An Interview with the Honorable Derek Chollet

An Interview with the Honorable Derek Chollet

On October 3, 2018, the Honorable Derek Chollet spoke at a Fletcher School luncheon on the topic of “Foreign Policy in a Post-Trump Era.” This interview was conducted on November 14, 2018 by Elissa Miller, Editor-in-Chief, and Courtney Hulse, Managing Director for External Relations of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

FF: We wanted to start by asking you about your 2016 interview with The Forum, which was published in our 2017 Winter Edition. You talked about your preliminary expectations for the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. About two years later, what is your assessment now? What are your reflections two years later?

DC: In many ways what we’ve seen, which should not be a surprise, is a foreign policy still deeply divided internally between various impulses. We see a president who has followed through on what he talked about in the campaign—whether it was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the Iran nuclear deal. But there has been very little follow up on what would replace each of these. So, we’ve seen a president that is determined to disrupt but has not placed much emphasis beyond disruption. But at the same time, you’ve seen an administration, which in their formal documents such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, that has tried to reorient American foreign policy around great power competition, particularly regarding threats from Russia and China. So there still seems to be fundamental disconnects within this administration.

Two years ago, there was some belief that Trump was perhaps more of a pragmatist. Though he said a lot of outrageous things during his campaign, many held out hope that he would change once in office. I think there was some early optimism given some of his appointments to key foreign policy positions, but now most of those people have left the scene. It seems now that the Trump that people feared two years ago—the nationalist, ‘America First’ Trump—is the one we have. There is no illusion anymore that an axis of adults is going to contain him, or that he is somehow going to learn on the job. If anything, the presidency has only magnified who he already was.

FF: Following up on your comment regarding great power competition, the U.S. has established policy and history on how to posture and engage with Russia because we’ve been doing that for many years. But China and our relationship with Beijing has been changing. How do you view U.S. government engagement with China? Do you think it’s going in a productive direction, and if not, what should or could change?

DC: Over the last two years, we have witnessed a growing bipartisan consensus that aspired for greater cooperation with China, hoping that they would become a responsible stakeholder in the international system. I think that many of those hopes have been dashed. The most broadly accepted diagnosis is that China is a growing challenge and will be the greatest challenged to the U.S. globally in the next 50 years. There is wide agreement that previous policies [toward China] made by both Republicans and Democrats have not worked out the way people had hoped.

There are also some disputes about the return of geopolitics, especially in how the administration is going about handling the rise of China. From its handling of our allies and its vision for the Asia Pacific region, to its stepping away from efforts to address global issues like climate change—there has been a role reversal whereby China is touting itself as a global leader on climate change issues while the U.S. is stepping back. And then of course, the trade issue is a challenge that has been the focus of some attention. While there is broad agreement that the U needs to do something about China’s trade practices, there have also been some concerns that the administration is doing so in a counterproductive way. But if you look at what the administration is doing across the board on foreign policy, its approach to China is probably one that I expect the next president who follows Trump—whoever that may be, whenever that may be—will not pursue a big shift in policy. And clearly, as I said earlier, the strategic documents coming out of the administration (the NSS, NDS) have put the China threat front and center.

FF: In addition to China, the NSS and NDS also focus to a lesser degree on the return of great power competition with Russia. In your 2016 interview, you mentioned that it would be important to watch how the administration changed America’s approach to Russia. Since then we’ve seen Russia engage in a lot of disruptive activity. How do you think U.S. foreign policy towards Russia has changed, and are there implications for whoever succeeds President Trump?

DC: Once again, as with China, over the last two years we have seen a hardening of a bipartisan consensus among foreign policy experts on Russia that Moscow is a threat to U.S. interests, and that Putin is not only seeking to undermine the international system, but also our democracy. So the debate now tends to be more about what the U.S. should do about Russia’s actions rather than on Russia’s direction.

That said, this is probably the area with the most prominent divide within the U.S. government right now. In many ways, the U.S. has three different Russia policies. The first is reflected by senior officials of the Trump administration’s bureaucracy who would agree that Russia is a threat. They would be able to come up with an impressive list of sanctions and other efforts to isolate and punish Russia for its behavior around the world, including its efforts to undermine our political system.

The second view on Russia coming out of Capitol Hill from both Republicans and Democrats that have pushed the administration toward some of these tougher measures against Moscow. This is an even more hardline position than that of the administration.

And then the third policy of course comes from the president, who still seems to have a special place for Vladimir Putin in his soul. Whether it’s giving Russia the benefit of the doubt by denying interference in our election, or signaling some willingness to cut a deal with Putin—which was best displayed by the 2018 Helsinki summit and the press conference following it—President Trump has proved ready to overlook Russia’s behavior. I think President Trump is increasingly becoming an outlier on this issue within his own administration, but he’s the president so it’s difficult to isolate him and dismiss him as irrelevant here.

I think this disconnect will only increase now that the Democrats control the House and as they deepen their investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and Russia’s continuing efforts to undermine democracy. This disconnect will perpetuate over the next two years.

FF: What kinds of new opportunities or challenges do you think the new cohort in Congress, particularly in the House, presents, and how might we see that playing out both on the Russia investigations or other issues?

DC: You are going to have a Democratic majority in the House that will first and foremost project an agenda of an America in the world that will be very different to that coming out of the administration. Democrats in Congress will try, to the extent that they can, to influence foreign policy debate through the mechanisms of the legislative branch, whether that’s through hearings and agenda setting or the power of the purse.

The Democrats will not have a majority in the Senate, so there are limits to what they can do there in terms of oversight. However, I expect that in the House you will have a legislative agenda that will reflect a different set of policy objectives. Often oversight gets shorthanded as investigations—ask questions and try to understand the implications of what’s happening. It seems like every day there's something in the news that warrants a follow-up question at least. For example, right before the midterm election, there were news reports about how President Trump continues to use a personal cellphone that the Russians and Chinese listen into, and he has been told repeatedly not to use that cellphone for calls. I would expect the Democrats would want to ask the CIA and others about their understanding of what the Russians and the Chinese are listening to, how they might be using this information and what the administration knows about the penetration of these foreign actors into the president’s use of a cellphone.

The Democrats can also ask tough questions on the administration’s foreign policy priorities. For example, now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what is the president’s policy to address the enduring threat from Iran’s nuclear program? There are a host of issues that the Democrats in Congress will now look into. I also think it’s important to note that many people in this incoming freshmen class of Democrats have deep foreign policy experience who are extremely knowledgeable and experiences on these issues. Many have served as active duty members of the military, former CIA officials, or former senior administration officials. This is going to be a cohort in Congress that will be able to hit the ground running when it comes to foreign policy.

FF: With regards to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, do you think the reimposition of sanctions on Iran will have an impact or will the tendency to over-rely on sanctions backfire?

DC: I think sanctions have proven to be an effective tool. It doesn’t mean that they are always effective or that their intended purpose actually works. These sanctions will no doubt inflict pain on the Iranian economy and the Iranian people, but the bigger question is whether that pressure will translate into meaningful concessions by Iran and if Iran will address the behavior that the U.S. and others believe needs to stop. What worries me about the administration’s policy is that, while it has shown it can impose sanctions, there are still outstanding questions in terms of how effective the sanctions will be when you don’t have the world working with you. Will the U.S. be able to elicit as much pressure as it could if it had the world cooperating on the sanctions?

However, sanctions are not an end in themselves. There is also the question of whether sanctions are going to get the U.S. closer to achieving its stated policy goals on Iran. This remains to be seen. The previous round of sanctions that the Obama administration put into place was done in cooperation with the international community and represented the most stringent sanctions against Iran ever. In addition to a few other factors, this combined effort brought about the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear program and put in place a robust inspections regime to ensure that it complied with its commitments. The U.S. has pulled out of that agreement, but so far Iran is keeping to its commitments. The administration has articulated an ambitious set of goals in outlining its vision for Iran, but its policies essentially add up to regime change. I have my doubts about whether sanctions are going to lead to such an outcome, and it’s not clear to me how sanctions can be used as leverage to achieve the administration’s goals.

FF: Will the fact that the U.S. does not have the same kind of global cooperation today in terms of the reimposition of sanctions on Iran that it did when the JCPOA was signed in 2015 have a negative impact on our alliances?

DC: Absolutely, and it is already having a negative impact. Many European officials have expressed frustration with the fact that they agree with the U.S. on its concerns about Iran’s behavior. Their view is that the nuclear agreement was able to address one aspect of Iran’s concerning behavior—the nuclear problem. Therefore, they were prepared to work with the U.S. to take some steps in response to other aspects of Iran’s behavior such as its support for terrorism, its efforts to undermine stability in the region, and its development of missile programs. However, they are frustrated that the U.S., for purely ideological reasons, seems unwilling to work with them on these issues. This has been one of the key irritants in the Transatlantic relationship. It’s difficult to see how the U.S. is going to translate the pressure it’s trying to create into meaningful progress with Iran and how it’s going to avoid further divisions with its European partners.

FF: One of the challenges that we’ve seen across Europe and that we’re also dealing with here in the U.S. is the rise of populism. What do you think it will take to defeat the resurgence of populism, and where do you think anti-populists could be most successful in upcoming elections?

DC: I think it’s important to clarify that populism per se is not the problem, because of course dealing with those who have been left behind by the changes brought about by globalization is not a bad thing. Supporting workers and helping families to provide for themselves—such policies could be interpreted as populist. I think it’s the nationalist populism that has been the problem, both in the U.S. and Europe. The exploitation of what are legitimate concerns—whether it’s economic dislocation or a sense of lost identities—to create a politics of grievance, intolerance, and conspiracy is the problem. That is what we see coming from Donald Trump and from too many corners of Europe.

In some ways our elections here in the U.S. as well as recent elections in Greece, Germany, and France are showing reasons to be optimistic that politicians and leaders are ready to step up and address legitimate issues about the pressures in our societies whilst rejecting deeply corrosive nationalist politics. It’s true that there is an uncomfortably large segment of Western societies that are susceptible to lowest common denominator politics. But I am also sensing a resurgence of a different kind of politics and in many ways, and I think the next two years will be a test of that.

Here in the U.S., I expect Donald Trump will not moderate or stop his political rhetoric. The Trump that we have seen in the rallies is the same Trump we will see more of in the coming two years, particularly as he feels embattled by a more vibrant domestic opposition. This will be a big test. We will see similar resurgences in Germany during the leadership race to replace Merkel. We will see it in France too, and in the UK as they grapple with Brexit and its aftermath.

This will be a clash of two different ways of looking at the world. I think there is an emergence of politicians who can appeal to legitimate concerns about healthcare, the economy, jobs, wages, infrastructure and other things that could be seen as populist, but these politicians will address such challenges from a very different perspective. Rather than dividing us and placing blame, or accepting and promoting intolerance, we’re going to witness a resurgence of that more positive approach to populism.

FF: On North Korea in the wake of the 2018 Singapore Summit, we appear to be seeing a fundamental difference in the way the U.S. and President Trump versus Pyongyang understand what happened in Singapore. Is there a way to bridge those two very different viewpoints in terms of the eventual de-nuclearization of North Korea? How can this foreign policy problem be addressed and overcome?

DC: Anyone who followed the summit in Singapore and understood that North Korea had not agreed to anything new is not surprised by the situation we’re currently witnessing. The administration has been trying to give some substance to the spectacle we all saw last summer in Singapore. They have been failing at these efforts thus far. The fundamental divide between the U.S. and North Korea remains, despite President Trump’s inclination to spike the football and pretend that agreements at the summit changed everything. Every day brings in new pieces of evidence to show that that is not true.

There are well-meaning people in this administration who understand that the way we got here was unorthodox, and that President Trump has been very unwise to prematurely declare success on North Korea, but that nevertheless there is an opportunity here that’s worth testing. I also think from the perspective of many Americans, wondering whether diplomacy is going to succeed or fail is a better prospect than where we were a year ago when we wondered if we were on the brink of war with North Korea. But I think that this just points to the fact that the underlining challenges are still there. It’s hard to see at this point anything new that the North Koreans have agreed to.

What to watch going forward? We will see whether Trump continues to be willing to simply have more summits that lack any substance, or whether he becomes convinced that North Korea is acting in bad faith and therefore the U.S. should ratchet up the military pressure. I think this is something we will have to watch over the next two years.

Image: President Trump's Trip to Germany and the G20 Summit  

Courtesy of The White House / Flickr


Derek Chollet is Executive Vice President for security and defense policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, and author of the book, The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World (Public Affairs, June 2016). 

He is a regular contributor to Defense One, and is also an advisor to Beacon Global Strategies and an Adjunct Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

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