Comment des États-Unis peu fiables déstabilisent le monde, avec Nahal Toosi

15 février 2024 - 35 minutes d'écoute

Nahal Toosi, correspondant principal de Politico pour les affaires étrangères, revient à l'antenne pour discuter de la façon dont le chaos de la politique intérieure affaiblit les États-Unis sur la scène internationale. The Doorstep pour expliquer comment le chaos de la politique intérieure affaiblit les États-Unis sur la scène internationale. Comment les républicains d'extrême droite sapent-ils les négociations du secrétaire d'État Antony Blinken avec Israël ? Quel est le sort de l'omnipolitique du président Biden, autrefois fortement promue, ou "politique étrangère pour la classe moyenne" ? Y aura-t-il une autre crise majeure de politique étrangère en 2024 qui ébranlera encore plus la position des États-Unis ?

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TATIANA SERAFIN: Welcome to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am Tatiana Serafin, senior fellow here at Carnegie Council. My co-host Nick Gvosdev is in the air at the moment, doing great things, so it will be me today talking to Nahal Toosi, senior foreign affairs correspondent for Politico. Nahal joins us for the fourth time here at The Doorstep to share her insights into U.S. foreign policy in a moment.

I do want to mention that we have the second anniversary of the Ukraine War coming up, and we will be discussing next week what that means, so please join us next week. Join us March 19 for our next Book Talk with Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis for their new book 2054. They also come back to join us as a follow-up to their book 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. It should be a good one.

Welcome back to The Doorstep, Nahal. We are so excited to have you for your fourth time speaking with us. I cannot believe it. It is our fourth season, and it is your fourth time here. Thank you for taking the time to join us again. We so appreciate your inside look at U.S. foreign policy, how it relates to what is going on domestically, and how the United States looks in the world.

You started out with us on October 9, 2020. I cannot believe it. That was your first appearance on our second-ever Doorstep. We were in the middle of a pandemic, so we spent so much time talking about Blinken’s virtual diplomacy. It is so different now because you recently wrote a new piece about Blinken, which we will talk about in a little bit.

We have come so far—or have we? What is your sense? From October 9, 2020, to today, the world has changed, but how much has the United States changed in the world? Are we better off? We had so many questions that first episode because we were in the middle of an election, we didn’t know where we were going, it was Trump v. Biden, and guess what? It is 2024, and it is like Groundhog Day. Has anything changed?

NAHAL TOOSI: I love how the definition of Groundhog Day is now really the movie as opposed to the actual definition of Groundhog Day, which is about the winter.

In some ways, yes, many things have changed. The pandemic has certainly receded. In many ways the Biden administration has rebuilt U.S. alliances and friendships around the world.

There is a bit more confidence in the United States, but there is this constant uncertainty around the world as to how long the United States is going to be reliable, and it is because of the potential return of Trump, so you have a lot of world leaders who are very concerned about another 180-degree pendulum swing in U.S. policy, foreign policy in particular, if Trump takes power once more in the White House, or, I should add, if any Republican takes power. It might not be a 180, but it might be like a 150. There is definitely a sense among world leaders that there is something fundamentally different in the Republican Party now, that so many Americans do not see the world in the same way that the Ronald Reagan Republicans once did. So things have really changed.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That goes back to our podcasts—I am going to refer back to them because they were good, and I encourage our audience to go back and listen to them—because I do think they tell a story of the United States, if you are looking at history and where we have gone. In March of 2022 we spent a lot of time talking about the consensus with the Republicans on the Ukraine War and how we were proceeding with a solid face against Russia, and there was more of an optimism about negotiation and cooperation between Democrats and Republicans on the foreign policy front. That has eroded, which I think you are alluding to.

What are you seeing externally about why this erosion happened? Is it being blamed solely on the Republicans or on the Democrats? What are people saying? You were at Davos, so I know you heard many things from world leaders and from CEOs about the U.S. positioning and what is going on. A lot of people are looking at us. What are they saying?

NAHAL TOOSI: It is worth noting that in every year of the Biden presidency so far there has been one major international crisis. Afghanistan was in the first year. It was a total debacle for the administration. Then they got their act together, then Ukraine came along, and then last year there was the Middle East crisis. I am one of those people who is wondering, Well, what is going to be the big foreign policy crisis in 2024?

To your question as to what is the situation in terms of the erosion of support for Ukraine in particular, it was striking early on to see this incredible bipartisan support for Ukraine, lawmakers pretty much across the board, Republican, Democrat, solidly behind President Biden’s efforts to support the Ukrainians, but these stories always have a particular type of arc.

The reality is that I think a lot of people thought this was going to be a short war. I don’t personally understand that. I don’t know why anybody thinks any war is ever going to be short. I feel like wars are always ongoing and never quite end, so it was inevitable you were going to get over time a growing impatience with the length of the war, what can be done to bring it to an end, and how many U.S. resources are going to go to it.

That is the normal side of it. What is unusual is the small group of Republicans who are very much what we call now the “far right.” When I first started at Politico ten years ago, we did not use that term, and now it is pretty common to refer to far-right Republicans. They have from the beginning questioned support for Ukraine, and early on we were told by more mainstream Republicans: “Oh, just ignore them. They are just a small group. They are nothing.”

Now their views have very much affected much of the Party. They have put a lot of the mainstream folks on notice on the Ukraine issue and said, “You can’t just pass this aid; there have to be more restrictions,” or they just don’t necessarily want to support the aid at all, so what has happened is that you have all of this domestic politics playing in, and that is what is driving a lot of foreign officials crazy. They are seeing the United States, especially among Republicans, connect intractable domestic issues, like immigration, to a major international security issue like Ukraine. That is a recipe to get nothing done.

You have a situation where there are people in the House of Representatives who are saying, “We are not going to pass a Ukraine aid bill unless we can get a border security bill.” The problem with that is that domestic politics is playing in once again with former President Trump saying: “You cannot pass a border bill because I don’t want the immigration problem to be solved this year. I need that to run on as a campaign issue.”

Foreign diplomats and others that I talk to know this. They are like, “Oh, my gosh, the Republicans are connecting Ukraine, which needs to be taken care of, to this border crisis,” which many of them have no actual incentive to solve because if they were to solve the border crisis through legislation or whatever they don’t have anything to yell about on the campaign trail. It robs them of an issue that rallies voters and gets people to their side. This has become a real problem.

You see this combination of the domestic problems that rally campaigns to this foreign crisis, and foreign leaders look at this and think this is a really, really dangerous move. They wish the United States, when it comes to its foreign policy and international security, would speak with one voice, and instead you have a small group of people who have managed to throw a wrench into things. Mainstream Republicans are increasingly scared of them because they think that if they go against this group the base will turn out against them, and they will face primary challenges from the right and lose their seats. It is “toxic,” in the words of many of the foreign diplomats I have spoken to.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What is interesting in this discussion is that once we talked about the great opportunity to tie together domestic and foreign policy. You referred to it as “omnipolicy” and we talked a great deal about it in our May 2021 episode, what does Biden’s omnipolicy mean for the United States and his idea to make sure that we had a “foreign policy for the middle class.” That was a big slogan.

We here at the Council were looking at it in terms of U.S. global engagement: “This is really great, tying global issues to the doorstep.” That is why we called this podcast The Doorstep. Yet that seems to have blown up because tying domestic issues to foreign policy issues has gone out of whack. Instead of being a positive it seems to have become this powder keg.

NAHAL TOOSI: It is a very dangerous move in a lot of ways. When the administration took office, a lot of this was the brainchild of Jake Sullivan. He is the national security advisor, and he used to be one of the Hillary Clinton’s top advisors. He watched her lose and kept asking himself why. This is a guy who very rarely fails at anything in this entire life, so this was not normal for him. He went about and researched it and realized: Okay, there is this huge number of people in America who feel like globalization has undercut them. They have lost their jobs, factories are closing, and downtowns are being hollowed out. This idea of bringing back industry and types of economic policy that will help the U.S. middle class, working class, and lower class so that there are protectionist measures that do not hurt these people and in the long run don’t hurt Democratic electoral prospects, was part of it.

Along the way they realized that this was all tied together. The coronavirus was an example of how domestic and international policy cannot necessarily be disaggregated when you think about things like supply chains and how one country can screw over another country if they are too dependent on each other. This was restoring not only America’s economic might and ability but also its self-reliance as opposed to being too reliant on other countries that are not necessarily always reliable, such as China.

This was all part of it and this idea that foreign and domestic policy were separate spheres. The administration said: “This isn’t real. We have to accept that the silos are crumbling, everything is coming together, and these things affect each other.” That is how they went about it.

It bothered a lot of people. In Europe they were upset about some of the laws that were passed here, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which gave a lot of incentives to companies to come to the United States and undercut European efforts to keep companies there. It has become a thorn, but it has also injected some competition. A lot of this is happening, but that also leads to this increasing tension.

It also means that if you are someone who has the point of view of a lot of people on the far right and maybe on the far left that government is the problem, government is the issue, and we need to just stop the government from doing anything, then you have a lot of incentive to throw sand into these gears, stop it, and try to connect things in a way that makes everything stop, such as border security and Ukraine aid.

This is the question. Are people going to increasingly try to maneuver around the system so that they can link things in a way that undermines the very functioning of government if they don’t think government is a good thing, as many folks do. Combining that with the way U.S. politics is going with people increasingly in their own media bubbles, not listening to one another, and having completely different views of what is going on in reality, is weird.

I have to tell you that there are so many strange things happening out there. You have lawmakers going out there. They voted against infrastructure bills that funnel projects to their communities and now they are touting all these new projects in their communities that they voted against. It is wild. It is pretty crazy, so I don’t know where omnipolicy is going to go. It could become omnivorous and eat us all.

TATIANA SERAFIN: What policy is going to emerge? You were in Davos talking about democratic models. Your “Column|Compass” is so good. I want to tell people again to find you and find that column because some of the quotes you have, especially in the piece about democracy: “I don’t know if in the coming years people will be looking at the United States as a model for democracy.” I am laughing because this is a good one: “The U.S. is a ‘fat buffalo trying to take a nap’ as hungry wolves approach, the envoy mused.” “I can hear those champagne bottle corks popping in Moscow—like it’s Christmas every [bleep] day.”

These are strong sentiments about the prospects for the United States as a democratic model, never mind omnipolicy. This is our standing and what we have promoted around the world, and people are taking these cracks at it. Is there someone else then taking the lead or standing up as a democratic or other leader? Is there another option?

NAHAL TOOSI: Nothing immediately comes to mind. Under Trump people referred to Angela Merkel of Germany as the leader of the free world. Is there another decently functioning democracy out there that people can look at as a role model? I don’t know, maybe Australia. Everything is a bit of a mess. No one is perfect. No country has a perfect track record by any means. That is one reason, to be honest, that so many former and current foreign diplomats were willing to talk to me for that column—it was my second column—because, honest to god, a few months ago or a couple of years ago, none of these people would have talked to me about this.

There are rules, traditions, and pragmatic reasons that foreign diplomats do not talk about the internal politics of the countries where they are serving. All they ever say is: “We will work with whoever is elected. We will deal with it.” They don’t like to talk about that because they don’t want to take sides, and they don’t want to anger whoever might win in the future and come into power, so they avoid internal politics. I cannot tell you how many times over the years I have tried to get people to talk about this issue and they have totally blown me off.

This time, when I went into it, I honestly walked into that embassy to talk to that ambassador thinking that I was going to get kicked out. I was like, “I should go ahead and schedule my Uber.” Instead this ambassador, to my utter shock, went on and on. I was like, wow, but it shows you how much has changed in the last few months as they have seen Trump possibly become the nominee again for the Republican Party, and as they have watched Ukraine aid get tied to border issues, and as they have just seen the far right rise in the House of Representatives and basically bring it to a stop.

When you have a House of Representatives that has such a hard time choosing its speaker—people overseas are watching this, and they are like, “This is not good.” One of the reasons, to be frank, is that this not altruistic. It is not like, “Oh, we just love America.” No, it is because America is a role model and such an important pillar on so many levels—when it comes to things like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and when it comes to things like the regional architecture of security in Asia. This affects all the other countries around the world, and they want stability. They want a partner in America that they can count on.

One of the deep frustrations that I heard was: “Look, we don’t know if we can enter into an agreement with the United States anymore because we don’t know if the next guy or woman who takes power is going to just walk away from that agreement.” They don’t feel like we are reliable anymore, and when it comes to these types of long-term decisions, whether it is an agreement on trade or a treaty related to security, they want to know that Washington is going to be reliable and consistent in its foreign policy, and they are not getting that right now. So a lot of people are holding their breath. What the column was trying to convey was this deep frustration.

Some of these people do love America. Some of them studied here. They are deeply concerned about the health of the American political system, so they felt like they had to speak out.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of the health of the American political system, we have Defense Secretary Austin just coming out of the hospital and we have questions about Biden’s age and cognitive abilities. Let’s think about what American foreign policy might look like if we have a Biden second term. Are you getting the sense that there is going to be some upheaval?

Are you seeing Kamala step up in any way? In one of our previous discussions you had mentioned that she was focused on the border and Global South, but I have not heard anything. Has she stepped up in foreign policy? Should there be a Biden 2.0? Do you see changes? Have you heard anything?

NAHAL TOOSI: I think naturally you are going to see some turnover. I would not be surprised if we get a new secretary of state, a new national security advisor, possibly a new defense secretary. Some of this is just because these jobs are absolutely exhausting. If you look at Tony Blinken these days, he looks very, very tired. These things are difficult, and there is a sense that maybe it is time to have some new blood, some new thinking. Some of these people also may want to have kids. There are just life things that will lead I think to some changes.

Who will replace them? That I do not know. Some of it might be a bit of musical chairs. There is some belief that either Jake Sullivan might become secretary of state and if not him I think the preferred theory is Bill Burns, who is the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and used to be the former deputy secretary of state. There are people gaming these things out. I have learned that it is pointless to try to make solid predictions. That does not stop my editors from making me do it. There is always a surprise or two.

One thing I am pretty confident of is that there will be changes, and they might bring in new people from the outside. It is tricky. One thing I will say that they have to think about is that, given the kind of I think I can objectively say “insanity” in the House, you just do not know what is going to happen legislatively to try to affect the whole setup of the system.

What happens in the House affects the Senate too. Senate Republicans are not immune from the pressures that the House brings. When it comes to things like confirmations that is another important factor. If there is a second Biden term, I would not be surprised if this time they have a lot of problems getting top-level people confirmed, even if they are highly qualified. People in the Senate just might decide to put a halt on things. Remember what Tommy Tuberville did with the promotions in the military. They also have to factor that in: Is this person going to survive confirmation? Are they even going to get a hearing?

That bothers a lot of foreign leaders. They look at that and think, That is just dysfunctional and unacceptable. It is something that has gotten much, much worse in the last 15 to 20 years. It did not used to be this way, but now you can barely get your people through. I should be clear that that happens on both sides. It is not just Republicans; it is also Democrats.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Have you heard any more about Kamala in the foreign policy realm?

NAHAL TOOSI: Not a lot. She occasionally steps in and goes overseas on various trips. I believe she went to the Pacific islands. She has her moments. There has been nothing where she has stood out as this is “her issue.”

On the border stuff she has had extremely limited impact there, but to be frank everyone has limited impact there. It is one of those things that is solvable. People know what the solutions are. It is not that it is a policy issue; it is a political issue. If you have people who don’t want to solve it because they want to use it to campaign, then you are going to have a problem.

I cannot say that Kamala looms large, but that said, I have talked to people who work with her and for her. They really like her. They speak very highly of her. They say she gets the issues and has learned a great deal. People warn not to underestimate her. Sometimes, as you know, it is about being given the opportunity or the moment. I am not sure she has necessarily had that because there is always the president to think about. It is tricky. I think she is much stronger on domestic issues than foreign policy, but like I said people have told me not to underestimate her.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of strength in foreign policy, your latest piece talks about Blinken and how he not only is tired but may not be as strong as we need him to be on the international stage, especially with this latest crisis. I am wondering if that is also affecting our standing in the world. Here is our major representative going around, and if he does not have the authority with world leaders—Netanyahu was one of the examples in your piece—where does that leave the United States in this last year before a major election and also I might add when many countries in the world are dealing with their own elections and changeovers?

NAHAL TOOSI: This is definitely a record year for elections. More than half of the world’s population is voting or has the opportunity to vote in some election, so it is pretty extraordinary what all is happening.

It is a Middle East issue with Blinken. He keeps going back to the Middle East. Actually it is really an Israel issue. He keeps going back there and keeps asking them to do certain things, like “Let in flour,” so the Gazans can be able to have bread, and he is running into defiance essentially from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has his own political issues that he is trying to work out. Over and over again Blinken goes and at most gets incremental responses. Often he gets nothing. He looks weak on the global stage right now.

His people are like, “Look, this is one of those very, very difficult issues.” I don’t know that another secretary of state would necessarily get a better result from Benjamin Netanyahu, but their response is simply: “Had we not kept going back over and over again things would be way, way, way worse for the Palestinians in Gaza right now. We have to keep trying and we have to keep going until there is a breakthrough.”

When you look at dealing with the Middle East with people like Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger—Jim Baker in I think 1991 took at least nine trips to the region to try to organize a peace conference and there was not even a massive war like there is right now. There is always conflict, but it wasn’t like what is going on right now, so this is infinitely more complex.

The thing about Blinken is that he is so diplomatic, especially in public, that you wonder if people are not taking him as seriously as they could. If he yells at you in private but you defy him, and then he goes out in public and says he totally supports you, everything is great, and we are working on it, that does not have a lot of impact.

My argument was maybe he should say something, flash his temper in public against the Israelis, because again this is an Israeli issue, and that may cause some movement on certain fronts with Israel, and it might actually lead some Arab leaders to make different calculations as well if they realize: Wow, Tony Blinken is mad, and he is mad in public. Maybe there is a real problem here. Maybe we can’t just screw around with this administration anymore.

I don’t know that he is going to take my advice, but if he does I am certainly going to take credit for it. I’m kidding, but we will see how that goes. This is a tough group of countries to deal with. It is not easy for anyone.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Speaking of all that the Biden administration has had to deal with on the foreign policy front, we have a huge focus on domestic elections ramping up now. How much is foreign policy going to take a back seat is the first question. Second, we talked in most of our conversations until the Ukraine War, “It’s all about China, China, China,” and now nobody is talking about China. What happened to China, and who is the bogeyman now? Is it Putin? What should the U.S. public be looking for? Answer those two, and I have one last one before we go.

NAHAL TOOSI: I actually think foreign policy might play a bigger role than usual. That does not mean it is necessarily going to play a defining role, but if you look at some of the things that have been happening, first of all, this whole issue over Ukraine aid with Trump coming out and saying things like, “NATO didn’t pay and so I would encourage them”—the Russians—“to attack a NATO country that is not spending enough on defense.” When Trump says stuff like this, it gives an opportunity for Biden and his team to exploit, and I think if that continues it is going to be a bigger deal than I think most people expected.

I think the Republicans’ intransigence on border aid and connecting it to Ukraine aid—and connecting it to Israel aid, by the way, and Taiwan aid—could come back to haunt them if a lot of people look at the situation and are like: “Guys, you got to get your act together. This is obstructionism. Nothing else is happening.” In that sense it might play a role.

Another way in which it could play a role is that there is so much anger in the Democratic base and especially among Arab Americans against Biden over his handling of the Middle East crisis. There is this belief that he is not valuing Palestinian lives the way he should and that he should be telling Israel to pursue a ceasefire. He has his reasons for not doing that, but the reason that is important is that in the state of Michigan you have a huge number of Arab American voters, and that is a battleground state, which means that just a few votes could make a difference in terms of the Electoral College and in terms of the whole U.S. election.

The Biden team is finally getting that. They have been sending people to talk to Arab American activists and others to try to explain their reasoning and do everything but apologize for some of their messaging and things like that. I have to tell you. I think this is a big deal, and while Arab Americans are not monolithic and do not all vote the same way—and it is not like Trump is going to be better for their cause—this is a real problem. In those ways I think foreign policy could play a big role.

Like I said, I still expect some major foreign policy crisis to happen this year just as it has in the past three years. For all I know it could involve Taiwan and China, so maybe China, which has fallen off the radar a bit as both sides try to stabilize the relationship, if that happens, wow. Talk about a potential “October surprise.”

I am not saying that is what is going to happen. I think if anything the Chinese want to avoid something like that right now. They have their own economic issues, but again, given the pattern I think there is going to be some sort of a crisis.

As a certain senior diplomat mentioned to me: “What about North Korea? Did you forget about North Korea?” We cannot ever forget about North Korea.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We will not forget about North Korea.

I do have one last question. Still on Threads? Should we go back to Twitter? All of my students are telling me to get back on Twitter. They love Twitter. Is this cancel culture now canceled because we have forgotten why we didn’t like Twitter? What are you doing? Tell me. I need guidance.

NAHAL TOOSI: I am using all of them. I am using Bluesky, Mastodon, Threads, and Twitter, but, yes, at the end of the day Twitter still has the most impact, but because I lost my blue checkmark and they changed the algorithm or whatever I do not get nearly as much engagement as I used to.

I feel like Threads has made a huge mistake by downplaying news. That is just a huge error on their part. When there is a big news event breaking, it is useless to go to Threads or the others. You still have to go to Twitter, and it is not what it used to be, but it is still better than the others, unfortunately. I do think it is fixable. Maybe in the next few years or whatever there will be a change at Twitter and they can bring back what it was because honestly, as a newsgathering tool, as an information tool, and as a distribution channel, it was crucial for me and I do miss it.

It was sad how much a big part of my social life it was too. That was kind of fun. I feel like that has changed a bit. I have become more social in real life. I miss the old Twitter but am making do with the current Twitter.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Interesting. Thank you for that advice and for all of your insights. We look forward to your next column and to talking to you soon.

NAHAL TOOSI: Thanks for having me.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs est un organisme indépendant et non partisan à but non lucratif. Les opinions exprimées dans ce podcast sont celles des intervenants et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position de Carnegie Council.

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