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What’s the outlook for U.S. foreign policy as a tumultuous decade ends?

The past ten years have seen both transformation and inertia in global politics. In many countries, as heads of government have changed, authoritarian leadership has not. Nick Schifrin sits down with the Hudson Institute’s Rebeccah Heinrichs, the American Enterprise Institute’s Kori Schake and Michele Flournoy of WestExec Advisors to discuss why the decade is concluding with a year of protest.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    In foreign policy, the past 10 years have seen both transformation and inertia.

    In many countries, the leaders have changed, but an authoritarian style of leadership hasn't.

    New powers are emerging, but are as opaque as ever. And evolving domestic politics could lead to new relationships between the United States and its allies.

    "NewsHour"'s chief foreign affairs correspondent, Nick Schifrin, discusses this decade of discontent with three people who have shaped U.S. foreign policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we close the 2010s, we look back at this year and this decade in foreign affairs and global security.

    We will tackle a few main topics with an all-star cast, Michele Flournoy, deputy secretary of defense under President Obama and co-founder and managing partner of WestExec Advisors, a national security advisory firm, Rebeccah Heinrichs, a former congressional security aide, now senior fellow at The Hudson Institute, and, from London, Kori Schake, a National Security Council staff director under President George W. Bush and soon to take over the Defense Policy Program at the American Enterprise Institute.

    And thank you very much, and welcome all to the "NewsHour."

    I want to set up our first topic with a small setup piece about the decade that began with the Arab Spring and that ends with worldwide protests.

    From the streets of Cairo..

  • Omar Suleiman (through translator):

    President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    … and the demise of a dictator, to Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, protesters across the Middle East began the decade standing up to U.S.-backed authoritarian leaders they considered corrupt.

    In Syria, young people called for a peaceful transition of power, but the country descended into chaos and a civil and proxy war. The Arab Spring's legacy is decidedly mixed.

    The decade is ending the way it began, across the world, protesters objecting to what they call corruption, inequality, authoritarianism. From Bolivia and Chile, to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, popular protests are shaking established political systems, each fueled by local issues, but united in frustration and fueled by optimism that a better life is within reach in this decade of discontent.

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, when you think back to the Arab Spring, when you think about the protests today, do you see stability replaced with chaos?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    I do see stability replaced with chaos.

    I think, rather than the optimism that we had at the beginning of the Arab Spring, it's been replaced with, I think, realism and perhaps mixed with pessimism that democracy can win the day simply by supporting the small groups of people who would rightly wish to overthrow an authoritarian, even if that authoritarian was more stable.

    So, now we had stable, authoritarian now replaced with chaos.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kori Schake, that idea that the stability that authoritarianism perhaps kept has been lost a little bit, when you see U.S. policy going forward, do you believe that it should be more based on principle than it has been?

  • Kori Schake:

    Absolutely it should be more based on principle.

    What people are protesting against in these societies is terrible governance. They want the rule of law. They want predictability. They want representative governance. And the United States should always be on the side of people demanding human dignity and individual rights.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michele Flournoy, is that realistic, that the U.S. can always be on that side?

  • Michele Flournoy:

    Well, I do think we have to stand for democracy and freedom, better rights for people. I mean, that is who we are. That's our history. Those are our values.

    But the challenge is how to do that effectively. I think the best programs are the ones that work long-term to invest in the foundations of civil society and sort of grow better governance over time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, is that realistic, long-term investment? Is the political appetite in the U.S. for a long-term investment in these countries?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    I think long-term is the only way it will work.

    I do not think that we have the political appetite right now in the United States, especially after we see what's happening in Afghanistan, that our efforts there to create a democracy have not been met with fruit there that we wish after 18 years.

    And so I think that this desire, which I think is good, for the United States, that we want to see other countries share the freedoms that we — that we have, that it almost cheapens democracy to think that we can simply, by helping or assisting in toppling these authoritarian governments, that democracy will simply rise and remain stable.

    That simply has not been proven out in reality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kori Schake, is that how you see it? And think about, for example, Saudi Arabia, an example where U.S. policy has been controversial, especially because of human rights violations.

  • Kori Schake:

    So, I see it slightly different than Rebeccah and Michele, in that I think the United States very often takes too much responsibility for other people's outcomes.

    And it's certainly true that programs that help build society and independent media and autonomous judiciaries, those are all good long-term programs. But it's not good enough to tell people, in the next generation, you will have a government that supports individual — individual rights.

    And it seems to me that the craftsmanship of governance is understanding when problems are ripe, that the amount of effort the United States is willing to put to create change matches the moment. It's our responsibility to judge when and how we can help people create positive change for themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the places around the world that people are creating their own opportunities certainly is Hong Kong. And we have seen major protests there.

    And so let's take a little look at a setup story about the state of China and U.S. affairs.

    In Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the people celebrate one man. After the removal of term limits, Xi Jinping can be president for life.

    Under Xi, China has dramatically modernized its military and created outposts in the South China Sea, ignoring international law and U.S. objections. China has also expanded its influence abroad with the most expensive infrastructure project in history and advanced technology.

  • President Donald Trump:

    My administration has taken the toughest ever action to confront China's trade abuses.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Trump administration has confronted China, both on trade and international influence, and has called China a revisionist power whose goal is to displace U.S. preeminence.

    Michele Flournoy, are the U.S. and China destined for conflict?

  • Michele Flournoy:

    I certainly hope not, because we're both nuclear powers.

    But we are certainly destined for a period of much greater competition, economically, technologically, for political influence around the world, and also potentially in the military sphere.

    The best thing we can do is actually invest in the drivers of our competitiveness here at home, whether it's science and technology, research and development, higher education, 21st century infrastructure. Why in the world do we not have a U.S. 5G industry, for example?

    So, we are in for a longer competition. I — it would be a terrible failure of policy if that necessarily ends in conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kori Schake, part of confronting China has — is the United States working with allies. Do you believe President Trump is working with allies to confront China?

  • Kori Schake:

    No, I don't.

    In fact, I think he's squandering what is America's greatest strategic advantage in a competition with China, which is that we're historically pretty good at playing team sports.

    And China, because of its repression at home, its intimidation abroad, its refusal to play by the existing rules of the international order that have served the United States, other countries, including China, extraordinarily well, China's having a hard time getting anybody to support their view beyond Russia.

    And President Trump, because he seems unable to prioritize which arguments he wants to have, he's arguing with everybody all at once, instead of making a common front with other countries who are nervous about China's behavior and who want American cooperation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, has President Trump squandered an opportunity, as we just heard?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    I actually see it quite differently.

    I think this is where President Trump has the greatest strength in his administration, is that I really believe that, if it wasn't for this particular administration, the United States wouldn't be talking about great power competition with China in the way that we are, in the robust way that we are.

    You see — you see themes all the way from senior administration officials talking about how China is not good at reciprocity, it's opaque, you can't count on them. You have got businesses now taking a second guess, looking — taking a second look at maybe they don't want to invest so thoroughly in China.

    So I'm optimistic about what the United States is doing now to set us on a good track for the years to come.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S.' oldest allies are in Europe, and there are tensions between the United States and Europe and within Europe.

    So let's take a look at a quick setup piece about the state of Europe, NATO and the U.S.

    Beyond the traditional staged photos at the NATO leaders meeting, the transatlantic alliance is facing a crisis of identity and confidence. President Trump questions the alliance's foundation, emphasizing shared spending, not shared values.

    French President Emmanuel Macron says Trump has turned his back on NATO, and he recently called NATO brain-dead, in an attempt to shake up its strategic assumptions.

    And Europe is facing its own shakeup.


  • Nick Schifrin:

    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson just won a big political mandate based on his pledge to, in his words, get Brexit done.

    Rebeccah Heinrichs, should the U.S. have a tough conversation with Western Europe right now?

  • Rebeccah Heinrichs:

    I think that's exactly what we're in the middle of.

    I think, you know, all of the things that make so many people, I think, rightfully uncomfortable about President Trump, about his abrasive approach and the way he talks to people, many of these things that President Trump has brought up and raised are true, in fact.

    And, as a result, we do see NATO spending more on defense, committing more on collective security. And then some of these other problems that he's raised, although they're not fixed, it's good that we're now addressing these head on.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kori Schake, NATO in a better place after President Trump's term or terms are done?

  • Kori Schake:

    No, I don't think so.

    NATO has underlying problems that the president has splashed a whole lot of attention to. But I think the question for the administration is whether the president's engagement with Europeans is going to solve those problems. And it doesn't look to me like it is. It doesn't look to me like it's producing greater European commitment.

    It does look to me like it is scaring Europeans and encouraging our adversaries to question the Article 5 guarantee that NATO allies make to each other, which is that an attack on one is an attack on all.

    So, the increased defense spending, including by the United States, doesn't compensate for the anxiety and the questioning of our fundamental commitment. And that really is the result of the president's policies.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michele Flournoy, last word.

    This story isn't only about the tensions within the transatlantic alliance, but also when it comes to Turkey, who's in NATO, obviously, but also President Putin, who's about to celebrate his 20th year in power.

  • Michele Flournoy:

    Yes, but the two are related.

    So I think the fact that we have our European allies questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO more fundamentally than they have since NATO's founding, that has created an opening. And it's to the delight of Vladimir Putin to be able to weaken NATO, to see dissension in NATO, and to start picking off allies like Turkey, say, hey, if you know you can't rely on the United States, you're not sure of the predictability of their policy, the reliability of their leadership, let me sell you some air defenses for you.

    Sounds like a great deal, but that's a wonderful way to get in there and start dividing the alliance.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michele Flournoy, Rebeccah Heinrichs, Kori Schake, thanks to you all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And what a decade it's been.

    Online, you can watch our in-depth series on protest movements that broke out across the globe this year, with a deeper look tonight at the unrest in Hong Kong.

    You can find that when you follow us on Instagram @NewsHour.

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