On January 10, the United States Institute of Peace held a signature foreign policy and national security transition event titled “Passing the Baton 2017.” At one of the panels, speakers discussed America’s role in the world, and the key security issues facing the new administration today. Politico’s Chief International Affairs Columnist Susan Glasser moderated the debate. A summary of the discussion appears below.

 

Left to right: Michele Flournoy, Stephen J. Hadley, KT McFarland, Jacob Sullivan. Photo: Youtube

 

Participants: 

Michele Flournoy, President, Center for a New American Security

Stephen J. Hadley, Chair, U.S. Institute of Peace Board of Directors

KT McFarland, Deputy National Security Advisor Designate

Jacob Sullivan, Marvin R. Flug Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School

In her introductory remarks, Susan Glasser observed that the United States is now a divided country, and the world is also divided about the recent U.S. presidential election and what it means. And while it once seemed inconceivable that a moment would come to question America’s place in the world in some serious way, the questions today are: Where is America in the world today? And how might America’s leadership role going forward differ from what it has been since the end of the Cold War?

 

Michele Flournoy: 

  • The U.S. leadership and its role in the world will remain indispensable. But there is a lot of confusion among U.S. partners about where the United States stands today.
  • It is clear that the new administration will take time to form its team and deliberate on its policies and strategies, but the world can’t wait. It’s important that the new administration articulate some principles or guide posts that people can hold on to. It should also reassure U.S. partners and allies regarding American national interests and values and set clear expectations.

Stephen J. Hadley: 

  • There is a contradicting conversation on foreign policy issues going on in D.C.: on the one hand, policymakers say that America needs to lead; on the other hand, the American people are tired (and the last election showed it) of that burden of leadership.
  • It’s important to understand what this leadership means. A recent poll from the University Maryland showed that less than 10 percent of Americans polled want the U.S. to pull out from its leadership role in the world. But at the same time, less than 10 percent want the U.S to be the preeminent leader.
  • According to the same poll, 80 percent think the U.S should participate in cooperative actions together with other nations and should play a shared leadership role: “To lead doesn’t mean you have to lead alone,” and others need to do their fair share.
  • Another poll question was: Does America do too much to pursue global interests and not enough to pursue national interest? Most Americans saw it as a false choice: 70 percent said America has to look beyond its own interests and do what is best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will create the kind of world that is best for the United States. “The American people have great common sense,” and when we ask what it means to lead in the new environment, we ought to take a cue from the American people.
  • Western democratic values are under attack in a new ideological contest, particularly by China and Russia, and the United States must prepare to engage in that struggle.

KT McFarland: 

  • Donald Trump has a unique opportunity for the United States to reinvent and recreate itself. Here is his current mindset.
  • U.S. exceptionalism is based on the notion that it is an indispensable nation that stands for democracy and freedom. Another part of that exceptionalism is that it is also a nation of reinvention.
  • With a few political decisions, the U.S. is going to have an economic renaissance. Tax reform, especially in corporate tax, will probably liberate $2-3 trillion that will come back to the U.S. economy; and regulatory reform will encourage the development of small business.
  • At the same time, the U.S. has abundant, cheap, and secure energy and a dozen disruptive technologies just waiting to be mass-produced in America. The idea is to piece together all American strengths—not just economic, but also military, diplomatic, and security strengths.
  • The renaissance will also include national security and rebuilding of America’s defenses. American foreign policy in the last 15 years has not been a happy story. No one is talking about giving up the post-Cold War foreign policies, but the new administration wants to recalibrate them and see what other opportunities exist.
  • The three bedrocks will remain the same: American values, American global leadership, and the alliance structures are all going to continue. 

Jacob Sullivan: 

  • The tone of the campaign has left a lot of questions. There’s much to agree with in what KT McFarland said, but at the end of the day one needs to see what actually happens.
  • Over the last eight years, foreign policy has been overly politicized, and there is blame on both sides of the American political party divide.
  • The bedrock of American leadership in the world has been a set of principles, including democracy, liberty, equality, and pluralism, and supporting friends and institutions around the world that channel those values.
  • There is a concern that this set of principles is being threatened and challenged today in a way that it hasn’t been in a very long time. There is an active project underway by Vladimir Putin and those around him to try to chip away at the liberal institutional order that America has built around the world. America’s role in the world has to be to rise to that challenge, meet it, and prevail to preserve that world order.
  • Two other crucial issues are America’s diplomacy and alliance and coalition building. Both need to be defended; America needs to make sure that her word means something.
  • The new administration should not only look for new opportunities, but also lean on the ones that have already been seized and the progress that has already been made.

 

Q&A: 

  1. What are some of the U.S. foreign policy failures in the last decades?

Hadley: 

  • The current situation is unique because the political insurgency won this time, and it did so because there has been a divergence between what the political elites were saying and what the American people believed.
  • The new administration understands that they need to ask critical questions, and they brought people from outside the system to do that. But they are also reaching out to the existing expertise to help them do this relook.

Flournoy:

  • Don’t assume that previous administrations were idiots. It is important to honor the legacy as you work on change.

 

  1. What are Obama’s most underrated or overrated foreign policy accomplishments?

Sullivan:

  • Turning around an economy that was in decline, not just in the U.S. but also around the world, was quite extraordinary.
  • Part of the last election was about the redistribution of the gains of this recovery, but among the reasons Obama couldn’t pay as much attention to that issue was not just the situation on the Hill, but also the constant crisis management mode that was part of the job all these years.

 

  1. What is one thing that the new administration is worried about regarding Russia, given the fact that Trump refused to criticize Russia during the campaign? What assurances can you provide when it comes to this country?

McFarland: 

  • Trump has said about Russia: “Nuclear weapons change everything.” When it comes to existential threats not only to America but to the world, it is nuclear weapons in the hands of people who want to use them.
  • We are now in a new era where deterrence may not keep the world peace.
  • Talking about whether or not Russian interference helped Donald Trump is a mistake and looking for a scapegoat; the result of the election is American people speaking up.

Sullivan: 

  • It would be unreasonable to suggest that there is no way Russian interference helped Donald Trump win, especially since the margin of difference combined in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan [the three states that helped Trump sway the electoral college] was 80,000 votes.
  • Trump’s positions on Russia are hard to understand; they don’t make sense.

 

You can watch full video of event below.

 

According to the latest poll by Levada-center, 69 percent of Russians believe that price hike is currently the most acute problem in the country; 50 percent are concerned with poverty, 40 percent—with unemployment; 34 percent—with economic crisis, 28 percent—with corruption and bribery. Only 3 percent are troubled by the restrictions of the civil liberties.

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