Grading Biden’s Foreign Policy Team: Tony Blinken
Background: Blinken is a liberal interventionist with an emphatic idealism about the virtues of “American leadership.” His relationship to Biden goes back decades, and he is considered a favorite for national security adviser or secretary of state.
For our grading criteria, click here.
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Introducing the progressive realism report card
Remember last Saturday? When the networks declared Joe Biden the president-elect, and it was possible, for one bright shining moment, to imagine that Donald Trump would respond to news of his imminent departure from the White House by preparing to depart from the White House?
Now, a week later, there is so much worry about Trump refusing to leave that people are semi-seriously talking about how a skilled hostage negotiator would handle the situation. But here at the Nonzero Newsletter we’re choosing to optimistically assume a happy ending to this crisis and focus our worry elsewhere. Namely: on the question of whether, after Trump is finally extracted from the oval office, its new occupant will be much of an improvement over him in the foreign policy department.
Today we launch a series of evaluations of people who are in the running for major roles on Biden’s foreign policy team. We call these evaluations “progressive realism report cards”—which raises two questions:
1) Why progressive realism? For starters, because that is this newsletter’s unofficial foreign policy ideology. (I described its essence concisely in a 2016 piece in The Nation and, less concisely, in the 2006 New York Times essay in which I coined the term.) But also because progressive realism stands in such stark contrast to the ideology of “the Blob”—the bipartisan foreign policy establishment that has long managed to retain power in Washington notwithstanding its demonstrated tendency to screw up the world.
To put a finer point on it: I think that if progressive realist principles had guided America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been able to get the political traction he got in 2016 by promising to extricate American troops from the various messes we’ve gotten them into. Because, by and large, the messes wouldn’t exist.
2) Why report cards? Do I honestly think that the people we give low grades will be assigned commensurately low-status positions (or none at all) in the Biden administration? No, for two reasons: (1) the Washington establishment seems to work the other way around: the worse your record on foreign policy, and the more damage your ideas have wreaked on the world, the more influence over policy you are granted; (2) we’re just a little newsletter, not a big and influential platform.
However, if enough like-minded, public spirited readers share these report cards on Twitter or Facebook, maybe we’ll be able to punch above our weight! And maybe, eventually, thanks to efforts at this newsletter and like-minded renegade outlets, the foreign policy establishment will start to feel the heat. (A guy can dream…)
Below is our first report card. It’s for Tony Blinken, who is probably Biden’s closest foreign policy aide and will almost certainly wind up with great influence in the new administration. Immediately below the report card itself is the heart of the matter—our justification for each of the grades Blinken received. (If you want to read a subject-by-subject explanation of the grading criteria—which doubles as a short introduction to progressive realism—that’s here.) In the coming weeks we’ll issue report cards to other prospective Biden foreign policy advisers—some of whom, we’re happy to report, will get higher grades than Blinken.
Grading criteria for progressive realism report cards
(We’ve issued report cards to: Tony Blinken, William Burns, Michèle Flournoy, and Jake Sullivan.)
How to stay sane until the election’s over
My struggle to preserve some semblance of equanimity amid the most emotionally destabilizing presidential campaign of my life has led to extreme measures: I’ve been delving into the literature on both Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Turns out the two schools of thought have something in common: a therapeutic technique that the ancient Stoics called premeditatio malorum—which, loosely translated, means imagining bad things that might happen. Sounds like the kind of thing I’d be good at! Here’s how it works:
Suppose you’ve spent the last couple of months worrying that a presidential candidate you detest, though behind in the polls, might stage a comeback. Suppose you’ve already taken the obvious measures to insulate yourself from the vicissitudes of online engagement—like, say, reducing the number of times you check for updated poll results from 20 or so times a day to 18 or so times a day. And suppose you still haven’t found peace of mind. It’s time to harness the power of premeditatio malorum: you just imagine that it’s the morning of November 4 and the candidate whose victory you dread has won.
When cognitive behavioral therapists guide you through this exercise, they ask questions like “So, if the worst happens, how bad will that actually be?” or “Would what you’re worried about happening really be the end of the world?” If the therapy works as planned, you realize, on reflection, that the answers are “Less than catastrophic” and “No.” In my case, the answers, on reflection, were: “Really, really bad, like super-bad, like beyond catastrophic” and “Quite possibly, yes.”
So my premeditatio malorum was off to an inauspicious start. Though the technique is supposed to have an effect that Albert Ellis, one of cognitive behavioral therapy’s founding figures, called “de-catastrophizing,” it was instead having an effect that I call “scaring the shit out of me.”
Trump’s global war on TikTok
As you may have heard, President Trump is waging thermonuclear war against a smartphone app. Last week he declared, in an executive order, that the famously zany video app TikTok represents a national emergency and will be crippled by new legal restrictions come late September—unless, he has said, it’s sold to an American company by the Chinese company that owns it.
You may have also heard that Chinese political and corporate leaders aren’t happy about this. But you probably haven’t heard that lots and lots of regular Chinese people aren’t happy about it. This is something that, so far as I can tell, the American media isn’t reporting.
In fact, to confirm my suspicion about this grassroots blowback, I had to go beyond googling and email a Chinese-American friend who for years lived in China and now follows China closely as part of his job back here in the States. He emailed back, “There's certainly a lot of popular resentment at the Trump Administration for the TikTok ban.” Many Chinese people are “livid,” he continued, “that Trump has tried to kneecap the one Chinese app to finally break through globally.”
In other words: Trump’s latest move has strengthened nationalist sentiment in China. And you know who likes to keep nationalist sentiment strong in China? Xi Jinping, the country’s authoritarian leader, whose popularity is directly proportional to it.
Kind of ironic! After all, a professed purpose of Trump’s increasingly hostile stance toward China is to weaken its authoritarian leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a landmark speech delivered last month at the Richard Nixon library, said the U.S. must “engage and empower the Chinese people” to that end. (He “stopped shy of explicitly calling for regime change,” the Wall Street Journal noted.) Yet Trump, rather than engage the Chinese people, is alienating them—and in the process has empowered the regime.
George Floyd and American foreign policy
In early June, small groups of demonstrators gathered in Israel and the West Bank to protest the killing of two men. One was George Floyd and the other was Eyad al-Hallaq, an autistic Palestinian who on May 30, while making his daily trek to a school for people with special needs, was killed by Israeli police. Protesters held signs that said #BlackLivesMatter and signs that said #PalestinianLivesMatter.
Are these two cases really comparable? Does the moral logic behind America’s Black Lives Matter protests naturally extend to a country 5,000 miles away?
Yes is just the beginning of my answer. Comparing the cases of George Floyd and Eyad al-Hallaq can be the first step toward a broad re-examination of American foreign policy. The George Floyd moment is an excellent time to ask why, in various countries, the United States routinely contributes to the killing, brutalization, and oppression of so many people—and why pretty much all those people are people of color.
It’s easy to point to differences between the cases of Floyd and al-Hallaq. Al-Hallaq, like all Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, had faced discrimination of a more formal kind than Floyd faced. He didn’t, for example, get to vote in Israeli elections, even though the Israeli government controls the Palestinian territory on which he lived.
The incoherence of the anti-China left
Two people have recently made arguments for starting a new cold war with China—one of them a right-wing Trump supporter (Republican Senator Josh Hawley) and one of them a left-wing Trump opponent (journalist Matt Stoller). I’m not in the habit of complimenting Trump supporters, but I have to say that, of the two arguments, Hawley’s was more coherent. It was internally consistent in the sense that its logic meshed with Hawley’s Trumpist values.
Which was OK with me. I’m against a cold war with China, and I’m against Trumpism. Seeing the two fit naturally together somehow reaffirmed my faith in both positions.
I was also happy to see that Stoller’s argument wasn’t so coherent. Though I’m not a true leftist, I’m left of center, and I share many of the values that inspire people further to the left, including Stoller. I would have felt some cognitive dissonance if he had managed to reconcile a position on China that I disdain with political aspirations I respect.
Hawley’s argument came in a New York Times op-ed titled “Abolish the World Trade Organization,” and Stoller’s came in a conversation on the Glenn Greenwald podcast System Update. The two arguments have a lot in common.
For starters, both seem a bit overwrought. Hawley says that “Chinese imperialism” is “the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century.” Stoller says China’s goal is “to subvert the current international global order.” (Exploit? Yes. But subvert? Why would you subvert something you’re successfully exploiting?)
And both Hawley and Stoller want not just to “decouple” (as Stoller puts it) our economy from China’s but to bind our economy more tightly with the economies of kindred nations. Hawley says we should build a new trading network “in concert with other free nations,” and Stoller wants us to “move production to democracies” and “create some level of self-sufficiency among democracies.” Both men want to see global commerce divided along ideological lines, just like in the good old days that neither is old enough to remember.
One difference between the two is in exactly how cold they want their wars to be. Hawley seems happy with something close to a complete rupture of relations with China, but Stoller wants to stop short of that.
Globalization as a moral good
The source of globalization’s strength and of its weakness is its non-zero-sum nature.
Fans of globalization tend to emphasize one side of this non-zero-sumness: the “win-win” side. When I buy a smartphone, I’m helping to pay the wages of workers in various Asian countries, and those workers, in exchange, are building me an affordable smartphone. Win-win!
This win-win dynamic is real. (Which doesn’t mean that no Asian workers are in any sense exploited but does mean that global supply chains have tended to raise wages in low-wage countries and save money for American consumers.) And this dynamic is a basic source of globalization’s stubborn power—one of the main reasons globalization is hard to stop. But to appreciate why globalization isn’t impossible to stop—and why it’s in some ways fragile—you have to appreciate two other game-theoretical things:
1) The flip side of win-win is lose-lose. The typical non-zero-sum game isn’t a game that always comes out win-win. It’s a game that can come out win-win but may come out lose-lose. And globalization, as it proceeds, makes these lose-lose outcomes possible on a larger and larger scale.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example—as was the 2008 American financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In different senses, these three international contagions spread through an infrastructure that had been built so that people in distant regions could play win-win games.
To put it another way, the “interdependence” that globalization famously fosters boils down to a correlation of fortunes: good news for someone halfway around the world can be good news for me, but bad news for someone halfway around the world can be bad news for me. Win-win or lose-lose—but, either way, non-zero-sum.
It’s when the infrastructure of globalization starts carrying waves of bad news that globalization is most vulnerable to political backlash. And Covid-19 has brought two waves of very bad news—first the viral contagion itself and, second, a contagion of economic contraction.
What heightens the political vulnerability of globalization, especially at times like this, is the second game-theoretical thing:
2. Non-zero-sum games are often intertwined with zero-sum games. Because of globalization, some American workers—especially in the manufacturing sector—have been playing a zero-sum game with low-wage Asian workers. And a lot of those games have been won by Asian workers and lost by American workers. Of course, when these American workers put on their consumer hat and go buy a smartphone, they become winners. But if you lose your union job at GM and wind up doing nighttime custodial work in a Detroit office building, you don’t put your consumer hat on as often as you used to.
That Donald Trump got elected president is among the signs that America has failed these workers. There are various ways it could have served them better: provided support and retraining after they lost their jobs; struck bilateral trade deals that reduced the exposure of these workers to foreign competition; or (my personal favorite) tried to achieve that reduced exposure via multilateral trade rules that, among other things, elevate labor and environmental standards in low-wage countries.
Let’s kill the aiding-and-abetting meme once and for all!
This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers.
The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it:
Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president.
OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:
But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster.
I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.
Steve Bannon and the struggle for America’s post-pandemic soul
When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.”
But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion.
Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.
Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening.
Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”