A Conversation With House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith
Adam Smith discusses his role as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the need for the United States to address growing competition with China.
IGNATIUS: Thank you. I want to welcome everyone to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Adam Smith. He's chairman of the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and is a U.S. representative from the state of Washington. The topic of this meeting is the need for the United States to address growing competition with China. And as the operator said, this is an on the record conversation. My name is Adi Ignatius, I'm the editor of Harvard Business Review. And I'll be leading the discussion for about half an hour and then we will bring in questions from the many members who are listening in. So, Mr. Chairman, welcome.
SMITH: Well, thank you. Appreciate the opportunity.
IGNATIUS: Let’s jump right in. Presumably, on January 20, Joe Biden will take over as U.S. president. My first question for you is will that mark a change in U.S.-China relations? And do you think it should mark a change, a reset, in U.S.-China relations?
SMITH: Yes. It will mark a significant change in all of our foreign relations and the general approach. And I think it's a real opportunity. And frankly, on the second part of that question, I think anytime you have a new president coming in, there is an opportunity there to reset relationships to get past differences in different places, to take a different fresh approach. So yeah, I think there's a real opportunity here, and we have a very talented person coming into the office, you know, with a lot of very experienced hands will be there with him. So, I think it's a real opportunity.
IGNATIUS: So, from your vantage point, how would you like to see things change? I mean, just sort of initial steps. How do we try to adjust the relationship in a way that's favorable to the U.S.? And that would make sense with this incoming administration?
SMITH: Two pieces to that. One is, you know, the relationship with China and two is the way we frame the relationship with China to meet our broader national security and foreign policy interests. The latter part of that I think is more important. We have not really set the frame for this. I think we are in competition with China and I would divide it into two areas.
One, we are certainly in competition with China economically. And that's fair, basically, we're the biggest economy, then the second biggest economy. We're just like two companies, we’re trying to sell products, they're trying to sell products, you know, how do we compete with them effectively? And there's a whole series of policies that we can change to do that.
But the second piece of that is we're in competition with China to influence the world. And this is where I think we are not making that clear and we are not in a particularly strong position right now. First of all, influence the world how? What is it different about how China's trying to influence the world from how we're trying to influence the world? And why are we better? If it's just about naked self-interest, and most of the rest of the world is going to go okay, well, we'll see. What do you offer? And what do they offer?
We deal with this militarily. I was in Africa right before the break, and I was...sorry, COVID…before we couldn't travel anymore, last February, I was in Tunisia. And China's trying to build a relationship there. I mean, long term, I'm sure they'd love to put a port in Tunisia on the Mediterranean. And we don't want them to do that, obviously. So, what do we have to offer? And you do that. I mean, what we have to offer is we have better security training, we have better military equipment.
There's different ways to do that. But the broader issue is, what do we want the world to be? China is pushing a very specific message: autocratic government top-down control works; it works better than freedom. It works better than economic and political freedom. We're better than they are, we're selling a message that is going to work. Our message is freedom's better—economic, and political freedom. We need to frame it that way and then explain to people why our way is better. And I'll let you get to the next question. But there's one really big thing that we need to fix in that regard. But that's the way I would frame it.
IGNATIUS: Okay, so that's sort of a clash of ideologies, if you will, of worldviews, but I want to ask then, the State Department's Office of Policy Planning has just produced a paper on how the U.S. needs to deal with China. And in its overview, it describes China. It says China wants to revise the world order, putting China at the center and serving Beijing's authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions. Do you agree with that basic characterization, particularly the hegemonic ambitions that China purportedly has?
SMITH: Well, they're different hegemonic ambitions than we're traditionally familiar with. China doesn't, you know with one rather notable exception, doesn't want to invade other countries and take them over and control them. But they definitely want to dominate other countries like a hegemon. They want other countries to feel like they're beholden to China and have to do what China asks. So yes, I would agree with that assessment.
IGNATIUS: Do you think China's ambitions necessarily are a threat to U.S. interests? That it's a zero-sum game, both economically and ideologically?
SMITH: Those are two different things. A threat does not have to be a zero-sum game. I would say it's not a zero-sum game. It's not like automatically what's good for China's bad for us. But it is definitely a threat. And it is most specifically a threat in the way that they want to push us out. They don't want us to be involved in the world, economically or otherwise. So yes, it is absolutely a threat. It's not a zero-sum game. But it's a threat.
IGNATIUS: So, the question is, what do we do with that? I mean, there are certainly those who say, and I'm sure you've heard this a million times, if we portray China as the enemy, then they will indeed become the enemy. How do you how do you think about that?
SMITH: Two big things. First of all, saying that you're competing with someone doesn't mean they're the enemy. Okay. And I think we can draw that frame. And if China wants to get all upset about the fact that we're treating them like an enemy, we will try and deal with it. We're competing with them. And I think there's nothing wrong with saying that we're competing with them.
Second, one area where I do think we need to make a change to reduce the other countries' perspectives on this because most—I remember when I was in Singapore, and the president of Singapore gave a speech at the Shangri-La dialogues last year. And, you know, use the line that "when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." Okay, we need to pay attention to the grass here. Building alliance is incredibly important. And I think this is a really big point as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that our obsession with military competition with China is a mistake.
I think building our defense policy around the idea that we have to be able to beat China in an all-out war is wrong. It's not the way it's going to play out. If we get into an all-out war with China, we're all screwed anyway. So we better focus on the steps that are necessary to prevent that. We should get off of this idea that we have to win a war in Asia, with China, what we have to do from a national security perspective, from a military perspective, is we have to be strong enough to deter the worst of China's behavior.
All right, and then the way we win the broader competition is through building alliances, through making the case, and this is the point that I skipped past earlier that I think is important to make, as we're having this competition, as we're going to countries in Asia and Africa and Europe and elsewhere and saying “our model is better, you should be allied with us because freedom is better.”
I have a phrase for this, and I don't want to swear on an open forum. So, let me just say this, we have to get our stuff together. The greatest threat to our ability to effectively compete with China is the rest of the world looking at us and saying “what is going on with that clown show?” Okay, you know, you can't deal with a pandemic, you can't elect a president, you know. What President Trump has done to us in the last four years is to simply make us look like a joke. You know, so we're going to go to Asia and say "no, you don't pay attention, China. Our model is better." It's like, okay, but you're like, you've got the worst response to the pandemic in the country. You know, you've got your president out there trying to overthrow the outcome of the election. We got to show that we actually can function effectively as a country so that we can make that case more convincingly.
IGNATIUS: Political affiliation aside, we've sort of shown the world that our foreign policy can flip flop. Depending on who, you know, I feel like I've grown up in an age of relative continuity in the sort of big foreign policy issues. Obviously, there's shifts from time to time, big shifts, but there's this, you know, an essential American identity and American ambition in the world. Now, I feel like administration to administration, it absolutely flip flops. How do you—when you talk to people overseas—how do you reassure them that they can trust what they'll see from President Biden as being some sort of continuity, not just a four-year global policy?
SMITH: Well, that's where I think congress is really important. Look, you will never hear me use the phrase “politics stops at the water's edge.” And the reason you will never hear me use that phrase is because it's not true. And I don't like to say things that aren't true. Politics should stop at the water's edge. But it doesn't. Various political candidates have used it to leverage a wide variety of different issues. We need to build a more bipartisan consensus in congress as to what should our position on China be, on Russia, in the Middle East, so that we get back to sort of that greater continuity that we pretty much had in the post-Cold War, sorry, in the post-World War II world up to and through, at least, I don't know, ten years after the Cold War, and then things sort of splintered.
Alright, so it's up to us. And I think we could not have a better president than Joe Biden for that, given his history in the senate, given his history of bipartisanship. I know he took heat for this in the primary, but his willingness to work with republicans. We need to find some common ground on foreign policy to get a more consistent message out there because you're right. That's one of the many ways in which the rest of the world is starting to not take us as seriously as we would like.
IGNATIUS: Joe Biden, while campaigning, was pretty tough on China. And you know, China watchers know that that's what presidential candidates need to do, at least until they're elected, is be tough on China. Do you think his rhetoric exceeded what his actual sort of approach to China would be?
SMITH: I'd have to analyze it in some detail that I don't really have available to me to be able to answer that specific question. Going back, you know, a few presidential campaigns, that was absolutely right. I mean, you know, the issue—there was always some issue with China and on the campaign trail. You take the position, "I'll be the first president who's going to force them to the..." Yeah, um, yeah, I do think that the economics have reached the point where a President Biden is going to, in a different way probably, be as tough on China on economics, as President Trump is trying to be.
I think there's a growing consensus in this country, that China is lying, cheating, and stealing their way to a very bad economic situation. We got to push back, we got to punch back, you know, whether it's what's going on with Huawei and ZTE, you know, the idea that we're not going to let them come in and dominate the telecommunications industry, to everything to—We had a provision, you know, we're concerned about China, the Confucius Institute, if you're familiar with that, you know, all the universities that have this. Is that in an effort for them to undermine us? So, I think Biden is going to cue a little bit closer to the tough campaign line than you heard in some previous presidential candidates.
IGNATIUS: You mentioned coronavirus really in the context of how the U.S. has or hasn't handled it. Has coronavirus, and now I'm talking about particularly how China has handled it from day one and up to now, has coronavirus changed the nature of the U.S.-China relationship? And is there any reason that it that it should have?
SMITH: Um, I don't know. Yes, is the answer to the question. Whether or not it should have, it has. It has on a couple of different issues. One is the whole debate about is autocracy better than democracy? You know, they certainly have a lot fewer. I know, we can't believe every statistic coming out of China, but I've seen the pictures of thousands of people walking right next to each other. Things are open, they're doing better than we are. Like, I can confidently say that. And I think that has put us back on our heels a little bit in terms of making the case that our system of government is going to work better. So, we're going to have to address that. The second big area that has changed things is on the supply chain issue, is on the growing realization that we are not as well positioned in the global economy as we would like to be when it comes to critical supplies in a crisis, and that China has an advantage on us in certain areas and there are many policies we're looking at right now to try and address that.
IGNATIUS: So, when you think of an appropriate military response by the United States vis a vis China, in the Pacific in particular, does that mean keeping supply chains free and flowing? What does that mean to you?
SMITH: Well, I don't go right to the supply chain in having an appropriate defense response. I think it’s more in terms of having a strong enough deterrence—that we're in a position to inflict pain on China in a way that will discourage them from wanting to do something that would precipitate that military conflict in the first place. In Taiwan is what I'm thinking of most, but also their island grabs, their various territorial conflicts with surrounding nations. So, we want to push back in that area. But you know, I don't think of the supply chain necessarily as being the core of having that adequate response. It's part of it.
We got to make sure that we can meet our defense needs. I think it also frames how we look at the global supply chain and bringing everything back to the U.S. is probably not realistic. Building the capacity of trusted partners, in addition to building our own capacity, that's something we're going to really take a serious look at, whether you're talking about Europe, or you know, maybe even a country like Vietnam, that we have a better relationship with. Are there ways to sort of make sure that the things that we really need aren't necessarily having to come from China?
IGNATIUS: So, in terms of the more territorial questions, then, I saw that Joe Biden told the Japanese Prime Minister that the U.S. would defend the Senkaku Islands that were trying to close the [inaudible] from any Chinese aggression. Is that practical? Is that a good move?
SMITH: Well, it's practical, if there's a strong enough deterrent behind it. It's practical if China believes it. And it can't just be us. I think building some regional support. And I think, you know, by and large, you know, both the Obama administration, the Trump administration have done a decent job, with one notable exception, which I'll get to in a second. Building relationships with Japan, with India, with Vietnam, Philippines, key countries in that region, so that we can have a strong enough group there that China feels like they can't just bully their way through it.
The one exception is I think the President's rhetoric about pulling out of South Korea, and you know, a central blackmail is an ugly word, I don't want to say blackmail, has pressured South Korea to give us more money. I think the degree to which that potentially has damaged our relationship with South Korea is problematic, but overall those countries in Asia are looking up to China as China has become more belligerent, more ambitious if you will, more hegemonic. And they're concerned. They would like to have a friend that cannot make them totally dependent upon us—I think it’s a real opportunity there. And we can build on what has been done in the previous two administrations.
IGNATIUS: The trickiest question, you mentioned it in passing only so far, is Taiwan. I guess my question is, you know, what is the right level of engagement? What are the right practical and realistic promises that we can make to Taipei?
SMITH: I think we've done a decent job of it. We continue to sell them, you know, weapon systems. And I think we need to continue to make it clear to China that that's a red line and then build support in the region for that red line. Yeah, I mean, this question for a long time. And you know, there have been some hiccups, but overall, it was gashes. I remember I was in China, in Taiwan, in 2002. They've started to really become more interdependent, economically. And, you know, there's been more of a focus on doing business with each other than the nationalistic animosity. But that ebbs and flows, as you well know.
Sometimes you get Taiwan independence movement popping up, then you get China popping up. So, trying to keep that down and say, we don't have to settle the big question here, guys. Let's just keep working together, and stop the conflict. I mean, business does not solve all problems. But China's number one challenge in the world is they've got 1.4 billion people to feed. They got to keep the economy flowing. And that was a point I was going to make earlier about our relationship with them. You know, we are concerned about the fact that we are dependent on so many Chinese goods, but they're dependent on selling them to us. And I think you saw that even during the pandemic, they didn't cut us off. They saw us as a business opportunity. So, I think if we understand that aspect of it, you know, we have a little bit more pull here. Now, when people say, oh, yeah, we buy everything from China, they own us.
I remember one time, I can't remember the dollar figures here, but the joke was, you know, if you owe the bank $100,000, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank $100 million you own the bank. Because they want the money. They can't afford not to have the money. So, I think we should build on that sort of mutual relationship to help hopefully keep the temperatures down and to stop China from doing things like you know, invading Taiwan and creating greater trouble.
IGNATIUS: Well, it's sort of a modern version of mutually assured destruction again. Just to finish on Taiwan, though, so you know, Pompeo has been super enthusiastic about Taiwan and made a comment underlying Taiwan's independence, said Taiwan is not a part of China, hasn't been a part of China. Is that useful rhetoric to show China that we're, you know, it's a new ballgame? We aren't using the same sort of code. We're saying whatever we want.
SMITH: Yeah, no, you do not want to prop that conflict, in my view. And look, you know, part of the problem in the last year is, as the Trump administration hopelessly botched our COVID response, you know, what they've been desperately looking for, since this came out is a different enemy, someone else to blind. They sort of tried China on for size as the enemy and that led to a lot of sort of upping of the rhetoric because they wanted to make China the responsible for the virus and all these other things that didn't really work out too. Unfortunately, for a while, it didn't quite work out for Trump, but he did find the common enemy of basically lawlessness and, you know, all of the increases in crime and difficulties that happen in that. It helped the republicans, even if ultimately, it didn't help Trump. They were trying to use China as that that boogeyman, if you will. And so, I think that's behind a lot of the increased rhetoric that you saw out of the Trump administration over the course of the last year or nine months anyway.
IGNATIUS: So, you've introduced a, I think it's $3.6 billion Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative plan. Can you talk a little bit about what the central aim of that is, if it works out?
SMITH: Yeah, building partner capacity is the central aim and strengthening partnerships. Going back to my earlier point of, you know, we can best sort of compete with China and stop their more ambitious hegemonic impulses if we have friends and partners, and the more capable those friends and partners, the better. It's a matter of building defense relationships and building up the capacity of our partner countries in the region. It's the same thing we've done with the European Defense Initiative, which I think has helped a little bit in terms of keeping Russia from expanding beyond what they're doing in the Ukraine as we've built more positive relationships with European countries, and we built up, you know, capacity in places like Poland, Romania. So, we want to do the same thing in the Indo-Pacific region.
IGNATIUS: I'm going to ask one more question. And then we can go to questions from the members who are watching. But, since I'm here sitting with somebody from the House Armed Services Committee, I feel like I have to ask, you know, we're in this unusual position where we have a president-elect, but our sitting president isn't conceding, isn't respecting what seems to have been the result of the vote. Is there any danger of a split in the American military if these positions hold and hardened between now and middle of January?
SMITH: No. And I've had many, many conversations along this line, and I know there were some initial concern. In fact, I had great conversation with the Acting Secretary Miller the other day about their Afghanistan decision. And I can tell he's like, I'm just trying to do the job here, you know. And I said, Look, so just so you know, there's a lot of democrats who think you were put there so that the president can use the Pentagon to help, you know, engineer a military takeover to undo the election. Just so you know. And he's like, oh, we're not going to do that. Well, that's good to know. Nice to know that our entire democracy is not going to be flushed down the toilet by the Pentagon. But, all jokes aside, I am confident in the military leadership that they are not going to be part of that. I am less confident in the republican state legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. And let me just say, if there are any republicans on this line, we better not let that happen. I mean, if those state legislators come in there and try to overturn this election, we're not going to be worrying about what our foreign policy is anymore. We're going to be worried about you know, stopping a civil war.
IGNATIUS: All right, well, I had to ask and thanks for answering. Sam, let me go back to you. And let's go to the member questions.
STAFF: Our first question will be from Edward Cox. Please remember to state your affiliation.
Q: Chairman, Ed Cox. Representing President Nixon a long time ago in the mid-80s, I visited Taiwan when Lee Teng-hui ascended to the presidency. And after that I spent some time traveling back and forth to Taiwan and China and how the relationship developed and how their democracy and their economy developed. In your area that you have now as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, what is our position or what should it be with respect to supplying Taiwan with armaments or supporting them as China upgrades their threat, not only to Taiwan, but to having us standoff from coming to the aid of Taiwan, in essence, creating a situation where Taiwan really has to fall into China's hands? Where are we with respect to that—our defense posture and how we supply Taiwan?
SMITH: I think there is bipartisan consensus that we should supply Taiwan and we have sold them than weapon systems and I support them. I think they ought to be able to defend themselves. And I think the more that they're able to defend themselves, and the higher the cost, the China realizes that they will pay if they do something militarily. I support that, you know, and it's a delicate dance, you don't want to be unnecessarily provocative. But personally, I think selling weapon systems to Taiwan so that they can defend themselves is worth, you know, the muscle flexing and the complaints that China always does when we do.
The larger and more difficult question is, you know, how, how bold do we want to be in our commitment to say you mess with Taiwan, you mess with us? I think that message needs to be clear. I think that's a message better delivered quietly through diplomatic channels than in public chest thumping because you don't, like the whole issue of Taiwan and China, you don't want to embarrass China if you can avoid it. Because I mentioned the whole feeding 1.4 billion people thing, nationalism can sometimes trump that. If Taiwan feels like they're being marginalized, and the only way they can keep their meat, their people on board, is to find a common enemy, that common enemy is right off their coast. So, we need to be I think, a little careful about the over-the-top rhetoric about defending Taiwan and Taiwan independence and all that. But quietly and diplomatically, we need to make it clear to China that this is a red line.
STAFF:Our next question will be from Jeffrey Bialos.
Q: Hi Chairman Smith. Thank you for your comments today. And pleasure to be here. I'm a partner at a law firm in Washington, in a prior life was deputy undersecretary of defense. Two questions. One is, you haven't commented on it, I wonder what your thoughts are about what's happened in the Gulf states with respect to the recognition of Israel by those states? Whatever one can say about the Trump National Security Policy Center some of that seems to be in a good direction and change the dynamic.
Second, and this is kind of down in the weeds maybe a little bit is, you know, there were steps taken a number of years ago to divide the office of Undersecretary for Acquisition into an R and D piece and a procurement piece. And I know we've let that be for the last number of years. But, I wonder if there would be appetite to reconsider that because as a former practitioner there myself, I have concerns about the division and think it makes it harder to bring new technology over to the force and there are a number of other issues too lengthy to get into here. But I would be curious your reactions to those points.
SMITH: Sure. I'll take the second one first. One of the big recognitions that in this came primarily out of the office of net assessment and all the wargaming that they did with China over the course last four or five years, there is a huge problem in DOD and with our national defense in terms of where we're at on tech technology. We are not taking advantage of modern technologies, as well as we used to. There's a whole bunch of different reasons for that. We don't have the same relation we have with industry—a lot of that industry has moved to other countries. It's not necessarily always us dominated. I mean, we're still pretty high up there. But, we don't have the same relationships there.
And then the Pentagon is not built for speed, as you well know. And technology is. So, how do we take technology like AI, like hypersonics, cyber warfare, and put ourselves in a position to use that technology in defense because it's incredibly important right now. How many weapons you have, how big they are, how powerful they are, all sort of falls by the wayside if someone cuts off your command and control, either through cyber are taken out of satellite, or taking out a key position on the ground, terrestrial communication. I'm sorry, those are the bells for the house in the background there. We are not where we need to be on cutting-edge technology. We just had a future of defense taskforce that Seth Moulton and Jim Banks headed up. And you know, it's looking at precisely that question. We're wide-open ideas for how we get better on it. But, we need to get better on it.
One of the things that, and I'm optimistic with Biden, he seems to be—well I want to go down that road—let's just say that he's doesn't have as much ego or isn't as invested in things, as most people. And I think if Trump had a good idea, he's not going to reject it just because it's Trump idea. Frankly, I'm a little worried about this on Afghanistan, the announcement that they're going to draw down to 2,500 troops. If he was announcing that we were going to completely pull out, well, that's a stupid idea. But they've been talking about coming down to 2,500 for awhile and I know a lot of democrats are frankly supportive of us eventually getting entirely out of Afghanistan.
So, we come out here bashing on Trump for going down to 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, you know, what happens when Biden comes in four or five months from now and proposes the same thing? So, I hope we don't just look at what Trump does and say it's wrong, because Trump did it. And in the Middle East? I mean, it's good that we have these peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain. Sudan. I it's fine that Trump has taken away too much credit for this. A lot of this, frankly, was driven by Yousef Al Otaiba, the ambassador from the UAE. Yeah, he's part of it. And I think it's good. Is it dispositive? No, the Palestinian problem has not been solved.
It's funny. I love alternative universes. I was watching one American news the other night, and they were doing this whole thing on how the mainstream media wasn't giving Trump credit for all the good stuff he had done. You know, like, did you realize that Trump solved the Mideast peace process and delivered peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Those of you who are watching one American news, the whole Palestinian thing all taken care of, it's all good. It's just not of course, what happened, the Palestinians are still, you know, upset, and there is still a major conflict there. But, to get the UAE in some, it's a good thing, and we ought to build on it. Okay, we ought to try it.
Now, a lot of it is driven by fear of Iran, but whatever gets you there, you know, it does not ultimately solve the problem. But it did stop Israel from what I think would have been the disastrous step of annexing much territory in the West Bank. And that's a positive thing. And the degree to which Jared Kushner and the gang was part of that I think we ought to say, good job and let's build on it. It's still a long way to go to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But those were good steps, and we ought to acknowledge that.
STAFF:Excellent. Our next question will be from Alison Sander.
Q: Thank you so much, Chairman Smith. I track global trends for BCG and I thank you for your powerful vision. I wondered if you could walk us through a question about social media and misinformation. I appreciate your guidance on a couple of issues. So first of all, the Russian participation with misinformation and social media has been well documented. But I'd love to know if you think China played a role, and if so what role, then I'd love to know if DOD views social media and misinformation as at least a domestic weapon in shaping and increasing bipartisanship. And finally, I'd love to hear your vision for how you think the U.S. should create a powerful narrative in a skeptical era.
SMITH: Absolutely. And I think this is really, really important. And way back, when I was running my first state senate campaign, someone gave me a sentence, that's a pretty good summary for what you're trying to accomplish in life, in most instances, develop a message and deliver that message to the people that you are trying to influence. Okay, now, in the context of an election, those would be the people who are going to vote in the election. But the really fascinating part about that, to me is, once you decide who you're trying to influence, the next thing you have to decide is where do they get their information? How can you get into their head? How can you make your delivery?
Now, part of this also is your message, you got to have a good message. But in the modern world, the really fascinating thing is how you then deliver that message. How do you persuade people? This is what I've done for much of my life. And I've always had a simple phrase on the campaign trail, never let your opponent occupy a space. Okay? No matter what that space is, you may think, you know, it's not the best thing but if they're in there delivering a message that is to their advantage and your disadvantage, you can't yield that space. You got to get in there and deliver your message. And right now, I think the U.S. is on its heels in this regard. Yes, both Russia and China are really driving this on social media. And initially, this is painful because the message they're driving is discord chaos. They're simply trying to make Americans angry at each other. And that's shooting fish in a barrel.
If I'm being perfectly honest here, for a wide variety of reasons, we seem to be prone to outrage, about just about everything. From homeowner’s association to youth soccer, in my experience, it's very easy to get us upset. And that's what they're doing. You know, that's why they tried to infiltrate the NRA and Black Lives Matter and drive messages that are divisive. They want to show that freedom and democracy don't work. And where are we? We're not really on those platforms delivering a counter message. And I know people always have been like well yeah but, like I just did. Their message is easier. They're trying to divide us. Well, fine okay. So, they've got an easier job, but that doesn't mean we should not try to do our job. And that's how I always approach things.
Right now, I'm in the middle of a seemingly impossible conflict over the NDAA. I got to figure out what my message is—who's the audience? And how do I get it to them? Am I going to succeed? No, probably not. But I don't know. It amuses me to try. All right. You know, this is what we're supposed to be doing. You got to be on the field. You can't win if you don't play. And right now on social media, the pro-democracy folks, we're not playing very well. Russia and China are just kicking our teeth in and moving us away from belief in democracy, belief in institutions. So, I don't think we have been aggressive enough in using this medium to deliver our message. Now part of it is getting the right message and figuring out what we want to do. But, there's ways to do it. There are ways for us to be more active in social media to get our message out because that's where people are getting their information.
And it's shocking, that the way people can get into one little niche sort of thing. Unfortunately, I have teenage kids. So, I'm more aware of things like Twitch and Tik Tok. If I didn't have teenage kids, I would have never heard either one of those well, until Trump threatened to ban it—on Tik Tok. We got to get in there. And we got to figure out, you know, we know what we want people to think we want people to believe in freedom and democracy. So, let's get in there and start driving that message and a whole bunch of different creative ways to do it. This is part of that technology discussion to that earlier question on national security. Messaging is important. Messaging is important in eastern Ukraine, messaging is important with Iran in the Middle East. And we're not as good at it as we should be. We really need to get on that game.
STAFF: Excellent. Our next question will be from Henri Barkey.
Q: Mr. Chairman, my name is Henri Barkey from the Council on Foreign Relations and Lehigh University. Talking about democracy, I wanted to shift you to the NATO alliance. We have three countries in the alliance, which are becoming increasingly authoritarian. In fact, one can argue that maybe two of them are not even democracies anymore. So, what do you think about what NATO should do? It's [inaudible] of the alliance, but it also has an ethos about democracy. Also, in conjunction with that, what do you think the Biden administration should do with the S-400s with the Turks?
SMITH: Yeah, the honest answer that question is, it's a big problem. I don't know what to do about it because you're right. And this is, you know, look, in our foreign policy in general, one of the suggestions that I've always wanted to have for us on the whole promoting freedom and democracy thing is to be a little less dogmatic about it. All right, in the sense that a lot of what gets us in trouble is we're out there saying, you have to have absolute freedom and absolute democracy. And then something like Egypt happens. And we're like, that's a problem. Or we've got a country, you know, like Turkey, or the Philippines or Saudi Arabia, or a number of different countries that we want to work with on something and they're rather obviously not freedom-loving democracies, and they have human rights issues. And so people see us working with them, and they say, you don't mean what you say. So, I think our message should be: we are moving towards greater freedom and democracy. That is our goal. And that is our objective.
Now, you got to work with who you got to work with. All right, and we can't abandon the huge chunk of the world because then on hundred percent agree with us on everything. So yeah, sometimes we're going to work with people who don't live up to the ideals that we stated. Sometimes we're not going to live up to the ideals we've stated, but the goal is to work towards them. I think we have sometimes gotten a little ahead of our skis in terms of the beating our chest about human rights and freedom and, and people have thrown it back at us. I mean, when I listened to the Chinese speaker when I was at that Shangri La dialogue in 2019, I mean he went all the way back to the Civil War to sort of point out all the times that the U.S. wasn't living up to its supposed ideals.
I think we need to do that. This is a long way of dodging your question, although I did admit up front that I didn't have an answer to it. When it comes to dealing with Turkey, you know, as you see Poland, to some extent, drifting in this direction, Romania, Hungary, you know, I think we need to find a way to express the opinion, the direction they're going in is not good, while maintaining the relationship. The thing is that the S-400, at the end of the day doesn't have anything to do with any of that. The S-400 is an entirely different issue. I mean, you could be a complete and totally freedom-loving democracy, we don't want you buying weapons from Russia.
Alright, so that isn't really about freedom and democracy. I have different opinions about what we should do on the S-400. I think we do have to sanction Turkey. In fact, that's in the defense bill, that I hope to be able to pass in the next couple of weeks. And I think we should do that. But we also should make it clear that we don't support their drift towards authoritarian government, which is why it's a problem that President Trump has done what he's done the last four years, not just not complaining, he praises them for it. He seems vaguely envious of the fact that they've been able to silence opposition and silence the media. And that has really undercut us in an unhelpful way.
Now, like I said, you know, sometimes you got to deal with who you got to deal with, but you don't have to call up President Erdogan after he's just jammed through constitutional changes to push him away from freedom and say, good job, you know, very happy that you did that. We need to at least have the message right. And also be realistic about that message in terms of who we're working with, but it's a big problem. You know, if we're advocating for freedom and democracy, we got all these countries drifting in the wrong direction. I'm hoping that a President Biden will come up with a better message that strikes the balance of all those things that I just walked through and moves us in the right direction, but right now, we're not in the right place on that message.
STAFF: Excellent. Our next question is from Jacqueline Miller.
Q: Hey, Chairman Smith, it's Jacqueline Miller with the World Affairs Council in Seattle. Nice to see you. We've seen a lack of leadership confronting global challenges for the last few years. And we've seen some of the consequences of that. In a bilateral relationship that is characterized by competition, do you see ways for, under a Biden administration, for the U.S. and China to cooperate on some of the global challenges that we face, even as we expect the Biden administration to keep a heavy focus on human rights to be critical over Taiwan and Hong Kong? Can we get some progress in areas where we need to cooperate?
SMITH: Absolutely. And I think that's, you know, to two big, big points on that. And the first one is, as I said, you got to work with who you got to work with. And one of the things that I really worry about human beings just in general, is we have an increasing list of people that we can't stand and never want to talk to and won't work with. I was well, I shouldn't say that. I was referring to it as my mother-in-law’s approach to diplomacy: I'm just going to stop talking to you. And you know, sometimes you have to do that in diplomacy.
But I think you should look for opportunities. All right, look for opportunities to take the conflict down. There's going to be areas with China, you know, we're going to compete, we're going to be concerned about Taiwan, we're going to be concerned about the island chain, so much thanks. But we are also the two greatest powers in the world. And there are things we can work together on. And ultimately, this is where we I think have to get as a globe. And that is have the countries of the world working together on common problems, not always, you know, we have our own problems that are unique, and we have differences. But if we can come together on common problems, that takes the temperature down on the things we disagree on.
If you have a positive relationship with somebody, when they do something that you don't like, you're less likely to just hit them in the head with a frying pan and be done with it and more likely to say, “hey, can we work through this?” So, on climate change, on nuclear weapons containing the threat of nuclear war, on global transnational terrorist threats, there's a lot of stuff that we can work together on. That was Nixon's genius in going to China is find the things that we can work together on. So, I think that's really an important opportunity in terms of how we can find ways to work with China going forward. I'm sorry, I've forgot what the second point I was going to make on that was, but yeah, I think there is an opportunity there, to define that that common ground and you know, and work together where we can.
STAFF: Our next question is from Clint Carroll.
Q: Chairman Smith, thanks so much for your time. I'm a retired Navy captain, I greatly appreciate your pragmatic and not dogmatic approach to the challenges we face as a nation and in the complicated world. I'd be curious to hear your perspective on the expansion of China in the South China Sea. Certainly, Taiwan's a challenge. But I'm concerned that the SCS expansion, of which the island building is really, last I counted one and a half times the size of Manhattan, really concerns me and I'd just be curious to hear what your thoughts on how best to address that issue.
SMITH: Yeah, I don't have any brilliant answers on that, except stuff that I'd said earlier about working with partner nations in the region to try to build a consensus to contain it. The other thing that we should build towards is convincing China that it creates more conflict than it's worth. I need to better understand how we do that. And I could babble on at length. That wouldn't be helpful. It's a big problem. I don't know what the solution is. We need to work with partners in the region to craft a better coordinated response. Because right now it's happening. And we're not doing much of anything to stop it. And yeah, it definitely creates more problems in the region. It empowers China as that hegemon to basically think that they can do what they want, and everyone around them has to has to just live with it. So, it's a huge challenge that at the moment, I do not have a very good answer to.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Russell Wald.
Q: Hi, this Russell Wald, Stanford Human-Centered AI. Mr. Chairman, American innovation in AI is a key area that will help ensure the U.S. remains competitive with China. There are numerous AI provisions in the house version of NDAA this year, which is getting wrapped up in conference right now. Can you, one, tell us the status of those critical AI provisions in NDAA and, two, how are you preparing for the possibility of a presidential veto on NDAA due to the renaming of military bases? I just saw something in the New York Times where Meadows is floating that if the section two is amended, then they would be willing to drop their view on military bases.
SMITH: First of all, Eric Schmidt and Bob Work, did terrific work on these issues on AI and the broader technology issues. We didn't get everything in that they wanted. But we got some really good provisions in and they are agreed to. They're in the bill, and we'll get it done. On your second point, you know, I guess I'll say what sounds like good news, and then isn't such good news. The president is not going to veto the defense bill. And I can say that with almost absolute certainty. And the reason is because Mitch McConnell and Jim Inhofe are not going to send him a bill that he says he's going to veto.
Okay. They're not going to do that to him. It's just the nature of the relationship between President Trump and the Senate republicans that we've all seen play out. They're not going to do anything he doesn't want them to do. Now, they may not agree to a conference report, because they don't want to send it to the president because I think he might veto it. Where the president is at on this stuff is really hard to say. He's very transactional and a little bit erratic at the moment.
Originally, when this issue came up, and by the way, this is very important issue. We have bases named in this country, for confederate soldier, generals, mostly, and those bases weren't even named in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. They were named during the Jim Crow era. And they were named as a celebration of white supremacy. Here and simple. Go back and read some of the dedication ceremonies if you doubt me on that. They were trying to reassert the south shall rise again, and by the way, white supremacy shall rise again. It's offensive. Why we would ever name anything after people who rose up in armed rebellion against our country is beat, well it's not beyond me, I know why, but it's not a good reason. They should be changed.
And furthermore, the senate put that language in. It's senate language that we want to agree to. Now shortly after it was voice voted in on committee and then passed out in the full senate, and the full senate passed their bill, like at eighty-six to six or something like that. And I think every republican, saved maybe Rand Paul, voted for it. So, there shouldn't be controversy here. The president back in July thought he maybe had a wedge issue here. So, he spoke out against it. And he called up in Inhofe and said, you have to take this out. And as was, by the way recorded in a restaurant, when Senator Inhofe and the president were supposedly having a private conversation, it was recorded. They agreed that they're going to take it out. Well, that's a huge problem because it's a very important issue to democrats, and, frankly, it's got bipartisan support. There's no reason it shouldn't be in the bill.
To give you an idea of what I mean by the president being erratic referencing your 230 issue, it's not true, as has been reported in the press that Mark Meadows offered to accept our base language if we let them repeal section 230. But he did float the idea. The president is kind of concerned about this. And I confess at the time, I didn't know what section 230 was. Section 230 is the provision that says that social media platforms have blanket immunity for what shows up on their platform. Now, there was one little tweak to that blanket immunity on child pornography that we did about twelve years ago. But by and large, just because it's on Facebook, and it's terrible, and, you know, defamatory or any number of other things, the person who puts that on there is liable, the platform's not.
And I frankly am worried about that. I think these platforms are getting away with things they shouldn't get away with. But the idea that we're going to completely repeal section 230 in the defense bill? The committees of jurisdiction will have something to say about this. And the president's motivation is transparent. He thinks social media was mean to him. Apparently, it almost seems like he thinks he's the only person that social media has been mean to. Not true. But he's really concerned about and he wants to sue them as a result. And he's looking for us to give him that power.
I don't think that's the way out of this. But look, it's really simple. There's no reason not to change these base names. There's a commission set up in the senate language, it's not required to be done immediately. There's consultations, there's all kinds of good ways to get there. That's what we ought to agree to. And we're talking about it. I mean, look, the defense bill is really important. There are a lot of provisions in there that are necessary to it, not the least of which is what you just talked about on AI. And as I've mentioned many times, this is crucial stuff. And we don't get it done if we give in to the notion that somehow we shouldn't change these base names when I think there's this pretty broad support for it.
STAFF: Our next question will be from Ron Shelp.
Q: When I was younger man, I wanted to be president. I wouldn't have Joe Biden's job. That's unbelievable [inaudible]. We talk about winning our allies back and our almost allies. How long do you really think it will take, especially if Trump does what people expect, plans a campaign for the next presidency, lobbies his large constituency? Unless he's of course, fighting, going to jail, fighting lawsuits, dealing with the New York district attorney and so forth? I mean, they'll be happy to hear us. But aren't they going to be pretty worried about how this couldn't have been again even in four years?
SMITH: It's funny, you should say that's this number of years ago now. And when I speak at grade schools and kids ask me different questions, people said do you want to run for president? And my answer is no. And that's a horrible thing to wish upon anybody. So I hear you, and I'm with you. And I'm glad Joe Biden is assumed to be in that job. The one positive thing I will say about this is I you know, as I've traveled the world, during the Trump administration, a consistent theme I've heard from the Kurds, from every, you know, foreign diplomat that I've talked to is we've got these relationships where we work with your ambassador, or we work with the career, and by the way, the current state department, people are awesome.
The knowledge base that they have, on the assets that they bring to our country, all around the world based on the relationships, they have the knowledge that were incredible. But what all the foreign counterparts said is, so I talked to your ambassador, I talked to your deputy ambassador, I talked to your economic minister, it's great conversation, it's wonderful. But I know that he doesn't speak for the president. There's no credibility there. So how can we work with you when I can have a conversation with you and I see a tweet, you know, twelve hours later, that completely undoes everything that you just told me you were going to do?
We can fix that. And we can fix that very quickly. We can have a president and we can have a secretary of state who give our diplomats the support that they deserve. And I think there's a whole lot of countries all over the world who are just dying for that opportunity. And whatever may be common, at least in the short term, we can fix that. We can rebuild the trust, we can rebuild the relationships, I think pretty quickly, when you change the approach. Now, the specter of it coming back. That's something we're going to have to work on domestically. And that would get me off on a long, long rant about how the democratic party needs to get its stuff together, in terms of presenting a more reasonable alternative.
And then also, it'd be great if the republican party decided that they wanted to stop being the cult of Donald Trump and go back to being the party that they've been. That too would be helpful. So, our political systems got some work to do to get out from under this problem on both sides. The only the final other positive thing, I'll tell you, why bipartisan support on that point. They may not say it publicly, but privately, republicans and democrats really look forward to a return to a little bit of normalcy. And I think they're going to be extraordinarily reluctant to be dragged back into the insanity of the previous four years.
STAFF: We will take our last question from Tom Davis.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I'm talking to you from Seattle. It's a beautiful day. I'm sorry, you're stuck back east. I'm a partially recovered program budget official at the Pentagon. So, I guess this is a question that has to be asked, given that the current projection in the fight of being left on the table by the Trump administration has flat, even negative real growth, what's your expectations about what the level of defense spending is going to be in a Biden administration?
SMITH: That actually, that it will be flat and maybe even received a little bit. And I think we can make that work. As I pointed out earlier, we're not taking advantage of new technologies the way we should, and think you know this better than most, think of all the programs that have come and gone in the last 20 years that either has died out after we spent a lot of money or just didn't you know, from the DLCs, the DDG 1,000, you know, Future Combat Systems, for those of you who remember that. Actually, Neil Abercrombie always had a great line on that one, when he said to the army says, like, you know, I've been trying to figure out a Future Combat Systems, and the only way I can understand it is that you guys, the Navy, they can build an aircraft carrier and sink billions of dollars into that we can't do anything about it, the Air Force can build a fighter.
You didn't have any sort of large program that could become an ultimate money pit that could suck us into the point where we were just spending money on something that wasn't working, but we had to keep giving it to you. So, you thought Future Combat Systems could be that? I love Neil for that comment. There's a lot of better work we can do to get more out of the money we spend and we are $26, $27 trillion in debt. At some point, that becomes a problem. We don't have an endless amount of money. And also, there are a lot of other priorities. And this is a battle that I'm going to have in the democratic party that I've talked about earlier.
Where they want to see flat or slightly, you know, they want to see 10 to 20 percent cuts. I don't think 10 to 20 percent cuts are the right approach. You know, I don't think we can get to a robust national security strategy on that front. But there is money to be saved. As I'm sure many of you have heard my comments about our Nuclear Posture Review. I think we can have a credible deterrent in our nuclear weapons for a lot less money than that Nuclear Posture Review says we have to spend. So, I think we're going to have to really look at how we can save money within the defense budget and still get the job done. And I think both those things are true.
To some degree having all that money to spend on all these programs, it doesn't really focus you. I have a venture capitalist friend of mine who said he hasn't seen the operation out there. They can't be cut 10 percent and get better because it focuses the mind on what you really need to do. So, I think we can get there on having a solid national security plan with that flat budget, but step one is acceptance. As much as I may be critical of some on the democratic side, you just want to cut the defense budget for the sake of cutting it. I've often joked that the republican approach to this is whatever we're spending at DOD our national security policy is we need to spend more period. We just need to spend a bit more. Because wouldn't more be better? We need a strategy. And we need the budget to match that strategy. And it's got to be cost effective in this environment. I think we can get there. It's going to take a lot of work.
IGNATIUS: All right. Well, that is a great comment to end on. I want to thank everybody for joining the session joining this virtual meeting. Thanks to Chairman Smith for a really great wide-ranging discussion.
SMITH: Thank you.