The style and substance of the incoming Biden administration will look very different than that of the past four years. But the new administration will immediately face tough questions: on NATO, China, Russia, troop shifts in Germany, and the defunct nuclear agreement with Iran.
Interview with Steven Pifer
Henry Alt-Haaker: Dear Steven, we are looking forward to having you at the Robert Bosch Academy in those first important months of the new U.S. presidency. And we are indeed grateful that you agreed to share some of your thoughts on U.S. foreign and defense policy for the immediate future.
With all the challenges that Joe Biden will face domestically, how much attention will he actually be able to devote to foreign policy?
Steven Pifer: Joe Biden is going to be focused first on domestic questions, such as dealing with the pandemic and the related problem of getting the economy going. Then there's the political challenge: can he bridge the widening societal and political divide that emerged over the past four years? Biden comes from the old guard of the Senate and has experience working across the aisle. He will try to find Republicans who are prepared to work with him in order to produce necessary legislation and to try to narrow this divide.
But I think Biden recognizes that the world is not going to stop while we get our house in order. He will be prepared to engage. His cabinet choices so far indicate this. His nominee for secretary of state Tony Blinken, for example, has worked with the president-elect for 20 years. When he speaks as secretary of state, people will hear him speaking for the president. Biden has chosen people with expertise and experience. That positions him, when he focuses on domestic issues, to give direction and have some confidence that his foreign policy directions are going to be carried out.
I think the world is going to see a big difference between the Biden presidency and that of the last four years. President Trump thought that unpredictability was an advantage. But I believe it's very important for an American president to be predictable. I want allies, but also potential adversaries, to know: if they do something, this is how America is going to react. With Trump, there often was a disconnect between his language (or tweets) and U.S. policy. With Biden, the president and U.S. policy will be from the same sheet of music.
Alt-Haaker: Some commentators state that Trumpism is going to remain after President Trump. If that was true, how will it affect the Democratic Party? Is it going to further polarize the party and strengthen the fringes?
Pifer: If the Democratic Party does become more polarized and were to trend toward becoming a left-wing version of the Republican Party under Trump, it, first of all, would miss an opportunity politically because American elections tend to be won at the center. It would also be destructive for America, as it would make both domestic and foreign policymaking much more difficult. So I very much hope we can avoid that.
I expect Donald Trump to remain a player in American politics after January 20, 2021. It will be interesting to see, though, whether he can sustain the same level of support. A number of Republican senators like Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, and Vice President Mike Pence have aligned themselves very closely with President Trump because they wanted to get his blessing when they ran for president in 2024. If Trump decides that he wants to run again, what does that do to the Republican Party? I would argue that American politics needs a strong Republican Party but it should be one based on principles, not just one individual.
Alt-Haaker: In Europe, the discussions on strategic sovereignty have gained traction in the last couple of years. How patient and supportive is the U.S. under President Biden going to be with Europeans building their own defense capabilities? Moreover, what do you think his take is going to be on PESCO and a more coordinated European military procurement?
Pifer: Traditionally, the Americans have had a two-sided view of Europe: on the one hand, they would like to see a strong, united Europe that can be an international player and a partner with the U.S. On the other hand, there’s the tendency to work bilaterally with individual European countries because we are concerned that a strong, unified Europe may not always align with us on every question. In the grander scheme, a Europe that speaks with one voice and can exercise its diplomatic and political weight internationally would be a good thing for the U.S.
As for defense capabilities, there will still be in Washington after January 20 a desire to see Europe increase its military spending to NATO’s two percent of GDP goal. And as for procurement: although the U.S. would like to sell the F-35 stealth combat aircraft to every ally it can, there’s an advantage in Europe developing its own military production capabilities. Competition will keep the prices down and drive innovations up.
Alt-Haaker: But instead of the two percent, in Germany there is a growing traction for shifting the discussion to three or four percent, taking into account development aid and domestic spending on e.g. countering extremist violence, which in turn would lead to more global peace and stability.
Pifer: I get a little bit nervous about that argument. What Americans hear is that some Europeans want to do the easy stuff with development aid. But when it comes to actually doing the hard stuff and the use of military force, then the burden is on the Americans. I'm not sure that this is the best course for Europe itself. In the last presidential candidate debate, Joe Biden correctly said that the greatest threat the U.S has right now is Russia, with which I would agree because Russia is the only country that can physically destroy the U.S.
But he also said that the longer-term challenge is China. We're going to see a further shift of American diplomatic and military attention toward Asia as we try to figure out our relationship with a rising China. The pressure on Europe to do the necessary in terms of defense capabilities to deal with a neighbor like Russia will remain, and the two-percent goal will remain, too. I fully expect, though, that the president is going to be a lot more diplomatic about how he presses that question.
Alt-Haaker: Under President Trump, the Europeans often felt pressured to “pick a side” in the U.S.-China competition, to which they tried fervently to resist. Is this pressure to “decouple” going to continue, just in more polite terms? Will the new administration accept the Europeans’ decision e.g. on 5G-infrastructure, no matter what?
Pifer: There won't be so much pressure to pick a side, but some of the concerns will remain. There is a very real concern, and it's not just in the Republican administration, that there's a serious risk if, for example, Huawei provides the 5G system for a country. This could compromise the system there. So there may be a set of issues around China on which Americans and Europeans could be more closely aligned.
The idea of completely decoupling from China makes no sense. Americans will continue to buy a range of cheap Chinese products. But do we want to be so dependent on China for some of our pharmaceutical products? There may be certain key industries – and this is one of things we are learning with Covid-19 – where having the production capability in the U.S. or in Europe makes some sense, even if it's more expensive.
Alt-Haaker: We have talked about Russia but you also mentioned Biden’s position on China’s importance for American security. Do you think that China is going to be more prominent in thoughts in NATO and as being part of its threat assessments and strategic planning?
Pifer: I think NATO will and should remain focused on transatlantic security. But there's going to be more attention paid to what the Chinese are doing as this will impact our ability to maintain security between North America and Europe. That's a perfectly legitimate and important topic for NATO. But I don't see a NATO standing naval force in the South China Sea.
Alt-Haaker: Within Europe, Germans are often criticized as being too understanding of Russia and not showing sufficient distance from it, e.g. on the North Stream 2 pipeline project in the Baltic Sea. At the same time, Germany is one of the few countries (together with France) that is still trying to play an active role in the Ukraine conflict. What will happen in U.S.-Russia policy when it comes to the Baltic Sea and Ukraine?
Pifer: First of all, in a Biden administration you're not going to have this dichotomy between the policy and what the president says. A predictable American partner should be important for Moscow, even if it may not like everything about the policy. Second, Biden sees good sense in having guardrails on the relationship with Russia. So he'll extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). I believe he'll look at other arms control measures, recognizing that between the U.S. and Russia, unfortunately, we have a relationship that is a largely adversarial component and needs to be managed.
I also believe there's a chance under the Biden administration to professionalize the dialogue at senior levels with Moscow. If you look at the engagement between Washington and Moscow over the past four years, it's been episodic between presidents Trump and Putin. My observation since the early 1980s is that this relationship really has to have top-down guidance. And I'd like to see a restoration of useful contacts between NATO and Russia at the military level because neither side has an interest in a conflict breaking out accidentally or by miscalculation.
Regarding Ukraine: Biden knows the country very well, and this conflict is arguably the biggest problem between Russia and the U.S. or the West. The Germans and the French have tried to broker a solution. Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves a lot of credit both for trying to keep that process going, but also for keeping unity within the EU. My question would be: will the U.S. get more involved in that process? Not to displace Germany and France, but to come in and work together to change the game board a bit and find a way to move forward on the 2015 Minsk agreements. My guess is that the Biden administration would take a more active role if it would boost the Minsk process toward a solution.
Alt-Haaker: You mentioned New START Treaty and whether a short-term extension in order for it be renegotiated as President Putin suggested, a long term extension under current terms or an inclusion of China is the right approach. On the last option, China has obviously already kindly refused. What do you think should be the course of action for the next couple of months?
Pifer: The New START expires about 15 days after Biden is sworn in and I’m sure he’ll extend it immediately. It would make sense to extend it for the full five years because that would mean limits on Russian strategic forces until 2026. It would also maintain the flow of information, data exchanges, notifications, and on-site inspections, which makes us in America a lot smarter about Russian strategic forces. It's good for predictability and stability.
The Biden administration is then going to face a choice. One option would be to negotiate a follow-on to New START that would remain focused on strategic weapons. You perhaps include some new kinds of strategic systems, but it would be a familiar negotiation for both sides with some modest reductions. The second option, which I prefer, would be more ambitious. A negotiation that would include all American and Russian nuclear weapons: strategic, non-strategic, deployed, and non-deployed, all constrained by a single aggregate limit with a sublimit that would cover warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles — the most readily usable nuclear weapons. That's going to be a really hard negotiation and take several years. They will have to come up with new verification measures and figure out a way to inspect weapons that are maintained not on a missile but are in storage areas. My guess is that the Russians will say they would be prepared to talk about non-strategic nuclear weapons but only with some conditions. One condition would be the U.S. has to be prepared to talk about missile defense. And that's going to be a tough question for the Biden administration. I argue that we ought to take a hard look into that. Making that trade-off, that is, accepting some limits on missile defense in return for Russia negotiating a limit that covers all nuclear weapons, is probably in the American interest.
What I don’t see is a trilateral U.S.-Russia-China negotiation. The U.S. and Russia each have more than ten times as many nuclear weapons as China does. Neither Washington nor Moscow would be prepared to reduce to China's level. They are not prepared to sign an agreement that allows China to build up to their level, and the Chinese would not accept unequal limits. But if you could get a U.S.-Russian negotiation that covers all their nuclear weapons and brings those levels down, then perhaps Washington and Moscow could ask China to make a unilateral political commitment not to increase and provide some basic transparency. That might be a way to begin to get third countries involved without having to ask them to accept unequal limits in a treaty.
Alt-Haaker: Let’s get to another complicated treaty negotiation, the Open Skies Treaty. Do you think it would be wise for the US to re-enter the treaty despite Russian violations of it?
Pifer: I believe it was a mistake for the U.S. to leave it. There were Russian violations, but only marginal ones that did not undercut the treaty’s central purpose. And the U.S retaliated by, in effect, violating the treaty itself for several years. So, for example, the Russians were limited to less than the treaty would allow when they overflew the Hawaiian Islands. It would make sense for the U.S. to re-enter the treaty. It paves the way for confidence building as it allows mutual collection of data and photography by allies who lack the very sophisticated satellites that the U.S. operates. And those satellites have certain limitations. Airplanes don’t have to abide to fixed orbits and can fly under clouds. Also, you can use the Open Skies Treaty in a political way. If you look at a number of the American Open Skies flights over the past six years and their focus on eastern Ukraine and the part of Russia that borders Donbass, they're intended to send a political signal to Russia.
The proper way for the Biden team to re-enter the agreement would be to re-sign the treaty and then have it go through a ratification process. You would need 67 senators. That probably won't work because I don't see enough Republican senators ready to ratify a treaty that a Republican administration just left. So the question is, are there more flexible means that would allow the U.S. to re-enter? Perhaps on the basis of an executive agreement where the U.S. would take on all the rights and obligations, but that wouldn't be in treaty form, and that will require agreement by the other parties. Some legal experts also make the argument that Trump’s decision to leave was a violation of American law in the first place. In the National Defense Authorization Act, there was a provision that said if the Trump administration wanted to leave the Open Skies Treaty, it had to consult at least four months in advance with Congress. This did not happen. So one route might be for the Biden administration to say, in fact, we never left the treaty because we could not have done so, since the administration did not consult Congress. That could lead to an interesting legal fight.
Alt-Haaker: Indeed an interesting legal dispute that will likely end up in front of Supreme Court that is currently composed of a conservative majority where three out of nine justices have been appointed by president Trump.
In terms of international security, one of the biggest elephants in the room is Iran. Do you think President Biden is going to enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement and pick up where the U.S. left? Or is there going to be a renegotiation taking into account some of the changes that have happened since the treaty’s original creation?
Pifer: There's a view in the Biden team that the U.S. leaving the JCPOA was a mistake. We ended up isolating ourselves and gave Iran the ability to go beyond the limits of the JCPOA – but the steps Iran has taken are reversible. The Biden administration will want to re-engage in the JCPOA. What I'm not sure is whether it would go completely back to where it was. They will be under some pressure to try to negotiate improvements on the JCPOA. There might be some adjustments at the margins to address the concerns of people in the U.S. who argue that it was a bad deal. In general, though, we’ll see a positive approach looking to find a way to get back into it. Having constraints on Iran's nuclear capability makes a lot of sense.
Alt-Haaker: With the Robert Bosch Academy being based in Berlin my last question obviously has to be about the American troops in Germany. President Trump has announced a substantive withdrawal that was halted for now by a decision in Congress in the first week of December. With President Biden, can Germans exhale and assume that the troops are going to stay?
Pifer: I think President Trump's decision to pull out troops was not motivated by strategic calculation. The defense secretary tried to explain the rationale but none of the reasons made any sense. At one point he said, this will be good for military families, but it's actually better for families to have the troops permanently stationed in Germany because soldiers can go home to their family at night. Whereas with the rotational basis, the troops leave for nine months and the families don’t come with them. I don't think the Pentagon really supported this idea.
The facilities in Germany are important not just for U.S. operations in Europe but also for operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The medical facilities, for example, are the first place where wounded American soldiers get first-class treatment before they're brought back to the U.S. That saves lives. I think there are a lot of strategic reasons to maintain the troops and facilities in Germany. And if there are adjustments, I hope they’re made with a strategic rationale and not just because the president was upset that Chancellor Merkel didn't want to come to a G7 at Camp David.
Alt-Haaker: Thank you, Steven, for this fascinating tour de force through challenges of US foreign and defense policy that await President-elect Biden in 2021. We are looking forward to continuing this discussion with you and experts and policy makers during your stay in Berlin.
Steven Pifer is a William J. Perry Research Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, and Brookings - Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.
Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.
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