February 26, 2021

The United States Faces a Tangle of Challenges

National Guard troops guard the grounds of the US Capitol building in the extended security perimeter around Capitol Hill following the January 6th attack by a pro-Trump mob on February 11, 2021 in Washington, DC.
National Guard troops guard the grounds of the US Capitol building in the extended security perimeter around Capitol Hill following the January 6th attack by a pro-Trump mob on February 11, 2021 in Washington, DC.

The first fanfares of Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election and the proclamation of the rebirth of a great friendship were soon followed in Europe by more cautious assessments of the near future of US foreign and security policy. According to experts and observers, Biden must first and foremost address domestic challenges. ICDS Diplomaatia magazine asked Kurt Volker, Susan Glasser and Liisa Past to elaborate on what this actually means and how it will influence Biden’s choices in foreign and security policy.

Liisa Past (LP): Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious diseases expert, returned to the White House podium the day after the Biden inauguration saying that it was liberating to be back, and liberating that science was back.

After four years of confusion in US politics that touched, personally and professionally, everyone who works in public policy, public administration or government—and add to that global pandemic that has left everybody cooped up in their houses, having very limited interaction—it’s starting to feel like the Roaring Twenties to me: sudden liberation from a World War, a sense of return to normalcy, and a need to let your hair down almost.

On the other hand, there is so much on the agenda for the Biden-Harris administration. Where do you think the balance between this liberation and parties of the 1920s and getting down to the huge amount of business ahead will end up being?

Susan Glasser (SG): Nobody is having any parties yet. We are a long way from done and out of the crisis. In some ways we have entered a new stage rather than moving on out of it.

My fear is not so much that we embark on this return to normalcy, but that we return to two sharply different realities. I see this already occurring in Washington and in our politics and daily lives.

I fear that the Democrats will revert to their version of reality.

My worry is that we have this Blue America, fantasy land, where everything is going great, saying that truth and technocracy are back. While addressing our problems, the dark forces in American life that led to the storming of the US Capitol, the acceptance of lies and unrealities over the last few years, will not disappear but return to an even more closed circle that could cause problems for us in the future.

Kurt Volker (KV): I completely agree with Susan. It may look from Europe, now that Biden has been elected and Trump has gone, that everything can go back to normal and we are all happy again, but that’s not the way it looks here.

Things are still quite divided and difficult, whether it is the virus, the economy, racial injustice or social issues, or even just political perspectives.

Looking ahead, the Republicans have a terrible problem now. Trump is toying with the idea of a third party and launching his own far-right conservative media empire. This is putting pressure on other Republicans in the House, in the Senate and in politics either to be part of that movement or to oppose it. Either way, it is tearing them apart and weakening them vis-à-vis Democrats.

The latter, on the other hand, have exactly the problem that Susan described: they now have a president and the House of Representatives and a majority [in the Senate], and many feel that now is the chance to fix the things the Trump administration screwed up.

The risk is that this will go too far and alienate a number of people in the country who just want things to be normal but not have what they would perceive as an excessive socially vulnerable economic agenda. For example, the conservative media here is picking on the announcement that future legislation will be devoid of any gender-defining terms like father, mother, son or daughter. The right in this country will beat this to death as an example of how these elite liberal leftists running Washington have moved away from the rest of the country. It is the kind of thing that will continue to divide the nation.

So, the problem for the Republicans is to deal with Trumpism and for the Democrats it is trying to remain centrist.

LP: Kurt, are you saying that the reasonable Republican—the statesmen, the John McCains of the world, those who Europeans can partner with and the world can talk to—is now both mythical and illusive? Even if you set Trump and Trumpism aside, the long-term effect of these Congressmen waving at the marauders on the steps of the Capitol on 6 January, it is the Ted Cruzes and Lindsey Grahams who seem to have been getting out the popcorn and quite enjoying the show.

KV: First, the person closest to John McCain—his world-view, deep relationships and internationalism—is probably Joe Biden. He has had 40 years’ experience and travel, he knows all the people and understands the Alliance relationships and who our adversaries are.

Second, the Republican Party of Arizona censured Cindy McCain and the state’s governor, Doug Ducey, who is one of the people who fits exactly the model you are describing of a reasonable Republican. He comes out of the business world, he was a CEO. He was able to get elected in Arizona with extensive qualities, meaning that he attracted Democrats to vote for him as well. He would be a very competitive presidential contender in 2024.

However, the challenge is that, to win elections, the reasonable, centrist Republicans need Trump’s voters but not Trump.

Right now Trump is positioning himself in such a way that makes it impossible for them to get those voters without him. He wants to be the one who defines the anti-Washington, anti-establishment movement. To win his voters, you are going to need Trump’s support and that makes him a force to be reckoned with.

SG: The rift inside the Republican Party needs to be talked about, but I think part of the problem is the refusal to discuss in frank terms what the party’s takeover by Donald Trump means.

After the storming of the US Capitol, there were 140 House Republicans and seven Republican Senators, who—after their lives were threatened—voted to overturn the electoral college, part of our constitutional system. There were 197 House Republicans who voted against the impeachment of Donald Trump for inciting that insurrection. Then look how many Republican members of Congress acknowledged the outcome on 7 November, when Joe Biden was declared the winner. It really was never in dispute; in fact he won by 306 electoral votes. But fewer Republicans than the fingers on my two hands accepted it. That’s how many actual reasonable Republican politicians elected at the federal level in America exist in the real world.

So, I do not accept that there is a Democratic version of reality and a Republican one. I think that the crisis of American democracy that we have unfortunately been experiencing for the last four years is that the Republican Party has chosen not to fight on the grounds of policy and ideology but to accept Donald Trump’s lies as their truth because it suited them. And not only that, but also to deliberately be willing to follow him and attack our very system of government.

I don’t say that because it pleases me. I do not identify with either party. When you spend more than a week in Washington, you know perfectly well that no political party has a monopoly on the right way of doing things or morality or anything. We have sex scandals, campaign financing scandals and ideological blinders across the spectrum, as in any country.

But what we have seen in the last four years is a perversion of our two-party system to justify a set of spectacular lies and misleading the American public on a scale that simply has no precedent or equal in our modern history. We are not going to have unity and reconciliation when we cannot come to terms with that. Unfortunately, that is why I think the crisis is ongoing in terms of our politics.

KV: I think you put your finger on it, Susan. That number of 197 House Republicans is shocking. But I think what that reflects is that they are afraid. How many of them actually believed that Trump did win the election? It’s got to be fewer than ten again, but the issue is that they were unwilling to stand up and say that. They are afraid of this Trumpist movement turning against them.

SG: Kurt, I think you are totally right about that. But what are these people so afraid of? What is Donald Trump going to do? Are they going to have a tough election or perhaps to go and have an actual job? I completely agree with you that, somehow, he has gotten inside the heads of these people and made them unable to exercise basic functions of leadership. But on your point about how that electorate has not gone away either, their receptiveness to autocracy and lies is something that is so scary for an American to witness.

According to multiple public polls recently, 77% of Republicans believe Donald Trump’s lies that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected as president of the US. Republicans were already a minority of voters, so it is a majority of a shrinking minority. But you cannot split the difference on that. That isn’t like “I’m sorry my truth makes you uncomfortable” for 74 million people, more like “my truth is the truth”. I will not accept the characterisation of that as being partisan. It is just not.

LP: Even if we put aside the judgement call of what is truth and what is a lie, and accept that truth is a construct, it still seems that bargain cannot be won. You cannot be making deals with the devil hoping this leads to a free and fair democratic open society with respectful public discourse.

Might it not be that that Republican Party is beyond repair?

KV: First, nothing ever stays the same. There is always change, some new event, something that people react to, that shifts the mix. The emergence of new leaders over time is part of that. Nobody saw Donald Trump coming, nobody thought Joe Biden was going to be the candidate when we had all these young faces in the Democratic Party. Things continue to change. I would not say we are doomed.

Second, the 70% of Republicans who don’t accept Joe Biden won the election: the problem is that they are not accepting a basic fact. But it is also a problem that they are there. This is a challenge for both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party: how do we reach these people, how do we enfranchise them, how do we gain their trust?

One of the reasons that number is so high is they do not trust anybody else. If Donald Trump tells them it is rigged, they would rather believe that than actually deal with the fact that Trump is lying too so we don’t trust anybody.

SG: Well, we are not the first society to unfortunately experience the extreme effectiveness of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. It is certainly a case study in manipulation of political views, and not just in the social media context; according to a recent study, president Trump gave 119 interviews to Fox and zero to CNN. The fusion of a TV network and an American president defies precedent, and is something we must work hard to understand.

I happened to look at an interview I did at the beginning of the Trump administration, at a time when Trump wanted to somehow find a way towards more favourable relations with Putin. Looking at the numbers in the polls then, it was amazing to see how, in the course of one year—between 2016 when Donald Trump became their vanguard and 2017 when he became their president—the Republican viewpoint about Russia and whether it constituted a threat in US completely flipflopped. In the spring of 2017, only 20–25% of Republicans believed this, and previously it had been a vast majority. According to the Pew Research Center, the partisan gap on the issue was 80 points—the largest gap ever found on that subject.

This was an example, more than any other, that ideology was not ideology at all. This was a charismatic populist movement in which people were willing to follow a cult personality, following the leader rather than their own previous beliefs.

This is very relevant in a conversation about the US and its politics going forward. Although Kurt made an excellent point, I strongly believe that the conventional wisdom about how American politics is going to be transformed at the beginning of a president’s term and in the aftermath of a US election is always wrong. The only problem is that we don’t yet know how it is wrong.

LP: These cleavages and divisions in society have clearly been turned into canyons with the help of the social media platforms and others. Considering the circumstances, how will the new Biden-Harris administration start making policy when the house is on fire and you have inherited nothing but empty desks?

They have to start making policy that deals with the pandemic and economic recovery. Where do you think they should start?

SG: There is still a major infrastructure of democracy, but not necessarily of hyper-partisan technocrats. They haven’t been in exile so long that they cannot come back and exercise their regular functions of government.

You always want to take a job when the previous occupant has not been that successful. In that sense, Biden looks to potentially do quite well—at least when it comes to the actual functioning of our government.

KV: There is a very clear agenda of what people are worried about and the Biden administration is going to tackle.

There will be tremendous pressure to focus on things pretty much in this order: COVID-19, the economy, racial injustice and social justice. These things will drive the administration’s policies.

Foreign policy and national security will be further down the list, largely delegated to the agencies with professionals, the State Department and the Pentagon. That also means it’s a little unclear how much US commitment and leadership there might be.

Susan was quite right to point to the Republicans’ dramatic and rapid abandonment of seeing Russia as an adversary and defending Trump’s desire to develop a relationship with Putin. The same thing happened on the Democratic side; you had Democrats defending Obama’s “reset” policy long after its best-by date and then becoming ultra-hawkish during the Trump administration.

It will be interesting to see where that goes now. Will there be a Democratic shift towards “but we have to work with Russia” on certain things like the nuclear agreement, and working with them on Iran, and softening? Or will they maintain the hawkishness that characterised the Democrats’ view of Russia over the last four years?

Taking a step back from all the political parties and personalities, you have some underlying pressures that were exerted ever since the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s:a desire for the US to get out of wars, with Obama saying we want to end two wars; a wish to see other people do things rather than the US leading. We are not going to fight other people’s civil wars—another Obama quote. Then “Allies are freeloaders”, Trump’s “America First” thing. These are some underlying positions, both on the left and on the right, that any US administration, Republican or Democrat, has to take into account.

I don’t think the constituency is there for the kind of Cold War leadership that we saw through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, to see the US as the dominant and most active leading player on the global stage.

LP: Exactly—there are many who would argue that this predates Trump.

There is this sense of impending doom or the death of multilateralism or diplomacy. But look at Russia today: Navalny, and the lack of response to the SolarWinds hack, that breached and deeply compromised US networks.

Are you saying that, by not returning to that global leadership, the US will just let Navalny slide, and forget the SolarWinds hack, which could easily have been the trigger for critical infrastructure not just in the US but among the Allies?

SG: That was literally the first thing Biden asked the US intelligence community to do on his first day in office—to understand and provide real accounting for how damaging SolarWinds was.

Biden is a bit different from Obama when it comes to foreign policy and it’s important for people to understand that.

Biden has been speaking about a values-based foreign policy. I looked at one of the first articles I ever wrote about Joe Biden. It was in 1987, when he was first running for president and he came to Harvard University and gave a speech. He spoke of a values-based foreign policy in strikingly similar terms to much of the language he still uses to describe America’s place in world.

You know very well, Kurt, that he made Georgia and Ukraine a bit of a personal project during the Obama administration, at a time when Obama was pursuing the reset policy with Russia during the Medvedev interregnum.

Actually, Joe Biden was the steward putting the word out elsewhere in the former Soviet Union that America was not abandoning its commitment to them. I think that his natural inclination is to be tougher on Russia than Obama, who I think deep down is extremely calculating, a realist when it comes to foreign policy.

I think Biden is more of the conventional American foreign-policy internationalist. I don’t think he is a big believer in the use of military force; you may see a return to a US commitment to diplomacy and multilateralism.

KV: I must put into the bowl that Susan has just published a terrific book on James Baker, The Man Who Ran Washington.

You do not have to do diplomacy—it’s bilateral, multilateral, whatever it is. Diplomacy works when it is backed up by capabilities and the ability to use them, to influence the environment and its outcomes. And then you use the diplomacy to negotiate your way to those outcomes.

We have drifted away from an understanding of the instruments of state power, willingness to use them and then willingness to use diplomacy to avoid using them but have them shape the direction. That is what I would hope any US administration, Biden or whoever comes after, will find a way to come back to.

SG: What have been the great American diplomatic achievements of the last two decades?

I don’t think anyone comes to this issue thinking that Joe Biden is on the brink of transformative big deals. Domestic politics constrains American foreign policy far more than people often realise. There is this cliché that we used to have bipartisan foreign policy, but we used to have a more bipartisan Washington too. We used to have a political system where there was an incentive for both parties to get things done.

It was also because there was political reward to be found. Ronald Reagan might have won the presidency in 1980, but if he had not found a way to work around Democrats in his economic agenda, he would not have been re-elected. If you wanted to get things done, that was still the currency, whereas the last US Congress was the least productive in history in terms of passing legislation.

That has been true basically for the last couple of decades. Congress does almost nothing anymore. They have lost the habit of legislating and making deals to participate in world events, [instead of] objecting and making partisan points. Posturing has become a substitute for politics and policy-making.

The structural incentives in our system for deal-making have disappeared at exactly the moment when both domestically and internationally they appeared to be needed more than ever.

LP: Let me push a little more to the man’s response to the moment that Susan mentioned. The moment matters, and particularly internationally, as we witness covert cyber and disinformation operations.

Looking at those diplomatic tools, we know that something more needs to happen than just sanctions and the freezing of assets and strongly worded conversations between ambassadors and ministers, and maybe withdrawing ambassadors.

What would you advise the Biden administration to do vis-à-vis ever-more aggressive China and Russia, which seems to quite enjoy getting away with impunity?

KV: What they are setting out to do is to rebuild an alliance structure and develop shared goals and strategies to achieve those goals, because collectively—whether it is the US and our European allies, or us and Japan and Korea—we have the weight to matter.

The economy, the global trading order, the WTO, intellectual property, development assistance … we have the capacities, we have substance, weight and established wealth. But the problem is we are not very unified.

We are not strategic enough. The UK and Sweden have agreed with the US point of view on the need for a Western 5G. We cannot rely on China’s, which will suck up all our data. But Germany, Poland, Hungary and others say “no, we can’t afford to wait, we need 5G and economic relationships with China, so we’re taking a middle path rather than being firmly oriented to the Western camp”.

I think it is going to be very challenging to focus on our allies, to start shaping the global environment in favour of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the market economy. Some of our allies will not support that; it will take a lot of convincing. That is what the Biden administration should be doing, and I think that’s where the initial efforts will go.

LP: 5G is a tricky question.

Let’s call things out; Huawei’s code or their technical equipment is no worse than that of Nokia or Ericsson. Samsung is unlikely to come to the European market. The US technology is in a slightly different place. So, to me it also seems like the only way ahead is to admit that we are not following supply-chain transparency and to say out loud that we do not trust companies in China because we don’t see the ownership structures, we do not believe China is an open economy that respects intellectual property, or that it controls its companies in transparent ways.

In a modern, open economy such as Europe, how do you deal with the fact that, in terms of international trade, Huawei makes sense, but politically it does not because then you just have to say we do not trust China.

SG: I think this is the area where you have seen the biggest difference from the end of the Obama era to now. There really is a much deeper disillusionment and sense of distrust among Democrats as well as Republicans about the idea of strategic engagement with China or Russia, essentially incorporating them into existing international orders and institutions to ultimately have the effect of constraining them.

There is now a widespread recognition here in Washington that this policy has ended. We’re not entirely sure what will follow, but certainly the Biden administration’s version is completely different from the one we just saw over the last few years.

But what exactly is the EU trying to do by making a trade deal with China in the last few hours of the Trump administration? Will that create problems for the renewed era of good relations they are also supposedly going to have with the Biden administration? It raised a lot of questions in Washington about why Europe would go ahead, especially given the number of complaints we have heard over the last four years about the Trump administration’s hawkishness towards China.

In that period, discussion between Washington and Beijing has largely been on economic and trade issues, in part also due to our former president’s obsessions and partly because the focus domestically was really on the economy here in the US.

But if this turns into more of a national security discussion, more of a human rights and geopolitical conversation, then I think that’s where you could really see more potential for the US and Europe to make common calls.

In part, China has benefited by keeping things on the level of an economic debate and conversation, rather than national security.

When I look at the possibility for new levels of tension and an adversarial relationship over Taiwan, Hong Kong, the internal crackdowns in China, its regional behaviour towards our allies like Australia, that’s what I think I would be most focused on, and seeing whether things stay on Trump’s terms over trade and tariffs or is this going to shift. If so, I think the diplomacy around it would also change a lot.

KV: I agree with you. I don’t think tariffs are the right way to go, now or in the future. There will be other ways to apply pressure.

Second, I think Liisa has posed a great question: how to convince Europeans to go along with pushback on China. Tactically, I would ask two questions:

  1. Which country has legislation on data privacy that you have more confidence in–China or the US? Data privacy is incredibly important for European citizens, and China has no data privacy; it is non-existent.
  2. What if China did have the equivalent of European legislation on data privacy? Do you believe Beijing would respect it?

That is your trust question. The answer is clearly ”no”.

I would slip the issue back on Europe, because I think Susan is right that the consensus that emerges in Washington will be on that. Since you know this is a problem, is it not really a question of some European countries prioritising short-term economic benefits or relationships at the expense of the security of our democratic systems and values? If that is the case, we should be having a conversation about how we make better neutral choices.

LP: Just a few remarks from the European perspective. The 5G question is particularly tricky because I think everyone, at least amongst the Allies, realises the need to balance national security and business continuity. You need to have the connectivity; you need to roll out 5G one way or another.

The fact is that there are four companies around the world that can provide that sort of technology and only two of them are legally based in a NATO country. None of them are American. The question is, rather, whether you can build up connectivity in a way that respects all those national security concerns. And not all European Allies rely on the same technology providers, because then you are locked into their technology in a different way.

You both emphasised collective and values-based international relationships. How do you see that and, hopefully, collective leadership playing out in the Biden administration when it comes to Belarus and Ukraine?

SG: In a moment of enormous uncertainty, we are following developments closely and wondering what the Biden administration’s Belarus policy is, because this is not the America of a decade ago.

We have lost the granularity of our engagement with the world because we are having a profound national crisis that extends to both who we are as people and also, therefore, what role we play in the world.

I know that America—both broadly speaking and certainly its foreign-policy leaders in both parties—is on the side of the people of Belarus seeking freedom and people who are seeking the restoration of international order in Ukraine and those who are speaking out against corruption in Russia. I don’t think that has changed.

I think that, in many ways, presidents of both parties have been very unsuccessful in dealing with the challenges that Vladimir Putin’s very long rule of Russia has posed to the national order. They have had different approaches and none of them has been super-successful.

You are likely to see more of the same in that regard. Is it possible that Joe Biden will, because of outrageous things like the SolarWinds attack and the hacking of the US elections in 2016, have an appetite for some stronger measures than the usual dreary list of sanctions?

I would definitely not rule it out, but I would say everybody is probably going to be holding their breath for at least the first six months because—Kurt is absolutely correct—the policy priorities are going to be COVID-19, COVID-19, COVID-19 and the economy. All of these are truly not just once-in-a-generation, but really once-in-a-century-type crises. So, it’s going to be a long winter before whatever that Roaring Twenties is.

KV: Orientationally, we know what the Biden administration will support, but operationally it is very hard to figure out what they are going to do differently.

Putin has so many levers in Belarus and he is already taking control of the instruments of power in kind of a stealthy way like little green men, in the military, intelligence, information, civilian police and so on.

I think the two things that the US and Europe want for Belarus are the people to be able to choose their own leadership, restoring some elements of democracy, and the preservation of Belarus’ independence and sovereignty. If you had to say right now which is the most important, I would say the ability to choose their own government is almost completely wiped out for the time being, but sovereignty and independence can still be preserved. It is important to focus on whatever we can do to preserve that, without Belarus being fully absorbed into Russia.

In the case of Ukraine, I think the US can play a distinct role in terms of keeping the spotlight on Russia’s aggression against it and pushing our Western European allies to be a bit more vocal and supportive. Then, together with Western Europe, the EU and the IMF, we can put some pressure on Ukraine’s government to get back on track with reform and strengthening the rule of law, fixing the judiciary, fighting corruption and fixing the oligarchic system.

The only way Ukraine will really succeed in the long run is by becoming a successful, prosperous democracy that is connected to Europe. Then these wars that Russia has inflicted on it will not matter so much, but as long as Ukraine is stuck in the mud, it is never going to achieve that.

I would expect the Biden administration to focus on diplomacy and Europe, and then urge Kyiv to do its part—something our Ukrainian friends do not want to hear, but it is a realistic assessment of where Biden’s team will go.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.