Will the U.S. Evolve its Foreign Policy from Past Mistakes?

Former U.S. Ambassador and American University in Cairo President Francis Ricciardone evaluates how the United States has dealt with global crises in the 21st century.

Andrew Kelly/Reuters

Broadcast on Election Day 2020, this is the third installment of a three-part podcast interview which discusses the arch and trajectory of American foreign policy in the past four years and takes a further step back to critique Washington’s actions on the global stage since 911.

For part one, click here; for part two, click here.

Cairo Review: How has the Trump administration been successful in the Middle East, and what things need to be improved if President Trump wins reelection?

Francis Ricciardone: Wherever there are crises and problems and challenges, there are also opportunities to flip side the coin. So this is a region that’s been rich in problems. Therefore, if you approach it in a certain way, you can say that it’s rich in opportunities: whether by solving those problems directly or from second-order benefits that may come from them.

You ask about the accomplishments. Almost certainly most Americans would say that the brokering of Israel, UAE, and Bahrain normalization would have to be one. I’ve never heard of anyone—certainly not former Vice-President Biden nor any of his senior advisors on foreign policy—openly coming out and criticizing that. In fact, I believe they welcomed it. And, Biden may have given some lukewarm endorsement of some type; so even critics of President Trump would probably credit him with that.

Drawing down American military presence in the region (whether it was done elegantly or inelegantly, whatever the negative consequences of that): drawing down the American military footprint in Iraq; staying out of military involvement in Syria; drawing down the military presence in Afghanistan; most Americans would see these examples as President Trump accomplishing what he promised to accomplish.

Indeed, many in the American military argued against resorting to the military to solve all problems, that diplomacy ought to be the first line of defense. So, I don’t think many would think that President Trump’s administration has done much to strengthen American diplomatic presence, capabilities, influence, but he has in his way accomplished these particular deals.

My supposition is if the Biden people come in, many of the Biden people are seasoned veterans of American diplomacy, who know about military deployment and how we’re involved in it, but whose instinct is not to resort anymore to deploying the U.S. military to do nation building, for example.

It’ll be very interesting to see, if former Vice-President Biden is elected, how he will go about these issues. There’s some big underlying ones that are transnational and that aren’t even defined in the same terms, like the “Arab–Israeli problem”. Nobody uses that [term] anymore. It’s the “Palestine–Israel problem”, and that’s been redefined.

But the big overarching [issue] that I haven’t seen either candidate talk about is the horrific problem of our times that will go on for another lifetime, at least, and that is the massive dislocation of people in this entire region, in the region of failed and failing states. Whether it is internally displaced people or those who have been displaced across borders, [these are] people so desperate that they take to the sea, and they have been doing so for years in storms and in miserable weather and in unsafe craft to escape where they are and try to save their lives and their futures.

I’ve seen this because I’ve served in the region.I’ve seen Afghans and how their lives were uprooted. I personally was involved in working with what turned out to be some seven thousand Iraqis who came into Turkey in the mid 1990s after that wave in the Gulf War. There are just millions of people. I forget the most recent United Nations (UN) figures, but around the world, there are something on the order of sixty million people displaced either across borders or within borders from their homes and likely unable to go back to their homes.

This includes Africa and other places [that have displacement] not only due to war, but due to drought and climate change. That is one of the defining global problems of our time, and it’s partly due to climate change, not something beyond immediate human intervention. It will be interesting to see if a Biden administration focuses on that as part of its diplomacy.

Other global issues come from the international spread of diseases such as COVID-19, AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Ebola. These things most scientists believe are only going to be more consequential, not less. These [diseases] will directly affect not only the prosperity of Americans, but also [the United States’] national security.

These are not germ weapons unleashed by a hostile power. These are germs that are unleashing themselves as a consequence of human action or inaction to confront them. My guess is that a Biden administration might well go about this in a different way and revive American participation in international coalitions against those things, bringing to bear American diplomacy; American science; and, once again, one might hope organizing people, trying to rally countries and global public opinion and global resources against these global threats.

CR: As a polyglot with deep connections in the Arab region, Turkey, Afghanistan, and the Pacific Rim, your views on the conflicts and movements toward peace involving the peoples of the Middle East, South, Central, and Southeast Asia have been influential in forging American foreign policy over the past twenty years. Looking back at U.S. foreign policy from a macro perspective, what has the United States gotten right since 9/11 and what has it gotten wrong? How can we fix what we got wrong and how can we continue to do what we got right?

AUC President Francis Ricciardone and Cairo Review Senior Editor Sean David Hobbs during interview.

FR: (Laughs) Well, that’s quite a pack of questions that could fill many volumes, so maybe I can try to focus into some of the things I think we’ve learned; there’s a consensus, a broad consensus, that I detect, whether in the foreign policy apparatus of Washington or the broader, thoughtful, engaged American public.

One thing that we got wrong (and maybe begun to correct) is the over-reliance on U.S. military power and deployments to solve problems that are not really amenable to military force. Sometimes military power is most influential and effective when it is not used; when it is merely available and ready to be deployed so that an adversary would be deterred from attacking us.

We’ve lost some of that deterrent power by having such massive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been unable to accomplish our stated objectives: objectives that have evolved during the course of those deployments as we’ve been successively unable to accomplish the original formulations of them.

There’s a bipartisan consensus on this. Both Republican and Democratic secretaries of defense, secretaries of state, and generals have made this point repeatedly. And I believe President Obama himself, from his later speeches and some of his policy actions had begun [drawing down]. And certainly President Trump has continued this sort of pulling back.

So, those are broad trends that are going on, and they come from the lesson painfully learned that, when we intervene in another part of the world, in a conflict that is going on, we should have very clearly articulated objectives and think through how best to pursue them, not get trapped by our rhetoric and the fervor of the moment.

There are very important human rights causes to advance in these countries, and surely we do want to promote democracy and human rights. That, too, has been a bipartisan theme in American foreign policy throughout my career and from my boyhood. I could point to speeches from the Eisenhower administration and President Eisenhower himself. We had got it right when we were inspiring the world to higher ideals, I think, of democracy and human rights by living them and by providing an example.

That’s one of the lessons we’ve all learned: live your ideals, live your values.

Securing our borders is important. But now we know it’s not only against physical crossing by humans or contraband, but we also have to secure our borders against cybersecurity and viruses. What are cryptocurrencies all about, and how do we deal with them?

So, we’ve learned that we have to focus on these things and get them right. Those are also the things we’ve largely got wrong. There have been unintended consequences of military deployments; of hollowing out our diplomatic capabilities and the tools of diplomacy, which include people who are well trained and ready to deploy. People who have studied foreign cultures and languages and who over time develop personal relationships with people who are junior in their countries and rise to leadership positions. Those are long-term investments.

Those are things we had done right in the past. But, I believe we’ve disinvested in a lot of those things over the years. Educational and cultural exchange is something in which we were the world leaders. We invested in those programs through the Fulbright program and many, many others. We have been disinvesting in those over the years.

If I were advising a future president, whether President Trump or President Biden, or their secretaries of state, I would point to that as an American strength that we risk squandering. [We should open our] doors to foreign students, researchers, and scholars coming into the United States, and  encourage young Americans to go abroad, as we did through the Fulbright program, to learn about other people on their own terms; learn their languages, their religions, their cultures, their geography, and their problems.

So, we have a lot to work with. I don’t think there are any great secrets about the things we have bungled. They are painfully obvious. How we engage and engage effectively will be things we’ve learned about and there’s things we have yet to learn.

By organizing the world against HIV and AIDS, we’ve accomplished a lot together with others. By failing to organize the world against COVID-19, I suspect that, when we look back on this, we will see that the world is not a better place for the approach that we took.

CR: Thank you so much President Ricciardone for your time and for your ideas that you have been able to express here with us today.

FR: My pleasure. I really do choose to be optimistic. We’ve got a lot to work with. The challenges are enormous in today’s world, but I believe the United States does have a leading role to play. There are ways of leading that are not belligerent or arrogant, but that are effective—and I think we can find that path again.

Francis J. Ricciardone was appointed the 12th President of The American University in Cairo and began his term on July 1, 2016. He had served as a Foreign Service Officer from 1978-2014, including appointments as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Turkey, and the Philippines, and Chargé d’Affaires and Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan. After graduating from Dartmouth College Summa Cum Laude in 1973, he received a Fulbright Scholarship and taught in American international schools in Trieste, Italy, and Tehran, Iran. From 2014-2016 he was Vice President of the Atlantic Council and Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He was a distinguished scholar at the US Institute of Peace in 2008-2009. He speaks Arabic, Turkish, Italian, and French.