2024 International Affairs Fellowship Conference: A Conversation With Philip Gordon

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

National Security Advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris; Former Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Former International Affairs Fellow (1998-99); CFR Member


Vice President, Middle East and North Africa Center, United States Institute of Peace; Former International Affairs Fellow (1995-96); CFR Member

Introductory Remarks

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Dr. Phil Gordon was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs (2009–2011) and Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region (2013–2015). He is currently the National Security Advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris.

For more information about the International Affairs Fellowship (IAF), please visit CFR’s Fellowship Affairs Page.

FROMAN: Well, good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for joining us. I’m Mike Froman, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

And thank you for joining us for this 2024 International Affairs Fellowship Conference. We are very pleased to convene this conference with our current and our incoming fellows, as well as some of our alumni and other guests. 

The IAF Program was actually started back in 1967 with the goal of creating a generation of practitioner-scholars, bringing scholars into the government and allowing people from government to spend some time outside thinking, clearing their head, things you don’t get to do in government very often. And we’re looking forward to continuing that program very much and having more of the fellows come from government here to the Council as well. 

Since the 1990s, we’ve added a number of other International Affairs Fellowship programs, including in Japan, Canada, India, Indonesia. We have the Tenured International Relations Scholar Fellowship. And this year we’ve launched a new one, the Robert A. Belfer International Affairs Fellowship in European Security. And we continue to look to build on this program. 

Really, it’s done a great job of achieving its mission. We have produced over 650 international affairs fellows over the course of its history. It gave Condoleezza Rice her first opportunity to serve in government. It introduced Samantha Power to a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. Current Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell was an IAF fellow, James Stavridis was an IAF fellow, as are our two people on stage today. 

So let me start with Phil. You have everybody’s background, but Phil Gordon is special assistant to the president and national security advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris. More importantly, from 1998 to 1999 Phil was a(n) international affairs fellow serving at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, which is I think where we first met and worked with each other. He’s worked in the Biden throughout—before joining the Biden administration, he was here at the Council as the Mary and David Boies senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy. He had worked in the Obama administration on Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf; as well as serving as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. And he spent about eight years of his misspent youth at the Brookings Institution, where he was the founder of the Center on the United States and Europe. 

And Mona, you also have her biography, but she’s the vice president of the Middle East and North Africa (Center) at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She’s been at USAID; at the Stimson Center; and worked at the State Department, where she was international affairs fellow who was one of those folks who came out of government and spent a year thinking through a number of important issues. 

Before I turn it over to Mona, I just wanted to announce that here at the Council we are doing more to develop the alumni networks of people who have passed through the Council, whether they’re interns, staff, term members, or international affairs fellows. And we’ve just launched a LinkedIn group for International Affairs Fellowship alumni. There’s the QR code. You’ll all be receiving an email about that. All the alumni will be receiving an email about that. And the goal of it is really just to create a stronger sense of community and connection between those who’ve shared this fellowship and have connections to the Council as a whole. 

So, with that, let me turn it over to Mona. Thank you. 

YACOUBIAN: Thank you so much, Mike. Let me add my welcome to those joining us here in the room and apparently over a hundred joining us virtually by Zoom. 

So we’ve got a lot we can talk about, Phil, so let’s dive right in. And I thought, appropriately, let’s start with your experience as an international affairs fellow. Maybe tell us a bit about what you did, where you were. How did it affect your career trajectory? And for those IAFs currently in the audience, is there any advice you would impart to them? 

GORDON: Thank you, Mona. And thanks, Mike, for that introduction. 

And I would be delighted to start by talking about my IAF experience because, honestly, it’s not an exaggeration to say it played a critical role in the rest of my career path, as it probably did for you and others that Mike mentioned among the very illustrious alumna from this program. In my case—as Mike said, it works both ways. There are people in government who need the chance to think and breathe a little bit, and then there are people outside of government who get the chance to serve. That was my case. I was a scholar. I was working at a think tank in London. I had never served in government before, but always interested in policy. And getting the IAF gave me an opportunity to do a year in government, and I did that year on the National Security Council, as Mike said, where we first met, as a director for European affairs. 

And it was transformative in the sense of getting—you know, especially at the NSC, you’re only a couple of layers away from the president. And I was doing Europe, and we had the Kosovo war going on. We were hosting then the fiftieth anniversary NATO summit. And just being involved in that policy process was critical to my own development. I then went back to a think tank that was named earlier. 

But having had that experience at that more junior level proved really useful later because then, if you do project ahead eight years in my case, I was fortunate enough to sign on to the Barack Obama campaign in, like, 2008, and I was—I had something to offer because I had served in government in addition to my other qualifications. And then, when he became president, I was able to take a position as an assistant secretary of state in part because I had government experience already; helps you at the level. And then on from there, coming back in the second Obama term, I worked with Mike again doing a different set of issues, and then leaving government again and coming back. 

The point of that long story is that for me, at least, it led to pretty much ten years of fairly senior government positions, I won’t say all because but to a large degree because, as a younger, more junior person, I had the opportunity to see what it was like. So—and I think my story is very similar to some of the others that were mentioned who had an opportunity to do this early on and then it really impacted their careers. 

So I’m nothing but a fan of this program. I applaud the Council for having it and for people who support it. And congrats to the IAFs that are in the room, and I hope you have an experience, you know, as positive as the one that I have had with it. 

YACOUBIAN: So, armed with that IAF experience and all of the—all the various government positions you’ve held, you now, of course, are serving as national security advisor to the vice president. We are at, I think it’s fair to say, a momentous time in the world, and I think it would be useful to start our substantive conversation by having you reflect a bit on the geostrategic challenges that the administration faces. And I’ll start by just quoting the 2022 National Security Strategy, where President Biden noted that the world is at an inflection point; and how the U.S. responds to this is going to be determinative in terms of the direction of the world, the impact on the security and prosperity of the American people—I’m quoting directly here—for generations to come. 

Two years later, I think it’s fair to say—(laughs)—that that assessment is even more relevant, and that the challenges we face are even more significant. So let’s start—and we’ll dive into some of the specifics—but just broadly, how do you view this particular moment in the world for the United States? 

GORDON: Thanks, Mona. Yeah, look, it is quite the moment. It is—it feels like an inflection point. It is an inflection point. I think it's fair to say that people in these jobs probably always feel like, you know, that the challenges they face are greater than they ever have been before. And you know, having done this a few times and talked to others, it always feels that way because the world is a challenging place, and no administration has not faced hugely consequential geopolitical challenge or crises. You don’t get through four years without having to face some really tough stuff. So I don’t want to fall prey to the, you know, woe is us, our challenges are bigger than anyone has ever faced before. 

That said, if you just step back and think about it, what we are facing is momentous. I mean, a few that are mentioned in the National Security advisor—Strategy from 2022—and just start with China. We’re facing, as we said in that document, a country—the only country; and frankly, the only one for a very long time—that has both the intent and the capability of overthrowing and challenging the international order that—the U.S. international order. That’s a big deal, and even beyond what the Soviet Union can do, just start with that challenge. Like, if it were only that, we would be facing a monumental issue. 

But we have that, plus a Russia invasion of Ukraine over two years ago, the biggest land war in Europe that we’ve faced since World War II with tremendous geopolitical consequences—threatening other close allies in Europe and NATO; driving up energy prices, food prices; disrupting supply chains. 

Then the Middle East, something I suspect, given your background, we’ll end up talking about. Not just the, you know, horrific attack on Israel and Israel’s response leading to a humanitarian tragedy and crisis in Gaza; but the repercussions of that, the back and forth with Hezbollah. And it was only a few weeks ago that Iran was firing ballistic missiles directly from Iran into Israel. And we’ve got Houthis closing down the Red Sea and shooting at us as we speak. 

So just those three big regions. We could do other regions, too. But then there is the nonregional set of challenges that are also enormous. I mean, climate change, all sorts of geopolitical and economic implications. The pace of technological change, we’re dealing with that at the same time. We just got through a once-in-a-century pandemic. Migration; there are, like, over a hundred million migrants and IDPs in the world, more than ever before. So all of that is happening at the same time, which creates the feeling of, yes, this is an inflection point. And guess what? No other country, other than the United States, is in a position to take the lead in dealing with this monumental set of challenges. 

YACOUBIAN: So let’s take each of those challenges—(laughs)—in turn and let’s start with China. So earlier this week Taiwan’s new president was inaugurated, and in his inaugural address President Lai called on China to, quote, “cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan.” Can you talk a bit in more specific detail about how the administration—what’s the strategy to deal with an increasingly aggressive, ascendant China, and in particular with respect to Taiwan? 

GORDON: Yeah, I will. I’ll note right off the bat that the Taiwan piece of the China challenge is a hugely important one, and you know, in some ways the biggest potential spark of an immediate crisis. But it’s only one of many, right? 

YACOUBIAN: Indeed. Yeah. 

GORDON: I mean, even in terms of expansion or geographical threats, you know, there’s the Taiwan piece, but there is, like, all of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea and the East China Sea, because we’ve spent an awful lot of time and the vice president personally has spent a lot of time, with four trips to the Indo-Pacific and three to Southeast Asia with our ASEAN partners, who are very worried about Chinese territorial claims. So there’s that whole piece there. 

But then there’s also the trade piece, which was just addressed recently by the president with our 301 case review and rolling out a response to that. We can go into detail on that. 

And then there’s just the broader geopolitical challenge that China faces. And the way I describe it is a country that has the means and the interest in challenging the international order. And we’ve been taking measures to address the national security aspects of that challenge from China, making sure that China doesn’t have the advanced technology, intelligence, and military capabilities that can challenge us. 

So it’s great to start with Taiwan, but the China challenge we face is much greater than that. 

The Taiwan challenge, you know, we’ve been very consistent. We are interested in the political status quo in Taiwan. We don’t support Taiwan’s independence. We want peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. And we are constantly messaging China that it shouldn’t be interested in upsetting the political status quo in Taiwan either, and I think we’re doing a pretty solid job on that. 

YACOUBIAN: So I have to—I have to preface this by saying just figuring out what questions to ask you was difficult given exactly what you’ve said, just the broad range and depth of challenges. And I’m sure whatever I don’t ask members of the audience will. 

But let’s move, if we could, just briefly to Russia as well, another strategic rival. And here we’ve seen Russia make some pretty worrying inroads into Ukraine with this summer offensive that’s been kicked off threatening Kharkiv and displacing now thousands more Ukrainians. There’s been some critique from some quarters of the administration that, you know, restrictions on Ukrainian use of U.S.-supplied arms maybe should be lifted. There’s been some questions about whether it was—the supplemental that we talked about a little bit prior to coming onstage, was that too little, too late. Does the administration need to rethink its strategy on Ukraine? 

GORDON: I mean, first I would say take a step back. And we can, you know, take a fine-tooth look at every particular decision on different types of military equipment and other parts of our Ukraine strategy, but when you take a step back—going back to what I described, February ’22, or even before that when we had intelligence that Russia was going to invade that many doubted, and we shared with our allies, we shared with the Ukrainians, and we put the world on notice that this was going to happen, it did happen. And then we immediately kicked into gear and helped the Ukrainians prevent, essentially, a Russian takeover of all of Ukraine. That was their plan. That was their assumption, that they would be able to do it. Many people thought they were right.  

But we were determined to prove them wrong, surged in military assistance, political assistance, put a huge coalition together, hit the Russian economy hard with sanctions, and, again, I give most credit to the Ukrainian people for their valiant fight against Russia, but far from taking Kyiv they got stopped. They not only got stopped, they pushed—they got pushed back. They ended up taking some territory in the east, but even that the following year—in large part thanks to our assistance, and no one has provided more assistance than the United States—we helped the Ukrainians prevent a Russian takeover of Kyiv, put together a coalition of some fifty countries who are all involved in supporting Ukraine. And, you know, almost two and a half years after this Russian invasion with the intent to occupy Kyiv, Ukraine is a democratic country with support and solidarity from around the world that is standing tall and proud in the face of Russian aggression.  

So I think, again, first credit goes to the Ukrainians for their fight. But I think the United States and our allies around the world have also done a remarkable job in providing support to Ukraine. And now in the, you know, well over $100 billion. And you mentioned the sup wasn’t easy. But we even managed to come together. And there was a lot of skepticism that the American people would sustain support. I think that was Putin’s assumption going in. Europeans wouldn’t want to do sanctions. Higher oil prices would lead them to want to turn the page and just move on. The American public would never support this for weeks, months, let alone years. But here we are now, as we speak, having just authorized another $60 billion. And with aid flowing in to come to the rescue and make clear to Putin that he may have thought he was able to wait us out, but he is not going to be able to. 

Last point, because you started with, you know, what about the criticism that you haven’t done enough. We have very few restrictions on what Ukraine can do or on what we provide to Ukraine. It’s true that some of this has evolved over time as battlefield needs have changed, as our available resources have changed, as things have become available that couldn’t have been provided earlier, that we’re able to provide now. To the point that, you know, whatever category of weapon you might be interested in, we’re essentially providing it to Ukraine now. So I don’t think—I don’t think it’s right to suggest that somehow our policy or what we are doing is preventing Ukraine from doing what it needs to do, which is to continue to stand up in the face of this Russian aggression. 

YACOUBIAN: So while still on the topic of strategic rivals, one other area I wanted to probe you on is the ways in which we’re seeing Russia and China align themselves, and in particular would note Putin’s visit to Beijing. And, you know, the sort of ways in which the two leaders highlighted their mutual interests, they’re promising deeper economic and military cooperation. And, of course, they issued a warning against, in their words, American interference in their internal affairs. And there was this very worrying alignment of Russia’s claim to Ukraine with China’s to Taiwan. How worried should we be about warming ties between Russia and China, and this effort to sort of reset the international order in a way that is more consonant with their interests, as opposed to those of the United States in the broader international community? 

GORDON: Well, it’s a good question and a timely one, as you say, given Putin’s visit. And, yes, at the top, I noted the China challenge and the Russia challenge. I could have noted the China-Russia challenge, because that is part of what’s going on here too, is those countries with an interest in undermining our global leadership. And they’re sort of coming together. I would note, though, in terms of global leadership—and, you know, part of our strategy for global leadership is alliances and partnerships and rallying other countries to the aims that we share, including supporting Ukraine but many others, on all these other topics. They’re pretty isolated. I mean, the answer to your question is, we should be worried. It’s a big deal. And the last thing we want to see, especially, would be direct Chinese military support to Russia—which we have warned would have real consequences. China’s supporting Russia in far too many ways, but arms transfers would be even more problematic. And I can come back to how we’re dealing with that bilaterally with China. 

But I do want to note, in that global competition for allies, like, we are winning that. Most countries are aligned with us, want to be aligned with us, I would say, increasingly want to be aligned with us. That Russia-China axis, and sometimes, especially for the—you know, especially with Russia—they’re, you know, North Korea and Iran are sort of their big allies, where we have the fifty countries-plus that I mentioned. So I think we’re in a favorable position to win this geopolitical competition, to the degree it’s Russia and China and other autocracies aligning against us. We feel pretty good about that. It’s a core part of our strategy. It’s why the president and the vice president have invested so much time in those alliances. 

You know, I talked about the China challenge in Southeast Asia and East Asia. What we’ve done, you know, through AUKUS, and the Quad, and the trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, and the trilateral cooperation with Japan and the Philippines, and ASEAN and the Pacific Islands Forum, and then in Europe with NATO—which Putin thought he could divide and undermine, and people suggested it was brain dead. We’re about to host a NATO summit where NATO has been unified, providing huge support for the Ukrainians, increasing defense spending, not lowering it, two new members. So the strategy of working with our alliances in order to stand up to that potential cooperation between Russia and China—the G-7 is more united—another one of Mike’s old bailiwicks—more united than it certainly was when he was in charge of it. (Laughter.) So, yes, it’s a concern, but I feel pretty good about where we are in terms of our own alliances dealing with this geopolitical competition. 

YACOUBIAN: So I think this is a moment to turn to the Middle East, where hanging over everything is, of course, the conflict—the region, frankly, in the throes of, I think, arguably, unprecedented levels of tension and challenges, of course, emanating from, as you noted, the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas, and now the ensuing conflict in Gaza. And then these regional reverberations which, as you’ve noted, have led to, among other things, even direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran. I would submit that, in a sense, a Rubicon of some sort has been crossed in that regard. Concerns and worries about continued tit-for-tat escalation between the IDF and Hezbollah. So the potential for a second front opening in northern Israel with Lebanon. We have Israel continuing to make inroads into Rafah and, you know, it doesn’t appear, at least in the immediate offing, that there will be a ceasefire deal or hostage release anytime soon.  

All of this now with—I have to mention today’s news. I mean, this is a very hard question to put to you—(laughs)—because there’s so much going on. But the news today that Spain, Norway, and Ireland have decided unilaterally to recognize an independent Palestinian state. This raises questions about is Israel increasingly now isolated in the international community. There’s also the International Criminal Court efforts to issue arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant, and three Hamas leaders. I’m not even sure what the question is. (Laughter.) I mean, I think, in the midst of all this— 

GORDON: Discuss, right? 

YACOUBIAN: (Laughs.) Discuss, talk amongst yourselves. I mean, in the midst of all of this turmoil, and rapid change, and flux, how is the administration thinking about its strategy going forward? And, frankly, mindful of, you know, a ticking—a ticking clock in terms of we’re in an election year, and some of the difficulties there is to leverage change when actors in the region—having just come back myself from the region this past week—are very sensitive to the U.S. political calendar? 

GORDON: Yeah. So, as you say, there’s a lot there. I mean, to start where you started, I think you said this—you know, the current challenges are unprecedented, or worse than before. You and I have both worked on these issues for a long time. In the Middle East, you can never assume that it can’t get worse. (Laughter.) I mean, it can, it has, and it could now. And that’s, like, challenge number one. You know, we can get to longer-term visions of positive outcomes, which we still have and have to have, but, you know, you have to deal with the immediate. And, like, at least in the category of do no harm, spreading the—preventing the spread of escalation is a huge immediate challenge. Obviously, there’s the most immediate challenge of all, which is, you know, the fighting that is going on in Gaza and the humanitarian consequences of that fighting, which we can get to in a policy sense.  

But my point is about that, which we both alluded to, is as absolutely horrific and tragic and heartbreaking as that is, if there were a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah or between Israel and Iran, which we only narrowly averted a couple of weeks ago because there were actual, you know, military fighting between the two—which is unprecedented. You know, Iran has used proxies against Israel for a long time, but a direct attack was unprecedented. I mentioned the Houthis as well. So, you know, part of our strategy, while we try to deal with the most immediate, which is what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, is to deter and prevent any of those potential escalations. We have mostly succeeded so far. I say “mostly,” because, as you say, there have been rocket attacks across the northern border in Israel, the Houthis are obviously shooting, and there was the flare up with Iran.  

But, you know, one of the first things the president did after October 7 was deploy U.S. carrier groups to the region, and other military forces, to protect our current bases, to reinforce, to be able to send the message to Iran, Hezbollah, and other groups, as the president put it, don’t. And we demonstrated a month ago that we have the ability to protect our allies like Israel, when Iran attacked, and have made clear—and we’ve done this including in response to attacks on our own forces. Remember in late January, three American service members were killed in Jordan. And we responded very significantly to that, to make clear that there would be consequences for challenging us. And we have unparalleled military capabilities in the region. So we have so far managed to prevent that regional escalation. But we take nothing for granted. That’s ongoing work. And that’s why—one reason we continue to have massive military forces in the region.  

As for the most immediate, you know, Gaza-Israel piece of it, the path that we have laid out for some time is still essentially the only path, which starts with a hostage and ceasefire deal, that gets converted into a longer-term ceasefire, with measures taken to prevent Hezbollah from—prevent Hamas from ever being in a position again to rule Gaza, transitioning to civilian, other Palestinian Authority and governance and reconstruction, so that Israel can be secure and so that Palestinians ultimately, you know, you made the allusion to those European countries recognizing Palestine, which we don’t and we believe needs to be the outcome of a process not something you just announce without any clarity about what Palestine’s borders would be, or having any actual impact. Our longer-term goal is a negotiated version of a Palestinian state.  

And then, you know, the last piece of that path and vision would be the normalization arrangement with Saudi Arabia that I know you’re following and people have heard us talking about, which could consummate this vision of an Israel that is secure and integrated in the region, with all of the—all of its neighbors. But to get there, or anywhere close to that, we’ve got to deal with the wolf at the door, which is, you know, the ongoing conflict in Gaza. 

YACOUBIAN: So I’m mindful of time. There are several other questions I want to ask you on the Middle East and, in particular, this kind of important potential succession question now that’s being raised in Iran with the—with the helicopter crash that led to the death of the Iranian president and foreign minister. But I’m going to hold that, maybe someone from the audience will ask, because I think it’s important to turn briefly to the southern hemisphere, which has been an area of particular focus, a key priority for the vice president.  

And I’d like to first at least start with Haiti, because we have here in town—the Kenyan President William Ruto is here on a state visit. And Kenya, of course, is playing a lead role in providing multinational force to Haiti, which looks like it’s fast becoming, you know, Somalia in the Caribbean, with real enormous implications, frankly, for U.S. national security. So could we start with Haiti, but also the role of Kenya in this—if you could sort of weave both of that together—and how the vice president is viewing this set of challenges, and where you see things going?  

GORDON: Sure. And thank you for raising that. It is closer to home in lots of ways. It is a personal priority of the vice president, who’s been very much involved in tracking it. She’s done a lot of work, as you know, both in Central America and the Caribbean. For the Caribbean countries Haiti is hugely consequential, not only because they care about the people of Haiti but because of migration crisis. We obviously here mostly focus on potential Haiti migration to us, which is normal, but, you know, in the Caribbean, you know, Haitians go there too. And so there’s a collective regional interest. And when you spent a lot of time working in the region, like the vice president and I do, all the more of an interest beyond the humanitarian one in working to stabilize Haiti. 

It’s timely, for the reason you say. Kenya, as people know, has agreed to lead the multilateral support mission to Haiti, which has been essential. As you describe, gangs have been gradually taking over Haiti. It is now without elected government at all after the tragic assassination of the president, and then the recent resignation of the prime minister. And the only hope we have felt for the last two years to bring back—Haiti back to some sort of stability, and political legitimacy, and process starts with security. Otherwise, the gangs take over and you have no hope for that. And to do security you can’t just wave a magic wand. You need someone to do it.  

And we’re very grateful that Kenya stepped up. Kenya has been a big partner and a security partner in East Africa, but is ready, willing, and able to be a global player. Agreed to lead this multilateral support mission, which is now almost ready for deployment. And that happens to coincide with the state visit. These two timetables were separate, but they’re coming together at the same time. So Kenyan president will be here for a state visit tomorrow, and obviously talk to the president and the vice president about Haiti. But at the same time, and as we speak, we are moving towards deployment of that mission.  

And thanks to, you know, Kenya, and Benin, a number of Caribbean countries as well, we will now have a U.N.-backed security force, police force, that will be able to bolster the Haitian National Police, and give them some hope of stabilizing the situation, allowing humanitarian aid, and infrastructure, and fuel to flow in, and allow this very nascent political process—which ultimately needs to be the fix—to grow. So we are grateful to the Kenyans. We got a lot of work to do. There are no guarantees here. The U.N. and others have failed multiple times. And the United States has failed multiple times to stabilize Haiti before. But it’s critically important, you know, first and foremost, for the Haitian people but also for us in the region, to forestall potential a migration crisis. 

YACOUBIAN: So I’m mindful of time. I would have liked to have asked you—because we didn’t really get too much into Africa—about some of the—some of the challenges we’re seeing in the Sahel, and in Niger in particular. But I’m going to hold off on that, because I want to be able to bring the audience in. Let me invite participants both here with us in person and on Zoom to join the conversation. Let me remind everyone that this meeting is on the record. And we will start with a question here in Washington. 

Jon Alterman, I saw your hand raised first, and then we’ll move from there. Thank you. And please identify yourself. Thanks. 

Q: Thanks, Mona. Jon Alterman, CSIS. Thanks, Mona. Thanks, Phil, for doing this.  

I want to go back to the very beginning of your presentation. You talked about how your IAF was sort of was your introduction to government. Thirty years ago, government was really different. And I’m interested in your reflections on both complexity, that we have so many more complex problems. And there’s a signal-to-noise problem. There’s so much more information the government is trying to deal with. I hear stories about IPCs with not dozens of people—fifty, sixty, seventy people in the room. What are the strategic implications of the huge information that is constantly pounding you? And how do we get any clarity on what we’re trying to do, because everybody’s always sort of telling you, OK, well, that’s the eighth order consequence all the way over here, when you’re doing something over there? 

GORDON: Jon, that’s a really good question. I’ll say two things. One is, it’s funny you’re talking about the signal to noise and, like, with technology now compared to, like, in my case it was twenty-five years ago at the NSC. I remember already being struck then when I arrived, like, how many people were involved in every issue. Because, like, email had already been invented. And even then it was, like, how do you get anything done with—(laughs)—all of these people, like, participating in every discussion and every—even drafting things? I mean, almost—I’m saying, already then I was nostalgic for the days when if you’re doing a memo, you know, the carbon copy, and only a few people could work on it. And, you know, you didn’t have to—you couldn’t consult with the 3,000 people who might have some stake in it. So already then I remember being struck by that now—then. 

But then, as you say, take that forward to now, where information is completely instantaneous—(laughs)—and from all around the world. And, like, you almost don’t have an excuse to not be in touch with everyone. And that makes things hard, which exacerbates a long-standing challenge in government, and I guess life for that matter, which is the tension between the urgent and the important. Because all of that stuff—you know, you might start with the National Security Strategy. What are we trying to accomplish here? What are the big issues? What long-term things do we need to deal with? And it’s really important. And you often go to work at the beginning of a day, a month, or year with that intention. Like, what am I going to try to get done in the time I have here? 

Within twenty minutes, it’s entirely blown up, because the incoming stuff is all urgent, and the press needs an immediate answer. So you might want to sit at your desk thinking through the long-term geopolitical relationship with China. But Michael Gordon is writing a piece for the Wall Street Journal that’s going online in twenty minutes. That’s more urgent, right? And the problem is there’s just a ton of the latter, and it makes it harder—and it just requires a huge discipline. My, like, recommendation to us and, you know, our colleagues, and to governments, and leaders would be to exercise as much discipline as possible, particularly at the highest levels, to farm out the other stuff and try to keep your eye on that ball. But that’s hard for, you know, leaders, political leaders and decisionmakers to make, because, you know, you—the volume of the incoming is so great, and it’s also kind of important. 

YACOUBIAN: So Michael Gordon has actually been furiously raising his hand. (Laughter.) So we’re going to— 

GORDON: See? This is an illustration of my point. (Laughter.) 

Q: Right. I’d like to underscore your point about the tyranny of the immediate question. So, Phil, you’ve done a very good job of articulating the vision for the Middle East and how this is all supposed to fit together, from the administration’s point of view. My question is the following: Diplomacy is very close with the Saudis, as has been made clear by Jake and others, on the normalization thing in terms of the issues between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. But there’s a chasm between in the United States and the current Israeli government on the issue of the Palestinian state. And absent that, this vision can’t proceed.  

So my question is, what is the thinking within the administration about how to take your vision and implement it? Do you intend to make the details of the normalization agreements known, so the Israeli people can see the historic choice before them, and maybe this or a future Israeli government can embrace that? And then, you know, how do you intend to advance this vision at this juncture? And then, lastly, can you please explain—the administration’s objected to the ICC’s handling of the Middle East issues, and the prosecutor’s decision. What did the administration do to try to head that off? And what is it that you can do at this junction? Thank you. 

GORDON: Thanks, Michael. 

So, on the first, yeah, we obviously can’t impose any vision on the Israeli government or people. We can lay it out and talk about it and try to show why it’s in the interests of Israel and the region and us. And I think, you know, we’ve done that, or starting to do that. And we think it resonates with a lot of Israelis. Israel has long—and, you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu has long pursued a vision of Israel finally being accepted in the region, which would make Israel more secure. They made a lot of progress in the Abraham accords and normalized relations with a handful of Arab countries. But Saudi Arabia would be the big prize. I mean, peace and normalization of diplomatic relations and trade ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be hugely consequential geopolitically, and we believe would make Israel more secure.  

And that’s why we’ve started to pursue and talk about that vision. We have also made clear that there needs to be a Palestinian component of that vision, both because that’s our view of what’s necessary, but also because it’s Saudi Arabia’s view. And, you know, I won’t speak for them, but they’ve been public about what is required, from their point of view. So all we can do is—I mean, the Israelis know that. all we can do is do our piece of it, the work with Saudi Arabia bilaterally that we have been doing, because, you know, this also needs to be at our interests. And there are reasons why this overall package deal that would include normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but also bilateral arrangements between us and Saudi Arabia, we’ll do our job and make sure that’s in place.  

And then we’ll hold out this vision and, you know, Israelis will have to decide. As you say, right now, seems to be they’re not prepared to do this to achieve that vision. But putting out this vision of a more secure Israel with the grand prize of ties with Saudi Arabia is something that they will have to think about, and understand that without the components necessary to make that happen we’re back in the current situation we are now. Which, you know, we believe is not the best way for Israel to achieve the security that they and we wanted to achieve. 

On the ICC thing. I mean, we’ve been very clear from the start that we thought that was a mistake, that the ICC just doesn’t have jurisdiction. I mean, it’s based on the premise—the ICC only has jurisdiction where the territory in question is a member. And we don’t recognize a Palestinian state or believe that Palestine is a member of the ICC. So, like, from the start we’ve just been very clear, it’s not an issue. They don’t have jurisdiction. And we told the ICC that. And we’ve been very public about that too. It’s not a secret. And we made clear to the ICC that this wouldn’t be constructive, it wouldn’t be helpful, and we wouldn’t support it. But we don’t control the ICC. And the chief prosecutor went ahead anyway. We said—you know, you saw the president’s statement. He said it was outrageous. We don’t accept it. We don’t think they have jurisdiction. And that’s that. 

YACOUBIAN: Elise Labott. 

Q: Elise Labott, American University. Good to see you, Phil. Thank you. And I’ll just echo what Michael said, you’ve done a great job at kind of laying out all these challenges, with great questions from Mona. 

I want to follow up on two quick things you said. What you’re just talking about, at the ICC, or, you know, just in general with more member states accepting Palestine, the recognition of Palestine. I think one of the things that has happened is that because the Palestinians haven’t had a legitimate and, you know, kind of legal form of protest, that the international community is making—is doing it for them. And so now they’re members of the ICJ. They’re members of the ICC, observer members. And I’m wondering at what point does—you know, it’s great that the U.S. can support Israel and say we don’t recognize your jurisdiction, but when the rest of the international community is moving towards this opinion and Israel’s becoming more isolated, is U.S. kind of resistance just futile, in the sense that this is getting away from you? 

And then just quickly on what you said about preventing a Ukrainian takeover on Ukraine—sorry, a Russian takeover in Ukraine. Is it the U.S. policy to prevent a full takeover, or does the U.S. want to see Ukraine defeat Russia? Which is it? Is it beating Russia or is it just not—is helping Ukrainians not lose? Thank you. 

GORDON: On the former, we just don’t think it helps Palestinians, or anyone else, to recognize the state of Palestine. We want—and the president’s been very clear about his ultimate vision of a two-state solution. We want to see that Palestinian state be universally recognized, but with a legitimate government, sovereignty, security, agreed borders, relations with Israel. That’s a vision that actually accomplishes something for the Palestinians. Just announcing that you support a state, OK. It’s not clear how that leads to the actual outcome we want to see, which is a Palestinian state, but one that lives securely side-by-side with Israel, so Israel’s secure as well. So that’s why, you know, that’s just not our policy.  

On Ukraine, I think we’ve been pretty clear ultimately that, you know, our job—and we’ve said it from day one—yes, initially, it was to prevent the takeover of Kyiv, and the occupation, and to drive the Russians out. But we’ve said from the start, Ukrainians will make decisions about their future. What we can do is get them everything they need in the meantime—all the military, and political, and security, and financial assistance we’ve been delivering—and making Russia pay a price for aggression, which is necessary not only to keep Ukrainians safe but to send a message around the world that there’s a price for this. And, Mona, that’s another, like, read across to the China-Russia thing. I mean, these are not entirely separate issues.  

A further reason to make Russia pay a price is to send a message around the world that aggression is costly and doesn’t pay off for you. We will do all of this to put Ukrainians in a better position on the battlefield so that they can make decisions about their future. And that’s what we have been doing, and that’s what we’re doing now. And that’s what we’ll do over the course of the summer, with the NATO summit coming up, with the 60 billion (dollars) in the sup. The Europeans have found a lot of money. We’re going to continue to supply, arm, support the Ukrainians so that they are in a better position militarily and politically and strategically as they decide how they want to end or pursue this conflict. 

YACOUBIAN: So I want to make sure our online participants also have a chance to participate in the conversation. I believe we have one virtual question right now. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from David Andelman. 

Q: Yes. Thank you. And thank you for doing this.  

I had to come in a bit late, so if you’ve discussed this please forgive me. But British Defense Minister Grant Shapps accused China this morning of providing—or, preparing to provide Russia with lethal aid for use in Ukraine. He quoted U.S. and British defense intelligence, that they had evidence that lethal aid is now or will be shortly flowing from Russia to China—I’m sorry—from China to Russia, and Ukraine. I think that is a significant development, he said. So, first, can you confirm this? And, second, what can or should the U.S. do? How should they react? 

GORDON: Yeah, I think I made an allusion to this earlier. I mean, China is helping Russia in lots of ways that we think is problematic. I mean, any support for Russia right now that helps them occupy and further threaten Ukraine and the NATO countries is problematic, which is why we have a set of global sanctions and we, and so many of our allies and partners around the world, are doing everything we can to cut that off. We’ve also said, though, that direct military support from China to Russia would be in a different category, and even more problematic and consequential to the relationship. We haven’t seen such support. And we’ve been very clear with China that it’s something we strongly oppose. 

YACOUBIAN: Gentleman in the blazer here, has been waiting patiently. Yeah. Thank you. 

Q: Thanks. Varun Sivaram. I was privileged to serve with you, Phil, on the climate pilot.  

My question is about climate. I think it’s striking to me that climate didn’t come up in this formidable tour of all the critical national security issues. Comes to your point on the important versus immediate dichotomy. I think it’s plausible that in ten years the top security threat to us from a China or an India is not going to be China menacing the semiconductor supply chain in Taiwan, or our top strategic consideration with India is not going to be that India’s our bulwark against China, but rather that both countries’ greenhouse gas emissions directly attribute to hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters that we face at home. What is it going to take for a top national security official like yourself, or the others, to treat this as a principal focus when we engage with our allies and adversaries, rather than largely paying lip service, which is what it seems to me we do today? 

GORDON: Thanks, Varun. I mean, to be fair, I did mention it in my initial list of big challenges. I didn’t elaborate, maybe because I knew you would ask about it. (Laughter.) But I want you to know, it was on my list. You know, and you overlook things like the Sahel, and there are other things I put on the list. But I would certainly not exclude climate from a list of, like, why we’re facing momentous inflection point times.  

That said, you know, look, you’re getting at exactly the point I made earlier to Jon Alterman about the urgent and the important. Like, I would almost say, of course, if we’re worried about what things might threaten our existence or security or wellbeing or economy in the next ten years, everything we’re talking about does—certainly meets that box, but not in the way that climate could. And yet, we—you know, in these positions we—the structure, because it’s so gradual, and also even though, like, scientists, and we’re pretty clear about it, it’s kind of ephemeral. You can’t—you don’t see it happening, like you see Russia invading Ukraine. It’s a lot easier to focus on stopping a Russian unit from taking more territory in Ukraine than it is on gradually curbing greenhouse gases so that after a scientific process that we don’t really understand, you know, there’s less of a—of a warming effect.  

So, like—so, yeah, I’m only admiring—as we say in government—admiring the problem, rather than solving it. It does take people, often on the outside—NGOs, citizens—to make this a political thing to help us overcome the structural, you know, incentive structure to focus on more urgent things or more tangible things, than things that will actually—and, you know, people like you who work on this issue, do that, should do it, because you—until you change that incentive structure for the political system, it’s going to focus on what you know there are rewards for. And reminding people that, as challenging as all these other things are, if, you know, sea level rises, or there are catastrophic mega storms, that will be way more costly than everything else. It’s a good reminder that you put into the mix here. And we have to keep doing that. And it’s our job to be responsive.  

And, by the way, you know, I shouldn’t fail to say, I think we are. I mean, you know, the IRA and the billions or hundreds of billions of dollars that we have put into this issue. And, in part, you know, everything you’ve seen on CHIPS and Science Act, and our solar supply chains, I think we are being responsive to it, while acknowledging what you say is that you can’t lose sight of how this is a huge national security challenge as well. 

YACOUBIAN: Lady here in the—yes, in the green. Thank you. 

Q: Hi, Phil. Karen Alter. Haven’t seen you in years.  

GORDON: Hi, Karen. Yeah, I was thinking— 

Q: (Laughs.) I’m currently an international affairs fellow at the Bureau of Industry and Security.  

GORDON: Oh, cool.  

Q: So I wanted to ask you about the balance of carrots and sticks. You’re a Europeanist. You know that the U.S. post-Cold War—or—post-World War II was a big carrot person. And it strikes me that more recently, between our budgetary problems and our lack of seemingly enthusiasm for new trade agreements or for trade relations or even old trade agreements, it just—it feels like the balance of carrots and sticks is different than it was. We’re looking at China with its Belt and Road Initiative and incredible overcapacity that it can use to then send a lot of very cheap goods to many parts of the world, many to Africa, to Latin America. So I’m wondering how you think—the current conversations you’re involved in, if that’s on the radar screen, if that’s something to worry about as it affects U.S. leadership? 

GORDON: Yeah, Karen, I would like to think, and do think, that, you know, we haven’t given up on carrots either. And, you know, maybe national security discussions tend to veer more towards, you know, sticks and sanctions and military equipment.  

But we’re also trying—not just trying—using, you know, incentives and carrots for a lot of work too. I mean, the Kenya state visit that we’re just talking about, we’re doing—the vice president is doing, and she’ll be launching, you know, announcing this later in the week—we have a number of really positive initiatives on digital inclusion in Africa. Vice president was in three African countries last year, clearly identified digital connectivity as an obstacle to agricultural development, science, gender balance, climate, so much work. How can we fill that gap? And so vice president launched a call to action. NGOs and the philanthropic sector have been—and private sector have been responsive to that.  

And we’re rolling out this week efforts to try to advance digital connectivity throughout Africa to promote all of these goods that I just mentioned. We’re making progress, and it’s hugely important. It’s a little bit like the—you know, the climate thing. It’s slow and gradual over time, but it’s—you know, it’s essential. And I think we do that so that, you know, that’s a good Kenya, Africa example. We’re doing the same thing—the vice president’s doing the same thing in Central America when it comes to her work on root causes of migration. And we have incentives, carrots and initiatives, to promote similar goals there, including private sector investment, creating jobs. And we have good partners to do that, both in government and the private sector there too.  

So I don’t think—yes, we talk a lot on the national security side about, you know, how we can deter and enforce, but the United States also has, you know, enormous soft power, mobilizing our private sector to create incentives. That stuff’s all out there, too. And I think we’re doing a lot of that at the same time. 

YACOUBIAN: So I think we have time for one last question, unfortunately. Gentleman with the red tie. Yeah. If you could make your question brief. (Laughs.) And thank you. 

Q: Brief? It’s CFR, no brief questions. (Laughter.) Daniel Mandell. I’m a term member and former IAF Japan.  

What happens domestically is as important as what happens abroad when it comes to our national security. So each time we graduate a high school senior who’s not technologically literate, or bi- or trilingual, or each time we fail to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions domestically, that hurts us just as much as facing off against China, or spying, or anything like that. As a national security adviser, national security professional, what can you do, and what do you do, to promote this recognition that our domestic challenges—funding the Department of Education, for instance—is directly linked to our national security, and it’s not just about how many boats and guns we have, and about providing military support around the world? 

GORDON: No, it’s a good question. And I agree. I mean, going back to the beginning and talking about how we are dealing with this inflection point, monumental moment, I immediately pivoted into all the foreign policy, national security issues. The first and foremost answer to that question, of course, is being stronger at home. And I think you hear the president, and the vice president talk about that. I mean, I sort of skipped over it. It’s not my responsibility or bailiwick. But it deserves to be said. We need to create these alliances, we need to have a strong military, we need to have good diplomacy, we need to have incentives, all the—everything we’ve been talking about.  

But we also need to be stronger at home. And I think that’s where the president would—and the vice president would start with answering your question. I mentioned, you know, CHIPS and Science Act, related to your point about education, securing our supply chains, infrastructure, democracy—all of those things are obviously at the start of this conversation. It’s, again, a little bit like climate. We can have the best foreign policy in the world, but if we are divided and weak and falling apart domestically, and can’t handle the climate, none of this matters. And it’s only worse. So all I can do is completely agree with the premise of your question, and reassure you that that is at the top of mind of our senior decision makers and leaders, even if not, you know, the particular issue that I work on in my day job. 

YACOUBIAN: So I’m respectful of CFR’s policy that we conclude meetings on time. Phil, this has been an incredibly rich discussion. You were able to cover quite a lot of territory in a relatively short period of time. I want to thank you in particular for taking time out of your busy day to be with us. I want to thank those here with us in the room, and those who’ve joined us online.  

This meeting is on the record. The video and transcript of this session will be posted on CFR’s website. Given the climate question, for those who are in the room I’ve been asked to announce that there will be another event here immediately following this session on Climate Vulnerability and Conflict. And that will feature John Podesta and David Miliband. So for those who are interested and who are here, we invite you to join a reception in the room next door while this room is being reset, and you’re welcome to join us back. Please join me in thanking Dr. Phil Gordon for an excellent presentation. (Applause.) 


Top Stories on CFR


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*