William Kristol: On Foreign Affairs, Biden is Better than Obama and Trump 

It’s such a cliche that Americans don’t know anything about the world and don’t care about the world. A very high number of Americans have fought in wars and served abroad in the last several decades. They have dealt with people from very different cultures. It’s a mistake to think that Americans are just in their own little bubble—says William Kristol in an interview with Tomas Klvana

Tomas Klvana: If you were to give Joe Biden a letter grade for foreign policy, what would it be? 

William Kristol: Maybe B plus for effort, but B minus for execution. He’s mostly going in the right direction of liberal internationalism but doesn’t always back that up with competent action. His response to Putin in the last few weeks on Ukraine seems good. There is muscle behind some of the talk. On China, he’s tougher than any previous Democratic administration, trying to figure out in a sensible way what it means to be tough on China. Taiwan is complicated. Overall, I’m well-disposed to his policies. My biggest criticism would be Afghanistan. It was an unnecessary mistake. There was no real pressure to get out, they could have increased the presence by 2,000 troops and held the line there for at least a while. And even I underestimated how much damage was done around the world in terms of perception of our determination to stand by our allies. I did not like his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the mistake. It just seemed silly.

The world remains very dangerous, Putin and Xi Jinping are on their upward trajectory regarding their own exercise of power, unchallenged by us for a decade. Because of that, you need a better execution of your foreign policy. I’m a little worried about that.

That incompetence on Afghanistan is surprising, isn’t it, in a guy like Biden. How do you explain it?

Incompetence is putting it a little harsh. Let’s say a lack of full confidence. He is obviously very experienced, but he was a senator. For decades he was running a staff of let’s say twenty people. Okay, perhaps more when he was a chairman of a committee. Yes, he was Vice President, but even as Vice President you’re sort of an observer of everything. It is a very different thing to be in the chief executive role. No one really is prepared for the presidency in terms of experience. The American presidency is more a matter of disposition.

I like and respect his national security team, but I was struck by someone’s recent observation that Biden’s White House staff is the best Senate staff in Washington. It was a shrewd observation. You look at them and do not see a George Shultz or Jim Baker, or Harold Brown, or some Clinton people, or even with Obama to some degree, someone like Ashton Carter. People who really have been in government and had executed at senior levels. Of course, they have lots of problems to deal with like the pandemic, or the Republicans blocking some of their confirmations. They are in a difficult spot. 

There are fears here in Europe that regardless of who is in the White House the United States is getting more isolationist. This trend, many people believe, started with Obama, then continued with Trump, and now influences Biden. Do you think that there is reality behind those fears?

Yes. Unfortunately, we’ve had two administrations, so 12 years of American presidents who in very different ways signaled that they weren’t comfortable with a muscular American role in upholding the liberal world order. Obama and Trump each had their own ways of explaining that we will be fine without doing what we had to do for the last 60-70 years. I think they were wrong, each in different ways. Biden, I think, is better than either. You don’t see with Biden the self-deception of Obama’s Cairo speech, for example, Biden is not saying anything like that. He’s a hard-headed liberal internationalist much more like Clinton was. Remember, Biden did support the Balkan interventions in the 1990s. 

Afghanistan was a mistake. Biden to some extent did buy into the argument about ‘endless wars’. The question now, however, is whether this Obama-Trump interlude was an interruption, a parenthesis in American leadership, or whether it really is an inflection point, and obviously we don’t know yet.

But let me say this—I’m not worried that the American public believes we have to pull troops out of Korea, or that we are too committed to NATO. Nobody except for Trump said that, in either party. And whatever you think of Republicans in Congress, and I don’t have a very high opinion of them, they’re not traditional isolationists. If anything, they want to push Biden to be harder on Russia, except for the pro-Putin element in the conservative movement. 

The good news is the American public remains, as it often has for 70 years, a little bit ambivalent and uncertain, but a strong presidential leadership can push them in the right direction. I don’t think Americans are sitting around, saying we have to cut the defense budget. If anything, they are maybe in the other direction, that we should increase the defense budget and be tough on China. The opinion polls show surprising support even for defending Taiwan, which is a long way away and a difficult thing to do, but it’s not getting much opposition. Public opinion isn’t very well formed on foreign policy, but it’s not pushing aggressively in the wrong direction. The trouble is if you don’t have strong presidential leadership explaining the challenges and painting a realistic picture where things are going to go, then public opinion just remains amorphous. I wish we had better leadership of the kind of Dean Acheson or George Marshall. 

How do you assess Biden’s deal with Australia and the UK on China in the Pacific?

I think that’s interesting, pretty striking. If you had said a few years ago that this would happen, people would have said—no way! Well, we have needlessly antagonized the French, that is true, we didn’t handle it perfectly, but I think it’s a good indication that on China the mood has changed so much here in the USA. A decade ago, there was this China mystique. I was very much in the minority, being skeptical about liberalization in China. The China mystique, the China myth is gone. Whether it’s replaced by truly intelligent hard-headed policies is another question and the moment a Chinese leader again starts wooing the business community in a smart way might change things again, but as of now it is clear Xi is pushing in an authoritarian direction, has no domestic opposition, he’s in control and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. There will be more crackdown on human rights. I don’t think it’s just a temporary hiccup. In the USA we have become much more realistic about China. There’s a kind of realism that there wasn’t 10 years ago. Whether that translates it into the right policies is another question.

Biden is a hard-headed liberal internationalist, much like Clinton was.

Biden criticized Trump for his China policy, but not for the direction. He lambasted him for not trying to unify Europeans behind his policy. But now do you think he himself has given up on France and Germany, and he’s going to be playing it just with the UK and Australia?

I don’t think so because I think he was very upset about the mishandling by his own people of the France relationship, and so that tells me you wouldn’t be upset if you didn’t think you wanted other NATO allies on board. 

How is he doing on Russia? He has completed his video conference with Putin and is briefing the NATO heads of states on Ukraine. Are you satisfied with his policy? 

People tell me his call with Putin was quite stern, quite stiff. He consulted allies before and after the call. It was good. We do not know whether it will work. Look, at the end of the day if Putin decided that this is the moment… He has written his article about how Russia and Ukraine are one nation. He might be just bluffing, doing nothing, and trying to cause trouble, but that article might be showing us that he sees this as a moment of opportunity.

It is a dangerous moment. Like 1948 in Berlin, or 1950 in Korea when we acted decisively. And regardless of the good moves by Biden, I’m worried that the signals from the USA have been mixed recently. After Obama and Trump and a mixed verdict on the first year of Biden, Putin or Xi might think, okay, Biden talks a little tougher than Obama, and he’s a little nicer to the allies than Trump, but at the end of the day the USA will do nothing on Ukraine and Taiwan. 

On top of that, part of the Republican Party is supporting Putin and that probably encourages Putin: when he turns on Fox News, he sees people apologizing for him, just like in the old days, 60 years ago when the Soviets were encouraged by Communists and fellow travelers in the West. 

The amazing thing is that it was the left, and now it is the right. 

Yes, quite amazing. But then, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was part of the right in the USA being sympathetic to fascists and the Nazis. 

Retrospectively, how important was Donald Trump’s Russia connection? He was rhetorically good for Putin, but substantively less so. The investigation of Trump’s Russia ties did not yield great results. 

The rhetoric matters. Trump’s support for Putin in Helsinki and elsewhere mattered a lot. His own administration was much more mixed in the actual policy. But he himself tried to stop us from helping Ukraine and ended up impeached for that, but then didn’t get convicted. The damage is more like with the fellow travelers in the past, more than rhetorical. It is the weakening of one of our two parties, opening the door to a Christian conservative nationalism that is pro Putin, here as in Europe, and that causes real damage to our own politics. 

Is foreign policy going to be a topic in the 2022 midterm elections?

Foreign policy is rarely important in midterms because people correctly think that Congress is less important than the presidency for foreign policy. But I’d say it’s important always as a kind of backdrop to the overall judgment of the public as to the competence of a leader, and whether the party in power is competent. I always thought the electoral role of foreign affairs was underrated. Back in the Clinton years, his first years with failed interventions in Somalia and Haiti and inaction in the Balkans, damaged his credibility especially compared to Reagan and Bush. Then, in 1995, he corrected course, and we got the NATO intervention in Bosnia and NATO expansion, as Clinton learned. 

It’s such a cliché in Europe that Americans do not know anything about the world and do not care. 

Foreign policy matters as a backdrop and at this point it’s mildly hurting the Democrats. They miscalculated, thinking nobody cares about Afghanistan. It is true that we have a fully professional volunteer army, but over years, hundreds of thousands of Americans served in Afghanistan and Iraq. NGOs were involved there, and these are large organizations. These people have relatives, so millions of Americans have been touched by the wars. It is not like we have some small expeditionary force that no one knows anything about, like the French Foreign Legion. And of course, Iraq was even bigger. The notion that we just left and didn’t do it in a competent way and left behind a lot of allies who are in trouble and we’re still trying to get them out, and that’s not being done with great apparent competence or forcefulness, all of that influences people’s judgement about the competence of this government. Biden wanted to focus on the pandemic, inflation, China and thought nobody cared about Afghanistan. It was a miscalculation, and it will hurt Democrats in 2022 indirectly. 

One more point on Afghanistan which I think is interesting from the European point of view. It’s such a cliche that Americans don’t know anything about the world and don’t care about the world, that there are two large oceans around it and we have our own history of being far away.

But think about this. A very high number of Americans have fought in wars and served abroad in the last several decades. They dealt with people from very different cultures as allies, NGO workers and then of course the military—more than most countries in the world. It’s a mistake to think that Americans are just in our own little bubble. It may be true that half of Americans have never traveled abroad. But America is full of families where the 60-year-old parents might have never been abroad, live somewhere in the Midwest, but their son or daughter served in the military or work for business somewhere abroad. 

People do have a sense that the world matters. I don’t think in that respect you could have the isolationists that we had in the 1930s. And it’s not just the upper middle class global elites in New York and Washington and Boston and San Francisco, but a lot of people in Kansas or Texas have some connections to abroad. And of course, many also have their own ethnic connections. There is still the sense here that what happens abroad matters in terms of democracy, trade … yes, the US economy is not as export dependent as the Czech Republic’s, or as most European nations, but people understand why we have international supply chain issues right now. I just went into a local restaurant and the owner complained that he did not have takeout containers that he normally got from somewhere abroad. More and more Americans, than you would think, understand that this kind of international global integration is here and that we can’t just walk away from it. 

Do you expect Biden to run for reelection in 2024?

I’m doubtful about that. 

Finally, one domestic question. What will happen to Never-Trump Republicans like you? Will you end up being incorporated into the Democratic Party? Will you establish a third party?

I don’t know. I think it’s wise to be uncertain about these things. If we had a parliamentary system, I think we’d all be working on a third party. A Macron-type centrist independent party. More likely we will continue our alliance with moderate Democrats, trying to strengthen the moderate Democrats because we are quite close to the Biden people. There are several moderate Democrats in Congress, younger people who are very sensible. Some are military veterans, some intelligence veterans… We have small differences, but really those are differences between kind of Truman Democrats or Clinton Democrats and McCain Republicans. They’re not major differences. A lot depends on the balance of power in the Democratic Party and who will be nominated as the next presidential candidate after Biden. 

 

William Kristol

is the founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a news network launched in 2018 dedicated to providing political analysis and reporting free from the constraints of partisan loyalties or tribal prejudices. Kristol has been a leading participant in American political debates and a widely respected analyst of American political developments for three decades. Having served in senior positions in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations, Kristol understands government from the inside; as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University, he has studied American politics and society from the outside. After serving in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, Kristol founded The Weekly Standard in 1995 and edited the influential magazine for over two decades. Now, as founding director of Defending Democracy Together, an organization dedicated to defending America’s liberal democratic norms, principles, and institutions, Kristol is in the midst of the national debate on issues ranging from American foreign policy to the future of the Republican Party and the meaning of American conservatism.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is visiting professor at New York University Prague. He served as spokesman and policy adviser for the President of the Czech Republic and Special Czech Government Envoy for Communications of the Missile Defense Program. He was a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In 2012, he received the Distinguished Leadership Award For Internationals from University of Minnesota. His latest book is Perhaps Even the Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, 2017).

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