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.
America’s Dysfunctional Russia Policy Is Unlikely to Improve Under Biden
A continued stalemate in Washington makes this a moment of great danger for Europe.
Constanze Stelzenmüller is a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings.
The United States’ Russia policy over the past four years has been profoundly dysfunctional. President Donald Trump has relished his cozy relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denigrated NATO, scuttled arms control agreements, and allowed Moscow to become an influential player again in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. He has refused to act on credible reports of Russia offering bounties for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. A deeply alarmed U.S. Congress, meanwhile, has been ratcheting up ever tougher sanctions on Russia for meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, and for fomenting the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine. Three senators even wrote a nasty letter to the mayor of the German Baltic port town of Sassnitz, where the North Stream 2 undersea gas pipeline from Russia comes ashore, threatening him with reprisals.
The depth of the stalemate in Washington was illustrated this August, when two bipartisan groups of experienced Russia hands dueled it out in competing letters. One called for a renewal of nuclear arms control and diplomacy, combined with more flexible (read: fewer) sanctions; the other countered that, on the contrary, there needed to be less “pointless dialogue” and more “strong pushback.”
Emotions in Moscow regarding the most desirable outcome of the U.S. elections appear to be mixed.
Chances are slim that the election will make U.S. Russia policy more coherent. A second term for Trump would presumably be an amplified version of the first (hard to imagine as that might be). He might bring back U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Europe, and attempt to make an ally of Russia against China. It could well be the end of NATO. Democratic candidate Joe Biden, in contrast, is known to be sharply critical of Putin: In a television interview last week, he referred to Russia as “the biggest threat to America.” Yet as much as Biden cherishes the United States’ alliances, as president he would be bogged down by domestic concerns. Abroad, he would be focused on China above all else.
Emotions in Moscow regarding the most desirable outcome of the U.S. elections appear to be mixed. A second dose of Trump would presumably tax the nerves of a Kremlin already wrongfooted by the pandemic, a tanking economy, and persistent protests in its regions. Putin seemed to concede as much when he defended the challenger’s son Hunter against accusations of dodgy business ties with Ukraine. Yet Biden’s remarks about Russia clearly rankled Putin’s speaker Dmitry Peskov, who accused the Democrat of spreading “absolute hatred.”
This is a moment of great danger for Europe—especially for the civil societies from the Balkans to Belarus still seeking to chart a westward course. Whatever the outcome of the Nov. 3 election, a much larger part (if not all) of the burden of regional security will fall to Europe, which urgently needs a common policy that addresses the risks and threats posed by Russia to the continent. If there is a sympathetic administration in Washington that is willing to support and collaborate with it, so much the better. If the administration is hostile, then the task is all the more urgent.
Threats and Border Walls Are Destroying the United States’ Biggest Strategic Advantage
Restoring a common purpose with Canada and Mexico is the lowest-hanging fruit in U.S. foreign policy.
Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved?
It’s a truism: Bounded by oceans and friendly neighbors, the United States is blessed by geography. Few others could afford the luxury of isolationism as the United States did for two centuries, and no superpower has ever been so secure. If anything, it’s the United States that has historically caused trouble in its backyard. As the Mexican General Porfirio Díaz once complained: “Poor Mexico—so far from God, so close to the United States.”
Today, the United States is once again proving a bad neighbor. President Donald Trump, when he was a candidate, called Mexicans “criminals” and “rapists” and the country an “enemy.” By now, he has turned the southern U.S. border into an international disgrace. He called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “dishonest and weak” and invoked spurious national security grounds—as if Canada were planning an attack—to slap tariffs on Canadian steel. Now the shoe seems to be on the other foot: Canada has closed its border to Americans because of U.S. pandemic failures; in Mexico, the mayor of the border city Juárez has asked the national government to do the same.
It’s all so self-defeating—consolidating North America would create a strategic advantage with a monumental payoff.
It’s all so self-defeating. Consolidating North America would be a strategic advantage with a monumental payoff for the United States.
Closer cooperation with Mexico and Canada would provide strategic depth for the United States in dealing with illegal immigration and terrorism. Californians experiencing rolling blackouts would benefit from a regional energy grid. Businesses in the United States need both high-skilled and low-skilled labor that a coordinated North American immigration policy could provide. Affordable labor in Mexico can help secure supply chains close to home and removed from exposure to China—for example, to ensure the availability of medical supplies during pandemics. A common front by Canada, Mexico, and the United States would be a formidable force in trade negotiations, and an international standard-setter.
These mutually beneficial policies would also mitigate the least discussed and most detrimental potential threat to the United States: Mexico’s descent into lawlessness, violence, and instability due to the drug cartel corruption that is poisoning the country. Local politicians and journalists have been routinely targeted for 15 years, but the arrest earlier this month of Mexican former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda in Los Angeles on drug and money laundering charges should be a wake-up call to Washington. Not only do Americans, as the main consumers of cartel-supplied drugs, have a moral responsibility and public-health interest in working with Mexico on this issue, but an urgent national security rationale as well. Canada has much to offer in helping the United States help Mexico.
Working together to strengthen North America as a common foundation for security and prosperity is the biggest opportunity the United States is missing—and one with the greatest penalty for inattention or failure. The next administration should take note.
The U.S. Middle East Strategy’s Missing Piece is Iraq
The backlash against “forever wars” is no reason to abandon Iraq. Just don’t measure U.S. engagement by the number of troops.
Mina Al-Oraibi is the editor-in-chief of The National.
One critical foreign policy issue that has been almost entirely absent from the U.S. election debate is Iraq—and with it, the U.S. role in the wider Middle East.
The United States’ place in the world has been greatly shaped over the last 17 years by its presence in Iraq. Former U.S. President George W. Bush oversaw the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with a set of decisions that made them into “forever wars.” His successor, President Barack Obama, ran on a platform of bringing troops home from Iraq. Most U.S. soldiers were duly withdrawn by December 2011, even as Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden ignored the ongoing civil strife in the country. But they could not ignore Iraq for long: By 2014, U.S. troops were back in Iraq to fight the Islamic State.
A reengaged United States could provide the political and economic support to sway Baghdad towards the political pluralism and liberal market policies that are needed in the Middle East.
Today, the United States is on course to draw down its troops once again—from 5,200 to 3,000 by the end of this year. No matter who wins the election next week, that number is unlikely to go back up, barring a major development such as the emergence of another international terrorist organization that threatens to destabilize the region.
But there is every reason for Washington to stay engaged in Iraq, provided that this engagement is no longer measured by the number of its troops. Since leading a global coalition to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the United States continues to enjoy great influence in a country that is a linchpin of any U.S. strategy in the Middle East, not least due to the border it shares with Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. Furthermore, Iraq has one of the world’s largest reserves of hydrocarbons, whose free flow will be essential to global economic growth for years to come.
Most Iraqis believe that the United States could help them overturn years of instability, internal conflict, and corruption. Whether this is realistic or not, a reengaged United States could provide the political and economic support to sway Baghdad towards the political pluralism and liberal market policies that are needed in the Middle East.
Iraq matters not only because of its economic and strategic potential, but also because of Iran. For better or worse, U.S. policies towards Iran spill into Iraq. When Washington ramped up sanctions on Iran, Iran increased its economic pressure on Iraq. And if Washington hopes to limit Tehran’s network of militias and armed groups in the region, it must do so in Iraq.
While both U.S. President Donald Trump and Biden have said that they are interested in reaching a deal with Iran, the nature of that deal will impact Iraq. Many Iraqis fear that a Biden administration would seek to revert to the Iranian nuclear agreement without restricting the activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its proxies in Iraq. Similarly, they fear that a second Trump presidency could see a rush to strike a deal at almost any price that also fails to take Iraq’s fate into account. Both kinds of deals would shortchange Iraq—and the United States’ own strategic interests as well.
Does the U.S. Nuclear Umbrella Still Protect America’s Allies?
The next president should move swiftly to reassure allies that the U.S. nuclear guarantee remains credible—or risk rapid nuclear proliferation.
Ivo H. Daalder is the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and was the U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013.
One important consequence of the fraying of U.S. alliances over the last few years is the reemergence of concern in allied capitals about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee. In Europe, allies wonder whether the United States would be willing to defend Poland or the Baltics if Russia were to threaten them with nuclear attack. In Asia, China’s growing military might and North Korea’s acquisition of long-range missiles have raised similar concerns about Washington’s nuclear commitments.
Faced with these growing threats, can U.S. allies still rely on the United States’ nuclear umbrella to deter an attack? Because the answer is no longer evident, more and more voices in allied capitals have suggested that they may need to rely on other nuclear capabilities to ensure their security—and perhaps even acquire their own.
If we are to avoid a world of rapid nuclear proliferation, the next president will have to move swiftly to reassure allies that the U.S. nuclear guarantee remains credible.
If we are to avoid a world of rapid nuclear proliferation—in which not only countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia move to acquire nuclear weapons but also long-standing allies such as South Korea and Turkey—the next president will have to move swiftly to reassure allies that the U.S. nuclear guarantee remains credible.
Most people have forgotten that the primary proliferation concern 50 years ago wasn’t about Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran but about U.S. allies such as Germany and Japan. In the end, both these and other allied nations were willing to forgo their own nuclear capabilities and sign on to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapons states. But they did so only after obtaining an explicit guarantee from the United States that its nuclear forces would defend their security if needed. In the case of NATO, that guarantee was enshrined in its formal strategy, the forward deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons, the creation of a nuclear planning group, and the sharing of nuclear tasks and missions. In Asia, agreements were less formal but nevertheless committed Washington to come to its allies’ nuclear defense.
The next president needs to forestall destabilizing steps by allied nations as they rethink their nuclear security by clearly and unequivocally reaffirming that the United States’ alliances and collective defense commitments remain central to its national security. This affirmation must include a formal recommitment to allied nuclear security.
Words alone, however, may not be enough. The next administration should open up its nuclear planning processes to allies and include them in its deliberations on nuclear strategy, deployments, and modernization. It will also need to prioritize new nuclear arms control negotiations, starting with an extension of the New START agreement with Russia, while taking allied concerns about existing and evolving nuclear threats into account.
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 De-escalation 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 de-escalate 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 de-escalation 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 de-escalation. 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 de-escalation would take some of the political pressure off.
Obviously, any de-escalation 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 de-escalate 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.