U.S. foreign policy faltering in the wake of post–9/11 priorities, Trump and Covid-19
From left: General Wesley K. Clark (ret) and Ben Rhodes. (Photos provided by the speakers.)

U.S. foreign policy faltering in the wake of post–9/11 priorities, Trump and Covid-19

Two seasoned U.S. foreign policy hands, speaking at separate Burkle Center events, presented overviews of U.S. foreign policy.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

View the podcast or video of the General Clark webinar on May 20, 2020.

View the podcast or video of the Ben Rhodes webinar on June 17, 2020.

UCLA International Institute, July 1, 2020 — U.S. foreign policy is failing to address the country’s most important long-term national interests due to counter-terrorism priorities inherited from the post-9/11 era, polarized domestic politics and a retreat from global leadership and a rules-based international order. The country’s failure to lead the world in combatting the novel coronavirus pandemic, as it did when combatting the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2015, is particularly notable.

These were among the observations made by General Wesley K. Clark (ret) and Ben Rhodes, respectively, at two recent webinars organized by the Burkle Center for International Relations. Clark, a retired U.S. Army four-star general, former Democratic presidential candidate (2004) and a senior fellow at the Burkle Center, spoke on May 20. Rhodes, author of “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House” (Random House, 2018), frequent media commentator and former deputy national security advisor to President Obama (2009–17), spoke on June 17. Hosted by Burkle Center Director Kal Raustiala, both men delivered presentations, followed by lengthy question-and-answer sessions led by Raustiala.

In his remarks, Clark reviewed changes in U.S. foreign policy from the 1990s through the present-day Covid-19 crisis, while Rhodes focused on the need for U.S. foreign policy to re-orient itself away from post-9/11 priorities toward the compelling national security threats of our time, including climate change, pandemics, the dangers of artificial intelligence and competition with China.

Rhodes argued that what began with the 9/11 attacks as a legitimate fear of terrorism has morphed into a kind of radicalized "us-versus-them" approach that has polarized domestic U.S. politics and kept the nation’s foreign policy focused on the wrong priorities. Starting with the disastrous Iraq war and then the 2008 financial crisis, he said the rest of the world has long recognized the erosion of American power. Today, he said, “Under Trump, we’re not seen as having a unique moral standing and we’re not seen as competent.”

America’s retreat and a fading rules-based international order

“What we're entering is a period of movement away from a rules-based international order in which the United States was dominant increasingly to a period of multipolarity,” said Clark, “in which the [major] powers block reform, reassert their prerogatives and move away from international law and diplomacy. How we play this as Americans depends on how we vote in November.”

America is retreating from the world stage and weakening the alliances that it created to serve its interests. On climate change, said Clark, “We've walked out of the agreements… despite the fact and the evidence that everything's getting worse and worse, faster and faster, [with] record warmth in the Arctic.” Yet, he noted, “Without American leadership in the world, there will be no progress in dealing with climate change.”

Rhodes contended that President Obama “was in many ways trying to manage this process of America remaining a kind of number one superpower, but adjusting to a world in which America is not dominant,” pointing to Obama’s support for the Paris Climate Accord, Iran nuclear deal, the (unrealized) “pivot toward Asia,” Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and the U.S. diplomatic opening to Cuba.

With the TPP, Rhodes elaborated, “We were seeking to build an infrastructure in the Asia Pacific Region that could shape the rise of China and shape the rules of the road on everything from trade to technology to governance in ways that were meant to influence China's behavior.”

For Clark, the drift away from the international rules-based order has been inevitable. He doubted, moreover, that international institutions could be restored to their former strength, in part because these institutions have not been adjusted to reflect changes in the relative strength of global and regional powers in the past three decades.

“We have resisted the rebalancing of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), for example, for 25 years. It was clear that at some point China was going to have [join the UNSC]… but what about India or what about Brazil? Why is it [that] France that is still is on the Security Council?” asked Clark. “We've let these institutions sort of slip away from us.

“We can hold the line or we can collapse it, but to go back and recreate these institutions and re-strengthen them is going to take a re-envisioning of America, [and] it's going to take a re-envisioning of American business away from quarterly statements and dividends,” said the general.

For Rhodes, re-envisioning America’s security interests must include a reckoning with the failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and a re-prioritization of its investments. Rather than spending a trillion dollars on upgrading the country’s nuclear arsenal, for example, he argued for significant investments in research and development in such areas as health, artificial intelligence and climate mitigation.

In short, he called for a fundamental realignment of how the U.S. defines its national security interests and building a government to serve those interests. “[Terrorism is] still going to be an issue,” he said, “but when you measure it against climate change, against pandemics, against the emergence of new technologies and how [they] pose risks to privacy and economic security, when you look at the nationalist and authoritarian trend around the world that is challenging the very idea of democracy… We're not focused on the right things. Our eye is not on the ball.”

And although he believed it impossible to restore the global leadership role held by the U.S. in the past, Rhodes contended that the U.S. would still have a unique role to play in mobilizing countries to take collective action against global threats such as climate change and pandemics.

Critique of Trump China policy

The two speakers addressed a range of policy issues, but both critiqued the Trump administration’s approach to China. While China is a significant global competitor to the United States, both Clark and Rhodes argued against treating China solely as an overarching enemy.

When China joined the World Trade Organization in the 1990s, Clark said, U.S. thinking at the time was: “You could engage them or contain them. And if you contained them, you could never then go back and engage them because you would make an enemy of them.” Today, the general continued, China is using its economic power to exert ever greater influence in Asia, Africa and Europe, while the U.S. is retreating from world leadership — abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Paris Climate Accord and weakening the NATO alliance.

China plays a long game, emphasized Clark, utilizing Chinese businessmen and Chinese representatives in international bodies to promote its national interests. In Africa, he continued, its influence is challenging American values, the American business community and, especially, a rules-based international order. Meanwhile, Europe and its industrial potential remain at the heart of great power competition in the world today, said Clark.

Given rising U.S.-China tensions in an array of policy arenas, Clark said, “A lot depends on whether China thinks it can … continue to win by playing the long game, or whether President Trump is so successful in turning the whole world against China on the basis of Covid and other things, that the Chinese feel compelled to take dramatic action with the forces at hand.”

Rhodes argued for the U.S. to adopt a balanced approach toward China that recognizes it as a legitimate competitor; engages in vigorous debate on the values of democracy, the dangers of surveillance technologies and need for privacy protections; and collaborates on issues of mutual interest, such as preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “It's natural that a country that is lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, accumulating more wealth, is going to want more influence in the world. But the question is: Where does that influence lead?” he asked.

“I think with Trump,” he continued, “[the Chinese] realized that they had a once-in-a-century opportunity to essentially undo key aspects of the international order because the U.S. had left the table,” pointing to China’s Belt and Road initiative, its insertion into territorial disputes between other nations, its crackdown in Hong Kong, use of surveillance technologies and imprisonment of a million Uighurs in prison camps.

“I worry about the fact that China is basically perfecting [an] authoritarian model where you use artificial intelligence and technology to set up a kind of perfectly hermetically sealed surveillance system in your country and basically wipe out any possibility for political opposition, any sense of liberty and privacy as I understand it,” said Rhodes. “And I see that [being exported] beyond China's borders.”

“To me,” concluded Rhodes, “the China question is inextricably linked to the fact that we're paying attention to the wrong issues. It’s not just we're not paying enough attention to China, we're not paying enough attention to the issues that China raises.”