How might Joe Biden’s foreign-policy perspective differ not just from Donald Trump’s, but from Barack Obama’s? How might an effective post-Trump bipartisan foreign-policy agenda come together? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Thomas Wright. This present conversation focuses on several of Wright’s recent articles, all found here. Wright directs the Center on the US and Europe, and is a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy, at the Brookings Institute. He is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.
ANDY FITCH: To introduce the restorationist, reformist, and progressive foreign-policy visions you traced within the Democratic Party during the 2020 election cycle, could we start with perhaps the two most consequential foreign-policy topics that the Biden administration faces upon taking office: how to reconceive US relations with China, and how to revitalize US efforts to combat climate change? First, where might restorationists, reformists, and progressives differ, for example, in what they see as opportunities for (or dangers of) increased cooperation, competition, and/or confrontation with China?
THOMAS WRIGHT: When I applied these concepts of restorationism and reformism (now widely used, I should note, by others as well) to the 2020 primaries and presidential campaign, I did so because, during the Trump administration, we’d had this vibrant debate among centrists in the foreign-policy community on the Democratic side — a debate not widely covered or properly understood. By mid-2020, the perception solidified that Democrats had a centrist foreign-policy wing and a progressive wing. But actually, Democratic centrists had different views even just among themselves.
One group, the restorationists, basically have updated the worldview that President Obama held at his term’s end. They felt the need for a proper response to Russia’s 2016 US election interference. They recognize of course this COVID pandemic as a priority. But for the most part, they’ve held to core strategic assumptions from the Obama administration. By contrast, a second centrist group, the reformists, have publicly questioned key orthodoxies or assumptions from the Obama era. They’ve recommended a different path not only from the Trump administration, but from its predecessor. So on China policy, for example, Kurt Campbell, Jake Sullivan, and Ely Ratner (all now part of Biden’s administration) have published articles calling for a new direction. Sullivan also has published pieces proposing a new direction on foreign economic policy, on trade, on investment.
Progressives tend to view foreign policy and domestic policy as more foundationally intertwined. So you see some overlap between progressives and the centrist groups, depending on the issue.
And then, as you suggest, I do consider China probably the most important foreign-policy topic to address, as well as the best example for clarifying these three distinct visions. Reformists basically agree with the Trump administration on seeing China through the lens of strategic competition. Reformists might consider that Trump approach wrong in its tone, and counterproductive in many of its trade policies or in its approach toward allies. But they’d agree that the US does face long-term competition with China, a competition that we must engage. This can happen, of course, alongside cooperation on various important issues. But our primary prism will be competition.
Restorationists place more emphasis on America’s bilateral relationship with Beijing. They largely blame the Trump administration for this relationship’s deterioration. They hope to get back to a mix of cooperation and competition, but with more engagement and much less friction.
Progressives are interesting on this, and also sort of split among themselves. Domestic progressives prioritize rebuilding at home as the best means to compete with China’s model of authoritarian state capitalism. But at the same time, some foreign-policy progressives worry about a new Cold War or great-power competition — and want to pull back.
The Biden administration itself so far seems very much to have taken up the reformist angle. They’ve already done much to indicate that they see this US-China relationship through the lens of strategic competition. Their appointments reflect that basic position.
And then how might a linkage of US China policy to US climate policy further advance or complicate each of those agendas? Or what could it look like for the US to adopt a more robustly competitive (if not explicitly confrontational) approach with China by ramping up our own climate efforts, perhaps in coordination with the EU, perhaps (in your terms) “ensuring that the free world is more self-reliant when it comes to the decades-long effort to develop clean technology”?
All three of these foreign-policy schools we’ve mentioned do take climate change very seriously, seeing it as a crosscutting issue that affects all parts of US policy, and that demands a whole-of-government approach. Each group supports reengaging in international institutions, and tackling climate change as a top priority. That already makes for a huge shift from the Trump administration (or, for that matter, from the George W. Bush administration). You don’t see much debate on that sense of urgency.
The debate appears more in whether we treat US international policy basically as just one component of our broader climate policy. Of course the US can and should take a lot of action, independent of any international agreement, just to get our own house in order when it comes to climate. We should do this just on the merits. But then in the international arena, restorationists here might see our relationship with China as central. They might argue that you can’t really make much global progress unless you get China on board. They might prioritize formal bilateral cooperation with China for this very reason. I’d say that John Kerry, for example, typically has been associated with this view — though I’d also note that Kerry’s position already has evolved a bit in this Biden administration’s early days.
Reformists, in turn, might think that we need to engage with China — but that this relationship will include clear competitive aspects (say in the race for clean technologies). Reformists would caution against linking climate to other parts of our relationship with China, because linkage instead could lead to a breakdown in any climate cooperation. If China says, as one of their spokespeople recently did say: “We’ll only cooperate on climate if you lay off criticizing us on internal matters like Xinjiang and Hong Kong,” that might result in a much broader breakdown on climate cooperation. So reformists would recommend separating and compartmentalizing these various issues, so that you can leave space for cooperation, as well as for strategic rivalry.
The progressives probably would align themselves closer to Kerry’s thinking here, putting climate at the top of the foreign-policy agenda, and maybe linking it to other concerns. But I’d also say that the Biden administration so far has done a pretty good job establishing a unified China approach. John Kerry has made a number of statements clearly indicating that the Biden administration has a single unified China policy, that he will play his own part in it, that he’s not looking to link climate to other geopolitical issues. The administration’s initial steps rolling out this coordinated approach have been quite sound. A divide in perspectives definitely existed. But they’ve taken some smart steps trying to ensure internal reconciliation in this inter-agency process, so that one coherent position gets articulated to the country and to the world.
Then stepping back to further flesh out these three distinct foreign-policy perspectives, to what extent should we refrain from affixing such labels to particular individuals or camps? How might President Biden benefit most, for instance, by deploying (sometimes even blending) all three approaches, depending on the specific issue at hand? And what other signals have you seen, during this administration’s first few weeks, about how these three perspectives are interacting right now?
Right, I consider these three basic types a helpful heuristic, but I don’t mean to reinforce any rigid distinctions. The lines blur on many important issues, for many of these officials. I do want us to move beyond this binary of Democratic centrists versus progressives, and to show that a healthy, robust, substantive debate has taken place from multiple angles on many key issues. But even particular individuals sometimes feel competing impulses, depending on the issue at play.
Still for one key analytic question to pose right now, I also think it’s important to ask not just how Biden’s foreign policy will differ from Trump’s, but how it will differ from Obama’s. We already see some clear differences on China and trade and globalization. We see a good degree of similarity on Iran policy, and probably quite a few similarities on Europe (although much still needs to be announced). I have to assume that our very notion of these three foreign-policy schools itself will evolve and get updated and refined as we come to better understand this Biden administration on its own terms.
So let’s say that one sensible-sounding perspective on how to reestablish America’s global footing would prioritize fortifying our domestic position (by revitalizing a post-COVID economy, fostering greater equality, restitching our democratic fabric, updating our infrastructure), while also reinvigorating partnerships with Europe and other long-term allies. In what ways might even this restorative, constructive, non-confrontational approach itself need to rely on the specter of a Chinese threat as its galvanizing principle?
I’ll answer that from two different angles. First, by not making a choice, you’re still making a choice. If we tell ourselves “Let’s focus on revitalization at home, and not worry too much about China, and not force ourselves to decide on competition or cooperation,” then presumably we won’t make any very active commitments in the South China Sea. We won’t push back very hard on the erosion of rule of law in Hong Kong. We won’t follow up on the Trump administration’s genocide designation for Xinjiang. Well, all of these inactions would still reflect choices, right? They might reflect good choices or bad choices. But in any case they do amount to a China policy.
At the same time, I have written sympathetically about calls to emphasize domestic investment, say in infrastructure. This might be the right thing to do, to prevent further loss of our competitive edge. And the only way to get Republican support might involve making these investments about competition with China. Regardless of whether your readers would agree or disagree with how certain Republican Senators have arrived at this position, Marco Rubio and others have shown a new openness to industrial policy and to public investment in emerging technologies and in key areas of the economy, and even to regulation — only because they worry about this challenge from China. Without that framing, they’re not on board. So if Democrats also worry about China’s technological competitiveness, about the US falling behind, maybe that becomes the common ground for investment in infrastructure, in education, in science. Maybe that becomes the impetus for a more proactive approach to shaping our economy’s overall direction, again including through more domestic regulation, and more tech-sector restrictions on which technologies get shared with authoritarian countries.
In a 50/50 Senate, passing even this agenda will require an extremely heavy lift. So I’d hope for us to develop a bipartisan approach to domestic renewal — especially in those areas where we can agree, like technology, education, infrastructure. And then in other areas where we can’t agree, maybe a more party-line vote makes sense. But let’s at least explore possibilities for a bipartisan congressional push.
For a slightly different angle now on these same policy dynamics: you also note here our supply-chain codependence with countless international partners, our escalating susceptibility to destabilizing disinformation campaigns, our newly salient exposure to cross-border public-health concerns and of course to climate change. So how might even any bold domestic-policy agenda today find itself inextricably entwined with a bold foreign-policy agenda?
Good question. We absolutely need to recognize that many problems affecting America are not unique to America — and that while they have endogenous domestic components, they also have international components. We’ve seen significant disinformation problems coming from domestic sources. But we’ve also experienced disinformation campaigns directed by Russia and other international actors. Inequalities in the global economy, and problems stemming from globalization, of course cannot be addressed solely at the national level. Additional strains have opened in our own economy due to a lack of access to Chinese markets, and to China’s sponsorship of state-owned enterprises, and China’s increasing ability now to set the agenda on technology. Democracies all over the world in fact face similar challenges, from similar sources. So in my view, if we truly wish to address some of these domestic concerns, we only can do so by simultaneously working with other free societies to shape the international order, to keep it safe and conducive to democratic flourishing.
This might require us to collaborate with other countries on technological innovation. It might involve resetting the rules of the road and reshaping certain international institutions such as the WHO. It might mean pushing back against an authoritarian state’s efforts to coerce democratic societies or to bully them. It might mean responding to challenges posed by our own domestic nationalism and populism — so that our societies can remain open, cooperative with each other, and prosperous. But in any case, even if we want to prioritize domestic renewal, we still have to worry about the world. We still have to proactively participate in international affairs. We still have to work with like-minded countries to address the many problems that can’t be dealt with unilaterally.
Here could you sketch a foreign economic policy updated for 2021, potentially pursuing an ambitious agenda of reining in tax havens, regulating international finance, reducing illicit financial flows, tackling both global and domestic inequalities, as well as prioritizing cyber-security and data-sharing concerns? Again, which wings of the Democratic Party might take the lead on such an agenda, and where might they find traction with which Republicans?
You laid out the basic agenda well. The broader perspective here would start from the fact that US foreign economic policy has primarily focused on trade, reduction of tariffs, and alignment of regulations across specific sectors. Today we think of a free-trade agreement primarily in these terms. But that kind of free-trade agreement tends to provide only a very marginal bump to GDP, a very small benefit typically following a big political lift — and all while shining a spotlight on the very real concerns people have about cyber and data sharing, about certain huge multinational companies not paying tax anywhere in the world, about climate consequences.
So some reformists have asked: “Why don’t we design a foreign economic policy that actually focuses on these issues, and that works proactively with countries in Europe and elsewhere on developing a common approach to these crucial questions?” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said on many occasions that US foreign policy shouldn’t take as its central objective opening up China for Goldman Sachs — that our foreign economic policy toward China and other countries should serve the interests of the American middle class. So I consider this one area where reformists and progressives very much align. And even some Republicans can see the value in stepping away from certain components of that classic free-trade agreement model, and bringing in some of these bigger macroeconomic concerns.
At the same time, you do see certain Democrats and Republicans supporting more traditional notions of globalization and an open global economy, and free-trade agreements. But it already seems fair, given the Biden administration’s early appointments and various statements, to say that they’ve taken steps in the direction of a reformist foreign economic policy.
Then in more overt geopolitical terms, where around the globe might you see a tech-equipped and increasingly meddlesome authoritarianism necessitating a more confrontational stance? And where might any stark fault-line we draw between “the democracies” and “the authoritarians” lead us mistakenly to project (or perhaps even to inspire) a sense of concerted unity within and among these authoritarian nations — as well as among certain tepid US partners, and even factions within our own society?
So I’ll start by just trying to clarify what we’ve seen happening. I think we didn’t fully appreciate in the 2000s, or even the early 2010s, the extent to which the Chinese and Russian models of authoritarianism, and our own models of democracy, had become perceived as threats to each other. They posed this threat to each other not so much because of specific choices or actions undertaken by a given state. They just grew more and more incompatible.
From Beijing’s perspective, by 2012, the presence of strong active US media outlets in China (including Bloomberg and The New York Times) making striking discoveries of Chinese Communist Party corruption, drawing on publicly available land records, posed a destabilizing challenge. Xi Jinping took from this experience his sense of international liberalism endangering the CCP regime. President Obama hadn’t made this decision to uncover CCP corruption. An independent newspaper did. And from that example, you can draw a line to many other instances in which the CCP feels under threat from any further expansion of global liberalism.
Beijing’s response to this perceived threat, as well as to various domestic challenges, has taken the form of amplified social control and repression in China. China has become, I’d say, a much more closed and authoritarian society over the past 10 years. And it shouldn’t give us any comfort that the regime’s sense of insecurity led to this result.
Then on the other side, the US and Europe perceive an increasingly wealthy and powerful China willing to export its censorship tools and its authoritarian model, as well as to undermine international actors it dislikes. China today exports technologies for authoritarian control to anyone willing to buy them. China engages in opaque forms of economic diplomacy, not fully adhering to international standards. This all has had the effect of empowering and further enabling certain illiberal regimes. And then, of course, both fair and unfair challenges posed by China’s technological advances leave us feeling quite insecure, anxious to push back and to announce new restrictions.
So I see these frictions as quite deeply rooted. We can’t accommodate certain Chinese concerns without compromising our core principles. The same holds on their side. That leaves us all, Andy, facing a fundamental tension when it comes to foundational values, to our elemental systems of governance. Each side has good reason to perceive itself as threatened in certain basic ways by the other.
Now we also need to layer on top of all that what China’s regime has done in Xinjiang, has done in Hong Kong. We need to decide when such egregious actions must get factored into our policy decisions. When China rips up the one country, two systems Hong Kong model, and discards preceding commitments, do we ourselves need to revisit Hong Kong’s special economic status? Or what kinds of sanctions and appropriate measures should we pursue in response to the disregard for human rights in Xinjiang? I do believe that these kinds of clashes between core values should play a real part in our policy process. And I don’t see these foundational disagreements over values as an optional add-on to today’s foreign policy. I see them as baked into the cake for at least the past decade.
So more tactically now, how might you recommend that the Biden administration sequence its signaling on a broader approach to China? In what order would the administration ideally introduce its cooperative and/or confrontational perspective when it comes to climate, trade, tech, the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang?
So far, the Biden administration has signaled that their initial Indo-Pacific objectives will focus on proactively reshaping the diplomatic environment, by deepening ties with allies — while also of course pursuing domestic reforms to strengthen the overall US position. They invited a Taiwanese representative to the inauguration for the first time. They’ve developed freedom-of-navigation operational plans, and started to speak out on Xinjiang and other issues. They’ve made it clear that no China summit to try to reset this relationship will happen right away. They’ll engage more over time, but first they’ll prioritize reengaging with allies and partners.
I consider that precisely the correct signal to send. Attempting to build out from a very early summit with China would have been a big mistake. The underlying frictions just didn’t allow for it. We wouldn’t have reached a more secure position by just pretending that we could avoid competition. Instead, for the medium term, we need to start thinking through: how can we compete responsibly with China? How can we come to cautiously accept the other side doing something similar? How do we constructively address the deepest competitive dimensions to this relationship? How do we engage on those? How do we adjust to those new patterns, and to what a new equilibrium might be? How do we initiate a productive conversation about keeping this competition bounded, responsible, somewhat stable?
So far I see the Biden administration keeping us on track for all of that. On climate change, I expect some engagement, but at first primarily through the prism of COP26, happening in Glasgow later this year. The US will probably engage with allies first on climate. Obviously, they’ll also formally engage with China before too long. Climate will likely be a big theme for 2021.
Global public health looks a bit more complicated. We can’t just flip a switch and start re-engaging with China on familiar terms. I mean, the US engaged with China on this for 17 years after SARS — and many of those efforts didn’t pan out as hoped when COVID-19 hit. So I think we’ll need to take a hard look at what worked and what clearly didn’t, and how to re-engage with China while also preparing ourselves for the next pandemic, and for China perhaps not cooperating, as it didn’t really this time around.
Pivoting back then to this post-Trump moment, and in terms of Biden’s overall tenure in office, what could it look like for his administration to “shockproof” US foreign policy (as well as to fortify our domestic politics, and our allies’ domestic politics) against any further destabilizing populist upsurge? And in an era of inevitable calls for decoupling and disengagement, how might Biden best make his case to a broad swath of American voters that a revitalized liberal-internationalist global order serves their own immediate and long-term interests?
Well, this shockproofing idea really comes out of the fact that Trump and Trumpism remain potent political forces in the US. In 2020 we had a decisive election. But we didn’t have a blowout. There’s every possibility of Republicans winning in 2024. And there’s no guarantee that Trump himself won’t return, or that someone like him won’t push the Republican Party even further in this direction. The whole world recognizes that fact. The world understands that today’s internationalist administration might disappear in four years’ time.
So what steps can reasonable Democrats and Republicans take together right now, to further formalize and fortify this international order that both parties basically agree on, but that Donald Trump didn’t agree on? Which parts of our international partnerships can we make more sticky? For one quick example, we could pass legislation requiring a congressional majority if the US President seeks to leave NATO. Right now, the President can make unilateral decisions on NATO policy. So how could we codify these commitments, again with bipartisan support, so that any subsequent nationalist would be a bit more boxed in by a sustained foreign-policy consensus?
I’d also point to discussions around European strategic autonomy. What steps could Europe take right now to lessen the impact of a diminished NATO in the future? Which investments today would make Europe more capable of standing on its own two feet in those kinds of pessimistic scenarios? That’s a different way of thinking about these questions than what we’ve grown accustomed to.
On climate, again we now have a re-engaged US administration, but no promise that its successor won’t pull us out again. So what gains should we be locking in at the state, local, and city level — which would endure beyond any change in federal officeholders? Should the Biden administration also put significant effort into shaping this state, local, and municipal legacy of its decisions, as well as at the federal and international levels?
Then on this whole question of populism: look, you can tell I typically wind up on the reformist side of these debates. Most basically, I think we need to clarify to the American people the ways the 21st-century world has changed, and how this renewed internationalist approach will deliver for them, directly addressing their very real concerns, on a day-to-day and week-by-week basis. That starts with the foreign economic policy we’ve discussed. But it also includes our China policy, as well as reducing US military involvement in the Middle East (a goal pretty widely shared by the American public), and focusing on major global challenges like climate change and future pandemics. Again I believe President Biden has made a good start on communicating this message effectively to the American public. And again, given the mixed world picture, I’m sure we’ll see a more reformist approach in some areas, and more restorationist in others.
To close then, while recognizing that the US has shown its warts to the world over the past four years, why would you caution against any shamefaced, inward-looking hiatus before we dare to reposition ourselves as global defenders of democracy?
Because the US has a foundational stake in the outcome of these international struggles between democracy and authoritarianism. If the US holds back from these struggles, that will weaken democracy and human rights internationally, which will ultimately rebound and further weaken the US at home. We shouldn’t just think of Trumpism as a uniquely American phenomenon. We need to see how it connects to nationalist and populist movements worldwide. We need to address both the domestic and the international dynamics fueling these movements.
In terms of global perceptions, the US standing, at least in some people’s eyes, may have diminished — but the stakes have not. Natalie Brown put it well when she basically said that “the power of our example,” which President Biden likes to mention, is the example of our struggle, not the example of our perfection. And similarly, in terms of the stakes for the world as a whole, I’d try to keep in mind that the people who complain internationally about US hypocrisy, and who claim we have no right to intervene on these questions, are never the oppressed. You don’t hear people in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, or imprisoned women in Saudi Arabia, saying that. You only hear the regimes themselves focusing on US hypocrisy.
I don’t really grasp how remaining silent on international atrocities benefits anybody but the oppressors. So I do consider it crucial for the US to lend its support to those standing for democracy and human rights abroad. The Biden administration has done this well since the election — during the transition on social media, and now through formal statements, and I’m sure in actions to follow.
And for one final point, I’d argue that, right now especially, it would be bitterly ironic if, with Trumpism on the verge of defeat in the US and hopefully elsewhere, we were to hand it a dramatic foreign-policy victory. If the US pulls back on democracy and human-rights commitments, then Donald Trump wins. He gets exactly what he called for. We’ll have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
None of this means that I consider the US perfect and problem-free, of course. We definitely have problematic aspects when it comes to our record of standing up for democracy and human rights. But we need to ask those questions of ourselves while also providing support to others. Yes, without a doubt, the US should stop intervening and trying to impose its own ideals of democracy and human rights on the broader Middle East. But we face different core questions today. We can’t over-rely on military operations in the future. But we also can’t give up on showing solidarity and leading on diplomacy.