U.S. influence and credibility on the world stage has been diminished under the Trump administration, Ben Rhodes told students and Pacific Council members at a recent discussion at Pomona College.
Rhodes served as deputy national security advisor and speechwriter in the Obama administration from 2009-2017. He is the author of the book The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. The discussion was moderated by Mietek Boduszyński, Pacific Council member and assistant professor of politics and international relations at Pomona College.
Rhodes said that while a number of incidents since the Cold War have chipped away at that influence and credibility, he sees this trend as less of a decline and more of a reallocation to other countries and regions around the world.
“The Iraq War made a lot of other countries, including many of our allies, feel like U.S. dominance in the world post-Cold War was dangerous,” Rhodes said. “That kicked off efforts to build different blocs of countries to check a totally unbound America. Then most countries saw the financial crisis as the United States’ fault, which was a further blow. Now, what worries other countries is not just that Trump is president, it’s that Americans elected Trump president, someone they see as totally unfit for the most powerful position in the history of the world, someone who could destroy the world a hundred times over. From their perspective, it’s like, ‘How could you all do something this crazy and irresponsible?’”
Rhodes is particularly worried that Trump administration officials are inexperienced and distrustful of traditional foreign policy experts. “We see the outcome every day,” he said.
He added that countries like Japan don’t have nuclear weapons because they trust the United States to be the ones with nuclear weapons. Now that calculus is changing for them as they look to China and others for international agreements and alliances.
“What worries me is that we don’t understand just how big of a hole we’re in,” he said. “It’s not going to change just by getting rid of Trump. We’re going to have to win back trust and credibility over a more extended period of time to push back against the more illiberal, authoritarian models that are being promoted by the Russians and the Chinese. I think we can do that, because no other country wants to play the role of trying to organize the world and solve all these problems. Particularly young people want there to be more equal opportunities around the world, but they need leadership from us and they’re not getting it.”
Rhodes is particularly worried that Trump administration officials are inexperienced and distrustful of traditional foreign policy experts. He described how Obama’s effort to reopen diplomatic ties with Cuba was successful because Rhodes had regional experts such as Ricardo Zuniga advising him through the process.
“It was that mix of someone who was empowered to change things and someone who really had that institutional knowledge,” Rhodes said. “What is so worrying about someone as green as Jared Kushner is that he’s in this relationship with [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman [MBS] alone. He’s out there without a net, without expertise. He’s going off on a yacht with MBS, he’s WhatsApping with the guy, and Jared has no Ricardo Zuniga, nobody who’s saying to him, ‘Here’s why MBS is actually getting into this fight with Qatar, here’s why MBS is putting people in prison in the Ritz Carlton, here’s why you shouldn’t tell MBS this secret, and here’s why you shouldn’t have this top secret security clearance because you might tell MBS this secret.’”
"The biggest cost of Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and others is that it diminishes our capacity to be a credible actor on the world stage over time. If you’re a foreign country, why would you ever make another deal with the United States again?"
Rhodes said the Trump administration is demonstrating what happens when people go into government to change things but who are scornful of expertise. “We see the outcome every day,” he said.
Rhodes’ best moments in government were some of the saddest and most difficult things to write about in his book. As he was writing about the success of the Cuba opening and achieving the Iran deal, Trump was trying to undo those efforts.
“It made me realize the extent to which presidential legacies are not settled things,” he said. “They’re not even settled by Trump, because the next Democratic president will likely put the United States back in the Paris Agreement and reopen to Cuba. But the biggest cost of Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and others is that it diminishes our capacity to be a credible actor on the world stage over time. If you’re a foreign country, why would you ever make another deal with the United States again? Even if the next Democratic president puts us back in those deals, other countries are not going to sit down at the table with us again because they’re going to think, ‘What happens if another Trump gets elected?’”
The other side of that coin, Rhodes said, is that authoritarian regimes have increasing influence on the United States.
"You can’t overstate the influence the Emiratis and Saudis have over U.S. foreign policy. If a think tank is taking millions of dollars from a Gulf government, and you think that’s not going to impact the views expressed by that think tank, you’re not living in the real world."
“You can’t overstate the influence the Emiratis and Saudis have over U.S. foreign policy,” said Rhodes. “They spend an enormous amount of money in the United States to wire the foreign policy establishment through lobbying and by bankrolling many of the think tanks that are creating the conventional wisdom of what we should be doing with our foreign policy. If a think tank is taking millions of dollars from a Gulf government, and you think that’s not going to impact the views expressed by that think tank, you’re not living in the real world.”
He also described how journalists and former government officials are offered lucrative seats on boards or speaking engagements in the Gulf, or get invited to lavish dinners in Washington.
“At the height of the 2013 Egyptian coup, we knew that the Emiratis and the Saudis were bankrolling that coup, that they were paying for the protests against the Morsi government,” said Rhodes. “They had this disinformation campaign attacking our ambassador, calling her a Muslim Brotherhood stooge. Meanwhile, this is getting no commentary in Washington, and if you want to know why, open up Politico Playbook and read, ‘Last night, Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador, hosted seven prominent media personalities and four congressmen at his home for a dinner cooked by Wolfgang Puck. Great night.’
Rhodes said the United States used to promote democracy around the world through its own example, but now the United States is “exporting authoritarianism through our own example."
“To me,” Rhodes continued, “there is a corruption in this [foreign policy] establishment, and it just so happens coincidentally that many of the positions taken by these establishment organs overlap with the foreign policy interests of the Emiratis and the Saudis, which tend toward confrontation with Iran and military engagement with their adversaries in the region. This has got to be part of the conversation.”
Rhodes argued that the United States used to promote democracy around the world through its own example, which is its most powerful tool. However, now the United States is “exporting authoritarianism through our own example. Trump acting in fundamentally undemocratic ways and violating democratic norms and attacking the free press in this country is a greenlight to every dictator around the world. There’s not a dictator around the world who hasn’t used the phrase ‘fake news’ in the last two years.”
He called for more investment in democracy in the United States, including making sure everyone can vote, celebrating a free press, and abiding by the rule of law.
On the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Rhodes said he was a big believer in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), despite its flaws.
"Yes, there are huge problems with globalization and free trade agreements, but I don’t think the answer to that is to just tear up the agreements and go home," he said. "The answer is to have better trade agreements. One simple reason why is, if you care about human rights, workers’ rights, and environmental protections, if we’re not doing something like TPP, the Chinese have a different model of trade that cares about none of those things and they will fill that vacuum and they are filling it right now."
He cited Vietnam as an example, a country that had to create workers' rights and civil society participation in order to join TPP, or they would lose market access benefits.
“TPP was this force for liberalization in a closed society," he said. "One Vietnamese official said to me, ‘We’ve hated the Chinese for a thousand years. We’re uncomfortable with the Chinese dominating us, but we know they’re going to be there. We don’t know if the United States is going to be there. Unless we have some agreement with you, then we’re going to have to make a deal with the Chinese.’ An official from another country said because of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, which is basically ‘you pay into the Chinese bank and they’ll decide how to spend the money,’ there are no more bids by companies from different countries for construction projects. Now it’s just the Chinese."
He added that trade agreements like the TPP are necessary because they give the United States the opportunity to promote its values abroad.
“Americans, particularly on the left, have to wrestle with this: if our answer to globalization is to pick up our tools and go home, then the rules are going to be written by much more illiberal societies than us," he said. "The answer therefore has to be more progressive trade agreements, because this is going to happen either with us or without us. Maybe TPP was an imperfect vehicle, but something like it is profoundly necessary.”
Rhodes said that Putin essentially has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to the United States, at least since he reassumed power in 2012.
“Putin clearly came back to power in 2012 determined to push back," Rhodes said. "He felt that the United States for 20 years had been pushing against Russia, pushing NATO and the EU on the former Soviet Union, and toppling Russian-backed dictators. In meetings with the Obama team, Putin was a master at finding a kernel of truth and then building a pyramid of lies around it. He was right that we had done a lot of these things, but then he would assign the worst motivation to everything we did and he was quite litigious in drawing us into debates. He was searching for justification for fundamentally amoral and self-interested ends.”
On soft power
When Obama visited Vietnam, the two countries signed several agreements, but Rhodes said every Vietnamese person he’s ever talked to about that trip only remembers that an American president sat in a noodle shop and ate the same thing that they eat.
“They felt seen. They felt validated, like an American president cared about them,” he said. “We don’t appreciate how important the appeal of that stuff is. Xi Jinping represents power and wealth, but he doesn’t represent that common humanity and that sense of respect for human dignity, that sense that ‘maybe I can make my community better’ or ‘maybe I should ask for a government that’s more responsive to my aspirations.’ So much of that comes from that type of diplomacy, or foreign exchange programs, or cultural relations. The face we put forward to the world matters a lot. Now we’re losing that.”
"Right now, Trump is doing everything he can to escalate and provoke the Iranians. It almost feels like they want the Iranians to offer them the pretext for a military conflict."
He told the story of when he was in Kenya recently and a diplomat told him that a lot of Kenyan students who traditionally studied in American universities saw Trump’s child separation policy and they thought that would happen to them. They didn’t know the difference between a Central American asylum seeker, they just thought, “America doesn’t welcome foreigners anymore.” Now those Kenyan students are going to study in China.
“You think that’s not going to have an impact? These are people who are going to end up running the government and businesses in Kenya,” said Rhodes. “If you want democracy to deepen in places like Kenya 20 years from now, you don’t want their best and brightest studying in a non-democratic country now. That’s what we’re giving away with this Stephen Miller brand of policy.”
Rhodes warned that the Trump administration seems intent on starting a military confrontation with Iran.
“Right now, Trump is doing everything he can to escalate and provoke the Iranians," he said. "It almost feels like they want the Iranians to offer them the pretext for a military conflict. That Trump wants them to start their nuclear program again and stop complying with the deal. War with Iran would be an absolute catastrophe.”
On the spread of rightwing populism around the world
Rhodes said the defining challenge of our time is confronting rightwing populism.
"There’s one narrative that the Putin-Trump-Netanyahu-Erdoğan-Duterte-Bolsonaro characters are telling," he said. "Then there’s the progressive, largely democratic story that not as many people are telling. We know where the authoritarian narrative goes, and not to be alarmist here, but there’s no circumstance in the history of the world in which that has not led to a big war. These are the stakes, and they could not be higher.
He added that he thinks the answer is for progressive activists in the United States to network with progressive activists in other parts of the world.
"The right is coordinated," he said. "They have common financing, political strategies, media platforms. No wonder they’re winning. People need to get organized across borders if they want to push back against this.”
Rhodes described Obama’s analysis of the situation in Syria in 2014 when he decided not to launch an attack after the Syrian government crossed his red line and used chemical weapons.
“Obama’s point was, ‘Let’s not kid ourselves that firing a few cruise missiles into Syria is going to cause Bashar al-Assad to stand down. This man is fighting to the death with the support of Russia and Iran,’" he said. "The debate was, do we think we should remove this person from power and essentially be a party to this conflict in Syria, or will that make things worse and get us into a war that the American people have no stomach for after Iraq and Afghanistan?"
"As horrific as the situation in Syria was, I couldn’t ignore the reality that with the best of intentions, military interventions can sometimes fail and make things worse."
Rhodes argued that even with the best of intentions, military interventions can sometimes fail and make things worse.
“We had no experience in the last 20 years of these military interventions working," he said. "I understand the moral argument of intervening because of what Assad is doing. But then we’d be in the middle of this conflict with Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, ISIS, and Assad. If we took out Assad, the people who took over Syria could have been Hezbollah or al Qaeda."
Rhodes summed up Obama's Syria calculation as this: "'I know, if I’m going to be intellectually and morally honest, that if we go in, the only way we have any shot in trying to land this situation in a better place, is if we’re going to be there for the rest of my presidency, in one way or another.’”
Rhodes said that he would have liked to see the United States end its troop presence in Afghanistan during the Obama administration.
"We were heading in that direction, and a number of things made it hard to get that done, including some political dysfunction in Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS," he said. "At the end of the day, if we have as our rationale that we’re not going to leave Afghanistan until the Taliban is completely militarily defeated, we’re going to be there for the rest of your life."
He said bringing the Afghanistan War to an acceptable conclusion will be very difficult, and that he's worried that the Trump administration is not up to the task.
“The future is going to have to be a withdrawal of U.S. troops combined with diplomacy and support for the Afghans that tries to broker something between Pakistan and the Taliban and the Afghan government," he said. "Incredibly complex diplomacy that I unfortunately don’t know that this administration is designed to do. You have to incentivize the actors in the region to accomplish what they want without resorting to violence.”
Justin Chapman is the Communications Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.