Project Syndicate: Donald “Trump’s electoral appeal may turn on domestic politics,” you wrote in September, “but his effect on world politics could be transformational, particularly if he gains a second term.” Well, he hasn’t gotten his second term. Is this enough to ensure that we really are at “the end of an historical accident”? What changes cannot be undone, at least not easily?
Joseph Nye: Had Trump been re-elected, the damage to the international system of multilateral institutions and alliances would have been very difficult to repair. As one European friend told me, “it is hard to hold one’s breath for four years; eight years is impossible.”
But Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, and to strengthen America’s strained alliances. This bodes well. Nonetheless, it will take time to restore trust, not least because more than 70 million Americans cast their votes for Trump. This suggests that Trumpism will live on, even without Trump.
PS: In your book “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump,” you rated the 14 presidents since 1945 and gave Trump a formal grade of “incomplete.” What score would you give him now? What initial policies would put Biden on the path toward becoming a “top-quartile president”?
JN: The Washington Post’s fact-checkers claim that Trump has told over 20,000 lies in his single-term presidency. All politicians occasionally lie, but the frequency and magnitude of Trump’s lies – which include ongoing attempts to delegitimize the results of the 2020 election – debase the currency of trust that is essential in a democracy. In fact, among the 14 presidents I rated, Trump is the most amoral. So, with his presidency all but over, I will now change my grade of “incomplete” to “fail.” For Biden, charting a path to the top should begin with an emphasis on honesty and trust at home and abroad.
PS: “Obviously, great power competition remains a crucial aspect of foreign policy,” you noted recently, “but we must not let it obscure the growing transnational security threats that technology is putting on the agenda.” What are the pillars of an effective US cybersecurity agenda? Does the growing political and regulatory scrutiny of tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter – which, you pointed out, are not “instruments of American power” – portend progress on this front, or are policymakers focusing on the wrong issues?
JN: Earlier this year, the bipartisan Cyberspace Solarium Commission laid out a thoughtful agenda that included improved defense and deterrence at home, as well as an effort to negotiate international norms. Domestically, improved regulation, like that we are beginning to see in some areas, will be essential.
At the international level, the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace (of which I was a member) concluded in its report last year that a binding legal treaty would be premature. But we can establish norms of expected behavior – a flexible middle ground between rigid treaties and inaction. The commission’s report proposed a set of eight norms, which address gaps in previously declared principles and focus on technical issues that are fundamental to cyber stability. Such norms can be seen as common points of reference in evolving international discussions. But, even if they are broadly accepted, we will still have a long way to go.
PS: In August, you praised the late Brent Scowcroft – who served as national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush – as “the model for a modern public servant.” Trump ran through four national security advisers in as many years, and there was an exodus of civil servants during his tenure. How should Biden’s administration go about rebuilding the civil service and reinvigorating the idea of public service? Are there figures other than Scowcroft from whom he should be taking inspiration or listening to during this process?
JN: There remain many model public servants in both political parties. In the just-concluded election alone, workers carried out an honest count of a record number of votes during a pandemic, and various cyber-officials helped to prevent the feared external and internal hacking of ballots.
During Trump’s impeachment hearings, civil servants risked their careers to testify – a display of honesty and bravery that amounted to a civics lesson for the rest of us. And, as the US has grappled with COVID-19, government scientists like Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, spoke truth to power.
But nearly four years of Trump’s manipulation has done great damage, particularly to the diplomatic corps of the State Department. Biden will have to start there.
By the Way...
PS: What is the most important lesson Biden’s administration should take from the last four years?
JN: Democracy rests on moral values and norms as much as on votes. Biden must try to reinstall those guardrails. Likewise, foreign policy depends not just on our military and economic strength, but also on the soft power generated by our moral example – soft power that has been severely reduced over the last four years.
PS: Biden campaigned on the legacy of Barack Obama’s administration, in which he served as vice president. What aspects of that legacy should Biden uphold, and what mistakes should he make sure not to repeat?
JN: Biden won the popular vote by more than 4 million votes (and counting), and won the Electoral College by a significant margin. But the public remains divided by regions, and by rural-versus-urban cultural orientations. Identity politics complicates matters. Biden should follow in Obama’s footsteps on policies like improving health care and tackling climate change seriously, while also searching for ways to ease polarization and build consensus. It will not be easy.
PS: Before the election, you tweeted, “Trump is trying to delegitimize votes counted after Nov 3. The press must resist the temptation for an early call.” To what extent do such challenges to what is possibly the most fundamental democratic process – free and fair elections – affect the country’s soft power? What do the election’s results – in which support for Trump came overwhelmingly from white voters – tell us about the evolution of the concept of America as “an idea, not an ethnicity”?
JN: While Trump is attempting to delegitimize the election results, and while minor discrepancies in counting may be found, the outcome is clear. And, in fact, the election is a testament to the functioning of American democratic processes, even in times of crisis.
The bad news is that the American public remains deeply polarized – a condition that makes governing much more difficult. But we have recovered from polarization in the past. The 1968 election was marred by riots, assassinations, the openly racist candidacy of George Wallace, and the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon. Reconnecting with the “idea” of America will be essential to ease polarization again.
PS: “In Do Morals Matter?,” you suggest ways to apply moral reasoning to foreign policy. Which leaders – in the US or elsewhere – have done so successfully? In the same vein, you’ve praised Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council official whose congressional testimony last year in the Ukraine scandal laid the groundwork for Trump’s impeachment. Yet, given that Vindman’s morality-driven behavior came at high personal cost, ending his military career, why should other officials follow his example?
JN: I am impressed that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some democracies have done better than many autocracies. Moreover, the most successful democratic leaders are not populists like Trump or Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, but pragmatic consensus-builders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who paid attention to facts and science.
As for officials like Vindman, it is true that they may pay a price for honesty, but they also earn honor, dignity and the ability to sleep with a clear conscience. That should be reason enough.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.” The Daily Star publishes this interview in collaboration with Project Syndicate.