Bruce W. Jentleson is the William Preston Few Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. He is also a non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Co-Director of the Bridging the Gap Project. Prof. Jentleson received the 2018 Joseph J. Kruzel Memorial Award for Distinguished Public Service from the American Political Science Association, International Security Section. He was also the Henry Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center from 2015 to 2016. He is the author of The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth Century Statesmanship.
Mehmet Yegin (MY): In your recent piece on challenges to the liberal world order, you argue that the problem is bigger than Donald Trump and then make suggestions for the way forward. There are great expectations for a possible Joe Biden presidency to restore current imbalances. What do you think Joe Biden (if elected) can realize and what are his limits?
Bruce Jentleson (BJ): Donald Trump is unquestionably a huge part of the problem, but as you said, my view is that the problem is bigger than Trump. The way he has conducted the presidency at home and internationally (including among our European allies) has done enormous damage to American interests, American prestige and to the pursuit of peace, prosperity, and security in the world. There is no question that he is a huge part of the problem and by electing a new president we can stop that bleeding. But I also think that we should not take a rose-colored view of how well things were working before Trump.
I served in the Obama administration’s first two years as Senior Advisor to the Policy Planning Directorate at the State Department. Barack Obama was welcomed by the world and people were very happy to see a US president who had not started the Iraq War. Nevertheless, multilateralism still wasn’t working that well. Look at the splits in the NATO alliance in 2011 over Libya. Germany, France, Italy and the US took one position and other allies took another. Look at US relations with Pakistan, who either did not know or did not communicate that they were hosting Osama Bin Laden. Relations with Israel over the Palestinian issue were also problematic. So, there is no rose-colored past to go back to.
The world has changed fundamentally over the last 10 or 15 years. It has changed in ways that were already beginning to erode the pillars of the liberal international order. Multilateralism was not working that well, and not just because of the US. I do not want to bash the UN like the neoconservatives do, but even people who support the UN have to acknowledge that the organization has had many problems. Other international institutions have seen the same. Yet, the World Health Organization (WHO), which is experiencing problems now, does not deserve the US aid cut. Nonetheless, in crises like Ebola, it was not as effective as it needed to be.
All of us who believe in multilateralism and internationalism need to really think this through and not somehow think that if Joe Biden becomes president all will be right again. We really have to think about the problems that multilateralism was facing before Donald Trump. These problems still need fixing even when we get rid of Donald Trump. For the people that care about the international institutions, we need to avoid both the extremes of disproportionately blaming the US and putting too much faith in the US’s ability to fix things on its own. A better US policy is necessary but not sufficient to solve problems of the liberal international order. Other countries also have a role to play in this.
MY: When it comes to transatlantic relations, the Trump administration is treating the EU as a frenemy while European countries are calling for more strategic autonomy. How do you think this will evolve?
BJ: Donald Trump has not only pursued policies that caused great conflict within the Atlantic alliance but he has also treated European countries with tremendous disdain. This is seen in how he dealt with Angela Merkel and others with regard to the whole notion of 2 percent of GDP spending on defense for NATO allies. He treated these countries like they were members of a country club that were not paying their dues. We know that the question of who bears burdens in NATO is much more complicated than that. It is the case that the 2 percent standard was established during the Obama years and it is an important one, but it does not define the relationship.
That said, we should remind ourselves that NATO has never had pure cooperation. In the 1960s we faced huge issues that the US was unprepared for, including the Skybolt Crisis, France’s military withdrawal from NATO under Charles de Gaulle, and Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik. We have to understand that everything was not perfect before Donald Trump. I also think that Europeans need to make preparations among themselves. Strategic autonomy does not necessarily mean no more NATO. Yet, it does mean greater European capacity to deal with issues that are important to Europe and better dealt with outside of NATO. Greater European cooperation on foreign and defense policy is not anti-US and would actually be welcome.
We are seeing what I call a “pluralization of diplomacy”, in that few states have interests wrapped up with just one of the major powers. For example, Britain under Boris Johnson, a good, conservative friend of Trump, decided that China’s Huawei was in the UK’s interests. Europe also has some interest in China, but that does not mean that they are anti-US. The Russian Nord Stream gas pipeline is important to Germany even though the US is opposed to it. Even in the Middle East, take a look at Israel, which has experienced better treatment under Trump than under any other president. Yet Israel also has relations with China, making a contract with China to manage the Haifa Port, a reality that the US sees as a security threat to some of the naval operations in the region.
Europe and the United States will remain close, we have a lot of shared culture and history. But each country needs to understand that its interests may not always be the same as others’. There is a fine balance between where we work together and where we go our own way, yet there are some times where divergence is not ok, especially in the case of war. The new American president may reinforce that we are friends and allies on most issues, but we are not going back to a past of absolute, all-encompassing cooperation that actually never been existed.