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The Diplomacy Challenges Facing Incoming President Biden


Whatever happens in the wake of the attack on the Capitol last week, a new administration will be entering the White House in just a matter of days. And so we want to turn our attention to key challenges facing the Biden administration, and we're going to focus here on foreign policy.

President Trump leaves behind him a complicated legacy. His supporters say he highlighted long-dysfunctional or outdated policies and instigated new and productive relationships in the Middle East. On the other hand, he's pulled out of longstanding trade deals, escalated tensions with countries like China and Iran, aligned himself with strongmen and pursued an America-first agenda that critics see as dangerously unilateral.

So what needs to happen now that a new administration's coming to Washington? We've called two people with deep knowledge but different perspectives to talk about this. Kirsten Fontenrose is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. That's a global affairs think tank here in Washington, D.C. She also served as senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council under President Trump.

Kirsten Fontenrose, thank you so much for joining us once again.

KIRSTEN FONTENROSE: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And Nicholas Burns has a long career in diplomacy. He served in numerous key posts as ambassador, including to NATO. He served on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, and he currently teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Ambassador Burns, thank you so much for speaking with us as well.

R NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: And, Ambassador, I'm going to start with you. I mean, before we turn to what's next, I do want to get perspective from each of you on what's just happened here. I mean, on the day of the riot at the Capitol, you tweeted, quote, "our credibility as a leader of the democratic world has hit rock bottom under Donald Trump. Noon on January 20 can't come fast enough."

Your career in diplomacy spans decades. You've seen all kinds of upheavals all over the world. And I just have to ask, what went through your mind when you saw what happened this past Wednesday?

BURNS: Well, Michel, I think it was one of the worst weeks in American history. We've suffered a severe blow to our credibility and our moral standing in the world. You think of Donald Trump's incitement, the assault on the Capitol, the seat of power of the United States - without question, I think these events this past week and a lot of other events over the last four years have stained our reputation.

And what really pains me is it's a gift to Russia and China. You've seen what they've been saying the last couple of days. They're essentially charging that our commitment to democracy here in the United States is hollow. And our strongest allies are very worried. I think they're shocked by what happened. They're accustomed maybe to seeing this happen in authoritarian countries - an assault on a presidential palace or a parliament. But to see it happen in the United States, to see a mob of anti-democratic people attack the police and attack the rule of law - they're worried. I think our allies in Europe in particular are worried that this political contagion could spread to them.

We need to demonstrate over the next few months and few years that we're going to rid ourselves of authoritarianism and rule of law. And this is so important for our foreign policy - stand up for freedom of the press, for our Constitution and for the democratic order. We've lost that this week, and we need to rediscover it.

MARTIN: Kirsten Fontenrose, your thoughts, particularly as a former member of this administration and as a national security expert?

FONTENROSE: I agree with Ambassador Burns about the signals to Russia and China and the concerns about the debate regarding whether or not there's a greater strength in systems of democracy or systems of authoritarianism. I'll be looking to the seasoned members of Congress to use this shock to the system as a force to pull them a little bit closer together.

I am concerned that we will see younger members of Congress who seem to be a bit more polarized reacting with continued, almost sectarian legislation. But I do think that the older, more seasoned legislators will look to this as a desperate call for help from our own governing system and say, we really need to come to the middle on some things. We really need to work together as much as we possibly can, or we're really risking, you know, a fracture in our society that will have repercussions for generations.

MARTIN: So let's turn our attention now to what comes next. The Biden administration is going to enter the White House in under two weeks. What should be the top foreign policy item for them? And, Kirsten Fontenrose, I will start with you because, as I said, you know, President Trump does have his supporters, and some people do feel that he has made important strides in certain areas. And because you participated in this administration, I want to ask you first. What do you think the incoming administration's top priority should be?

FONTENROSE: The No. 1 thought that keeps me awake at night when I think about both the outgoing administration and the incoming administration in terms of the formulation of foreign policy is the piece of American exceptionalism on which much of our foreign policy has empirically been based. That doesn't work anymore, but our policies have not adapted to that, both in the Trump administration and based on what we're hearing from the Biden team thus far.

So we can no longer apply pressure to other nations in terms of their foreign or domestic policy, their votes in the U.N., their defense acquisition plans with the assumption that they need us more than we need them. Even small and comparatively less powerful countries now have other options, specifically in the forms of China and Russia. And while we think these options are inviable in the long term, the governments and populations of other nations do not. You have China presenting itself as an alternative to the U.S. for economic growth, complete with cheap financing, kickbacks, the no-strings-attached policy. And you have Russia presenting itself as an alternative to the U.S. for national security - more specifically, your regime's security. They won't simply sell you arms and train your troops. They'll protect your seat and power. And these tantalizing options mean U.S. leverage and influence abroad is reduced. And I think that's dangerous.

MARTIN: Ambassador Burns, is there anything about Trump's foreign policy record that should remain in place? I mean, obviously, you know, I think the criticisms are well-established for people who follow these issues, but he was the first to engage with certain hostile world leaders, like North Korea's Kim Jong Un. He renegotiated trade deals that some people believe did need to be worked anyway. His State Department helped reestablish formal ties or establish formal ties between Israel and a handful of Arab countries. Are there any things about Trump's foreign policy agenda that should stay?

BURNS: I think his record of achievement is very thin in foreign policy. But you're right, Michel. Certainly encouraging Arab countries to recognize the state of Israel is positive. Illuminating the problem of China lying and cheating on its trade practices, trade commitments around the world is something, I think, that most Republicans and Democrats will agree with. Trying to achieve an agreement with Kim Jong Un was right in the beginning, but he - ultimately, President Trump didn't accomplish much. You have to give some credit for those. But on the whole, he's done enormous damage.

MARTIN: You know, before we let you go, you know, it has to be said that a good portion of Trump's legacy regarding foreign affairs is about the way he treated his own experts - openly undermining intelligence from his own national security team, openly criticizing diplomats and public servants, people who'd given their lives to serving the American people. And I'm just, you know, wondering how you rebuild morale in those ranks among the diplomats and analysts, you know, military experts. And, Kirsten Fontenrose, I want to ask you, as a former member of this administration - I mean, you left some time ago, but do you share my assessment that morale is low? And I'd like to ask what you think needs to be done to address that.

FONTENROSE: There was a little bit of a misunderstanding about the way some of the foreign policy decision-making worked under the Trump administration. To a great extent, the career experts were the voices that were making policy. But on certain issues, we would all wake up surprised by a decision that had been made overnight without any sort of policy coordination. That will stop. And I think that is what is encouraging people. But some of the smart policy-thinking has continued at the action officer level through even this administration. And I think the recognition that that will now be elevated is bringing back morale almost on its own.

MARTIN: Ambassador, final thought from you. And I'm particularly curious about your thoughts here because you are teaching, you know, at the moment. You're teaching at Harvard's Kennedy School, where you're presumably trying to prepare the next generation, you know, of diplomats. And I'm interested in how your students have viewed all this in recent years and what you think it will take to restore morale. I assume you're in touch with your former colleagues, and you share my assessment that morale has been quite compromised. What would it take to fix that?

BURNS: Donald Trump has done enormous damage to the State Department and Foreign Service, to the Justice Department, to the CIA and the State Department. I feel it very strongly. I was a career foreign service officer. We need to put responsibility back on our career officers. We - they need a stronger budget. We need much greater diversity - racial and ethnic, gender - in our foreign policy ranks. You see President-elect Biden doing that, and that's very positive. So I think, you know, maybe 10 days from now, if we had this interview again, we'd feel a little bit more hopeful because a new administration, I think, will bring us back to what made us a great country in the world, and that's rebuilding our core strength as a first priority.

MARTIN: That's Ambassador Nicholas Burns. He's a former diplomat, and he's currently a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School. We were also joined by Kirsten Fontenrose. She's a former senior director for Gulf affairs at the National Security Council under the Trump administration. She's currently director of the Atlantic Council Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative.

Thank you both so much for joining us today.

FONTENROSE: Thank you so much.

BURNS: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.