ED HARRISON: I’m Ed Harrison here for Real
Vision. I’m talking to Alan Tonelson, who is the founder
of the blog, Realitycheck, and he’s also a frequent guest on CNBC. Alan, great to have you here. ALAN TONELSON: Well, thank you so much for
inviting me. ED HARRISON: Now, we’re going to be talking
actually about the idea of America First as an economic policy position. You’re a public policy analyst, and you’ve
been involved in trade policy for well on 20 years, more than 20 years. The whole concept of looking at America’s
interest first in terms of public policy before we think of America as a global champion,
that’s been around for some time, that predates Trump. ALAN TONELSON: Oh, sure. In fact, as those viewers who know their American
history recognize the term America First actually predates World War II and was a big part of
the great national debate as to whether to get involved in that great, great global conflict. It really didn’t reemerge as such until Trump
revived it, until President Trump revived it, but before that, you’re absolutely right. For about 20 years starting in the early 1980s,
I would say a small admittedly group of economic analysts began to question the trade policy
orthodoxy that had prevailed really since the Franklin Roosevelt years when the United
States embarked on what became the multidecade pre-Trump trade path. The term most commonly attached to their little
school of thought was economic nationalism. The big difference between the positions that
they were pushing and the status quo was their opposition to the idea that America’s fate
was so closely tied in and dependent on the fate of the broader global economy as such,
that the United States needed to regularly subordinate its own short term interest for
the sake of keeping the global economy in a sense of and running and, more specifically,
even for the sake of maintaining the set of global institutions and rules that developed
largely at America’s behest, we should note, after the end of World War II to bring some
order to that global economy and in particular, to make sure that the tragic mistakes of the
Great Depression were not repeated. ED HARRISON: Then when you think about America
First, we’ve talked about this before, you’re not necessarily looking at Trump as the obviously
not as the progenitor or the emblem of how it should necessarily be enacted, so for you,
when you think America First, what are you thinking about? What’s the purpose? ALAN TONELSON: The purpose of America First,
and I think it’s important to note that it’s got both a foreign policy slash national security
and an economic dimension. In fact, they’re closely intertwined, but
the whole idea is to figure out a way that the United States can achieve its essential
International goals, which I think we would all agree would amount to adequate levels
of national security, to adequate levels of prosperity, to adequate levels of political
freedom, of national independence as we preserve the social and cultural institutions that
we we’ve chosen. What the economic nationalists who are now
called America Firsters have tried to accomplish is to figure out a way to achieve those goals
in ways that are much less risky militarily, that are much cheaper militarily, and that
we believe any way or much likelier to create the broad based and sustainable national prosperity
that is frankly alluded the United States certainly since the late 1990s. ED HARRISON: Let’s break this down first in
terms that you talked about, because you’re a trade policy expert and I want to go there
first. Mentally, when I’m thinking about it, I’m
thinking about it in three different spheres. I’m thinking about trade policy. I’m thinking about foreign affairs, and I’m
thinking about domestic policy. We’ll probably end up talking about the first
two since that’s your wheelhouse. To the degree, we’ll talk about domestic policy
at the end. On trade policy, what is it specifically that
was happening before that America Firsters were against and what is it that you and people
like you want to happen going forward? ALAN TONELSON: Well, once again, we saw a
regular practice of subordinating US interests and actually sacrificing some very significant
parts of the American economy for two goals that we consider to be pretty dubious. One was the goal of keeping the world economy
running in a satisfactory way, by keeping the United States wide open to the rest of
the world’s exports. Second, was making sure that we could win
and keep friends, largely against the Soviet Union during those cold war days, by granting
economic favors. What the economic nationalists come America
Firsters would argue is that that was an arguably acceptable and sensible strategy during the
early post-World War II decades when the United States was so economically predominant, when
it really didn’t have to think actively about preserving its role and its status in the
world economy, and when it could look at its economy as almost a medium of exchange that
it could sacrifice in order to achieve these larger institutional goals and these larger
foreign policy goals. We would argue that at some point in the 1970s,
1980s, that period came to an end. The sacrifices that were made, really began
to cut very deeply into the country’s wealth, into the country’s strength. Among the arguments we made was that even
advocates of the status quo should be worried about this because after all, even they would
surely agree that an approach of regularly extending these favors and concessions couldn’t
last, could not outlive the country’s actual capacity to extend them. You couldn’t grant favors past the point where
you had favors to grant in the first place. ED HARRISON: Let me ask you because as you
were saying that, the first thing that popped into my mind was the Soviet Union, how much
of that was driven not just by the fact that America was preeminent in the post-World War
II era, but also that the Soviet Union existed as a so-called menace to American interests
abroad? ALAN TONELSON: There’s no question that geopolitics
and national security drove a great deal of US trade strategy, and actually, strikingly
enough, this was a point that was made early in the Clinton administration by President
Clinton himself, by his trade representatives, Mickey Kantor, as they as they tried to step
up pressure on Japan, in particular, to accept a more equitable trade relationship and they
explicitly said the days when the United States would sacrifice portions of its economy to
keep friends like Japan in the anti-Soviet camp. Those days are over, the Japanese have to
realize that and we, the Clinton administration, even though the phrase wasn’t used, are going
to go for a more America First focus strategy where we’re going to concentrate on capturing
more of those short term gains of expanded trade. ED HARRISON: Okay, so now, let’s move forward
to the present day. If you look at what you’re saying in a present
day context, obviously we’re talking first and foremost about China. The general view of America Firsters is that
of all the countries that are profiting from the existing status quo, China’s the one that
we have the most fraught relationship with regard to America First. What’s your strategy on how to deal with China
and to a degree, how has Trump done in terms of managing that specific relationship? ALAN TONELSON: Well first, if you don’t mind,
I think one fundamental assumption behind this America First economic nationalist approach
to trade has to be laid out. That is that the United States has completely
unique and matchless leverage when it deals with its various trade competitors, trade
partners, whatever you would like to call them, by dint of its equally matchless capacity
for economic self-sufficiency in virtually any sector of the economy you can think of,
manufacturing technology, agriculture, energy, and– ED HARRISON: Recently energy. ALAN TONELSON: Recently energy, and as a result
of some pretty focused federal policies that of by the way brought us the tremendous advantage
of being able to look at the frightfully chaotic Middle East with a much more relaxed attitude,
which is a major gain for us. ED HARRISON: We’ll get to that. ALAN TONELSON: Exactly. The feeling is that, in fact, continuing to
expand trade and investment flows with the rest of the world is really not so terribly
important to the United States as it is to most other countries who lack its advantages
and that therefore, when we do engage in trade diplomacy, we have this enormous edge that
we should capitalize on. We should recognize, and this actually gets
us toward thinking about a domestic policy, we should focus more on building up the strengths
we already have and possibly adding new ones, then increasing our exposure to the rest of
the world and possibly vulnerabilities to the rest of that world. We have that capability. Can we go 100% self-sufficient? No, but certainly, that should be we, America
Firster economic nationalists, would argue a much more important goal of US foreign economic
policy than it had been pre-Trump. ED HARRISON: Okay. China? ALAN TONELSON: Okay, China poses, we think,
a major threat to the American economy in particular to what we would consider to be
its productive heart, the manufacturing base. We would insist that without a world class
manufacturing sector, whose excellence is broad based, not only 5G and telecommunications
equipment, steel and machine tools and chemicals and pharmaceuticals and aerospace and ball
bearings and all sorts of high value industries need to be a prominent part of the American
economy, need to be highly competitive, and as we– ED HARRISON: Let me just interrupt
you there. Why is that? Why is it not– the existing status quo is
basically that we live in a global world and according to economic doctrine, if these guys
can do it better and cheaper then we’re going to trade to get what they can do better and
cheaper, and we’re going to do what we do better and cheaper. If the Chinese can do that, let them do that. That’s the theory. ALAN TONELSON: The first objection that we
would argue as is that much and possibly most of China’s progress, especially in these high
value manufacturing industries, we’re not– most of us, I should say, are not terribly
concerned that we’ve lost clothing and shoes and baseball bats because those are labor
intensive industries that these days, things might change, but these days certainly don’t
make the contribution to broader prosperity than manufacturing does and when we say this,
we’re keeping in mind some very distinctive strengths that manufacturing boasts. First of all, it has long been– although
it’s lost its lead lately, a major, a leader in US productivity growth. I think most mainstream economists would agree
that robust productivity growth is a key to long term sustainable national prosperity. It also has a very impressive jobs multiplier. When you’re talking about the employment effects
of manufacturing’s rising or falling fortunes, you’re talking about effects that break into
lots of other sectors of the economy, transportation, logistics, and also technology development
because manufacturing today still generates nearly 70% of all of the funds that the American
private sector spends on research and development. For those who would like the United States
to become a high tech economy, that’s going to be really difficult to do without a world
class manufacturing sector. That’s why we would argue that the importance
of maintaining manufacturing has been grossly underestimated to the country’s detriment. That’s again, one- – that’s one grievance. We would articulate against US-China policy. By the way, as President Trump has frequently
stated, we would blame the American political system as least as much as we would blame
China for this present situation. There’s also a big national security problem
here because China has emerged as a major challenger to the US role, which presidents
from both parties for decades have insisted must entail a dominance of East Asian security. We need to be the national security kingpin
of the East Asia Pacific region. China is clearly very dissatisfied with that. China is now steadily gaining the capability
to mount very effective challenges and what’s especially frustrating, I know to Trump administration
officials and to a growing number of so-called policy experts who maybe were not so terribly
aware of this beforehand, some very careless US policies toward technology transfer have
been major contributors to China’s growing military strength. There is now, in fact, a very impressive and
growing consensus in Washington that the flow of US technology to China needs to be much
more closely watched. In particular, because so much defense technology
is so closely related to technologies that are widely used in the civilian sectors, the
so-called the dual use phenomenon. It presents major challenges. It’s hard to do in large part because there
has emerged this web of mutual technology dependence between the two countries, but
we would argue that a high degree of technology dependence on China, major strategic challenger,
it’s not such a great idea and that if those dependencies can be reduced, that’s good. We should try to do this, even if some short
term costs are involved. ED HARRISON: Well, we’re going to get to that
because that is very interesting, my next question to you was about how Trump was going
about this. Let’s just say that Trump is trying to enact
that mentality in terms of our relationship with China, and so doing, he’s engaged in
tariffs, some people would call that protectionism. There are short term losses as a result of
that, almost to the point actually where many economists are very concerned that the United
States is tipping into a recessionary like malaise going into the 2020 election, something
that could potentially make Trump a one-term president. ALAN TONELSON: If that happens, certainly,
that would put a real damper on his political future. Although I have to tell you, I’m not really
impressed with the country’s growth performance pre-Trump either. I think the nature of the slowdown, whatever
slowdown we have experienced, I think it’s been really greatly exaggerated. ED HARRISON: Even to the degree that it has
been exaggerated, he’s going to get the blame, especially because he’s out front with these
policies. My question to you is, then how do you implement
what these short term losses that you’re talking about in a democracy in which you have votes
every two to four years, two for the Congress and four for the president? That’s a liability for thinking from a strategic
long term perspective, if you believe what you’re saying. ALAN TONELSON: Well, let me tell you, I always
hesitate at offering political advice to someone who has won a US presidential election, where
I haven’t. I advanced these ideas with the greatest humility. I do think there’s been something of a failure
of presidential leadership here in the sense that not only has there not been anything
like a consistent call for some degree of national sacrifice. He and his top lieutenants have started to
mention, “Well, yes. We’re going to have some short term pain,
but it’ll be worth it for the long term,” but you’re hearing that more from Larry Kudlow,
from Peter Navarro. You’re not hearing it so much from the President
himself. Of course, he famously boasted early on, trade
wars are good and easy to win. I would argue that they certainly can achieve
vital goods, but easy to win was a big mistake. I’m struck by the fact that someone with his
evident communication skills, even at the rallies that he staged, which I think have
been extremely effective in mobilizing and maintaining support, this notion of all for
one and one for all and there’s this greater common good out there that we need to achieve
and that if we have to endure a little bit of pain, it’s well worth it because we’re
all patriotic Americans. This has not been a theme that’s appeared
in these rallies at all, at least as far as I can tell. Again, so I think that is a failure of presidential
leadership. Because anytime you are trying to execute
a major course change in policy, you’re obviously going to generate some disruptions, some inefficiencies
and some costs. It’s inevitable. In fact, he is widely described as a disrupter. I’m not sure he’s actually embraced that title,
but he doesn’t shy away from it. You have to accept that fact, you have to
accept all of those consequences. A good politician tries to turn that sow’s
ear into a silk purse, and I haven’t seen that. I would absolutely say there’s been a very
important failure of presidential leadership here. There is a distinct possibility that it will
cost him a second term. ED HARRISON: Well, how about this? The concept, maybe he’s not even someone who
is a true America Firster, meaning that President Trump is much more concerned about the short
term than he is about the long term. That is, is that the reason that he’s talking
about both sides in his mouth, and the fact that he actually hasn’t engaged in affordable
policy? You and I were talking about this before that
he did it with regard as far as I could see, in terms of trade policy, until basically
a year and a half into his administration. Maybe he doesn’t believe in these policies
over the long term, because he doesn’t have a strategic vision of that nature. ALAN TONELSON: I’m not a mind reader. I think we will all agree that his mind might
be especially difficult to read, but I would agree that the execution of this policy has
been very ragged. It’s been apparently inconsistent. There have been numerous stops and starts. There have been threats made, threats lifted. There have been tariffs imposed. There have been tariffs threatened. There haven’t been tariffs actually rolled
back, but there have been tariffs whose imposition has been suspended. I would absolutely agree with critics who
say this is really darn confusing and possibly inconsistent to the point of incoherence. I would make two responses, though, in the
President’s defense. The first one is that even with all of the
stops and starts and all the inconsistency, there are now significant US tariffs on hundreds
of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese products that each year, head to the United States. Most of those tariffs so far have been on
the high value products that are not found on Walmart shelves offered for American consumers
to buy, but they are various inputs to manufacturing and to technology industries, they’re parts
and components of things. They are sectors of the economy that the Chinese
are working very hard to develop, they are key parts of the so-called Made in China 2025
program. Those goods, most of them are quite heavily
tariffed. Second point that I would make is that, even
though the course of Trump trade diplomacy has been very uneven and very difficult to
understand, lying underneath the headlines generated by the trade talks has been a very
market trend toward decoupling the two economies. That’s a phrase that’s become quite current
among people who think a lot about China and US-China relations. I think that that decoupling is a central
piece of an America First trade strategy. I think that even if a president who’re not
thinking along those broader lines, I think there’s a strong case that he or she would
want to see more decoupling rather than less. It’s clear to me looking at the actual numbers
on trade flows, investment flows, flows of human beings back and forth, scientific exchange
programs, students, etc., that the two economies are disengaging, and I fully expect that this
engagement to continue at its current pace and possibly at a faster pace, no matter what
happens in the trade talks over any length of time, whether a trade deal is concluded
or not. ED HARRISON: Two thoughts on that in terms
of pushback. One is, is that positive? For instance, if you think about PhDs from
China come United States, staying in the United States, not going back to China, they are
a positive addition to our knowledge base and also, other foreigners who might come
here and add to the knowledge base. Then the second thing is are tariffs even
good over the long term? What are they going to achieve in terms of
outcomes that are favorable to the United States over the longer term? ALAN TONELSON: Well, first regarding that
issue of intellectual capital, which is obviously very important, and it’s been a long standing
US policy goal to attract the world’s best brains, and no thinking person could possibly
object to that in principle. I think when we come to China– and I don’t
feel comfortable at this point getting into the broader immigration policy questions regarding
H-1B visas, etc., but I think that when we’re talking about China, some real problems have
emerged with these exchange programs with the use of Chinese nationals providing access
to America’s cutting edge research and development facilities, both in the public and private
sectors alike. There were Chinese scientists working at NASA
for a while. Of course, NASA specializes in designing and
building things that look a lot like ICBMs. Maybe that wasn’t such a hot idea, because
there is a lot of evidence, unfortunately, showing that many of these Chinese nationals
were engaged in the actual espionage or that they’re not so interested in staying so much
anymore. Not because the US environment has become
less hospitable so much, but because it’s now Chinese policy that they come back. In fact, China has actually implemented a
so-called thousand talents program. It is actively seeking to send people overseas,
very much like Japan did back at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to learn from
abroad to bring back the knowledge to strengthen China. Now, that’s a perfectly understandable goal
from China’s standpoint, but given the current Chinese regime and given its current policies,
I think the United States needs to take a very serious look at how much of that student
exchange, scholarly exchange we really want to engage in. ED HARRISON: Then the second point about tariffs,
whether or not they achieve long term goals? ALAN TONELSON: The tariffs have really done
a very impressive job so far of A, causing companies around the world to rethink their
China sourcing strategies. We’ve had any number of surveys of business
groups that say and that report very high percentages of member companies saying either
we’re planning to leave China, or we’re thinking seriously about it and by the way, we’re not
so keen on putting a lot more investment advancement into China these days. Although much of that diverted investment
isn’t likely to come to the United States, I would argue that it still benefits the US
in two very important ways. One, anything that weakens China’s economy,
or that prevents it from growing stronger, I think is ipso facto good for United States. Second, to the extent that the investment
can be diverted to low cost countries in the Western Hemisphere. That is, to me, a clear benefit to the United
States, because we obviously have such a strong stake in making our hemispheric neighbors
more successful so that the Trumpian goal of reducing immigration flows might actually
be achieved, might actually be achieved. In fact– ED HARRISON: You’re thinking like
Central America is an example. ALAN TONELSON: Also Mexico, quite frankly. In that vein, I would criticize USMCA. The NAFTA follow on the green for not creating
enough incentives for companies to relocate production from East Asia, particularly to
Mexico, Central America. I think that the so-called local content standards
could be much higher and should be made much higher with the explicit aim of creating more
of a Western Hemisphere trade block because that’s where our vital interests, our most
important interests in third world economic development really lie. ED HARRISON: We’re talking a lot about China
and we’re talking about China in the context of trade policy, I actually want to make a
transition over to foreign policy because I think there are linkages between trade and
foreign policy that we can make explicit when we think about China and South Korea. For instance, South Korea recently made some
foreign policy pact with China, who you were telling us is, in East Asia in particular,
potentially a rival of the United States. How is it if we’re going to go America First
in our best interest to allow things like that to happen? Isn’t it true that the fact that we are engaged
in a general now-we’re-doing-the-things-for-ourselves policy, both on the trade front but also in
the foreign policy front? Isn’t it true that that is leading to these
link ups? ALAN TONELSON: Well, here is certainly where
the raggedness of the Trump presidency has extended into the foreign policy field because
the pursuit of an America First foreign policy, which is talked about explicitly, has been
just as inconsistent, I would even argue more so than the pursuit of his America First trade
policies. To understand that, it’s important to become
acquainted with the fundamental assumption of an America First foreign policy posture. The fundamental assumption is that acceptable
levels of US national security and sovereignty, and all the other foreign policy goals that
are traditionally pursued are pursued much more safely and much more cheaply by capitalizing
on America’s on the intrinsic built-in advantages that the United States approaches international
affairs with. Advantage number one, geography. We’re located very far away from any potential
adversary. Advantage number two, we have a very highly
developed economy that is capable, as we’ve seen, of fielding a world class military that
is in turn, fully capable of repelling, at acceptable cost, any conceivable risk to the
American homeland. That as a result, the best US approach is
capitalizing on the strengths, building them up as opposed to the pre-Trump so-called globalist
attempt to secure American prosperity and security and sovereignty. By doing nothing less than creating a much
more congenial world environment, the idea being that if the world wasn’t so threatening,
that would be a big net plus for American national security. Now, there’s a certain logic to this, let’s
not deny that, but when you think about it, practically speaking, it’s been an extremely
difficult objective to achieve. It’s been very difficult to achieve ever since
it was articulated by President Woodrow Wilson back in 1919. ED HARRISON: Well, let me stop you there for
a second, because there are a lot of different threads on that. The first thread is that, as you were saying
that, I was thinking again, just like when we were talking a few minutes ago about the
Soviet Union. The reality is, is that that strategy was
built because our allies, people like South Korea, places like Germany, they were a bulwark
against the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. To the degree that– we know what the reason
is for that. That’s number one. Number two is that there’s a term isolationism
that people throw around. What’s different about an America First policy
to the pejorative isolationism? ALAN TONELSON: Well, if you take isolationism
seriously, that term suggests that the United States has nothing to do with the rest of
the world whatever. We don’t deal with the rest of the world,
not only militarily, we don’t deal with them economically, we don’t travel over there,
we don’t read about them, we just hermetically seal ourselves in this hemisphere and go about
our national business. That’s obviously ridiculous. In fact, this label isolationism, it’s I think
used as a pejorative, as a way of shutting down debate, precisely because it’s so absurd,
but it’s certainly become popular. I would argue that the goal should be a country
that is capable of whatever engagement with the world is needed on terms that are favorable
to the United States. Now, that doesn’t mean ipso facto, they’re
unfavorable to anybody else, but the highest priority has to be that the net benefits to
the United States flow to the United States in some finite time period and are not indefinitely
postponed with promises of well, eventually things will turn out for the best. ED HARRISON: Well, look at the Middle East
as an example. Let’s use Israel and Syria as two examples
there. Is it in America’s national security interests
to be an ardent defender of Israel left, right and center or under an America First platform
economic nationalism, would we reconsider how we defend Israel? ALAN TONELSON: We absolutely would. I’ll preface this by saying, I’m a strong
Zionist. I admire Israel tremendously. I wish for it the very, very best. I’m quite aware of the threats it’s faced
to its security throughout its history. From a purely selfish American standpoint,
I cannot buy the argument that Israel these days is a major strategic asset to the United
States. There was a time when you could make that
argument very compellingly when the United States was highly dependent on Middle East
oil. Even though clearly Israel’s existence complicated
the US’ relationships with the major Persian Gulf and the Muslim, whether they were Sunni
or Shia oil producers, the fact was that it was good to have a democratic, stable, pro-western
country that, by the way, generates a lot of really impressive military technology that
we use. Again, I think there was definitely an argument
to be made for supporting Israel strategically. Now that the importance of the Middle East
itself has receded so dramatically, in large part because the United States has made such
amazing progress toward fossil fuel independence and overall, energy independence, I don’t
think that argument is really so compelling anymore. To me, the intellectually honest approach
that advocates of Israel should take is that Americans should support Israel’s existence
pretty much as is and Israel’s security, because we admire it and we choose as a society, as
a political system to support something that we admire, because we want to do it. I think that’s an entirely legitimate way
to conduct foreign policy, provided it’s financed in a responsible way. I certainly would not advocate spending the
entire National Treasury to support Israel’s existence but certainly, if the American people
want it, they are sovereign. It is their right. It’s completely legitimate. I do think the foreign policy argument has
become a lot weaker. ED HARRISON: Interesting that we were talking
about oil. That’s why I went to Israel and Syria in particular. The reason I– because Donald Trump, when
he talked about pulling out of Syria, he was talking about we’re only there for the oil
after all, irrespective of whether or not that itself was a problem the way that he
said that. The thing that I find interesting is the,
what I would call incoherence of the post-pullout situation that is, is that once we as a country,
the United States, have committed to a specific policy, let’s support South Korea, let’s support
what’s happening in Syria to contain ISIS. When you unilaterally just move out like that,
suddenly, there’s a vacuum. How do you deal with that? ALAN TONELSON: You’re being too polite. You use the word incoherence, I would say
idiotic, and it was idiotic from an America First perspective, because when we’re talking
about ISIS, obviously we’re talking about the clearly important objective. I would even argue vital objective of preventing
jihadist violence from attacking the US homeland or even US assets overseas. Because we have seen that and we should take
every step that we could take to prevent that. When you think about what’s the best way to
keep the US homeland, the US assets safe and especially, the homeland, safe from jihadists? Is it to continue to maintain sizable American
military forces running around the Middle East, trying to stamp out movements that keep
reviving under different names– al Qaeda, then it’s ISIS, then it’s God knows what will
come after this. Because after all, these movements are rooted
in the region’s dysfunction, which is not going to end anytime soon, and doesn’t make
a lot of sense to try to create serious alliances with local countries that are manifestly unable
to function as reliable allies because they are so unstable themselves. They face such profound internal divisions
and weaknesses that they really can’t act in the decisive ways that you need allies
for because after all, the most important value of having allies is that if you’re in
a fight and push has come to shove, you can rely on them to help out and help out as much
as you need them. That is not the case for any country that
the United States is currently working with in the Middle East, even Saudi Arabia, terribly
conflicted. Is the best way to keep jihadism away from
New York and the World Trade Center and Washington, is it to keep running around this region trying
to stamp out this movement, which is rooted in chronic dysfunction, and working with regimes
that are always going to disappoint your expectations or is it to try to control something that
you plausibly can control which is entry to your own country, i.e. your own borders? I would argue that it makes much more sense
to choose the latter course to improve border security to the point where you’re not letting
people in with really checkered records from countries that can’t vet or that don’t want
to vet and you institute a much more restrictive policy toward coming into the United States. Trump has certainly made moves toward that
effect. I don’t think they’ve gone far enough. I don’t think they’ve been well thought out
enough. I don’t think they’ve been effectively sold
enough– ED HARRISON: Children in cages, you’re saying that– ALAN TONELSON: Children in cages? No, although it is striking that you’re starting
to see and have been seeing for several months now coming into northern Mexico, from Central
America, not only Central Americans, but people from West Africa from North Africa. Again, I think this raises questions. You can no doubt criticize the actual implementation
of these policies, you can criticize the allocation of priorities or I should say, the allocation
of resources but you can’t reasonably criticize the idea that if you’re worried about jihadism,
try to control what you plausibly can control, your own borders, rather than trying to control
something that clearly cannot be controlled at any acceptable level of cost and risk. Now that policy, by the way, because it can’t
be put into effect overnight, because change can’t be made like this. There is no doubt that as it’s being phased
in, as the transition is being made, it absolutely makes sense to have small teams of US Special
Forces, whatever, chasing jihadists, keeping them off balance and preventing them from
being able to create the quasi-terrorist state that could launch a 9/11 type attack. That makes sense. This is the maddening irony of the recent
Trump moves, and that is that the pre-Trump Syria withdraw US military posture in the
Middle East was that. It was very small scale. We were keeping ISIS off balance. Why on earth the remaining units had to be
removed is frankly, beyond me. ED HARRISON: When we got into the immigration
thing, we were starting to get into domestic policy, and we’re not really going to talk
about that because that’s going to be very much a political issue. That’s not in your wheelhouse, anyway. ALAN TONELSON: Not that I don’t have deep
thoughts. ED HARRISON: Right. What we’ve talked about so far, is basically
the tie between trade and foreign policy. One thing that came to mind though when you
moved into the domestic front and when you were saying that foreign policy make a strong
domestic policy with regard to immigration has to do with the who’s going to implement
this? Immediately my thought was that we were already
just talking about a oneterm presidency for Trump. Maybe two, but that’s eight years. Now, what Trump is– what I saw with regard
to the impeachment hearings, as an example, was a collective, what I would call consensus
that, for instance, supporting Ukraine was in America’s foreign policy interest, that
is, to a certain degree, not in alignment with where you’re going. ALAN TONELSON: Not in the slightest. ED HARRISON: What I’m thinking is when you
have a whole cadre of people who basically are saying, that’s not where we want to head
or that’s not the policy that we’re looking for once someone like Trump is gone, how does
that even get implemented? ALAN TONELSON: The American political system
faces a real challenge here because there are signs and the polling on this is really,
it’s all over the place. It’s really difficult to draw conclusions
from it. There are signs that there are big differences
between the foreign policy priorities of foreign policy professionals and US politicians in
both parties, as you just suggested on the one hand, and the foreign policy priorities
of the American people. ED HARRISON: What are those differences? ALAN TONELSON: I cannot imagine that public
opinion would support a US policy of defending Ukraine from Russian designs at all costs. Most immediately, because that involves a
commitment to defend Ukraine against a powerful nuclear arm neighbor that can do tremendous
damage to the American homeland if still these actually break out. I’m also struck by the fact that I can’t think
of too many of the Trump critics on the Democratic side who have so recently emerged as strong
champions of Ukraine sovereignty. I don’t remember too many of them being especially
strong supporters of the much higher levels of US military spending that you will need
to actually carry out that policy, not to mention stationing substantial numbers of
US troops on the ground, boots on the ground in Ukraine. Because if anything is likely to give the
Russians pause, it’s going to be the possibility that when their forces cross that border,
they’re going to bloody American lives. That’s been actually an approach that we’ve
used that we used during the Cold War in Germany, the heart of Europe. We’re using it today in South Korea, it’s
what the Eastern European, new members of NATO, want very much and that Trump is actually
moving toward gradually but definitely moving toward. It’s a policy however, that increases the
risk of nuclear attack on the United States. ED HARRISON: You think that most Americans
are not behind that, if they think about it to its logical conclusion? ALAN TONELSON: I would have a very difficult
time accepting that proposition. The reason is really very simple. It was one thing to promise to defend, at
nuclear risk during the Cold War, countries like Germany and Japan and going back to Europe,
France, Britain, because as George Kennan, the so-called Dean of American post-World
War II diplomacy, famously put it, these words major centers of global military, industrial
and technological potential, and it was vital that they be kept out of the Soviet camp. It was arguably strongly in the US interest
to run the risk of nuclear war to maintain an acceptable global parlance of not only
military but economic power, etc. Not only is the Soviet Union gone, but when
you look at Europe, there are two European countries that have pretty impressive nuclear
forces of their own, Britain and France. The European Union is the largest economic
actor in the world when you add up all the economies. Why on earth can’t Europe “defend itself”? It’s got the means to field conventional forces
adequate to the task. It’s got the means– it has a very satisfactory
nuclear deterrent right now. I’m wondering, why on earth are US troops
in harm’s way? Secondly, to bring it back to Ukraine, why
would the United States run these risks for a country that has never been treated as a
vital American security interest? Precisely because its military situation was
so hopeless, because it was located so far toward the centers of Russian military strength,
so far away from the centers of US military strength, which is why former President Obama
said to the Atlantic magazines Jeffrey Goldberg back in 2016, there’s really no way that the
United States can prevent Russia’s military domination of Ukraine. He was right. ED HARRISON: Well, let me ask you, what about
the analogy that you made between Israel and supporting Israel because of their being wanting
to be democratic and the United States supporting Ukraine’s purely for a democratic purpose. Meaning that if we think about Maidan and
EU accession, that was all about the fact that, yes, we want this country to be in the
same mindset that these other countries within the EU are. We as the United States, we support that. ALAN TONELSON: That’s an entirely fair question. If the American people had enough experience,
reading about Ukraine, learning about it, as they have to, I think, at pretty large
degree concerning Israel, and had a chance to make up their minds over a respectable
time period that this is a choice they wanted to make and they were willing to run those
risks. Again, a totally legitimate choice for the
American people to make. I see no signs that that choice has been made
or that it’s even been presented to them in any explicit systematic way because Ukraine’s
alleged vitality has only surfaced very recently. It’s only been headline news for about a month
or so. I think we’re a long way away from making
a genuinely legitimate political decision, but intrinsically speaking, it would be totally
acceptable. Totally acceptable. Let’s also keep in mind one very important
factor in terms of both of these countries so far, neither one has yet asked, explicitly,
to my knowledge anyway, for a US troop presence. Now, various other former Soviet Bloc countries
currently NATO members have, they asked for it every day. American policy, like I said, in total contradiction
to America First principles has been moving steadily toward that, we’ve been keeping more
troops there. Under Trump. We’ve been keeping them for greater lengths
of time so the troop presence is getting less rotational and less temporary and more permanent
and turning into the trip wire that could trigger a nuclear attack on the United States. That’s the last thing we should want to see. ED HARRISON: Let me wrap this up by going
back to the first thing that we talked about, which is the purpose of America First slash
economic nationalist policy. We’ve talked about, to a certain degree, domestic
but not that much, foreign policy and trade policy. In particular, we’re talking about Ukraine
at the end. How would you describe it now that we’ve talked
about it in terms of why, is this the way forward for the United States at this particular
juncture? ALAN TONELSON: It’s the way forward, and of
course, it’s got to, although it can’t be put into effect overnight, it’s got to be
put into effect in a coherent way, which is not the case presently. We certainly have a president with some pretty
pronounced America First instincts, but not a lot else. You need a steady transition and that’s very
difficult for any democracy to put into effect, absent crisis. Very difficult to do, but I would argue has
to be done because the current US national security policy is exposing this country to
the risks of nuclear attack on behalf of foreign allies, as strategists would say, foreign
assets, whose faith is simply not as important as preventing the nuclear destruction of Los
Angeles, i.e. South Korea and in theory, Poland, Ukraine. Secondly, because the pre-Trump trade policies
of viewing vast chunks of America’s wealth creating productive economic sectors as prizes
that could be awarded to prospective friends and current friends for staying loyal to us
geopolitically or as sacrifices we had to make for the sake of some larger global trade
system and system of global commercial rules replacing the so-called law of the jungle
with a genuinely rule of law system. Those policies were in great danger of sapping
the strength that even they needed to succeed over any length of time. Again, you need assets to give away in the
first place if you’re going to have a policy of giving away assets. I viewed the foreign policies, the so-called
globalist foreign policies as being recklessly dangerous. I viewed the globalist trade policies as being
completely unsustainable economically. I’m glad that we have in place an administration
that recognizes these imperatives to some extent but I worry, again, that the implementation
has been so inconsistent and so subject to legitimate criticism that it won’t be able
to stay in office long enough to make the progress we need toward a prudent and responsible
America First posture in world affairs today. ED HARRISON: Alan Tonelson, it has been a
pleasure. Thank you for explaining. ALAN TONELSON: It’s been a pleasure for me,
too. Thank you so much, Ed.