2020 election: What is America's global role? (audio)

A Common Ground Committee podcast: Two Monitor reporters discuss the U.S. pullback from the World Health Organization, the Paris climate accord, and the growing confrontation with China. What's next?

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden during the first presidential debate Sept. 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
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Common Ground Committee

As part of their 2020 U.S. election briefings, on Oct. 8, 2020, Richard Davies and Ashley Milne-Tyte of Common Ground spoke with the Monitor's Paris-based International Editor, Peter Ford, and the Monitor's Diplomacy Writer, Howard LaFranchi, about the differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on America’s role in the world.

President Trump’s “America First” policy has led to a U.S. withdrawal from many global institutions. For decades after World War II, American leadership in the world was taken for granted. But with the rise of China's influence, the U.S. role was changing prior to the Trump administration. Would a Biden presidency really substantively shift U.S. foreign policy?

The Common Ground Committee is a nonprofit that "inspires action on polarizing issues by bringing prominent leaders with opposing views together in public forums to find common ground. Free of political agenda and financial influence, our singular focus is bringing light, not heat, to public discourse."


Ashley Milne-Tyte The U.S. is the world's largest trading nation and spends more on defense than the next nine countries combined. America's peace and prosperity depends on what happens overseas. But despite its importance, foreign policy is mentioned less than other issues in the presidential campaign.

Ashley Milne-Tyte This is Let's Find Common Ground. I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte.

Richard Davies   And I'm Richard Davies. In this election briefing episode, we look at America's role in the world with two highly experienced journalists, Peter Ford and Howard Lefranchi, based in Paris. Peter is global affairs correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. Previously, he spent a decade as the paper's Beijing bureau chief.

Richard Davies Howard has been the Monitor's diplomacy correspondent, based in Washington since 2001.

Ashley Milne-Tyte We look at the implications of President Trump's America first policy and the US retreat from global institutions. We reached Peter at his home in France and the audio quality was a bit wobbly.

Ashley Milne-Tyte First question to Peter Ford. How is America's role changed in the past three and a half years?

Peter Ford Well, I think it's changed in a very deliberate way. As President Trump wanted to, and rather than being a go-to country, what Madeleine Albright used to call the 'indispensable nation,' America has just become another superpower. One interested, frankly, only in protecting the interests of its citizens and their national interests. And that has really pulledl the rug out, frankly, from a lot of a lot of countries, especially America's traditional allies, who are still finding their way around this new world and still trying to figure out what they can do without America and how they might go about doing it without angering Americans too much.

Richard Davies One example of that. Peter, is President Trump's refusal to work with the World Health Organization during the coronavirus pandemic. Has that weakened the global response?

Peter Ford Well, I think it has. I mean, quite apart from the financing, which is what President Trump threatened to pull. But it's more than just a bit of money. It's a question of leadership and commitment and the sense that there is a serious, organized and capable country playing a lead role in gathering the sort of thought and action required. hard to imagine an international affair, an international matter that is more in need of international cooperation. And this American administration doesn't put a very high price on cooperation.

Ashley Milne-Tyte The Trump administration has withdrawn from some major international agreements, including the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal. It's pretty sweeping, isn't it?

Peter Ford  It is. I mean, I think Mr. Trump made it clear at the beginning that that's what he intends to do. And not everybody believed him because it was so dramatic an outlook. But he has followed through. And I think that whoever wins the election, I think that is a pattern that has been set. I think that momentum has been lost in terms of American leadership of the world, that even if if Joe Biden won the election and even if he wanted to reverse course, it won't just be a question of switching things back on again overnight.

Richard Davies The headlines are often dominated by President Trump's personality and most recently, his illness with Corona virus. But we're looking here in this episode at policy. Howard has America's retreat from global involvements weakened the architecture of major institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization?

Howard LaFranchi I don't think there's any doubt that the US retreat has weakened the global architecture in any architecture. That architect and the US was the architect and for a very specific reason. I mean, it was thought. And all these institutions were developed because it was seen as actually kind of a bargain for the United States. I mean, you know, the more the world prospered, the United States would benefit. So I guess I would say. You know, dismantling that has affected everyone. Of course, I think, Ashley, you mentioned the Paris climate accord. But of course, many consider that climate change, the world's greatest threat and will be once the coronavirus is addressed and taken care of. But again, as Peter was saying, there is no global cooperation on what is a globally existential threat.

Ashley Milne-Tyte Joe Biden and Donald Trump have very different views of America's role in the world. What are they? Howard?

Howard LaFranchi Well, I agree with Peter that if Joe Biden wins this election, it's not going to be a matter of flipping a switch and returning to a world of American leadership of 2016. For one thing, this process of the US retreat, really there are aspects of it that began under President Obama. But I think that Joe Biden, he has said he will return to the Paris climate accords. I don't think that there will be an effort to automatically return to the Iran nuclear deal, but perhaps some new negotiations. But I think there will be some some return or effort to return to the concept of America leading its alliances and sort of strength together rather than standing alone.

Ashley Milne-Tyte One example where the US has been involved diplomatically is in the Middle East, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have recognized Israel after decades of hostility. But elsewhere, there's been a pulling back of American involvement in regional conflicts. How does that change the global outlook? Peter?

Peter Ford As they say, you know, while the cat's away, the mice will play. And leaders around the world -  allies of the United States - have started to do things and realize they can get away with it and the United States is not going to do anything about it. So we have, for example, India. We've had President Modi annulling Kashmir's autonomy. And there was not a squeak out of Washington about this. President Erdogan sent troops to invade northeastern Syria to fight Kurds who are actually part of the Western alliance. Mr. Trump didn't only not say anything, he actually enabled it by pulling American troops out three or four days before Erdogan moved. So quite a lot of leaders around the world who are getting used to getting away with things because the Americans are absent. And I think once that mood takes hold in these leaders, they are reluctant to let go. And I think any American president is going to have to cope with that.

Richard Davies You're listening to Let's Find Common Ground. I'm Richard.

Ashley Milne-Tyte And I'm Ashley. We're speaking with Peter Ford and Howard La Frankie of the Christian Science Monitor.

Richard Davies Before hearing more, first, a word of something new from Common Ground Committee.

Ashley Milne-Tyte How often do you say. What's the score?

Richard Davies How are they doing? As in how is your member of Congress, senator, governor, or the presidential candidates doing to find common ground?

Ashley Milne-Tyte Now, there's a new way to find out the Common Ground Scorecard. It rates elected officials and candidates for public office on what they're doing to push back against polarized politics and partizan bickering.

Richard Davies Common Ground Scorecard is free and easy to use. Search for politicians where you live by entering your zip code.

Ashley Milne-Tyte Politicians who work better with those from another party get higher ratings. The results are based on facts and data.

Richard Davies Be an informed voter. Vote common ground. More progress. Less division.

Ashley Milne-Tyte Learn more at Commongroundscorecard.org. Now more from Howard, LaFranchi and Peter Ford.

Richard Davies Howard, I take it that whoever is elected, the likelihood that the U.S. would send large numbers of troops back to Iraq or Afghanistan. This probably off the table, isn't it?

Howard LaFranchi Yes. That's right. And that kind of intervention, as we saw from President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of over walk. That's not going to happen again. But I would also say that I think the hostility and standing up to China, whoever takes office in January of next year, that is becoming very bipartisan position.

Richard Davies That invites a question on the theme of our podcast, which is let's find common ground. Are there common ground aspects that are shared by both President Trump and Joe Biden?

Peter Ford Well, I think that there clearly are and that everybody's approach to China has changed radically over the last three or four years, certainly since I left Beijing five years ago. It's an entirely different relationship. I think there's common ground on a concern about China's actions and militarization of the South China Sea. There's common concern about China's theft of intellectual property. There's concern although not a great deal of action, but common concern about how China has behaved and will behave in Hong Kong. There are a great number of issues on which Trump advisors and Republicans and Democrats agree about China policy. The question is, frankly, how many of them will they act on?

Howard LaFranchi  I think, too, there will be some common ground on trade policy, agriculture, trade policy, for example, there could be quite a bit of common ground between Republicans and Democrats. And you might also see some effort to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership since that has gone ahead as 11 countries instead of twelve, as it was originally designed with, that included the United States. That could be something that could be relatively easy for the United States to do. And that, too, would be a way, remember that that that trade agreement was set up not just as a a trade agreement, but really as a way of strengthening the community of free economies and democracies in the Pacific Basin.

Ashley Milne-Tyte Has America been weakened by America first? Are we now America alone?

Howard LaFranchi I would say yes. Peter mentioned the WHO, for example, and how it weakens the world's response to such a crisis if there isn't some country leading the global effort to address that kind of crisis. If you, if you look back to Ebola, for example, which the United States was slow in responding to that, but once it did, it really sort of marshaled contributions and effort from from from many countries. And that crisis was stopped in its tracks and was most people believe that it was well addressed by the international community, led by the United States. So to not be playing that role in this crisis, I think that weakens the United States. And you can kind of go down the line. If you look at the the Iran nuclear deal, for example, the United States is alone standing outside of that agreement. And it's hard to argue that the United States is stronger because of that.

Peter Ford I think there's no doubt, as Howard was saying, that America is alone. It's alone also on the  Paris climate agreement: it's the only country that left it. I think the most important aspect of this is that the United States has lost a lot of respect .

Ashley Milne-Tyte And Peter, an example of this decline in respect is how this country has handled Coronavirus. A recent poll from Pew Research asked people overseas about this.

Peter Ford And the general perception around the world is the United States has failed dismally dealing with coronavirus. Just 15 percent in 13 countries that Pew looked at - a median of just 15 percent - said the U.S. had done a good job of dealing with the virus. But Yascha Mounk, who teaches at Harvard, he said that COVID has made people take the US less seriously. And if people look at you with pity, that's not a great qualification for heading up the free world. And I think coronavirus has dealt a serious blow to America's reputation in the world.

Richard Davies I'd like to talk about the future and what might happen under a Biden or Trump administration. First with Donald Trump. What will change or be reinforced. Around the world as a result of Trump reelection?

Peter Ford I don't think the direction of Trump win would change at all. I didn't see anything that would make him change direction unless we're looking at an all out on confrontation with the Chinese and him backing down - which is unlikely. What will change I think is that the world will become more fragmented because the institutions that hold it together will be weakened or undermined or simply stopped functioning as WTO, for example, which is effectively paralyzed. Because it has no appellate  body, because the United States won't approve any new judges. So low level work goes on. But the important work of the WTO has had to stop. We'll probably see that with other institutions. And, of course, without institutions holding things together, holding people together and offering a forum in which they can talk, misunderstandings arise, mistakes get made, and people do things theyt would regret later and could possibly be very dangerous.

Richard Davies Howard, how do you see it?

Howard LaFranchi Basically, I don't see a second term for Donald Trump being that much different. But I do think it's important to to point out as well. I mean, we talk about retreat, which is true. But the United States, for example, even under the Trump administration, has remained the largest humanitarian donor. And as a donor to education programs for refugee children and and, you know, those populations are higher than they've ever been. The Trump administration is proud of, you know, mentioning that the United States has remained the largest humanitarian donor. The problem I see, though, is that there is probably little, little sign that  that a second Trump administration would really go out, go after addressing the causes, the reasons there are more refugees than ever since since World War II.

Ashley Milne-Tyte And Howard, if Joe Biden wins. How would things change?

Howard LaFranchi I think there would be a very quick signaling any way that a more cooperative United States is back on the stage and I wouldn't be surprised to see under a President Biden something early, some sort of a tour trying to repair relations, especially with our closest allies.

Peter Ford I mean, I think making nice with aggrieved allies is a pretty cost-free enterprise. Trouble is that I don't think there's any likelihood of a tour of aggrieved allies in the immediate future because I think no American president is game to travel, very likely, in the next few months.

Ashley Milne-Tyte So we could have virtual makeup sessions, a zoom makeup session between Biden and a whole screen full of people.

Peter Ford Exactly. One of those those multi multi-person zoom conversations where everyone's a postcard.

Ashley Milne-Tyte  This one's for you because you've lived all over the world. How does it feel to you personally as you view America from Europe about what's going on in the United States in the past few years?

Peter Ford Disappointing. When I was growing up, I was always strongly critical of the United States and US foreign policy. But having, as you say, lived all over the world, most recently in China for 10 years, it became clear to me that I certainly do not want China, really and the only country that could stand for the sorts of things that I stood for was the United States, with all its faults. And the last few years have suggested that maybe the United States won't step forward. And I think that bodes ill for the world's future and it continues to be the case.

Richard Davies When you say it, it the United States is no longer standing for the principles it once stood for. I assume you mean the principles of democracy, of freedom, of press, freedom of speech, of standing up for human rights, at least to a limited degree.

Peter Ford Yes, those are the fundamentals. I think there is room to doubt how committed the president is, how deeply they resonate with him in his heart and his mind, and it takes that kind of commitment to impose those sorts of values.

Richard Davies Are either of you hopeful about the near and long term future of America's role in the world? Or is it inevitable that American leadership will not be what it was? Even in the post-Cold War world of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Peter Ford Well, I don't think they're mutually exclusive. I think we can be hopeful because it won't be back to the way it used to be. I mean, I think a solidly unipolar world, such that we had before the Soviet Union, was not necessarily a good thing. And we saw the results in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think that is inevitable that America will share power, as Howard said, America's withdrawal from the world stage, or its reluctance to play the decisive role always on the world stage predates President Trump and reflects economic and geopolitical realities beyond American control.

Richard Davies So what's been called the rise of the rest.

Peter Ford So there's no way that we're going back to to the unipolar world of the 1990s and the 2000s. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Howard LaFranchi Yes, I think a much more multipolar world is what is in our future. I would say I am hopeful that some sort of middle point can be found where there is still leadership from the United States on the values that are really much, much of the world, whether we saw it in in Hong Kong or, you know, I see it when when I report in India. But I think there is still a place, a vital role for American leadership on the values that the United States has built with its allies over the past seven or eight decades. And I do think that there is hope for keeping those values alive and really taking them farther.

Richard Davies Thank you very much.

Ashley Milne-Tyte Yes. Thanks so much for joining us.

Peter Ford It's been fun.

Ashley Milne-Tyte This podcast is part of our briefing series on the election.

Richard Davies Learn more about finding common ground and also the new scorecard, ratings of your elected representatives at Commongroundcommittee.org. Thanks for listening.

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