American foreign policy is in a state of upheaval. The rise of Donald Trump and his "America First" platform have created more uncertainty about America's role in the world than at any time in recent decades. From the South China Sea, to the Middle East, to the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the geopolitical challenges to U.S. power and influence seem increasingly severe―and America's responses to those challenges seem increasingly unsure. Questions that once had widely accepted answers are now up for debate. What role should the United States play in the world? Can, and should, America continue to pursue an engaged an assertive strategy in global affairs?
In this book, a leading scholar of grand strategy helps to make sense of the headlines and the upheaval by providing sharp yet nuanced assessments of the most critical issues in American grand strategy today. Hal Brands asks, and answers, such questions as: Has America really blundered aimlessly in the world since the end of the Cold War, or has its grand strategy actually been mostly sensible and effective? Is America in terminal decline, or can it maintain its edge in a harsher and more competitive environment? Did the Obama administration pursue a policy of disastrous retrenchment, or did it execute a shrewd grand strategy focused on maximizing U.S. power for the long term? Does Donald Trump's presidency mean that American internationalism is dead? What type of grand strategy might America pursue in the age of Trump and after? What would happen if the United States radically pulled back from the world, as many leading academics―and, at certain moments, the current president―have advocated? How much military power does America need in the current international environment?
Grappling with these kinds of issues is essential to understanding the state of America's foreign relations today and what path the country might take in the years ahead. Join us to discuss American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump with author Hal Brands and Lester Munson of the BGR Group.
Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor, Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Lester Munson, Principal, Government Affairs, BGR Group
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Speaker 1: Welcome to the Federalist Society's Practice Group Podcast. The following podcast, hosted by the Federalist Society's International and National Security Law Practice Group, was recorded on Friday, February 9, 2018, during a live teleforum conference call, held exclusively for Federalist Society members.
Wesley Hodges: Welcome to the Federalist Society's teleforum conference call. This afternoon's topic is Dr. Hal Brands' new book, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump. My name is Wesley Hodges, and I'm the Associate Director of Practice Groups at the Federalist Society.
As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the experts on today's call. Today we are fortunate to have with us, Dr. Hall Brands, who is the author of the book mentioned, and is the Henry A Kissinger Distinguished Professor at- at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Also, with us is Lester Munson, who is a principal at, in Government Affairs at the BGR Group. After our speaker's remarks we'll open for an audience Q&A so, please have those questions, uh, pooling up in your minds before we begin.
Thank you for speaking with us today, uh, Dr. Brands, th- the floor is now yours.
Hal Brands: Okay, thanks very much, uh, I really appreciate you- you having me here and- and thanks for everybody who's, uh, willing to spend their lunch hour with us, I- I think it'll be a good discussion. A- and- and so, uh, I guess, just as a way of preface, uh, I'll make about 15 minutes of- of remarks about the book and some of the core arguments it makes, and then we can have a little back and forth, and open it up for- for discussion.
And the standard disclaimer I like to make in talking about the book, is that even though it's titled American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, it is both, uh, about President Trump and not about President Trump. And so, it's- it's not about Trump in the sense that the entire book is not, uh, devoted to making sense of US policy on a day-to-day or issue-by-issue basis, since January 2017, uh, that's very difficult, very difficult to hit a moving target in general, it's even harder, uh, with this administration. Uh, but the book is about, uh, Trump in a larger sense. Uh, because the purpose of the book is to answer what I see as the biggest grand strategic questions for America today.
And because Donald Trump is president, those first order questions in American policy are more open for debate today, than at any time in years. So, there are always fierce debates about how the United States should handle some particular policy or challenge, uh, but we really haven't had a- a larger first order debate about the- the major purposes and ambitions of US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, perhaps even World War II. Uh, and so now, is an opportune time to address these big overarching issues, and that's what I do.
Uh, and so the book consists of seven chapters that- that each address a big question like, uh, how successful has US grand strategy been historically? What was the Obama Administration's approach to grand strategy and how effective was it? Uh, is American Internationalism politically sustainable today? What might a more nationalist American grand strategy look like? Or what would happen if the United States were to radically retrench from the world? How much military power does America need in the current environment? Uh, and then finally, how should we understand the first year, uh, of the Trump Administration. And I- and I won't try to answer all of these questions in detail here, just for reasons of time, but I will briefly highlight a few themes that cut across the various chapters.
And the first of these, is simply, that you never really appreciate what you've got until it's gone, or until it's at risk. Uh, and- and that's certainly true of US grand strategy today. So, there are plenty of fair critiques one can make regarding how America's handled itself in the world in recent decades. Uh, but when you think about the really big picture, the record has been pretty good.
Uh, and so basically, America's fundamental grand strategic decision after World War II was to build a relatively stable, open, uh, and democratic international order. And it did so through a range of, uh, exertions that were pretty extraordinary, but only seem ordinary now, because they're so familiar. Uh, and so, uh, things like anchoring the international economy, including alliances with dozens of countries around the world. Maintaining a global military presence, and- and so on.
Uh, and then after the Cold War, America's fundamental grand strategic decision was simply that we weren't going to stop. Uh, we weren't going to pull back dramatically, uh, once the Soviet's were defeated. We were gonna keep doing, and in some cases even intensify the things we had done since the 1940s. Uh, as part of an effort to extend American primacy, and to expand the liberal international order.
Uh, and every US Administration has pursued that goal in its own way. And there have been, uh, serious debates over particular policy issues, but the overarching grand strategic agenda has remained pretty much consistent. Uh, and, I would argue that grand strategy has actually be fairly effective in making the post war, and now the post Cold War era, uh, as relatively good as it has been. So, by any reasonable historical comparison, uh, the post War and the post Cold War eras have been relatively peaceful, uh, relatively prosperous, and relatively liberal in the sense that democracy and human rights have spread farther than ever before.
Uh, and there are surely a lot of reasons why that is, but- but- but also, surely, I think the facts that the world's most powerful country has been committed to achieving precisely these outcomes, has- has contributed to bringing that situation about. Uh, and so all that is- is worth appreciating, uh, and moreover, and this is, uh, a second theme of the book, I think that the most popular alternatives to this grand strategy would be quite dangerous.
So, uh, if the United States were to withdraw from Europe and the Middle East, and East Asia, uh, if it were to adopt a more, uh, offshore balancing approach to the world, as many academic critics have advocated, uh, it would not enjoy greater security at lesser price. It would not get more for less. It would get less for less. Uh, because, it would be withdrawing the pillars that have sustained international stability and prosperity for the past 70 years. Uh, it would be removing the mechanisms that have stifled geopolitical conflict in the world's cue theaters, it would be creating incentives for the various type of geopolitical instability and revisionism that the United States has long sought to forestall.
Uh, and so the long term result, most probably is that the United States would find itself having to intervene to set things right, again, uh, because we would discover, as we've discovered twice in the past, that we don't want to live in- in a violence and conflict plagued world. But, uh, having retreated, we would be doing so from a far less advantageous position than we have today. Uh, and so, the point here is that US grand strategy as it has been practiced over the decades, uh, looks pretty good in its own right, and it looks even better compared to the likely alternatives.
But, uh, just to be clear, uh, and this brings me to a third theme of the book, uh, this isn't to say that US grand strategy has been perfect, or that it doesn't need adapting today, there are ... have- have been mistakes and blunders and even disasters over the decades. We can all probably come up with our own favorite list. Uh, right now, there are aspects of American foreign policy that aren't working as well, as they ought to be. What those aspects have to do with alliance management, and burden sharing, or whether they have to do with, uh, with the impact of globalization on the working and middle class. Uh, and then finally, I think it's fair to say that the outlook for US strategy is becoming more challenging today. Uh, simply because the world is a more volatile and competitive place now, than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Uh, and- and so, I- I would wholly endorse the idea that there are ways in which American grand strategy needs to change in the coming years, just as American grand strategy has periodically had to adapt in the past, uh, during the Nixon years, or during the Reagan years, for instance. But what would be tragic, uh, is if the United States were to fundamentally break with the broad patterns of a post War and post Cold War statecraft, because those patterns have proven fairly constructive.
Uh, and this brings me to a fourth theme of the book, and this has to do with the question of whether there is still a domestic political consensus in support of American internationalism, as we have traditionally defined it over the past 70 years. Uh, because, certainly the results of the 2016 Presidential Election, might lead one to question whether that is still the case.
Uh, for better or worse, uh, our current president broke, uh, all of the rules, when it came to talking about foreign policy on the campaign trail, uh, when it came to allies, when it came to trade, when it came to Russia, uh, and so on. And he even critiqued the core insight of US engagement with the world over the past 70 years. This idea that we can best protect our own interests by pursuing a broadly beneficial, positive vision of international order. Uh, and yet, despite all this, uh, and despite alienating almost the entire universe of Republican foreign policy experts, uh, Trump won.
And- and so, one of the things I do in the book, is to delve into the public opinion polling, to look at the development of, uh, domestic debates on foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, and to ask whether American internationalism is politically dead, in light of the rise of Donald Trump. Uh, and the answer is only a little bit reassuring, uh, because the answer is basically, not yet. Uh, so, there's not, uh, a massive popular revolt against American internationalism occurring, simply because the public opinion polls, show that Americans still like their alliances. They still like free trade. They still like having the most powerful military in the world. Uh, et cetera.
But, at the same time, Trump didn't come out of nowhere. Uh, and if you dig deep, you can see, uh, in fact, that there were a variety of cracks in the internationalist consensus that he managed to burst through. Uh, and those cracks are the results of a variety of things. They are the result of public disillusion with the conduct of long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over the past 15 years. Uh, they're the result of, uh, skepticism about supporting significant expenditures overseas at a time when, uh the working class and lower middle class have been getting pummeled economically. They are the result of anger at the effect, uh, that China's insertion into international economy has had on American manufacturing.
Uh, and they are also just the results of the fact that the end of the Cold War deprived the United States of the threat that had justified American internationalism for 45 years. Uh, and so after the Cold War ended, we were bound to have an anti internationalist candidate come to the forefront at- at some point. We saw this in the early 1990s with Pat Buchanan, we saw it much more powerfully in 2016 with Donald Trump.
Uh, but the bottom line is that there's greater public ambivalence about the US role in the world, than there has been, for any time in decades, really. Uh, and that ambivalence is probably going to remain, even after Trump leaves the scene. Uh, and this brings me to the final issue that I'll just briefly discuss here, which is, uh, this question of what effects Donald Trump is having, uh, on American foreign policy so far, and what sort of situation it'll leave behind, when he does depart the scene.
Uh, and I'll just say here, that- that when I tell people that the title of my book is American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, they- they always make the same joke, which is that, well, it must be a pretty short book. Uh, and that- that's fair enough, but the point I would make is that, uh, even for the most seemingly erratic and undisciplined leaders, and I would certainly put Trump in that category, grand strategic decision making is unavoidable.
Uh, every leader has a theory of how the world works, uh, and how their country fits within the world. And no matter how contradictory that theory may be, every leader has to make choices about how to address critical policy challenges. Uh, all of these issues are deeply grand strategic in nature, and all of them are inherent in- in governing. Uh, and- and so to borrow a little bit from Trotsky, uh, "You may not be interested in grand strategy, but, grand strategy is still interested in you."
Now, uh, when it comes to- to Trump himself, making sense of his impact on American grand strategy, is a little bit tricky, uh, because, in a lot of ways, the policies have been, more normal than the president. Uh, if you were to add up of Trumps rather unorthodox campaign proposals, all of the ideas he put forward in 2015, 2016, and then you were to compare them to the policies he's actually pursued, you'd see that the vast majority of his campaign pledges have not been fulfilled.
Uh, Trump, hasn't yet, started trade wars with China or Europe. He hasn't withdrawn US forces from Europe or, uh, reconciled with Russia. He hasn't withdrawn from NAFTA, or attacked North Korea, or torn up the Iran Deal. And there are actually issues where his policy has been pretty mainstream. So, I think his, Afghanistan policy, for instance, is probably where most Republican presidents would have ended up. Uh, and the reason for this have primarily to do with the various constraints that Trump has faced. Uh, these are constraints imposed by his advisor, by the Congress, by the Courts, uh, or simply by reality.
Uh, but the fact remains, that Trump hasn't simply blown, uh, blown up American foreign policy right away. Uh, and in fact, we've seen some, uh, Republican observers argue that his statecraft has actually been fairly sober and constructive, even if the- the Tweets and the rhetoric, perhaps, uh, have not. Uh, and I think there's something to this argument, but- but I would still say that it goes too far, uh, for two key reasons.
Uh, and the first is- is simply that Trump himself, has not changed, uh, he- he clearly wants to, or has tried to change policy more dramatically, on a number of these issues. Uh, and there are still several areas where it may be that the blow up simply hasn't happened, yet, all right? It may be that the NAFTA re negotiations will deadlock in 2018, for instance, and- and then Trump will decide to terminate that agreement.
Uh, and this relates to the second and bigger problem, which is that Trump doesn't actually have to carry out all of his campaign promises to damage American foreign policy. Uh, ideas and words and atmospherics matter, when you're the President of the United States. Uh, and what Trump has been doing, through his behavior, through his mannerisms, through- through his ideas, is undermining a lot of the more intangible qualities that have made American foreign policy effective over the years.
And so, he is- is undermining, uh, the idea that the United States stands for something more than its own naked self interest international affairs. Uh, the belief that there is a group of allies to which we are bound, not just by temporary, or transactional dealings, but by deeper bonds, that are forged from common values and common purposes. Uh, the sense that the United States is the world's foremost advocate for democracy and human rights. Uh, the perception that the United States is a reliable and basically competent actor in international affairs. Uh, America's reputation as a country that's willing and able to take the lead in solving the world's most critical, uh, geopolitical and economic problems.
Uh, and then finally, the- the soft power that has long complimented American hard power. Uh, and- and through his actions, through- through his words, I think the President has really inflected a- a lot of damage on all of these attributes of American policy and power, uh, and in ways, that I'm happy to discuss in- in greater detail. And- and I think that the damage will only worsen the longer his style of policy persists. If it's four years of Trump, uh, the damage will be nontrivial, but- but probably not irreparable. If it's eight years of Trump, or if, it's, if Trump isn't our last Trump, uh, that could potentially be more serious, still.
Uh, and so, there- there's really a deep irony in Trump's foreign policy. The- the President claims that his America First Agenda is going to maximize American wealth and power, uh, but really his behavior is diminishing the American super power in the international order it constructed.
And, and I'll just close by saying that there is an additional tragedy here, uh, which is that, if Trump were a different type of individual, he might actually have been positioned to have a more constructive impact on American strategy, because some of the ideas that he's put forward, really aren't- aren't at all crazy. I mean, the idea that we really need to get our allies attention with respect to burden sharing. The idea, uh, that countries like China have taken advantage of the international order, without fully playing by its rules, these ideas are essentially correct, uh, in my view.
And- and, in fact, one of the things that I argue in the book is that the United States could use a slightly more nationalistic grand strategy today. So, uh, a strategy that doesn't reject the tradition of American internationalism, but one that does take a slightly harder edged approach to redistributing burdens and benefits within the international system. Uh, so you could call this internationalism with nationalist accents. Uh, and Trump certainly had the political credibility to pursue this sort of strategy, coming out of the 2016 campaign, uh, but he lacked the temperament, uh, and he lacks the sophistication.
Because, a strategy of this sort, requires, uh, shrewdness, and it requires calibration. Uh, you've got to be able to rock the boat without tipping it over. Uh, and I think above all, it requires an understanding of the virtues of the internationalist tradition one would be trying to adapt. Uh, and so, to give you an example, I think Richard Nixon had all of these things, and he was able to carry out something sort of like this in the 1970s. He managed to reallocate international burdens, update US alliances, and basically achieve, uh, and adjustment of US foreign policy within an internationalist framework. Uh, unfortunately, President Trump, doesn't appear to have any of these things. Uh, and that really is a shame, because it means that we are missing a chance to adapt US strategy in a constructive way, and I think we're looking at more damaging effects, uh, instead.
So, those are some of the major arguments of the book. Uh, I'll go ahead and stop there, so we can get into the discussion.
Lester Munson: Uh, thanks professor, that was, that was a terrific, uh, terrific opening, and um, I think there's a lot, a lot of material to dig in here, and it's a- it's a great overview of a lot of the things that really do need to be discussed. Let me- let me start with the observation, my own observation, that, I don't think the, uh, Trump election was all that different from previous, uh, elections. And I think, I would- I would go back to 1992, and- and if you identify the four big elections, uh, presidential elections, uh, Clinton versus Bush in '92, Bush versus Gore, the, uh, Bush, the son, versus Gore in 2000, McCain versus Obama in '08, and then Trump versus Hillary Clinton in 2016, in each case, the more isolationist candidate prevailed.
Uh, Bill Clinton ran on a, if the economy's stupid against a very internationalist George H. W. Busch. Uh, eight years later, George W. Bush, ran on a no, um, uh, uh, essentially against nation building while running against a Vice President Al Gore who talked about internationalism and climate change and- and international cooperation in that arena. In, '08, uh, Senator Obama successfully painted John McCain as kind of a continuation of George W. Bush's, uh, what became a very internationalist and interventionist administration. And then, of course, Trump, uh, uh, ran as a, uh, uh, an explicitly America First platform in '16.
In each of the three previous cases, the President, uh, a- after running as a candidate on a more inter ... uh, isolationist platform, became a- a internationalist interventionist president, to greater or lesser degrees. Even Obama who ran explicitly against the wars, in, particularly in Iraq, but also Afghanistan, uh, became an interventionist, at least for a time.
Are we not seeing the same dynamic here, with- with Donald Trump, and- and despite the- the craziness of the Tweets and, uh, the rhetoric that- that seems, as- as you correctly noted, is- is unprecedented. Aren't we seeing the same dynamic, here, unfold, of- of a- of a- of an outsider who's a critic of the consensus American approach of- of leading internationally, someone who campaigns, who is more on the side of, let's bring things home, and care for the American people first. Eventually becoming, growing into that role of American leader, and- and hasn't Trump essentially done the same thing that these other president's have done, which is, have a campaign rhetoric that sounds very isolationist, but, then a policy and a grand strategy that is effectively a continuation of- of years of American leadership, really, since, uh, the end of World War II, since World War II, essentially.
So, so, I just, uh, let me just challenge you on that a little bit and say, is it really that much of divergence under Trump, what we're seeing right now?
Hal Brands: So, I- I think you're right to flag the point that every winning candidate since the end of the Cold War has argued that the United States ought to do less in international affairs than it was doing under the previous guy. Um, the, I think what- what changed in 2016, was that you had a candidate, uh, who was voicing opinions that- that previously would have been, not just sort of retrenchment minded, but, but basically disqualifying, right?
And- and so, uh, you- you have sort of, uh, an extremity of views in a number of cases on- on Trump's behalf, that I think outstripped anything you saw from, uh, Bill Clinton in 1992, who- who did say it was the economy, stupid. But, also said, the United States needed to be more forward leaning in supporting democracy around the world, that was one of his critiques of the George H. W., uh, Bush administration, right? You had- you had the, you know, when George W. Busch ran for the presidency in 2000, he was against nation building, but he was, uh, for doing more to thwart emerging competitors, like, China, uh, and so on and so forth.
And what Trump did, was- was express views that were- were so far outside of the mainstream, whether, it, uh, had to do with alliances, whether it had to do with questions like, uh, you know, whether the United States had any moral right to try to, uh, promote democracy and human rights, uh, abroad, that, uh, basically, the guardians of the foreign policy tradition within his own party, not simply abandoned him, but- but openly rebuked him.
And what- what it changed in the electorate, I think, was that, it was no longer disqualifying to express those opinions. So, every time we had, uh, after World War II, that we had a candidate, who, uh, was so at odds with the American internationalists' tradition, and the people I would put in this category, would be people like Robert Taft in 1952, uh, McGovern in 1972, uh, Pat Buchanan, uh, in 1992, uh, those- those folks were either defeated in the primaries or they were trounced in the general election.
And- and that didn't happen this time, and so- and so, I think it indicates that there is something different about the way that the American people certainly are viewing foreign policy. It's- it's not that they voted for Trump's uh, approach to the world necessarily, because the opinion polls indicate, so far, that, that approach is not particularly popular, or at least the parts of it that are quintessentially, uh, Trumpian are not particularly, uh, popular. But- but what it indicates is they didn't- they didn't care enough about preserving the post war tradition of American state craft to reject someone like- like Donald Trump.
And so, that- that brings me, to, you know, the second part of your question, which is, you know, how- how much had Trump adapted? Has he not simply, uh, picked up the mantle of international leadership in the post warder as- as all of his predecessors did, you know, Trump seems to be fighting it a heck of a lot harder than most of his predecessors. And- and I think the real difference here is that, uh, it- it's just bec ... it's just very clear, in the President's own behavior, and the way he talks about international affairs, that he really doesn't personally believe, uh, in- in the foreign policy that the United States has pursued for the past 70 years. Because the way he talks about foreign policy, really hasn't changed from the way it d ... it was, on the campaign trail.
And so, yes, there have been a number of initiatives, where the- the rhetoric has proven to be more radical than the policy, and- and in large part, that's because he's just confronting a lot of inertia in American strategy. Uh, and some respect ... in some areas, it's because he's tried to change policy and his advisors, or the Congress, have- have blocked him, uh, that was the case, I think, with respect to Russia policy. With respect to cohersive interrogation techniques, uh, as well. But, but if the question is, does- does the President himself, seem to be shifting how he thinks about the world, then, so far, I haven't seen much evidence of that.
And I'll just give one example of this, which I think kinda proves- proves the rule, which is look at the difference between the National Security Strategy, and the speech that the President gave the day the National Security Strategy was released. So, the National Security Strategy is a fairly mainstream document, it talks about the value of the post War international order, it's very clear with respect to who America's allies are. Uh, what the benefits of those alliances are, and who it's adversaries are. The same day, the President gave a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center, uh, where he based ... which was basically sort of full throated America First. He said that America's allies are the chief offenders in terms of exploiting American generosity and largess. Uh, talked about all of the great cooperation he couldn't wait to have with Vladimir Putin. Uh, and- and- and so on. And so, there have been areas in which policy is adapted, but- but I don't think the President himself, has sort grown into the role.
Lester Munson: Let me, uh, uh, let me quickly react to that, and say, I think it's, I think you're entirely correct that you can tell the difference between kind of a- a Cabinet written document, like the National Security Strategy, and then a more of a Trumpian, uh, speech, where his imprint is a little more on it. But, isn't it fair to point out, that you know, while Trump, as kind of the bad cop, he also hired all the good cops to be in the Cabinet and supporting him. And that this dynamic is, also, kind of a direct outcome of his, of his approach. And I'm not, I'm not trying to ascribe any particular genius to it, but, it just seems like it's fair to- to point out that, yes, his rhetoric hasn't changed, but he's the one who hired a Madison, a Tillerson, and a McMaster, to have, to- to guide a- make more sensible policy.
Hal Brands: Yes, although, uh, to be honest, I- I don't know ... you're right, he has hired all those people, and I do consider all those people to be, uh, fairly sensible. But, but I don't think that the President would say, "I hired them to execute a sensible foreign policy."
I- I think the reality of the situation was that Trump's views were, uh, so far at odds with, uh, sort of the traditional American approach to foreign policy, that it was virtually impossible for him to staff the administration with people who both, A, really believed in his world view, and B, knew enough about government to- to get things done. And- and so, you could see that.
I mean, there just weren't a lot of, uh, full throated America First advisors out there, and the one that did get br- brought in to the administration, like, Flynn for instance, Steve Bannon, uh, quickly, relatively quickly were pushed out, because, either, you know, in- in Flynn's case, they- they ran into legal trouble. Or in Bannon's case, because he simply had a hard time coexisting with the others. So, I think it's- it's actually, it was actually, almost inevitable that Trump would have to turn to people who didn't necessarily agree with his world view, um, precisely, because his world view was so different.
Lester Munson: Let me ask one, one last question, before, um, Wesley, before we- we open it up, to the callers. How much, uh, Professor Brands, how much do you, how much can we compare the Trump divergence from, uh, the- the traditional approach to, what I think of, as Obama's divergence? Uh, and- and maybe this doesn't fall, exactly into the category of grand strategy, I- I defer to your judgment here.
But, President Obama campaigned on talking to our enemies, he cam- campaigned on talking to Cuba and talking to Iran, which, while not totally unprecedented, was rather, unusual. And then in fact, not only was he talking to Iran, he, uh, essentially, uh, in addition to- to, uh, being the architect of- of the nuclear agreement, tilted, really, really did more than that in Middle East policy. It was not just a, uh, the- the- the, you know, the between the four squares of the paper on the nuclear deal. US policy changed in the Middle East, and we started tilting towar ... uh, in, uh, much greater degree, towards our enemies, and away from our friends.
You saw, a re, a complete re, uh, uh, a complete change in the way the US approached the Middle East. Uh, Israel and Saudi Arabia would be the first to tell you, so, how much. And given that, that was the s ... really the main, I- I would say the main achievement, certainly of President Obama's second term, if not his entire presidency in terms of foreign policy. How much is, w ... and I view that as a- as a- as a divergence from the direction America had been going in for decades. Where we rewarded allies and punished enemies. How much is that divergence comparable to what President Trump has done, both in the campaign and in his first year.
Hal Brands: So, I think, um, that Obama did clearly believe that the United States was overextended in the Middle East. I think he- he clearly believed that the previous administration had blundered by getting into such deep military engagements in the greater Middle East, and uh, Obama was determined to sort of, uh, rebalance, to coin a phrase, American foreign policy by becoming less invested in the Middle East, so we could shift attention to elsewhere.
And- and I- I think, uh, as I point in the book, uh, bu ... I don't think the logic of that was wrong, I think we were over invested in the Middle East, circa 2007, 2008, but the- the rebalance was not carried out in a particularly adept fashion. Because, Obama, was- was so preoccupied with winding down American involvement in Iraq, for instance, uh, that- that he was really resistant to making the marginal investments that might have helped lock in what se ... what security and stability had been achieved at such a high price by 2010, 2011.
And- and so, uh, I- I certainly, you know, indite the Obama Administration for that, with- with respect to Iran, uh, you know, I- I think that, it's easy actually, to overstate how great the divergence was there. So, the- the idea of dealing with the Iranian Nuclear Program through a combination of multilateral negotiations and economic sanctions and other pressures, was not an Obama Administration idea, that was the Bush's Administration's strategy that they hit upon in about 2006. And really struggled to implement, in part, because of the diplomatic spill over from Iraq. But- but that was essentially a decision that was initially made under the Bush Administration, uh, the Obama Administration, of course, insisted on reinventing the wheel, as every new administration does, but- but came back to that strategy.
And- and with re ... uh, there was certainly some intellectual attraction within the Obama Administration to the idea that you could integrate Iran into a more stable Middle Eastern order. I- I would fully agree with that. Um, I'm not sure that I would agree with the argument that the United States tilted toward Iran. Uh, and I'm quite sure that the Iranians would not agree with that, because, the Obama Administration, for all of the troubles that it had with its goal file eyes, and with the Israelis, uh, which I think are- are quite, it's quite right to flag that. You know, also sold them more arms than any previous administration.
And- and so, there- there was absolutely an effort to get to a better relationship with- with Iran, but it did not necessarily entail an abandonment of America's, uh, traditional partners in the Gulf. But, having said, that, uh, sort of in defense of the Obama Administration, let- let me make one point, which is that I think, the strongest continuity between, uh, Obama and Trump is actually rhetorical. Uh, and this is a little bit of an odd thing to say, because, O- Obama and Trump in a lot of ways, couldn't be more different, but- but certainly, uh, with his words, Obama did signal a certain weariness, a certain ennui with, uh, American foreign policy, as it- as it's been practiced for decades.
And so, uh, when I really want to annoy my- my Democratic friends, I ask them, "Who was the first president to call American allies, free-riders? Who was the first president to say that we needed to do nation building at home, as opposed to nation building abroad? Who was the first president, uh, to really deride the contributions of the foreign policy community, in DC?" And, of course, the answer in all three cases, is not Trump, it's- it's Obama.
And, and so, you can certainly see, um, some intellectual traces of ideas that would take on, uh, much larger and in some ways different form under Trump, actually getting started under Obama.
Lester Munson: Uh, let me just end on a humorous note, uh, Hal, and say, when I want to irritate my Democratic friends, I say, "Look, we got through the first half of the Obama-Trump era, just fine, we'll get through the second half, okay, too."
Hal Brands: (Laughs). Yeah, that's a good one. That probably does the trick, I would imagine.
Lester Munson: It, every time. Wesley, I think we're throwing it over to you.
Wesley Hodges: Okay, wonderful, well, let's go ahead and move to audience questions. While we wait for, um, any questions from the audience, just want to say that, how much I enjoyed that discussion, I, do have one question for you, Dr. Brands, I guess, regarding the President's decision to move the embassy in Israel, how- how would you characterize that, in the scheme of grand strategy?
Hal Brands: So, I- I think there is, um, you- you could make the argument that there's a geopolitical logic to that move. I don't- I don't think that's why it was done. I think that it was done, largely for, uh, political purposes. I think this is something that, uh, you know, President Trump thought would play well, and he was right about this, that it would play well, to a certain portion of his base, and- and he wanted to do that. Uh, and that's fine, because, presidents often, uh, do that.
I think if you wanted to make the argument that there was a geopolitical logic to it, the logic would go something like this, and this is not to say necessarily that I endorse the logic, but this is how I would describe it. The major obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the belief of the Palestinian leadership, that there's some better deal out there, than the Israeli government is offering. Uh, and- and this is not a groundless belief, because, we've seen this belief, um, manifest a couple of different times, at- at sensitive points in the peace process.
So, in- in 2000 Yasser Arafat, uh, thought that if he held out, he would get a better deal from the next administration. That- that was a catastrophic mistake. Uh, in 2007, 2008, uh, uh, the negotiations that came out of the Annapolis Process, uh, the Palestinian leadership made a similar calculation, and so, if you were looking to do something dramatic, to show that, to show the Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinian population that no, in fact, your- your bargaining position is only getting worse over time, so, you need to come to the table and cut a deal, before, uh, facts on the ground, that are prejudicial to your cause are simply created. You- you could paint that, uh, picture.
A- again, I don't think that was the reason that the President did it, and- and the reason you can tell, is that, if the reports are to be believed, virtually all of his foreign policy team, uh, opposed this decision. Uh, and the other reason you can tell is that, I- I think even if that was your logic, it may, it would have made relatively, it would have made more sense to do that in the context of an emerging negotiation, and the reason for this is that, that was, uh, whether you think it was a good decision or not, it was a significant reward to the Israelis, and so, presumably, any agreement with the Palestinians is going to require some sort of concession that is painful for the Israeli government and population to make. And so, if that's the case, it- it would make more sense to hold back this carrot, un- until you were in a position to elicit that concession. And- and- and so, for those reasons, I think that the logic of this was more political than geopolitical.
Wesley Hodges: Thank you Dr. Brands. It looks like we do have one question from the audience. Let's go ahead and move to our first caller.
Caller: What do you see as the impact of Trump's visit and speech to the Saudi Arabian Meeting of the Arab States, last year, in the context of being the first world leader to identify the- the elephant in the room, being the weaponization of the religion of those countries?
Hal Brands: So, I- I think this is an example of, an initiative that kinda cuts both ways. In- in the sense that I think there were both positive and negative aspects of it. And- and so, I would give the President credit, um, for, uh, directly addressing the very issue that- that you mentioned and sort of speak- speaking bluntly, in the heart of the Middle East, about the ideological causes of- of terrorism and the need for, uh, partner governance, m ... governments in that region, to frankly get more serious, uh, about, um, uh attacking the causes of radicalization, and- and sort of dealing with the- the perversion of Islam, that- that drives a good deal of this.
And- and so, yes, full- full credit to the Administration for saying that. I- I think there were two pieces of that speech, or perhaps, uh, that visit more broadly, that were less productive. Uh, and that speak to, uh, broader challenges the Administration has faced. The first was that, uh, the President made a point, uh, of publicly saying that he would be, not be lecturing the Saudi's on human rights, uh, abuses, precisely at the time that he was showing no hesitation about lecturing America's democratic allies on their perceived failings, whether foreign or domestic, right? So, he has no hesitation about beating up Angela Merkel for her refugee policy, for instance.
And- and I think that what this did, is it fed the early impression, uh, particularly in Europe, that the President was more personally comfortable, uh, dealing with, uh, autocratic leaders than with some of America's long time democratic allies. And- and I think that was an unfortunate message to send. I mean, there's always room for discretion and thinking about how much you want to emphasize human rights issues, in dealing with, uh, an authoritarian, yet important ally, like, Saudi Arabia. But, sending that signal publicly, I think, probably had some counterproductive effects.
The second aspect, I think that was a little bit counterproductive, was that trip, uh, also, was the prelude to the- the UAE Saudi confrontation with Qatar. Uh, which emerged in- in early June, and, it's still not entirely clear whether Trump was advised of this beforehand or whether he simply, sort of egged the Saudi's and the UAE on, as it was unfolding.
But, it was, it was of a piece with this Administration's tendency certainly, during the first half of 2017, to essentially say, okay, we're going to out, we're gonna outsource our policy of getting tough with Iran, to the Saudi's and the Emirates, uh, and we're going to- to no longer worry so much about trying to tamp down, the disputes within the Gulf Cooperation Council. And that led to something, that I think was actually quite counterproductive, because, if the goal of the Saudi UAE confrontation with Qatar was- was to break Qatar away from Iran. It's had precisely the opposite effect, and Qatar has deeper ties with Iran today, precisely because it's so isolated, uh, among its other neighbors.
Uh, and it's created a great deal of instability within America's various partners, uh, in the Gulf. And- and so, certainly, you wouldn't want to hold the Trump Administration wholly accountable for that, or even primarily accountable for that, because that was a Saudi UAE decision, but- but certainly, that- that trip, conveyed the message that the United States was encouraging the Saudi's to sort of get tough with- with countries that were seen to be, uh, in league with Iran, in a- in a way that had some counterproductive effects. So- so, I would give them high marks, uh, for tackling, the- the radicalization issue, but- but lower marks for those other issues that I mentioned.
Wesley Hodges: Thank you caller, for your question. Looks like there's one more question in the queue, let's move to our next caller.
David Hurbert: Oh, this is David Hurbert in Atlanta. Uh, I a- almost want to kinda disagree with the Professor, uh, not down the line, but for the most part. I think the attributes that he is ascribing to Trump are ascribable to Obama. And I think, Obama's positions gave direct line rise, to the election of Trump, which I suggest helps prove my point.
Hal Brands: So, just to, I mean to respond, uh, I- I mean, I think I would go back a little bit, to, uh, the answer I gave to, uh, Lester's comment, um, from a few minutes ago, which is that, I think there are, uh, aspects of the Obama approach to foreign policy, and particularly, Obama's rhetoric, that- that do prefigure, uh, some of the things we have seen with the Trump Administration.
So- so, certainly the frustration with American allies. Uh, the- the frustration with sort of what he's, what the, both of these presidents saw as the Washington foreign policy, uh, elite. The idea that the United States was over extended abroad, yes, you- you can absolutely see a bit of lineage, running back to Obama. And- and even before, in some cases.
But, there- there were also, um, quite significant differences between, uh, Obama and Trump. And so, uh, Obama absolutely believed that the United States needed to be at the forefront of efforts to, for instance, deepen the international trade order. Uh, and- and to address major transnational challenges, uh, such as, as climate change, whether you think that, you know, the Paris Accords, were a good idea or not, clearly, there was a theory that Obama had about America's role in the world on that issue, that was very different than Donald Trump's theory.
Uh, and you can see the same thing with respect to- to trade. So, uh, the Obama Administration was a little bit slow off the blocks, but it, did end up, pursuing and obtaining, uh, an agreement, to bring the Trans Pacific Partnership into existence. This would have been, you know, a- a trade agreement, encompassing about 40% of global GDP, it would have been extremely significant in that sense, and of course, the Trump Administration backed out of that agreement, uh, immediately.
And- and so, you - you could point to other areas of divergence, but I would just say, that I think, um, you know, it- it cuts both ways. There- there are certainly aspects of Obama that you can see in Trump. But- but on a number of other issues, there's sort of a night and day difference.
Lester Munson: Now, if, uh, Wesley, if you don't mind letting me follow up on that, uh, with- with a question, uh, for Hal. Um, Hal, I know you- you see, um, Trump as a kind of a Pat Buchanan-like president and there's- there's a lot of merit in that, and I tend to more see him as a Bill Clinton-like figure. Ho- how, uh, what- what virtues can we find, if any, in Trump's sustained playing to his base on- on issues, both international and domestic? In- in bringing that kind of Jacksonian voter, the, you know, the- the- the white vote in the South, if you will. In the Midwest, the folks were a little more isolationist, less- less internationalist. The- the kind of the Trump base voters, how much h- has it been playing to the base? Isn't there a virtue, is there a virtue in that? In that he can bring them towards a more sensible and robust American leadership in the world, since as- as you've said, his policies have actually diverged quite a bit from what his campaign rhetoric was. So, in other words, is there- is there a value in having Trump as president and bringing those folks back into the main steam? And- and if there is a val ... if there is a virtue, how much of one is- is there?
Hal Brands: So, that's- that's a great question, and I think, um, the question is, it depends. And it depends on how Trump interacts with that group of voters and- and with the American public at large. And so, yes, a- absolutely, Donald Trump, uh, understood. He had a- a deep political insight, which is that, uh, Jacksonian voters, uh, were feeling alienated from the American political system and from American foreign policy. And that he could tap into that. And- and- and in some ways, I mean, it's important to point out that, uh, I- I very deliberately characterizing Trump as isolationist, because, he's not isolationist. He- he's n ... he's a nationalist, right?
So, Trump did say we should pull back from certain commitments overseas, certain, uh, ambitions, but he said, we should do some things more aggressively, right? So, we should go after terrorists more aggressively. We should have a bigger and more powerful military, and- and I think aspects of that are very important. So, I- I think, it- its is important to sort of recover the Jacksonian sense that the United States needs a military that's not just the best, but the best by far. And that's particularly important now, as we're facing more competition from countries like Russia and China. Uh, uh, I think absolutely, that there are, it's hard to have American foreign policy be sustained over a long period, without tapping into Jacksonian ideas.
The- the one hesitation, the one hesitation I have about really endorsing this though, is that, it's- it's not entirely clear to me that Trump's goal is to bring Jacksonian voters into the American foreign policy consensus, which is something I would very much support. Or- or whether his goal is simply to convince American voters that American foreign policy is a- is a sucker's game, at least as we've executed it for the last, uh, 70 years. Uh, and so this- this is where, how the President talks about things, really matters. And- and so, if the President is gonna make the case that the United States, uh, needs- needs to have a stronger position in the world because our national honor is at stake, and our interests are at stake, and sort of the classic Jacksonian approach, I would very much support that.
If he's gonna make the argument that, uh, the United States really had no interest in- in places like Somalia or Yemen for instance, or- or that, or in Ukraine, uh, and that the United States should- should pull back, into sort of a narrower definition of its own interests, uh, that- that's often the way the President has talked, and I don't think that has a constructive effect. So, I would- I would say that I think it's a little bit too early to tell here, and it- and it really depends on how Trumps narrative of- of American foreign policy evolves, as his presidency proceeds.
Wesley Hodges: Thank you both, it looks like there is one more question in the queue. So, with that, let's just move to our next caller.
Greg Lawson: Uh, thank you, uh, Greg Lawson, in Ohio. Uh, I got a question about, kinda of the resumption of great power, uh competitions, specifically Russia and China. And I'm wondering how much, if Nixon when to China, to use triangular diplomacy, vis a vis the Soviet Union, could there ever be an argument that the revers should be true today, given some of the concerns, uh, long term geopolitical concerns with China. And, Trump seemed to be moving in that direction, obviously, there's been a lot reasons why that hasn't moved forward, to say the least. But, would that make sense as a geopolitical strategy to attempt sort of a reverse Nixon to China, and, could Trump do that, or is he too hemmed in, uh, to be able to do that, uh, can he articulate that?
Hal Brands: So, that- that's a great question. And- and I think, um, I'll- I'll sort of tackle it in reverse order. So- so if the reverse, if I understand you correctly, right? Is the reverse of Nixon going to China, Trump going to Russia? And- and that, I- I don't think this president can do it. Uh, just because, there are, the antibodies to any sort of Trump engagement with Russia are so strong right now, uh, for a variety of reasons, as you point out, that the President is basically hemmed in. I mean, he's- he's incredibly constrained by Congress on Russia sanctions issues, and- and I think he's just constrained by the larger political system with respect to any sort of engagement with Russia.
I mean, you- you saw sort of the, I'm sure the media blow up that occurred when it became clear that US and Russian intelligence officials had met recently. I mean, that- that- that sort of testifies to the political climate today, whether you think that climate is- is justified or- or not justified. And it's also, I- I mean, I don't know that Trump actually, I- I don't know what Trump's theory of reconciling with- with Putin is. And it's- it's hard for me to tell whether he is, for reconciling with Putin just because Obama was against it in the last three years of his presidency, or whether there is some deeper geopolitical logic. That said, this is a really profound question for US foreign policy in the years ahead.
It- it's certainly not in America's interest to have negative relationships with both Russia and China at the same time. And since China is the stronger of those two powers, it probably makes sense to align, it might make sense to align with Russia against China, at some time in the future. The problem is that it's not exactly clear, how you get from here to there, today. So, in the late 1960s, China feared the Soviet Union more than it feared the United States. That's not true today. The Russians are more worried about the United States than they are about China. That might change over the long term, and there are some reasons for that, but- but it's not the case today.
And furthermore the divisions between the United States and Russia, are so profound, that it's hard for me to see what, sort of the grand bargain would- would look like. You know, w- would it, because I don't think that simply, um, you know, lifting the Ukraine related sanctions, for instance, would- would be sufficient. I think the Russian grievances with the United States go- go far deeper than that.
And- and so yes, at sort of the- the level of, you know, geopolitics 101, it would absolutely make sense for the United States to be working with one of these other powers against the other one. But given that they are both sort of authoritarian revisionist challengers that are making, uh, efforts to undermine the international order that we have constructed, it's just hard to see how you get there in the near term. So, I think- I think that's a real challenge for American statecraft, but one for which, uh, I don't have a good answer at this point.
Lester Munson: Let me ask, let me ask a follow up question, Hal, if, since we're getting close to the end of the time here. Uh, aside from the Ru ... the Russia question, let's talk about China. What- what is the Trump Administration approach to China? I can't tell if we are trying to use China, uh, to solve the North Korea problem, or if China is using North Korea to solve it's USA Trump problem. I can't tell if we're for engagement with China, or if we're for, uh, isolating it. I can't tell if we're, just don't have enough of a coherent approach, that we're allowing them to run the table against us in all kinds of international fora from, security issues in the South China Sea, to finance issues involving multilateral lending institutions. What's your- what's your hot take on the- the rising China, and how Trump is approaching it? And, are we vulnerable?
Hal Brands: So, the charitable interpretation is, that have a two track policy toward China. Uh, where we are working towards a more competitive strategy in the military realm, for instance. But, the President is working hard to maintain working relationships at the leader to leader level, so we can address issues like North Korea. That's the charitable version.
The less charitable version is that we have an incoherent China policy. Because, uh, the, I think there was a very strong consensus at the level of sort of Cabinet Secretary, is that the United States needs a more competitive, um, even in some cases, confrontational approach to China, given the extent to which China has been expanding its influence in the Asia Pacific and in other realms, uh, in recent years. Uh, but the President really doesn't seem to be buying into that.
And- and so the president will occasionally buy into the idea that China has been, uh, exploiting the United States economically. And so, he certainly thinks that there is an economic competition there. But it was just remarkable when he went to Beijing in November, uh, how he, Xi Jinping, basically had Donald Trump eating out of his hand and talking about what a great leader Xi was, and how he didn't, Trump didn't mind that China was running a massive trade deficit, this was America's fault, not China's. Uh, and- and so, I think that, it really just testifies to the importance of Trump's personality and the sort of leaders that Trump is attracted to. And so, I worry that, that aspect of the relationship is gonna have the effect of under cutting the more competitive aspect of the relationship.
I- I think that, the in ... the Administration initially made a very big mistake, in basically saying that we were going to hold off on things like Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, in hopes of getting Chinese cooperation in North Korea, which really gave China all of the leverage. I- I think to their credit, they've backed off of that, but they're absolutely, I- I think the Administration absolutely is, still working on the theory that you can only bring North Korea to the negotiating table with Chinese cooperation. Uh, and- and I think that is gonna make it, there's gonna, that's gonna pose some hard choices with respect to how competitive are we actually gonna be with Beijing, in the coming years?
Wesley Hodges: Wonderful discussion. Thank you for the question, Lester. It looks like we only have a couple minutes left in the call today. Uh, Dr. Brands, and Lester, are there comments you'd like to make, before we close the call today?
Hal Brands: No, I- I would just say I've- I've really enjoyed the- the conversation, and this is, you know, and important and an interesting issue, so I always, uh, welcome the chance to have a good give and take on it.
Lester Munson: And I'll just say, I think everyone should buy Professor Brands' book.
Hal Brands: A- Amen.
Wesley Hodges: (Laughs). We echo that on this end as well. Well, everyone, uh, you can find the book on Amazon, and in the description for this teleforum on our website. So, on behalf of the Federalist Society, I'd like to thank our speakers for the benefit of their valuable time and expertise today. We welcome all listener feedback, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, thank you all for joining us. This call is now adjourned.
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