Momentum is building around Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, as polling indicates he is leading President Trump. The campaign has recently rolled out a series of ambitious policy plans related to housing, energy, taxes, and foreign policy. Observershave begun to speculate whether Biden will rival Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the most progressive president in U.S. history.
The report calls for narrowly defining U.S. interest in the Middle East. A policy in the region must focus on safeguarding the United States from attack and ensuring the free flow of global commerce. The authors contend that these goals could be accomplished by reducing the U.S. military presence, extending diplomatic efforts to secure human rights, and setting up a regional security architecture modeled after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Yet the Quincy Report, while vivid and well-framed, is highly ambitious. The authors’ aims are sure to be tempered by circumstance outside of U.S. control, as well as the limitations imposed by current and past policy.
This is particularly true in the report’s call for normalized relations between the United States and its historical bête noire, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The two nations have been locked in confrontation for 40 years. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement reached in 2015, was a significant step towards improving relations. The agreement placed restraints on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The result has been escalating tension: on at least twooccasions since May 2018, the United States and Iran have come to the brink of all-out war, as the U.S. assassinated key Iranian leaders and Iran began edging away from the JCPOA. As the Quincy report states, returning to “full compliance” with the JCPOA “on both sides” is the first step towards normalized relations.
In July 2019, Biden told the Council on Foreign Relations that he would rejoin the deal, “if Iran moves back into compliance.” He restated his position during an interview with The New York Times in 2020. According to a draft resolution from the Democratic National Committee in July 2020, the Biden administration would focus on “diplomacy, de-escalation, and regional dialogue,” with a return to “mutual compliance” serving as the “beginning, not the end, of our diplomacy with Iran.”
This language, though hailed by progressive groups as a step towards improving U.S.-Iranian relations, conceals some considerable caveats. A U.S. return would be conditional on Iran achieving full compliance. Advocates for returning to the deal have argued for “freezing” sanctions in place or using existing sanctions as leverage. There is no talk of ending sanctions beforere-joining the deal: Biden, though critical of Trump’s policies, does not appear willing to reverse them without Iran offering concessions of its own.
In 2020 Iran began to ramp-up its production of nuclear materials. By March 2020, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that Iran was edging towards non-compliance. The European Union triggered the JCPOA dispute mechanism in January 2020, citing Iran’s rule-breaking. But Iran triggered the very same mechanism in July 2020, arguing that the agreement’s other members were not living up to their commitments. Foreign minister Javad Zarif called on Europe to stand by the agreement in the face of “U.S. bullying.” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has argued that Iran will continue to reduce its compliance until the U.S. ends its maximum pressure campaign and returns to the JCPOA as it was originally agreed in 2015.
It will be difficult for either side to retreat from these positions. A favorable scenario would be one where Iran suspended its uranium enrichment, allowing the Biden administration to reduce sanctions without losing face. But Iran is unlikely to take such a step unprompted.
The U.S. seemingly occupies the stronger position, with its overweening economic and military power. Yet European leaders have expressed considerable frustration with the U.S. decision to exit the deal in 2018. The U.S. argued it was withdrawing because Iran was not adhering to the agreement. But in April 2020, the Trump administration argued that the U.S. never actually left the agreement, as a justification to implement “snap-back” sanctions. Regardless of a change in administration, the credibility of the United States has suffered a deep blow, something which Biden himself has acknowledged.
Moreover, U.S. leverage over Iran is not quite as strong as it was prior to 2015. Despite sanctions, COVID-19, and rising internal unrest, the regime in Tehran is not on the verge of collapse. Protests in November 2019 were mercilessly crushed, there has been no major revival in popular dissent, and Iran is cementing closer ties with China. Though recent attacks on national infrastructure, including an explosion at the nuclear facility at Natanz, have enhanced the sense of a nation under siege, such events are unlikely to push Iran’s leaders towards accepting U.S. terms.
The tide has turned against the “moderates” of the era of President Hassan Rouhani, as parliamentary elections in 2020 returned an assembly dominated by hardline voices. Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, the new parliamentary speaker, former mayor of Tehran, and veteran of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has emerged as a top candidate in the 2021 presidential election, where he will probably receive the support of the IRGC and the tacit approval of Khamenei.
Khamenei chose pragmatism in 2015, arguing in favor of the nuclear agreement. In 2020, however, the supreme leader is turning the tone of his government in a more hardline direction, narrowing the field of presidential candidates and placing more radical figures in positions of power. A crucial factor in the JCPOA negotiations was the rapport struck between Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Qalibaf, who is aligned with the IRGC and has a history of corruption, would prove an uncooperative and duplicitous negotiating partner. Within Iran’s governing circles, the notion that a nuclear deal would lead to an economic recovery has been widely discredited, as has the idea that the United States can be trusted to honor its side of the bargain.
It is possible that the other participants in the JCPOA will pressure the United States or Iran into offering up substantive concessions, clearing the way for a return to “mutual compliance.” Of course, should Donald Trump win re-election, it is unlikely any improvement in relations will become possible in the near term.
Yet if Biden triumphs, the goals of the Quincy Report will continue to face considerable obstacles. The barriers to improving relations between the United States and Iran may not be insurmountable, but they are certainly more considerable now than they were five years ago. The JCPOA may not rise from the ashes. And the current fraught state of U.S.-Iranian relations may endure even if Donald Trump exits the White House in January 2021.
Gregory Brew is a historian of oil and U.S.-Iranian relations. He received his doctorate from Georgetown University in 2018. He is a 2018-2020 post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. His work has been published in Iranian Studies, International History Review, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Texas National Security Review. He comments on issues relating to energy, history, and geopolitics, and his work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Conversation, National Interest, and The FUSE.
From left, Head of Mission of People's Republic of China to the European Union Hailong Wu, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarifat, an unidentified Russian official, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pose for a photo following negotiations between the P5+1 member nations and Iranian officials about the future of their country’s nuclear program at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland on April 2, 2015. [State Department photo]
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.