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Teneo Insights Webinar: Foreign Policy Under the Biden Administration

February 19, 2021

Teneo Senior Advisors General Raymond Odierno, Victor Cha and Jon Alterman, and Teneo's Chairman of the Asia Pacific Region, Paul Haenle, join Kevin Kajiwara to discuss U.S. international relations and the foreign and strategic policy environment that President Biden has inherited.

 

Listen to the Call

 

Kevin Kajiwara (KK): Good day, everyone. Thank you for joining today's edition of Teneo Insights. I'm Kevin Kajiwara, Co-President of Teneo Political Risk Advisory. At the outset of the Biden administration, much of the electorate is justifiably focused on the domestic situation. Most especially pandemic response and vaccine rollout, fiscal support for people and businesses in need, and ultimately a sustained and sustainable economic recovery. But President Biden and his team have inherited a foreign and strategic policy environment every bit as fraught, from an ever more assertive China, a fractured and less trusting alliance system, supply chain risk, inequitable global pandemic response, and of course, absent leadership on the issues requiring global comments, like trade, technology and societal relations, WMD proliferation, and most existential of all, as well as the greatest opportunity of all probably, climate change and the green transition. Indeed, I'd say we're confronting the question of what role the U.S. will play in global affairs in real time.

Much of the time spent on this call focused on U.S.'s international relations has dealt primarily with issues of daily consequences to multinational corporations. So, trade, U.S.-China relations, Brexit, among others. But as we transition from an administration that turned traditional American foreign policy on its head to one headed by a Former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I thought it was an opportune moment for us to focus on the strategic and national security elements of U.S. foreign policy. So, with me today is a stellar array of colleagues. We have a lot of ground to cover, so I'm going to introduce them briefly, but their resumes, professional histories, and written work go far beyond what I've got time to cover. So, their full biographies are available at teneo.com.

But we're joined today by General Ray Odierno. He is a Teneo Senior Advisor. He's a retired four-star general. He was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff from 2011 to 2015, and before that, he was the primary military advisor to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. He served as the Commanding General of Multinational Force Iraq and its successor United States Forces in Iraq, where he was one of the primary architects of, and a leader in the implementation of what came to be known as the surge. Paul Haenle is Teneo's Chairman of the Asia Pacific region. He heads our Beijing office and is Director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. Paul served presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in the National Security Council as Director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolian Affairs. He was also the White House representative to the U.S. and negotiating team at the Six Party Talks Nuclear Negotiations, and he too served in the army, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Victor Cha is a Teneo Senior Advisor. He is professor and Vice Dean for Faculty and Graduate Affairs and the D.S. Song-KF endowed Chair in Government and International Affairs at the renowned School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He also holds the Korea Chair at CSIS, and he was Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency, responsible for Japan, the Korean peninsula, Australia, and New Zealand. He was the Deputy Head of U.S. Delegation to the Six Party Nuclear Talks over North Korea. By the way, he's also the only one of my guests today to appear in a movie with Chris Hemsworth, playing himself in the 2012 film Red Dawn. Jon Alterman is a Teneo Senior Advisor. He holds the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and is the Director of the Middle East program at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS, he was a member of Richard Haass' Policy Planning Staff at the State Department during the Bush administration, and he has yet to be asked to play himself in any movie.

So, let's go ahead and get started. General, I want to start with you on a couple of items before we get to the major regions. As young as this administration is, and with all of the focus and attention on pandemic response, impeachment, and other domestic issues, we've already seen a marked change in tone in international affairs and diplomatic relations, most obviously in the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement and the extension of the New START nuclear treaty with Russia. Mostly this has been signaled by a change in tone and substance coming from the president and the foreign policy teams led by Tony Blinken at state and Jake Sullivan at the National Security Council. But what, if any, changes are our allies and our adversaries seeing out there from the military itself? And maybe you can tell our audience a little bit about what you're expecting from the new Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, another four-star and the first African American Secretary of Defense.

 

Raymond Odierno (RO): Yeah. Well, thank you. It's great to be here with everybody. First, I would say, I think it's the same thing that the administration looks for, reestablishing power relationships. Usually during all administrations, the middle of the mill relationships remains, maybe sometimes behind the scenes. That's one connection we try to keep no matter what the political problems might be between countries, just maintain some level of military to military relationships, but over the last several years, it's been pretty difficult to do that in some cases. And so, I know for example, with China, it's kind of not been as strong as it had been in the past. So, I think what you're going to see is Secretary Austin will focus on reestablishing those relationships. We'll still start with NATO, because that's probably the long standing, one most important one, but you'll see them move around the region to reestablish our relationships, better coinciding with our policy, our diplomatic efforts in those regions. But it's important that we go hand in hand with that. So I think that'll probably be one of the first priorities that they have is doing that, and kind of getting us back into teamwork on these issues and not going individually to try to solve these problems on our own, which we all believe is the right thing to do.

 

KK: And I want to touch one other major strategic challenge here before we get to the regions, and that has to do with a near term deadline. And that is the May 1st date for the withdrawal of the remaining troops from Afghanistan. I know the president is facing some big decisions on this front. How do you see that playing out? And what's at risk on the Afghan front?

 

RO: Well for me, we've expended a lot of capital inside of Afghanistan, both manpower and monetarily. And for me, we're at a point now where the Afghans have done more, they're being somewhat successful. And I think it's important that we remain a presence on the ground in small numbers. And so, I think it would be a mistake to completely withdraw from Afghanistan. With the new administration, I think they're in a tough spot. I think they probably would like to withdraw everyone out to say that we're finally out of this conflict, but I think we've learned over time, having some presence on the ground will assist us in maintaining a level of stability over time. And so, I think we've kind of backed out of the war footing we were on. We're really not conducting operations. We're still doing some special operations work with the Afghans, but for the most part we've backed out. And what we're now providing is both physical and training support to them. And I think it's important we continue that. And so, I hope that as we move forward, we'll maintain some level of presence in Afghanistan. And I would say almost the exact same thing inside of Iraq, a very small presence, and we'll see what happens. I believe that they'll lean that way in the end, but there'll be some difficult discussions that have to happen as we go forward.

 

KK: So we'll certainly turn to the Middle East in a bit, but Paul Haenle, I want to bring you into the conversation here and have you maybe set the stage for us in terms of what's really the most critical bilateral relationship of the 21st Century, and that's U.S.-China. So, can you, in high-level terms, lay out where you see President Biden and President Xi going in the near to medium term here. Are both sides laying out clear red lines on things like the South China Sea, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, etc.? Are efforts at decoupling that are going on, are they ultimately destabilizing? China's a strategic competitor, but it's also a very necessary partner. So, give us your perspective on the big picture here.

 

Paul Haenle (PH): Well thanks, Kevin. I think a lot of Biden's China policy has yet to really come into focus. You have heard the administration talk about wanting to exercise patience with its China policy. It's got to get key cabinet officials in place and start policy reviews and all the rest, but back to what General Odierno said, I also think resetting relationships with allies and partners around the world, and in particular in the Asia Pacific region, will be a key tenant of President Biden's China policy. There's a good deal of consensus now between Democrats and Republicans, that China under its current leadership has become much more ambitious, more aggressive, more tolerant of taking risks to advance China's interests. In many of those cases, those interests impinge on U.S. interests and those of its allies and partners, including on the foreign and strategic issues that you talked about at the very beginning, whether that's Taiwan, South China Sea, issues like that in the region.

So, in some sense, the debate now isn't really about whether to be soft or hard on China, it's really how to put together a policy that is more effective. And I would expect it if China continues on its current trajectory, which is worrying not only to Americans, but to many in the international community, that U.S. administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, in the future will continue to take a tougher approach to China. But again, it's more about how to be effective in doing really four things: competing smarter with China, confronting China where it's undermining U.S. interests, solving or mitigating longstanding problems, and trying to cooperate where it's in the interest of our country to do so. And that's a difficult balancing act to achieve, especially with domestic politics in both Beijing and Washington.

 

KK: So, can you just expand on that a little more? Can you take the China perspective now, versus I know you talked about the four critical priorities of the Biden administration. What do you see as the China priorities, and where are the critical conflict points and where are the areas for real cooperation?

 

PH: Well, the Chinese narrative that you hear is very clear, and that is that the downturn in U.S.-China relations lies 100% in terms of responsibility on the U.S., and they're looking now to the Biden administration to take steps to put the relationship on better footing. That narrative is very consistent throughout the Chinese interlocutors that we deal with, largely because I think it's the narrative that's been bought at the highest levels of the Chinese government. And so, what you're hearing now, as you alluded to, is both sides kind of laying down their principles and their red lines. And in China's case, of course, it's what they refer to as internal matters related to Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong. And of course, on the U.S. side, in the phone call between Biden and Xi, those were issues that President Biden put forward as a significant human rights concern on the U.S. side.

So, I think in some sense, China is waiting for the U.S. to get to a better place with its China policy, and then it will sort of react. That's been the typical modus operandi of the Chinese. I think, frankly, that's going to be a problem, because there's a view in the United States and around the world that many of the concerns expressed about China are legitimate, and that China has agency in the U.S.-China relationship and can on its own take steps to improve the relationship and put it on better footing, but you don't see that kind of positioning or posture in China. And I think that potentially if that doesn't change in our official dialogue between the U.S. and China, we could see somewhat of an unhappy reckoning in pretty short order, probably within the first year of the Biden administration.

 

KK: Let me ask you a follow-up, and this may be a tough question because it's obviously more domestically focused, but when you look at the history of U.S. foreign relations and you look at the history of U.S. domestic politics, I mean, does China, in your view, play or have the potential to actually play a unifying role in America? I mean, do we need a large, and let's call it other type adversary, akin to the Soviet Union, to sort of narrow a lot of the polarization that we see in the U.S.? Does that play a role in that at all?

 

PH: You know, I think there is a risk there. And what we saw, I think in the Trump administration was a real effort to demonstrate to Americans, to policymakers, and to the international community, the malign policies and actions of the Chinese, putting a big spotlight on it, almost really, as you suggest, sort of painting China as the next ‘evil empire’ that the United States will have to confront. Very ideological, I think, in its approach. I don't expect the Biden administration to have that strong of an ideological view of China. Again, I think they're going to try that balancing act of competing smarter, confronting China where it needs to, but also trying to solve some problems and maybe even cooperate in areas where we have interests. But again, that's a very difficult balancing act.

I think that one event which could focus the attention of Americans is the upcoming Olympics in Beijing. And there is already quite a bit of debate about whether or not the United States should boycott over human rights issues, issues related to Xinjiang, Tibet, other issues like that. I was in the White House when President Bush went to the Olympics in 2008, and there were similar concerns at the time and there was some pressure on President Bush not to go, but this time around anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. and elsewhere is at a different order of magnitude.

And the Biden administration has said it agrees with the Trump administration's determination that what the Chinese are doing in Xinjiang is genocide. What policy implications does that have? How will the U.S., the Biden administration handle the issue of the Olympics? What will our European allies do? Those are real questions, and I think could impact the question that you asked about galvanizing Americans in the framework of another Cold War with China.

 

RO: Yeah. So, I worry a little bit, because I believe, as you'll probably get into later, our biggest weakness right now is our own internal political differences that we have, in my opinion. I think that's making us weak around the world, and people are trying to take advantage of those fissures that we see within our own government. But I think for us to galvanize, it would take a very big event. I'm worried that if we use China, it might be at a place and an event that is much bigger that we need to be involved. A worldwide crisis with China. I don't think we'll galvanize around the issues we're talking about now. I think there'll be bipartisan agreement probably, but I don't think you'll galvanize the parties where they feel strongly enough that they'll now work very closely together on every issue and bring people better together, and more centrist views.

I worry that that could be a very dangerous policy moving forward. I think how Paul has outlined it is really good. I mean, the idea of confronting and cooperating, and I think that's what this policy will be. I mean, we'll start off probably very close to what the Obama administration's policy towards China was, updated with current events. I think we'll have to watch that very carefully as we move forward.

One of the things the military has to do with China is make sure that we don't make mistakes that increase the level of potential conflict. Whether it be in the South China Sea or Taiwan. We have got to make sure that we are in line with our policy and diplomatic efforts and economic efforts that are going on. If we ever bring those three together, we could be incredibly influential and powerful in the region. So, in my mind, that's more of the line I think we should take here. I just believe that if we try to get China to galvanize us, the event that that would take might be much bigger than what we really want to be involved with. I just thought that was important to mention.

 

KK: Yeah, definitely.

 

PH: Just really quick. I agree with all of that. And in fact, what you have right now is a dynamic which moves in the opposite direction, which is that the Republicans are trying to make this a partisan issue where they're tough on China, but the Democrats are soft. They're looking and they're poised, waiting for Biden to do something that they can criticize. But what I see is a very measured approach at the very beginning, with the Biden administration trying to set clear principles in a transparent way, do things above board, but be tough in the process where our interests are at risk. I think that's the right way to go about it. You see that in the South China Sea with the FONOPs that they've conducted, they were publicly announced. They even laid out specific legal precedents that they're upholding in doing those FONOPs. They didn't do them in a big public way, putting pressure on China to react. So far, the steps they've taken I think have been very clear and based on principles.

 

KK: General, a lot has been made about the rise of China's military, their increased military expenditure, so on and so forth. Are they investing effectively on that front? And do we have a good sense of their potential military effectiveness and readiness?

 

RO: Well, I think first of all, they are investing a lot of money. But it's never quite clear how much they're investing and exactly where they're investing it. But it's clear that they've spent money on power projection, developing carriers, developing aircraft, developing supersonic missiles, longer range that can be used against our own carriers. So, it's clear that they're attempting to develop some sort of offensive capability that gives them more flexibility in defending the South China Sea and Taiwan, pick your place. So, I do think there's some concern.

One thing I always remind everybody, though, when you're talking about China, that they all talk about externally is their internal issues with security. I point out that we're lucky in the United States, we have Canada and Mexico. We don't have to worry about internal security, though some people argue with some of the issues we're involved with it might be. But if you compare that to China and the fact, they have Russia, they have India, they have North Korea, they have problems all around them that they have to worry about. So, they still have to be able to invest in this internal security.

The other piece of this is, as their population continues to become more affluent, I believe there will be more issues that rise. Social issues that could also cause some problems. Religious issues, social issues, and then with all these borders they are concerned with, I think there's a lot of challenges there. So, we don't talk a lot about that, but normally when you read the Chinese National Security statement they start with internal security as number one priority. Then they move on to the other things. Their goal is to be equal to or better than the U.S. in terms of military technologies and capability. They've stated different dates, 2030, 2040, but they clearly have that as a goal. I believe we will see them consistently invest to get there. So it's important that we understand that, and that we understand our own investments, that we have to maintain technical superiority and continue to invest in our own military in order to be able to compete, confront and cooperate, which I love those words Paul, those are great.

 

KK: So, you brought up the myriad number of borders that China confronts, and that inevitably makes us turn to North Korea. So, Victor, during the transition in 2017, President Obama famously imparted to incoming President Trump that North Korea would be his most confounding foreign policy challenge. Trump's term obviously featured a pretty surreal period of interpersonal diplomacy during which there were no new nuclear tests, but certainly the build-out of capability continued unabated. So, where does North Korea today fit into this risk matrix?

 

Victor Cha (VC): Well, thanks for the question, Kevin. So, I think you're absolutely right. North Korea does have a tendency to provoke when the new administration comes into office. They did it to Trump shortly after he took office while he was in Mar-a-Lago with Prime Minister Abe. They did to Obama as well. Despite the three meetings, there was really no improvement in the North Korean situation during the four years of Trump. In fact, on the threat matrix, I mean, this still remains pretty high. North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs are just growing even more than they had four years ago. The Korean Workers Party's Congress in January, the North Korean leader himself made pretty clear what the agenda was. That was to build out their capabilities in terms of solid field, long range ballistic missiles, submarine launch ballistic missiles, UAVs, and even tactical nuclear weapons.

So, this is not a pretty picture going forward. I think the big question hanging in the air, or the shoe that people are waiting to drop now is as the Biden administration conducts their policy review on North Korea, which they are in the midst of right now, whether the North Koreans will behave as they have in the past and carry out some sort of attention grabbing provocation, which will then shape the direction of the policy review.

Having said that, I think that for the Biden administration, I think as your questions and answers have already made clear, North Korea is not top of the list of things to worry about. There's plenty to worry about both on the domestic front and on the international front and in Asia, least of which is China. So, I don't think this is super high up on the agenda, but North Korea has a way of forcing themselves on to the agenda as they have done with the previous two administrations.

 

KK: I know obviously that officially North Korea has no cases of COVID-19, but their attempts to hack to get the formulas for vaccines would suggest otherwise. I mean, has there been any change in the stability of the Kim regime? And my other question is, given what you just said about where North Korea rests in the hierarchy of challenges to the Biden administration, but what do you anticipate the Biden approach to the issue is going to be going forward here?

 

VC: So, let me take the second question first. I think that they will conduct their policy review. I certainly don't think that Biden is going to engage in these summit meetings with Kim without some real work by experts done in advance. So, I don't think he'll be opposed to the idea of in principle having leaders’ meetings, but only if there are real agreements that are being hammered out at the expert level. You know, something that was absent during the previous four years. I think practically speaking, the goal will continue to be denuclearization, complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearization. But the reality is that that is not going to happen anytime soon. This is a greatly expanded program with at least 20 nuclear weapons now, and fissile material for scores more, and an ICBM and SLBM system that are under development.

So, this is not something that's going to happen soon. I think they have to be very pragmatic about things, which is to focus on trying to freeze the program and try to manage the threat. It will be politically quite difficult because just as Paul said, the Republicans are waiting for Biden to make a mistake on China. All these Republicans that were in favor of Trump's diplomacy with North Korea are going to come hard at a Democratic administration if they talk about anything short of fully verifiable denuclearization from the outset.

On COVID, I think this is a variable that people are not really looking at. It has the potential to be quite serious. The North Korean border with China, their number one trading partner, 90% of their trade, has been closed for over one year now. Their economy has contracted by 8%. Year on year trade with China is down between 70 and 80%. They say they have no cases, but there are some reports that they have maybe 6,000 or more cases. They have no PPE. They had one PCR machine, I think last year. Now they have about 13. This could be very serious if the virus starts to spread in the country because there is no public health infrastructure to speak of. COVAX’s forecast has about four million vaccines going to North Korea by the middle of the summer, but those are double doses. So, you're only talking about 4% of the population that will be vaccinated. So, this could be a very serious issue in North Korea, for which I don't think anybody has a solution. South Korea certainly doesn't because they don't even have vaccines yet.

 

KK: What about, if you pull back away from the pandemic, but what about the overall stability of the regime or of Kim himself?

 

VC: You know, aside from concerns about his health a little over a year ago, there doesn't appear to be any fissures in the system. Again, I think if there were a path to instability, it would be a situation in which there was continuing shutdown of the border either because of a COVID pandemic or because of the desire to prevent a COVID pandemic, which then forces the government to undertake anti-market activities, to squeeze hard currency out of the markets.

The justice department unsealed the indictment yesterday about the cyber-attacks, where they're trying to gain cash from different businesses around the world. The North Koreans are economically in bad shape. If they start to basically cannibalize their own markets in the country, this will create a lot of unrest among the North Korean people, who 70% of their life is made from the market now, it's not made from the public distribution system. So, to me that would be the pathway to some sort of instability in the country. The leadership right now still looks fairly stable. I think he's defied all expectations and remains strongly in place, but that's why I think COVID is a variable here because it's the economic measures that could create a lot of political dissent inside the country.

 

KK: So General, what's the military position here? What should we expect in terms of demonstrated exercises with South Korea and other regional allies? I guess my question is also, Victor made the point of where North Korea maybe rests in the hierarchy of foreign policy challenges. Yet we all acknowledge that it is perhaps one of the fattest of fat tail risks. How concerned is the military about that destabilizing scenario with 20 plus nuclear weapons, China on the border, etc.? Where does that all fit in for the Defense Department?

 

RO: Yeah, so I would say first we've been up and down with this problem my whole career. You watch the ups and downs of the relationship, the posturing, other things. What's made it a bit different over the last several years is the development of nuclear capability is much better now than it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. So that's changed the dynamic a little bit. What I would say is we have to continue to do the same thing that we've always done. We have to be consistent. We have to be consistent with our posture, we have to be consistent with our relationship with the South Korean Army and continue to work with them in a way that North Korea fully understands that we have this relationship that is close, that is well-trained and is integrated. We have to continue to ensure that they understand that.

Exercises, I think, should be a combination of what we think we have to do to maintain that, and it's an integrated ability with the South Korean Army combined with where we think it fits with our policy. I think that's the one area where we really need to work very, very closely. Because it's important to do those exercises, but sometimes it might be okay, especially because of the internal politics of South Korea, that maybe we don't do them on a more routine basis than we have in the past. That's something we have to look at as we look at things on the ground. What we don't want to do is have military exercises destabilize South Korea.

And so what we want to do is, and I think because of our constant presence there and the long-term relationships that have been developed between our armies and our other branches, that we understand that we can maintain this relationship and we can have honest discussions about it, and I think that we can maintain the level of readiness necessary in order to deter any decisions by North Korea.

Because that's really what this is about. This is about North Korea not making a bad decision and not underestimating the capabilities that are in South Korea that might cause them to cause some action across the border.

And so, for me, that's the most important thing. The other piece is, as they continue to develop nuclear capability, we want to be able to potentially intercede with South Korea if we have to if we believe they start to go closer to usage of nuclear weapons, whether it be regionally or worldwide use.

So, I think just being there helps us to do that. This is where presence makes a difference and it's able to keep, I believe, North Korea a little bit into the box, but we have to do it very carefully because this is something that has to be maintained over a long period of time.

 

KK: And Paul, is this a subject where there is perhaps more that the U.S. and China can cooperate on? Or is it a definite sort of proxy area of contention?

 

PH: Well, my own view is that our cooperation, of course, with our allies is most important, South Korea and Japan, but I think we've got to keep China in the loop. We've got to keep our communication channels opened. We should try our best to prevent North Korea from driving wedges between us and China or us and some of the other powers in the region, but that's going to be more difficult.

It's really interesting, when I was in China during the maximum pressure campaign in the first year of the Trump administration, and this was at a time when Kim Jong-un was really ratcheting up his missile exercises and tests, and really moving forward quickly on developing this nuclear deterrent, the Chinese were in a very different place. They were very upset with the North Koreans. There were scholars and experts advocating that the Chinese government put more pressure on North Korea, making arguments that Victor and I had made in the White House to China that North Korea is a liability for China, just like it's a liability for us.

A lot of that changed however when President Trump announced that he would be doing these bilateral summits with Kim Jong-un. And we saw Xi Jinping then reach out to Kim Jong-un and meet for the first time, and then subsequently after that, several times. And I think to a large extent, China now sees North Korea unfortunately as a political card to play in the geopolitics of the region vis-a-vis the United States. Nevertheless, we still need, I think, to make sure that our outreach on North Korea includes China and we have those communication channels wide open for the reasons I said at the beginning.

 

KK: So, since we're on the subject of nuclear risk, let's turn to the Middle East, Jon. Many figures in the new administration, including the president himself were part of the effort that ultimately yielded the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA. President Trump withdrew. Where are we headed here? I would note obviously that the November IAEA report states that Iran's uranium stockpile is now 12 times more than that's permitted under the JCPOA. In your view, is there a crisis brewing or what's the approach to Iran now?

 

Jon Alterman (JA): The Iranians will make a crisis because that's the way the Iranians deal with the world. I think they're going to make a crisis partly like what we saw earlier in the week with the indirect attack on a U.S.-base in Iraqi Kurdistan. I think we're going to see a crisis where the Iranians will say we're going to bar UN nuclear inspectors because the U.S. isn't holding its part of the deal.

I think there will be other kinds of crises because that's the way the Iranians get the world to pay attention to them. The Iranians don't prepare for negotiations with good behavior. The Iranians prepare for negotiations with bad behavior. And then the first concession they make is, "We're going to stop the bad behavior." They have spent more than 40 years building up a whole toolkit of unconventional threats, ways to raise pressure on people, ways to create a sense of urgency. We saw it in September 2019 with the attack on the Saudi oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais. We saw it in May of that year with the attack on shipping in the Gulf.

 

RO: So, everybody knows I'm a little biased because I've had a lot of experience with Iranian surrogates inside of Iraq and other places in the Middle East, but I think the one thing I worry about is I understand why they want the nuclear policy. Obviously, you want to try to limit their ability to develop any type of nuclear weapon, and I agree with that, but you can't just look at that issue alone. You have to understand that Iran's goal is creating instability throughout the Middle East. As Jon was getting to, that's how they operate. And they've been doing that for a very long time.

And I think if we take away the sanctions and we think we get some progress with the nuclear side, which we don't know if we really get a lot of progress or not, it will provide them the assets and the resources to put towards creating more instability around the region, whether it be in Yemen, whether it be in Afghanistan, whether it be in Iraq, whether it be in Lebanon, whether it be in Syria, pick your place.

And so, for me, it's a balancing act. And I think what happened when we initially got into the nuclear deal, you started to see growing instability in the other areas because they were using the money that they got from making this deal to create more instability. That's what the Ayatollah's regime does.

And so, we've got to make sure that we attack both at the same time. And that would be my advice to this administration that we do that. Whether they're going to do that or not, it's unclear, because a lot of them are tied to the original nuclear agreement, want to get that back in place with our allies, and that would help to build a relationship with some of our allies that have been broken over the last four years. But I think we have to be very, very careful because the instability that Iran could create around the Middle East is pretty significant. And it could cause a lot of issues, both economically and from a security standpoint in several different areas.

 

KK: Jon, I want to give you an opportunity to finish up on that, but also get your sense of do you think we can get back to some semblance of a deal with the Iranians?

 

JA: I think the Iranians very much want to negotiate, that's why they're behaving poorly. I think they're not done behaving poorly. They will pull out a whole bunch of tricks that we haven't seen yet, but it is clear to me that they really want to talk. Sanctions have taken a toll. COVID has taken a toll. And I was very interested to hear Victor's comments about the problems with COVID in North Korea because Iran has been creamed by COVID and it hasn't really, at this point, caused political instability. The economy's getting creamed, partly by COVID and partly by lower oil prices. That hasn't created political instability.

But the Iranians have a whole host of problems. They want a deal. They think the Biden administration will deal. And the problem the Biden administration will have is how do you make the urgency work for you and not for the Iranians? The Iranians will try to make urgency work for them. They will try to make the world crazy. How do you hold off enough, but not create a whole series of crises that lead us to a place we don't want to be?

 

KK: So, we could go on all day about the Middle East, but I also want to ask here about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because a lot is being made of a recalibration of our approach here. President Trump famously made it his very first international destination in his administration, and he drove a highly transactional relationship. Where do you see this going? And note that a day or so ago, the White House spokesperson, Jen Psaki, kind of seemed to hint at the U.S. effectively downgrading the position of Mohammad bin Salman, saying that the president should deal at the head of state level, meaning the King, and that by sort of formal title, the proper interlocutor for MBS would be the Secretary of Defense. But where do you see things going on the Saudi relationship front?

 

JA: There are two things that are going to happen. One is the administration is going to talk a lot about values, and they're going to talk a lot about values with regard to Saudi Arabia.

I did an interview with Jake Sullivan back in June that's on the CSS website, where I asked Jake, and he was actually quite forthcoming about the fact that when we have strategic discussions with the Saudis, not that we're not going to have them, but when we have them, values will matter. And one of the key issues will be that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction. And there's really, I think, a very clear consensus among all the people who have spoken on the Biden team that Saudi Arabia has very much been moving in the wrong direction in terms of the evolution of its social political economic system, in some ways, trying to replicate the China model in ways that Americans find distressing and disturbing.

The other piece of it though, is we will cooperate with the Saudis on their legitimate concerns, cooperate with the Saudis on ballistic missile defense, cooperate with the Saudis in terms of the threats from Iran. This gets to a lot of the issues that General Odierno has worked through in his career, building trust with partners, that as a partner against legitimate threats, we are going to be there and we will be there 110%, but in terms of the broader partnership, the broader chemistry, that's going to depend on coming together on values.

And I think from a Saudi perspective, because they have bet the farm on a close relationship with the United States for 75 years, the prospect of a more distant relationship leaves the Saudis in a quandary because they have no idea what a different strategy toward the world might look like, and how would they compensate for a more visible difference between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia? They don't want to try, and we've seen that in all the positive signs coming out from the Saudi side despite the negative signs coming out from the U.S. side. But I think that's going to be a tough line for them to walk. And frankly, that's precisely the walk the Biden administration wants them to walk. It's the issues they want the Saudis to think about.

 

KK: So, General, for better or worse these days, when Americans think military, they think Middle East. And clearly, as we've been discussing today, there's a strategic focus shift moving more toward the Indo-Pacific. So, my question is, and not withstanding your admitted bias on the Middle East, but how do we maintain, just as Jon was talking about here, how do we maintain capability and relationships in the region with a reduced military footprint? And importantly, how do we maintain influence if the perception in the region and amongst adversaries and other global powers if the perception is that we're on the way out directionally?

 

RO: Well, for me, our military strategy cannot be one or the other. And so, during the Obama administration, we began to shift focus to Asia. And you can do that, and that's when we really were still embroiled in really pretty significant conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, which we no longer are. And so what you want to do is you can maintain a very small presence which enables us to maintain relationships in the key places throughout the Middle East, and we can do it also through military sales and other things that we do in order to maintain our ties with these nations and continue to have the dialogue and provide them training and expertise. We can do that while shifting to Asia.

And so, it's important. We can't just say, "We're just going to do this." We're big enough and the American people have invested enough in our military where we can do more than one thing. And so, we've got to be able to do that. In my mind right now, there's three things we need to do. We need to shift a little more effort to Asia to make sure that we can do the things necessary to support our policy goals in the Asia Pacific region. We need to stay engaged in the Middle East with a smaller footprint, not a wartime footing, but much, much smaller to where we're at now, and continue to have influence. You don't want to lose your influence. And whether you like it or not, in the Middle East, power is influence. And you have got to have some capability where they believe you can project power into the Middle East.

And third is Russia, doing that, dealing with NATO and working in Eastern European nations. We have got to do those three things together, and you prioritize them based on the amount of resources. And that's what I think you'll see, is you'll see a bigger prioritization towards Asia, but we should not be letting go of these other important areas that we're involved with. And so, I think we'll see that as we go forward. I hope that's the place we'll go. I believe Secretary Austin will be along those lines. He's been involved with all of those things throughout his career. And as he's asked to implement the presidential policy within the Department of Defense, I think he'll try to do that. And obviously he'll follow the president's guidance, but I believe he'll try to maintain the fact that we can do more than one thing, it's just a matter of prioritizing and where you put maybe a larger part of the resources, which I think will be the Asia Pacific region in this case.

 

VC: It's Victor, can I just say something on this?

 

KK: Yeah. 

 

VC: I mean, I agree with everything the General said. The only thing I would add is that the U.S. presence in Asia is a function of its military, but it's also a function of the non-security aspects of its presence. Obviously one of the big ones that this administration will have to wrestle with is whether the United States should rejoin TPP or CPTPP. There are two major trade agreements now in Asia that don't involve the United States, RCEP and CPTPP. And so that's an extremely important aspect of the U.S. presence. And then the other is the role that the United States plays in helping to maintain the rules-based international order. There is a competition taking place right now with China trying to rewrite those rules, and the United States is pushing on an open door in Asia when it does to countries we want to help support that open rules-based order and not leave countries standing on their own when it comes to dealing with China.

I think the one thing that's different this time with the Biden administration given all of the domestic issues is that it means the United States can make that pitch to these countries in Asia, but also, at the same time, ask them to do more. The United States, in other words, can push the boat into the water, but it's going to need its allies and partners to do more of the rowing. Two very good recent books on U.S. alliances in Asia basically recommend the same thing, and that is the United States needs to focus on obviously maintaining its military strength in Asia, but really coalitional diplomacy on almost every other aspect of the U.S. power and use these allies and partners as force multipliers.

 

RO: And Kevin, just to follow up with that, my time as chief of staff at the army, I tried to stay out of policy issues, stay with the fence on those issues. There was one time I got involved with policy issue and I made several phone calls to Congress on and that was the Pacific Trade Agreement because I thought it was so important in terms of helping us to sustain a level of stability and security in the Asia Pacific region. So, I couldn't agree more with what was just said. And again, I always say the one thing I believe we have not been able to do that I would really believe is the most important thing is to make sure we stay linked with our diplomatic policy, our economic policy and our military strategy. Link those three together. We tend to develop them independently sometimes, and sometimes they're not quite working in sync.

We have such powerful tools in all three of those areas, we have to use them. Over the last administration, our diplomatic efforts, in my opinion, obviously were not used appropriately. We kind of tried to leverage economic more than anything else. And so, in my mind, especially in the Asia Pacific region, but all around the world, we want to have a policy and a capability that unites those three, working in conjunction with each other in order to gain the best effects. That's how you maintain long-term stability, by having those three things working in sync with each other and coordinated with each other and integrated.

 

KK: So, we don't really have time to go fully down the trade rabbit hole here, but since both you and Victor brought it up. I want to ask Paul and Victor. The Biden administration has sort of made it clear that new trade agreements are not going to come fast. On the other hand, as General Odierno points out TPP or the successor to TPP is now up and running. China took the lead with RCEP. It seems if we're going to be re-engaging, "America is back," as the president says, we can't let those kinds of trade agreements go unanswered let's say. So, what do you think the approach is going to be?

 

PH: Well, this is Paul. I'll just start very quickly and say my guess is if you filter out the politics around trade, which have shifted since the last presidential election in 2015 and 16, I would suspect President Biden would be very supportive of the TPP, but he understands the politics are very, very difficult. So, I don't expect him to make it an issue early on. I think that as countries in the region begin to benefit from those trade agreements, the administration is going to have to make the case that the United States not being in the TPP is hurting our interests. The administration is making a very big push of connecting our foreign policy and our trade agreements to the middle class. And there needs to be a very deliberate effort at some point to show how being part of TPP will help Americans across the country.

But I agree 100% with what Victor said, what General Odierno said about the importance of being part of setting those rules on trade. Right now, you have China and RCEP and hinting that they want to at some point potentially join CPTPP. So, this is, I think, an issue of the administration will eventually have to get to, but probably not early on because of the politics.

 

VC: This is Victor. Kevin, I agree with what Paul said. I mean, I think it's very difficult for them to do it now. It'll be a big hole in the policy as when they're in the region, because that's what they'll be asked about consistently the first time President Biden goes to Asia, but the domestic politics of it make it very difficult. At the same time, there's focus on other aspects of coalitional diplomacy having to do with trade, supply chain resilience, clean networks.

It'll be interesting to see how as the United States tries to build these sorts of multi nation groupings on certain aspects of trade, how that interacts with building an argument for reconnecting the CPTPP and making it better in a way that creates more jobs back home in the United States. It's a big project and it will take time. It's certainly not something that's going to happen in the first year or maybe the first two years of the administration. But I agree with Paul, it's something that has to be done.

 

KK: So, we're approaching the bottom of the hour and there's so many subjects we haven't even been able to address on this call that are big challenges, Russia, Turkey. And we haven't even touched the continents of South America or Africa, but I want to leave you guys with one question. It's sort of a single question, lightning round, if you will, and it's the hardest question, but it goes back to something that General Odierno said early in his remarks. There's a school of thought, and I think I'm an adherent to this as well, that our biggest foreign policy priority now is at home. That for all of our military might and our economic heft, our soft power has taken a clear hit, and that's not just because of the last four years. It stretches back further than that.

It goes back to the initial decisions, getting into the Iraq and Afghan wars, the financial crisis, but clearly our bungled COVID response, police brutality and racial division in the country. And of course, the events of January 6th, but kind of like we were talking earlier, or Paul talking earlier about the Olympics and potential pressure for boycotts. And the notion that the Biden administration has not backtracked from the Trump administration's use of the term genocide in China either. Do we stand up for that word or is it become a devalued word in a sense, right? In other words, what does the United States really stand for? And I guess if I could just get a quick thought from each of you and we'll start with Jon, Victor and Paul and wind up giving General Odierno the last word, but your thoughts on the need to get our domestic house in order to help us project our power and influence overseas. Jon, do you want to take off?

 

JA: I think it starts with the United States. I think most Americans are really tired of fighting wars in the Middle East. I think they think that our energy production in the United States frees us from that. We have to redefine our relationship and part of what the president's going to have to do, and what the president is going to, is we're going to have a relationship with the Middle East that defends our interests, but doesn't get us involved in these unending wars in the region that continue to drain blood and treasure. I think its part of a reorientation of foreign policy. It's away from continuing to fight wars in the Middle East.

 

KK: Victor?

 

VC: So, I would say that the United States speaks with much greater authority in Asia and will fulfill the president's mandate of ‘America is back’ when it does get its domestic house in order. I think countries around the world are relieved that the United States is now speaking a language they can understand versus what the United States was saying over the past four years. But really, yeah, it does all start at home. And the other piece of it I would add is also the climate change element of it. The extent to which that is going to be a lens through which a lot of policy is looked at, just looking at the way this administration has configured itself on climate change at the White House. It's going to be a huge equity in every policy decision, not just climate decisions, but even national security decisions.

 

KK: Paul?

 

PH: I'm going to say something extreme to start out, but I think you can make the case that our domestic political troubles in the U.S. are boosting the support for Xi Jinping's authoritarian system in China. If you think about it a year ago, President Xi was kind of on the ropes in the early days of COVID trying to hide exactly what was going on. And he got a lot of pushback from Chinese citizens. The way that they've managed to contain the virus has boosted the support for Xi, but a lot of it is a comparison to how we dealt with it in the United States and our friends in Europe as well. And the turmoil around our elections and the attack on the Capitol, I think only reinforces these views held by Chinese leaders about how they talk about the inherent flaws of the U.S. political system. And it strengthens the conviction of Chinese leaders that their system is not only not inferior, but potentially superior.

And so, I think they will, if we continue to have problems at home politically, in some senses try to take advantage of that strategically and potentially could lead to adventurism on the part of Chinese leaders. So, we've got to get our political house in order, get our politics in a better place. I think it is the starting point for a robust policy towards China that's more effective.

And to Victor's point, I agree that our allies and partners are relieved to see a more traditional approach to foreign policy where we're playing a leadership role, where we're communicating, where we want to communicate and work with them. The question I think they're asking is, will we see in four years’ time a return to ‘America first’ kind of approach, or is the Biden approach, have we rooted out what we've seen over the last four years? And that's a key question that we'll need to deal with.

 

KK: Well, thanks for that gentlemen. General Odierno, let me give you the last word on this subject.

 

RO: Well, I would say I'm in line with what Paul was saying. I would say, we have to think about how other people are looking at us right now. And as they look at the U.S. they're saying, "There's lots of social issues inside of the U.S. that will have to be dealt with. There's political fissures going as far as socialism on one side and anarchy on the other." And we're facing problems that people probably never foresaw we'd see in the U.S. And so, we have to make sure we understand how they're looking at us right now. And even though this administration's reaching out and developing these relationships, how influential will we be as we develop these relationships? Have we lost some influence, whether it be in Europe, Asia, Middle East, based on what they see inside of the U.S.? Is there a question of democracy and how successful democracy could be? And that gets back to what Paul said about China thinking maybe they do have a superior system. I absolutely believe they don't, but we have to regain some credibility. And I think as people look at us internally, they might have some issue with that.

So, I think there's a lot of work that has to be done. We can't just believe that reaching out and doing what we normally do in our foreign policy is enough. We have to understand that people are looking at what's going on inside the U.S. and that has to be a priority to clean some of this up, and we have to take it seriously and that'll help build us and make us stronger. And I believe that over time we will come out stronger. It's just a matter of how long that will take, and as Paul mentioned, who will take advantage of that, who will try to exploit this current state that we're in inside the U.S. We have to be very careful about that.

But as somebody always said to me, I'm very positive. We're the only country that has self-sufficient own resources. We're protected by two oceans. We have two friendly neighbors. We have a great economic system. We have the strongest military in the world. So, there's a lot of great positives out there, I don’t want to end on a negative note. There's an incredible amount of positivity out there for this great nation of ours. We just have to kind of get our act back together so we can help others around the world to achieve what they're attempting to achieve.

 

KK: Well, let's end on that high note and gentlemen, I want to thank you for covering the amount of territory you did. We've only scratched the surface in a way. One could argue it was a little bit of subject overreach on my part, but if you want to go into greater depth or have additional questions for any of my guests, please don't hesitate to reach out to us at teneoinsights@teneo.com. Please join us in two weeks on March 4th, my guests will be the noted author and economist Dambisa Moyo. She's got a new book coming out on board governance. We'll talk to her about all of that, but for the time being I want to thank Jon Alterman, Victor Cha, Paul Haenle and General Ray Odierno for joining me today. This has been very insightful. Thank you very much gentlemen and thank you all for joining us. Have a good weekend.

The views and opinions in these articles are solely of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Teneo. They are offered to stimulate thought and discussion and not as legal, financial, accounting, tax or other professional advice or counsel.

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