Sudha David-Wilp on the Changing Face of U.S. Foreign Policy

Raising Debate

U.S. foreign policy is in flux. In early May, President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. His inflammatory rhetoric has incited squabbles with allies and raised concerns about North Korea. And with the State Department in disarray and a brand-new Secretary at the helm, the world is holding its breath to see what comes next.

That’s why we sat down with Sudha David-Wilp—Deputy Director and Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin offices. With foreign policy experience in both the U.S. and Europe, Sudha provides big-picture insight into U.S. foreign policy today.

Before working at the German Marshall Fund, you were Director of International Programs at the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. How did it shape the way you understand foreign policy?

The role at the Former Members of Congress actually encompassed working with current members of Congress. It was valuable to learn how much attention members give to foreign policy, especially since their first priority is to constituents at home. It was great to see that in D.C. before coming to Berlin. I learned how difficult it is to balance responsibilities at home while explaining to voters that U.S. foreign policy also matters for domestic prosperity.

You have a broad perspective of U.S. politics from both inside and abroad. Where do you think U.S. foreign policy is headed under the current administration?

U.S. foreign policy is definitely in a different state than it has been over the last 70 years. I have to admit there were telltale signs from the Obama administration that the U.S. wanted its partners and allies to do more burden-sharing. But President Trump has made it crystal clear that the United States isn’t going to underwrite the international system that has been in existence over the past 70 years.

This obviously has positive and negative effects. Positive because partners are stepping up and spending more on their military budgets to help the U.S. on common challenges like combatting terrorism or checking Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere, including disinformation campaigns. But the different tone is having a negative effect, and some of our partners and allies are having a hard time adapting to it.

Is Trump’s foreign policy simply a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, especially with the withdrawal from international conflicts?

There are definitely similarities between President Obama and President Trump in terms of foreign policy objectives. President Obama also wanted to see more proactive stances from partners in terms of collective security. President Trump is certainly carrying that objective out but in a more aggressive manner.

But there definitely are differences. President Obama believed in a multilateral framework for confronting challenges. President Trump sees the need for cooperation, but at the end of the day, it’s “America first,” and his is certainly a more unilateral foreign policy approach.

What impact is the current administration having on U.S. relations abroad?

In some ways, it seems President Trump has taken positive steps. A couple months ago, for example, tensions on the Korean peninsula seemed to be easing. But there’s still a long way to go to see if the conflict can be stabilized or resolved. In terms of public opinion, unfortunately President Trump is not very popular among partners here in Europe. That’s something that whoever comes next might have to deal with in terms of fixing America’s popularity abroad. In Germany, barely a third of Germans have faith in the U.S. president, which is completely different from the standing President Obama had here in Germany.

Understanding these feelings abroad, would you subscribe to the idea that we’re at the end of the “American order”?

The jury is still out on that. Certainly it is not going to be like the last 70 years—the post-World War II order. We are entering a new phase where there are new factors, like hyper-globalization and technological progress. We’ve also seen tremendous growth in so-called “developing” countries. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty over the last couple of decades. We are entering a new world order, but I can’t imagine that the United States would not play a significant role in it.

Apart from Haley at the U.N. and Hutchison at NATO, we don’t see many women representing U.S. interests abroad. What can we do to elevate women in the field?

There aren’t a lot of women in foreign policy positions in this administration, but there are women in the National Security Council. They usually work behind the scenes. This is a phenomenon in other countries as well, but we’ve seen great strides recently. Look at the Defense Ministers of France, Spain, and Germany: all women. And we have women leading the U.K. and Germany.

We’ve also seen a surge of women running for office in the upcoming Congressional elections and on the local level. I hope that in the next couple of years, we’ll see more and more women in public office and playing a more important role in foreign policy.

What advice would you give to women pursuing a career in international politics?

The most important thing is to look for mentors. Definitely try to speak to as many people in the field as you can, and try out many different types of jobs, especially at the beginning of your career. Because even in foreign policy, you can go the non-profit route, the government route, the private sector route. There are definitely many paths within the field, so it is important to talk to many people and to try things out before settling on one type of job.

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