Matthew Kroenig: Hello, Emma! I'm sorry i'm late I was speaking on a panel to release my new lead report on an allied strategy for China. But now I'm ready to go – is this our last column of the year?
Emma Ashford: It is, and thank goodness you are here. I have a problem. Foreign policy just published an article by President Donald Trump's former National Security Advisor who became a critic, John Bolton – and I agree with him. It has never happened before.
MK: Never? Not even when he beat up Trump in his memoir? Why do you agree with him now?
EA: I didn't want to pay to read the memoir. But seriously, Bolton wrote an article in which he argued that the Trump administration's new deal with Morocco was a bad idea. The agreement recognizes the disputed area of Western Sahara as part of Morocco in return for Morocco improving its relations with Israel. And Bolton argues that this is ridiculous: Morocco and Israel already had good tacit relations and it violates the obligation to take the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara seriously.
MK: Well, I often agree with Bolton and I think I do on that issue too. Foreign policy is about making difficult compromises, and there are real benefits to persuading Muslim-majority countries to officially recognize Israel. That is an advantage of this agreement.
But the costs that undermined the international process of settling the territorial dispute in Western Sahara through a referendum that Bolton helped shape in the early 1990s as adviser to then Secretary of State James Baker may have been too high.
EA: It reminds me of our earlier discussion of Trump and his strange willingness to ignore US foreign policy needs in order to present Israel's political victories from Benjamin Netanyahu, be it in Sudan, Kosovo or elsewhere. We'll have to see if that decision survives the end of the Trump presidency.
In more important news, the US government has been hit by a potentially massive cyber attack. At least three agencies have confirmed that their systems have been compromised through the use of software from a third party company called SolarWinds. What do you think?
MK: This is a real problem and we do not know what is worrying. In addition to the authorities hit, some fear that departments directly concerned with international security – such as the Ministry of Defense or the intelligence services – may also have been compromised. Cyberspace is one of the most controversial areas of international security. It's a shame for the United States that they don't have better cyber defenses.
EA: It's funny. If you ask people about the biggest cyberattacks in history, they'll likely name Stuxnet in Iran, or Russian attacks on Ukrainian power grid, or other large, suspicious incidents. In reality, one of the biggest and most momentous incidents was the (probable) Chinese hack of the United States Human Resource Management several years ago in which hackers stole a large amount of personal and security clearance information.
This incident falls into the same category and is an important reminder – as Joshua Rovner of American University has argued – that cyber tools are typically used for espionage rather than more destructive purposes.
MK: I wanted to make the pedantic point that cyber espionage is technically not an "attack," but the more substantial point is that we shouldn't treat cyberspace as a special domain. If Russian commandos physically broke into the Commerce Department and stole files, how would the US government react? This is how we should react in this case.
EA: "Really?" Let's just hypothetically assume that the US is building a new embassy in Moscow. And let's say the Russians found a way to make the concrete it was made of vibrate so they could hear conversations inside without annoying him. Would that be an "attack"?
Because it actually happened during the Cold War, and Washington viewed it as a normal part of state-to-state espionage operations.
MK: If commands broke into the Department of Commerce, US diplomats would bring it up in public and private diplomacy with Russia – and hold those involved personally accountable. The US government should do the same in this case.
EA: Fair enough. Evict some Russian diplomats as soon as officials are fairly certain they can attribute it to Moscow. But don't pretend this is a violation of norms. As my colleague Erica Borghard reminded me this morning after the OPM hack, James Clapper, director of the national secret service, actually went on the file and said, “You have to somehow salute the Chinese for what they have done. If we had the chance, we probably wouldn't hesitate a minute. "
The scope of the SolarWinds attack is unknown. But I don't think there is much US officials can or should do about it other than bolster the US defense – at least not if Americans want to keep these spy tools for their own use.
MK: So it doesn't sound like you would rate this as one of the biggest foreign policy events of the year?
EA: No. It might prove to be ineffective in the long run, but there's so much going on this year that I doubt this will make it to the top 10. Since it's our final column of 2020, would you like to suggest some of your top trends and events from the year?
MK: It was an eventful year! And there are many candidates for the most significant event, from the assassination of Qassem Suleimani in January to the conclusion of the US presidential election with the vote in the electoral college earlier this week.
The most significant event of the year, however, was certainly the COVID-19 pandemic. It killed more people than most wars and changed the way we all worked and lived, maybe forever.
However, I think the more important long-term trend could be the deterioration in US-China relations and the return of rivalry between great powers. With a little luck, the vaccinations will be successful and COVID-19 will soon be behind us. But I fear that competition with China will be with us for a generation or more.
EA: Yes, 2020 was … something. More than 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and perhaps another 50,000 will die before the end of the year. It's almost enough to make you forget that the US almost started a war with Iran in January and maybe sponsored an attempted coup in Venezuela in May.
Interestingly, however, it looks like the biggest long-term foreign policy impact of COVID-19 will be the increasing rivalry between the US and China. As I wrote recently, US structural power appears to be pretty much untouched, save for perhaps an increased deficit. The US military readiness also remains largely unaffected.
And the negative soft-power effects of Trump's terrible reaction to the virus are likely outweighed by the fact that U.S. companies like Moderna were among the first to develop and distribute a vaccine in less than a year.
MK: Oh no. It sounds like we are almost completely in agreement. I can address one possible point of disagreement, however: Looking back at 2020, the biggest problem that many analysts misunderstood was that Trump was a dictator in waiting who undermined the rule of law and destroyed the influence of the US and the rules-based system. So that we don't forget, the impeachment hearings also took place in 2020.
In the end, however, we saw that the American democratic system and its international position are far more resilient than many realize. All it took was a Democrat elected President of the Twittersphere to regain his confidence in the country.
EA: Oh God. It says something about this year that I literally forgot about impeachment.
But I think you are overdoing it. Just because the U.S. system was resilient to Trump in this instance doesn't mean the system – and norms as a whole – haven't been damaged. The President of the United States is still railing on Twitter that the election was rigged after the electoral college voted. His party continues to partially support him. If that choice had been closer, we could have serious problems.
However, can we move outside of the US again? I would like to come back to the China question. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 was also the year we saw Chinese practices in Hong Kong, and there was mounting evidence of their horrific treatment of the Uyghurs.
It seems to me that Washington has really slowed the response to these developments, with the Trump administration being too confrontational towards Beijing and ignoring these human rights developments.
MK: I do not agree with you. A more confrontational approach was required. And Mike Pompeo's State Department made China's human rights practices a priority with a number of measures including sanctions against the Chinese Communist Party officials involved.
And international concern is growing: Europeans are not focused on the military threat to China, but they are concerned with human rights. The United States is forming a balancing coalition against Beijing, thanks largely to the CCP's tremendous actions.
EA: Yes, but at the same time when the President tells Xi Jinping that it is okay to build camps for the Uyghurs, you can see why they are getting mixed messages.
Here's an interesting factoid: As the effects of COVID-19 wear off, trade returns, as does support for free trade. This is a place where Trump's legacy is already disappearing.
MK: I suspect that the increase in trade with China will be temporary and that the two economies will continue to decouple – the strategic reasons for this are just too big.
EA: Well, the American people obviously don't believe that. Trapped at home during the pandemic, they actually ordered more stuff from China! Perhaps it will be short-lived, but it is noteworthy that COVID-19 has not cut off supply chains in the way some suggested. I continue to think that Trump's trading legacy is fleeting.
Any thoughts on his foreign policy legacy?
MK: Many ask about the future of Republican foreign policy and whether Trumpism will continue after Trump. I believe this is not the case. Trump has long been a global celebrity with a unique personality. That's a big part of its appeal. There is no one – especially no career politician – who can easily adopt his personality and take up this cloak.
His support was certainly not due to his foreign policy positions. Political scientists have repeatedly shown that unlike domestic or cultural war issues, the American public does not know much or have strong opinions about foreign policy. Politicians therefore have a lot of leeway in this area.
So I suspect that in the near future we will return to more traditional republican foreign policy.
EA: Probably a topic for a long discussion, but I think you are partly right. Traditional Republican foreign policy – particularly in support of traditional US partnerships and hostility towards dictators – is likely to return. But it will be shaped by Trump, especially the ideas of those who have tried to turn his foreign policy weaknesses into politics.
After all, the Republican foreign policy elite is no longer Bill Kristol and the neoconservatives. Today it is people like James Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and Bolton who offer a more coherent version of Trumpism: Hawkian, nationalist, and unilateralist foreign policy.
We'll likely learn more about the Republican Party's post-Trump direction in the next few years.
MK: It's our final column in 2020. What are we likely to talk about next year at this time? What's the greatest story of 2021? I'm sure we would have predicted a pandemic correctly once in a century, if only we had the chance.
EA: I would have preferred to predict it from the bookmakers, not in this column! As 2020 has shown, predictions are notoriously difficult. But I think we can predict some things with pretty good accuracy. The Biden government will revert to the Iranian nuclear deal, seek to assemble a coherent group of invited people to its "Summit of Democracies" and an internal conflict between President-elect Joe Biden and his own advisers on issues such as Afghanistan, Syria and India see Russia.
MK: I would add that we will return to a new normal after the pandemic, the rivalry between the US and China will intensify, North Korea will continue to expand its nuclear and missile program …
EA: Oh come on Predicting North Korea will test missiles is like predicting I'll be eating too much Christmas cake over the holidays!
But that reminds me of that. Do you know what is guaranteed to happen in 2021? Brexit! On January 1st, one way or another, Britain will no longer be a member of the European Union. This is where the certainty ends, of course. Trade could stall, there could be tension on the Irish border and Scotland could seek another independence referendum. Sounds like we're going back to Brexit in the New Year?
MK: There will certainly be a lot to discuss. Until then, I wish you a good holiday and a happy new year.
EA: But I thought we would have to say "Merry Christmas" until Trump leaves office?
MK: Well, I hope those who celebrate have a Merry Christmas and that after a year everyone can enjoy a well-deserved break that most people would rather forget.