The interview was conducted by Henning Hoff, Uta Kuhlmann, Joachim Staron, and Hannah Dorgeist.
**Dr Schadlow, as the principal author of the 2017 US National Security Strategy (NSS), which were, in your view, the key areas in which the NSS brought change to US foreign policy?**
Before I answer, I’d like to replace “author” with “architect.” A National Security Strategy is a product of a lot of people, “author” suggests there was just one pen, but there were many people who contributed. There is of course, one person pulling it all together, to identify the themes, and to ensure that the document is consistent—in tone and content. This is why I prefer “architect.”
The document was important for many reasons. First, it captured—on paper and at the national level—a shift that had been occurring for some time. At least since 2012, possibly sooner, there were many in the foreign policy community who were concerned about China’s changing role in the international system. President Donald Trump wasn’t the only person to identify that shift; but it was his administration that was willing to take the risks associated with calling out China a strategic competitor. I think that was very important for getting the United States to have a different kind of conversation about China. It was an important shift in strategy because any such shift requires more than just the Defense Department changing course; it requires a change in thinking by the State Department, by the Commerce Department, by those in control of the economic instruments of our power. And more. Thus, a clear articulation of the changed geopolitical landscape was critical.
Second, even broader than that, the NSS of 2017 advanced the sense that power mattered, that military power mattered. And that we weren’t proceeding on a path of mutual engagement or proceeding on a path toward the liberal convergence of our systems, whether we were speaking of Russia or China or other countries, like Iran. It conveyed the view that different countries have different sets of objectives and that not all were converging toward democracy. That didn’t necessarily make people happy—but as many people say, you need to see the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. A realistic view of the international system is an important first step toward addressing the problems and challenges that are out there.
Third, the NSS reconsidered the expectation that America could do everything all of the time. A lot of the media said about this NSS, “Oh, this is America First, we’re going it alone, we don’t care about others.” I have a different view. I don’t think that that’s what the document said. Rather it presented a realistic sense that the United States could not shoulder the burdens of the international system alone, and that the liberal international order itself would be stronger if more nations contributed to it.
**You left the administration in 2018. Did US foreign policy conducted during the rest of the Trump years stick to the 2017 NSS?**
Yes, I think so. Again, there was a lot of criticism, but that was because often the media just did not cover all of the activities that were going on. And there were many. They included, for instance, the US Trade Representative’s defensive actions, using tariffs to protect US technology against China’s intellectual property thefts, which are designed to contribute to “Made in China 2025” industrial policy; a special “China Initiative” at the Justice Department; calling out the activities of Confucius Institutes on American university campuses; creating initiatives to better understand where our supply chains are coming from, especially for some sort of products in the national security space. Now, is that hard to do? Yes, it is very hard. Because in a particular weapon system, a jet fighter, for instance, there are so many components in it. It is very hard to say that we know exactly where every microchip is coming from.
Partly because of COVID-19, there was a confluence of factors leading the United States to say that we needed to have resilient and diversified supply chains. Which means we need to bring some of them home, and some of them to Europe or parts of Asia where we have friends and allies. So, we saw a reinvigoration of the Quad—the cooperation between the US, Australia, Japan, and India; the reinvigoration of the US-Japan bilateral relationship. Obviously, there were personal tensions in many senses, for example Trump and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t seem to be great friends, and there were tensions at times, it seemed with former British Prime Minister Theresa May. But these were personality clashes and not shifts in the relationships between our countries. In terms of the actual nuts and bolts, they were working pretty well. So, if you look at what actually happened as opposed to the characterization of what happened, the short answer is: yes, there was a lot of follow up to the NSS.
**In your view, how strongly has the Biden administration diverged from the NSS 2017 and its conception of US foreign policy? Where do you see change and where do you see continuity?**
The Biden administration had been reluctant to say that it shares many of the assumptions of the Trump administration. Admitting or explicitly stating that these assumptions are the same would be problematic to many in the current administration—at least they would think that it was problematic. Their 2021 interim guidance pushed themes like engagement, of working together on key issues; the specific phrase was “leading by diplomacy,” I think. But what has been revealed is that in many ways these assumptions haven’t held. That has been difficult for the Biden administration to reconcile. I don’t think they’re going to get the kind of cooperation with China on climate, for instance, that they are hoping for. Also, the Biden administration spent a lot of time slicing and dicing definitions of what makes a great power, in how far Russia was different from China, and in the end what they’ve been faced with is great power competition: competition among states that have their own set of interests and that have significant power. Leading diplomacy doesn’t really make sense as an organizing principle. Diplomacy is a tool, an instrument of foreign policy. Like any other tool, you use it when the circumstances require it. But what underlies the international system is power: economic, military, technological, political.
**Current national security advisor Jake Sullivan and others have spoken of forging a “foreign policy for the US middle class.” Isn’t that idea quite close to what Trump had in mind when he claimed that other countries were “ripping off” the US?**
Yes, very much so. There is a bipartisan consensus in the United States for rethinking the hollowing out of American manufacturing and how to rebuild the American middle class. Our economy has shifted toward a service economy for a long time, while Germany, for instance, retained a manufacturing base and its competitive edge in key areas of manufacturing, like “Industry 4.0” and in other areas. We, in the United States, lost the link between manufacturing and innovation which is actually quite important. And these aren’t political issues—there have been business school professors writing for years and warning about this. I think the national conversation has changed. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy because you have to make certain trade-offs. If you really want to reduce the reliance on China, let’s say for batteries—which is very important for the renewable agenda that the Biden administration wants to pursue, then you need to produce more batteries here. And that in turn requires making environment tradeoffs since it would require building more battery production facilities in the United States, and the mining of more minerals.
**Is this focus on the competition with China, which many advocate, really justified? Doesn’t this make China more powerful than it actually is?**
I don’t think we have a choice. The United States is not pushing China in a certain direction. China has articulated its strategic vision for a long time and it is fulfilling that vision as any great power naturally would do. The Chinese Communist Party’s vision for China predated Trump and existed apart from the views of any American presidents. The CCP’s goal was and remains to bring China into the 21st century: grow its economy, grow its economic opportunities for its own people, and in some sense that was a great success. The number of people brought out of poverty was huge. Its military modernization has been astonishing and quite successful, testing hypersonic missiles most recently and developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons too. The fact is that the United States noticed what was happening and decided to say: we need to protect our national security, we don’t trust what you’re doing anymore—that was necessary. I don’t think we have seen—internally or externally—much to indicate that the CCP intends for China to converge toward a political and economic system that is similar to ours. If you look at the way President Xi Jinping has been consolidating his power, what he wants to do with that power, how he wants to organize his society economically and politically—it is just dramatically different from what I think most Germans want and what most Americans want. I think we have no choice but to protect ourselves and at least make sure that we in the West protect and establish a framework so that the openness and freedoms that we value can prevail over the long term.
**Whether Donald Trump or someone else enters the White House after the next election in 2024 cannot be predicted right now, but assuming a Republican administration, what would you expect to be the outlines of its foreign policy?**
Looking into the crystal ball is always hard. I think there won’t necessarily be huge surprises. It would focus on a strong defense budget. Domestically, it would focus on a less onerous regulatory environment, on freeing up businesses to do what they should be doing, less of an emphasis on climate as an existential threat and more of an emphasis on how to proceed with a transition that balances economic requirements with climate requirements. In other words: a more balanced and realistic approach to climate. I still think you’re going to see a reinvigoration or restatement of the importance of allies and partners, but also a sense of that burden-sharing remains essential.
I do think you’re going to see less of a reliance on multilateral organizations to get to outcomes we want. I’m sympathetic to that because I think taking 10 years to get to an outcome that’s necessary, ends up undermining confidence in democracy and what our systems can produce. I know this is a perpetual point of friction with our European friends, but I think it comes down to more coalitions of the willing, working with for instance with three countries to get something done, as opposed to 12 countries taking forever or to not get anything done at all. That sort of frustration will have an outlet in different models—the Quad being a good example, the US-Japan bilateral alliance being a good example, and other ways to work in smaller, more agile coalitions. So overall, if a Republican wins in 2024, I don’t think you’re going to see dramatically different approaches from Trump.
**To what extent does Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine change the US perception of its foreign policy priorities?**
It reminds people that the fundamental assumptions of power and of the role of military power still matter in the international system. Those assumptions have been reaffirmed. It reminds people that it’s really hard to rebuild deterrence, because once you lose the foundations of it, it generally takes challenges and a set of counteractions to rebuild it. It’s hard to do that. I think it reminds people of the importance of regional balances of power too and that they are interconnected. You can’t just shift to Asia without thinking that such a shift would not have implications for other parts of the world. I’m someone who believes that we have to maintain these regional balances simultaneously: Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in particular. I think it has reminded Europeans that power matters and NATO’s capabilities matter as well—hopefully, those won’t be tested. I think the war has reaffirmed, in many ways, the classic underpinnings of national security unfortunately. I think we’ve tried, in many ways, to work with the Russians to be a more constructive part of the international system but that has not been successful.
**Some Republican foreign affairs experts argue that the European/transatlantic theater and the Asian/Indo-Pacific theater cannot be seen as one strategic space and argue for US resources being concentrated on the latter, to counter China. What’s your view?**
I think the two theaters are very much linked. That’s the nature of power in the international system, it shapes one region and then, that influences other regions. Strategy is never static; it is informed by actions that take place amongst different actors in different areas. But that doesn’t mean that the toolkits will be the same for both. I think you have to adapt the toolkits. There is this constant effort to prioritize and forget all the rest. But prioritize doesn’t mean you can forget all the rest or put the rest into a closet that you deal with another time. You’re going to need a different set of tools in dealing with the different theaters at different points of time. But the Chinese are certainly looking at what’s happening in Europe, learning and adapting, and the CCP will surely employ those lessons to their Pacific theater. They are not seeing the European and Asian spheres as exclusive of each other.
**Former President Trump is no fan of Germany. Polls have showed that Trump’s constant criticism had detrimental effects on the way Americans perceive Germany. Do you see this changing again now that Germany is spending so much more on defense?**
I think the key will be in the sustainability of this new German approach. What will happen this winter will be instructive. We’re probably going to see a clash between the desire of many Germans to rethink their defensive security role in Europe and NATO with the realities of the energy and climate situation. I think it’s going to be a long path ahead. And I have healthy skepticism—not that I don’t want this shift to occur, I think it’s important—but it will be a tough shift domestically, for Germany.
What’s more is that I think Europe’s approach to climate will see a shocking clash between rhetoric and reality over the next couple of years. Europe is going to have to recognize that to get to where it wants to go in terms of climate, it’s probably going to need to reconsider rewriting its “formulas” for doing so. There seems to be an incredible resistance in Germany and other European countries to recognizing that. But if you actually believe that climate change is an existential threat, you need a realistic path to reduce carbon emissions and paths which recognize that there are other technologies, too, which need to be explored.
How can transatlantic relations best be maintained, and what role should the EU play in them?
Transatlantic relations can best be maintained, first and foremost, by recognizing the values and interests that the United States, Germany, and its other European partners share. Fundamentally, we care about freedom, about creating opportunities for people to flourish, about individual rights and dignity.
Of course, we don’t all have the same policies and there are differences in our approaches. This is where some of the tensions come in—but frankly, this is where there are tensions in Europe, too, across the many countries that make up the EU.
You had asked me about the role of the EU. My views are mixed. The project of the EU has been to consolidate power, while in my view, the rights and interests noted above are best protected by power that is closer to “the people.” The EU can play a constructive role in highlighting and identifying solutions to some of the key problems that we’ve spoken about. For instance, along with NATO, the EU can remind Europeans that they too have an important role to play in maintaining the European balance of power.
And while this will be hard for the EU, it might also focus more on outcomes as opposed to being wedded to processes. I think refreshing itself is something the EU might consider. And, also, to consider the concerns of many Europeans in their individual countries and not throwing these concerns away as “populist” without looking at the circumstances that have led to the frustration of people in countries around Europe and, frankly, in the United States too. Taking people’s concerns seriously is the first step toward resolving problems in a constructive way.
Will this be sufficient, or does Europe need to take up leadership roles more often?
I think the Europeans can take the lead in many ways, but they may need to identify new approaches. We have, for years, expressed concern about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and discussed approaches that the West might take, to promote infrastructure projects around the world. The Europeans have many strengths in this area and could play an important role—and in many cases, they already are. Europe could also take the lead in areas related to food security in Africa and other parts of the world. But I think the Europeans have to update their methods. For a long time, for instance, it is my understanding that mainly for domestic political reasons, many European countries have opposed the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMO). Yet many experts point out that GMO-related seeds could be hugely beneficial for countries struggling to feed their people. In terms of Africa and climate change, Europeans too could help with actual transitions—not simply a coercive cut-off of funding for, for instance, natural gas. In practice, this relegates many African states to coal! In a recent interview, the energy minister of Senegal, Aissatou Sophie Gladima, pointed out that restricting lending for oil and gas development was like “removing the ladder and asking us to jump or fly.” That really stuck with me. As did the comments of Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, who, also in an interview, has explained that the energy transition is “multidimensional” and must take “into account the different realities of various economies.”
So Europeans could lead in a “refresh” in many areas: from food security and climate policy to infrastructure projects and digital infrastructure projects.
So, your advice is for the Europeans to become more American?
(Laughs) No! Absolutely not! We all like and need diversity! And imagine if European bread became more American!
But I think just being less wedded to processes over outcomes, actively trying new approaches, not doubling down on institutions and old approaches that actually haven’t achieved what many Europeans want to achieve, that have not actually solved problems. To sum it up—being open to new approaches. And maybe being more willing to work in smaller coalitions of actors. I know it’s hard because the EU is designed basically as a consensus institution, but maybe there are coalitions of European actors that get things done more effectively and faster and in a reasonable amount of time. Because if we don’t achieve outcomes, if we just talk and talk, I think we will see the systemic rivalry that the EU has called out with China as not necessarily playing out well for us in the West. We need to be willing to try new approaches to get to where we want to be and to uphold the values and interests that we share.