Election 2020: What We’re Missing
Daily takes by leading global thinkers on the most important foreign-policy issues not being talked about during the campaign.
The U.S. Foreign Service Isn’t Suited for the 21st Century
Created for another age, Washington’s foreign-policy institutions have atrophied. The next administration should rebuild and reshape them.
Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.
The United States’ institutions for wielding 21st-century power have atrophied. Americans may proudly point to their vast lead in hard power, but much of this hard power—and most U.S. spending on defense and intelligence support—is substantially irrelevant to the security objectives in our new era. These include biological security; digital security; economic and financial security; security against transnational crime, corruption, and terrorism; and the security of the biosphere we inhabit. One of the painful lessons of recent years has been that brute force rarely achieves the desired results.
Even if one is concerned about security dangers from China, Russia, or Iran, a closer look at plausible scenarios will reveal that a major part of U.S. hard power would be irrelevant in a conflict. The deeper issue, however, is that U.S. policies are mostly conceived and debated around available instruments, predominantly military, rather than the other way around. The core problem isn’t one of resources: The core problem is reconceiving the deeply neglected institutions—including the U.S. State Department and various agencies—that will allow the United States to attain its foreign objectives.
The 21st-century agenda is a different mix, requiring a broadly based and attuned foreign service.
If the United States doubled the size of its foreign service, which it should, the budgetary impact would scarcely be noticed. But the U.S. Congress will not, and should not, pour fresh water into the same old vessels. Instead, an agenda for reconceiving U.S. foreign-policy institutions for the 21st century should include:
Redefine and broaden the concept of foreign service beyond a single department of the government. This reconceived foreign service should be interdepartmental, while the State Department’s focus should be narrowed to provide more and better analysis of foreign developments and orchestrate the foreign efforts of various agencies applying their specialized knowledge and skills.
Restore the State Department’s central role in the U.S. government’s day-to-day analysis of developments around the world. This job is done now primarily by the intelligence community and its institutions, whose central roles evolved during the Cold War and the so-called war on terror. But the 21st-century agenda is a different mix, requiring a broadly based and attuned foreign service at the center of the daily flow of analysis.
Reduce reliance on outside contractors and maintain more of the professional expertise to solve problems and implement policies inside the government. When U.S. foreign policy was at its most effective, in the mid-20th century, the core professional expertise lay in the agencies. Outsourcing this expertise, over time, also outsources the expertise to guide the work, resulting in gutted agencies whose staff focus on contract supervision, not policy design. To extend the base of expertise even further, a “foreign service reserve” should be built across the country, available as needed.
Overhaul and radically strengthen professional training within a greatly enlarged, interdepartmental foreign service. The current foreign service and the relevant civil servants at the State Department and other agencies are not trained to perform the analysis and policy design required to meet 21st-century objectives. Their professional education is barebones with weak supplemental training, in part because staffing is so thin that what’s known as a training float (similar to what the U.S. military relies on to support its lavish program of professional education) cannot be maintained. The growth of the National Security Council staff—which itself is poorly organized and trained—is a symptom of the problem, not a solution. If funding and talent are overwhelmingly directed toward training and equipping military problem-solvers, then the United States will mostly rely on military solutions, whether they are optimal or not.
This reconception of the U.S. foreign service should be an action agenda for the next administration to “build back better.”
Asian Nationalists Hold the Key to a More Effective U.S. China Strategy
Missing in the current U.S. debate on China is the question of Asian nationalism and how the United States could profitably align with it.
C. Raja Mohan is the director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies, a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express, and a former member of India’s National Security Advisory Board.
Top Trump administration officials have in recent months unveiled the framework for a comprehensive confrontation with China. The Democrats, on the other hand, say they don’t want to pursue a cold war with China—but are deeply divided over what their policy should be instead.
Missing from this debate is the question of Asian nationalism and how the United States could profitably align with it. “Nationalism” is not a popular term in the lexicon of the Western foreign-policy establishment. In Asia, however, nationalism is not only considered a virtue, but is deeply entrenched thanks to the living memory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century.
Asian nationalists are natural allies for the United States in preventing China’s rise as a regional hegemon.
If Chinese nationalism is widely seen as a major threat to stability and security in Asia, equally strong and similar national sentiments in other Asian countries ought to be an integral part of constructing regional stability. Asian nationalists are natural allies for the United States in preventing the rise of a regional hegemon.
During the World War II, the United States inspired Asian nationalists with the promise of supporting their liberation from European colonialism. But after the war, the United States abandoned the Asian nationalists when it backed the European colonial powers—such as France in Indochina—against the Soviet Union. Asia’s nationalists viewed the United States’ alliances during the Cold War as an external imposition. But the nationalists prevailed against European colonialism, Japanese imperialism, and Communist internationalism. They are not likely to be simply rolled over by China’s growing power.
If the United States is looking for an Asia strategy that is inexpensive, sustainable, rooted in regional realities, and able to mobilize enthusiastic partners ready to share the burden, it must empower Asian nationalists. Rather than letting Beijing continue to pose as the harbinger of an “Asia for Asians” and paint the United States as the external source of trouble, Washington must bet on the strong instincts of Asian elites to defend their territorial sovereignty and national identity. The rest—how the United States supports Asian nationalists to defend themselves against hegemony—is a matter of detail.
The Next Administration Needs a Plan for Deescalation in the Gulf
Confrontation with Iran almost dragged the United States into war. Détente would benefit all sides.
Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.
Last year, the United States almost got dragged into war in the Persian Gulf. That makes it a good time to think about what the next administration can do to deescalate tensions in the region.
What little public discussion there is usually boils down to two opposing alternatives. One approach, often articulated by U.S. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, is to show unconditional support for Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States while putting “maximum pressure” on Iran. The other, sometimes also embraced by Trump and his supporters—but also by some on the left—is for Americans to wash their hands of the entire region. A better approach would be for a new administration to use hard-nosed diplomacy and smart statecraft to pursue deescalation and calm.
On the Gulf Arab side there are also good reasons to pursue détente.
Success would be a long shot, of course, but not impossible because both sides have a compelling interest in deescalation. Iran, with an economy in free fall and a discontented population hit hard by COVID-19, is not only desperate for relief from economic sanctions but knows it would suffer greatly in a direct military conflict. Even if a future Biden administration rejoins the nuclear deal that Trump abandoned, the pressure for Iran to change will be kept up by low oil prices, a dysfunctional economy, and a large youth population eager to end the country’s isolation. And the idea that Iran’s leaders must continue interfering in their neighbors’ affairs to maintain legitimacy or satisfy their population is absurd. The regime governs through force rather than legitimacy, and there is no sign that the Iranian public would rise up if the government started to prioritize domestic concerns such as jobs and health care over support to regional proxies.
On the Gulf Arab side there are also good reasons to pursue détente. The military escalation that took place in the region during 2019—with tankers exploding in the Gulf, missile strikes in Iraq, and a direct Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil refinery—was a wake-up call for Saudi and Emirati leaders. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may be militarily stronger than Iran, but they also have a lot more to lose than Iran in a military escalation—just imagine the economic impact of a single drone strike on Dubai. This reality led the UAE last year to downplay the tanker attacks by declining to attribute them to Iran, pull its troops out of Yemen, and even pursue quiet diplomacy with Tehran. Another factor is that, after years of supporting Trump, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is so unpopular in Washington because of the war in Yemen and the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi that some are calling for an end to strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia. Embracing deescalation would take some of the political pressure off.
Obviously, any deescalation would be up to the parties, but the United States could help with leadership and diplomacy. This could include, for example, ending U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen but telling Riyadh that other U.S. arms sales and the broader defense relationship could continue if the Saudis agree to a cease-fire and show willingness to deescalate on other fronts. To Iran, a new administration could make clear that peace in the region is not a precondition to a nuclear deal, but that abiding by it will not preclude the United States from responding vigorously to Iranian aggression in the region. If Iranian behavior significantly improves, on the other hand, better relations and even direct trade between the two countries could be on offer.
The United States cannot force Iran and Saudi Arabia to get along. But the two countries have coexisted peacefully—and even cooperated—in the past, and both have a profound interest in finding a way to do so again. Given the alternatives, the next U.S. administration should try to steer them in that direction.
America’s Pullback Must Continue No Matter Who Is President
For all the talk of a new administration boldly reengaging with the world after four years of “America first,” Trump’s strategic retrenchment can only be the start.
Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.
As the Trump era potentially comes to an end, many foreign-policy voices in the United States and abroad relish the prospect of the country’s roaring return to the global stage. But attempting a full-on comeback would be a mistake. If anything, the strategic pullback that President Donald Trump has initiated needs to continue—albeit in a more coherent and judicious manner.
Much of the debate surrounding the next administration’s foreign policy has focused on boldly reasserting U.S. leadership in the world. And it’s true: Global interdependence and upheaval do require steady U.S. leadership and engagement. What’s been largely missing from this debate, however, are the challenges facing the next president when it comes to right-sizing U.S. engagement abroad—especially military involvement—and bringing the nation’s strategic commitments back into line with it means and purposes.
What’s been missing from the debate are the challenges facing the next president when it comes to right-sizing U.S. engagement abroad.
The American electorate has turned sharply inward in response to military overreach in the Middle East, the economic dislocations brought about by innovation and globalization, and the national calamity caused by COVID-19. The nation’s next president would be wise to take note—and craft a brand of global statecraft that is effective but also politically sustainable. Otherwise, the strategic pullback that needs to take place will occur by default rather than by design, risking that U.S. overreach could turn into even more dangerous underreach. Indeed, that’s what’s been happening during Trump’s presidency. He seems to have understood the need to retrench. But his troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Germany have been haphazard, making a hash of the effort. Retrenchment cannot be done by tweet, in unpredictable fits and starts, and couched in an abrasive “America first” unilateralism that has alienated allies and set the world on edge.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden is far better suited to restore an equilibrium between the nation’s foreign policy and its political will. Throughout his career, he has been a pragmatic and prudent internationalist; looking forward, pragmatism and prudence will require a more selective and discriminating internationalism, not restoration of the status quo ante. Three-quarters of the American public want U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan and Iraq—it is time to downsize the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. U.S. foreign policy has become over-militarized—the next administration should reallocate priorities and resources, putting more emphasis on diplomacy, cybersecurity, global public health, and climate change. Washington should also return to being a team player if it is to lighten its load; retrenchment and multilateral engagement go hand in hand. Meeting the threat posed by China, managing international trade and finance, preventing nuclear proliferation, addressing pandemics—these and other urgent challenges all require broad international cooperation. And as the United States pulls back from its role as global policeman, it will want like-minded partners to help fill the gap. These partnerships become stronger through diplomacy and teamwork.
The top priorities of the next president will be at home: taming the pandemic, repairing the economy, and reviving democratic institutions and norms. Only if the country’s democratic lights come back on can it effectively deal with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the next administration needs to continue Trump’s effort to downsize the nation’s foreign entanglements—but in a smart and measured way. The United States needs to step back without stepping away. “Build back better” applies abroad just as much as it does at home.
Start Preparing for the Coming Debt Crisis
The global financial crisis was just the prelude to what could be coming next. The next administration better be ready.
Dambisa Moyo is an international economist and the author, most recently, of Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth—and How to Fix It. She serves on the boards of 3M and Chevron.
The next U.S. administration will likely face a global debt crisis that could dwarf what the world experienced in 2008-2009. To prevent the worst, it will need to address the burdensome debt plaguing both the United States and the global economy.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed economies around the world, economists were warning about unsustainable debt in many countries. Take the United States: A surge in spending to mitigate the health and economic impacts of the pandemic has brought the total public debt in the United States to over 100 percent of GDP—its highest level since 1946 and a hurdle that will create a considerable drag on future economic growth. Other types of debt—household, auto, and student loans, as well as credit card debt—have seen similar surges. Almost 20 percent of U.S. corporations have become zombie companies that are unable to generate enough cash flow to service even the interest on their debt, and only survive thanks to continued loans and bailouts.
A new administration will need to act quickly and deftly to avoid outright default scenarios at home and abroad.
Multiply that across the globe. Total global debt stands at an unsustainable 320 percent of GDP. Perhaps more worrisome, China is now an important creditor, which adds a geopolitical dimension to the concerns over debt. China is the largest foreign lender not only to the United States, but to many emerging economies. This gives the Chinese political class enormous leverage. Naturally, the combination of strained U.S.-Chinese relations and the dependence of many advanced and developing countries on continued Chinese credit and investment limits the scope for negotiations on debt restructuring or moratoriums.
The global picture has become even more complicated because many of the conventional ways to manage excess debt no longer look like credible options. For instance, with the IMF projecting the global economy to contract by 4.4 percent in 2020, it looks unlikely that countries can simply grow their way out of debt. Conventional or even unconventional monetary policies are also unlikely to provide any relief—interest rates in most developed economies are already historically low and even negative, and central banks’ balance sheets are stretched from the policies they have followed since the 2008 financial crisis and expanded in the course of the pandemic. Piling debt on top of debt seems to have reached a dead end.
A growing number of economists and policymakers are beginning to talk about the need to shift to a new, possibly digital monetary regime whose contours remain unclear. With the pandemic and its economic fallout showing little sign of abating, it could be the next administration that will have to manage this complicated domestic and international transition with all its potential for financial, social, and political instability.
Even short of such a challenging transition, policymakers in a new administration will need to act quickly and deftly to avoid outright default scenarios at home and abroad. Default would severely limit the ability of governments to address urgent concerns such as public health, economic recovery, and climate change. A full-fledged debt crisis would be devastating to the whole global economy—and to the prospects for human progress.
America Needs To Talk About a China Reset
Biden and Trump are debating who is the bigger China hawk. Instead, the next administration should learn from the Cold War to defuse the rivalry.
Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and is the author of 19 books on foreign affairs, including The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian, forthcoming in January.
During this presidential campaign, there is at least one issue on which there is little daylight between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden: China. If anything, Biden has called Trump out for his ineffective China policies and promised to be even tougher on Beijing.
The United States urgently needs a reset of its China debate. The present level of tension between Washington and Beijing cannot simply go on without a disruption that both sides may regret.
The next administration has to tackle the U.S.-Chinese rivalry fast—and head-on. It doesn’t have to deliver peace and goodwill, or end the “cold war” with China. Washington and Beijing have fundamental differences on an array of issues, such as the South China Sea, trade, and ideology. None of these issues can be easily solved—they can only be worked on. Rather, rules must urgently be set for the ongoing competition in order to prevent an accidental outbreak of military hostilities or cyberconflict at a level that threatens global peace and stability.
Rules of the road were established to make the Cold War less dangerous; that is where we need to get in the struggle between the United States and China.
Over the past four years, relations between Washington and Beijing have not only become dramatically worse—they have become dramatically dysfunctional and emotional. This is too dangerous to be allowed to continue. To use a Cold War analogy, the next administration will have to move the U.S.-Chinese rivalry from a pre-Cuban missile crisis environment to a post-Cuban missile crisis environment, without having to go through the harrowing danger of the Cuban missile crisis itself.
Until 1962, both the United States and the Soviet Union were testing atomic bombs in the atmosphere and relations between the two superpowers were extremely tense. The Cuban missile crisis showed both sides that nuclear confrontation was very real—a confrontation that neither side wanted to repeat. They had stared into the abyss and didn’t like what they saw. In the wake of the crisis, therefore, came a treaty banning nuclear tests and other arms control treaties, a direct hotline between the U.S. and Soviet leaders, and beefed-up summitry between the two superpowers.
The Cold War did not end after 1962, nor were any fundamental issues solved. But more parameters and rules of the road were established between the two sides, making the Cold War less dangerous. That is where we need to get in the struggle between the United States and China. The next administration therefore has to sit down with the Chinese leadership and arrange a calendar of regular summits, a process that forces their respective bureaucracies to come up with markers for progress on a range of issues. It has to try to negotiate a ceiling on the level of cyberconflict. It has to work on enhanced rules of naval engagement in contested seas. There needs to be a mutual commitment that each side will seek to restrain itself from making rash moves without notifying the other side in advance.
This is all absolutely necessary, no matter what the candidates and their campaigns are saying right now.