The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy: A Conversation With Vice President Joe Biden
The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy: A Conversation with Vice President Joe Biden
Vice President, United States of America
President, Council on Foreign Relations
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden joins CFR President Richard N. Haass to discuss the future of U.S. foreign policy. Biden discusses the foreign policy doctrine he developed over more than forty years in public service, the current state of U.S. foreign relations, his vice presidency, and the future of U.S. leadership in global politics.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the vice president of the United States. (Applause.)
BIDEN: This looks like murder’s row here. (Laughter.) And I don’t know why I agreed to do this. But go ahead. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Well, good evening. I’m Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And I want to welcome all of you in this room and those watching to the Council on Foreign Relations. Please join me in welcoming the 47th vice president of the United States to the Council. I should add that this is the 15th time he has spoken here, but it’s the first time he’s done so in his present position. (Laughter.) The phrase “public service” is thrown around a lot, but the gentleman next to me personifies it. His has been, and remains, a life of serving the public. Thirty-six years in the Senate, now close to eight years as vice president. I only hope the pension is generous. (Laughter.)
BIDEN: It’s the only thing I have. It better be. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Just so everything is on the table here, I should add that we first met in 1974, when he was a young Senator barely meeting the constitutional age requirement, and I was an even younger Hill staffer. And the two of us have been talking about U.S. foreign policy ever since, for more than 40 years. Actually, let me rephrase that. I’ve mainly been listening—(laughter)—to the vice president talk about American policy ever since.
BIDEN: You haven’t learned much, man. (Laughter.)
BIDEN: If you’ve been listening. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Yeah. So let me just say I am proud and I’m fortunate to call Joe Biden a friend. Mr. Vice President, welcome to the Council.
BIDEN: Thank you very much, Richard. (Applause.)
HAASS: What we’re going to do is, in this on-the-record meeting, I’m going to begin with a few questions, and then we will open it up to our members to ask the serious ones. But let me begin with this, sir, if I may: When I’m asked about the administration’s foreign policy, and whether there’s an Obama doctrine, I often talk about two things. One is to reduce America’s footprint in the Middle East. And the other is to pivot or rebalance towards Asia.
So let’s take them one at a time and start with the Middle East. Syria is obviously on everyone’s mind for strategic and humanitarian reasons. Libya now is something of a failed state. Iraq is something of a divided one. So the question I would put to you is, did the retrenchment, did the idea of reducing America’s presence in the Middle East, did it go too far?
BIDEN: Well, that’s not how—I would disagree slightly with the premise about what the basis of our foreign policy was. The fundamental thing that we talked about in that interregnum period, sitting in that 67th floor, whatever it was, in Chicago, putting together an administration, was the need to reestablish and strengthen the foundations of American foreign policy, or America’s role in the world.
And the first among those, and you wrote a book about it, was to actually reestablish our economic leadership in the world. And I mean that sincerely, because no foreign policy is capable of being implemented without a growing economy. The second thing that we wanted to do was to we thought that our—we were in a situation where we already had the best military in the world, but there was a need to actually continue to improve our capacity, particularly focusing more on counterterrorism capability and special forces than—so, as you know, because I came—I asked you to come and see me and talk about the quadrennial report of what we were going to do militarily.
The third thing, and not necessarily in this order, what we wanted to do is—we thought that—and this is—I’m not about a criticism of the previous administration. But the truth was, that our judgement was being questioned by our friends as well as our foes—but even our friends. And we thought it was important that we reestablish not only the example of our power, but the power of our example, which was equally as consequential in terms of getting the rest of the world to follow us, in order to be able to do what was another aspect of what we thought was a foundational necessity.
And that is for us to be able to be in a position where we could strengthen our alliances, broaden responsibility, and with the hope that some of the burden would be lifted from us, because I think—and last thing I’ll say about this—or on this point—is that I think you’ve heard me say before in our discussions, and you’ve said it in a different way and better, is, you know, we need a real strong dose of humility about the capacity of us to fundamentally alter circumstances around the world, and make judgements about what are our priorities. My sister Valerie here—is with me here. My best friend and manages all my campaigns. Our dad used to have an expression. He’d say: If everything’s equally important to you, nothing’s important to you. So it was prioritizing.
And that’s where the rebalance in Asia came in. But it wasn’t so much about getting out of or lessening the footprint. It was about changing the fundamental approach we had to the Middle East, because we concluded—and I think we were right—that the use of force with large standing armies in place was extremely costly, would work until the moment we left. And so part of the foreign policy is the use of force when it is efficacious and it will have a lasting result, or at least a result that in fact allows us to gain something we did not have before. And that’s the lesson I think everybody learned about the invasion of Iraq. And so it wasn’t like let’s lessen our footprint. It was, let’s decide what is more workable.
The end result was we did lessen our footprint because we concluded that spending another trillion dollars in the region was not particularly efficacious. But I’ll be more specific if you want but I apologize for challenging the premise of the question. But that’s literally what we talked about when we were putting together the administration as to what we thought we had to do at the front end.
HAASS: Let me just follow up with one more on the Middle East before I turn to Asia, which is when historians look at situations like Syria do you think it’s possible, though, that they’re also going to conclude that if the previous administration erred by trying to do too much with military force that this administration has erred in the opposite way by not asking military force to do quite enough?
BIDEN: No, but it may. It may. So let me explain what I mean by that. I’m going to choose my words careful here because I still have a V in front of my name—(laughter)—and I’m not good at choosing my words. (Laughter.) No one ever doubts I mean what I say. The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean. (Laughter.)
Look, I am not a big fan of red lines. I am not a proponent of laying down markers unless you’ve thought through the second, third and fourth step that you’re going to have to take and almost assuredly will have to take in order to accomplish your initial goal. And my view is that Syria is as if not more complicated than Iraq and the internal divisions that are deep, profound and lasting, whether it’s the Alawites, the Shi’a, the Sunnis, it’s—whether it’s the geographic locations, how different it is.
And so I don’t think, had we—had we decided to use significant force, meaning—now, we can easily say we should have bombed and gone in and taken out their air defense system and we should have—well, you know, big nations can’t bluff. You do that, then what’s the next step? What’s the next step you do? Because you know what’s going to happen. What’s going to happen is exactly what was happening anyway. The idea that anyone in this room thinks that we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Iraq or ever thought we could from the outset in any near term I would challenge your judgment. This is a nation that was held together by force, bubble gum and baling wire.
HAASS: You’re talking about Syria or Iraq now?
BIDEN: I meant to say Syria.
BIDEN: I’ve been—
BIDEN: —so steeped in Iraq. I apologize. I’m talking about Syria. And so—and we knew that we had—any rate, I’m going on too much. But I—history may judge that but I think it would be an incorrect conclusion if you judged that. And I’m not just defending my president. I don’t think there was any clear path for a significant use of military force, and there was a second issue.
No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. Let me say it again. No foreign policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. There wasn’t a single solitary member of Congress, including John McCain, my friend, who would support any American troops on the ground. Let’s not have self-imposed amnesia here.
So, you know, the circumstances were not good. Some of us argued internally for slightly different approaches but I think on balance the use of significant ground forces which would have been required, in my view, to fundamentally alter the—that administration where it was—I think that would have been a mistake.
HAASS: You recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine—just to choose a random publication—that—(laughter)—that the Trans-Pacific Partnership—TPP—is as much about geopolitics as economics, and there we agree 100 percent. So my question is can there be a rebalance towards Asia without TPP, and given that both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton oppose TPP, can there be TPP?
BIDEN: Answer the second question first. As my grandfather would say, with the grace of God, the goodwill of the neighbors, and the crick not rising, we got a shot in this period—lame-duck period. That’s our only real shot here. I’m not overpromising, but sometimes when there is no election to face and people are leaving and others who are staying they may see the wisdom of TPP, number one.
Number two, but it’s going to be hard. I think it’s less than an even chance but there is a genuine chance. It’s possible we can get it passed. The central element of your question was can you rebalance without TPP. Yes, but not nearly as well. Yes, but not nearly as well.
I spent a couple hours today with Abe, who I’m with not infrequently. I spent a fair amount with President Park. I just was in Australia. I’ve spent time with the—with the prime minister of India. There is a growing and clear understanding that there is a need from a pure security standpoint that we are in a position where there is a nexus between, and I mean in terms of security, from Australia to India to South Korea and that entire region.
Is that enough to prevent China from being able to use the overwhelming, almost physical weight? And the example I give to graduate students when I’m asked to speak is it’s like this big, big, big, thing just sitting up there and the weight on the region is profound. It’s profound, and it has the ability to be able to—when you see what’s happening in the Philippines right now.
BIDEN: It’s not unlike the Cold War when you’re—they were on the—anyone on the border of the Soviet Union and they didn’t think we were going to be hanging around they were—worked their own modus vivendi.
So it is—it is not as helpful and it’s harder—in my view, it will be harder to maintain the liberal international order as it relates to the seas, the air as well as trade. But it is—even if we don’t get TPP we would still suggest that rebalancing our physical force in that part of the world is vitally important to reinforce the resolve of some of our friends in the region.
HAASS: Let me ask a related question, if I might. There was a piece in the paper today that showed polls indicating now a majority of Americans actually favor free trade. But as you know better than anybody, a lot of—most of the political intensity of this issue is on the other side—on the side of the opponents.
Given your experience in both branches of government, how can we rebuild what was for decades a bipartisan majority that favored free trade, especially—and this is something you’ve spoken about—when in the future we’re going to be losing more jobs not because of trade but because of technology—
HAASS: —and productivity improvements. But trade will often be blamed for it. What do you think we have to do to basically sell this to this country?
BIDEN: Well, I don’t want to embarrass anybody sitting in the front row who can close several trillion dollars in investments. (Laughter.) But, look, first of all, free trade and globalization has not been an unalloyed success. You know, we all in this room come at this from the standpoint of the need for a rational liberal international order and the free flow of ideas and good—say, you know, globalization, man, it’s been wonderful. It’s not been wonderful for an awful lot of people. It is applied very, very unevenly. And we fail to recognize that there are genuine dislocations that cause a distinct—a distinct sense of apprehension, fear, and loathing for what then we talk about, TPP and trade.
I just spoke at the Korbel Institute at the University of Denver. And the topic of my speech—which I promise I will not bore you with—was that, look, all of us who spend our lives devoted to the—to the active engagement of the United States as the daughter of the—after whom that school is named, Madeleine Albright, we are the indispensable nation. And the truth of the matter is, if we’re not pushing on the establishment of an international order and fully engaged internationally, there is little likelihood that there will be 21st century rules of the road that can be—that can accommodate the change that’s taking place like our grandfathers did after World War II.
But here’s the deal. One of the things we forget is—and I’ll use the phrase again; maybe it’s because I’m a—you know, I’m a child—a political child of Vietnam, the Vietnam War—no policy can be sustained without the informed consent of the American people. And the American people make a direct connection between their dislocation that’s happening—and it’s real—what’s happening to them and trade. They are not opposed, in my view, to the United States being robustly engaged internationally. But they don’t make a distinction—and this is Joe Biden the politician, who I think has had a pretty good touch for what folks think out there. I know in Washington I’m referred to as Middle-Class Joe. That’s not meant as a compliment; it means I’m not sophisticated. But I do know—I do know—and the reason why I still get overwhelming support from those folks—I do know what they’re feeling, what they’re tasting.
And so there’s ways to deal with it. The way to deal with it is focus on some of our domestic things we could do to make up for what, in fact, are going to continue to be dislocations. For example, you know—I think you were there, Richard—I was asked to keynote the Davos conference on fourth industrial revolution and would there be middle-class jobs in the future, and what’s going to happen. We’ve always been able to bend the fundamental changes that have taken place in the world to the—to the overall benefit of society and the growth of a—literally a middle class.
But right now we’re not going it because our economic policy is being stymied. For example, we—does anybody here think 12 years of education is sufficient to compete in the 21st century? For God’s sake. Does anybody here think that we have—we can continue to sustain ourselves with the crumbling infrastructure we have in America? I mean, the crumbling infrastructure we have in America. We only have three ports from the Gulf of Mexico on the—on the Mexican-American border all the way to Maine that can accommodate post-Panamax ships for God’s sake.
And so what we can do to make up for those—how can I say it?—those losses that occur as a consequence of, in the minds of the American people, trade deals is we can better prepare them for all those jobs in the 21st century. For example, you know, we’ve invested—it’s not about us. I don’t mean—I’m not making a political comment, just a practical comment. There is a need, and there will be for the remainder of this century, for continuing education no matter what your job is—no matter what your job is. Things are going to change so rapidly in the workplace over the next five, 10, 15, 20 years that whether you’re a—whether you are a nuclear engineer or whether or not you’re somebody who, in fact, worked at a lathe, you’ve got to change.
And so we have the capacity to do that. For example, a lot of folks, the same people who used to stoke a power in a steel mill or work on a—you know, on an assembly line welding a fender, they don’t know anything about photovoltaic technology. But the industry relating to solar energy is mushrooming. There’s more people working there than Google, you know, all the—all of them—Microsoft—all these guys combined. But guess what? It takes about a 15-week course to know how to deal with photovoltaic technology on the machines that, in fact, are the ones that make these solar panels, for example.
And so what are we doing? We’re going out—and our friends on the other team don’t support it—and saying any business who needs this—what’s the one thing—how many of you guys and women here are corporate leaders? I’m not being—you don’t have to raise your hand, but I’d be proud if I were you. (Laughter.) What do you guys say to all of us all the time? What’s the one thing you say to every elected official regardless of what your political persuasion is? I need more-educated people. I need a better-educated workforce. Well, guys, this is all within our wheelhouse. This is not a hard thing to do.
For example, we need 566,000 registered nurses in the next two years. We need 1,200,000 IT personnel now—now, now. You’re 500,000 short right now here in the United States of America. It doesn’t take a four-year degree. It doesn’t even take a two-year degree. IT Global, if anybody represents them, they put together a program in Detroit where all you had to do was to go through a 14-week program, and they went into the hood—into the neighborhoods. The first class I was there for. I think it was 54 people—don’t hold me to the exact number—all women, no one with more than a high-school degree, most with GEDs, aged 24 to 56. Every one left that program with a job in Detroit making a minimum of $56,000 and a maximum of $104,000.
We have to go out and let these people know there is something else out there for them. And then you will find you’ll continue to get support for the international role that America should play, and trade becomes a different thing.
But, guys and ladies, my party—I won’t criticize—my party, we’ve not paid a hell of a lot of attention to this. We really haven’t. And one of the things—I’m going to embarrass you, Larry—one of the things—Larry and some others in Business Roundtable asked to come and see me, some of the top—CEOs of the top 20 corporations in America: Joe, will you help us change the corporate culture in America. We have such a short-term mentality.
I come from the corporate state of the world, Delaware. Not a joke. Home of the Business Roundtable. Guys, I don’t know how many times I can—I’ll give you one example. Standing on the platform just before I got elected, two CEOs of major companies in my state, the northbound train to New York comes in the station almost the exact same time as southbound train to Washington, which I took every single day. I’m standing on the platform talking to these two CEOs, I said where are you going. And one CEO says, I’m going up to see some sniveling little SOB on Wall Street who has a Master’s degree and going to tell me—going to ask me what am I going to—what’s my margin of profit going to be next quarter. If I don’t meet it, he’s going to downgrade me. So you know what I’m having to do, Joe? This is a true story, my word. G-D it, I’m going to have to lay off four people in this area, but instead of this long-term research problem I have; damn it. How many of you guys are in that position? I’m not joking. There is no—there’s virtually no long-term planning going on.
And so I’ll give you one study and I’ll stop, one study. (Laughter.) Two-point-seven billion dollars made by the top 444 companies in America that are in the Fortune 500 for the entire—from 2003 through 2012. That’s good. You know what it was spent on? Fifty-seven percent to buy back your own stock—57 percent. Thirty-four percent—no, 54 percent to buy back your stock, 37 percent going back to your stockholders, 9 percent for everything else.
You know how I found that out? The president asked me to put together—decide what the jobs of the future were. And I started thinking about it: why the hell aren’t you guys hiring anybody? Why aren’t you going out and investing? Well, you got a lot of good reasons not to. You got—I’m not being critical. You got a lot of good reasons not to. But I remember when DuPont bought Conoco, they spent a whole hell of a lot of money training a whole new batch of people. We don’t do that anymore. It’s the government’s job. Why? Because the inordinate pressure. I’m oversimplifying to make a point.
And so, guys, it seems to me that if we want to reestablish this consensus in America for an international world order where we lead and lean forward, and not find this counterproductive protectionism seeping in, we got to respond to what are legitimate, legitimate concerns of the American people. And I know this is foreign policy. It’s not domestic policy. But it all depends upon the domestic policy, and whether or not we’re going to actually believe—let people believe that the bargain that was established over in the late ’30s, which was if you contributed to the profitability you worked with you got to share in the profits. Not because you guys are being bad guys, that is not happening today for a whole range of reasons that are beyond your control. And I think we got to change it. Sorry to take so long.
HAASS: I got one more foreign policy question and two political questions. On the foreign policy side, I was just in Ukraine. Came back Sunday. And people are nervous there about the U.S., and especially European, staying power vis-à-vis Russia. Should they be?
BIDEN: About Europe? Yes. About us? No. I just spent—as you know, because you know—I am not the pen pal but the phone pal of Poroshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk and now the speaker. I literally, without exaggeration, the last four years I’m on the phone two to three hours a week with those folks. We have had one objective. We know without maintaining the consensus of the EU, particularly though—particularly Germany and France, to some degree Italy—that the ability to sustain the sanctions evaporates. And you know as well as I do—and I’m going to try to be no focused on any one country—there’s an overwhelming instinct in Europe to say, hey, before you guys became president, this was owned but Russia anyway. They had a puppet there. What difference does it make? What the hell is the difference? Why are you making us engage in these sanctions?
And what—I’ve never seen Europe in as much self-doubt in my career—and I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe—as they are now, because of migration, because of Brexit, because of a whole range of reasons. And so what I have been—as I think President Poroshenko and others will tell you—I have been the screed. I’ve been the guy on the back of the Ukrainians—that was a thoroughly corrupt system when I came in—making the case that you have to understand. Everybody’s willing to blame the victim. And you better straighten up and fly right. You remember last year I was authorized to say we’d do the second tranche of a billion dollars. And he didn’t fire his chief prosecutor. And because I have the confidence of the president, I was there, and I said: I’m not signing it. Until you fire him, we’re not signing, man. Get it straight. We’re not doing it.
Until you form a new government and you actually bring in someone who will move on this, we’re not playing. Not because we’re trying to play hardball, because we know if they give an excuse to the EU there are at least five countries right now that want to say, whoa, we want out—at least five right now. And so we are putting enormous pressure on everyone in Europe, particularly up to now the stalwart has been, but she’s now in a different position a little bit, Merkel, and Hollande as well. And it gets down to this—and I’ll conclude. The Minsk Agreement that was signed, Russia has done nothing, nothing to keep their end of the bargain. And so what we put together, we’re putting together now, is a basic detailed roadmap of who goes first and who goes second.
And there’s two pieces of this, folks. One is the security guarantees that are to flow from Russia into the political steps that Ukraine has to take. And some of the steps are very difficult to take. They’ve already done the energy piece. They’ve done some other things. But my point is that when you say the Donbas is going to have a special status and you’re going to amend your constitution, it’s like saying, OK, you know, Texas is going to have a special status that we don’t want because we want Mexico to have more influence in Texas. And we’re going to pass that through the United States Congress. So there’s some really tough stuff they’ve got to do. They’re willing—I’m convinced they will do it.
But what we have to do is make sure that there is nothing missed—as my mom used to say—between the cup and the lip here, that everyone understands what the road map for the implementation of Minsk is so that when Ukraine makes mistakes, and they have, they cannot turn and say the reason this isn’t working is Ukraine, because, guys, what’s this all about? It’s what you set up—and I’m not being solicitous—a Europe whole, free, at peace, with borders that are sanctified. We’ve already lost that piece on Crimea. We cannot—we cannot let Russia succeed in what their overall objective is. They don’t want to invade. They want to totally destabilize the government, bring it down, and as a result get everything they had before and Europe going, well, that was—that was too bad.
So they have reason to be concerned, but not because we are not—we have not redoubled our commitment to make sure that we make it very difficult for Ukraine not to do what they’re supposed to do, but even more difficult for Europe to walk way knowing Russia has not met a single, solitary commitment they’ve made.
HAASS: I want to talk about the vice presidency for a minute. (Laughter.)
BIDEN: That’ll take a second. (Laughter.)
HAASS: So based upon your seven-and-two-third years in the job, what advice would you give to your successor and to President Obama’s successor, about the role of the vice president?
BIDEN: Look, to state the obvious, there is no inherent power in the vice presidency. I’m not arguing there should be. Any power that exists in the vice presidency is totally, thoroughly reflective. It’s what the president decides it is, number one. Number two, I think what you observed was that the job is so complicated now as president, that you really need someone whose judgement you trust, who you know will throw themselves in front of a bus for you, but hopefully—and this is going to sound the wrong way—comes with some genuine substantive knowledge and experience, being able to take on big chunks of what is on your plate. And so it matters what the relationship with the president is.
I will not kid you. It’s already been—it’s been out in the press for a long time. I did not want to be vice president. When I was asked would I allow myself to be vetted because—I said no to then-Senator Barack Obama, the de facto nominee. And he said, I need an answer now. And I said, the answer’s no. I don’t want to be vetted. He said, I promise you the only one other person is not really—he said, how much time do you need? I said, I don’t need any time. (Laughter.) He said—not because I didn’t have an overwhelming regard for him. This is one of the brightest guys I’ve ever met in my life. He has more character in his little finger than any president I have served with, and I have served with eight.
But here’s the deal. It is not a—it doesn’t—it doesn’t work if you don’t really have the president’s confidence. So I asked him, why did he want me? And I told this to Tim. Why do you want me to be the vice president? He said, I want you to help me govern. And he said, you have a background in foreign policy, but you also know the Congress. And this is an incredibly intellectually and politically self-assured man, but he decided that. And I said—he said, do you have any demands? And I said, no demands, but I’ll just tell you the condition I’m running for. I said, I want to be the last guy in the room on every major decision. Not that I expect you to go with what I have to say, but I’ve spent—up to that point—37 years of my life trying to affect outcomes. And so, if I do, I want to be able to be the last guy in the room to make a case.
The advice I’d give the next vice president, whomever that is, is on critical issues, even with senior staff, don’t disagree with the president in public. Save your ammunition, if you have a relationship, so you can go in and you can get in a hollering match if you have to. But it’s never a good thing, even with senior staff or Cabinet members, to be on the other side of a president for his credibility. And so I would suggest you reserve the disagreements you have—and I’ve been lucky. Ideologically, the president and I have had no differences. It’s all been tactical. And I’m able to go in and make my case. Sometimes I win. It’s not when there’s disagreement on tactic. Sometimes I win, and sometimes I don’t.
But that, I think—you know, I learned a long time ago, Richard, and I was—Senator Mansfield taught it to me. As a young guy, I’d get brought in, too, because it was like I was the only gay or only woman or the only African—I was the only young person. No, I’m serious, not a joke. That’s why I got put on the Foreign Relations Committee. The next-youngest guy was—at the time was I think 63, and I was 31, 32. (Laughter.) I mean, seriously. And they were really good. They embraced me, brought me in.
But here’s what I learned from the senior guys that—and there were some really great people, from Jack Javits to William Fulbright to, you know—
HAASS: Clifford Case.
BIDEN: Pardon me?
HAASS: Clifford Case.
BIDEN: Clifford Case was still there. I mean, really men of integrity. But here’s what they said: never walk into the Oval Office, and the president asks you a question, unless you’re prepared to actually level with him. And secondly, don’t go in with more than one thing on your agenda. (Laughter.) I’m serious. I’m serious.
So I think it’s a requirement for the job for the president to know that the person he picked will actually level with him no matter whether he likes it or not. That is—that is the—it’s the last place the president gets to go before he makes a decision.
And I kid with my staff, I don’t know why I pay any of my staff, because they get to advise me. If it goes wrong, nothing happens to them. (Laughter.) I’m staff. It’s a great job. I get to go in and say you’re wrong on that, Mr. President, do this, but he’s got to make the decision.
But I really mean it. It would be just make sure that, to the president, have somebody that you are prepared to hand over some of the responsibilities to do from A to Z, like the Recovery Act for me. The president said—I made the mistake of writing a long memo to him about how to implement it, and that little dining room table where we had lunch, he slid it down and said, good, do it. (Laughter.) You know, I mean, that’s the last time I wrote him a long memo. (Laughter.)
But all kidding aside it really is important. This is—you know, things have gotten so complicated out there that the president needs to have somebody he can trust, and—but trust to give responsibility to that he doesn’t have to flyspeck.
HAASS: I could go on, but I will show uncharacteristic self-restraint and open it up at this point to you, our members. Just to remind you, this is on the record. From the standard operating procedure, raise your hand, I’ll call on you. I won’t be able to get to all of you, I can see that already. Wait for the microphone, let us know who you are, and keep it as short as you can. I see one—
BIDEN: Make it easy so I can say yes or no. (Laughter.)
HAASS: Yes, sir. About the fifth, sixth row there. I can’t see that far. Right, here. You got it.
Q: Mr. Vice President, it’s great to see you. Joseph Cari.
HAASS: Oh, sorry.
BIDEN: Hey, how are you, pal? It’s been a long time.
Q: Well, you were talking about priorities. How does health care fit into the priorities that you were discussing? And how do you see the health care plan that you implemented with the president evolving?
BIDEN: First of all, there are two reasons for the president—and the president deserves the credit. I mean, I played a small part. I mean, there’s other things I’ve been deeply involved in. But the health care piece, what drove the president’s desire to change the health care landscape was not just changing the notion from a privilege to right, which this has done, but dealing with the federal deficit. The single greatest driver of the federal debt before and after, especially with the Baby Boomers, is health care cost to the government. The single greatest driver of debt.
And so there were two objectives. And one of the things that our secretary of treasury, who was nice enough to say hi to me when I came in, focused on: how do you reduce the cost of the increase in the cost of health care, which we knew was going to increase? And the slowest growth in increase of health care costs has occurred since the passage of the ACA.
Number two, we knew when we passed the ACA that it would need modification. There are a number of things we think we—if we could just do this administratively, we would be making changes in the implementation of the ACA by changing some provisions on the margins. I, because I am the guy who you notice whenever there’s a problem with the House or Senate—you know, it’s like that old commercial for Life cereal, “Mikey will eat it”—send Joe, OK? (Laughter.) But all kidding aside, because they know I have great respect for the institutions.
For a while there, we thought that there would be a willingness to actually have a further open discussion, now that it’s passed, for amendments to the implementation of the ACA. And there is a concern now the number of companies that are pulling out and leaving these potential significant spikes in the cost of being part of the ACA in states where there’s only one competitor, for example. And so there’s a need for changes.
But we make no apologies for the fact that the smallest percentage of Americans in history are not covered now. And the one thing that is not able to be measured, Joe, is what I think people most look for, and that’s peace of mind. My dad used to have another expression. He’d say, I don’t expect the government to solve my problem, but I expect it to understand my problem. And think of the tens of millions of people 10 years ago, seven years ago, who went to bed staring at the ceiling—this is not hyperbole, this is literal—and saying, my God, if she develops—my wife lying next to me develops breast cancer, we lose everything. We lose the house. If I have a heart attack, I lose it all. If we did nothing else—nothing else—we brought peace of mind to millions and millions of people.
Does it need to be fixed, Joe, altered, improved? Yeah. Do I hope that this next election will create enough of a critical mass that the Republicans—because I think—choose my—I think the vast majority of the Republicans in the Senate and a clear majority of Republicans in the House know better on a whole range of things, but they are really intimidated by, in the case of Democrats the left, in the case of Republicans in the House the right, because of gerrymandering. You don’t have to worry about a general election, you just worry about being attacked on your right or your left.
And, number two, about the ability—I called up seven U.S. senators who are really genuinely friends of mine, and said, Charlie, you know better about not letting Merrick Garland have a hearing. I know, Joe. I know, Joe. But if I do it, they’ll drop 10 (million dollars), $15 million into my state. Joe, I can’t afford it. That’s not an excuse, but Democrats are just as reverse. Democrats would be just as queasy as those Republicans are. But the majority know better. So I’m hoping we get over this or begin to get over this, how can I say it, this dysfunction that exists in the House and Senate now.
And that’s why one of the things, be very blunt with you, and the president and I have talked about when we get out of here, we’re going to devote a whole lot of time to building state party organizations, electing state senators, governors, et cetera, because it matters that there is a farm team. And by the way, Republicans feel the same way.
Have you ever seen an election with as many prominent Republicans in the last administration who are very—their bona fides are Paul Wolfowitz endorsing Hillary, endorsing how many? Have you ever seen as many Republicans remain silent on this? So I know they know better, Joe. Not “know better,” that sounds demeaning. I know they want to do something else. And my hope is that this election will generate the kind of center, and I don’t mean center politically, I mean core, that will allow us to begin to tackle some of these problems, like what we have to do in health care and a whole range of other issues. But maybe, you know, the wish is the father to thought.
HAASS: John Stazinski?
Q: Yes, Vice President. Could you comment? I’d be very interested in your comment on how your faith, your very profound, devout faith has influenced your 37 years of very high-quality service in Washington.
BIDEN: Well, you’re gracious to say it’s high quality. Look, you know, I was raised in a religious tradition at the time. I’m a Roman Catholic and I’m a John the 23rd guy, we finally got a really good one now in Francis, in my view. (Laughter.) I’ll remind everybody, you know how the Jesuit order formed? To take on the power of the papacy. OK? But that’s another story. (Laughter.)
But all kidding aside, my faith tradition and the way, the traditions of my family, I was raised, they were totally coherent in that the greatest sin, my dad used to say, the greatest sin any man or woman could commit is the abuse of power, whether it’s economic, political, physical, the abuse of power.
And I didn’t realize how important that was to me until I was asked when one of my sons was a senior at Georgetown, my son, Hunter, and I was asked to come and speak about how has my faith informed my politics. And I’d never, ever spoken about it before because I think they should be disconnected in terms of policy. And I spent more time preparing that speech than anything I had ever written.
And I realized it was the animating principle of everything that has moved me has been the abuse of power, whether it was in the Balkans with Milosevic, whether it was abuse of women, I mean, whatever I’ve ever been gotten me the most engaged, it’s been things that relate to the abuse of power.
And the second piece is that I find solace in being able to show up at mass or a service and allowed to be in my own world. And by the way, I’m not—I don’t want to exaggerate this. I’m not even as spiritual as my wife. I’m not sure about an awful lot of these things, but I know that I get solace from the cultural pieces of my faith, beyond the spiritual side. I don’t know if that answers your question. It’s as honest as I can be.
HAASS: Yes, ma’am, in the fourth row. Wait for the microphone, though, then we can hear you.
Q: Thank you. Hi. I’m Alexandra Linden. And thank you, Mr. Vice President, for your service.
My question is, I went to the Kennedy School and one of the things that we learn about is how presidents have a tremendous ability to connect with the American people and we’ve seen that with a number of our past presidents. Without saying anything about the current candidates, I wanted to know, and perhaps this is a controversial question, but I wanted to know why didn’t you decide to run for president again. And do you think about running again for president? (Laughter.)
BIDEN: I planned on running. To be completely honest with you, I had planned on running. Some of my friends, like the man sitting here in the front row were crazy enough to help me. But, you know, nothing noble about it, when my son, who was the finest man I’ve ever known, and I hope you can say that about your sons, it’s a personal thing, my son, Beau, a year before it was time for me to begin to really put this together was diagnosed with a death sentence, stage four glioblastoma. Virtually nobody makes it, but you still hold out hope, you know, and things can happen, there’s so much happening.
And I don’t say—when he passed, part of my soul was gone. And no woman or man should ever run for president unless they are capable and willing to give every ounce of their energy to the endeavor. And I just wasn’t.
And although I did let, you know, my staff put together plans that if I changed my mind, but I just concluded that I wasn’t sort of, how can I say, healthy enough to just pour my whole heart and soul into the effort. And my family wanted me to do it because their conviction was that it was a new purpose. But it was—I can’t blame it on my family, I just didn’t feel like I was ready. And that’s why I’m working so hard to see that Hillary gets elected. But that’s the reason I didn’t do it, I just couldn’t. (Applause.)
HAASS: Howard Berkowitz.
BIDEN: A lot of you are really lucky I didn’t. (Laughs.)
HAASS: Howard Berkowitz, chairman of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy.
We’ve recently signed an agreement with Iran dealing with nuclear proliferation. I believe there are two flaws in that agreement and I’d like your thoughts on it. First, we are not allowed to visit their military bases. And I’m told that they’ve already started to move some of their nuclear facilities to a military base. And second, we have to give them 28-day notice before we visit any of their other bases. And I’m told that they can wipe clean any facility within 28 days.
BIDEN: They can’t.
Q: OK. I’d like to get your view on both of those things and whether Congress could pass any amendments to the deal or additions to the deal that would make the deal more attractive.
BIDEN: I think the deal is attractive as it is. Congress cannot pass any amendments that would not bring the deal down. The IAEA has access on notification to all those bases. There is no facility they cannot visit. And our nuclear scientists and a guy who’s a pretty smart guy, our—Ernie Moniz and others have concluded that there is no way in which this deal would give us less than a year’s breakout time for them to be able to do anything, giving us all the time we needed—not all—give us plenty of time relative to where they were prior to this, where they kept increasing their capacity.
And in the meantime, we don’t trust Iran at all. But Iran has met the front-end portion of the deal. The poured cement into Arak, so they—so the plutonium reactor is not able to be used. They have taken out all of the enriched uranium beyond a certain percentage. It is out of the country. It would take a fair amount of time to bring that back up, and would not be able to happen without us noticing it. And I know—and by the way, even the Israeli intelligence community acknowledges it’s a good deal. (Laughter.) So—no, I’m serious. I’m not joking. That’s a fact.
Could there be a better deal? Yeah. I mean, the better deal was we could have them foreswear there’s no circumstance in which they could ever have peaceful nuclear power, et cetera. But to get from here to there is a difficult choice. I think the president did a hell of a job bringing together a coalition to get this done. Will the deal last? I’m not betting the farm on it. But I’d tell you what, we will have plenty of notice—more notice than we ever had before. It just kept shortening. So that’s my view. I mean, there’s a lot more to say but I’m saying too much already.
HAASS: We probably got time for about one more. I see a hand over here, about the sixth row. I can’t see that far, but—the one glasses I got with me.
Q: Hi. Wendy Luers, Foundation for a Civil Society.
When the wife of Leopoldo Lopez, who is the leader of the opposition in Venezuela, came to see you, the result was further and further oppression for him. And what can this administration and the U.S. government do about the humanitarian crisis and the political crisis in Venezuela?
BIDEN: Thank you for blaming me for the oppression. I appreciate it. (Laughter.) Very gracious of you. You got to be kidding me. (Laughter.)
Here you go. Look, two things. Number one, Maduro is not going to go quietly into the night—number one. Number two, I met today with the new president of Brazil. I’ve met with Macri in Argentina. I met with—today, with Bachelet of Chile. I met today with Santos of Colombia. And we know that if we bigfoot this now the exact opposite thing is going to happen, that without the willingness of (Mercor ?), as well as the OAS to back and push the kinds of changes that are being made, that need to be made, including freeing of political prisoners, allowing the referenda to forward, and backing up their region, backing up the condemnation of failure of the referenda to go forward, that there’s going to be an incredibly combustible circumstance inside of Venezuela.
If we decide that we are going to engage, which we’re not, in covert action or overt military action, we would lose all of South America—flat out, all of it. Increasing Maduro’s hand and power, rather than diminishing it. So we are working—and I’m not prepared to say precisely, because it’s—a fair amount of it’s quietly—but we’re working to try to get the resto of the region to do what the Argentinians have done. Chile is beginning to speak up. To make it clear that there is a serious price for Venezuela to pay if they continue the oppression and not allow the referenda.
And that’s one of the reasons why, with all the downside that may have occurred in Brazil, and the reason why not everybody is universally happy with the succession, we are establishing the principle that constitutional processes have to be sustained in the hemisphere. And we have made—constantly made known directly to the—to Maduro and his foreign ministry and others, that our overwhelming distaste for what he’s doing and what we expect to happen. As a matter of fact, I’m—well, anyway. That’s the answer.
I can take yes or no. I promise I’ll try to do yes or no. If you really have a short question, I’ll just give you yes or no if you want to know. (Laughter.)
HAASS: I was going to ask you, if there’s anything else you want to—that we didn’t ask you that we wished you had?
BIDEN: No. (Laughter.) No, look, I have enormous respect for this organization. No, I mean, I really do. You’re among the most serious group of people that—in this country to talk to about some of the really vexing problems and enormous opportunities that we have. I would just conclude by saying that, you know, like I said, I got elected when I was a kid. I’m the first U.S. senator I ever really knew. (Laughter.) And you all think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. You know, when I first got there, I’d show up at—Mansfield would have me come every Tuesday at 3:00 and he’d give me an assignment. He was just taking my pulse because I had just lost my wife and daughter. Yet I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought every senator got an assignment. I really did. (Laughter.) Can you imagine today a new senator, come in and get your assignment. (Laughter.) Anyway.
But I really am more optimistic about America’s chances today than I’ve ever been in my life. And I really mean it. And I’ll just take a second here. Look, we are better positioned than any country in the world to own the 21st century. Not because of Barack Obama or Joe Biden or any particular leader. You know, there’s that line in Yeats’ poem Easter Sunday 1916. They’d just had the hundredth anniversary of the first rising of the 20th century. And it goes like this—he was trying to describe his Ireland in 1916. He said, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty has been born.” All has changed in the last 15 years, utterly. And the question is, are we going to stay really engaged? We’re at one of these inflection points, man. We got our hands on the wheel.
I remember my physics professor say an inflection point, you’re riding down the highway 60 miles an hour, you turn the wheel abruptly, six, eight degrees either way, and you can never get back on the path again. That’s where we are. That’s a different world. A different world. But the opportunities are immense. We have the most productive workforce in the world, no matter what you guys think—three times as productive as Asia, factually. We will have, and continue to have, the cheapest energy for at least the first half of this century. The epicenter of energy in the world is North America, for real. Mexico, the United States, Canada.
We have the finest research universities in the world, more than all the rest of the world combined. There’s other fine research universities. It’s the secret, thank God for Eisenhower, to our innovative capacity. Name me something that you can put a brand on that was totally new that wasn’t made in America or thought of in America. It’s because of those universities, and immigration I might add. We also have a legal system that the rest of the world repairs to. They know they can adjudicate differences here. They know that intellectual property will be protected.
That’s why I just spoke at A.T. Kearney. They do a report. I think the last 19 years. They ask the 300 largest industrials in the world, what’s the best place in the world to invest? By a margin larger than ever, keeping that record, the last three years they said the United States of America. It’s kind of self-evident. Remember when we got downgraded? I was in the midst of this rapprochement—not rapprochement—this getting to know Xi. Hu and Obama decided we should get to know each other. I’ve had 25 hours of private dinners with this guy. I’ve traveled 15,000 miles with him in China, four days here in the United States. I had to delay the first meeting because I was negotiating keeping us from going over the cliff, but because we—our Republican friends strung it out so long, we got downgraded anyway.
I remember showing up in China and Hu being very gracious. Had a meeting in the Great Hall of the People with he and I sitting in chairs like this. He had his crew, about 10 rows deep, like here, sitting in front of me. We had our crew, you know, all of the Americans that were with me, and more press than I’ve ever seen in my life. I didn’t realize how open to the press they were. (Laughter.) And he started off—and some of you will remember this—he started off and he said: Mr. Vice President, we don’t think your day is past. (Laughter.) Not a joke. We think you will come back. But I’d like to ask you a question. Are our investments in your Treasury bills, are they secure? (Laughter.) And then he said—no, this is a true story. You can, as my wife the professor would say, Google it. And he said, how are you possibly going to deal with your entitlement problem?
And I looked at him, and you know me too well, our State Department guys nearly had a heart attack. I said, oh, don’t worry, Mr. President. I said, and we appreciate your effort to try to help us by—I think it was two days after the downgrading you bought, what, was it $5, $7 billion worth of Treasury bills. And you’re getting really criticized for it. I said, I appreciate it. But I wouldn’t buy any more of our Treasury bonds. I said, it’s true, you own 1 percent of our financial instruments. But the American people own 80-some percent of the Treasury bills. And I said, you know, we’re may not the only nation, but we’re the only major nation who has never, ever, ever, ever defaulted. So I promise it’s safe.
And I said, and by the way, with this entitlement problem, I said, you’re right, we have a political problem. But, my God, your problem. I said, you know—(laughter)—and that’s why I got criticized. Remember, it was during the election I got criticized for not criticizing their one-child policy, I was supporting abortion, and for it. I said, I’m not going to make a comment on your one-child policy, but my God, what are you going to do? (Laughter.) What are you going to do? I said, and if we can do anything to help—(laughter). I swear to God, I’m not joking. (Laughter.)
But I want to make the point, guys. Look, tell me—tell me, you want to trade places with any other—not out of patriotism, just pure simple ability to exercise power anywhere else in the world. China doesn’t have enough water—W-A-T-E-R. (Laughter.) Not a joke. It’s not a good thing, but they don’t have enough water. They’re trying to figure out how to turn around the two major rivers. They’re talking trillion-dollar projects. Most of their arable—a significant portion has been polluted by cadmium. They got to create more jobs. And by the way, 9 percent doesn’t get it for them.
After all this time with the—with Xi, who I’ve gotten to know—I don’t mean to play, you know, we’re good buddies, but you know, all politics is personal, folks, especially foreign policy. You better figure—understand where the other person’s coming from. He’s a smart guy. After these exchanges were over between us, the president said, tell me what he’s like. I said, he’s a man who has a—he has the look of a man who’s about to take on a job he knows is not going to end well. Not a joke. It’s in our interest it does end well for him.
I remember going to the—a lot of you guys have forgotten more about this than I know. I remember debating at the Wharton School someone from the Heritage Foundation in the late ’80s about how Japan was going to eat our lunch. Raise your hand, guys. What do you think? How the EU, we could not compete with 384 million people. Come on, man! No, I’m being deadly earnest. The part that bothers me most about our attitude now, and the reason why I pushed this cancer moonshot, was about cancer—was more than cancer. We used to believe we could do anything, anything. I mean anything. What the hell’s happened? Give me empirical evidence that we’re not better-positioned than any nation in the world.
So, man, what I tell every world leader when they ask it—and you’ve heard me say it—it’s never, never, never, never, never been a good bet to bet against the American people, ordinary people who can do extraordinary things. (Applause.)
The discussion outlines a new U.S. grand strategy focused on reinvigorating solidarity between the United States and established democracies in defense of a world based on liberal principles and the rule of law.
CFR President Richard N. Haass discusses American grand strategy and U.S. foreign policy with professors and students, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.