second, the calendar details—where, when, that sort of thing. Later on, of course, there will be: What are they going to actually talk about and how is it going to go?
My story yesterday actually focused on the question of where they would hold this summit. I really thought this was going to be this pretty simple, "Oh, it'll be these three places," but then it turns out there is all this history of where you can hold some of these summits and where you can't, and which country is in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and which one isn't. Then, of course, do you want to go back to Helsinki, which is where President Trump held his summit with President Putin that ended up being honestly one of the more disastrous moments of President Trump's presidency.
It was one of those things that ended up being really interesting. My guess honestly is that it is probably going to be either Vienna or Geneva where they hold this gathering. Those two along with Helsinki are the three traditional venues because they are located in countries that are not members of NATO, and so they are seen as basically being neutral, so the Russians don't mind showing up there and the United States won't either.
Then there are some other outside chances: Reykjavik, Iceland, is one; possibly going back to Ljubljana, Slovenia, because that was where George W. Bush and President Putin held their summit back in 2001; and then there were a couple of other options. This was a really far shot, but Baku, Azerbaijan, was a place that someone mentioned to me as a potential spot, and I am probably forgetting one at this moment, but those are some of the options, and for all we know it will be a complete surprise.
The funny thing is, when I asked the Russians about this, they were like: "We haven't even agreed to do this yet, so maybe we just won't even show up."
Oh, and then the other funny thing about this story is that one of my sources was telling me that Putin doesn't actually really care, like you can have it somewhere and he will show up just to say, "Hey, look, I can go wherever I want." They pointed out that a few years ago in Austria he showed up at the wedding of Austria's foreign minister, and he danced with the bride, and it was this big thing. It was one of those funny moments. But I think it will be interesting to see what happens and where they choose, but there are a lot of factors that get considered.
TATIANA SERAFIN: It is so interesting to talk about travel. People are actually meeting in person, so this idea that the pandemic is over but only for the West—not for India, not for Brazil, and not for many parts of Latin America and parts of Africa. I wonder if you are getting that sense when you are talking to your sources that there is this weird imbalance in the world right now. What are your thoughts on that?
NAHAL TOOSI: I think there is a recognition, including in the United States, that this could get really out of hand if we don't tamp down some of the breakouts in places like India and Brazil, etc. I think that is one reason why you are seeing the United States do what it just did, which is to say they are they okay with not having the patent restrictions on these vaccines. So I think there is a desire to tamp it down, but the logistics of it are so hard.
Say you are a country like India. We are talking about more than a billion people. It is automatically a crowded country in so many places. When you have these variants and everything going around, I think there is definitely a growing fear that the vaccine progress might be undermined if we keep having these mutations in the coronavirus itself and where that is going to go.
In terms of the diplomacy I think it is still a little too soon to say, "Oh, people are feeling like they are being left out." I can tell you when it comes to the United States they are trying to do what they can. They go when they feel like they physically can go somewhere, but they also are doing what they are calling "virtual tours."
For instance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did a virtual diplomatic visit to Africa recently, "meeting" over Zoom with several top African leaders and that sort of thing. I think that is going to be okay for now, but if they are still doing that in a year, I think you are going to start to see some real frustration from countries being like: "Look, why are we the ones always on the virtual visits, but these other countries you will show up in person for?"
TATIANA SERAFIN: That is so interesting. What is happening in June? We have a NATO summit, a G7 summit. What are some of Biden's plans? And who is going? Is Vice President Harris going? What is her role in all this? What is your sense?
NAHAL TOOSI: That is a really good question. I don't know off the top of my head if Kamala Harris is going to go on those visits.
There is a NATO summit and a G7 summit, and my understanding is that the European Union leaders are meeting as well. At least, I know Biden is going to meet with them when he is there in Brussels.
I guess it is possible that the vice president might go, but she also is taking on a different kind of portfolio in terms of foreign policy. She is doing a lot more focus on Central America and dealing with the immigration and border issues. I would not be surprised if they use her in other ways. Instead of sending her to Europe she will probably be doing other things in the United States. I am not actually a White House reporter so sometimes I do not get all the notices fast enough about who is going where from the While House, so it is a little tricky for me to say.
I do think it is very clear that Kamala Harris is very much trying to beef up her foreign policy credentials in general. She is doing world leader calls occasionally. It is very interesting because it is clear that she feels like it is an area that she needs to get strong on if she wants to be president in the future.
TATIANA SERAFIN: That's what I was thinking. As everything is opening up, as people are traveling more, and Biden is certainly making moves to reengage with the world. We talked about reengagement in October and what that looked like, and wow, seven months later, do you think we are reengaging? What is your assessment?
NAHAL TOOSI: I think Tony Blinken wakes up every morning and the first three words out of his mouth are "allies and partners." He has mentioned that so many times. It is to the point when I ask the State Department a question, I am like: "Please don't just respond with 'allies and partners.' I need something a little more new."
They really have. On everything from phone calls to virtual visits to actual visits to connections that I am sure are being made in ways that we have not even been told about, they are trying to coordinate, to talk, and to loop everyone in.
I will give you an example. For instance, on the Iran nuclear deal negotiations. Right now the United States, indirectly through the Europeans, is talking to the Iranians about reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. As they are doing this, they are also making sure to talk to their Arab partners and the Israelis about what they are thinking about how things are going. Are they going to let the Arab partners and the Israelis hold them back from going ahead with this? No, but they are keeping them looped in.
So when I ask Israeli officials and Arab officials, they are like: "Yes, they are talking to us. They are keeping us looped in." This is important because these countries—we are talking about the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis, and others—felt like they were left out during the last time around when the Iran nuclear deal was put together. They felt frustrated that they were not fully looped in, in their opinion.
So this time the U.S. government is trying to keep them more in the loop, and that to me is a real sign of them being serious when they say that they are going to talk to their partners and going to coordinate with them. But again, they also say: "Look, we are going to do what we think is in the best interest of the United States, and that doesn't mean that the Israelis or others are going to agree with us." That is just one example.
TATIANA SERAFIN: So interesting. You are talking about Blinken and traveling. He is in Ukraine today, which I think is making a statement. So, going back to what Putin might think and whether he might meet, do you think that might put a meeting of Putin and Biden off?
NAHAL TOOSI: No, I don't think so. I think the Russians would very much expect this type of thing, for the United States to make some sort of outreach to Ukraine before going to visit with Putin, wherever they end up meeting. This is pretty standard. They are not going to be surprised by that at all.
One thing that I have had some people say is that they think President Biden should meet with the Ukrainian president before he meets with Vladimir Putin. I don't know if that is going to happen. I actually would be surprised at that. There might be perhaps a phone call or something like that, a virtual meeting, whatever, before Biden meets with Putin, but an in-person visit, I don't know. There are options, though, let's not forget. If Ukrainian President Zelensky shows up during the NATO or G7 meetings and is there on the sidelines, that might happen.
But I don't think that is the type of thing where Putin would care. I think that is exactly what he would expect, and he will meet with Biden anyway. I don't think you can ever underestimate Vladimir Putin's sense of ego and confidence, although, strangely enough, he also is doing things that seem to indicate he is not very self-secure. So it is a very strange thing when it comes to Putin.
Again, bottom line, I think it is very standard, and I am not surprised at all that Tony Blinken is in Ukraine right now.
TATIANA SERAFIN: What are you surprised about in terms of this administration and their approach to national security and foreign policy? Are they trying to do too much too fast? What is your assessment?
NAHAL TOOSI: They had a lot that they knew they had to do. They had to move quickly. Things are not moving as quickly as I thought on certain fronts. One example is that I thought they would have nominated more ambassadors by now and filled up more of the positions at the State Department. They have done some, don't get me wrong, but I am surprised by how long that process is taking of filling up these slots. They had a lot of time to prepare. They have a lot of people to choose from. It has been somewhat surprising.
Another thing that has surprised me is what happened with the refugee cap. That was a strangely fumbled rollout, and they basically played right into the hands of Republican opponents of immigration. What basically happened was that Biden said he was going to have a maximum of 62,500 refugees that the United States would accept this fiscal year. Not that we were going to meet that cap realistically anyway due to logistical issues, but it was supposed to be an aspirational cap.
But then he didn't sign the document that would have made that official for two months, and people were like, "What's the hold-up?" There were all these refugees who had been vetted and waiting for years and that sort of thing whose flights were canceled at the last minute because Biden didn't sign this declaration. Apparently he was concerned about the political optics because of the surge of asylum seekers at the Mexico border. He felt like if you start bringing in refugees, that people will attack you because you have these issues at the border.
But the asylum program is different from the refugee program, and even if you had gone with this original cap of 62,500, again you were not going to actually bring in that many people because you physically couldn't. But then they decided to just keep the 15,000 cap. That's what they announced: "We're going to keep the 15,000 cap that President Trump originally imposed," and that was the last straw for refugee advocates. A lot of Democrats on the Hill lost it. There was a furious backlash, and within hours the White House was like: "Okay, we're going to rethink this. We will come back with something more."
Finally Biden just signed a determination that set 62,500, even though we know once again that is not going to actually be the number. But it was a total fumble in terms of the public relations rollout, the message you are sending to the rest of the world, and it made it seem like Biden himself was falling for this argument that the asylum program is the same as the refugee program and that the two should be weighed together, when that is not how this has ever worked, and it is a bad faith argument that folks on the other side sometimes make—they conflate the two.
There are arguments in favor of doing that, and I can see some of the concerns, but when you look at the language some of the opponents of immigration use it is so misleading, and it is so easy to mislead in immigration especially with statistics and things like that because people don't understand all of the very complicated categories of it. So that is another thing.
One other thing that has surprised me is how friendly this administration is being to Narendra Modi, the leader of India. The COVID-19 stuff I get. That is a public health issue. You want to help India bring down this terrible, terrible affliction there. I understand that.
But this started before that. The Biden administration mentioned India specifically as one of the countries they want to very much deepen a partnership with in their interim strategic document that they put out about their national security strategy. They have had so many calls and so many interactions with India.
Why am I surprised? Because India is sliding backwards when it comes to human rights and democracy under Modi. Freedom House recently basically lowered it on its rankings of freedom in India, and a lot of things are happening in India in terms of human rights that are the same things that we criticize China for—when it comes to religious freedom, treatment of Muslims, and that sort of thing—but this administration I think has made the calculation that India is simply too important a partner geopolitically when it comes to facing off against China, that they are going to overlook some of the other stuff when it comes to democracy and human rights.
They will tell you: "Look, we always bring up democracy and human rights. We always talk about it." That is the other thing I am eventually going to have to write about at some point when it comes to this administration, which is: How much of their human rights and democracy talk is just talk, and how much of it is going to be genuine action to make a difference on the ground? My guess is that a lot of it is going to be just talk.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's an interesting point to bring up. To go back to your discussion of the immigration and asylum-seeker issue, how is this administration working through contradictions and competing impulses? We were told in the last couple of months that every foreign policy issue would be vetted through the lens of "How does this help the American middle class?" and "How does this connect to doorstep issues of average Americans," the human rights question that you just raised, which is that we want America again to be speaking for human rights, but we have these other issues.
What is your sense within the Biden-Harris team, and particularly within the national security team, of how they are vetting these types of issues. The example that you just raised with the refugee cap suggests that this is very haphazard, that one person comes in with an argument and says, "Your domestic numbers are going to look bad, so we're not going to change it." Then the next person comes in and says: "Elements of the advocate community are angry. We have to do something," and then the Democrats from the Hill, and it just seems to be a process that doesn't have that carefully weighed out sense of costs and benefits and tradeoffs.
What are you hearing, and what are your colleagues hearing about decision making? Do we have a process where things are being weighed, or is it off the cuff, or is it that the last person to talk to President Biden is the one who gets the decision? What are you hearing on those things?
NAHAL TOOSI: My understanding is it is much less impromptu and haphazard than it was under Trump. They are holding the meetings. My core sources are in meetings all day long. They are having the interagency coordination. They talk to one another. It does not always work out perfectly, but compared to the previous administration, this is a much smoother-sailing ship. That is not a joke.
Frankly, the refugee rollout, that was an unusual fumble, which is one reason it got so much attention with people going, "Oh, my gosh, they messed up." I think where you can see what they are trying to do, in rhetoric as well as the legislation that they are proposing, is that they are increasingly saying: "Look, foreign policy is really not that separate from domestic policy." I personally have taken to calling it "omnipolicy," because everything is all in one.
So when you look, for instance, at what President Biden said when he addressed the Congress—the "non-State of the Union"—he talked about building infrastructure and the bills he has that want to improve America's domestic infrastructure. If you go for something like that, you are going to create jobs because there is going to be more construction and all of this other stuff. That is going to help the average person wherever in America.
But he also talked about China in that same part of the speech. He was like: "Look, we have to do this if we want to defeat China, if we want to stand up to them and not have them eat our lunch." It was like, "China, China, China." China was the perfect boogeyman for this.
That is where they are blending things. They are saying, "We have to do this for our own people, our own economy, but also because on the global stage we are trying to compete against China." That is just one example of where you see them trying to do all of this together.
The thing is, when you have somebody like Jake Sullivan leading the National Security Council, he knows Susan Rice, who is leading the Domestic Policy Council. They are in touch. I think where it is going to get increasingly dicey over time, though, are the political advisers around Biden, his chief of staff and others, who also are thinking about the politics of it. I think right now they have a relatively free hand on some of this stuff, to introduce some of this legislation and that sort of thing, but the closer we get to the midterms I think they are going to be more careful, so maybe we are not going to see as much omnipolicy as we do at the moment.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That is an interesting thing about the political advisers. We have the domestic policy shop that Ambassador Rice is heading up, we have Jake Sullivan heading up the National Security Council. You have talked already about Tony Blinken moving forward with meetings and the like, but the political advisers, from the president's political fortunes, the risk of losing control of Congress next year and the like.
When you are talking with both American sources and sources in other countries and the like in coverage, is there a sense that the Biden administration really only has a narrow window to do things and that we have just passed a hundred days, there has been a lot of optimism about what was going to happen, but are we now entering into a sense where people are saying, "Well, now things are going to get bogged down in the slog of American domestic politics?" What is your sense of how that is playing out?
NAHAL TOOSI: There is definitely that concern, but also the expectation that this new president has only a certain amount of time before the campaign season kicks off and they have to think about the midterms. When you think about it, that is very standard. It is pretty normal for the party of the president in the White House to lose out on the mid-terms and to lose seats. They are almost factoring that in.
I think that is why they are being pretty bold upfront. They are laying out all these massive spending proposals, and they are just going ahead and doing it now. They feel like, why would you do that later if they are going to attack you on the campaign trail for it and go after every single representative who is up for reelection or senator or whatever by saying: "Look, this is the Biden-Harris agenda, blah, blah, blah. It is too much spending." We are going to hear the spending arguments from a lot of people who never said anything about it when President Trump was spending as well. But again, that is politics. It is very normal.
But, yes, there is definitely a sense that they only have a narrow window of time, but I also think that is pretty standard for any president.
The other thing is that Biden's political people are already starting to think about 2024 and him running for reelection, which I do not think it is 100 percent certain that he will, but from what they are saying that is the plan. Of course, he is not going to say he's not because that makes him a lame duck. At this moment, we can count on a Biden reelect, and they are already looking at what they need to do for him to hold on to the office.
So much of it—oh, my God!—just comes down to what Trump plans to do. Is he going to run again in 2024? What about all these other Republicans who are eager to take a chance and do this but who probably won't, many of them, if Trump decides to run again? In some ways a lot of what ends up happening is dependent on the guy who is in Mar-a-Lago or wherever he is now?
TATIANA SERAFIN: He is coming up north to New Jersey for the summer.
But that is a great point. So what does the world think of this? Does the world think: Okay, four years. Let's work with America now, and maybe not. Is there this kind of seesawing?
The Biden-Harris team talks so much about reestablishing and reengaging and "We're back!" or whatever they are saying. Are we? Do you get the sense from your sources around the world that there is this goodwill feeling, that America is the democracy holder, "Thank you for coming back?"
NAHAL TOOSI: There is very much a caution when it comes to that. They are certainly happy to have a more predictable administration, someone who doesn't tweet foreign policy and wreck their plans for summits or whatever, but they don't know how long Biden is going to stay or the Democrats are going to be in power, and there is very, very much a strong understanding internationally that at least 40 percent of Americans wanted Trump and that brand of politics and that that could come back in a few years.
So there is a lot of hedging. You are seeing a number of countries very much not necessarily commit to being only pro-America and give up their ties with China or anything like that. They are very much thinking to themselves: This America that we know right now may not exist in four years. It could be a completely different one again, and we need to have other friends, and we need to have other means of handling our issues instead of just turning to Washington all the time.
I think some of the interesting stuff you have seen happen is—I don't know exactly where this is going to go, but there seems to be more in the Middle East of Arab-Iranian outreach, and even the Turks and others, there just seems to be a little more movement when it comes to doing the kind of bilateral stuff that doesn't include the United States. I don't know if that is because they feel like Biden is there and he has very much made it clear that he wants to stop focusing so much on the Middle East, so they need to get their house in order.
To me the question is: Is this going to continue during Biden's presidency? If he loses and we have a Republican in charge next time—depending on which Republican—is that kind of outreach that is going on now going to happen under the next president?
I will say that if Trump had won again, I don't think you would see this Arab outreach to the Iranians, the Saudis saying, "Let's talk to the Iranians again," that sort of thing. I think they would have still been onboard with Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.
There is hedging. There is caution. And frankly, maybe that is the way that it should always have been. If you rely too much on one government to stick around or even democracy somewhere to survive, you are going to end up being sorely disappointed. Who would have thought what is going on in Hungary right now when it comes to democracy—or Poland or whatever—would be happening? If you had asked me several years ago, I would have thought, What are you talking about? But nothing is permanent.
TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is a great place to end our talk today. Nothing is permanent.
Thank you so much, Nahal, for your insights. We love reading your newsletter. We can't wait for the next edition, and we can't wait to have you back to reassess where we are in the next couple of months on policy, what's getting done, and what's not getting done.
NAHAL TOOSI: Thank you so much for having me. It's always fun.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you, and we will look forward. I think this point about nothing is permanent and seeing what has started, what gets finished, what gets bogged down, and the hedging point being very critical because, of course, you broke the stories last year in the run-up to the election about diplomats in Washington being very concerned about what a second Trump term might look like and having to contemplate the "ifs." I think this point you have raised here that there is optimism but caution about where things are going, we will be able to revisit hopefully after 200 days and see where we are.
NAHAL TOOSI: "Nothing is permanent" would be a good name for a podcast, I think.
TATIANA SERAFIN: Thank you so much.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: All right. Thank you very much.