The Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted Michael E. O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, for a discussion Friday afternoon on President Trump’s foreign policy and the most critical international challenges facing the United States in the near future. The event was held as a conversation moderated by Politics Department Chair John Owen and was open to the public.
Both O’Hanlon and Owen are experienced figures in the realm of international relations, with years of academic and professional experience between the them. O’Hanlon, in addition to holding adjunct professorships at Columbia, Princeton, Syracuse and the University of Denver, also served on the external advisory board to the CIA between 2011 and 2012.
Owen, as well as teaching at the University, has authored multiple books on foreign policy and previously served as Editor-in-Chief of Security Studies, a major foreign affairs journal, from 2011 to 2014.
Miller Center Director Bill Antholis, who introduced the event and speakers, framed the talk as an important supplement to the concurrent G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in which the leaders of the world’s most industrialized nations meet annually to discuss various topics of global importance.
“Today, as we gather, the world’s leading twenty countries are meeting right now in Argentina with lots of big topics on the agenda, but if there was ever a board of directors for the world … that’s what it is and how it was meant to be,” Antholis said. “We are really lucky to have two people who, building off that conversation...can lead us through what’s going on in the world.”
While in his opening remarks O’Hanlon made no secret of his personal distaste for President Donald Trump, he did admit that the current administration, even at only two years in, has had some positive though limited effects on U.S. foreign policy post-2016, specifically in regards to the recent positive shift in relations with North Korea.
“I think North Korea is a good example of where the idiosyncrasies of President Trump have at least created an opportunity,” O’Hanlon said. “At the same time, we also see the potential absurdity of President Trump claiming that he's denuclearized North Korea when he's done no such thing. But meanwhile we have a potential for a diplomatic breakthrough that few of Trump's predecessors have ever managed to even get us to that close of a point … but I've become a little more hopeful that we may just find a way through these four years."
In continuing to address Owen’s earlier question about the U.S.’ current strained relationship with Russia, one of the U.S’ largest geostrategic foes, however, O’Hanlon was less optimistic. In addition to the ongoing sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014, American-Russian ties have long been damaged by the U.S.’ commitment to extending NATO membership to countries traditionally in Russia’s sphere of influence, including Ukraine and the Republic of Georgia.
“We're at a point now where we're still holding on to this notion that we should keep expanding NATO as far eastward as anybody who would want to join NATO would allow us to have,” O’Hanlon said. “I think of this first and foremost as … ‘where are we swearing our national prestige and promising the blood of our sons and daughters to go fight and die and how far away from our own country … and how close to Russian borders are we now getting?”
In terms of how the U.S. and the Trump administration could best resolve this consistent point of tension going forward, O’Hanlon argued that a new security structure for U.S allies in Europe — specifically one that does not involve expanding NATO eastward — is a necessity. The policy expert recently suggested the same to current Defense Secretary James Mattis, often seen as one of the more moderate influences in Trump’s cabinet.
“I'm not defending Donald Trump's view, but there's something about Trump's instinct on this that he realizes we really shouldn't be talking about ‘Cold War II’,” O’Hanlon said. “I'm in favor of putting some demands of Putin: he's got to solve the disputes with Ukraine and Georgia...he's got to let them join any political or economic association they would ever want to be included in … someday perhaps the European Union. But we agree not to keep extending NATO further to the east."
The conversation also touched on two other areas of renewed American interest. China and the Middle East, in which leaders, given recent events, have voiced significant anger and distrust toward the United States for actions undertaken by President Trump and his administration. For China specifically, the imposition of billions of dollars in trade sanctions and continued tensions in the South China Sea, pose pressing obstacles to U.S. foreign policy in the region.
“We need a new consensus [on China], and actually in some ways ironically, Trump may be leading us to a new consensus in his own inimitable way,” O’Hanlon said. “Again, I don't really admire President Trump's style...but there might be a certain caginess, even a certain wisdom on his part, in trying to make friends with [Chinese President] Xi at the same time that he's trashing China, because in a way he's introducing some ballast...there's just something about that relationship building that I applaud."
In regards to the greater Middle East, primarily the continued fight against ISIS in Syria and remote parts of Iraq, O’Hanlon emphasized the importance of staying the course in the sense of maintaining policies brought about under the Obama administration in 2014, including the use of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria and providing greater training and support to the Iraqi army.
“[B]y the end of the Obama presidency you had seen a lot of progress in Iraq, not as much yet in Syria...and so President Trump took this policy, he intensified it, he put some more Americans on the ground, he expanded the use of air power, and yes, he deserves credit as well,” O’Hanlon said. “Again, this is a policy where I think Obama and Trump are linked like brothers, as much as neither one would accept that.”
Following the conclusion of the discussion, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience. Regarding a question from an attendee regarding a recent New York Times article that detailed China’s status as a growing world power, O’Hanlon noted that in the future of the global contest between the U.S., Russia and China, he was more concerned in the near term about Russia.
“I worry about a huge nuclear armed state, with a sense of grandeur on the global political stage, a declining population, a self-awareness that its best days have come and gone, and a chip on its shoulder, and an explicit desire to weaken the existing international order,” O’Hanlon said. “I worry about that country more than I worry about the rising superpower with 1.4 billion people that probably wants the international order modified something more in keeping with its interests, but doesn't really want to overturn it because it's benefited so much from it.”