As the U.S. campaign season heats up, a question being asked around the world is what America’s role in international politics will look like under the next administration. David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal, sat down with Douglas E. Schoen to discuss the United States’ image in the world through the lens of its presidential election. Schoen, one of the most influential Democratic campaign consultants, was a founding partner and principal strategist for Penn, Schoen & Berland, and is widely credited as one of the co-inventors of overnight polling. He has worked for the heads of state and government of over 15 countries, including Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, and three Israeli prime ministers.
DAVID A. ANDELMAN: I want to talk about the climate surrounding the elections here, and in Europe and overseas particularly, but I’d like to start off with the relative levels of anger in the U.S. and Europe. There seems to be considerable anger and grounds for anger on both sides of the Atlantic.
DOUGLAS E. SCHOEN: I wrote a book three or four years ago called The End of Authority. It was about Europe. My argument was that there is no legitimacy anymore; there’s no confidence in governments, in institutions—it just doesn’t work. Whether you have right-wing or left-wing opposition parties, people have no confidence in anything. That was my argument, and I think it’s right. I think it’s been borne out. And I think that in the U.S., we’re facing something similar on the left with Bernie and on the right with Trump and Cruz. Put another way, people may well still believe in America, but they don’t believe in American institutions. They don’t believe in American political parties. They don’t believe in anything. And they don’t believe anything works. And they largely attempt to eschew the positional confidence you’d have, and to believe that life will be better for their kids than, in fact, it would be for them.
DA: That’s all true, but you find a similar kind of malaise, if you will, in France. You have the National Front becoming very potent. You have that in some other countries in Europe as well.
DS: There are extremists in Germany. You have Le Pen in France.
DA: It just feels somewhat more intense here than it does over there.
DS: I actually think it’s worse over there.
DS: We, at least, have a system that mostly works most of the time. It doesn’t work there. It just doesn’t work. Nothing is going right there. Stock markets, jobs, unemployment at 25 or 30 percent, high taxation. And the whole damn continent’s overrun by immigrants. Regardless of whether there’s an obligation, the damn social fabric is being destroyed.
DA: I think you made the analogy of voicelessness equals powerlessness. That seems to be fairly congruent on both sides of the Atlantic, right?
DS: You know, the other side of it, there is no leadership from the United States.
DA: Why do you think Europe looks to the U.S. for leadership still?
DS: Well, it looked to Russia, and some people think that’s passably good. Most say, Where’s the United States?
DA: Why can’t they look to themselves to be global—I mean, you have the European Union, you have a powerful, continent-wide, effective nation of almost half a billion people. Why does Europe, and why does the world, always look to the U.S.?
DS: Because we’ve been the indispensable nation, and we’ve always been there to provide financial, intellectual, emotional, political, and military support. But now we aren’t doing it! If I had said to you, “I think Clause 5 of the NATO Treaty is up for grabs,” five years ago, you would have said I was ridiculous. But if there is an attack next week in Eastern Europe, in the Baltics, or in Turkey by the Russians, I’m not 100 percent convinced that NATO would rally round. I don’t think the United States would take a regional skirmish as an attack on the United States, or that we’re even willing to defend ourselves against blatant aggression. Think about what happened just a few days ago. A Russian jet barrel rolled a U.S. Air Force plane in the Baltic Sea and we had no response. We never entered Russian airspace and they were within 50 feet of our wingtip, according to U.S. European Command. How can we have no reply to that?
DA: So in effect, we have eschewed our position as the world’s policeman, and effectively there is no world’s policeman anymore.
DS: Correct, and to the extent there maybe is one, his name is Vladimir Putin.
DA: So, do you sense that there is a vacuum that someone like a Putin, like a Merkel for instance, could step into if it were adequately positioned as being to their advantage?
DS: Yes, I do. Putin has stepped in to some degree, whether it be in Ukraine, whether it be in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whether it be in Georgia. The leaders in the Baltics are scared to death. Did President Obama say, “Mr. Erdoğan, we have deep-seated problems with what you’re doing, but rest assured if the Russians destabilize your country or say to the Syrian Kurds, Blow up Ankara again.”—did President Obama say, “Don’t worry, we’ll be on your side”? Not at all!
DA: Now, Doug, you’ve done polling in other parts of the world, I understand.
What does your polling show in terms of their perception of us, in terms of their place in the world, or the place in the world that they would like to see themselves?
DS: Well, there is a clear sense that we should lead. There’s a clear sense that we’re not leading. And a clear question about what our role in the world is or will be.
DA: Does it come down to money? Does it come down to branding?
DS: It comes down to money, political leadership, military leadership, model of authority, and political guidance.
DA: There’s a lot of talk about the issue nowadays of the American brand. Branding is a hot subject in marketing and various places, but also in politics. Are you concerned that all of the cacophony in the current presidential campaign is destroying the American brand? Obama, when he went up to Congress for his annual St. Patrick’s Day speech—he said the American brand is being destroyed. Did you get that sense in Europe that our brand is being destroyed?
DS: Here’s the way I put it. I am somebody who—I say this in my professional life—has done branding for a living for maybe 35 years. I don’t think the American brand is being destroyed by communications or by bad elections. I think it’s being destroyed because we do not have a coherent message, plan, strategy and set of goals for our nation, that I think were implemented. And to me, it’s not so much branding, it’s leadership. Branding follows leadership.
DA: You know, Henry Kissinger, who was a professor of mine in college, used to say that the greatest American presidents are those who come in with a sense of Weltanschauung, a worldview. And there have been very few of those lately. They almost ping-pong from crisis to crisis. How do we get rid of that? How can we return to a position where an American president comes in with a Weltanschauung and develops that in the course of his presidency, and sees at the end of four or eight years what that world would look like and feels confident it does look that way?
DS: Well, first, we believe that an environment where there is no coherent narrative about what our role is. It is very easy to do what Trump or Sanders has done, which is to say that our narrative is no narrative, to say that we’re not going to be the world’s policeman, we’re not going to pay for everybody, and we’re not going to provide leadership. It is very disturbing for me to hear that. Hillary Clinton has not really articulated a vision. And I daresay President Obama hasn’t and Ted Cruz—he’s talked about doing a lot of carpet bombing.
DA: How much of this is this lack of American leadership or this desire for American leadership financially based? The dollar is still of course the world’s reserve currency and that’s not going to change for the time being, but beyond that, how much of this has to do with the question of funding, of money?
DS: I think a large part of it has to do with money, but I think a large part also has to do with, as I said, a coherent message and a sense that we stand for something. I’ll give you an example: A leading businessman in Orange County told me recently that the Chinese had asked him, as well as many others, how we could let a Donald Trump happen in America. How could you let your political system become so degraded, leading Chinese figures wondered. I told my California friend and colleague that we need pushback against the Chinese to suggest that if they allowed freedom it would be a lot worse in China than here. Indeed, the entire structure would fall down because of environmental, social, and cultural upheaval. They effectively have a regime that lacks popular support and is pursuing expansionist policies in the South and East China Sea while America stands for freedom and liberty throughout the rest of the world—a worldview and set of policy implications we are not fully pursuing.
DA: That’s an interesting perspective.
DS: Who is articulating any broad scale sense of what we are about? Which is more than money—we’re about an ideal that animates my existence, it was what I was brought up on, and it leads me to wake up every day and do what I do with a sense that there is a greater purpose than just killing trees.
DA: But when you get hired by a foreign government, political figure, or political campaign, do they ask you how they can become more American?
DS: They used to say how can we employ more American techniques, they figured that out. Now the question I get is: Is your country a joke?
DA: But they still turn to someone like you who was known for your ability to win an American election.
DS: They concede that our expertise beats that of anyone in the world, but they’re not convinced that we know that we offer the unabashed leadership that we used to.
DA: We had a piece in World Policy Journal a couple of years ago where we looked at the nature of new constitutions that are coming along everywhere in the world. There were a couple of professors from the Midwest who had done a study and discovered that the model that most countries that were forming or drafting new constitutions turned to was not that of the United States or Britain or most places that you would think of, but Canada.
And the reason, they discovered, was not so much that the Canadian constitution was brilliantly crafted—it’s not that much different in many respects than our own Bill of Rights for instance. But it was simply that Canadians were perceived as being nicer, which they perceived as being the model to which their country ought to aspire. Do you have that sense that we are no longer an inspirational country for the rest of the world?
DA: And how does that play out, how does that manifest itself?
DS: Well, again, I can tell you that we used to be seen as the beacon or the leader or the role model at every level just as a default. And I think that’s largely gone, and I think that’s my first reaction for what we just said.
DA: Right. How can we restore that? You’re a guy who solves image problems, among other things, branding problems. How would you change it?
DS: We don’t have a set of core values that we stand for. We don’t have a set of policies to support those core values.
DA: So how do we get back to that?
DS: It’s the stunning lack of leadership. You can tell me that Secretary Clinton is the most likely person to be the President of the United States. What is her overarching foreign policy doctrine other than that Libya was her greatest accomplishment and President Obama said it was his greatest failure.
DA: In other words, we really need to have a president who is prepared to find a national security advisor who is prepared to articulate and carry out a Weltanschauung. How likely are we to see four major candidates this fall and an election decided in the House of Representatives? It almost feels like the first round in a French presidential election but we don’t get a chance for a second run-off round with the top two. So how likely do you think we are to come up with a scenario like that?
DS: I don’t think we will because our laws and ballot access will also make it very difficult for candidates to run, but if you ask your question another way, if there was an opportunity for more parties—a centrist party, a right-wing, and a left-wing party—to get on the ballot, would they have a chance and the answer is, increasingly, yes.
DA: That’s interesting. We seem to be moving almost toward a European model.
DS: Yes, but it’s truncated because of the way our laws work, making it very difficult.
DA: We have a constitutional democracy rather than a parliamentary democracy, so that’s the real difference right? We don’t have an Israeli system where we could have 25 parties in parliament and another 25 aspiring to get in.
DS: Well you could have that easily if you do what a lot of parliamentary systems do. But we don’t have a system that reflects the views of anything other than a small minority on the left and right.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of HiraV]