Oct 15th 2012

Picturing a Real Foreign Policy Debate

by Michael Brenner

Dr. Michael Brenner is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations. He publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. He is also Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. Brenner is the author of numerous books, and over 60 articles and published papers on a broad range of topics. These include books with Cambridge University Press (Nuclear Power and Non-Proliferation) and the Center For International Affairs at Harvard University (The Politics of International Monetary Reform); and publications in major journals in the United States and Europe, such as World Politics, Comparative Politics, Foreign Policy, International Studies Quarterly, International Affairs, Survival, Politique Etrangere, and Internationale Politik. His most recent work is Toward A More Independent Europe, Egmont Institute, Brussels.

Presidential election debates rarely clarify substantive policy differences between the candidates. On those occasions when that does happen, the insights characteristically are downplayed or ignored by the media -- as occurred last week. Foreign policy debates are especially prone to leave obscure the key issues and fog our vision of each candidate's positions. Tuesday's Obama-Romney debate promises more of the same mix of platitudes, bromides and patriotic flourishes. In disorderly times, the land fills with loud patriots -- as a Chinese sage warned.

Here is a set of questions which, if the candidates actually are pressed to answer, promise some illumination. Hope springs eternal.

· The American intervention in Iraq has proven a failure. Despite our enormous investment in blood and treasure, the country is sliding toward autocracy, sectarian conflict remains, al-Qaeda has put down roots and the Baghdad government is more responsive to Tehran than to Washington. What lessons have you drawn that should guide our thinking about any future military intervention where core national interests are not threatened? What lessons in regard to "nation-building"?

· The American occupation in Afghanistan, too, is manifestly a costly failure -- except for our initial success in toppling the Taliban government and uprooting al-Qaeda. In retrospect, would we have been wiser to have left at that point? What today are the objectives of retaining a large residual force -- and what is the measure of success?

· The United States is engaged in a tense confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities. Is that our only concern or do we have other interests and aims there? Can they be achieved without regime change?

· Are American and Israeli interests vis a vis Iran identical, as you both have indicated? If not, please indicate where they diverge.

· The Arab Spring and its aftermath have posed difficult choices for the United States as it tries to reconcile its commitment to democracy promotion with its realpolitik interests in the region. Our allied government in Bahrain has cracked down violently on the democracy movement there with only the mildest expression of concern from Washington. That action has seriously heightened tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite around the Middle East. Please explain your thinking as to why this is the desirable policy.

· The removal of secular autocrats in places seems to clear the way for the rise of various fundamentalist Islamic movements. What ideas do you have as to how the United States can protect its national interests in those circumstances. Can you suggest benchmarks by which to differentiate among various Islamist political elements? Give examples.

· Almost all experts agree that Saudi Arabia is the main sources of funding, educational support and training for the propagation of extreme Islamist ideologies across the Muslim world. In some instances, we find ourselves fighting the very people schooled and inspired in this way. How do you reconcile this reality with our continuing close cooperation with the House of Saud?

· The plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation continues to be a primary source of anti-American feeling across the Middle East. Yet the United States remains steadfast in backing an Israeli government that shows no signs of moving towards reasonable terms of settlement. Should this change?

· Governor Romney, you have declared that Russia is the United States' greatest strategic threat. Please explain your remarks.

· Mr. Obama, do you agree with this appraisal?

· The long-running "war on drugs" is a manifest failure. Most experts agree that the heart of the problem is demand in the United States, not supply from abroad. Is it time to recognize that it is our problem and not theirs?

· Since the Merida agreement whereby the United States has pushed Mexico to launch a more aggressive campaign against drug cartels, it has suffered 50,000 deaths, has seen the breakdown of civil order over large parts of the country -- and drug shipments from south of the border remain robust. Was our policy erroneous? Should it be fundamentally changed?

· Best estimates are that the marijuana trade accounts for about 60 percent of the drug cartels' revenue. In light of this and the overwhelming medical opinion that marijuana is less of a threat to individual health and public safety, is it time to bite the bullet on its legalization? A similar scenario is playing out in Honduras. There, American Special Forces and units of the DEA are engaged in armed combat with drug dealers with civilian deaths collateral damage. Is this a sensible way to deal with America's addiction to drugs?

· In Honduras, we gave tacit backing to the unconstitutional coup whereby the current president, Mr. Lobo Sosa, came to power. We have lost credibility in Latin America as a consequence. Mr. Obama, why did you act this way? Should we continue on this same tack? Is the profitability of American business interests in Honduras one factor? if so, should private interests prevail over the national interest?

· Since Mr. Lobo's accession, identified drug flights into Honduras have risen from 6 per annum to 82. What does this tell us?

· The United States military is actively engaged in 23 countries at this moment. They range from Honduras to Mali to Pakistan. The Army, and Special Forces Command in particular, also undertake numerous non-military activities traditionally assigned to the State Department. Do you see this as a healthy development? What are the justifications?

· The United States currently has Special Forces numbering 6,000 in Afghanistan. Why are they needed in such large numbers? Does their very existence influence judgments as to whether we have enough of an interest there to warrant an American military intervention makes sense?

· Three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women. Do you see advantages to having a woman at the helm of our diplomacy? President Obama, are you prepared to pledge that you would reappoint Hillary Rodham Clinton if you are elected? Governor Romney, are you prepared to pledge that you would appoint a woman if you are elected?

· All analysts agree that the most important changes in world affairs in the 21st century, and the most serious challenges to the United States, will be the result of the rising strength and influence of China. How does your thinking relate China to the other issues that we have been discussing? How does the network of military bases that we are reestablishing in Southeast Asia and Australia figure in your strategy?

· Can you think and use chopsticks at the same time? Please demonstrate.

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Oct 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "One thing is certain: a highly contested election would cause further damage to America’s global image as an exemplar of democracy and the rule of law, eroding its soft power. Particularly over the past four years, the country has increasingly come to be regarded as a political basket case. While hoping that the chaotic outcomes outlined above do not come to pass – polls still show a strong lead for Biden – investors should be preparing for the worst, not just on election day but in the weeks and months thereafter. "
Oct 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s approach today is similar: first, insulate its citizens from a virulent pathogenic contagion with draconian public-health measures aimed at containing and mitigating the spread of the disease, and then – and only then – make judicious use of monetary and fiscal policy to reinforce the post-lockdown snapback. This is very different from the approach taken in the US, where the post-lockdown debate is more about using monetary and fiscal policies as front-line instruments of economic liberation, rather than relying on disciplined public-health measures aimed at virus containment........ This underscores the sharp contrast between China’s COVID-first strategy and the America-first approach of US President Donald Trump’s administration. In China, unlike the US, there is no political and public resistance to masks, social distancing, and aggressive testing as requisite norms of the COVID-19 era. Meanwhile, the US is in the midst of its third serious wave of infection while China continues to exercise prompt and effective control over new outbreaks. Earlier this autumn, for example, some nine million citizens in Qingdao were tested in just five days after a relatively small outbreak affecting fewer than 20 residents. By contrast, Trump wears his own experience with COVID-19 infection as some perverse badge of courage, rather than as a warning of what may lie ahead."
Oct 20th 2020
EXTRACTS: Disney has announced a significant restructuring of its media and entertainment business, boldly placing most of its growth ambitions and investments into its recently launched streaming service, Disney+…. From a corporate strategy perspective, the move is remarkable on two fronts. Firstly, the sheer velocity of this pivot for a company the size and age of Disney is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented….Let’s not forget that it was just last year that Disney held a near 40% revenue share of the US box office….. The fact that in just seven months of the pandemic breaking out, Disney decided to reinvent itself primarily around streaming speaks volumes about its expectations regarding the pandemic length. Clearly the group decided that waiting it out was no longer an option.”
Oct 10th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Strange as it is to say, but it is no longer uncommon to hear talk of insurrection, martial law, and civil war in the United States......... Apocalyptic warnings that next month’s election will descend into crisis are coming hard and fast....... While the atmosphere in the US is already alarming, it is worth considering just how bad things could become. There is ample reason to worry that an election-related conflict could devolve into atrocity crimes against black and brown civilians on US soil........ Genocide and mass atrocities have happened all too often, including in America. The question is not whether it could happen here, but whether it can be prevented."
Oct 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman published an article in the New York Times that articulated what has come to be known as the Friedman doctrine: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” It was a theme he had developed in his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, where he argued that the “one and only” responsibility business owes to society is the pursuit of profits within the legal rules of the game. The Friedman doctrine put its stamp on our era. It legitimized the freewheeling capitalism that produced economic insecurity, fueled rising inequality, deepened regional divides, and intensified climate change and other environmental problems. Ultimately, it also led to a social and political backlash. Many large businesses have responded by engaging in – or paying lip service to – the notion of corporate social responsibility."
Oct 7th 2020
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Oct 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "The American Republic was founded by Protestants, and American elites were for a long time largely Protestant........But something extraordinary has happened since the republic was founded by Protestants in 1776. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices are Catholics, and soon there may be six. The one Protestant on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was raised Catholic. (The other two justices are Jewish.) Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, is Catholic, as is the US attorney general, William Barr. And Joe Biden, who might be the next president, is Catholic, too."
Oct 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "...... the economic pain inflicted by COVID-19 is not being borne by publicly traded companies. It is falling on small businesses and individual service proprietors – from dry cleaners to restaurants to entertainment providers – that are not listed on the stock market (which leans more toward manufacturing). These smaller players simply do not have the capital needed to survive a shock of this duration and magnitude. And government programs that have helped keep them afloat for a while are beginning to lapse, raising the risk of a snowball effect in the event of a second wave."
Oct 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. "
Sep 30th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the US presidential election barely a month away, former Vice President Joe Biden and his advisers are devising his national-security policy and creating shortlists to fill the cabinet’s ranking positions in the event that he defeats President Donald Trump. But while presidential hopefuls traditionally have focused first on contenders to run the state, defense, and treasury departments, this time is different. With the intelligence community in an increasingly perilous state, Biden should choose a top spymaster before making any other personnel decisions."
Sep 29th 2020
While today's mounting global disruptions have accelerated an ongoing shift in global power dynamics, neither China's rise nor the emergence of COVID-19 can be blamed for the West's lost primacy. The United States and the United Kingdom took care of that on their own, with a complacent Europe watching it happen.
Sep 28th 2020
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Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "Four years of political turmoil under Trump may well end with massive violence akin to a civil war. Trump is priming his base to act violently, and with over 390 million firearms in the hands of Americans, one can only imagine the calamitous consequences if violence is to erupt between his supporters and those who oppose him..... The Republican leadership in every state and every municipality are the prime body that can stop this potential calamity from occurring. Time is of the essence. Should the Republican Party as a whole fall short of taking a stand against Trump at this juncture, they will subject the nation to turmoil unseen since the Civil War. Not a single Republican leader will be able to claim that he or she were not warned."
Sep 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I continue to expect this broad dollar index to plunge by as much as 35% by the end of 2021. This reflects three considerations: rapid deterioration in US macroeconomic imbalances, the ascendancy of the euro and the renminbi as viable alternatives, and the end of that special aura of American exceptionalism that has given the dollar Teflon-like resilience for most of the post-World War II era."
Sep 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Covid-19 essentially hit the “fast forward” button on emerging trends in a variety of sectors of national economies, hastening the demise of the shopping mall, laying bare how unnecessary being physically located in commercial work spaces is, and sounding the death knell for numerous 100+ year-old brands that had failed to adapt to the blistering pace of change in the digital economy. Failure to contemplate and embrace the future is leaving carnage in its wake.......The onslaught of dramatic change that has accompanied Covid-19 reminds us that fragile systems crack when exposed to unexpected events while antifragile systems have the ability to resist shocks."
Sep 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face. Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire."
Sep 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Seventy-five years ago, the prestige of the United States and the United Kingdom could not have been higher. They had defeated imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and they did so in the name of freedom and democracy. True, their ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union, had different ideas about these fine ideals, and did most of the fighting against Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Still, the English-speaking victors shaped the post-war order in large parts of the world. The basic principles of this order had been laid down in the Atlantic Charter, drawn up in 1941 by Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt on a battleship off the coast of Newfoundland."
Sep 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "After Trump’s inauguration in January of 2017, millions demonstrated their disapproval. We can expect the same, no matter how this election turns out. With both sides framing this election in “end of the world” terms; with the president calling into question the legitimacy of the vote, even before it happens; and with the president warning his supporters that they may have to take up arms to defend him – we have a recipe for disaster that may occur in the days that follow this election. This may very well be the Armageddon election of our lifetime."
Sep 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Huawei case is a harbinger of a world in which national security, privacy, and economics will interact in complicated ways. Global governance and multilateralism will often fail, for both good and bad reasons. The best we can expect is a regulatory patchwork, based on clear ground rules that help empower countries to pursue their core national interests without exporting their problems to others. Either we design this patchwork ourselves, or we will end up, willy-nilly, with a messy, less efficient, and more dangerous version."