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What Is the Purpose of American Foreign Policy?

December 20, 2020
Jacob Heilbrunn

The transcript of this event was originally published by The National Interest. 

Many have asked what are American interests and what is the goal of U.S. foreign policy? The Center for the National Interest recently hosted a panel of experts to discuss these important and difficult questions. The transcript of the event can found below.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, American foreign policy is at a crossroads. Biden has promised America’s allies in Europe and Asia that Washington will be “back” after the Trump era. But can he successfully fulfill his vow at a moment when Russia and China are becoming increasingly assertive? Has the world changed fundamentally over the past four years as to render it difficult if not impossible to return to the approach of past administrations? John Mearsheimer, Graham Allison, Melinda Haring, and Dimitri K. Simes weigh-in in a discussion moderated by Jacob Heilbrunn.

Jacob Heilbrunn: It is my great pleasure today to introduce our all-star cast of speakers who will be addressing the question, "What Now?" This session s based on a symposium in our upcoming issue of The National Interest. It seeks to address a fundamental question: Where is America headed now that Donald Trump will no longer be president, and Joe Biden will be taking the reins?" Our first speaker will be Graham Allison of Harvard University, followed by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, Dimitri K. Simes, President and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, and last, but not least, Melinda Haring, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. I kicked off our symposium by writing an essay on the nature of American Exceptionalism, which has been a constituent element of American foreign policy since the inception of the republic. Americans have often thought of themselves as a chosen people, a nation that has a mission to civilize the rest of the world.

In many cases, this took the form that America should be a model for the world. Then the contrasting vision was that America should, in fact, actively intervene abroad. And this occurred, for example, in the 1820s when Americans were fixated by the prospect of Greek liberation, and wanted to support it by any means possible, which led to John Quincy Adams in his famous July 4 address saying that America should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. This debate, in one form or another, has percolated over the decades. Today, Joe Biden has announced that America is back, and that we will lead as much by our power as by our example.

Can America, in fact, go back to the future, as it were? What does this imply for the nature of our alliances, for the nature of our relations with multilateral institutions, and for the vision of America at home? What kind of democracy are we? Are we, in fact, a model for the world, or do we need to focus on our domestic problems? To examine these questions, our relations with multilateral institutions, our alliances, and our rivalries in competition with Russia and China, I will first turn to Graham Allison.

Graham Allison: Thank you very much, Jacob. And thank you and The National Interest for inviting me to contribute to this volume and to participate with such a distinguished panel. You said we have two and a half minutes, five points. First, what is America's purpose? Answer, captured best in the Cold War mantra: To ensure the survival of the US as a free nation with our fundamental institutions and values intact. Right. That was good for the Cold War, that's good for now. Second question, is the US an exceptional nation? Answer, yes. From our beginning, as you have pointed out, America has conceived of itself as an exceptional nation. Its founding creed declares all human beings are endowed with unalienable rights. And it attempted to create, or began a project that attempts to create, a new form of government to ensure that citizens can realize these rights.

From the beginning, we've thought of this as a city on a hill that should serve as a beacon for others to follow. So as a red-blooded American, I subscribe to the American creed. Third, what is the priority for the Biden Administration on January 20th and as far beyond that as anyone can see? There, I think as Biden understands better than anybody I've read in the commentariat, the overwhelming primary objective will be to reunite a deeply divided country. Biden appreciates the profundity of a truth that Lincoln captured when he said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Point four, what will be the defining international challenge for the Biden Administration, and again, for as far beyond that as any eye can see?

It will, I believe, be China's impact on the US and the international order, of which the US has been the principal architect and guardian. Washington is now woke, in fact, to a rising China. The response to it has been to declare that we now live in a new era of great power competition. Now, this gets it about half-right. The effort to see China and Russia as twins or as essential equivalents, I think, misunderstands more than it appreciates. China is the most complex international challenge any US president has ever seen. It's not just another great power competitor, which is a good way to characterize Russia, but a Thucydidean rival, a genuine Thucydidean rival.

What's distinctive about a Thucydidean rival is that its rapid rise tilts the balance of power between it and the ruling power. That this shift in the balance of power or the see-saw of power, in fact, not only erodes the influence of the ruling power, but challenges its identity and threatens to upend the international order that it has led, or at least its conception of the international order. And five, and finally, this Thucydidean rivalry will have to play out in what we learned to understand in the Cold War is a mad world, but a mad world both nuclear-mad and climate-mad, in which the US and China are condemned to coexist because the only feasible alternative is to co-destruct.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, Graham. We'll now turn to John J. Mearsheimer.

John Mearsheimer: Thank you, Jacob, for inviting me to be here today and also to participate in the forum in the journal. For me, the principal purpose of American foreign policy is to maximize our prospects for both security and prosperity. And, in my opinion, the best way to do that is to, number one, be a regional hegemon, i.e. to dominate your area of the world, and two, to make sure that you don't have a peer competitor. In other words, make sure there is no other regional hegemon on the planet. The problem that the United States faces today, and in particular, the incoming Biden administration, is that we have a potential peer competitor. And that potential peer competitor is China.

And given that realist logic dominates the thinking of all great powers, what the Chinese are going to try to do is imitate us. They're going to try to dominate Asia the way we dominate the Western Hemisphere. They're going to build a blue-water navy, significant power projection capability, and they're going to challenge us on the high seas and in the Persian Gulf. We have a deep-seated interest in making sure that they do not become a regional hegemon. As you well know, in the 20th century, we confronted four potential regional hegemons: imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. The United States played a key role in putting all four of those countries on the scrap heap of history. And for very good reason. We do not tolerate peer competitors. And that is, in my opinion, a very smart policy.

Now, on the question of whether the United States is exceptional or not, this is a very difficult question to answer because all countries are exceptional in the sense that all of them have different histories. And they can be exceptional in all sorts of different ways. I think when we talk about the Americans or the United States as an exceptional country, what we're really getting at is whether it is exceptional in terms of how it behaves on the international stage, how it behaves in terms of great power politics. Now, I know Americans like to tell themselves all these stories about how wonderful we are, and how exceptional we are, and how we behave differently than everybody else, and, "Oh my God, if just every country on the planet looked like us, we'd all live happily ever after," but this is nonsense. The United States is one of the most ruthless great powers in modern history. I could go on for two hours about this. We're not exceptional in terms of how we behave in international politics when it comes to great power politics, and I can tell you, the Chinese fully understand that point. They fully understand that we have our gun sights on them, and that we're coming after them. Because they understand that the United States is not an exceptional great power, it's a traditional great power.

However, if I had to make the argument that the United States is exceptional, at least exceptional in its behavior over the past 30 years, I'd make three quick points. And they all have to do with the fact that we have been exceptionally foolish. First is that the United States, and this is hard to believe, went to great lengths to help China grow, and, in effect, turned China into a potential peer competitor. The fact that the elites in this country didn't foresee this problem is really shocking. And it shows you, in large part, how bankrupt the foreign policy elites in the United States are, and that includes both Democrats and Republicans. I'm not just talking about Joe Biden's foolish views on growing China into a superstate. I'm talking about the fact that Republicans as well as Democrats did this. Secondly, we were exceptional in that we've pursued this foolish policy of trying to spread democracy all over the planet, sometimes at the end of a rifle barrel. It was a fool's errand, it failed at almost every turn, and if you look at what we did in the Middle East, the amount of murder and mayhem that we created is truly stunning.

And then third, the elites have been exceptionally foolish in that they've not paid attention to nurturing the American nation-state. They've not paid attention to nationalism. And the end result is that the United States is a mess on the home front today. And one of the principal consequences of that is that because we are a mess on the home front today, because American nationalism has been badly damaged, we're not well-positioned to compete with the Chinese in the years ahead. And that subverts what is the principal purpose of American foreign policy, which is to maximize our prospects for security and prosperity.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, John, for that lucid exposition of your views. Now, we'll turn to Dimitri K. Simes.

Dimitri K. Simes: I agree with John Mearsheimer that the principal objective of US foreign policy should be to enhance security and prosperity of the United States. However, in order to do so, with a minimum chance to exceed, we first need to survive. And we increasingly forgot that we live in a nuclear age, that we are still dealing with a Russian superpower. A superpower not economically, not overall a superpower, but certainly s superpower in particular as far as strategic nuclear weapons are concerned. I think that President-elect Joe Biden is right, that the United States is fully capable of world leadership. I also think that in many, if not most, parts of the world, American leadership is needed and would be welcome. But we also need to understand we need to be honest with our help, that there are limits to what we can accomplish without very, very serious risks.

The United States was a principal international architect of a historic victory in the Cold War. It was primarily because of domestic internal factors in the Soviet Union, but the United States clearly made a major contribution to the Soviet collapse. Having said that, it would be a tragedy of historic proportions if we would manage to turn that victory into a calamity for the United States by entering into a nuclear confrontation with Russia, which is neither inevitable nor can be in the American interest unless very fundamental interests of this republic are at stake. And where is this danger coming from? The danger is coming from what I would call overextension. And more specifically from what is happening with American alliances, and even more specifically, NATO. George Washington, in his farewell address, very strongly advised Americans against permanent alliances and becoming involved in European squabbles--squabbles that do not necessarily affect vital American interests.

George F. Kennan, in the 1990s, was very strongly opposed to an extension of NATO to borders of Russia. That, however, has happened.  Let me be clear. I think we would be obviously foolish to erect the alliance and not to use very important advantages or being associated with so many important nations, which to some extent, or a large extent, some would say, share American interests and values. However, if we allow this alliance to become an end in itself, if we allow the extension of the alliance to, as Bob Gates used to put it, the suburbs of St. Petersburg, and increasingly to the suburbs of Moscow, if we were allowed to make it a major objective, a practical objective of American foreign policy, there may be a very serious risk of nuclear confrontation.

If you would listen to people in Washington carefully, it seems that they're talking about a major interference in Russian domestic politics. It's not some time far away, but actually only several months from now on the eve of Russian parliamentary elections in September 2021, with a real desire to create problems for Putin's authoritarian regime. Now, Putin's authoritarian regime, to put it mildly, is not a model of democracy. And there are a lot of issues with Russian law, with Russian compliance with international norms, and, of course, with Russian attitude to the United States. But Russia is what it is. And what I hear from some of Biden's advisors--how they are planning to chew their gum and still be able to walk—makes me think that they are deluding themselves.

Here’s why. They are in fact talking not just about chewing gum and walking. They're talking more about planning to walk with another nuclear power and simultaneously, if you wish, to try to seduce their wife and take away their house. Now, the fellow we're competing with, the fellow in the Kremlin, we may say is pretty nasty. The wife is beautiful. And it will be much better if that wife, the Russian people, would belong to somebody else. But, we are told, it is the law of history, and the United States is an exceptional nation that does not accept he laws of history. The rule of history is that if you want to remove the whole elite from power, then this very elite is bound to resist its removal. As it happens, this elite can in the Russian case resist its foes quite fiercely. And if you put together the focus on further NATO expansion and the desire to change Russian domestic rules, and even the very structure of Russian power, you may get a pretty explosive combination. I very much hope that this talk about accommodating the allies--and this talk about trying to change Russian domestic condition--I very much hope that this is a part of domestic politics and campaign sloganeering. Because if it would become a practical guide for American policy, we may be in very serious trouble.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, Dimitri. We will now turn to Melinda Haring, who will offer her views on these contentious topics.

Melinda Haring: Thank you, Jacob. Thank you for the opportunity to be here, thank you for the opportunity to participate in the symposium, as well. So I am going to go in a different direction. I want to say at the outset that the US is not a global policeman, but we are still the lone star of the international system. Have we screwed up? Definitely. Trump undermined our institutions, he degraded our alliances, he emboldened our enemies, he trashed our values. But I'm encouraged by something that Tocqueville wrote a few hundred years ago. He said, "The greatest privilege of the Americans is to have repairable mistakes." Repairing Trump's mistakes will be Biden's main task. The main thrust of American foreign policy -- and here, I'm going to differ with John -- has been our missionary impulse. No, it's not at the barrel of a gun.

Afghanistan and Iraq were gross mistakes, and we need to get back to what we do well. Biden should recommit us to encouraging democracy at home and abroad. It's hard to be an example when the Secretary of State tells reporters that we're going to be transitioning to a second Trump administration. It's hard to be an example when 70% of the GOP doesn't accept that the election was free or fair. Now, last night, Biden said that our faith in America's institutions has held. Maybe he's right. But there's definite hypocrisy that needs to be cleaned up. The United States can't lecture the Cossacks and the Georgians about the technical parts of their elections if the president doesn't accept the democratic outcome at home.

I'm encouraged that Joe Biden wants to fight corruption, and I think there's a lot of really interesting ideas that are out in the ether already. There's a lot of think tanks that are working on this issue, and I think it's really important. But there's five other things that Biden and his team should consider as the hopefully recommit to encouraging democracy at home and abroad. Number one, I think Biden needs to take the axe out at USAID. USAID is hugely wasteful, it yields few results, and they need to close their democracy and governance program. I think John and I would probably have a lot of agreement here that there's a huge amount of waste, and they don't really know what they're doing. Number two, Biden and his team need to connect foreign assistance and democracy promotion for a larger strategy of democratic transformation. They need to be more selective about the place where they work and not waste our dollars. Number three, the United States needs to work through the National Endowment for Democracy. It's not about how much you spend, but it's really about efficacy.

Number four, Biden should call a blue ribbon commission to rethink democracy promotion in our international broadcasting institutions like Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. These are old institutions. We can do a lot better. We need new thinking. And number five, and I think probably most importantly, Dr. Jill Biden should be in charge of reinvigorating civic education in America. It's appalling how little people know about our institutions. But just to return to Tocqueville, there's every reason to be optimistic about America now. He said that there's no country in the world where, after all is said and done, men make as many efforts to create social wellbeing. I think President-elect Biden would be well-advised to tap into that desire to create new institutions. So I'm optimistic about the next four years. I think it's morning in America again. Thank you.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Wow. Well, that was a good launch into our next session. I'm going to go to each speaker for a response of a few minutes or a few sentences.

John Mearsheimer: I would make a number of points. Number one, what Melinda is in favor of is democracy lite, democracy promotion lite. She understands full well that we blew it the last time we tried it, and she's in favor of trying it in a different and more sophisticated way. My basic point is, the glacis plates in the international system have moved. We're no longer in a unipolar world where the United States could ignore great power politics and concentrate on democracy promotion. We are now in a multipolar world, we're facing a peer competitor, and we don't have the time to engage seriously in democracy promotion. Very important to understand that the Biden administration, which is really the third Obama administration, is different from the first and second Obama administrations in the sense that those first two Obama administrations operated in unipolarity where we were free to pursue all these foolish policies.

The Biden administration is going to have to focus laser-like on China. This is going to affect our relations with the Russians as well. We dealt with the Russians at a particular way in unipolarity. As we move into multipolarity, I believe it's going to be a different story. So I would say to you, back to this issue of democracy promotion, we're not going to do much of that. And what you're going to see is we're going to run around the world overthrowing democracies in the decades ahead, much the way we did during the Cold War. If you look at our track record on democracy promotion before the end of the Cold War, it's not a very pretty picture.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Dimitri?

Dimitri K. Simes: Well, in talking about China and Russia, the irony is that the Russian establishment is increasingly concerned about the power of China. And they do understand that China is much, much more successful economically than Russia, and that the Chinese model increasingly possesses more appeal internationally than the Russian model. In terms of Chinese-Russian economic negotiation, it proved to be very hard. Much harder than was originally expected. So under normal circumstances, Russia would do exactly what the Trump Administration wanted it to do. Namely, to see a danger, a challenge coming from China and to be more cooperative with the United States. But obviously, if you want to confront Russia both on the level of the alliance expansion and Russian domestic regulations and rules, then you will see Russia increasingly trying to support China and to win Chinese favor. And that, in my view, is definitely not in the American interest.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Graham, what is your response to that? Do you think that's a probable prospect? Or is it already occurring?

Graham Allison:  Well, I wrote a piece in your journal a couple years ago on Russian-Chinese entente. And basically, the big idea came from Zbigniew Brzezinski in the last year of his life, in which he said the Americans were succeeding in creating an alliance of the aggrieved. So absent American efforts to ostracize and even to threaten the regimes, both in Russia and China, these two very unnatural allies would not be finding themselves so entangled. So I would say, I give first marks to Xi for a great job of diplomacy and engaging Putin and making him his "best buddy," but secondly, he couldn't have succeeded without the US.

And I think one of the unfortunate things about the politicization of the Russian relationship in the Trump Administration, and I think it'll continue through to the Biden Administration, is we'll continue to basically make Russia an adversary, and that'll push it further and further, and closer and closer to China, as unnatural as that would otherwise be. So this is sort of reverse triangular diplomacy. Good for Xi, just if you were doing a grade sheet, in terms of great power moves. But I would say unfortunate for us. But not one likely to change, given that I think both in the case of Russia and in the case of China, the domestic consensus has settled, and it's going to be very difficult to change.

Jacob Heilbrunn: One of the points that Dimitri made in his essay, and that Dimitri and Graham have written about earlier, is this question of heading towards a nuclear exchange or rising dangers of a nuclear confrontation. That was something that people took very seriously during the Cold War. And it does not seem to be something that occupies the minds of policymakers, let alone the public today. During the Cold War, you had a number of movies -- Failsafe, Doctor Strangelove -- about the perils of a US nuclear standoff. John, I'd like to begin with you and say, how realistic are Dimitri's concerns? Do you share them, or do you think we have moved away from the danger of a nuclear confrontation? Is it being exacerbated, or do you think everything's fine?

John Mearsheimer: Let me make a couple points. One is that during the unipolar moment, which lasted 30 years, where most of today's American policymakers came of age, there was no serious threat of a nuclear war between two great powers because we were, by definition, in a world where there was only one great power. So I think that most younger people today, that's younger than people like me, and Graham, and Dimitri, don't know a lot about nuclear war and nuclear deterrents theory. And they therefore have a lot to learn. That's point number one. Point number two, where the real danger is, is in Asia. And it is largely because of the geography there. During the Cold War, the principal point of conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was in Central Europe. If we were to get a war between the superpowers, it was going to be on the central front. We had two massive armies armed to the teeth with thousands of nuclear weapons. The thought of them crashing into each other was almost unthinkable because we all would've gotten vaporized in the process.

So therefore, because the possibility of a war in Central Europe was so horrible, the likelihood was very, very low. If you look at the situation today in East Asia where the points of conflict are the South China Sea, Taiwan, and East China Sea, it's much easier to imagine a war breaking out between the United States and China, and, indeed, to imagine nuclear weapons being used. That's not to say that it's likely. It's just that it's easy to think of possible scenarios where that happens. Which was not the case in the Cold War. So I think the world is much more dangerous in East Asia today than it was in Europe during the Cold War.

With regard to Dimitri's concerns about Eastern Europe today, I think they're very real concerns as well because the United States, again, is dominated by policymakers who didn't come of age in the Cold War, I think don't worry that much about nuclear war, and pursue policies that are likely to scare the Russians. And the Russians, as we all know, don't have the most formidable conventional forces in the world when you compare them to the United States, and you could imagine them using nuclear weapons to rescue a desperate situation. So I think we are in a situation today where there is a serious danger of nuclear escalation.

Jacob Heilbrunn: So, Melinda, you're someone who did not grow up during the Cold War. What's your response?

Melinda Haring: Actually, I was alive during the Cold War, thank you, Jacob. Look, I don't think that this is a real concern for the next four years, just to be very practical. Even if Team Biden wants to see NATO expansion, I don't see any country close to satisfying NATO's demands. So we can talk about what this will do in Moscow, but realistically, no one's even close to getting there. So nuclear war is not something that I would worry about.

Jacob Heilbrunn: But are the policies that you are espousing, in fact, creating an environment that ratchets up tensions between Russia and the West and that could inadvertently lead to some kind of confrontation?

Melinda Haring: I think that's why the Biden Administration is interested in continuing talks on nuclear weapons, and making sure that there's conversations, and that both sides understand each other.

Graham Allison:  So, Jacob, could I do two cents?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Sure, go ahead.

Graham Allison:  Basically, I think John got it almost exactly right. First, most people think that nuclear weapons went away with the end of the Cold War. So basically, that was a problem, it was a previous era, we won, forget about it, that's over. So secondly, as he said, most of the people who are in policy positions today can't remember when there was a real risk of nuclear war and don't even have their head around what that means today. So I think thirdly, a slight disagreement with John and more agreement with Dimitri, I can imagine very real scenarios in Europe in which, for example, something happens in Latvia, and Russian troops do a little version of Crimea to try to come to defense of Russian-speaking people in Latvia. And Latvia's a member of NATO.

And the US tries to come–so I have a scenario for that, in which you look at, say, either you lose Latvia and whatever the consequences are for NATO, or you engage in a war with Russia to try to recover Latvia, in which case, as you said, the Russians may use to choose tactical nuclear weapons in their current plan. So I would say I think that not because anybody would choose a war, but I think there are risks in the European front and even greater risks, as you say, in the Asian front, where Taiwan, I think, is the most active and rapidly ticking time bomb.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Dimitri, do you agree that Asia rather than Europe is the most likely area of a real confrontation?

Dimitri K. Simes: Well, I see real dangers in Southeast Asia. And there's no question about that in my mind. But about Europe, let me just give you a very specific example. Let's say we're in August-September 2021, just a few months from now. And let's say that there are massive demonstrations in Moscow. And not just demonstrations, but they're trying to overpower government troops. And the situation is very messy. How would the Putin government respond? Well, one possible response, which I know is being discussed by some in Moscow, is to energize first Russian communities in Latvia and Estonia. A lot of people of Russian origin in those two Baltic states are really not fully integrated, they have their own local pro-Russian organizations. Russia was not doing much to activate them. They can if they want.

And very quickly, situation between Russia and these two NATO members would become, to put it delicately, very problematic. Also, there is situation of Belarus, where the local leader, Alexander Lukashenko, is very unpopular, there are demonstrations against him all the time, and they're particularly supported by Poland and Lithuania, two NATO members. And Lukashenko, when he was recently in Moscow, apparently was telling some people that if the worst comes to the worst, he may want to cut off Lithuania from its border with Poland, which would be militarily very easy to do. Again, you can imagine the consequences. I think that we have to be very careful in thinking about our steps. And I firmly believe that what is required by essential American interests, we're fully capable of protecting. But very dangerous things can happen.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Melinda, I think it's a good moment for you to respond. Are we being reckless, or do you think we should take a more expansive view of how we promote American interests in Eastern Europe, Belarus?

Melinda Haring: Look, Belarus is more complicated than some of the other countries. If you want to dive into Ukraine or Georgia, Belarus has a relationship, a longstanding relationship with Russia. And if you listen to what Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is saying, she says that this isn't about being pro-Russia, or pro-NATO, or pro-European. This is just simply a domestic internal thing. That's how they see it there. I don't know which way Belarus is going to go. I think it's 50/50 at this point. There are some splits in the security services, but no one knows how things are going to turn out. I think that the Russians realize that Biden is going to be more engaged there, and they want to get an outcome, they want a new constitution. And the Russians are playing for the long term. They want someone who's going to be sympathetic to Moscow. They don't know if they're going to get it though. So that one is really messy. It's in-progress.

Jacob Heilbrunn: But what about the broader question? We were talking about the Baltic states, about America being pulled into local conflicts. What's in it for the US?

Melinda Haring: In Belarus specifically?

Jacob Heilbrunn: No, in the Baltics, and in this whole region. Why should we be promoting democracy, as you put it, so much in this area?

Melinda Haring: It's the longstanding tradition of US foreign policy. I mean, it's a theme that you see. It's a big part of who we are and what we do. I can cite many, many US presidents that say that it's in our own interest to do so, that it expands peace, and prosperity, and stability. And that's really the argument. The three gentlemen think that it causes conflict with bigger powers. And the other view, the view that I represent, is that people get to decide their alliances and their future. So that's the crux of the argument.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I can see Graham wants to interject.

Graham Allison:  So I half-agree but mostly disagree, Melinda. So I think this is a city on a hill. I think making American democracy work, basically showing that a liberty-based society and government can succeed in just one country is almost enough for us if we can do that. And I think that's even at risk today. So I think that's our objective. I think we believe, and I believe, that if and as we show democracy can be successful and deliver more of what people want, that democracy will spread. I think we should encourage it. So all that seems to me agreed. The disagree is, I think we made, this is my view, a mistake in bringing the Baltics into NATO. I think NATO, we have a commitment to, has a great alliance over time. Giving states that we couldn't possibly defend and that are indefensible if Russia decides it wants to move against them or if it's pulled into it, guaranteed from NATO, which if we fail to honor, will likely unravel NATO or will have a big impact on NATO, I think, was a mistake. We are there now, but I think we should recognize the risks in those situations, whereas I say, I can imagine a dozen very possible scenarios that nobody wanted in Moscow, and nobody wanted in Washington, and nobody wanted in Riga, but where something happens, and then one thing leads to something else, and it comes, to me, to look like what happened in 1914.

Jacob Heilbrunn: John, I can see that you want to tackle this.

John Mearsheimer: Well, I wanted to ask a question to Melinda. You know most Americans recoil at the idea of any foreign country interfering in our domestic politics. They believe that no country has the right to interfere, for example, in an American election. And we, of course, castigate the Russians endlessly, and this is one of the principal sources of our Russophobia today. Why do you think that the United States has the right to interfere in the domestic politics of other countries if you don't believe that other countries have the right to interfere in our domestic politics? In other words, where do we get the right to interfere in other states' domestic politics in your story?

Melinda Haring: That's a great question, John. I think it's important to say that it's not just the United States that does the kind of work that I'm talking about. The Czechs are very active at it, the Brits are very active at it, the Scandinavians are very active. But the desire for democracy in Belarus or in China is not coming from the United States, right? We're only giving them money and assistance to do things that they are doing themselves. So it's because the demand is coming from inside the country.

John Mearsheimer: But as you know, we purposely go around the world toppling regimes to try and make those countries into democracies. And furthermore, if it was a bottom-up phenomenon, as you described, basically, we could let people take care of their own politics at home and not have to intervene themselves.

Melinda Haring: It's a little impossible though, especially in authoritarian countries, when you can't get access to the media, you don't have free and fair elections. There's basically no way to be able to get rid of authoritarians without small interventions.

John Mearsheimer: Yes, but that leads to big interventions and disasters like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya.

Melinda Haring: I wouldn't put Iraq and Afghanistan on the continuum of democracy promotion. I mean, that's something entirely different. That's a failure. I'm not going to defend it. I'm talking about small grants to assist civil society. Giving people access to media training. I'm talking about basic things. Exposing voter fraud. I'm not talking about putting the government in charge of the judicial system and rewriting–that's not what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about Iraq and Afghanistan.

Graham Allison:  I think on John's point, just briefly, your first question is the more difficult one. Why is it appropriate for us to interfere in other countries' domestic policies and them not to interfere in ours? And the answer is because we're the exceptional country.

Jacob Heilbrunn: I'm going to retreat to a high politics question now from Evan Sankey, and I should note that you can submit questions at the bottom of this screen for anyone who's watching, and I'm happy to pose them. Evan Sankey asks, and this is directed primarily, I think, at John and Dimitri, "Does the nuclear revolution make regional hegemony less valuable or less viable for potential aspirants than it once was? Conversely, is the US goal of denying regional hegemony to rivals less urgent than it once was?" Why don't we start with you, John?

John Mearsheimer: I think that the principal change in international politics that came about as a result of nuclear weapons coming on the scene in 1945 is that a long or a protracted war between the great powers is impossible. I think in the nuclear world, it's impossible to have World War I or World War II all over again. But if you look at all the other dimensions of international politics, they remain largely unchanged since 1945 when nuclear weapons were introduced. And if you look at what happened in the Cold War, when we did have nuclear weapons, the United States went to great lengths to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia.

So I think the historical record makes it quite clear that preserving regional hegemony on the part of the United States and preventing the emergence of another regional hegemon in the system remains intact. And the reason that the United States does not want China to become a regional hegemon, and it's the same reason it didn't want imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union to become regional hegemons, is because a country that achieves regional hegemony is then free to roam. And it's free to roam into your backyard. It's free to roam into the western hemisphere. Notice that the United States is the only regional hegemon on the planet. And we are free to roam all over the earth. And therefore, we are sitting on China's doorstep, mainly with naval and air forces. And the Chinese don't like this at all. The Chinese would like to have their own Monroe Doctrine. Well, we have a Monroe Doctrine. We do not want the Chinese wandering into the western hemisphere with their military forces. And if they're free to roam, they will do that. So the United States goes to great lengths, even in the nuclear age, to prevent the appearance of a regional hegemon. But again, the big difference with the coming of nuclear weapons is that it's almost impossible to imagine major World War III-like scenario between China and the United States.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Dimitri, I'd like to pose that question to you and preface it by noting that a week ago, I read in the Washington Post when Michèle Flournoy  was being touted as a potential Defense Secretary, that she had testified before Congress, I believe, that the United States needed to be able to wipe out the Chinese navy completely in two days or less. And this was approvingly cited in a news story. It struck me that if a Chinese admiral had made such a statement, there would be an uproar in the United States. What is your take on that and on what John has just said?

Dimitri K. Simes: Well, there are certain things which you may have in mind. But if you are a serious contender for top national security positions, then, in my view, you really should not talk like that. It may be popular domestically. It is reckless internationally. Another person, however, as we all know, was appointed by Mr. Biden to be our next Secretary of Defense. I completely agree with John Mearsheimer that the United States should not allow a local hegemony, particularly on the part of adversary powers such as China and Russia. In the Chinese case, it's more difficult to accomplish because China is a more rounded power and again because we are talking about geopolitical environment where frontiers are far less clear.

Nonetheless, I think that the Chinese, at this point, have a healthy respect for American power, for American military capabilities, and I don't see much challenge to American leadership in the region coming from China or anybody else. Not in any immediate future. In the case of Russia, Russia cannot be a hegemonic power at this point. I think the Russians understand this themselves. They simply do not have an economic capability. They don't have enough population. They don't have a mood in the country which would support something like that. But the problem is that while the Russians cannot be a hegemonic power as well, they are determined to prevent somebody else's hegemony. And particularly if this hegemony is not just in Eastern Europe, but then it comes to the suburbs of Moscow and St. Petersburg. And that is a projection of American hegemony so deep into the old Russian, Soviet Empire that it may create a condition for conflict.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Do you disagree, Melinda?

Melinda Haring: Dimitri, you keep mentioning different forces coming to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Where are you getting that? I don't hear that at all.

Dimitri K. Simes: You are not aware that NATO is moving infrastructure into Baltic states? You do not hear that there are more and more NATO military exercises in Baltic states? You do not know that Ukraine is 300 miles now from Moscow? 300 miles. Not much more than between New York and Washington. You do not know that Ukraine has NATO aspirations, and that the Secretary General of NATO is now talking about the NATO neighborhood? And that the NATO neighborhood, in his view, now, doesn't just include NATO partners, but includes even areas of Russia that border with countries that are NATO-partnered? I think that if you would see Ukraine in NATO, or if Ukraine does not become a part of NATO formally but would be increasingly integrated in NATO military infrastructure and training, you will see that the Russians would react very strongly, and not just rhetorically.

Melinda Haring: I think, though, that speaks to the perception because nothing has really changed on the ground. I mean, from a Russian perspective, if I were sitting in the Kremlin, there's a lot of things I would be worried about. I understand what you're saying. I would be worried about the protests in Khabarovsk, I'd be worried about the economy, I'd be worried about Belarus, I'd be worried about what's happening in Nagorno-Karabakh. But I don't think NATO would be at the top of my worry list. I mean, there is a lot to worry about. The economy hasn't grown in more than four years. But NATO enlargement, like I said before, is something that people are talking about, but it's not on the table in the immediate future.

Dimitri K. Simes: Well, Melinda, first of all, it's clearly on the table in terms of Russian military planning. It's clearly something that the Russian military takes quite seriously, and these are people that is not unique to the Russian military, many military officers think in terms of worst-case scenario, and clearly, the Russian military preparations close to Ukraine and Baltic states are preparations which did not exist before. And we have an action-reaction process on both sides of the dividing line, and both sides still have they being threatened, and it's difficult at this point even to determine who did what to whom first. You mentioned some real challenges to the Putin government, but they clearly view the NATO expansion as the real threat. These things are not mutually exclusive. No. They're reinforcing each other. If they did not feel threatened in Khabarovsk and in the streets of Moscow, they probably would worry less about NATO expansion. They would worry less about what NATO can do in Belarus. But you look at the whole picture, and this picture makes them feel quite insecure.

Melinda Haring: I take your point, Dimitri, and I think this is where Dimitri and I agree. Russia's not going to be a hegemon. But where we would differ is, I think, that we need to find ways to constrain Russia. Look, it used to be a great and enormous power. But it basically has a lot of things to worry about and has a lot of sort of psychological things to worry about that Dimitri's just explained.

Jacob Heilbrunn: John, I can see you want to jump in.

John Mearsheimer: I just wanted to make an argument to Melinda. I think that during the 1990s and the first part of the 21st century, we pursued NATO expansion. And the foreign policy elites in the United States believed that the Russians would not ultimately object very much because the United States was a benign hegemon. Most American policymakers see the United States as a benign force in international politics. This is really what American exceptionalism is all about, as I said in my comments. We believe that we're the good guys. And how could the Russians possibly object to us expanding NATO up to their border when we are the good guys? Right? But if you're sitting in Moscow, this is not the way you see NATO expansion. NATO was a mortal enemy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The United States is the most powerful state on the planet. It's obsessed with regime change, as reflected in your views of the world, right? So when you move NATO closer and closer to Russia's borders, and then you start to do all those sorts of exercises and movements that Dimitri was describing to you, and you're, at the same time, talking about basically creating a color revolution inside Russia, don't you think that's going to scare the living bejesus out of them? I don't understand why American elites don't understand that. We have a Monroe Doctrine here in the western hemisphere. America's view is that no distant great power is allowed to move military forces into the western hemisphere. And certainly not to form a military alliance with one of our neighbors. That's just verboten. Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Shouldn't the Russians feel the same way about a great power, one of the greatest powers in the history of the world that was a former enemy marching up to its border? No?

Jacob Heilbrunn: What's your take, Melinda?

Melinda Haring: Look, the United States is not trying to take over Russia. We're not trying to bring the Orange Revolution to Moscow. That's a grand delusion. I think we're trying to stand with people who want a normal way of life. We're standing with the aspirations of people around the world. That's what this is about. I understand how Moscow might see it differently, and I think it speaks to the sort of Russian way of thinking. I understand that.

Graham Allison:  Basically, Melinda, the US does believe that the best form of government for other countries is democracy. The US does believe that individuals have endowed rights that are being denied them by the Russian government and the Chinese government. That means that in the US agenda, regime change to democracy is not an implausible thing for an autocratic leader like Putin or Xi to worry about. Indeed, when Xi and Putin get together, what do they talk about? They talk about, "The American threat to our good governance of our regimes. Namely, to get rid of me." So if you're trying to drive two parties together, a very good way to do that is to persuade each of them that your aspiration is to change their regime. Now, telling them you're not going to come do it by sending military forces, particularly since they have nuclear arsenals that can cause you to disappear, is quite plausible. We're not going to fight them about this. But we may try to undermine them otherwise.

And you can see this very clearly in the Trump Administration's attempt to articulate that the problem was not the Chinese people, it was the Chinese Communist Party government. And you can see an analogous articulation. It's not the Russian people. It's the thuggish guy named Putin and his regime of oligarchs. So I think if we were part of either of those regimes, we would plausibly say, "You know, the Americans actually would like to change our regime." Now, they've understood they can't invade us because we have nuclear weapons. That would produce a nuclear war. But by other means. And I think that's not unreasonable interpretation for them. We could give up what we believe, but we're not going to do that. So that's part of the proposition. We are a dangerous nation. But we're exceptional. And the reason why this is good is because we're the good guys. And the reason why people worry about that is because they're the bad guys. And if you don't understand that, you will be charged with moral equivalence.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Let me press on from Graham. And, Melinda, I want to ask you, I don't know if this is the response you want to make to John, but wouldn't the stronger response be even go further than Graham and say, "Yes, democratization is not just a tool, but a weapon in the American foreign policy arsenal. We call it democratization, but it does promote our interests. It's not just idealism. And yes, I do want to scare the bejesus out of Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping"? Isn't that really what's at the bottom of what you want? Or what's your response?

Melinda Haring: Look, I don't think you can say that. If you say that, then all these sort of innocent democracy promotion strategies–that I'm guilty of what John is claiming. If the Russians are interfering here, then I'm interfering in Moscow by running these little programs. I don't think regime change is the end goal. It's standing with people who want a different life. I'm not going to go that far, Jacob. I'm not taking the bait.

John Mearsheimer: Can I just jump in, Jacob?

Jacob Heilbrunn: Go ahead.

John Mearsheimer: I think the argument that Melinda was making all along, that, of course, I was arguing against, was sort of an idealistic argument. It was an argument that was predicated on the argument that liberal democracy is good for liberal democracy's sake. It's good for these people. You were making a very realist argument, which is that you use this threat of toppling regimes and promoting liberal democracy as an instrument in the realist quiver. And she, of course, disagreed with you on that, as she should. I would argue that when you start talking about acting in a realist way, you don't promote democracy all the time. Sometimes it makes sense for you. But other times, you topple democracies. And you know full-well that during the Cold War, for good realist reasons, the United States toppled regimes in places like Iran, Guatemala, Chile, and so forth, and so on. So you can have two different ways of thinking about democracy promotion. But what people like me are arguing against is the version that Melinda's putting forward, which is a much more idealistic one.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Well, I'm going to circle back and pose one last question to all of you, and I'll begin with Graham. Since we are headed towards the New Year's, I'm going to ask each panelist to make a prediction about what will be the most important foreign policy issue over the next year, and will the United States be in a better position a year from today than it is now? Graham.

Graham Allison:  I don't want to stop the question, but I think the overriding problem for Joe Biden and for the US government in the year ahead will be trying to reunify a country that's very deeply divided. About this, I'm somewhat optimistic because I think while we're in a dark, dark, dark winter, given that it's the Christmas season, maybe it's appropriate that a light has appeared in the darkness. And that light is a vaccine, which I think will roll out over the next six months. And we'll see basically the defeat of Coronavirus and all the disruption that's meant for us as a society. Internationally, China will remain the overriding challenge, and I think the hope is that we will not end up in some crisis caused by some accident or incident in Taiwan, or the South China Seas, or North Korea that drag the US and China into a confrontation. I think finding a way in which Thucydidean rivals in a nuclear world can constrain each other and themselves is going to be the challenge, and I think actually Biden will get his head around that.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Dimitri, will we be in a better position a year from now? And what do you think will be the biggest challenge we face?

Dimitri K. Simes: I don't want to prejudge the future Biden Administration by their campaign rhetoric. It not only would be unfair, it would be unrealistic. I think that we know that only Nixon could go to China. It may be only Biden who could go to Moscow. I am not predicting that this would happen, but certainly, there will be many opportunities for the new administration to correct a lot of things that went wrong during the Trump Administration. But they will, in my view, fairly quickly, face the moment of truth in their relations with China, in their relations with Russia, in many other areas in the world in terms of our nuclear deal with Iran, and so forth. And then we will see what this new administration is made of. Is it made up of statesmen who knew how to fight rather ruthlessly during the electoral campaign and to say whatever was required to make them look different from the Trump Administration? Or are they really not capable of much beyond campaign sloganeering? If the latter, then I think they will find the administration in real trouble internationally quite quickly. Hopefully, this is not what is going to happen.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, Dimitri. Now, we'll turn to Melinda for your assessment.

Melinda Haring: I agree with Dimitri. I think that there's a real danger, that there's going to be an early test of Biden. I don't know where it's going to come from, but thuggish regimes are going to see what he's made of. I think everyone expects Biden, since he has a lot of foreign policy experience, to make the right decisions. But we're going to get tested right away. And the bigger challenge that the United States faces is convincing other nations that we're a trusted partner, and, "Give us a shot again."

Jacob Heilbrunn: John.

John Mearsheimer: I think that the biggest crisis that we're likely to face over the next year is from Iran. I think that what's happening there makes me extremely nervous. The Iranians have basically said that the United States has about two months to get back into the JCPOA. That's the Iran nuclear deal, of course. And if we don't get back into the deal, they're going to throw the inspectors out, and they're going to start enriching more uranium and at higher levels. This is going to drive the Israelis and the Americans crazy, right? And therefore, the $64,000 question is whether Biden can get us back into the JCPOA into the next month or two. Or the month or two after he takes office. And I think it's going to be impossible for Biden to do that because of resistance from the Israelis, the Israel lobby in the United States, and hardliners into the United States. So what happens if we don't get back into the JCPOA? Out go the inspectors, enrichment increases, we don't know what's going on, we do all sorts of worst case scenarios about Iran and it acquiring nuclear weapons, and there is tremendous pressure to use military force against Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear weapon. And the question is, how does Biden negotiate that situation? How does he avoid that situation? Other than getting back into the JCPOA right away? Which I think is, well, nigh impossible to do. So I think although China is the biggest threat that we face over the long term, I think in the next year, the biggest problem that we're going to face is Iran and the pressure to go to war against Iran.

Jacob Heilbrunn: Thank you, John. And thank you to all of our panelists.

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