Interview With IDS International CEO Nick Dowling
Jon Stutte: In the final presidential debate where both candidates detailed their respective foreign policies, Biden diverged sharply from Trump where he detailed a return to Obama’s foreign policy. How strongly do you see Biden leaning back on Obama’s vision or is he more likely to forge his own path?
Nick Dowling: I would put it right in between. Joe Biden is the consummate foreign policy expert with decades of service on the foreign relations committee and as vice president and he showed through his service that he wasn’t afraid to differ from Obama when he had a different perspective, for example on Afghanistan where Biden argued for more of a counterterrorism lower posture than what the military wanted i.e. another surge.
So I think Biden is his own man and is not afraid to take different courses than the Obama administration. At the same time there will probably be lots of areas of agreement between President Obama and Vice President Biden on issues from the Paris accords to the Iran nuclear deal to the damage done by the trump administration to reinvest in our international alliances.
So I see more common ground than differences but certainly president elect Biden is going to be his own man as they go forward.
Jon: You mentioned the damage the Trump administration has done to our alliances, are there any decisions by the Trump administration that cannot be undone by a future Biden administration? Is Biden stuck on the rails by any of these decisions?
Nick: Donald Trump’s isolationist, provocative and antagonistic style has caused lots of friends and allies of the United States to take pause and reconsider the reliability of the U.S. and its commitments around the world. They’re certainly going to be reassured by Joe Biden but I don’t think we can erase their memory of the fact that the U.S. is a democracy and the U.S. public elected someone who took them in a very different election.
We do need to recognise that the world has changed and different countries have made different calculations so it’ll take a lot of work for Biden to rebuild and re-engage those alliances.
In other ways, each case is different. Whether it’s the Paris Agreement or the Iran nuclear deal or our relationship with Cuba, many of the other things that President Trump unwound. Some of it may makes sense to reenter into like the climate accords and certainly try to reconstruct the Iran nuclear deal. Others, the relationship with Cuba for example, the administration will have to decide if this is an area the Biden administration wants to push hard on. So there’s going to be continuity from the Trump administration in some of those areas and relationships.
Jon: You mentioned some international organizations and agreements previously which Trump backed the U.S. out of or tried to sabotage. Everything from UNESCO to the WHO to NATO. Biden wants to reengage us but how realistic is it that one, we can get back in to these organizations and two, that we can convince them to trust us and regain our former influence in the organizations? How realistic is this for a Biden administration?
Nick: I think broadly it’s the same answer as before. I think our partners and the world are going to be reassured by a very known and well respected leader like Joe Biden but at the same time the world has changed. With regards to NATO, that’s an organization that I think things will go back to normal quite a bit. I do think there will be scars with our European allies from the Trump administration that Republicans will have to bear, but certainly I think NATO, given the continued threat of Putin and other security issues, I think is going to be very much achievable in terms of establishing a leading role just as it was before Trump.
The United Nations is the same as well—the U.N. is always a cacophony of voices from around the world with multiple agendas and the U.S. will be fine there. On trade agreements that’s where I think they’re a little more afraid. With groups we’ve left there is the question of re-accession and that’s going to take some work. And that’s something the Biden team is doing right now but it requires cooperation with the outgoing administration, so once the president allows that, they can start doing the work of the American people.
Jon: Trump took an unprecedentedly assertive stance with Taiwan, breaking a lot of two-systems-one-country norms. We’re still waiting to see if Biden will accept a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai-Ing Wen the same way that Trump did when he became president elect. Do you see Biden continuing that path with Taiwan or do you think he’ll step back and take a more conciliatory approach to China?
Nick: I would expect broadly that Biden recognises that China is a top foreign policy challenge for his presidency. There are number of things going on with China that we will have to work with the Chinese to change. And that includes intellectual property abuse and espionage against American companies, activities in the South China Sea that really are questionable in terms of sovereignty, the horrible human rights issues that are going on with the Uyghurs in Western China, and then of course Taiwan.
Where it relates to Taiwan, the two systems one nation approach as defined by Nixon and Kissinger while imperfect has worked in terms of a cooperative and stable U.S.-China relationship more or less with a few hiccups along the way such as 1996. But it has worked and I think Biden will want to reinforce that a Biden administration is strongly supportive of Taiwan’s security and as a friend of the U.S. but also reinforce the two-systems-one-country policy.
But it’s also within the context of a much broader agenda with China, which I would argue is the number one issue facing the next president. We already have a lot of tough issues with China and we don’t want to make the Taiwan issue any tougher. So a formula that has worked since 1972 is probably one that we want to maintain.
Jon: Regarding China and Arms control, the Trump administration made a feeble attempt to rope China into New Start negotiations with Russia and of course China objected. The U.S. now is looking to deploy mid range ground based missile systems throughout the Pacific. Is there really any space for engagement with China in arms control?
Nick: Absolutely, we don’t want to take any tools off the table in terms of figuring out how to manage the relationship with China. We absolutely need a strong defence and security posture in Asia and strong alliances and partnerships with our allies and partners in East Asia. But it also means looking for ways to defuse and mitigate potential areas of confrontation and tension between the two countries. And so arms control, just as it was with the Soviet Union and the Cold War, should absolutely be on the table as a tool with China.
One of the things we’re going to have to do is, China has really emerged as more than just a junior trading partner and potential competitor to a real near peer foe that we’re on a confrontation path with. So how do we manage this process and relationship with China and keep the guardrails on so that we don’t accidentally go into a war? This is effectively what we did with the Soviet Union with hotlines, arms control, confidence building measures and transparency. We have real differences but what we don’t want to do is go to war. We already have procedures like that on naval and air activity in the Pacific to try to prevent our armed forces from getting into a conflict with each other.
We’re going to want to look at every possible tool to manage that even as we do the broader strategic work of representing American interests that we have real concerns about with China.
Jon: It looks like we might have a Republican Senate. We don’t know for sure but it seems more likely than not. If that is the case, where can we expect a Biden administration to be most constrained by a Republican senate on foreign policy issues?
Nick: If the senate isRepublican, unfortunately we know from his personality and track record that Mitch McConnell is just mr. obstruction once you have a democrat in the white house. So McConnell is going to further enflame the division in this country by trying to block anything that Joe Biden tries to do unless it is absolutely a republican pet issue. They’re not going to look for compromise, they’d rather do obstruction. They’re not going to want to do something reasonable if it can be seen as giving Biden a victory. That’s just the record we’ve seen from Mr. McConnell.
Fortunately on foreign policy there’s just not that much influence the senate or the house has. The senate does have the ability to confirm treaties, however. One of the areas that legal experts and international organizations are going to be looking at is as the U.S. looks to rejoin organizations that Trump left, does that require senate approval. Typically there must be senate approval for the U.S. to enter into a treaty. But if we’ve already entered into it but then a president says he’s leaving but that organization didn’t fully eject the United States and the next president says ‘no we’re staying’ does that still require a senate action? I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes an area of legal dispute.
The other issue is going to be in terms of new arms control, the senate could be an obstacle just as they were during the Iran arms deal negotiations. There could be other constructive arms control agreements that could be a problem. From a budget standpoint, Joe Biden will want a strong defence budget and that won’t be a problem with senate republicans. But Biden will also want a strong foreign relations and diplomacy budget and that might be an area where republicans, having blown the deficit up during the Trump administration, will now magically rediscover their interest in balanced budgets and will look at anything proposed that is not a traditional republican issue and claim that it is a budget concern. There will be some negotiations there. But Biden is committed to running a united presidency. He doesn’t just want to be a Democrat president but he really wants to be a leader for the whole country and he wants to show the American people that he can work across the aisle. His career shows he can do that.