A Conversation With John Delaney

Thursday, September 5, 2019
Lucas Jackson/Reuters
John Delaney

Candidate, 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination; Former U.S. Representative from Maryland (D)

Nicholas D. Kristof

Columnist, New York Times

John Delaney speaks on the future of U.S.-China relations.

Read John Delaney’s answers to our questions on foreign policy issues.


KRISTOF: Thank you all for coming. Welcome to today’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations with John Delaney. This is part of the series of conversations with presidential candidates. It’ll be a rare one where there is no discussion of polls, horse races. And we’re really going to focus on foreign policy, in particular China.

So I’m going to start by asking Congressman Delaney some questions about China, and then we’ll expand this and open this up to a broader conversation in thirty minutes. So please have questions and thoughts ready.

Congressman Delaney, let me start by something that has been very much in the news, which is Hong Kong. And it’s my thoughts because I just came from Hong Kong. Where does the U.S. have leverage to try to influence China’s behavior or the risk of a crackdown in Hong Kong? What can we do and what should we do? Is it any of our business?

DELANEY: Well, I think it is our business.

And before I answer the question specifically, I just want to thank you for doing this. And it’s great to have finally met you; I have been a fan for a long time.

KRISTOF: Thank you.

DELANEY: And the portfolio of work you’ve done is extraordinary. So I’m a big fan and it’s an honor to be here.

And I want to thank the Council for having me for this discussion. And I forgot to shut off my phone, so let me do that. (Laughter.) It is inevitably one of my four children calling me—(laughter)—and they’ll keep calling unless I shut it off, so I apologize. (Laughter.)

So yeah, I do think there—I mean, we have an interest, obviously, in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of economic activity that flows through Hong Kong. Obviously, U.S. businesses have a lot of interest in Hong Kong. So we clearly have an interest in Hong Kong maintaining the autonomy that they were promised.

But there’s also a bigger issue, and that is the role the United States has in providing some moral leadership, and standing up for people who are fighting for their rights and for their ability to have some self-governance, particularly self-governance that’s been assured to them, or at least was assured to them. So I think we not only have a direct interest in actually how things unfold in Hong Kong, particularly around their—the rule of law and their legal system that they have that’s very unique, and we have a lot of interest, but more broadly I think we have a leadership role around the world to stand up not only for human rights—which is another, obviously, issue related to China—but also for individuals who are fighting for their right to self-governance. And I think they have it, and I think we should be making our voice clear on this issue.

KRISTOF: And so what is our role? Is our role to speak up? Is our role to threaten sanctions if there’s a crackdown? And how do we make our position clear without inadvertently confirming Xi Jinping’s narrative that this is all another color revolution that the U.S. is secretly, you know, the black hand behind the scenes manipulating?

DELANEY: Well, I think it’s hard. I mean, obviously, if there was a brutal crackdown we have the ability to reset our relationship in lots of different ways. Obviously, that relationship right now is under a lot of stress considering the larger trade conflicts, but there’s more things that can be brought to the table. So if it were to take that next step, I think there are affirmative things that the United States of America can do economically, and we should lead a coalition of our allies to do that. But I think at this point I think we just have to make it clear that certain rights were assured to the people of Hong Kong about their ability to have some self-governance and we support their right to get that benefit of the bargain, and be talking and speaking up about it.

KRISTOF: Just more broadly, I mean, among Republicans and Democrats alike there has been a real hardening of attitudes toward China over the last five or ten years. Are you—are you part of that? I mean, if you look at your attitudes, have they hardened in the period under Xi Jinping? Is this something that, you know, is appropriate given China’s tougher approach on human rights, on trade? Or is there a risk that we’re, you know, all in some kind of a new Cold War fear?

DELANEY: Yeah, I think making the comparison to a cold war is—in my opinion is way premature. You know, you could see how the rhetoric can take you there, but I think there are some very big differences, at least at this point, that we have to be mindful of. So I think we’ve got to be careful about that conversation.

But I think it’s right to be a lot tougher on China. In my opinion, China’s acted in many ways like pirates across the last several decades, right? They’ve stolen things. They’ve stolen intellectual property. They haven’t played by the rules, particularly rules that they gave assurances that they would play by. You know, and they are taking islands in the South China Sea.

I mean, so there is a response that’s necessary because China’s become our economic rival by doing, in my judgment, three things. They worked really hard. Good for them. They made very smart investments, in some ways smarter than we did. Good for them. But they didn’t play by the rules. And we can’t allow the next several decades for them to continue to not play by the rules because I think that’ll put us in a very, very significant kind of difficult economic position.

So I think it’s appropriate to draw a hard line with China on a lot of these practices. And I think the president was actually right in raising this issue, but I think his diagnosis of the problem is entirely wrong and the way he’s approaching it is wrong.

But I do think there has been a reset in terms of how people think about China. I’m part of that, and I think it’s appropriate. But I don’t think we should go too far. I mean, we want to have a structured relationship going forward where there’s some cooperation, even though there will be intense competition. That’s how I think about it.

KRISTOF: There is—I mean, there’s clearly a lot of pain across America, a sense that jobs have been lost, that China has stolen jobs by playing unfairly, and a deep resentment over that. But let me push back a little bit because I worry a little bit that China—that even if China had played by the rules that technology, automation, globalization would have still been enormously destructive—

DELANEY: Absolutely.

KRISTOF: —in the U.S., and that the answers to that have to involve not only standing up to China, but also things we do here at home in terms of education, safety nets, job retraining and so on. Is there—you know, is there a risk that we so focus on China as a problem that we don’t do enough at home?

DELANEY: Well, we always want to find a villain and an easy villain as opposed to doing the hard work of seeing what we did wrong, and we did a lot of things wrong. I mean, my view of what happened across the last twenty or thirty years—and you’re seeing it here, you’re seeing it with what played out with Brexit, and you’re seeing it all over the world—which is the world changed really fast. Technological innovation and globalization have been the most powerful forces shaping the world for the last several decades, and they’ve actually been enormously positive almost by any measure. If you measure progress by human beings lifted out of poverty, right, it’s been the greatest poverty alleviation machine ever. If you look at infant mortality, child mortality, child labor, life expectancy, we’ve seen enormous progress made in the condition of humankind. You could argue quite easily that the world gets better every single year.

But that doesn’t mean it was good for everyone here, and it wasn’t. And we didn’t do the kind of things we should have done to prepare our country for this change. And I’ve always believed that the cost of doing nothing is not nothing, and we paid a huge price because we didn’t do things to improve our public education system, we didn’t do things to encourage investments in communities that were losing jobs. Because when a factory closes in a town, what that really means is someone stops investing in that town. They used to invest, they used to buy new equipment, they used to keep people employed, and they stopped doing that. And you have to find a way to encourage people to reinvest in that community, right, to make sure that that community has jobs.

We didn’t do any of that stuff. We didn’t build infrastructure, you know, the obvious stuff we should have done. And so the reaction here and in many ways around the world is to basically question everything we did. And that’s why—you know, I’m one of the few—I think I’m the only person running for president who actually supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which I find a remarkable statement. But it’s an example. I mean, people just want to blame these trade agreements. Yeah, we could have always maybe negotiated these things better, there’s no question. But this stuff would have happened. It absolutely would have happened either way. Even if all the jobs came back, the sheer number of them don’t even exist anymore because of automation. So there is a lot of things we need to do here at home to prepare our citizens for all this change.

KRISTOF: You mentioned that, you know, in a field that has been busy dumping on trade that you are a champion of TPP. Is there any way to—

DELANEY: This is the only room that won’t throw a tomato at me for saying that, probably. (Laughter.)

KRISTOF: Is there any way to put TPP back together again?

DELANEY: Yeah. Well, it’s there, right, so we just have to—

KRISTOF: Politically.

DELANEY: Yeah. Well, politically, you know, it’s tough because, you know, the Republicans were totally in support of it until the president came along, and Democrats I think treated President Obama really unfairly on this issue. Which didn’t mean they had to support it, but they didn’t even give him a shot, right? They just didn’t even allow him to make the case. I actually think in many ways we lost the election on it to some extent, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

But I think there’s an opportunity, but I think what we have to realize is all of this stuff in many ways fits together. So when you—when you leave Paris, when you question NATO, when you build a wall on your southern border, and when you tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to some extent they’re all flavors of the same thing, which is this notion of how do we—you know, what’s our response to all this change that’s happening in the world, which is to become isolationist.

And I think it’s—I don’t think the Democratic Party should become the party of building economic walls. I really don’t. I think if we want to try to shape a world that’s more prosperous and more secure and safer for the American people, we have to be engaging diplomatically and we have to be engaging economically.

And all this stuff is related. I mean, they’re burning—or they’re setting fires in the Amazon to clear land because farmers think they can sell soybeans to China. Why can they suddenly sell soybeans to China? Because the largest buyer of soybeans, China, is no longer buying them from the biggest seller of soybeans. And so all this stuff actually becomes very interrelated, it seems to me, and I just think the opportunity for my party is to actually try to reassert some of this stuff, but at the same time invest locally. So we should be thinking globally and investing locally. That’s how we ought to think about the way forward, in my opinion.

KRISTOF: So on trade, I mean, you come at this from you were a successful businessman, an entrepreneur before entering Congress. So from that perspective, how do you see—how do we address the trade issue? I mean, there is this agreement that China has played unfairly—


KRISTOF: —and even among Democrats I think there is some sympathy for the idea of being tougher on trade. And yet, at the end of the day, our bilateral trade deficit with China has worsened since the trade war began. The trade war is now undermining the global economy without obviously resolving the issue. So what—you know, how do we—

DELANEY: And it’s hurting a lot of Americans.


DELANEY: I mean, you drive around Iowa, where I happen to spend a lot of time these days—(laughter)—and you know, I make the point, which I think is true, every acre of land in Iowa is worth less than it used to be. And so it’s hurting farmers. It’s hurting a lot of manufacturers. It’s hurting a lot of Americans. It’s obviously not, I think, in our economic interest. Which doesn’t mean tariffs aren’t part of the way you deal with China, but you got to—you got to try to craft them in a way that you don’t hurt yourself too much and you have to have other things.

I mean, the big issue I have with our current approach to China is I don’t believe in a go-it-alone approach. I think one of the great advantages the United States of America has is our alliances. No country in the world has anything like them, and we built them for our own self-interest so that we could actually operate around the world and try to shape the world. That was good for us. And this is a perfect example or perfect time when you need them. You got to work through our allies and you got to get China to change behavior, and that involves—you know, that’ll involve some pain as well, but you got to do it that way.

You also got to get U.S. businesses on the same page. I mean, we have a law in this country that says a CEO cannot bribe a foreign official to get a contract, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. But you would argue, maybe, that when a U.S. company sets up a joint venture with a Chinese company, as directed by the government, and deposited intellectual property in there, and it’s stolen—and they know that’s going to happen—they are to some extent bribing their way into the market. So I just think it involves, you know, getting U.S. businesses on the same page, getting our alliances on the same page, and really bringing it to China.

Now, that’s not going to come without some pain, too. It will, because China’s not going to say, OK, you’re right, we’re going to agree to all this stuff. But that’s fundamentally, I—and then you got to be competing with them, like aggressively competing with them, which is what the TPP did. You know, it put us at the head of a table that controlled 40 percent of the Asian economy. So that would be my approach.

KRISTOF: And if one does approach this multilaterally and adopts this approach, at the end of the day how much—

DELANEY: I could have said multilaterally and saved myself five minutes. (Laughter.)

KRISTOF: How much difference does that make at the end of the day, though? In other words, so is China really likely to restructure its economy in the ways that we would like? Or I mean, you know, if everything goes well, is it going to make that much difference?

DELANEY: Well, listen, if the goal is for them to restructure their economy the way we would like, they’re never going to do that, right? We’re never going to get everything we want. But do I think we can both change behavior and put ourselves in a position to compete more successfully, and those two things operating together put us in a very—a much better position to manage China going forward? I believe the answer to that is yes.

But we’ve got to be clear-eyed, right, about, you know, our original assumption about how China would behave just didn’t play out. So we have to acknowledge that. We have to learn our lesson. We have to never have that trust-me approach again. But we got to be smart about how we play it going forward.

KRISTOF: On of the issues that President Trump has injected into the trade agenda has been fentanyl and drugs, and you know, sort of an unusual issue to—it wasn’t traditionally part of it. But you know, at the end of the day we have sixty-eight thousand Americans dying a year of opioid overdoses.

DELANEY: A Vietnam a year.

KRISTOF: Yeah. A Vietnam a year, as you say, yeah. And China—the vast majority of the fentanyl is manufactured in China. I mean, I don’t think China’s deliberately targeting the U.S. with fentanyl, but clearly, you know, if there is a dissident somewhere, that dissident will be in jail the next day; clearly, these fentanyl manufacturers are not being targeted. You know, is that a legitimate issue for us—

DELANEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, I think it’s totally a legitimate issue. I mean, we have a lot of legitimate issues, right? We have human rights issues going on. We have what’s going on in Hong Kong. We have this fentanyl issue. We have their theft of intellectual property. We have the fact that their markets aren’t really open, the fact that they’re building illegal islands in the South China Sea. You know, we have the—then we have other things that I think we’re just sitting on our hands. I mean, their Belt and Road Initiative, we don’t really have a good countermeasure. I think their economic strategy—I mean, they’re more of a central planning country so they have more of a strategy from the top down. You know, it’s around technology. It’s around infrastructure. To some extent it’s around renewables. We don’t—right now we don’t—while we don’t have that central planning approach, our incentives I don’t think are lined up. I mean, in many ways we have incentives for coal and steel and stuff like that that I don’t think most people think is where the economy of the future is going to be.

So we have to get our own house in order. We have to have countermeasures around the world. And then all of those issues have to be on the table in how we deal with China. And I just think you have to grind it out every day with them.

KRISTOF: So take the Belt and Road Initiative. So how do we compete with that without becoming central planners? I mean, how do—how do we address that?

DELANEY: Well, again, we have a different approach. I also think we offer something different. I mean, in many ways if you look at a lot of the examples of their Belt and Road Initiative, it’s kind of got a predatory lending feel to it, which is also known as the lender of last resort in kind of the private-sector terminology. What that means is it’s not clear that’s what countries really want, and we have an opportunity to offer something different, including a set of values by the way. And you know, I think direct foreign investment, foreign aid, all of that has always been an arsenal that we’ve used to develop economic relationships.

I mean, we’ve always had this belief, and I agree with it, that to the extent we build a global middle class it’s been good for U.S. businesses. And we did that with things like direct foreign aid. We did that through diplomatic engagement. And I just think, in light of the China competitive threat, we have to raise our game on all of those fronts and create an alternative.

KRISTOF: I mean, one of the elements where China has done extraordinarily well has been AI, and in general I’d say in technology they used to be imitators and now they have really become leaders. And they have become leaders in AI partly because they have mass databases—

DELANEY: They don’t have rules.

KRISTOF: —and they don’t have privacy rules.

DELANEY: Right, right.

KRISTOF: And so, I mean, clearly this is an enormously important field where mastery will have enormous commercial implications. But how do we—I mean, is there any way we can actually meet them in areas like AI where they have these built-in advantages?

DELANEY: We have to out-innovate them, at the end of the day, and then we can’t let them steal what we invent, because they have that built-in advantage that we don’t ever want to have, which is surveillance of their citizens and using that as a giant data experiment. In fact, I think we need to go a lot further in privacy in this country, which is a whole ‘nother discussion. So not only do we not want to go where they’re going, I think we need to go the other way in many ways. So we’re never going to be able to play that game.

But I think what we—the game we can play and win is on innovation. Ultimately, the best innovators in the world want to—want to work in a liberal democracy, I believe, which is why the United States has the best universities in the world, which is why we have the best innovators in the world. And when you combine that in particular with the rule of law that we have and the free markets that we have, we have a significant comparative advantage in the innovation economy.

And I think we need to be maximizing that. And the way you do that is by having the right policies that encourage that behavior, but you also have to invest in it. I mean, China has significantly increased its investment in basic research; we have not. They’ve significantly—we talked about infrastructure. They spend about 8 percent of their GDP on infrastructure; we spend 2 (percent). Infrastructure has a very high return on investment. It’s the second-highest return on investment that our government makes. The first is basic research. And you know, at best we’ve been growing it with inflation where they’ve been growing it at a much faster rate.

So we have to understand what goes into the innovation economy, which is basic research, immigration reform so the best and the brightest come here, and making sure that the core strengths we have—the rule of law, free markets, and everything—are vibrant. Which is also one of the reasons why this move away from kind of a capitalistic-based innovation economy I think is very dangerous for us at this moment in time for lots of other reasons.

But we can’t let them steal this stuff, and that’s really why I think we’ve got to be very tough on them. But it’s got to be with a clear goal. The trade deficit is not irrelevant. I’m not one of these people who say the trade deficit with China is irrelevant, but it’s not THE most relevant thing. What is much more relevant, in my judgment is their theft of intellectual property because the people who control AI and these other things in many ways are going to control the economies of the future. And we have to make sure the United States of America consistently wins at that game.

And I don’t see any reason why we can’t. We have every advantage you could possibly want to have in that game. We’re just not playing it as well as we could.

KRISTOF: A moment ago you mentioned the South China Sea.


KRISTOF: And so let’s talk about security issues for a moment. China—Xi Jinping had promised not to militarize the islands in the South China Sea. Clearly, he has.

DELANEY: He has.

KRISTOF: The Obama—President Obama was very cautious about applying military pressure in the South China Sea for fear of starting a conflict. President Trump has been somewhat—has been modestly more aggressive. You know, how should we behave in that context? And at the end of the day, I must say, you know, I’m not sure that there’s anything we can really do, whether we—how close we get to those islands at this point that is really going to change the fact of their existence.

DELANEY: It’s an important issue. But again, relative to some of the other stuff we’ve spoken about, I wouldn’t put it at the same level. It more just shows their hand as to what their ambitions are. And I just think, again, we got to be clear-eyed.

I mean, I’m all for the exercises we did—our Navy does on a regular basis, which I’m sure you might have witnessed, where, you know, we sail by the islands and China reads a script to us, and we read it back, and you know, we play this game. And I’m all for that because we don’t want to cede the claim or acknowledge that the claim they’re making is at any level legitimate.

But I’m much more concerned about making sure we maintain a strong military posture in the region. You know, which is why in these North Korean negotiations—which I actually wasn’t opposed to. I’m not one of these people who came out and said the president shouldn’t have met with them. I don’t actually think having diplomatic discussions was a bad idea. But I do worry a lot that any deal involving North Korea might involve some reduction of our military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region, which I’m not for. And so I think that’s the bigger game than the islands, is making sure we have a strong military presence, that we’re working with our allies in the region, and that we have the right military capabilities so that we can continue to assert our interests in the region.

KRISTOF: And one place where those military capabilities might be tested is Taiwan.


KRISTOF: I’m just back from Taiwan. You know, the U.S. has always pursued this strategic ambiguity about what we do if Taiwan comes under assault.

DELANEY: Which makes it easy to agree with. (Laughter.)

KRISTOF: Yeah, that’s right. So what—you know, President Trump has been—he has tended or the administration—I’m not sure to what extent he’s paying attention, but the administration has been helping Taiwan at the margins with its kind of diplomatic—avoiding diplomatic isolation. You know, should we be supporting Taiwan in those ways? And what should we think about, you know, whether—if there is some jockeying in the Taiwan Strait, to what extent do we want to inject American military force?

DELANEY: Well, all the good ideas I have on this topic come from your piece that you wrote today. (Laughter.) So—

KRISTOF: I’ll give you a kickback on sales. (Laughs.)

DELANEY: Yeah. And as I was joking earlier, twenty people sent it to me today because they knew I was seeing you, including someone handing me a paper copy of it right outside the door to make sure I didn’t miss it. (Laughter.)

So I thought you framed it perfectly, actually, which is there are countermeasures. You know, I think what you—you were indicating one of the big risks is a cyberattack. You know, so people tend to think it’s going to be a direct military confrontation, but there’s so many other options below that that China can engage in. You know, Taiwan’s economy is highly dependent upon China. You know, they’re interconnected in a whole bunch of ways and China can pursue a whole bunch of approaches that go below a direct military confrontation. And I think we should be prepared to support Taiwan in making sure they have appropriate responses to that, measured responses to that.

KRISTOF: And so if the lights go out in Taipei and—

DELANEY: As you said, then the lights may go out somewhere in China.


DELANEY: I mean, I thought that was a good way of—a good way of thinking about it.

But again, this is going to be a—this is going to be a constant issue. As you know, they—China plays the long game, and they are going to play a very long game on Taiwan. And I think the U.S. current posture on that I think is appropriate. There is a lot of ambiguity on it, which I think is appropriate, and it’s one of the reasons why we have to maintain strong capabilities in the region.

KRISTOF: And having said that, we’ll see if China turns the lights out in the Council right now.

DELANEY: Yes, exactly. (Laughter.) I think—I don’t—I wasn’t sure if you in your piece or someone else described it as “the unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Was that—was that your piece?

KRISTOF: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t original. That’s been said. (Laughs.)

DELANEY: Yeah. But it’s—you know, they’re a lot more than that. But in terms of the strategic importance in the region, I think—I mean, historically—I’m not a—I’m not a history buff on the Asia-Pacific region, but historically China has not had a history of having terrific relations with its neighbors. And so, you know, I just think we need to maintain our presence in the region. So, again, I’m probably different from a lot of the candidates who are running for president who don’t think we need a force—I don’t think we need a force reduction in the region.

I think we need to support our military more by having trade agreements. It was really interesting, when I went over and met—which I’ve done several times—met with the U.S. military in the region, no one was more upset about us not entering into the Trans-Pacific Partnership than they were, and it really struck me. But then it was obvious to me, right? These alliances we have in those regions, which we’ve so meticulously developed over time, which in many ways the U.S. military is at the frontlines of maintaining those alliances on lots of operational levels, you know, they want the whole relationship to be working because that’s good for them. And it’s—right now it’s not working economically, not only because we didn’t go into a trade agreement but I think everyone believes the ultimate trade deal we currently cut with China will come at our allies’ expense. Because if we get China to have a headline that they’re going to buy more XYZ, they’re going to reallocate those purchases from somewhere. And that’s how I think our allies are thinking of it.

KRISTOF: I’d like to broaden the conversation to include members. We didn’t get to a lot of really important issues, including Xinjiang and Uighurs and so much more, but this is your chance. There’s a microphone that’ll go around. Please wait until it gets to you before asking a question and then state your name and affiliation, please.


Q: Thank you. Catherine Gay, Catherine Gay Communications.

Two questions, if I may. One is—

KRISTOF: Actually, could we just have one? Just because I want to make sure we have a chance to—for everybody to ask.

Q: I have to choose between my two?

KRISTOF: Choose.

Q: OK. Then I’ll go to Russia. Could you talk a little bit about Russia—its relationship with the United States, its relationship with China, and broadly globally?

DELANEY: Well, you know, there’s a lot there, obviously.

You know, its relationship with China is a very interesting one, and I don’t think people quite have their heads around exactly what it is because it’s more defined, in my judgment, by each of their relationship with us than it is between their relationship with each other. That’s at least my opinion.

But lookit, I think there’s going to have to be a bit of a reset with Russia when the next president is in power, which if I have my way will be pretty soon. You know, we have a lot of issues with Russia. We have areas we have in common, right? We have some shared goals that we should try to work together on. The most important to me is reduction of nuclear capabilities, which has to be, in my judgment, the number-one responsibility of a president of the United States because it remains the most significant risk to the world, not only in terms of the potential casualty of human life but in terms of what even a relatively small use of a nuclear weapon could do to destabilize the whole world. Talk about a wave of isolationism. I don’t think we would even know how to describe that.

So I think we got to be working with Russia more. The current administration has made negative progress on that, in my opinion. You know, we have issues around terrorism we’ve got to work with them on. So we have things we got to work with them on.

We have things we cannot tolerate, which is what they did to our elections, obviously. And there’s a lot more stuff we need to be doing, in my opinion, both in terms of offensive cyber capabilities against them and in terms of hardening our own infrastructure against potential cyberattacks or attacks on our election systems.

But again, we don’t want to go so far that we have no dialogue with Russia, which is why I think there’s going to have to be a reset. Because I think if you listen to the rhetoric, it’s taking us potentially to a place where we are back in the Cold War, and I don’t think that’s in our best interest, ultimately.


Q: Hi. Ryan Kaminski with the U.N. Association of the United States of America.

First, thank you very much, Congressman, for talking about the need for U.S. global leadership on human rights. That was really refreshing to hear.

My question is in response to a series of questions that CFR issued to your campaign. You talked about the need to engage U.N. agencies on the rights violations against Uighurs. Can you expand a little bit about what that would entail, as well as more broadly U.S. leadership at the United Nations, especially as China’s influence in that institution appears to be rising relative to the U.S.? Thank you very much.

DELANEY: Yeah. I mean—yeah, and—well, thank you. Ryan it is, right?

Q: Yes.

DELANEY: Well, thank you for your work on this issue.

You know, obviously, it starts with calling it out for what it is, which I don’t think we’ve done enough of, right, calling it out for the significant—I mean, the estimates are anywhere from one million to three million people. Calling it out for the significant human rights violation that is occurring to those people, and elevating that at the U.N., and getting effectively the behavior condemned, I mean, that’s where it starts. And then where you go from there is it’s part of your portfolio of issues that you’re dealing with them on and you’re bringing in our alliances. And again, here’s an issue that is best dealt with by working through a global community, which is how we’ve been successful at dealing with other human rights issues that have occurred around the world.


Q: Hello, Congressman. Thank you for being with us. My name is Chloe Demrovsky. I’m the president and CEO of Disaster Recovery Institute International.

So I’d like to bring up a little bit of a topic that we haven’t touched at all, which is huge, which is climate change. So the relationship between the U.S. and China is very important for addressing this issue, so can you talk a little bit about how you might engage them on this issue to move us forward?

DELANEY: Yeah, and I’m glad you—I’m glad you brought it up. I mentioned it a little bit in my reference to what was going on in the Amazon to make the point that all this stuff is interrelated and trade is interrelated with climate. Because if you think about—just if you think simply about what’s going on around the world, there’s a certain amount of land that has trees on it, there’s a certain amount of land where we grow crops. As a global community, we should want that ratio to be as many trees and as few acres of land growing crops. When we engage in trade wars, it then creates incentives for countries to potentially clear more land and we just change that ratio. So it’s all interrelated.

I mean, we’re not going to be able to deal with climate change unless we create a global effort, which is why Paris was such an historic step forward even though it didn’t go as far as a lot of people wanted. It didn’t go as far as I wanted. But the fact that you got all these countries around the table to agree to something I thought was historic. And so, obviously, the United States of America needs to get back in Paris, but we really need to lead on Paris 2.0 because—and I think Paris 2.0 should be around technology, because it seems to me if you look at all the human beings around the world who are entering some form of a middle class or leaving poverty, that correlates with a significant increase in energy consumption. And we’re naïve to think that countries are going to deny their citizens energy because of climate concerns.

So what I believe the United States of America has to do is lead on solving this problem and help the world build the advanced energy economy. And to do that we’re going to have to fundamentally invent new things. We’re going to need new battery technologies. We’re going to need new transmission technologies. I think we’re going to need to build direct air-capture machines, machines that literally suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, which are by the way proven and they work but they’re sub-scale. But that’s a problem that can be solved with innovation.

And I would like to see—as president what I would like to do is have Paris 2.0 be centered around creating a global community of countries that we work together to solve these issues, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having goals of reducing fossil fuel use and CO2 use. Absolutely we should have those. But I think if we want to solve this as the global issue—it’s much easier in many ways to solve this problem in the United States of America. I don’t think there’s any large country that is better-positioned than the United States of America to solve this problem on our own, and you see how hard it is for us to do it. So that underscores how hard it’s going to be for a lot of countries around the world, and I don’t think we’ll solve the problem unless the U.S leads around actually inventing things to solve the problem. And I think that’s got to be part of a solution.

And I don’t think that’s actually talked about enough because fundamentally we got to deliver, in my judgment, new energy solutions to countries because otherwise they’re just going to open coal plants. Just like they do—I think China, India, Africa open like ten coal plants a week collectively. So that’s what we’re dealing with, and they have to have alternatives. And by the way, if we invent those technologies they’ll be the most valuable things in the world.

So thank you.

KRISTOF: Yes, right there.

Q: Thank you for your time and comments today, Congressman. My question is that if you could share some thoughts on the trading relationship between the U.S. and India, and what role do you think India can play as an ally for the United States in the Indo-Pacific.

DELANEY: Well, I think it can, obviously, play a huge role. We’ve even changed the name of how we think about the region, right? It used to be the Asia-Pacific region; now it’s the Asia-Indo-Pacific region. I forgot the exact acronym that we use to make sure we’re including India in terms of how we think about our positioning in the region. And, obviously, that’s because I think we have potentially a lot in common with India, but also because I think with our positioning against China ensuring that India is part of our approach going forward, I think that’s really important.

So I think we have tremendous opportunities to work closely with India, not only on trade but on security issues. We have to work with them on some of these other issues that are going on in the world—climate, human rights, et cetera.

So I think it’s a relationship—you know, it’s got some issues, like a lot of our big relationships. You know, and our issues is really, you know, what is India doing vis-à-vis Russia and arms issues, et cetera, so we’ve had some speedbumps there. But I do think we—there’s a lot of upside in the—in the relationship. I think the countries fundamentally could have a lot in common.


Q: Maryum Saifee. I’m currently a CFR international affairs fellow and also on sabbatical from the State Department.

Piggybacking on the question on India, what are your thought on the situation in Kashmir?

DELANEY: Well, I think it’s—you know, I think it’s dangerous. And I think it’s—you know, my thoughts are what I think a lot of people’s are, which is we’d like it to be deescalated. And I think it’s unfortunately being used for political reasons, which I think is very unfortunate, but I think it’s an inherently dangerous situation. The United States needs to be playing a role trying to dial down the temperature.

KRISTOF: But if we’re outspoken about human rights abuses in Xinjiang against the Uighurs by China, shouldn’t we also be—

DELANEY: Absolutely.

KRISTOF: —outspoken about Indian violations against Kashmiris?

DELANEY: We should be outspoken about human rights violations wherever they arise, even if they’re with some of our closest allies. I mean, I just think that’s a responsibility of the United States of America. And I think we’re uniquely positioned to do it, and I think it’s got to be part of the—I mean, when we sit down with countries around the world, both countries that are strong allies and ones where we have more difficult relationships, we’re always talking about global issues, we’re talking diplomacy, we’re talking relations, and we’re talking human rights. And I just think all of those issues are on the table.

I think one of the great failings of the current administration is they’ve kind of crossed the human rights things off the table because they’re very transactional in how they think about it. And I actually think one of the great things the United States of America offers the world is a set of values. That doesn’t mean we’ve been perfect; we haven’t. But in general I think we have a set of values to offer, and I think it has to be part of all of our diplomatic discussions, even with some of our closest friends, who don’t always engage in perfect behavior.

KRISTOF: Nor do we. (Laughs.)

DELANEY: Exactly.


Q: Congressman, Mustafa Riffat from the Brunswick Group.

There seem to be two schools of thought about this primary season among Democrats, and one is that it’s terrific that there’s a spirited debate going on and there are so many candidates, and the flipside of that argument is why don’t Democrats coalesce around a single candidate and focus their energies on the general. My question to you is, what is the party’s biggest vulnerability heading into 2020?

DELANEY: Well, in my judgment the biggest vulnerability of the Democratic Party heading into 2020 is losing the center because what I think will happen in the 2020 election, in my opinion, is that the president is going to turn out his voters in record numbers and I think Democrats are going to turn out in record numbers. It almost doesn’t matter who the nominee is. And the reason I say that with confidence is because that’s what happened in the 2018 midterms, where we put up 435 candidates. It was a beautifully diverse field that represented who we are as Americans. Some of those candidates were young, some were older. Some were men, some were women. Some were white, some were people of color. Some were avowed socialists and some were strong Blue Dog Democrats. Some were gay, some were straight. Huge diversity of a beautiful field. And in almost every congressional district we had record turnout. And so what that means is the candidate—and they’d all be offended by this—but the candidate didn’t matter that much in terms of Democratic turnout because the Democrats said that democracy’s on the line and we have to put a check on the president by taking back the House. And I think that’ll be the spirit in 2020.

But if you look at how we flipped forty seats from red to blue, Republican districts to Democratic districts, we ran folks who won independents. They ran on common-sense solutions. They ran on solving problems. They ran on building infrastructure. You know, they ran on fixing the Affordable Care Act, not making private insurance illegal. You know, they said things like, hey, I’ll roll up my sleeves and work with Republicans if I can get something done. That’s the kind of stuff they ran on, and we won independents big time.

So the risk to the Democratic Party—and I’m not going to make this political by calling out positions or people—but the risk is we put up a candidate who turns off those voters. And I think the way you turn off those voters is by trying to get them to swallow throwing out the whole economic model of the United States of America. That’s my opinion. Again, I don’t want to make this political, but that to me is the biggest risk, because I think by any measure the most important thing for the Democratic Party is to win in 2020. Nothing else even compares to it.

You know, we talk all about domestic policy on the campaign trail when, in fact, we got to work with Congress on that. We don’t talk at all about any of this stuff, which is actually where the president has a lot of authority. And so in reality the stuff we talk about you got to work with Congress to make happen, so to me it’s winning is what matters. And that, in my judgment, is the risk.

KRISTOF: Let me follow up on that. You know, the political crisis in this country, obviously, goes way beyond Donald Trump, and other countries have seen similar crises.


KRISTOF: Most notably, Britain right now is—


KRISTOF: —is going through it. Tell me your take on Brexit and what lessons we have or the world has to draw from it about why these crises are erupting simultaneously in so many democracies.

DELANEY: So I think among a lot of the developed world, right, because of these things I talked about—globalization and technology—a lot of people have been left behind. And in my opinion that absolutely didn’t have to happen. There are things we could have done to have made this transition much more successful. We didn’t do it, people got left behind, and they’re angry. And so they’re kind of voting for upheaval because that’s what Brexit was. That’s what I think the 2016 election was. That’s what I think people in the Democratic Party calling for socialism are doing. You know, they want upheaval to the system, and as part of that they just want to vilify their political opponents. And that’s a really tough—so we’re in a really tough time.

And the problem is the only way out is not what a lot of these people who are really emotional about this want to hear. The only way out is actually to work together and solve some of these problems. You know, the only way out is to do things to increase economic security of people who are really struggling. You know, 40 percent of our country can’t afford their basic necessities, which is their housing, you know, their food, or their utilities. Half the American people can’t afford a $500 surprise expense. The only way to solve those problems is actually to get things done—to, you know, build infrastructure, expand the earned income tax credit, you know, create some form of universal healthcare but making sure people have choice, doing things to improve public education, creating universal pre-K, creating incentives for people to invest in distressed communities, you know, requiring 25 percent of the government contractors to have half their employees in economically struggling areas. These are the kind of real solutions that will actually help people and they’ll feel like they’re part of the economy. The problem is to do any of those things you actually have to work together, which is the opposite of calling for upheaval and vilification of your opponents. So that is the dynamic.

You know, I once had to give a commencement address to a group of sixth graders, which is the hardest speech I ever had to give. (Laughter.) And I remember I said to them at one point that someone once told me that you’re at—you get to a fork in the road in your life all the time and you always have two paths, the hard path and the easy path, and it’s always better to take the hard path or the road less traveled, you know. And I think we’re at that moment right now. The easy path is more political demonization, calling for upheaval, throwing out the whole economic model. The hard path is to actually fix it because you have to work together to do that, and you have to work through the democratic system.

I mean, if you—look at what’s happened in the U.K. It’s really extraordinary. You know, the people voted for something. Whether they understood it or not, they voted for it. And the government can’t deliver it because it’s not good policy, and so they’re in a really tough spot. And you know—but that’s kind of where we are. You know, people are—you know, want upheaval, because that’s what I think Brexit was. I’m not sure if it’s good for me, but I know it’s bad for them, so I’m going to vote for it.


Q: Thank you, Congressman. My name is Daniel Ahn. I am the chief U.S. economist at BNP Paribas. And just a little bit more background, I used to be the chief economist at the U.S. Department of State, where my office worked a lot on TPP. So I’m delighted to hear—(laughter)—

DELANEY: (But there’s ?) one of us—yeah.

Q: —of a fellow traveler. And, yeah, our hearts were broken when TPP was torn up.

But I actually wanted to discuss how to sell this to the American people. When we made great efforts to try and explain what TPP was, we found that it was the security angle that was resonating most—


Q: —that this was a(n) anti-China, you know, reinforcing of security alliances in the region, which is valid but certainly is not nearly the full scope of what TPP represented.


Q: And yet, we found people didn’t believe us—(laughs)—didn’t trust us.


Q: And admittedly, economists have been, I think, a bit behind the curve in understanding the full ramifications of trade, et cetera, but nevertheless the challenge remains on how to find support for complex, nuanced policy in a political climate which rewards simplification, demonization, et cetera. So whether TPP or something else, Congressman, I was hoping you could share some thoughts and wisdom about how to square that circle of explaining complex policy, reestablishing trust in nuances, finding centrist, practical support in such a fraught political climate. Thank you.

DELANEY: So, you know, it’s funny; I actually always thought that the administration, which I had deep respect for, on the margin you should have sold the security—national security things more because those, to me, in many ways are the most compelling aspect of the deal. And I think the economic argument is always a tough one because, let’s face it, trade agreements don’t help everyone.

But the way I believe we should get things done is by giving people wins. So what I actually implored the Obama administration to do—because I was one of the point people in the House working to try to count the Democratic votes, which there were very few of—and what I implored them to do, which is what I would so, is I would relaunch the TPP but I would pair it with a large national infrastructure program, because I think if you can go to the American—if you can go to—let’s talk about the Democrats to start with, right, to get their support for a trade agreement, because historically Democrats have been the most reluctant to support trade agreements. If you go to Democrats and say we’re going to build infrastructure—which, by the way, we need to do; it’s a great investment, it improves people’s lives, makes us more competitive—we’re going to build infrastructure, part of doing this trade agreement—you know, this think globally but invest locally—I think it gives someone something to vote for as opposed to trying to get them to change their mind on a bias that they have, which they may or may not have but their constituents have.

You know, it’s hard to go to parts of this country and sell trade agreements, you know, and for good reason. I mean, community after community’s been hollowed out. So you got to be saying not the larger reasons why this is good for the United States of America on a slide about how we’re going to do better and all this stuff, but you got to say what you’re going to do in these communities. And so I think you got to pair trade policy with domestic policy that is much more than retraining workers because that’s just—A, it’s not enough, and it doesn’t sell. It’s got to be real tangible investments in their communities.

And I think that is how I would—that’s how I would approach relaunching the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I would pair it with infrastructure because I think I could go around every community in the country and make the case why this proposal I have is good for their community. And that’s how I think about all this stuff, which is you got to give people wins. And there’s a lot of things that you can pair up that are both good—listen, infrastructure’s good policy and trade’s good policy, so I don’t mind pairing them up. But that’s how I think about them.


Q: Good evening, Nick.

Congressman, Cynthia McFadden from NBC News.

I’m interested—just playing off what you were just saying about giving people wins—


Q: —certainly something that resonated with the electorate the last time round was Donald Trump’s attitude about immigration and refugees. I’d be interested in hearing how you’ll talk to the American people if you’re president, what policies you’ll put in place with regard to the United States. And really what we’ve done is closed the spigot as tight as we can.

DELANEY: Yeah. Well, obviously, I think that’s against our values. It’s against our economic interest.

You know, so I’m a big proponent of comprehensive immigration reform. I think that’s where we have to be, you know, as a party and as a country. And I think the American people—I think you can get that done. I mean, it should have been done in 2013, right? It passed the Senate with significant bipartisan support. I was one of the whips on it in the House, and we had about 270 votes in the House, and Obama would have obviously signed it into law. But John Boehner didn’t put it on the floor because they—he was afraid of this motion to vacate the speaker, which by the way doesn’t exist. It was one of the things that Nancy Pelosi, to her wisdom, got rid of. And so that deal is there. And again, it’s kind of this—

Q: Has the country moved past that deal, though, is my question.

DELANEY: No, I don’t think we’ve moved—look, would you tweak that deal? I would tweak that deal, right? We got a significant issue with Central America and I think we need a very specific response. I have proposed something called Plan Central America, which is modeled after something we did in Colombia, where we actually worked with other countries and NGOs to rebuild, really, the justice system and the law enforcement in those countries. So there’s other things we got to do.

But the fundamental premise of comprehensive immigration reform, which was border security paired with pathway to legal status/citizenship paired with reforms to visa programs, you know, I used to say in business the best business deals are ones where everyone feels a little bad when they’re done, and that was that deal. People got what they wanted. They didn’t necessarily love the other stuff, but it was a great coalition that was kept together. And I just think that that’s where we got to be, and I don’t think we’ve moved past it. I really don’t. I think that’s a—that’s a winning argument to most American people because they get what they want out of it, and that’s where we—there’s really no other alternative.

I mean, we haven’t updated our immigration system in a long time. It’s woefully outdated. And you know, I think you can—listen, everyone’s got these stories, I mean, in their families. I mean, one of my grandparents came to this country as a young boy with one arm and his—you know, he was a little boy. He had one arm. He had seven brothers and sisters. They came to Ellis Island with his mom, and they let his seven brothers and sisters in and his mom in, but they separated him from his parents and they sent him to Staten Island to be deported because we didn’t let disabled people into the country. He finally got an appeal and the appeal was held in the Great Hall of Ellis Island. He was a little boy. He’d been there a couple months. He’s in this room with a hundred people all waiting for their appeals. And the judge walks in, and my grandfather sees the judge also only had one arm. So the only reason he got let into the country, the one-armed boy, is because he happened to get a one-armed judge. (Laughter.)


DELANEY: It’s good story, actually.

KRISTOF: It’s an amazing story. (Laughs.)

DELANEY: Yeah. Yeah. He said—he used to tell this story. When the judge came in, he said, that’s when I knew I’d be an American. (Laughter.) But there’s so many of these kind of shared-humanity stories that we all have, and I think we can win this argument with the American people. We have to win this argument with the American people, but we also have to be smart about what the deal is. And I think the deal is comprehensive immigration reform, just like 2013.

Q: Stephen Blank.

Very quick question, back to trade: Will the revised NAFTA agreement be ratified in this government? And if a Democratic government—Democratic Party government takes over in 2(0)20, will NAFTA—the revised NAFTA be passed then?

DELANEY: Well, if I’m president it will be because I view it as TPP, basically, you know, just part of TPP. I don’t—lookit, I think there’s a chance that Speaker Pelosi does approve the deal. She’s going to want something for it, as she should. So I think there’s a chance it gets done. I don’t put it as a zero probability like some people are. I think there’s a chance it gets done.

Q: (Off mic.)

DELANEY: Some of them would. You know, some of them would. They’d have to work hard to get the coalition. But yeah, some would. I mean, twenty-eight of us voted for—voted for the TPP. This could get a bigger group is my sense.

KRISTOF: We’re almost out of time, but maybe one quick question. Yes?

Q: Rob Radke with Episcopal Relief and Development.

I wonder if you could offer some reflections on the Middle East and Iran, and how we solve the Rubik’s Cube of what’s going on there in the region.


KRISTOF: That’s a good, quick question.


KRISTOF: Middle East, solve that. How do we solve that? (Laughter.)

DELANEY: The bookends of the questions were Russia and the Middle East.

KRISTOF: (Laughs.)

DELANEY: So, lookit, I voted for the Iran nuclear deal. And that’s not because I thought it was a perfect deal. I thought it had—I thought the biggest problem with it was the duration was too short, but in my judgment it was a step forward on progress around reducing nuclear capabilities around the world, which as I said to an earlier question I think is the number-one responsibility from a foreign policy perspective of the president of the United States. So I voted for it. I’d want to get us back in the deal.

I do think you can get back in the deal with better terms, actually. I think you could have a longer duration. But I think that’s what we really should be working towards.

You know, I would have liked the deal to also include more things: human rights issues, funding of terrorism, development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, all things that Iran is doing which I put under the category of very bad behavior and them being a very bad actor and we got to be clear-eyed about it. Iran didn’t want that part of the deal. So when I voted for the deal, I said, listen, you know, this is a nuclear-only deal. You know, we reserve the right to do things to combat Iran’s efforts in those other areas, which I believe. But I think the best step forward on Iran is to actually get back in that agreement.

You know, we got issues with Iran in Syria. You know, I—since you asked about the Middle East broadly, I mean, we have fourteen thousand troops in Afghanistan. I think we have five thousand in Iraq and about two thousand in Syria. I, like most Americans, would like to reduce the troop forces, and I think we can do it. But I’m not calling to get them to zero because I just think that’s unrealistic based on specific goals we have for each of those countries. But I think we can get them down. I think the goals are different.

You know, I think, you know, Afghanistan and Iraq is really about making sure there’s not terrorism in the region again, which is a threat to us, and I think we’re going to need some force presence for a while working with local security forces to combat that, and also to have a say in human rights violations that are on the rise in Afghanistan.

I think in Syria it’s a different set of issues. We’ve got the Kurds we’ve got to get settled. We’ve got—I forgot the number—it’s like fifty thousand ISIS prisoners that no one quite knows what to do with. You know, we’ve got Iran having an outsized influence and, you know, building a presence along the Israeli border. So we’ve got a lot of issues in Syria.

You know, I think on a lot of these things you got to kind of grind them out. Your goal should be to reduce the forces, but not put forth unrealistic goals that you can’t meet and further destabilize those things.

But all of this means we’ve got to be engaging, you know. And you know, I’m an optimist by nature. I think this is a magnificent country and we have every possible advantage any nation could possibly want to have. But what we’ve got to do is investing at home. We’ve got to be taking care of all these people in our country who have been absolutely left behind by all this change. We’ve got to be playing to our strengths. And we absolutely have to be engaging around the world consistent with what we did since World War II, which wasn’t perfect but in general has made us more safe, more secure, and more prosperous, and I think has improved the conditions of human beings generally, both by creating economic opportunity and being a strong voice against human rights violations.

That was my close to his question.

KRISTOF: On that note, it—

DELANEY: Thank you very much.

KRISTOF: It was great to have a conversation with a presidential candidate that was not about sound bites, but that was deeply substantive, that covered a huge amount of ground—

DELANEY: Thank you.

KRISTOF: —from Hong Kong to Kashmir to Uighurs to Russia, and included an incredible story about a one-armed boy—

DELANEY: Yes. (Laughter.)

KRISTOF: —who was here because of a one-armed judge.

DELANEY: Well, the audience would have enjoyed if the ratio of you speaking compared to me would have been higher.

KRISTOF: Oh. (Laughs.)

DELANEY: I’m certain of that. But I appreciate the—you giving me this opportunity, Nicholas.

KRISTOF: Thank you. And I plan to figure out a way of using that one-armed boy story. Boy, that is a—that’s an amazing story, so. (Laughter.) Thank you.

DELANEY: Thank you.

KRISTOF: Please join me in thanking Congressman Delaney. (Applause.)


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