One of the U.S.’s leading foreign policy experts says domestic damage wrought by outgoing President Donald Trump, through his “inept” handling of the covid-19 pandemic and his subversion of longstanding American democratic norms, will have more negative resonance for U.S. foreign relations than all of the handful of foreign policy successes achieved during his administration’s one term in office.
So said Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, during a virtual meeting of the council on Wednesday. The event was originally slated as a discussion, led by Carlyle Group Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman David M. Rubenstein, on the anticipated challenges of President-Elect Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office.
Instead, Wednesday’s conversation was overshadowed by unrest in Washington D.C., after President Trump incited a group of supporters who had descended upon the nation’s capital to protest the certification of the 2020 election to violently raid the U.S. Capitol Building, the seat of the legislative branch of the U.S. government, an act unprecedented in modern memory. The event’s focus quickly pivoted to assessing the aftermath of the insurrection.
“The first thing to say is that everyone will see it. The old line, ‘The whole world is watching’ will apply here,” Haass said, adding that the violence would “sap the trust” at the core of its global alliances. “Our democratic allies will be appalled but also worried about what it will portend for us.”
Haass said that other actors—authoritarian regimes around the world, such as Russia and China—would be delighting in schadenfreude after Wednesday’s events. The events of January 6, he said, will be used as justification for their own authoritarian tendencies, as it becomes ever more difficult for the U.S., which has proved “not immune” to democratic backsliding, to exert pressure, lecture other countries, or to be an effective actor on the world stage.
Saying the events had “put an end to any notion of American exceptionalism,” Haass said the turmoil would require “an inward looking era for the United States,” but wouldn’t change the outcome of the election.
“There will be a transfer of power—given what’s happening now, it won’t be quite the peaceful transfer…that up to now had been our tradition, but Joe Biden will become the 46th president on January 20,” he said.
Earlier this week, policy experts at geopolitical risk consultancy Eurasia Group identified U.S. political instability as the top global risk of 2021, saying that popular acceptance of Trump’s assault on democratic norms and refusal to accept the legitimacy of the 46th president put the world’s most powerful democracy in a state of political precariousness never before seen in a G7 country.
Two biggest failures
On Wednesday, Haass acknowledged that the Trump Administration had garnered some “points” on the foreign policy scorecard for resetting the conversation about China, toward viewing its use of power at home and abroad more skeptically, for getting the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement through Congress, for pursuing warmer ties with India, and for facilitating the normalization of relations between Israel and several of its neighbors.
But, Haass said, none of the above offsets the things that have gone wrong.
“The two biggest failures are not normally thought of as foreign policy: the inept handling of the covid-19 pandemic, and the deterioration and degrading of American democracy,” he said. “All of that has tremendous implications for how we are seen in the world, and our ability to be influential.”
He faulted the Trump Administration for “disrupting without replacing”—alliances, agreements, institutions, leaving nothing better or enduring in their place. As a result, the United States has less influence in areas like global health, climate change, a coherent response to Iran, all situations that have deteriorated in that wake.
Haass said that Biden—as a former Vice President and previous Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—would bring a spirit of multilateralism, internationalism, a default inclination to work with allies (particularly in Europe and with our partners in Asia Pacific), and to reject military and political isolationism.
How much will the messy transition handicap the new team?
“Obviously, it slows things down, because you don’t exactly know what you’re inheriting,” Haass said, adding that he does not believe that the incoming administration has “anything close to a comprehensive understanding” of President Trump’s conversations with many of his foreign counterparts, and that it’s unclear whether Biden will “ever” get an accurate account of conversations that Trump held with Russian President Vladimir Putin when Washington staff were not in the room.
Haass pointed out that people with senior roles on the Biden transition team—notably Secretary of State Designate Anthony Blinken—are experienced in government affairs, and that while there’s no upside to the messiness of the presidential transition, the new administration will “get over it” in the first couple of weeks.
Additionally, a swing in Senate power toward Democrats as a result of Tuesday’s runoff election in Georgia could speed up the appointee confirmation process.
He said the top foreign policy priorities for the incoming Biden administration would be largely domestic. Top of the list is getting covid-19 under control, without which the real U.S. economy can’t get back to normal (i.e., people back at work) and the U.S. can’t set an example of competence to the world. Traditional foreign policy objectives will include consultation with longtime U.S. allies, and re-entry into regimes like the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Agreement.
A distinction must be drawn, he said, between projects of “repair,” requiring immediate attention, and those of “innovation” with longer timelines. Tensions with Iran may not afford the same luxury of time as relations with North Korea, China or other countries.
Regarding Middle East relations, Haass said the close relationship that the Trump Administration has enjoyed with the Saudi Royal Family would be tough to continue under Biden, given a slate of “real differences” including human rights issues, Yemen, and potentially different approaches to Iran. Saudi positioning vis-a-vis Israel could prove a wildcard in this respect.
While Saudi Arabia has “reasons” for hesitating over normalized relations with Israel (i.e., its special position in the Islamic world), doing so could have real, positive implications for their relationship with the U.S. Noting that the United Arab Emirates had made normalization conditional upon the halting of West Bank annexation by Israel, he suggested that a similar condition (for example, on West Bank settlements) could facilitate a similar Saudi-Israel thaw.
Haass also spoke on one of the “great mysteries” of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy record, namely its ties to Russia and, more specifically, President Vladimir Putin.
“I can’t discern a clear foreign policy or security rationale for our approach to Mr. Putin over the last four years,” he said, noting that policy had been almost “split” between the policy of President Trump himself, who was mostly unwilling to say anything negative about Russia or Putin, and the Administration’s policy on robustness of Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. While there’s a real incentive to start a new round of talks to stabilize the nuclear relationship Russia, this dialogue would be occurring against a backdrop of not just Ukraine, but the killing of Russian dissidents, and the recent, high-magnitude SolarWinds hack by malefactors believed to be acting on behalf of Russia.
China, meanwhile, is likely to be both tickled by the U.S.’s internal troubles, and possibly concerned about a return to executive effectiveness.
“On one hand, they look forward to a more traditional, predictable U.S. The danger for them is that it’s [going to be] a more critical and a more effective U.S.,” Haass said, adding that for all the differences that would be obvious between the 45th and 46th presidents, there would be “certain elements of continuity” vis-a-vis China.
“There’s been a real change in the collective mindset in the foreign policy community on how to think about China,” he said, specifically a widespread view that China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang merit a strong response, worry about China’s military buildup, about its militarization of the South China Sea and vis a vis Taiwan, concern over its economic behavior, and dismay that China’s integration into the world economic system didn’t open up its economy or political system.
”The challenge [with China] is how to protect limited areas of cooperation in a context where the overall relationship will be very competitive and we have strong disagreement,” he said.
Finally, post-Brexit, Haass addressed whether U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson—beset by covid-19’s escalation in the U.K. and concerns that Britain’s exit from the E.U. could at some point threaten its own integrity—would be able to establish a “special relationship” with Biden on par with the unlikely simpatico he enjoyed with Trump.
“I think the U.K. has diminished its importance and the ‘special relationship’ [with the U.S.] by opting out of Europe, because now the U.K. can only deliver itself,” he said. “In a funny way, Brexit has downgraded the significant of what was a special relationship.”