Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Has Trump Permanently Altered US Foriegn Policy?

Last month, Foreign Affairs posed an interesting question to a panel of experts: Has Trump permanently altered US foreign policy? If you have a chance to read it—it’s behind a paywall—we encourage you to do so. You’ll see a wide range of views from a host of scholars and analysts.

Below Drs. Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson offer their thoughts on the same question posed by Foreign Affairs.


Yohanes Sulaiman: Neutral, confidence level 5.

On the one hand, Trump escalated America’s dispute with China, which accelerated a downward trend in the relationship between the US and China. His so-called foreign policy disasters are not as big and widespread as many people argue, however. Moreover, keep in mind that the rest of the world still needs the US to maintain order. So despite the world’s distaste of Trump, they stuck with the US and continue to stick with the US as the lesser of two evils. You can see it in the ISEAS “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 Survey Report,” that despite declining trust in the US, Southeast Asia still relies the US for leadership: 48.3% trust the US, compared to China's 16.5%. And if ASEAN has to pick sides, the majority of the organization’s members will still pick the US.

In essence, systemic effects matter. Threats, particularly local threats, matter. Despite Trump, states still pick the US because the alternatives, like China or Russia, are likely worse.  


Brad Nelson: Agree, Confidence level 5.

Yes, it's true that there are some Trump-era policies and strategies that Biden can reverse. In fact, he's already started this process. Biden has cozied up to Europe, placed the US back into the Paris Accords, promised to contribute money to COVAX, extended the New Start nuclear deal, reduced support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and overturned the terrorist label on the Houthis, and so on. For those who like liberal internationalism, this is a good start.

However, there are some policies and initiatives that Trump has embraced that will be difficult to change or counter. Three immediately come to mind. First, the "no new wars" crowd has been for years a fringe element of US politics. Not anymore. Trump added the weight of his presidency to a "no new wars" position, bringing supporters of this (on the left and right) out from the cold, and created a growing expectation among Americans that the US is done with fighting wars that aren't of self-defense. Sure, 20 years of war has played a role in turning Americans off to more war. But it's also importantly to note that Trump mainstreamed this view and effectively made it a new policy status quo, thereby making it harder than usual to break down the line. Just look at Biden’s recent air strikes on Iranian proxies in Syria. He’s received significant blowback from folks, including Democratic Congresspersons and supporters, who fear that the US is sleepwalking into a war with Iran.  

Second, we can argue about whether Trump's specific statements and policies on China were the right ones. But what isn't arguable is that there's a widespread belief, on the right and left, that his strategic approach to directly confront China was the right one, and one that's been long overdue. Going back to a more mealy-mouthed, squishy engagement policy is effectively ruled out for the foreseeable future.

And third, the literal idea of America First—that US foreign policy should first and foremost benefit the US and Americans—is here to stay. The Washington establishment's desire to work on pet foreign projects—an en vogue part of US foreign policy for most of the post-cold war era, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s—isn't feasible anymore. Trump has forced Americans to ask whether the policies the US pursues serve the national interest. Frankly, this is already playing out in the Biden era. It's why his foreign policy promises to connect US foreign policy to US domestic politics and economics and to the overall welfare of Americans.

Monday, January 25, 2021

What We're Watching in 2021

                                                               USA Today

Last week, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman discussed which global issues they have their eye on in 2021. Below is a lightly editied version of that conversation.  

Brad Nelson: Well, we made it. 2021 is here. Before we get too far into this relatively new year, I thought we'd take a quick look ahead. What do you have your eye on this year? What are you following? Any predictions for 2021?

Yohanes Sulaiman: First, let me just focus on one thing that the world will be watching for sure: Biden. 2021 will be a difficult year for Biden. There are very high expectations for Biden both domestically and internationally to overturn many of Trump's policies. I won't delve into America’s domestic affairs, but let me list several international issues that Biden will face. At some point soon, he will have to focus on re-engaging with international institutions (e.g. Paris Accord, WHO); reembracing Europe; reassuring Israel, Saudi Arabia, Japan, India, and Taiwan that he will be as accommodative to them as Trump was; dealing with North Korea; the Iran nuclear deal; handling Erdogan and Putin; troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia; the repercussions of Pompeo's declaration that China committed genocide; the trade war with China; and figuring out where and how Southeast Asia and Australia fits in his policy. And that's off the top of my head. 

BN: I'm also watching the incoming Biden administration, especially on domestic matters. How will he deal with the GOP? How will he handle the leftists in his party? What's his approach to domestic extremists and terrorists? Which signature domestic policies will Biden look to push first?

And on Biden foreign policy, as you mentioned, there is much to monitor. The big issue, of course, is Biden's strategy toward China. Will he hang tough? Go soft? Try to find a middle ground with Xi? Second, I'll be tracking Biden's proposed effort to place alliances at the center of US foreign policy. Will this boost US foreign policy, as establishment thinkers and academics have argued over the last four years? Or will it turn out to be a bust?

Additionally, I'm closely watching North Korea. Reports indicate that North Korea might be readying a submarine-launched missile test fairly soon. No surprise, given Kim's propensity to turn up the pressure on new governments in rival/enemy powers. But Kim's in a particularly tricky situation. There are conflicting accounts on how much Covid has ravaged North Korea. North Korea's economy has shrunk even further as the country self-isolates for fear of the virus entering from China and South Korea. Kim is apparently frustrated and angry with the US, ticked off that his summit diplomacy with Trump didn't yield more tangible benefits for him. And Kim knows that Biden is highly unlikely to give Kim even a fraction of the time and attention that Trump gave him. So, with all of that in mind, is Kim in an especially sour mood, ready to lash out? If so, how does Biden respond? How do the major regional players, like South Korea, Japan, and China, react?

YS: Domestically, if Biden stays in the center, that would strengthen his position. I think a lot of people are tired of the hyper-partisanship of the last four years, and if Biden manages to work together with the moderate GOP, he can cruise to reelection in 2024. I don't think Trump will remain influential in the next four years despite all the din, unless the Democrats want to make him a martyr. If I were Biden, I would pardon Trump, showing him and the rest of the US that I was the better man and smothering the crazies on the right. Of course, it won't be popular among the left, but that basically would end Trump. What would be more despicable for him than to be pardoned by the person he derides? If he refuses the pardon, he would be entangled with all the legal fights for the rest of his life. If he accepts the pardon, then it would be a total humiliation and would end his status as a martyr.

If Biden listens to the far left, however, then I could see him getting shellacked both in the midterms in 2022 and then in 2024. 

Covid will be around for one or two more years. It is interesting how the politicization of Covid all over the world essentially makes it very difficult to control the epidemic. Many people don't trust that vaccines will work thanks to a daily dose of politicized discussion on the efficacy of the vaccine. The impact of Covid internationally may not be as big as we thought, aside from intensifying competition between the US and China. And I doubt that Biden will suddenly try to appease China—that would look terrible optically. 

BN: I think Biden should wait before even considering to offer a pardon to Trump. Let's see if Trump is in legal trouble federally. If Trump is, then Biden should consider a pardon, though I'm not sure he should go ahead with one. Of course, Biden would get serious push-back from the far left in his party. And any federal pardon won't absolve Trump from any state crimes, and New York state is coming after him. That said, I'm fully in support of the thrust of your point. There's no need to act vengefully with respect to Trump; instead, focus on healing from the Trump years and uniting the country. I do think Biden gets that. The unity angle is Biden's is not only his mantra but an integral part of his political persona. Biden admitted that Trump wrote him a "generous" note (but didn't want to reveal the note's content's until speaking with Trump), which was nice to hear, and Biden's inaugural address emphasized similar themes in both tone and substance. 

I'm glad you mentioned Covid. That's the other major issue I'm watching in 2021. Given the case load and death toll, Covid has almost become a US rather than a global virus. So what Biden's does on Covid is important. The US health care system has been stretched to its limits. Thousands of Americans are still getting sick and dying every day, and countless Americans are worried about getting sick. At the same time, many Americans are tired of being cooped up and having their way of life impacted—even those who fully understand the severity of the virus, not just the MAGA contingent. If Biden can work out the kinks in the vaccine distribution, get more money into the hands of Americans, offer businesses, especially small businesses, vital support, 2021 will be a better year—for the US and for US partners and allies. 

Because Covid isn't solely an American thing, it'll also be useful to observe how the rest of the world copes with the pandemic. Europe is having major trouble at the moment, as are Mexico, India, and Brazil, among others. Many of the world's developing countries might not even gain access to a vaccine for another year or two. The global powers, the WHO, and other interested parties have to work to ensure that as many people as people, as fast as possible, no matter where they live, get access to a vaccine and state-of-the-art medicines and therapeutics to help sick people recover effectively and in a timely manner. That's the only way the world can quickly put Covid in its collective rearview mirror.   

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Attack On the Capitol Building


Wednesday, January 6 (2021) will be remembered as a seminal catastrophic moment in American politics, much like how history views 9/11 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The foundations of US democracy—both symbolically and literally—were invaded and attacked. Hundreds of crazed Trump supporters, stirred up by President Trump and other elected Republican officials and aggrieved by Trump’s election defeat, attacked the Capitol building—the very seat of America’s legislature, and arguably the most iconic building in the US—in the most destructive attack on the Capitol in roughly two hundred years. Windows were smashed, offices were vandalized and ransacked, and fights and gun battles erupted, resulting in the deaths of five people, including US Capitol officer Brian Sicknick, and more than 50 injured. At this point, almost 100 attackers have been arrested and more will surely suffer the same fate in the coming days.

Presumably, Trump’s goons believed that by storming the Capitol, they could unleash a series of moves that would prevent Joe Biden’s electoral win from becoming official and enable Trump to retain the presidency. The Trump putsch failed, of course, as police, after a few hours, were able to clear and secure the Capitol and push the mob of people away from the building. Still, US democracy suffered a near-fatal blow, and it’s no overstatement to say that it could take generations for Americans to fully reckon with and recover from the Trump years and Wednesday’s attack in particular.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised by the course of events. Back in late September, on this blog, I described the decrepit state of US democracy, US politics, and the potential for post-election violence. “What will Trump do on Election Day and beyond? My guess is that he will declare victory, no matter if he's in the lead or not election night. He'll gin up his base, working them up into a frenzy in his speeches on his Twitter page. He’ll use all sorts of vague and coded language, encouraging his supporters to “stay vigilant” and “not let the Democrats steal the election,” and so on. Then he'll try to get a GOP-leaning Supreme Court, assuming Amy Coney Barrett takes a seat before November, to toss out thousands of ballots in battleground states, with the hopes of overturning the election. I mean, it's crystal clear what he intends to do. During the debate, he admitted he sees the Supreme Court playing a role in adjudicating the election. If the courts rule against him, trouble could still loom. All of the people Trump ginned up will seek an outlet to release their pent up frustrations and anger. And at that point, there’s the very real prospect of armed pro-Trump groups taking to the streets.” It was easy to forecast the coming catastrophe, as Trump himself signaled his intentions to hold on to power through any means necessary, even if that meant bending the rule of law to his whim and inciting his followers to commit heinous acts. And that’s exactly what happened.

Surely, Trump deserves his share of blame. And he’s deservingly getting it—from the mainstream media, academics and policy wonks, some Republicans, and Democrats, who plan on bringing forth a second round of impeachment charges very soon. For years, dating back to the start of his political campaign in 2015, Trump has mainstreamed far-right political extremism by peddling xenophobic, racist, violent, and lawless rhetoric. And he’s cozied up to white nationalists and Neo-Nazis, refused to distance himself from QAnon and other conspiracy theorists, and embraced a wide swath of homegrown and international political fanatics—exactly the types of people who attacked the Capitol. Over the years, Trump’s supporters have responded accordingly by engaging in or threatening to carry out various hate crimes, terror plots, and assassinations in his name. In short, then, it’s not as if the Capitol building attack is something out of the blue for the extremist, fringe element of Trump’s base.

The proximate cause for Wednesday’s mayhem traces back to Trump’s November election loss. He has recklessly claimed the election was rigged and stolen from him, buttressing his claims with a steady stream of lies and conspiracy theories. On Twitter, in public statements, and at campaign rallies since Election Day, Trump has encouraged his supporters to resist the election results and prevent the election from being stolen from him. And on Wednesday, at the “Save America Rally,” spoke for an hour, instigating the crowd “to stand strong,” “to fight,” “to get tougher,” and “telling supporters to ‘stop the steal’ of the election, urging them to head to the Capitol to demonstrate against Congress certifying President-elect Joe Biden's victory.” Many believe these words incited the mob, only minutes after Trump spoke, to storm the Capitol.  

But Trump isn’t the only one to blame for the attacks. The extremists and insurrectionists who carried out Wednesday’s putsch clearly also share blame. These are the people who’ve been radicalized—by Trump, by other radicals, by radical media outlets—to attack the Capitol, fantastically believing that this would save America’s democracy. And for the past four years, they have slavishly and cultishly devoted themselves to Trump and his pet causes—hanging on his every word, turning out in droves to his political rallies, buying Trump hats and memorabilia, serving as an Internet troll army, and causing death and destruction in Charlottesville, among other things. In the end, they were duped by Trump to serve his personal ends and left with little more than red hats, lots of anger, and a raging pandemic.   

The Republican Party also shares some blame. Almost across the board—except for Mitt Romney and Justin Amash (who later left the Republican Party)—the GOP has failed to provide effective guardrails on Trump. Instead, they’ve been perfectly fine with coasting on Trump’s political coattails, drafting on his popularity within the party, to gain and hold political power. The GOP’s coddling of Trump has aided and abetted his repeated efforts to subvert America’s democracy, the spike in white nationalist violence, and the radicalization of the political right in the US.   

Lastly, the far right-wing echo chamber of television, radio, and social media has played an important role in stirring up trouble in the US. While Fox News and Fox News personalities, like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, still dominate the right-wing and far right political discourse, they are no longer the hegemon, as OANN, Newsmax, Gab, Parler, and other radical Internet sites and message boards have grown in popularity. All too frequently these actors serve as veritable mouthpieces for Trump and his administration, parroting his views, his conspiracy theories, and his outright lies. Moreover, at times, they independently act to advance Trump’s cause, creating their own narratives and storylines—sometimes based in fact, but frequently not—to bolster Trump’s agenda and undermine the Democrats’ policies and political power. The far right wing mediasphere, much like Trump, plays a pivotal role in radicalizing Americans, telling them what they want to hear, creating fictitious enemies, glorifying Trump and the GOP, and ginning them up to be perpetually angry and aggrieved. In fact, the far right-wing media has helped to foster a cult-like atmosphere in which Trump is treated as a savior, heaven-sent to solve America’s problems and to beat back the Democrats and other undesirables. And that, in turn, has spawned the deification and considerable iconography of Trump (hats, t-shirts, flags, etc.).

Now, the insurrection is terrible, and the roles the aforementioned players played in causing or provoking the Capitol attack is also terrible. But as bad as those things are, there’s an even bigger problem. Trump, the GOP, and the far right-wing mediasphere have created a monster they can no longer control. The Capitol attackers were not simply lawbreakers, they were an incredibly violent group. They possessed materials for napalm, assault weapons, bombs, nooses, zip-ties, and so on. This wasn’t a situation in which peaceful protesters showed up to Washington, DC, on Wednesday to voice their political views and things suddenly and accidentally got out of control. No, this was a pre-planned event, according to online chatter, and the attackers were well-prepared to use violent tools if necessary. We’re lucky the attack only resulted in five deaths, as it easily could’ve resulted in a very bloody mass-casualty event.  

Additionally, the Trump mob is angrier than ever, seeking revenge not only against Democrats but against any Republican who, in their view, has turned on Trump. For instance, according to a report, members of the crazed mob were looking for Vice President Mike Pence, hoping to find him and execute him for his “crimes” of recording the Electoral College results. Despite years of yeoman’s work of supporting Trump, Lindsey Graham’s recent declaration to “count him out” has made him, like Pence, an enemy of hardcore Trumpers. I expect the enemies list to grow as more Republicans actively denounce Trump and distance themselves from him in the waning days of his tenure.

Furthermore, just because the violent attackers have now went home, and some have been arrested, that doesn’t mean they’re done. They’re riding a major high right now. The Trump mob believes they scored a victory. They managed to breach Capitol security and get into the building, scared the hell out of Congress, received days of free media time, and create political chaos. As a result, the MAGA insurrectionists are emboldened; they are all-in in their continued fight to defend Trump, dethrone the Democrats, and cause further bedlam.

Attempts to cope with the fallout and implications of the Capitol attack cannot come only from the political left in the US. Both parties, in a united front, must attack the ongoing scourge on US democracy. America cannot leave far right violent mobs any political space and freedom to operate. While a comprehensive plan to deal with the ongoing political extremism and strife is beyond the scope of this post, I can offer a brief list of items that politicians on the right and left should consider. In particular, bipartisan efforts should made to: tone down the political rhetoric; condemn violent, seditious political acts; discourage violent, seditious acts; make it abundantly clear that the rules, norms, and laws apply equally to far left radicals; work with social media companies, helping them to create sensible and transparent--rather than ad hoc and reactive--policies that effectively balance free speech protections and the safety of Americans; and ostracize and punish Congresspersons who endorse/are complicit with extremist language and political acts.

Finally, I also think Congress—and politicians in general, at the state and local levels—needs to up the fight against Covid-19. Covid is a separate but related issue to the political struggles America now faces. The fact that so many Americans are sick, have died, and are out of work has raised the political temperature by several degrees in the US over the last 12 months. The faster the Biden administration can make major in-roads in beating back the virus, the quicker Americans can return to their normal work, school, religious and entertainment environments. And that will help in dialing down the rage of people who despise being confined and the restrictions on their personal freedoms.