Foreign Policy

Trump and Biden describe international coverage failures as successes

Matthew Kroenig: Well, we're a little over a week away from the big day. And the candidates had their last chance to reach a large, national audience in last night's debate. Could you see it? What did you think?

Emma Ashford: Well, it wasn't the best debate ever, but unlike the last, it was at least observable.

MK: (REMAIN SILENT)

EA: Wait a minute, my two minutes weren't over. I think you are still dumb.

It was definitely a better debate, but I found it rather ridiculous that this should be described as a "foreign policy" debate. It was only about 15 minutes of foreign affairs, most of which argued over which family of the candidate was taking overseas money. Pretty depressing.

MK: OKAY. Can i talk now

EA: You're welcome.

MK: Thank you, moderator. This debate was a great improvement on the first, but the Foreign Policy Wonks were disappointed. It was easy for foreign policy. And the cross allegations of family corruption due to international business relationships were not a shining moment for the United States. I wonder if reforms are necessary to prevent the families of politicians from benefiting from their office.

EA: I share your concerns about corruption and elected officials. Any ordinary person would be denied a security clearance if they had some of these financial or family responsibilities! However, I am not sure I have a solution. After all, the American people voted for them. You have the public's trust, even though after the Trump administration I'm not sure the public is such a good judge of character.

And so here we are in 2020: Hunter Biden may be a bit sketchy, but reforms to prevent corruption would likely bring the entire Trump clan onto the streets.

MK: Ordinary people find it outrageous too. My friends and family in Missouri cannot believe that a politician's son made more money in a month than he did in a year in an area where he had no experience because of his surname. It fuels the anti-establishment and populist sentiment that we have seen in recent years.

Candidates were able to cover several topics, if only briefly, including: China, Russia, North Korea, climate change and COVID-19. Did you find your arguments on these issues convincing?

EA: Nothing special. You?

MK: I found it strange that they would boast of their successes in North Korea. From Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, Washington has tried everything, but North Korea's nuclear and missile arsenal continues to grow. I would have steered towards areas where there are more signs of success.

EA: For me, the North Korea section was a reminder that none of the candidates are particularly good at foreign policy. The Obama administration couldn't stop North Korea from expanding its arsenal, and the Trump administration has indeed allowed it to move to ICBMs that could threaten US cities. Not to be hyperbolic, but in relation to the real threat to the US homeland that North Korea only places behind Russia and China!

And none of the candidates on stage have a good solution. Trump was just talking about his love affair with Kim Jong Un, ignoring the fact that Kim was just unveiling another new missile. What will he do with another four years? More Pyongyang flattery while Kim can do whatever he wants regardless of US interests? And Joe Biden is hardly better. He said last night that he would not meet with Kim if Kim did not agree to denuclearization. That is totally unrealistic and would rule out discussions that could actually mitigate some of the risks involved.

MK: I agree it is serious. North Korea is only the third US adversary capable of destroying the US homeland. There is only one realistic way forward, regardless of who wins: Keep up the sanctions pressure and hope for diplomacy, even as Washington deter and defend the growing nuclear and missile threats.

EA: For me, the issue of a lot of foreign policy issues has been that none of the candidates are great. I generally think Biden would be better on foreign policy, but his responses last night were a reminder of the number of times he has supported a failed Washington consensus on foreign policy.

MK: There have been failures like North Korea, but the foreign policy consensus in Washington over the past 75 years has been an amazing achievement. But this debate would require a column of its own, if not a book.

EA: How about this: what was missing from the foreign policy debate was almost as interesting as what was in it. No questions about Afghanistan or the Middle East, although the country is still waging multiple wars in those places. No questions about the defense budget and whether it should be cut or increased. No real questions about trading.

There was certainly a lot of China. If I had just watched this debate and didn't know much else about foreign policy, I would probably believe that China is responsible for everything bad in the world.

MK: Given the challenge facing Washington from Beijing, "China = bad" is not a terrible message to reach the American people. Maybe one day we can finally ban TikTok. And people around the world are starting to understand. Public opinion on China is declining worldwide. For example, 81 percent of Australians now view the country unfavorably.

EA: Perhaps, but the tone of the debate on China didn't really help. Trump spent most of his time blaming China for the coronavirus, and Biden spent his time portraying Trump as being cozy with Xi Jinping.

Biden managed to give a comprehensive overview of his China policy, but I was impressed by how much it sounded exactly like Trump's China policy, but with more international cooperation. For example, he highlighted the Obama administration's decision to fly bombers in contested airspace near China in order to push back Chinese territorial claims.

The two parties appear to be aligned with China, which I find worrying. I don't think you

MK: Yes. Biden's arguments on various issues, including China and, to some extent, COVID-19, appeared to be, "I'm going to do the same things but without the drama."

I applaud the growing bipartisan consensus on China. This is a challenge for the generations, and for the US strategy to be sustainable it must be supported by both parties.

Trump also had his best line to date in Russia, saying he provided "tank busters" to Ukraine to fight Moscow when Biden was only willing to send "pillows and sheets". He is right about that. Critics have been so focused on Trump's alleged collusion with Russia that they have overlooked a defense policy that is tougher than any other US president since Ronald Reagan.

You know, there were different events in the world last week than last night's debate. Have you followed the developments in Thailand?

EA: I have! I spent quite a bit of time in Bangkok when I was younger and I was honestly amazed at the changes over the past few years. There have always been internal political divisions in Thailand and protests are nothing new. However, it used to be – under the reign of the old king – that the royal family was seen as above politics and revered by many. Even without the majesty's draconian laws, few Thais would have criticized the king. The father was one of the longest-ruling monarchs in history, and he was deeply loved by his citizens inasmuch as the monarchy was essentially undisputed by major protests and a coup in the mid-2000s.

But his son is very different. Widely regarded as corrupt, he has his fourth wife and an official concubine, and he has taken an increasingly dictatorial approach to politics. In just a few years as king, he has managed to get the royal family into politics and he has brought Thailand to a place where there are now pro-democracy protesters who openly speak out against the king's policies. That would not have been known a decade ago.

MK: My knowledge of Thailand is mostly limited to the comparable strength of chicken satay offerings in restaurants in the DC area. But I have some thoughts about the implications for US foreign policy. Thailand is a formal ally of the US Treaty – a legacy of the Southeast Asia Cold War Treaty Organization, the anti-communist Cold War Alliance in Southeast Asia. And Southeast Asia will be an important region for competition with China as Thailand's ruling military junta has moved closer to Beijing in recent years. Washington has campaigned for democracy in the country and I hope it will be able to maintain, or even strengthen, its ties with Bangkok after the dust settles.

EA: It is a difficult place for the US government to keep Thailand stable, but the government seems determined to work towards autocracy. This is the place where a coherent government could talk to the government about their response to protests and put the U.S. finger on the scales. However, as we saw during the Obama administration and the Arab Spring, this does not always work.

What about Nigeria? The protests in Lagos are now so great that they are effectively closing the largest city in Africa.

MK: The United States is not the only country dealing with police brutality issues. Nigerians have protested against SARS, a special Nigerian police unit.

EA: To be clear: SARS is a police unit in this case, not a coronavirus disease?

MK: That was my first thought when I saw the news too. But it stands for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and its "Special Anti-Robbery" techniques apparently include murder, rape, and torture. After nearly two weeks of nightly protests, Nigerian police opened fire and reportedly killed dozens of innocent protesters. The government claims that SARS will be merged into a new entity, but people are skeptical that anything will really change.

EA: It's an interesting reminder that outside of the US – where such issues are often viewed primarily through the racial prism – there are still police and violence issues, even in a country like Nigeria where both victims and The perpetrators are blacks. In other countries, age and socio-economic status play a much bigger role, or at least a bigger role, than we normally recognize in the United States.

In Nigeria these protests are driven by young people; Nigeria has an average age of 18 years with a large bulge of youth. This trend has repeated itself across Africa and the Middle East and may lead to unrest in the future, especially if governments fail to create an environment that offers opportunities for these young people.

MK: Africa has never been a priority region for US foreign policy, but Nigeria is important in itself. It is the most populous country in Africa and a major oil producer.

EA: Not only is it a major oil producer, it is one of the best oil producing countries in the world. And, like many petrostats, that oil production has adversely affected Nigeria's ability to develop economic opportunities and the conduct of good government.

Unfortunately, US foreign policy continues to see Nigeria – and the states around it – primarily through the lens of counter-terrorism. The US military presence in Africa has increased significantly in recent years and is concentrated in militant groups such as Boko Haram. But as these protests show, Africa is a vibrant, developing region with a growing youth population and the potential for trade and diplomatic engagement. It is a big mistake to look at it through the prism of terrorism.

MK: This week Foggy Bottom is dedicated to another African country. Washington has removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and on Friday the White House announced that it will be the youngest Muslim-majority nation to normalize relations with Israel along the lines of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

EA: I will try to express this as finely as possible: It seems at times that Trump's White House is more concerned with Israeli foreign policy than US foreign policy. And I don't mean that in terms of conspiracy theory or the absurd anti-Semitic arguments about Israel and US foreign policy. I simply mean that this Sudanese decision is the latest in a series of decisions – from Jared Kushner's peace plan for the Middle East to the Serbia-Kosovo agreement (which depended on Serbia moving its embassy to Jerusalem) – that the Trump administration has hit this seems far more to matter if Benjamin Netanyahu is happy than if it is good for US foreign policy.

The state sponsor of the terrorism list is a joke. States are only placed on it if the US doesn't like them, and they are never placed on it – no matter how many proxy groups they fund – if they are a US partner like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. But it would have been nice to see that the Sudan name was used as the basis for negotiating something in the US interest, rather than just another attempt to force states to be nicer to Israel.

But we're running out of time here. Let's end with a lightning lap. What do you think of the renewal of the new START contract?

MK: I think peace in the Middle East is good not only for Israel, but also for Washington and the rest of the world.

At New START, as in Sudan, the Trump administration is aiming for another diplomatic victory in the primary. The reported deal would extend New START for a year to freeze all nuclear warheads. It's better than the alternatives. Nobody wants arms control to collapse, but a clean extension of five years is not in the interests of the US either. Russia is building a new generation of non-strategic and exotic nuclear systems that do not fall under New START. The proposed path would freeze those systems and give Washington a year to try to negotiate a broader deal.

I'm not sure if that was short enough for a lightning lap. Can you do better at Brexit?

EA: It's a mess. Even in January, when the results of the US election – and possibly the Trump presidency – have come and gone, Brexit will still be a mess. Boris Johnson's administration is messing around badly, and no deal Brexit is likely again. I am more concerned about the potential impact on the union. The sense of independence is growing where I come from in Scotland and there is a strong feeling that the Scottish Government handled COVID-19 far better than Westminster. I am not alone among UK expats when I fear Brexit might fuel the renewed sense of independence and it looks like that fear is well founded.

Still not short enough. Bolivia?

MK: Bolivia has just elected a socialist president in the form of Evo Morales. Bad news for the economy of this country and for US interests in Latin America.

Guinea?

EA: Fatal clashes after a controversial election, and while election observers say it was fair, the 82-year-old president is unlikely to be allowed to rule for that third term under the constitution. It's a mess.

It is difficult to reduce complex foreign policy decisions to one-liners for discussion. But I still think we did a better job than Donald Trump and Joe Biden. After all, in our foreign policy debate we actually talked about foreign policy.

MK: I agree. But I better go. The delivery man from Mai Thai just rang the doorbell.

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