Council President Ivo Daalder and James M. Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, discuss their new book "The Empty Throne: America's Abdication of Global Leadership"—a revealing look at President Trump’s foreign policy and its implications for the rules-based international order.
Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're taking an inside look at President Trump's foreign policy and its implications for global order. To have this conversation, I'm joined by Ivo Daalder, President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He also is a former ambassador to NATO under President Obama. And with me also is Jim Lindsay, who is the Senior Vice President and Director of Studies, and the Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Welcome, Jim.
James Lindsay: Great to be here, Brian.
Brian Hanson: Welcome Ivo.
Ivo Daalder: Good to be here.
Brian Hanson: So you two have a new book that's just come out called "The Empty Throne: America's Abdication of Global Leadership." So this book makes the argument that US leadership is fundamentally important in the world today. Let's start just by: Why is US leadership important?
Ivo Daalder: So US leadership is important because the global order that was created can only be maintained through American leadership. Let's step back for a minute and remind us where we came from and why we are here, where we are. Back in the middle of World War II and its immediate aftermath, the Greatest Generation, that won that war, came together and said, "How do we make sure that this doesn't happen again? We had World War I. It wasn't a pleasant experience for anybody. And then we had World War II, which was an even far more nastier experience for lots of people. How do we prevent that?" And part of the diagnosis was that the United States, back in 1918 and 1919, had retreated from the world that it had just engaged in, in 1917 when it entered World War I. And that the United States really needed to be engaged in that world in order to prevent a repeat. And that we needed to create a cooperative system of economic, political, and security relations ... internationally, through the United Nations; regionally, through a set of security alliances; and through a cooperative trading and open economic system. And that that cooperation would be possible only if one country was able to lead. So the post-war international order that was created on the ruins of World War II was a cooperative system held together, and moved forward, by American leadership. So American leadership has been sort of fundamental to America's engagement in the world. And this is in the leadership that Democrats and Republicans, in a bipartisan way, for 70 years, have held close and near. They've had lots of differences about how to engage, and where; but not that the United States, as the "leader of the free world" as we like to call it, should be engaged in the world and do it through leadership.
James Lindsay: A point I want to emphasize here, Brian, that Ivo touched upon, is that when we talk about the conception of leadership, it was fundamentally about using American power, America's role in the world, to mobilize our friends and allies to meet and defeat common challenges. Whether we're talking about security challenges; whether we're talking about creating an open economic system, making trade possible; whether we're talking about trying to promote human rights, democracy, in the rule of law. And what is remarkable is how successful that order has been over time, over the last 70 years. We've seen vast growth in economic expansion that benefited the United States as well as lots of other countries. We've seen the absence of Great Power War. And again, fundamentally this order, conceived by people like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George C. Marshall; put into practice by people like Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, was about preventing the recurrence of Great Power War. Indeed part of the bargaining we made with our closest friends and allies, think Germany, think Japan, think France and Great Britain, is that they were going to put aside their geopolitical ambitions, which had led to not one but two catastrophic wars, and join us in this common pursuits, where they would downplay geopolitical competition. Remarkably successful. I think it's also important when we talk about leadership not to equate it with military interventionism. Because certainly if you look over the past 70 years, the United States has used military force but not always because the demands of global leadership required it. That was the case, for example, in Vietnam where many of America's friends and allies cautioned against the course United States chartered; and obviously more recently, in Iraq.
Brian Hanson: So on the basis of the argument about the importance of US leadership and its centrality in producing the outcomes of peace and prosperity, relative peace and prosperity, we've had ... You all level a very strong criticism against the Trump administration that's captured in your title, right? The Empty Throne: America's Abdication of Global Leadership. What do you see happening with the Trump administration, and what are the most important aspects of his foreign policy that have led to this giving up of US leadership?
James Lindsay: Two things I would emphasize, Brian. The first is that the president came to office with a very different vision of how the world worked. In many ways, it is a vision that sort of turns the clock back. We saw the president's criticism over the course of the campaign was that, in essence, our friends and allies were taking advantage of us; free-riding on our security guarantee while trying to steal our jobs through multilateral trade arrangements. And the president put it quite clearly that he wants to "win again." You very seldom hear him talk about leading. He even has talked about our friends as foes. And so the president in some sense is comfortable with that dog-eat-dog, competitive, zero-sum "I win, you lose" kind of world. To give a broad historical perspective, that kind of world gave rise to problems that threatened America's security and prosperity. Second point, I think it's very important to keep in mind, is that Donald Trump, when he was campaigning, talked about some very real problems. And I think it's important to recognize that it wasn't that President Trump came to office and took a system that was working perfectly well, and disrupted and broke it. This order, this post-war American order that had been around for 70 years, had been showing some wear and tear. It needed to be revitalized. And I'll give the president credit, if you want to talk in terms of problem recognition. He's talked about how we have to address the rise of China. He's very concerned about the standard of living for individual Americans. But I think, as we show in the book, when it comes to diagnosis and prescription ... that is, why do we have the problem, and what should we do about it? ... the president's choices aren't advancing America's interests. They're undermining our security and our prosperity over the long term.
Brian Hanson: So Ivo, what are some of those choices that have been so damaging, in your view?
Ivo Daalder: Well I think the most important choice that he has made is the relationship that the United States has with its allies and partners around the world. One of the unique parts of this international order was the decision by the United States to create alliances and partnerships, ones that were undergirded by American leadership and American power, and in which countries had become very comfortable to defer to the United States, to be led by the United States. I was US Ambassador at NATO. You have a singular position as the US Ambassador to NATO. You're not the same as every other ambassador. You lead. And it's important that not only do you lead, but that other people are hunkering for that leadership. And that's been the way we have engaged. We have 55 formal allies around the world, both in the Americas, and in Europe and in Asia. And he has looked at allies not as additions to our power capabilities to solve common problems; but as he called them, not that long ago, foes, as the people that we need to beat. He talks about NATO as an organization where we have paid too much for defense and now it's time for them to pay us. Not for them to do more on defense, but to pay us. In a famous, early encounter which we describe in the book between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump in the Oval Office ... they've had a conversation and she's about to leave and he says, "Chancellor, I think you're great person. But you owe me a trillion dollars." And the reality is, Germany does not owe the United States a trillion dollars. It owes the United States thanks, for its leadership, it's liberation of Germany from the Nazis. And that thanks has been repaid in a whole ... kind of different ways. But the fundamental way in which the president deals with our friends and allies, whether it's on trading relations where we have had a very cantankerous relationship with the Chinese, with the Europeans, with indeed our Asian friends in Japan and South Korea; or in our security relationships ... not really understanding the fundamental role that allies play. They add to our power. They add to our capability. They make us very different from a China and a Russia, neither of whom have allies. They have clients. We have allies. It's the fundamental advantage that we have. And we're sort of throwing that out of the window.
James Lindsay: I think that what Ivo has just pointed to, Brian, is important in the abstract. And I just want to sort of drill down and give you an example, and I want to build on this question of NATO. What is striking about the president's approach to the issue of what our allies spend on defense is that the president has not been making the case that we need our allies and friends to spend more so that we can spend less, which is what you would think given his rhetoric about how they've been taking advantage of us. Rather, the president's been saying, "I want you to spend more, and I'm going to spend more no matter what you do." And I think that gets us back to the important question of distinguishing between some of the president's rhetoric ... and you can understand why many people get sort of a national self-assertion, the thrill of that from the president talking about the United States ... and actually looking at the concrete things the president want to do. I would note that what is often lost in the conversation is that, given the US Military, some of our costs are actually deferred by our friends and allies. If you look at basing, whether we're talking about in Germany, we're talking about Japan, we're talking about South Korea, the host countries pick up part of the tab. And one of the interesting things is if you were to bring those forces back home, it would actually cost you more money. It wouldn't save money. And I think if you go from issue to issue, and you drill down to the actual nature of the problem, I think the president gets important things wrong. That is, the diagnoses and the prescriptions don't serve our longterm interests.
Brian Hanson: So how would you compare President Trump and his relationship on some of these issues and with our allies to President George W. Bush. Of course, he also pushed back against the system, pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, nixing the International Criminal Court. When it came to going to Afghanistan, at first he wasn't much interested in having NATO come along, even though NATO evokes Article 5, an attack against on is attack against all. During the run-up to the Iraq War many of our allies, our strongest allies, were saying, "Don't do this." And he went ahead anyway. How big is the difference? Because certainly during that period, a lot of the relationships and the agendas, those shared agendas with our allies, were very intentionally cast aside.
Ivo Daalder: Two ways to think about it. One, of course, Jim and I wrote book together. The last time we wrote a book together was on the Bush Administration.
James Lindsay: America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy.
Ivo Daalder: Exactly.
James Lindsay: If I can plug it.
Brian Hanson: Available at the same bookstore that you can find The Empty Throne.
Ivo Daalder: No doubt. In fact, you may get a discount if you buy both of them at the same time. It's a difference of kind, rather than a different of degree. So yes, George W. Bush had a quite — particularly in the aftermath of 9/11 — a quite unilateralist perspective on the world, a belief that the power that the United States possessed was sufficient to get others to come along and do as we want. And it was this sort of might-makes-right approach to foreign policy. And that was very much ingrained not only in George W. Bush, it was ingrained in his Vice President, Dick Cheney, in his Secretary of Defense, Don Rumsfeld, and it rankled our allies, a lot of them. The difference, though, was that they cared about American leadership. It was not that the United States shouldn't lead, it was how the United States should lead. They believed that the way you lead, is you show the way, and you bring everybody along. Turned out, as they found out and, I think, in the second term, showed, that there is other ways, that getting people to come along may require more than just being powerful enough. President Trump is not interested in leadership. He's fundamentally interested in winning, and you win by beating others. It's a zero-sum relationship not only with your foes, which is one thing, but in Trump's case, with our friends, and with our allies. Our trading allies and our defense partners. And that's not where George Bush was. He fundamentally believed in leading. He believed in leading alliances, he believed in leading in trading relationships, he certainly believed in leading in democracy and human rights, which were all fundamental aspects of America's engagement in the world. And in that sense, it was a difference in terms of tactics. And Republicans and Democrats have disagreed about that, but not about fundamentals. President Trump has basically called into question the fundamental way in which we approach our engagement in the world.
Brian Hanson: And you said something that you capture very well in the book, it's this distinction between leading and winning. Say more about what is this attitude about winning about, and what are some concrete examples where that has led to a bad policy choice?
James Lindsay: Well, there are a number, and let's look at on the trade front, because I think it may be easiest to see it there. The President campaigned by promising to produce great trade deals, arguing that trade deals we had were horrible and terrible, catastrophic. Now, to give the President credit as a politician, he never defined what would make a great trade deal. And obviously, any leader, if you're in a position in which you've promised something but never really defined what it is, that gives you the opportunity, whatever the outcome, to declare victory, and I think that's been the case with President Trump. Let's look at two instances, one is the revision of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The President called it a horrible deal, about a year into his term we got a slight revision, and I want to emphasize slight. One of the main changes in the deal allowed double the quote for US auto makers to to sell, cars into the South Korean market. Now that may sound like a great victory to have gotten, the only problem was, is that no American automobile manufacturer even hit the current quota, so the South Koreans were quite happy to raise the quota, because it had no practical impact. Or let's look at the revision of NAFTA, NAFTA 2.0, or, as the administration prefers to call it, the US-Canada-Mexico Trade Agreement, USMCA. And you look at that, and what is remarkable is that it's probably NAFTA 1.0, plus or minus 10%. And a lot of the plus is simply imported from a trade agreement the president left when he first came into office, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, which was this big trade deal that the Obama Administration had negotiated, which involved 12 Pacific Rim countries. The President tore it up, but many of those provisions ended up in the new NAFTA. And the President added on to that variety of measures to change auto content. And on one hand that sounds like a very good idea, "Let's make more of our autos here at home." But when you actually start to look at it, what it really means, is a much bigger regulatory burden on American automobile manufacturers, and there's a very real concern what that will mean over the long term, is that the United States automobile industry will be less competitive in the world. And what that translates into practical terms, is if you're less competitive, you sell less, you make less, you employ less. Not a good long-term strategy.
Brian Hanson: So in making this argument about the Trump Administration stepping out of this leadership role, or even actively opposing the US playing this role, it matters because of its impact on the rest of the world. What is the reaction in the rest of the world?
James Lindsay: Well, actually, before I say that, I wouldn't say it matters the impact it has on the United States. I mean, the idea of America leading ... Americans never led, from FDR on, as sort of an element of sentimentality toward the rest of the world, or altruism. As Ivo laid out quite well at the beginning of the podcast, they did it as a matter of hard-headed geopolitical calculation. They looked out at the world and said, "That world of geopolitical competition, where everybody's in it for itself, where they sort of hold up sovereignty and say, 'I win. You lose.' Led not to one, but two catastrophic wars." And they said, "How do we avoid that?" So that was always the logic behind it, and the calculation in subsequent events bore it out, was that if we agreed to take a broad view of our interests, to work with others, to create an order where others could benefit as well as us, we would all do better. And the fact is, we did. Now, I know there are some people who will say, "But wait a second, we're losing jobs because of trade." Well, I can understand the argument for that, but the reality is — talk to any economist — the big reason you see major job losses in the United States has been because of technology, it has not been because of trade. That is not to say trade has had no effect. It's had some effect, clearly what we call the China Shock over the first decade after China joined the World Trade Organization. But the bigger problem has been technology. Just look at the steel industry. Today, it takes one person in the steel industry to produce what it took 10 people to produce 50 years ago. That has massive consequences for employment. Or think of automation in the automobile industry, how many fewer it takes because robots do work. And I think if you want to look at the President's policies, he's bashing trade, even though many Americans, their jobs depend on trade, and not addressing the real addressing the real threats to American employment going forward, which is automation, which is do we have an infrastructure that allows companies to succeed? Do we have the properly trained workforce? Do we have the right regulatory structures? And I think that those are the big things that we should be talking about in terms of issues of job employment, and this administration, I think, has at best a mixed track record on.
Ivo Daalder: Let me push and get to your question about how does the rest of the world sort of reacting to this, and what is the consequence for the United States. Let me take two examples, not from the trade world, but from the nuclear world. Iran and North Korea, two tremendous threats to the United States, but also to others. In the North Korea case, when President Trump came to office, the North Koreans were testing longer ranged missiles, and, indeed, again tested their nuclear capability. And they proposed something. They said, "We're willing to stop testing and freeze our nuclear development tests and our missiles test, if you, the United States, no longer do exercises." What's known as a freeze-for-a-freeze proposal. The United States said, "No. Can't do that. It's completely unacceptable. We need to find a way to reduce the nuclear threat. The North Koreans need to not only stop freezing it, they need to reduce it, and we're not going to give you a concession of not doing exercises." Well, we went through a whole rigmarole. Threats, rocket man, we were close to war, and then we had a summit in Singapore, with Kim Jong-Un on the one side and Donald Trump on the others side. They shook hands and they had a wonderful meeting. And guess what they came out with? The North Koreans said, "We won't test our nuclear weapons and our missiles." And the United States says, "We will freeze our exercises." That is the freeze-versus-freeze. So we've now achieved what the North Koreans wanted. Who's benefiting from that? The United States or North Korea? Well, we'll find out. Iran. Different side. We had the entire world arraigned against Iran. We got an Iran nuclear deal. It wasn't a perfect deal. It wasn't as horrible as the president said, but it wasn't a perfect deal. So the United States decided, "Let's see if we can find a way to renegotiate the deal." And the allies were willing to actually take some steps. Not good enough for the President, he walks away from the deal, and says, "I'm withdrawing from the nuclear deal." And what do we have? We have an entire world that was arraigned against Iran, now arraigned against the United States, where we have Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany on one side, saying, "We want to keep the deal." And the United States on the other side. We're not getting what we need out of our international engagement. The others are getting what they need. Our foes are getting what they need. The Iranians have the Russians and the Chinese on their side, they have the European allies on their side, but they no longer have to fear the United States, in part because the United States is standing by itself.
James Lindsay: Brian, let me jump in on this, because I never answered your question, because I wanted to go in a different direction. Ivo's done this security piece, let me just briefly talk about the trade and .... Let's call it the Democracy, Human Rights, and Rule of Law piece. On the trade thing I'll simply note the candidate now has as new ministry for trade diversification. It's a result of the protracted negotiations over NAFTA,
Brian Hanson: As in diversify from US trade with other countries.
James Lindsay: And what it means is is find somebody else you can do business with because America's not gonna be the place to do business. Now, we can argue, but how much leeway the Canadians actually have to diversify away from the United States, but again, you look elsewhere around the world the President may not like multilateral trade deals but other countries do. They're making them. The Japanese have salvaged along with the Canadians and the Australians, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Japanese have struck the trade deal with the EU. One of the consequences of that is the United States had better access to the Japanese market. Now we have worse access to the Japanese market. The Japanese have gone through and done deals with others 'cause we didn't want to do a deal. If we look in terms of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, the President talks about fake news. We discover that term being picked up by our ideological allies, by authoritarian leaders. We see the President standing on the sidelines and not criticizing human rights violations around the world, except when it seems to sort of fit with other issues like in Iran or in Venezuela, but if we look at the Rohingya crisis in Burma, the administration has done relatively little. If we look at the massive oppression of Chinese Uyghurs in western China, the administration has largely sat on the side, and this is troubling for the following reason. We have been seeing over the last decade or so, and this is not because of Donald Trump, we might call it democratic recession. That is, rather than seeing democracy and rule of law continue to spread, we're seeing it contracting. American presidents historically have had the ability to play and important role to sort of put the pressure on. I'm always struck by my colleagues who work on human rights issue and you've worked, particularly during the Cold War, telling stories about after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union ending up on the ash heap of history. Talking to Soviet dissidents and saying how important it was that Ronald Reagan stood up and denounced the Soviet Union even though it didn't tangibly improve their state right then and there and in some ways made it worse. The fact that an American president stood up as a beacon of moral clarity was empowering and helped people continue, and I think that is a very real concern. We as Americans tend to think that democracy is sort of this inexorable program. It's just gonna keep spreading. It doesn't. We look at history. We have seen it contract, and a world that is less democratic, less free is going to be less hospitable to Americans in the United States.
Brian Hanson: I want to take democracy and bring it back to this country. Really, the question is to what extent is Donald Trump his own person driving this and to what extent is he a symptom of what the public wants? Clearly, he did not hide his hostility to allies or to trade or any of these subjects during the campaign. As a matter of fact, they were front and center for this. If you look back at presidential contests really ever since Bill Clinton, every single successful candidate has argued that they were going to do less than the person before them, that the US needed to retrench in the world. Is Donald Trump and this agenda really simply a reflection of what the American public wants?
James Lindsay: I would say no, and I would note two things. One, President Trump believed this long before he became President. You can go all the way back to his 1987 letter to the American people. It appeared in the NYT, the Washington Post, in the Boston Globe, and he laid out this denunciation of American foreign policy that was predicated on this notion that the world was laughing at us, that they were taking advantage of us, and that we should make others pay more. The President's been very consistent in his message over three decades. It's nothing new there. Second point I make is there are lots of reasons why Donald Trump got elected, and I think you can put way to much weight on the notion that people voted for Donald Trump because he said NATO was obsolete. I don't want to put all of that stress on it. What I would say is since he has become President, the President has sort of carried out what he promised, and if you're rating presidents in terms of their ability to carry out their fidelity to their campaign promises, Donald Trump's at the top of the charts. But ultimately, what people care about is not whether the President did what he said in the campaign trail. They want to know does he make me or the country better off, and as you know better than I Ivo and Brian, you can see this in the Chicago Council's public opinion polling, the public is looking at what President Trump is actually delivering and they're recoiling from it. They have very significant reservations, and that's why I think you can sum up the results of your poll simply by saying, "Donald Trump has been very good for what we call liberal internationalism."
Brian Hanson: This takes me nicely to what is the long-term impact of these policies, Jim? You were just talking about China and the alignment of our allies in different ways. If Donald Trump's term ends in two more years or ends in six years, to what extent can we go back to the role that you all advocate of strong American leadership, or is that damaged in some way that can't be repaired?
James Lindsay: I want to go back to the way you framed the question, Brian, and I want to stress that it's not the case that the next President can somehow take us back to where we were before Donald Trump, or that the world before Donald Trump everything worked terrifically well. Again, this is an order that was struggling. It had lots of problems. I think if you're looking for an optimistic outcome in the Trump presidency there's the possibility that his presidency, particularly if our allies respond the way Ivo and I have argued they should by doing more, that you could actually over the long term strengthen that order, 'cause sort of the bargain between the United States and other countries does need to be rethought. I do think even though this is more than ... Either of you haven't been US Ambassador to NATO, our friends and allies in Europe can and should spend more on their own defense and our joint security. And if we end up in a situation where our friends and allies do do more, I think the next President of the United States could find him or herself to be a very lucky President, precisely because there are a lot of countries that want the United States to come back and play that leadership role, 'cause they recognize that we face common problems, but without a leader, without somebody that can mobilize groups together to tackle those problems, they're not going to get tackled, and it's very easy to look around the world today and to see what kind of future we face if there isn't someone to play that role. Look at Syria. Look at Venezuela. Two examples where there is a tremendous human crisis and essentially everyone is sitting on the sidelines watching, or, particularly in the case of Syria, certain countries trying to take advantage of the situation for themselves. This is not a problem that's in the distant future decades away. It's a problem in the here and now, and again, why do we get this order? It was a reaction by the greatest generation to not one but the two world wars they saw in their lifetime. In some sense, the future, regrettably, could be returned to that. There's no guarantee that because we've had seven years of peace, that we will have another 70 years of peace.
Brian Hanson: On that very sobering note, I want to thank both of you for writing this book, The Empty Throne, because as you point out in this discussion as highlighted, we are at an important point of choice, both in the United States and other countries, about what the future of the world will look like, and this book does a terrific job of helping us understand the logic behind the Trump administration's choice, and its implications for the world. Jim thank you very much for being here. Ivo, always good to have you on.
James Lindsay: Thank you Brian.
Ivo Daalder: Glad to be back.