Students for Biden host expert foreign policy roundtable

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 11:43pm

.

Courtesy of Calder Lewis

University of Michigan Students for Biden held a virtual roundtable where over 25 people discussed foreign policy under a potential Biden administration Wednesday night. Co-hosted with D.C., Maryland and Virginia Students for Biden, the event featured Ambassador Dennis Ross, Georgetown professor Andrew Bennett and Middle East Institute scholar Alia Awadallah as panelists.

After brief introductions, the panelists fielded foreign policy questions from the student groups. Most of the discussion revolved around Middle East policy, covering topics such as Iran, the Israeli-Palestine conflict and Saudi Arabia. 

Ross, who has served in two Democratic and two Republican administrations, began by highlighting the differences between former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump’s foreign policy dispositions. He said while Obama was an “internationalist” who understood the United States had a responsibility to shape responses to global challenges, Trump is more of a “unilateralist” who doesn’t believe in American leadership.

“His organizing concept … is national sovereignty,” Ross said. “If every country focuses only on what’s in their national interest, somehow everything will be fine. He believes in transactions. He doesn't believe in alliances.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare Trump’s abdication of world leadership, Ross said, in stark contrast to Clinton, Obama and the two Bush administrations he worked in.

“Any one of those four presidents would have immediately mobilized an international coalition and an international response,” Ross said. “It would have made it difficult for others not not to be responsive.”

LSA sophomore Andrew Schaeffler told The Daily he saw a potential Biden administration as building on Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments, like the Paris Climate Accords, and facing new challenges. 

“While Biden still may have and has plans to reimplement some of the foreign policy measures from Obama’s term, he’s made it very clear that we’re going to need to do many things differently,” Schaeffler said. “To use his words in his rebuilding plans, we’re gonna need to build back better.” 

Awadallah said Biden supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. However, she does not see the two-state solution coming to fruition even if a Biden administration were in power. 

“They oppose unilateral action, including pursuit of aid conditionality or actions within the (United Nations) proposing recognition,” Awadallah said. “Unfortunately for a Biden administration, I think those things will continue to happen.”

On the question of Iran’s future, Awadallah speculated a growing American sentiment against Middle East involvement could come with tradeoffs, including growing Iranian power as the United States invests more in other regions.

“By accepting that priority, you have to admit that Iran will have a little bit more of a role than we were comfortable with a few years ago,” Awadallah said. “We won’t be willing to put in the political resources or the military resources to constrain them or contain them in a way that we might have wanted to do a few years ago because that requires a lot of money and diplomacy and investment.” 

Bennett said it will be difficult for foreign policy to enter the national conversation in an election cycle destined to be dominated by COVID-19 and its economic fallout. The current moment reminds him of the end of the Cold War, when he said the United States let its guard down on developing countries and the Middle East.

“We dropped Afghanistan during that time period like a hot rock, and it fell into chaos,” Bennett said. “We armed the Mujahideen to kick out the Soviets, and that led to that result. But then we let chaos ensue. That created a home base for al-Qaida, and that came back to cost us dearly in the end.”

To frame foreign policy in the mindset of the average voter, Bennett emphasized that as long as COVID-19 reservoirs like those in the Middle East where per-capita rates remain high exist, the United States is at risk. He said the pandemic has proven the Trump administration’s attempts to escape globalization through unilateralism are a “dead end.”

“It’s not possible, whether it’s COVID, or international terrorism or the world economy, (because) things are interconnected,” Bennett said. “They may be a little less interconnected than they were a year ago, but they're still pretty darn interconnected.”

Awadallah said the decreased focus on Middle East policy compared to past election cycles may actually be good for a region often discussed with fraught disagreement domestically. 

“I think we’re at the point where we actually need policymakers who care about the Middle East,” Awadallah said. “We’re invested in these issues (and willing) to do the work more behind the scenes than they have in the last two decades to fix a lot of these hard challenges without fighting out a political battle on each one of them among the American public.”

Schaeffler said he considers himself in line with average Americans who don’t see foreign policy as their top issue. 

“As all three panelists said, coronavirus, the economy, jobs — those are the things that are going to be all the more pressing for this next administration, or the Trump administration, than in really any other time,” Schaeffler said. 

However, Biden’s vast experience on the world stage as former vice president is one of the qualities that drew Schaeffler to his campaign in the first place.

“Joe Biden has a relationship and has a history with a lot of these (policies) and pretty much every foreign leader,” Schaeffler said. “Obviously, we’re gonna have many, many issues on the domestic front, but when it comes to this foreign policy, it’s important to have a president that stands up for American interests and a president who puts those on the world stage.”

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.