A Conversation With Senator Angus King

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

U.S. Senator from Maine (I)


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Senator Angus King discusses Ukraine, U.S. policy toward China, the challenges of emerging technologies, and the prospects of bipartisan cooperation.

FROMAN: Good morning. My name is Mike Froman. I’m the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. And I’m delighted to welcome you to this event with Senator Angus King from Maine.

Good morning, Senator. The senator’s on the Armed Services Committee, Intelligence Committee, Energy and Natural Resources, and Veterans Committee. So we have plenty to talk about. He is, of course, known as an independent, both in his political affiliation but also independently minded and highly respected across the aisles in and out of Congress.

Welcome, Senator.

KING: Great to be with you, Mike. I’m so sorry to be late. I was in the Armed Services Committee, and it was my turn to ask questions of the nominee for the chair for the chief of staff of the Army. And I had to get that done.

FROMAN: That’s rather important. No problem at all. It’s really a great pleasure to have you here. And it’s a particular pleasure for me because this is my first event as president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

KING: Congratulations.

FROMAN: Thank you. And speaking of first, I wanted to start by asking you whether you remembered how we first met?

KING: Yeah, I think it was when I put a hold on your nomination.

FROMAN: (Laughs.) That’s exactly right.

KING: I think that may be the only time I’ve ever done that in ten years. But I was exercising my power, and I wanted you to come and visit a shoe factory in Maine. And you met that obligation. The hold was released. You were confirmed, and did a great job.

FROMAN: It was a short and very friendly hold. And I appreciate it. You were the first trip I made, to Maine, after getting confirmed. I really appreciate it. And I raise that not just to have a little fun with you this morning, but because I think it underscored just how critical it is—the importance of the linkage between the domestic elements of trade and trade policy itself. And maybe let’s start there, we’ll go into other areas as well.

But can you share your sense of where we are in terms of America’s support for trade? It’s changed a lot over the last six or ten years. What you’re hearing from your constituents in Maine, and what role the U.S. can play as a leader, particularly with China out there extending itself, given the domestic constraints on trade?

KING: Well, it’s a very—it’s very tough, Mike. And it’s tough politically, because our constituents view trade, frankly, as a threat, in many cases. Even though there may be other cases where they’re greatly benefited in terms of the products that they buy, the variety of products, the prices, the costs, and those kinds of things. Your predecessor, Richard Haass, was on the radio this morning, and he said something interesting, I thought, about this. That he thinks it’s unlikely that there will be broad worldwide, sort of, you know, Doha Round kind of global trade agreements, but most of the trade agreements are going to be more in terms of bilateral and limited organizations.

And you and I spent hours and hours talking about the TPP. And, of course, the Trump administration essentially said, no, we’re not going to even do this. I think you can make a pretty good argument right now that that was a mistake, that the—and the power of the unified countries of the Pacific region as a trading bloc, in response to the rise of China, I think strategically would have been very important. But to go back to local politics, I mean, it’s—I tell you, it’s hard to go home and look someone in the eye who lost their job to—you know, their company moved to China—and I’ve had to do that—and say, well, you know, this is in the best interest of the country, and it’s a big—you know, it’s a big global benefit. Well, it certainly isn’t to them.

So I think global trade agreements are going to be very difficult. On the other hand, I think bilateral agreements—particularly agreements between countries that are relatively similar levels. In other words, a free trade agreement with the U.K. or with the European Union, I think is more of a possibility because then my constituents can’t say, well, you’re saying I have to compete against somebody that’s being paid a dollar an hour. And so that’s sort of the way I see it, as more ad hoc, smaller level deals going forward.

FROMAN: You know, this administration, the Biden administration, is pursuing what they call a worker-centric trade policy. And that could mean a number of different things. Using trade agreements to raise labor standards around the world so that our workers are competing on a more level playing field. It could be opening up markets that are closed so that we can export more from the United States and help workers or lobstermen, for example, from Maine, enter new markets. Or it could mean protecting American workers from imports, protecting their industries and keeping their jobs just as they are here. And, of course, that has a bit of a risk of inflation, of raising the cost that consumers pay for those—for those products. When you think about your constituents in Maine, those three notions of what a worker-centric trade policy might be, what do you think is their priority?

KING: Well, I think that’s a—I think that’s a good statement of the priority. You know, for so long trade was identified as offshoring and cheaper labor. I mean, you know, in New England we know all about that because our jobs first went to North Carolina, and then they went to Mexico, and then they went to Asia. I mean, it was a pretty clear seeking of lower wages. To the extent that we’re talking about trade agreements that facilitate fair competition, that do recognize worker rights—and I remember you and I talked about this at some length when we were talking about the TPP—the question is: If you’ve got a worker right provision in the agreement, does it—does it only apply retroactively after the trade benefits are realized or is it a condition of the trade benefits being granted?

And I think that’s important. In other words, it’s sort of a trust but verify kind of thing. But I think, you know, again, you can’t repeal the global trade. I mean, we’re in a world that borders are—in terms of trade—are often invisible. And so that’s the reality. But then we have to be sure that it’s done—and that’s why I think more discrete, bilateral kind of deals is really the way the future is going to unfold.

FROMAN: China is obviously the big—the elephant in the room, so to speak, on this and so many other issues. You have been a strong proponent of creating a commission to develop a grand strategy towards China. And grand strategy is the bread and butter of the Council on Foreign Relations. What do you see is the main elements of what a grand strategy towards China might be?

KING: Well, first, the reason I’ve proposed this commission is a realization that we’re really dealing with China in a kind of ad hoc way, in silos. We talk about trade. We talk about military competition. We talk about exchange. We talk about security, cyber. And I believe that we need a broader way of thinking about how to deal with China that includes understanding China—that includes understanding the history and culture of China. And that can inform better policy.

I’m in the middle—in fact, I was just reading it last night on the way home from Lithuania—Kevin Rudd’s, I think excellent, book, The Avoidable War, that is a really in-depth analysis of, you know, what does Xi Jinping want? What are the things that are driving him? And I get the sense that often we are not making policy in a kind of atmosphere of comprehensive understanding. And that’s really what I’m trying to propose in this commission.

Frankly, it was based in part on our successful commission involving cyber that involved four members of Congress, then four members from the executive, and six members from the private sector. The idea being, let’s bring people together who not only have a lot of good thinking on this issue, but also—in terms of the members of Congress and the executive—the power to execute. And that was one of the keys to our Cyber Commission. We were able to get, I don’t know, we’re up to about 75 percent of our recommendations enacted into law, which is—as you know, is a pretty high batting average for a national commission.

So that’s what I have in mind. I think it’s important, rather than sort of step by step and without the left hand necessarily knowing what the right hand is doing. I think we need to take a step back and really think about what is the future relationship with China, and how do we work—how do we get them to the point where they see value in talking? I mean, frankly, Mike, it scares the hell out of me that they won’t answer the phone. I mean, if there’s an incident in the South China Sea, they literally—there’s no mechanism for de-escalation at this point, because they won’t communicate. I think that’s extremely dangerous, given the possibility of some kind of accident that could escalate.

I have this vision of these two blindfolded giants sort of lumbering toward one another in a kind of inevitable way, the Thucydides trap. And the results, if we don’t avoid conflict, would be unimaginable and catastrophic for both societies, and for the world. So I want to step back, think about it a bit, get some good thinking from the outside, and try to develop a strategy that that will be comprehensive and that will carry us forward no matter who the president is, what the what the administration is. But something that will give us some guidance as we try to navigate this very difficult situation of a rising power, an existing major power, and what historically has been almost inevitable conflict.

FROMAN: You mentioned that you just came back from Lithuania, I think, late last night. Thank you for joining us straight off the plane. You were there for the NATO summit. This has got to be one of the most consequential NATO summits in recent history. Any observations on where it’s coming out in terms of whether Ukraine will ever be ultimately a member—a full member of NATO, and what kind of security guarantees the NATO partners may need to offer them in the meantime? And where do you see the NATO summit resolving this issue?

KING: Well, it’ll be interesting to see what the communique is today. As you say, we left at the end of the day yesterday and flew overnight to get back for this morning. I didn’t want to miss this meeting with you. But I think the focus on NATO membership is really misplaced. NATO is helping Ukraine in every way possible, except for troops, except for boots on the ground. And the supply of logistics, of humanitarian aid, of weaponry, of training—I mean, all of that is going on. And that’s really what Ukraine needs right now. And I think, frankly, all the debate about whether they should be a member, when they should be a member, whether an invitation should be—I really think that’s not the point.

At some point in the future, given the right conditions, it may be appropriate to bring Ukraine into NATO membership. The Baltic states are already members. Poland is already a member. So bordering Russia is not a disqualification. On the other hand, somebody raised at the at the discussion yesterday, talking specifically about NATO membership for Ukraine upon the termination of the war, could be a perverse incentive to Putin to maintain and prolong the war. If he believes he’s fighting against Ukraine being a member of NATO, that’s a motivation for him.

He’s paranoid about NATO, we know that. Although it’s a defensive alliance, he views it as a mortal threat to Russia. And the talk about Ukraine, joining NATO is, I think, as I say, could be a perverse incentive to prolonging the war on Putin’s behalf. So my view is the administration is taking the right position. Let’s talk about this in the future. We’ll talk about the conditions. There are a lot of conditions that everybody has to go through in order to become a NATO member. And let’s focus really on the assistance that’s necessary to enable Ukraine to win this war. And then we’ll talk about what the future of Ukraine is with regard to NATO.

FROMAN: There’s really been a remarkable degree of consensus among the allies, and then even domestically, around support for Ukraine—material support and reconstruction support—up to now. How do you see that evolving domestically here over time? And when you go back to Maine and you’re meeting with your constituents—it’s a very purple state, and you’ve got people with a wide range of political views there. Hence, your independence. How do you—what sort of—what are you hearing from them in terms of their willingness to continue to do whatever is necessary to support Ukraine to win this war, to reconstruction when the war is over, and then ultimately, you know, even putting themselves potentially at risk if Ukraine were ever to join NATO?

KING: Well, you use the right term, a wide range of views. (Laughs.) I mean, they range from—I think, the majority—clear majority, a steadfast support for Ukraine. I think people understand why it’s important and support our engagement and the support that we have provided will provide. On the other hand, there certainly are people—I mean, I get emails and comments, why are we doing this? You know, we’ve got needs here at home. We got housing problems, health-care problems. Why are we spending this money on this country that’s so far away?

Now, one of the—one of the issues that our delegation raised continuously—we had ten bilateral meetings yesterday in Vilnius with, you know, the president of the Czech Republic, the prime minister of Albania, you name it. And the president of the United States also, by the way, and the secretary of state. But one of the issues that was continually raised is the NATO members paying their dues, meeting the 2 percent of GDP for defense standard, because that is something that I hear, is why should we do so much if the other NATO countries aren’t stepping up?

Now, in fact, many of them are, particularly with regard to Ukraine. And one of the things that often doesn’t get counted is the cost of the refugees that have been absorbed in places like Poland, and Lithuania, Moldova. I mean, they are really stepping up and accepting, in Poland’s case, millions of refugees. They’re in their schools. They’re providing them with health care. They’re getting all the benefits of their society. So that’s a substantial expenditure that those countries are making. It may not be for guns or uniforms, but it’s a meaningful number.

However, the 2 percent number—and more and more countries are stepping up to that—but politically that’s something that will undermine our ability to maintain support for Ukraine if indeed a number of major countries aren’t—you know, are not just—they’re not providing for their defense. Most of the European countries are getting it. They see this as a serious threat. They remember 1938. They remember the Sudetenland, and they understand that Putin’s aggression, if not checked, is likely to continue. It’s interesting that probably the least participant in providing a substantial amount of GDP for defense is Canada, the furthest country from Europe.

And I think that’s regrettable. And I think Canada should be stepping up in a more substantial way. They’re around 1 percent, about half of where the goal for the rest of the NATO alliance—which by the way, is a commitment that everybody made in Wales, I think, in 2014. So politically, I think the support is there, Mike. I think it’s going to continue. But I think it’s going to depend, to some extent, on the feeling in America that we’re not the only ones bearing this burden.

FROMAN: And how worried are you as you look across the Senate, your colleagues who are dealing with serious other similar challenges at home—political challenges at home, that as we head into the election that the support within the Senate might well weaken between now and the election next year?

KING: I think the Senate is pretty solid. Our delegation was solidly bipartisan. Tom Tillis and Dan Sullivan and Pete Ricketts were with us. No question there about support for Ukraine. Strong advocacy, by the way, for meeting that 2 percent floor. The House is another—is another question. I mean, there are people in the House who are openly saying: We don’t want to support Ukraine. We’re not going to support it. McCarthy can’t support it. It can’t be in the budget, and those kinds of things. I don’t understand their thinking. I really don’t, because history is so clear that dictators if given the opportunity will continue.

And Putin has told us. (Laughs.) I mean, he’s made speeches that said the greatest tragedy of the 21st century was the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, and he wants to rebuild it. I mean, what does that mean? Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states. I mean, there’s no secret. I think it was Maya Angelou said, if someone tells you who they are you should believe them. And Putin has told us who he is.

And so, right now—and Jeanne Shaheen told the story of meeting up a woman who was a soldier in Ukraine, a Ukrainian woman who said: We are fighting for you so you don’t have to fight. You don’t have to bear the risk of injury and death. And that’s literally what’s happening right now. We’re supplying much of the materiel and the weapons, but they’re doing the fighting and the dying. And that’s so we don’t have to. I made a comment yesterday that the only thing more expensive than supporting Ukraine would be not supporting Ukraine and having to have World War Three. We’ve just got to understand history.

FROMAN: Now, speaking of Russia, you mentioned your service on the Cybersecurity Commission. There was a lot of expectation when the war broke out that cyber would be playing a major role in this conflict, and that Russia would be using its cyber capabilities against Ukraine in a very significant way. Has that played out as expected? Are you surprised about the resilience of the Ukrainian cybersecurity environment?

KING: Yes. I am. And pleased. And I think there are two factors at play. One is, and you hear this continuously when you’re in or near Ukraine, the Ukrainian people are amazingly creative and resilient. It was funny, I was in Ukraine in January and I heard the word “MacGyver” four or five times. MacGyver. Remember the TV show where the guy could, you know, he could build a nuclear submarine from a paperclip in a Swiss Army—

FROMAN: Shoelaces? Yeah.

KING: Yeah, exactly. (Laughs.) But I heard that term, and that’s an apt description. The Ukrainians have been very creative and resilient, number one. Number two, we provided some serious help to them in protecting their networks. Number three, why didn’t we have a major cyberattack on this country? I believe it was because the Russians know the capability that we have to inflict cyber damage on them. I think they were afraid of Paul Nakasone. And I was a strong advocate during the work of the Cyber Commission for deterrence. That you the best posture—strategic posture is deterrence. That’s been the basis of our foreign policy, of our defense policy, for seventy-five years.

And so the—I believe the Russians know that we have the capability to inflict harm on them, if they cross the threshold of a dangerous and life threatening cyberattack in this country or elsewhere in Europe. So I think it’s a combination of the resilience and defensive capabilities that the Ukrainians developed, in addition to the defend-forward posture of our CYBERCOM, with regard to the reaction, the response to any kind of a major cyber activity from the Russians toward us, or Europe.

FROMAN: To build on that, as a member of the Intel Committee, you were quite actively involved in investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Do you feel that whatever lessons were learned from that experience, we are prepared going into the next election to protect ourselves from intervention?

KING: I hope so. Let me me—Mike, I’m going to get a visual aid, OK?


KING: Don’t go anywhere. This is—this is the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on its Russia investigation and the election of 2016. As you can see, it’s very substantial. And part of the conclusion of this document is it wasn’t a hoax. They were seriously engaged in a variety of ways. And there’s no reason to think that they won’t do so again. Although, as I said, I think that they have been, to some extent, deterred by the action of CYBERCOM and General Nakasone, because we’ve seen a diminished level of intrusion in ’18, and ’20, and ’22 So hopefully, we’ll be able to continue.

Now, the hard part—you know, part of this was hacking and leaking. I mean, it was sort of classic cyberattack. But a big part of it also was disinformation. And a democracy runs on information. And that’s our—that’s the basis of how we make decisions. And the problem is that we’re in a world where disinformation is so easy to create. I got to tell you, as a politician AI is terrifying because they can create—somebody can create in their in their basement a video of me talking to you with entirely different words coming out of my mouth that I never said. And it looks real. And it will go on the internet. And how do you respond, because you don’t know who’s seen it? And so the potential for disinformation, particularly involving what’s called a deep fake, involving AI, is really significant.

And we’re—this is a vulnerability. We’re an open society. We have the First Amendment. We don’t want to censor. We don’t want the government controlling what’s going out over the airwaves or on the internet. But on the other hand, if our information pool is corrupted it can really warp our politics. And it’s a very serious concern. There’s a lot of work going on here, bipartisan, to think about how do we deal with AI? How do we prevent its abuse? One of the suggestions that I believe makes sense is to somehow require that AI-generated content be labeled. You know, a little label in the bottom, this is AI-generated. And then the viewer can make their own decision, but at least they’re on notice that it may not be the real McCoy.

So it’s a real issue. Whether—I think the—I doubt that we’re going to see Russian hacking and leaking and that kind of thing. I mean, it’s hard to—I can’t predict what they’ll do. But more likely, I think, is substantial disinformation. And they don’t have to invent divisions in our society, they just have to exacerbate them. And they became very adept at that in 2016.

FROMAN: Well, that takes me to my last question for the moment. And so I want folks online to prepare to ask their questions and put them in the—put them in the queue. And it really goes to that point of polarization that you just alluded to. We’re living through perhaps one of the most polarized times domestically in recent history. By the way, there’s a really interesting piece in Foreign Affairs over the last few days by Jordan Tama that looks at the history of bipartisanship, and the limits of it, over time, I commend to our participants here.

You are an independent. You have been a strong proponent of bipartisanship. But it almost looks like a quaint notion in the rearview mirror. Where do you think the strongest prospects are for bipartisan cooperation? What can Congress actually get done over the next year and a half or so? And then, more generally, how do we think about building or rebuilding a more bipartisan foundation of support among the American people for America’s role in the world?

KING: Well, it’s really interesting, the way you asked that question. And I think it goes to the basis of the problem, or at least part of the basis of the problem, in my view. And that is, we’ve had one of the most bipartisan Congresses over the last two years, two and a half years, in twenty years. Of the seven major pieces of legislation that were passed in the last two and a half years, five were fully bipartisan. Things like the bipartisan infrastructure act, the CHIPS and Science Act, the veterans PACT Act. We’ve had a couple of budgets that were passed on a bipartisan basis.

And so—but the problem is that conflict makes news. And the media focuses almost entirely on conflict. And if you think about it, the media outlets, often their stock and trade is keeping people upset. That’s what keeps the eyes on the—on the TV. And so I believe, if you want to talk about polarization—and by the way, the Senate is—it’s not as bad as it looks. I mean, we certainly have our problems. We have, you know, the hold on the general officers and we’ve got partisan issues. There’s no doubt about that. But there’s a lot of work that goes on quietly on a bipartisan basis. I had a bill passed two weeks ago by unanimous consent, significant bill for spousal employment in the in the military. So there is a lot of good things going on.

The problem is what I call the balkanization of the media, the balkanization of the news business. It’s no longer everybody gets their information from Walter Cronkite. People tend to get information from sources that they already agree with. And that tends to push you further and further. Barack Obama once said if he watched Fox News for a week he’d hate himself. And, you know, there’s a—there’s a tendency— it’s, you know, confirmation bias. We look for sources we agree with. And that pushes us further and further apart. And then add to that the algorithms on the internet, where you click on, you know, one story about Hillary Clinton and you’re going to be deluged with Hillary Clinton—negative Hillary Clinton stories that just drive you further and further away.

And that’s why we have the rise of these conspiracy theories and—because people are just swamped with this stuff. The only answer, Mike, that I’ve been able to come up with is we need to be better consumers of information. We need to teach young people to—how to distinguish fact from fiction on the internet, and how to be more discerning consumers in getting our news from a variety of sources. So, the polarization is a problem, there’s no question. I think—but I do think that there’s a place for trying to find grounds where we can get things done.

Let me mention one other problem—and I know—I don’t want to take too much of your time. One of the problems right now, Mike, is what I call the tyranny of the primary. If you’re in a state or a district that’s all Democratic or all Republican, the primary becomes the election. And you can—and who votes in the primary? The activists. And what that does is push the candidates to the extreme either of the left or the right. And here’s the real problem. You can lose your primary not because of your position on immigration, or abortion, or gay marriage, or whatever. You can lose it because you’re viewed as not sufficiently hostile to the other side.

You can lose—you can literally lose your primary election because you’re viewed as reasonable. And our whole system is based upon people compromising and making deals. If you can lose your seat by merely talking to the other side, imagine what that does to the process. And I’ve seen it around here. I’ve seen it where people are literally afraid to engage in conversation because they’re afraid that word will get back to their states that they’re trying to solve problems. (Laughs.) And, man, that’s a dangerous place.

FROMAN: Indeed. Well, as an organization committed to nonpartisan, fact-based, independent research, your point about digesting news in a way that helps bring people together is something that’s very much in line with our commitment.

Let’s open it up. Anne, our operator, will open it up for questions from our participants.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Fred Hochberg.

Q: Mike, congratulations on your first CFR panel. And, Senator, good to see you. This is a very rich conversation.

I’m sorry, I’ve got two questions. One, high-level trade deals. I mean, if I look at the Korea-Panama-Colombia—granted, it wasn’t bilateral; it was trilateral—but it took six years. So it is it maybe—is the period of just trade deals over for the United States for a while, based on your very thoughtful conversation about meeting constituents in Maine? That’s question one. Question two, simple one, should we give President Trump some accolades for getting the rest of NATO up to 2 percent? Those are my two questions.

KING: Yeah, let me take the second one first. Yes. I think—maybe accolade is too strong a word—but I think clearly his pounding the table on the 2 percent issue had an effect. And it’s continuing. And the Biden administration has done the same thing. So, yeah. I think his—he sort of—you know, he pointed out something. And all these countries had committed to that eight or ten years ago. So I think that’s—I think that’s an accurate statement.

On the bilateral trade deals, I don’t think they’re dead. I think it’s a question of, again, taking them one at a time. And there may be cases—it doesn’t—I guess I would use the term bilateral in a slightly broader sense. That it might be multilateral, but not global. I think there’s something in between. And, you know, for example, a deal with EU, or perhaps a deal with the Quad, or members—specific members in the Pacific, without expanding it to become a totally all-inclusive Trans-Pacific Partnership. So I think there’s still going to be a role for that. I don’t think it’s going to be easy.

And there is—I think the problem is there’s this sort of hangover of suspicion about trade deals that goes back to the roaring ’80s and ’90s, when to many people trade meant my job’s going to go overseas. So I think it’s got to be pursued in a judicious way. And also, the case has to be made to the public of what the benefits are. And here’s one of the problems—and this goes for environmental policy, whatever—something that I’ve come to realize. Often you will be involved with an issue that has a global benefit, but a local impact. And, you know, building windmills, which I used to do, has a global benefit in terms of climate change. But the people in the area where the windmills are being built, they have—their view is changed.

And so you have to come up with some way that the people who are bearing the majority of the impact of the policy—whether it’s trade or whatever it is—have some protections and recognition. Interestingly, I worked in the Senate in the ’70s, and was one of the original staff members that worked on the employment benefits—trade impact employment benefits. And I think we need to sort of rejuvenate that process, to recognize that there are substantial benefits to society at large, but there are also specific local impacts that need to be mitigated.

FROMAN: Anne, next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Kelebogile Zvobgo.

Q: Thank you so much, Senator, for this very instructive discussion.

I wanted to follow up on the last question and ask: Isn’t there a loss of leverage the United States might have with more bilateral and multi trade deals, to the exclusion of global agreements? And as a second question, separate from the last, can you speak to discussions in the Senate and the Congress more generally about supporting the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Russian abuses in Ukraine?

KING: Again, I’ll take the second one first. Of course, the International—now, I will tell you when I was in Vilnius yesterday there was a huge sign in front of—I think it was in a hotel or some building, that said: Hey, Putin, see you at the Hague. Which I thought was kind of interesting. And when I say a huge sign, you could see it from about a mile away. So clearly there’s going to be some—well, I say clearly. A question of jurisdiction and obtaining jurisdiction. But accountability for war crimes is something that’s important and something that needs to be maintained. Whether and to what extent our involvement is, that’s a separate question.

 On the trade question, yes. Do we lose leverage by not pursuing global agreements? Probably. But again, it’s a question of the art of the possible. To me, it’s not a question of walking away from international trade all together. First, there’s total, you know, global trade agreements. I think there’s something in between that needs to work. I mean, people in Maine are seeing the benefits of international trade. We have an Icelandic shipping company that has really, in some ways, rejuvenated the Port of Portland, that is now a significant container port based upon an Icelandic shipping company, and shipments between Maine and New England and the high north.

So the trade benefits are there. But I think in part—again, part of it is overcoming the overhang from a time when international trade really meant cheaper labor. And shipping jobs—literally, shipping jobs overseas. We have to get beyond that and demonstrate to the public what the benefits are, as well as what the costs are.

FROMAN: Thank you. Anne, next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Munish Walther-Puri.

Q: Hi. Thank you for a thought-provoking conversation.

I wanted to ask you about de-risking, decoupling, the language around China and supply chain, particularly as it relates to technology. You know, it’s very germane to the discussion around trade. Are we—by using the levers that we’ve been using, mainly export controls and restrictive ones, do you think we might be spurring innovation and focusing China on their own domestic capability that might compete one day? Or do you think that this is the right approach, and we should stay on, you know, trying to play defense a bit more? Thank you.

KING: Well, I’d rather have them compete on their own indigenous innovation and creativity rather than on what they steal from us. I mean, you can’t—if your question is, if we tighten the restrictions and the ability of their country to steal intellectual property and then turn around and use it against us, I think that’s something we got to do. And if that incidentally stimulates them to do their own work, there’s nothing we can do about that. I mean, that’s just the reality. But I think it’s really something that we have to pay attention to.

Now, there’s another side to that. As I mentioned, we had meetings yesterday with—I had a meeting with the prime minister of Australia, for example. And we have to think, I think, about working more closely with our allies on technology development. There’s no reason that we have to work alone on AI, or on 5G, or on whatever the new technologies are. Let’s work with our allies. What we learned, though, from the pandemic is the danger of dependency for critical—in critical areas of our economy on a country that may be an adversary.

I mean, the biggest example of that is Russian gas. I mean, the Europeans, to their sorrow, learned how dangerous their dependency on Russian gas was. By the same token, we learned in the pandemic the danger of dependency on China for facemasks and personal protective equipment. So I think we need to—there needs to be some—we need to maintain domestic production of essential items. Chips is the perfect example. The CHIPS and Science Act, I think it was an incredibly important piece of legislation. It was, are you ready for it, industrial policy. It was this country deciding that this is a technology we need to maintain our role in. And we can’t afford to be dependent on another country.

Right now, virtually all of the high-end chips, the most complicated, complex ones that are used in weapons systems and in many applications across the world, are made in one factory in Taiwan. I don’t think that’s healthy. Right now, everything’s OK, with that—we have good trade relations with that—with that factory and we can get the chips that we need. But I think we need to be thinking about, you know, is this—do we really want to be dependent on a country that would have the power to cut us off from some essential product that we need?

Another perfect example is lithium. Eight-five percent of the processed lithium that’s used in EV batteries comes from China. The majority of the lithium itself coms from Australia, but the processing is done in China. That just makes no sense. And so it’s not a question of being protectionist. It’s a question of being conscious of dependency that could be compromised in a time of either conflict or even heightened competition. So I think we need to really be thinking carefully about that. And clearly I believe that the theft of intellectual property is not part of the—should not be part of the international trade community. It’s something that China has done largely with impunity.

FROMAN: The Senator’s office has given us the green light to go five minutes long. So we have time for a couple more questions. Anne.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Paula Stern.

Q: Thank you so much.

I see Maine as this wonderful petri dish for great ideas. And you’re the great leader in this. I just read the news about the newspapers in Maine, local newspapers, being, if you will, saved. And I think about ranked choice voting as another incredible example of good public policy. And actually, my daughter moved to Maine to start her medical practice and her family there. So we’re—(laughs)—that’s exactly—I feel like you’re our senator living here in D.C.

So my question really is, do you think that this newspaper deal that has just been announced can be built upon to deal with the misinformation and distortion that is such a huge challenging coming from AI, which you articulated earlier in your presentation? Where are we going to go there?

 KING: Well, this is a—this deal that was announced over the weekend is that there was one guy who owned basically all the newspapers in Maine but one. And he was a responsible, thoughtful guy, but he’s decided it was time to move on. He could have sold these papers to a chain, to a hedge fund. And historically, across the country what that has led to is significant loss of capacity, firing of reporters and editorial writers, a lot more canned news, closing of papers. Something like 25 percent of the newspapers in Maine—I’m sorry—in the country have been closed since, like, 2005. So it’s a really significant problem.

This deal, instead of selling to the hedge fund or to the chain, he sold to a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation of local journalism. And, as you say, I think it’s a huge deal. It’s a really positive development that will preserve local journalism. And I think it hopefully can be a model. I understand the Philadelphia Inquirer is following this model. And I think some of the papers in Colorado, in Denver. So this is, I think, an important step forward. Ranked choice voting, which the people of Maine adopted not once but twice by referendum, I think makes a lot of sense and it allows people to say it’s—well, ranked choice voting is too complicated a term.

It should be called instant runoff. That’s all it is. If nobody gets 50 percent in the first election, then there’s another election and, you know, like in Georgia, you have another campaign. In Maine, it all happens on one day. You vote for your first choice, you vote for your second choice. If your first choice doesn’t make it, they fall off—you know, off the ballot, their votes are allocated and it gives you a result. And it tends to favor—I shouldn’t say this—it sounds self-serving. But it tends to favor moderation. For one thing, if you’re running and—you want your opponent’s second-place votes. So it tends—you don’t be—you’re not as hateful to your opponent, because you want their supporters to vote for you number two, if it’s a multi-person, three or four person race, which many races are today.

So I think it’s had a beneficial effect. And it worked also in Alaska. Lisa Murkowski is a wonderful senator. I believe she has the highest quota of integrity of anybody in the U.S. Senate. And she wouldn’t be here, I think, but for ranked choice voting in Alaska. So I think it makes a lot of sense. So on both the points you make, this is—you know, I think Maine’s very fortunate on this newspaper deal. It was something that I was worried about, was where that—where that was going to end up. And it’s not done yet. It’s not closed. But it was announced over the weekend, and it looks like it’s going to work. And again, democracy rests upon information. And getting information out to people on a timely basis, in a(n) unbiased way, is the best defense of democracy.

FROMAN: Thanks, Paula. Anne.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Maya MacGuineas.

KING: Maya!

Q: (Laughs.) Hi, Senator. Thank you so much for your great remarks today.

I am going to turn the topic to fiscal policy, if that’s OK with you.

KING: I’m amazed, Maya.

FROMAN: I’m shocked, Maya, that that would be your question.

Q: (Laughs.) I did want to just talk about the fact—so it’s really good news how many pieces of bipartisan legislation we’ve had since—in the past few years. But probably worth pointing out that all of those were also dependent on borrowing to get them done. But—

KING: Interestingly, Maya, the one that didn’t depend on borrowing was the one that was—that was straight party line, and that was the Inflation Reduction Act.

Q: Yeah, Inflation Reduction Act was very important, I think, piece of legislation, showing that we could do things to improve fiscal policy. And then we just had the debt ceiling, which we actually managed to avoid a huge catastrophe and put in place a plan that I think turned out to be reasonable, relatively reasonable. But I just wanted to ask you where you think we could go from here? If there’s any potential to keep the momentum going, because the debt is still a big, unsustainable—on an unsustainable trajectory. If you think there’s promise for any further deals.

KING: Well, I think there is. I think people—the whole debate about the debt ceiling and people has sort of raised the issue’s visibility, which I know is something you’ve been working on forever. And I think there is potential. I think there is a realization that we just can’t keep going willy-nilly, borrowing more and more and more. I think we need to look at where we are in terms of expenditures and also revenues. It’s really interesting, people don’t realize this but federal spending—and I know you know this—as a percentage of GDP, nondefense discretionary spending is about half of what it was thirty or forty years ago. Defense is less than half of what it was. And of course, the difference has been made up by expenditures mostly in health care—in Social Security and health care.

So the question is, I think we should be having the debate, Maya, about what’s the appropriate level of GDP that the federal government should take. And what—and how do make sure that revenues match that? Or, vice versa, let’s talk about what’s the appropriate level of revenues as a percentage of GDP, and then match the spending to that. Rather than arguing about particular programs in a particular situation, we ought to be looking at the—at the overall picture. For most of the last twenty or thirty years, both lines have been around 20 percent of GDP. During the end of the Clinton administration, revenues were a little above. That’s when we had a balanced budget. And then the Bush tax cuts and the Trump tax cuts took us down to 16 or 17 percent of GDP. And the difference between that and that 20 percent number that’s been relatively constant, that’s the deficit. And so I think a more comprehensive discussion of this—of this issue is really important.

FROMAN: Thanks, Maya, for that.

Senator, thank you so much. Thank you for your time and for coming on just so quickly after having arrived back here from the NATO summit.

KING: I’m not sure what day it is, Mike, but I’m glad to be here.

FROMAN: (Laughs.) And thank you for encouraging my trip to Maine so many years ago, which I remember fondly. And we’ll look forward to continuing to work here. And you’re welcome anytime back at the Council on Foreign Relations.

KING: Well, Mike, I want to congratulate you on your ascension to the leadership of one of America’s premier organizations, that contributes so much to the public weal, and helps us to understand these complicated issues. So congratulations. A great choice by the Council. And look forward to continuing to work with you.

FROMAN: Thank you so much. Thanks, everybody, for joining, and enjoy the rest of the morning.


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