A UPenn conference shows where Democratic and GOP visions of global order could meet.
As the Kavanaugh drama forces Americans to ask how we act at home, Biden, Rice and McMaster debate at University of Pennsylvania over how America should act abroad.
This was a heavy-duty week for introspection about America's painful internal divisions.
The Kavanaugh hearing laid bare the ugly political partisanship that threatens the reputation of the U.S. Supreme Court.
And a high-powered colloquium at the University of Pennsylvania — featuring former Vice President Joe Biden, along with former National Security Advisers Susan Rice and H.R. McMaster — exposed the competing visions of the future global order pursued by the Obama and Trump White Houses.
Yet the intense discussions at Perry World House, UPenn's new foreign-policy center, laid bare something intriguing: that the supposed zero-sum war between America Firsters and so-called globalists is a vast exaggeration promoted by President Trump and alt-right ideologues. With a less divisive president, centrist Democrats and Republicans could find common ground on many key international issues, including the necessary role of alliances and multinational organizations.
The UPenn colloquium was a reminder of how desperately the country, and the Congress, needs a more civilized foreign-policy debate.
McMaster, who resigned as national security adviser in March, criticized the Obama administration's lead-from-behind foreign policy, especially in the Mideast and Afghanistan. He contended that Barack Obama had made "a conscious decision to disengage without consideration of the disadvantages."
The retired three-star general argued, correctly, that Obama's Mideast "passivity" helped foster the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He also noted that the Obama team incorrectly assumed Iran would moderate its aggressive behavior in the Mideast once it signed the 2015 nuclear deal – a deal from which Trump has now withdrawn.
Yet McMaster, who was regarded as a moderating influence on his boss, also said things that overlap with the positions of centrist Democrats. He emphasized the importance of America's NATO allies and our bonds with Japan and South Korea (allies Trump often treats cavalierly). As national security adviser, he worked to maintain tight security ties with those countries, even as Trump insulted their leaders.
Moreover, the former Trump adviser was blunt about the need for more pressure on the Russians, especially given their support of Iran in Syria. This in sharp contrast to Trump.
Most particularly, McMaster stressed the need for a more civilized discourse on foreign policy (he himself was the victim of a vicious alt-right social-media smear campaign during his time in the White House). Moreover, he admitted, "There is a point where GOP isolationism [of some] meets Democratic retrenchment."
That point is defined by the America First campaign.
For her part, Susan Rice stressed the danger of Trump's focus on bilateral deals to the exclusion of multilateral pacts and organizations (of course, she defended the Iran deal). But she also insisted on America's leadership role abroad.
There were clear lines of overlap between the ex-Obama adviser and McMaster: a stress on the value of security alliances; the need to forge a united front of allies to challenge China on trade (rather than launch a unilateral trade war); a tougher stance toward Vladimir Putin's aggressive behavior (even if Obama got the reset wrong).
Most important, Rice emphasized the need to "stop making ourselves vulnerable internally to our adversaries. The greatest threat to us is our internal divisions," she said, correctly. "This is what makes Russia's efforts to divide us effective." She also complained that the current denigration of facts by the right wing, along with the discomfort on campuses with arguments from all sides, "means we can't have rational debate." Too true.
Between the two security experts you could discern an outline of a future foreign-policy consensus between GOP and Democratic centrists: a continued active U.S. leadership role abroad; investing in alliances to counter a revanchist Russia and aggressive China; and strong policies to keep future terrorists down.
Last up was former Veep Joe Biden, who rightly proclaimed: "A vast majority of Americans are sick of rank partisanship." (Hats off to the bipartisan senatorial group that pressed Trump to accept a one-week delay on the confirmation vote for Judge Brett Kavanaugh to allow time for an FBI investigation.)
Biden related a story of a Singaporean leader who told him, "China is in America looking for the 'black box.' " When the vice president asked what that meant, the Singaporean replied, "America is the only country that can remake itself," meaning a country that can challenge orthodoxy, invite in new blood (immigrants), and overcome adversity. Other nations still envy that.
"America is an idea," Biden said. "It is contained in the Constitution, the one thing that unites Americans." In the ugly Trumpian era, political language has become debased, rule of law denigrated, and serious debate over foreign policy in Congress has become nearly obsolete.
As the symposium ended, a group of students rushed to the stage, and one handed Biden a pocket copy of the Constitution to autograph. Somehow, that youthful gesture gave me hope.