In February I interviewed Dr. Karen Greenberg, Director of The Center on National Security at Fordham University Law School. Dr. Greenberg has worked on the world stage dealing with issues of national and international security for many years. I was sure when I did this interview that much of it would stay relevant for months, but by Mid-March, the world had changed. Thus, I conducted a follow-up interview with Dr. Greenberg to get her thoughts on the future of national and international security, US foreign policy, and our place in the larger world in light of the recent pandemic that struck the world hard this spring and seems to be sticking around for the foreseeable future. What struck me was that while much of the world had changed, so much of what Dr. Greenberg originally said about foreign policy remains highly relevant. As many have noted, the Coronavirus hasn’t changed things; it’s only accelerated what was already happening.
In a world that is increasingly divided along party lines, it is still important to see just where the United States fits in our larger, international world. We’ve heard stories time and again of how our current president has put our national security at risk, like not using a secure phone to tweet until months into his presidency despite being warned time and again how risky this practice was, tweeting photos of classified briefs, and not to mention all of the times he’s simply ostracized himself at various events involving other world leaders. These issues are now on many people’s backburners as the US faces so many other concerns, like when and how to send children to school while the country has over 1,000 Covid-19 deaths a day. But these national security and foreign policy issues remain, and are of grave importance.
JS: Let’s jump right in. What are the biggest threats to national security?
KG: Our president. He’s operating in a way where he thinks he can make foreign policy. He violated the War Powers Act when he allowed the assassination of General Soleimani. He’s also broken a number of nuclear treaties. This administration has jeopardized our place in the international world. Diplomacy has taken a huge hit because of him. The state department doesn’t have 15-20 percent of our ambassadors that it usually has. With this administration, diplomacy is not an option; it’s Trump or nothing. We need a president who will honor the role of diplomacy. A president who understands that we belong to a community of nations. A president who will stand up for the rule of law. It is being compromised at home and abroad.
JS: How do you think Foreign policy has changed because of Coronavirus?
KG: A lot hasn’t changed, Trump is continuing to escalate tensions with China and Iran. Particularly Iran, as he also used this as an excuse to double down on his withdrawal from International institutions. For example: withdrawing from WHO, not to say it’s perfect, but that is a huge step and not a step toward International relations. He continues to provocatively mention Saudi Arabia and Russia as allies; when he spoke the other night in his new press conferences, he did just that. He’s used the virus not to reverse course but to stay on the same detrimental course.
JS: What do you think the differences were regarding national security between the eras of Bush, Obama and Trump?
KG: In some ways it hasn’t changed in the ways we hoped it would change under any of these guys. During 9-11 national security became our #1 priority, and it also became the #1 justification for things. In some ways things have changed—our military has responded to threats in different ways—but mostly we’ve stayed in this post-9-11 paradigm through three presidencies. We have been constantly reacting to “threats” and using 9-11 as the justification for all that we do abroad. Obama tried to change things, but Guantanamo is still open, and while policies here and there have changed, an ever-expanding justification to do what we want abroad under national security, and our fear of another 9-11, has been the case for all three presidents.
As far as the pandemic is concerned I think it’s fair to say that Republicans have a tendency to under-prepare while Democrats are seen as over-planners. During the pandemic we could have used some of Obama’s over-planning. While it is untrue that Trump completely gutted the Pandemic Response Team, he did come pretty close, and it has been true for a while that Republicans make messes and Democrats end up cleaning them up. Bill Clinton balanced the budget and Bush decimated that. Obama had to pick up the pieces from the economic fallout of the 2008 recession only to have Trump and the Republican led Senate attempt to steamroll Obama’s progress, while taking credit for it. We are seeing this again with all that’s going on with the Pandemic.
JS: What are your thoughts on America’s place in the world today?
Before we get into Dr. Greenberg’s thoughts post-pandemic, I’m providing her response to this question from our first interview because it remains so relevant.
KG: This is the week of the Munich Security Conference, which is a major conference on an international scale. Most governments have sent representatives. I believe Pompeo was there. They spoke of something there that they called the “Westlessness.” What they’re talking about there is the idea that the West is becoming much more divided and as such there is an absence of the West from international discussions. This is especially true of the United States, who has been increasingly absent in worldwide discussions. The US has pulled out of international treaties as we also move away from Europe.
We’ve lost leadership in the world. In part because of the torture, detention centers and immigration policies, there’s a lot of anger at the US. People around the world, especially in the international community, feel disappointment with us and what we’ve done and failed to do as well. We need to be more of a rule of law leader within the international community.
KG Post-pandemic response: We need to understand that the alliances Trump has made with Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union are undermining our roll in the larger international community. It is also true that by alienating Iran and going into trade wars with China during a pandemic, Trump is not making any friends for us on the international stage.
JS: Do you think a Democratic leader could help in any significant way? Or, in other words, is there a way to fix this?
KG: Of course there’s a way to fix this, to redirect a course so we’re not pushing away our traditional allies. We need to start working in tandem with international organizations, like the Paris Climate Accord, the Nuclear Treaty, a number of international accords that are out there right now. Yes, healthcare is a concern, and it’s pressing, because of all that’s happened with Coronavirus, but there are other fences we need to mend. It will take time; everyone is in a different place. There’s a lot of talent in the state department and other officials who are experts in their subject areas and also in diplomacy that Democrats can utilize. Right now, Trump doesn’t employ those people; Biden, or another Democrat will. He’ll start with health consequences and move forward. We need to get a handle on nuclear arms deals and security issues. The other issue is Climate; pulling out of Paris Climate Accords is something we need to re-examine. We need to rethink our domestic policies as well to enter into the world stage. The international dimension of that is extremely important. It’s impossible to exist in an isolated way when it comes to threats to our health, our planet and our security. The threats we face are global. You can’t put up a barrier to keep them out. The pandemic is a good metaphor for the interconnectivity of the largely world.
JS: What ways do you see racial tension helping or hurting our foreign policy right now?
KG: Finally a question with a more positive answer. This was starting to depress me. I think that it’s really interesting how the world has responded in sympathy to protests centered around the Black Lives Matter movement. I find that really interesting; it’s underscoring our own idea of America isolating itself. People in Europe and other parts of the world are protesting in sympathy with the Black Lives Matter movement. They want to see it succeed. They want to help. It’s been very inspiring. The Black Lives Matter movement is something the world cares about; it’s something that needs to be addressed globally as well as domestically. Every step forward matters. We’ve traditionally seen ourselves as beacons of justice and equality, but we haven’t always lived this way. We need to live up to that definition, and the world is there to help and lend support.
The world has changed since I first spoke with Dr. Greenberg in February. While foreign policy and national security issues are always changing, the past few months have moved particularly quickly. While some of the world has remained still the global stage has changed rapidly. Doctor Greenberg’s comments are enlightening, as they show just how far we appear to have fallen when it comes to national security and foreign policy. But she is not without hope.
Dr. Karen Greenberg is the director of Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, an educational think tank. She is a noted expert on America’s foreign and domestic policies, starting with her work on The Torture Papers (Cambridge University Press, 2005), for which she studied many of the post 9-11, Bush era policies that helped shape much of our current foreign and domestic policies. Dr. Greenberg visited Guantanamo personally, and when she returned she documented what she saw in her book, The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days (Oxford University Press, 2009). Her newest book, Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State (Crown, 2016), explores the War on Terror’s impact on justice and law in America. The Center for National Security distributes The Morning Brief, a daily newsletter that examines foreign policy issues. The Center also recently started an online publication, Vital Interest, which looks at issues facing national security today.
Jessica Stilling is the author of four novels. She writes literary fiction under the pen name Jessica Stilling and science fiction and fantasy under the pen name JM Stephen. Her work has appeared in many publications including Bust Magazine, Ms. Magazine, and The Writer. Visit her online at www.jessicastilling.com.