A Conversation With Stacey Abrams

Friday, May 10, 2019
Kaveh Sardari
Stacey Abrams

Founder, Fair Fight Action; Former Minority Leader, Georgia House of Representatives (D)

Eduardo Porter

Economics Writer, New York Times

LINDSAY: Good afternoon, everyone.

AUDIENCE MEMBERS: Good afternoon.

LINDSAY: I’m glad to see we have a lively crowd, a full house. I think you’re going to be very happy with the next hour or so. But first, a little bit of spinach before we get to the highlight of the afternoon.

I’m Jim Lindsay. I am senior vice president here at the Council.

And it is my great honor and pleasure to welcome you to this keynote address and closing session of the Seventh Annual Conference on Diversity in International Affairs. This conference is jointly presented by the Council on Foreign Relations; the Global Access Pipeline—known by its acronym, GAP; and the International Career Advancement Program, known by its acronym, ICAP.

I want to—besides welcoming everyone in the room, I want to welcome those who are joining us on CSPAN and also everyone joining us via the internet as we livestream today’s talk. I want to encourage everybody to tweet about the event using the hashtag #CDIA2019.

A bit of background on this conference. We hold this conference in recognition of the fact that while America’s ethnic and racial makeup has changed dramatically over the last half-century, the ethnic and racial makeup of the foreign policy community has not. And that isn’t likely to change without concerted efforts to identify talented members of underrepresented groups, expose them to career opportunities in foreign policy, and to recruit them for positions in the field.

Now, the Diversity in International Affairs Conference is one of several initiatives here at the Council intended to do just that. We hope that the conversations taking place here today and the networks that are being built will bring important and new voices into the foreign policy debate. For those of you watching us on CSPAN or on the internet, you can see the public sessions not just of this conference, but of past years’ conferences by visiting our website, CFR.org.

I noted this is the seventh conference we have had and it’s seventh time we’ve also had the pleasure of collaborating with both GAP and ICAP. And I want to recognize the leadership teams at both organizations not just for the work they have done to make today possible, but for the really terrific work they do throughout the year to broaden the foreign policy community.

I also owe a special thank you to Mr. Tom Rowe, if Tom could stand. (Cheers, applause.) You can see why I wanted to thank Tom. He has some big fans. (Laughter.) Look, Tom oversees both GAP and ICAP, and he has been a leading voice in putting diversity onto the foreign policy agenda.

I also want to thank some of my colleagues here at CFR—our Meetings Program, our events team, and our human resources team—for the work that they put into today’s event.

Finally, I would like to thank Joan Spero. Joan is a former CFR board member, and it’s her generous support that has made this year’s conference possible. And we are deeply in Joan’s debt.

Now, without further ado, I’m going to turn things over to Eduardo Porter, who will be introducing this afternoon’s keynote speaker, Stacey Abrams. I hope you enjoy. (Cheers, applause.)

ABRAMS: Hi. (Laughter.)

PORTER: Good afternoon. Good afternoon. This is a great packed house. I am as excited as you are for the opportunity to speak with Stacey Abrams here and hear your thoughts about our politics and our foreign policy.

But I’d be remiss as a journalist not to start this conversation by asking THE question—(laughter)—that everybody is asking. (Cheers, applause.) What are the plans for 2020—(laughter)—Senate, vice presidential options, something else?

ABRAMS: OK. (Laughter.) I’m going to tell you a secret I’ve told no one else. (Laughter.) OK, if you believe that I’ve got a bridge to sell you. (Laughter.)

No, look, I gave a lot of thought to the U.S. Senate. I recognized the critical nature of the Senate, the role it plays not only in promoting our ideals and concretizing them in legislation but also the role it plays in shaping our judiciary and protecting our values. However, I do not believe that you run for office simply because an office is there. An office is a job. And the skills for that job are important, but so is the intentionality of that job.

My particular set of skills, I think—(laughs)—certainly could help me win that election. But when I thought about doing that job and that being the new path I would take—because it is a different career path; it’s six years, twelve years, eighteen years—the Senate was not the right place for me. My bent for most of my adult life has been systems—figuring out how do you organize systems to create change, to structure and promote the ideals that I hold to be true. And there are a set of jobs that I think best leverage that. I’ve created organizations such as the New Georgia Project, and most recently Fair Fight Action and Fair Count, to tackle the issues that I see. And those tend to be more executive-level jobs.

I’ve run organizations. I have been a part of managing teams. And as you know, I recently tried to run a state. Didn’t quite get there, but we’ll talk about that later. (Laughter.) All of which is to say that I am looking at executive-level opportunities, and that means that I am going to look at the 2020 presidential election. I know we have an—(gasps)—no, stop, stop. I didn’t announce anything. (Laughter.) OK.

Look, we have an amazing crop of candidates running. But as I’ve tried to articulate, this is early. And it’s early not only for the race; it’s early for, I think, all decisions. And I want to see what these candidates talk about. I think a number of them have been doing the work that needs to be done. I want to see how many of them make it through the first gauntlet. And as I think about my future, my goal is to think about whether I should be a part of this conversation. So that’s one piece.

I don’t think you run for second place, so I am not running on a ticket with anyone in the primary. But if I decide not to run and someone wins and decides they like me, I am open to conversation after June. (Laughter.) And there still is a state of Georgia and it does need a governor, and so I’m looking at that too. (Cheers, applause.)

PORTER: Great. So, listen, turning to the topic that brings us together here, I wasn’t really aware of your interest in foreign policy and foreign affairs, but I’ve been made aware by the folks at the Council that you’ve actually been a lifelong member and you’ve engaged in all sorts of projects with foreign leaders. And so I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit about this story of yours, this side of you. How did—how did you come to be interested in this, what you love?

ABRAMS: So it actually began with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment. I have a dear friend that I met in college. He and I were summer fellows here together. I was working for—we were both working for different departments in the U.S. government. But he invited me out to lunch to have a conversation. He and I were diametrically opposed on many things, and one of the arguments we had was the primacy of foreign policy over domestic policy. And I was pushing the domestic policy side; he was talking about foreign policy. But what he challenged me with was, look, if you want to be a leader, you have to understand more than your space. And he said you do that in every other part of your academic life and your intellectual life; why are you closing yourself off on the foreign policy side? And I couldn’t effectively rebut him, which is really annoying, so—(laughter)—I started learning.

And because of my friend I was introduced to the Salzburg Seminars. I became—I had been doing a lot of work independently on civic engagement and voter registration in college, and had become very well-versed in how we build a more robust voter class. And became an international fellow on civic engagement, worked with some amazing people from Colombia and Sierra Leone on those conversations internationally.

From there, I was invited to participate in East Asian studies to think about what was missing, in particular the lack of awareness among communities of color in the U.S. about East Asia. And so I became an East Asian fellow.

From that I have worked with the British Council. I have worked with the Italian Council. I worked with the German Marshall Fund. I was a fellow for all those places, went and traveled. I was an American Young Leaders person, so I went to Australia for a few weeks.

But throughout that, I’ve tried to build a robust understanding because the U.S., while we are I think a leader in so many ways, we do not have all the answers. And part of my responsibility as someone who was going to be focused on domestic policy, I needed to understand the international approach to these questions but also the intersectionality of our policies and the effect we were having on the world, and vice versa.

And so I’ve been very intentional. I’ve visited, I think, eleven countries. I’ve worked with our consular corps. In Atlanta we have a fairly large one, and so I’ve worked a lot, especially with our Central American and South American consular corps. I’ve done a lot of work with Israel. I worked with both the previous and the current ambassadors who are stationed there.

And writ large I’ve tried to be engaged. I serve on—I’m a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and I read a lot of stuff, so. (Laughter.)

All of which is to say this. I no longer believe that there is this bright line between domestic and foreign policy. And I think what we have seen play out in the last few years has shown us just how thin that line is, if the line exists at all. And you cannot be an effective leader in domestic policy if you do not understand how foreign policy not only informs, but sometimes challenges and pushes into relief the tensions that exist. And so, for me, the intellectual exercise is also married to my political interest. And so, yes, I care a lot about foreign policy and have been doing it for a while.

PORTER: Great. (Laughter, cheers, applause.)

So, listen, there’s a natural segue to this. It’s, well, what’s your assessment? I mean, American foreign policy and domestic policy—

ABRAMS: (Laughs.) We don’t have that kind of time, but—(laughter)—

PORTER: —have taken—have taken a pretty radical turn in the last couple of years.

ABRAMS: Yes, absolutely.

PORTER: And so, you know, for people around the world, the U.S. is behaving like it hasn’t in a long time. And I’d love to hear you evaluate what’s going on.

ABRAMS: Certainly. I mean, we’ve, unfortunately, returned to what can often be cast as sort of the know-nothing time of our foreign policy. When we were an isolationist country, when our national leaders eschewed their responsibility for engagement, that is much of what we’re seeing now, only instead of it being grounded in a sense that America is stronger by itself it’s actually couched more, I believe, because of the leader we have, in racism and xenophobia and sexism and anti—and homophobia, misogyny. And it’s driven by a fear-mongering that is undermining exactly who we should be in the body politic in the national—international conversations.

My deepest fear is that we will have to take a long time to restore our position in the world because our moral credibility has been diminished. It is difficult to articulate ideals of who we should be and who we expect the world to be when we are not living those ideals at home. When you engage in family separation or when you trample minority rights, when you enshrine into law or attempt to demonstrate a lack of trust and dehumanization of your own people, you cannot then go abroad and espouse a different set of ideals. You cannot bar transgender people from our military and at the same time argue against countries that are criminalizing—like Azerbaijan, they’re criminalizing the LGBTQ community. It is a matter of degree, not of difference. We have to recognize that the suppression of minority rights—when we yell at Burma for their treatment of the Rohingya, we have to remember that in the United States it looks slightly different, but we have a Muslim ban on entry, but we also have undervalued and mistreated voters right here at home, and we have allowed the blossoming of laws that have systematically suppressed minority rights and minority votes in the United States.

And so, again, these are matters of degree and not difference. And because of that I think we have the most dangerous foreign policy that we’ve had in multiple generations. I may have disagreed with George Bush and George H.W. Bush and Clinton and Obama on things, but I never disagreed fundamentally with the position the United States held in the international order. I do now. And that challenge is one that has an effect on how safe we are as Americans. It is a challenge on how effective we are at actually intervening. And we have to recognize that this through line is not going to simply be tied off with a new leader. We are going to have to rebuild and restore our credibility, and that means that we’re going to have to confront the very real harm that’s been done to our foreign policy by our current administration. (Applause.)

PORTER: Listen, to your point about how the domestic policy platform and the foreign policy platform are really emmeshed and kind of flow from each other, that is very, very clear in this administration where this kind of, like, very hostile stance against immigration, against trade, and so on comes from a reading of what’s wrong with the United States and what’s afflicting American workers. So I’m wondering, how do you address that? How do you change that?

ABRAMS: You win the 2020 election. I mean—(laughter)—but—

PORTER: But how do we get the toothpaste back in the tube?

ABRAMS: And that’s the thing, we can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube. But we might have to buy a new tube and we have to—OK, this is a terrible analogy. (Laughter.)

But here’s the reality. For example, we are possibly, as of midnight tonight, in the midst of the largest trade war that we have been in in a generation again. This is a trade war that has real impacts. Is it the U.S. consumer that will be paying the price, as we have been for the last two years, for this trade war. And while so far most of the costs have been actually passed along to business and hidden in our prices, we are about to see a consumer goods wave of tariffs. That means you’re going to feel it at Target. You’re going to feel it at Walmart. You’re going to feel it in your daily life. And for people who face stagnant wage that have not grown despite the contraction of our labor market and having the lowest unemployment we’ve ever had, you cannot recover from a trade war with the resilience that a corporation can. And so we have very real consequences for that.

The only solution will be to actually engage in trade policy and a trade engagement that is not based on, you know, sort of brinksmanship, which is what we’ve seen play out for the last few years. When you think about our immigration position, we are going to have to restore, number one, the humanity of our refugee policy, because that is our obligation and that is who we are as Americans, but we also have to anticipate the fact that for my state, for example, and for many states, our agricultural—our agricultural sector for Georgia is the number-one industry, and that is true for a number of states. When you cut off those who are exporting our goods, you are hurting our farmers at home. They cannot afford it. And we are undermining our national security by undermining our economic security.

And so our only solution will be, again, to finally have a robust and real policy for immigration that recognizes America’s deep reliance on foreign labor. That is our responsibility. But we have to have a Congress and a president who are willing to actually confront these issues, and cease worrying about the next election and actually worry about the next twenty years of American existence. (Applause.)

PORTER: So given the title of this conference—


PORTER: —which is about diversity, I would love to hear your thoughts about the diversity of our foreign policy establishment. I mean, when I sit here and I look at it, it looks like a lot of old white guys.

ABRAMS: You are right. (Laughter.)

PORTER: So is diversity in foreign policy kind of like a pipe dream? Is there a strategy?


PORTER: And what’s the rationale for—I mean, I guess can I see the rationale, but tell us, how do you change that?

ABRAMS: Sure. We have to—so today—as of 2018, our foreign corps—Foreign Service corps was 88 percent white and two-thirds male. That has not always been so. Under George Bush, George W. Bush, under Clinton, under Obama, we actually saw a diversification of our foreign policy corps in a way that was truly reflective of who we are as America. And it is a—is it a native good for us. Representation matters, but also the diversity of ideas and our ability to engage. When we send our foreign corps to the Middle East, having women who can have conversations with other women is an important consideration that we have long espoused, and unfortunately under recent leadership we have walked away from. Having senior advisors who have not only cultural competence but also have access and relationships that can be built because of your ability to build common cause, that matters. And unfortunately, under the current administration we have seen a retrenchment to a 1950s notion of what foreign policy looks like.

But we can solve that. We can solve that in three ways. One is conferences like this. One of the reasons it was so important for me to have the conversations I had with Will (sp) to learn about foreign policy is that I was never spoken to about foreign policy. We tend to dismiss the engagement of communities of color in the conversation at the earliest stages. He cured that for me, and because of that I’ve also been very intentional about bringing young people with me to places where they’re not expected to be. It informs and expands their capacity to be effective leaders, and it is a helpful thing to America for us to have better and more effective leaders.

Number two, when we can show the world that we actually value minorities, then we have a moral leg to stand on when we tell them the participation of minorities in their body politic is important. We know that when autocracies come into power, when authoritarian regimes come into power, their first act is to eliminate minority rights. When you can suppress minority rights, you make it much easier to do your work. And that’s part of what we’re seeing in the nation-states that have gone backwards from their democracies—what happened in Egypt, what happened in Turkey, we—what’s happening in Austria. We know that the suppression of minority rights is the first hallmark of the end of liberal democracy and communities. And so there is a public benefit—there is an international good—to minority representation. But we cannot demand that or encourage that in other places when people can see we don’t do it ourselves. And so it is a very useful thing for our Foreign Service corps to actually reflect the composition of America.

Right now I think it’s about 6 percent Hispanic, 5.6 percent African American, 6.8 percent Asian, .3 percent Native American. That is not at all reflective of the composition of our country. And when people are checking us for our values, they can see that our representation in the international order does not reflect who we are, which means that our credibility is undermined immediately.

PORTER: Yeah. So talk to us a little bit about your work in voting rights and battling voter suppression, voters of color. And if you will, if there’s an international—what you’ve done also on the international stage in this regard.

ABRAMS: Sure. I mean, look, voting rights are essential and fundamental to democracy. We are facing an existential crisis in the United States. When our democracy is shredded by a naked pursuit of power that allows states to suppress the right to vote, and handicaps and—or neuters our only federal response, which was the Voting Rights Act, we face a crippling challenge to our democracy. And for those who would argue, based on having read a fairly spurious op-ed from the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, the fact that more people of color voted does not diminish the existence of voter suppression. That’s like saying because there are apples, oranges don’t exist. No. You can have both. (Laughter.) And what we have seen play out in the last twenty years has been an aggressive attempt at voter suppression that is directly targeted to communities that have long been outside the body politic, and it began when they—when they started to enter and actually start to affect elections in real and tangible ways.

And let me give you some recent examples. There’s Georgia, but I can talk about that later—(laughter)—where we had a secretary of state, the election superintendent who was in charge of his own election. I was recently with a group of foreign ministers, and when I was introduced—I didn’t even say anything. When they introduced me and explained just the tagline that the secretary of state oversaw my election, the boos and hisses from developing nations where this happens on Thursday was a bit problematic because even the worst authoritarians understand that if you want to—if you want to manipulate an election, be in charge of it. And that’s what happened in the state of Georgia. And the fact that there was silence on the part of people who say they believe in civil society, that’s even more problematic. There should have been scourges and screeds written against Brian Kemp during the 2018 election, but there were not because the naked attempt at grabbing power was seen as more preferable than the protection of our democracy.

And let’s put this into context. Kris Kobach was also the secretary of state. This is not a man who’s shown a great deal of shame about his voter suppression activities. He was too embarrassed to run his own election. And so I was in the only state where the secretary of state was standing for governor and ran the election, and used an entire gauntlet of voter suppression activities.

There are three types: registration access, ballot access, and ballot counting. Registration access, we know that this works because we’re seeing it play out again. Tennessee saw ninety thousand new African American voters put on the rolls in 2018, and in response they have now passed a law that criminalizes third-party registration and makes it nearly impossible for under-resourced groups to do this work. The law basically says if you get a form you have to turn it in because we don’t want people picking who gets to turn in their applications for voter registration. Well, this says if you have too many forms that aren’t completely filled out or mistakes are made, that not the person who filled out the wrong form, but the organization that did the work to go and get those forms can be criminalized for doing so.

You also have an issue of ballot access, or Texas, where they have passed a law that says if you accidentally go to the wrong county because your—the way you vote or the way you’re told to vote, if you make a mistake, there are certain mistakes that will now not just result in your ballot not being counted; it will result in you having jail time, which is a—so if you know that if you make a mistake you can go to jail, what are you likely to do? You’re not going to vote.

In Arizona, where mail-in ballots are part of their process, because of the dramatic increase of Latino voters in the 2018 election they are now passing rules that will limit access to those mail-in ballots and they’re going to criminalize anyone who uses emergency centers if they find that the emergency isn’t valid.

And then there’s Florida—(laughter)—where 1.4 million people were just re-enfranchised and a new poll tax has been passed that requires restitution. Now, there are those who say, well, they should have to pay their fees and fines. There was a New York Times article about one of those people. So she was accused of larceny, and technically her restitution is $59 million.

PORTER: Oh, gosh.

ABRAMS: There is no way she will ever be allowed to vote. And we as a nation have decided that only certain crimes should result in you losing your right to vote, and we have now put in place in the state of Florida a poll tax that says you will never get that right back. That is not who we are as Americans.

And again, the international consequence is that we are no longer credible as election supervisors and election oversight monitors when in our own country some of our largest states are engaging in voter suppression as a native good.

We know that elections are changed when new people come into the process. When we can increase minority participation, minority voices often lead to progress because typically they are upset that they were left out of progress. And therefore, when you suppress those votes, when you tell people their voices do not count, you have the concomitant effect of actually silencing entire communities.

As I said before, when you suppress minority participation, that is the first step to autocracy. And we like to think that we’re invulnerable, but we are not. We are not invulnerable. Our democracy may be resilient, but it is also fragile. And that fragility is what is at stake now.

When I think about the 2020 election, my deepest fear is that we are not going to face simply voter suppression, but that the more insidious part of voter suppression will take effect, and that is people think that they no longer count. And when people self-select out of participation, that is actually a much more effective consequence because making it hard is one thing, but making it seem irrelevant is a much more pervasive and permanent effect. And when you have a nation-state where the majority of the minority decides their voices no longer matter, then we are in a dire state. And that is a threat to democracy for the United States, and thus a threat internationally.

PORTER: OK. (Applause.) To a large extent, it seems that we’re already in that state and we have been in that state for some time.


PORTER: Participation by Latinos, participation—

ABRAMS: Yeah, exactly.

PORTER: —by African Americans is very, very low compared to participation by—

ABRAMS: Well, because there have been laws for—we tend to forget the laws that precluded participation. There has only been one community that has had permanent access to the right to vote, and those are wealthy white men. They have never not been allowed to vote. Everyone else has had to scrap and had to beg to be included. Native Americans were not citizens in the United States until the 1920s. African Americans, our right to vote was ephemeral until the 1960s, and from some places until the 1970s. We know that women didn’t get the right to vote until the 1920s, but that was white women.

And so as a—as a country we have always used the power of the vote to socially engineer the type of government we want, because that’s what voting is. It’s about shaping who represents you and who speaks for you. What’s happened in recent years is that there’s no longer shame on the Republican side. And let’s be clear, Democrats were really good at voter suppression.

PORTER: Oh yeah.

ABRAMS: They did fantastic work in the South. That is not a compliment. (Laughter.) But what has happened in the last twenty years, what has happened in communities of color, what has happened in communities that are under-resourced is that the surgical precision of that suppression has the effect of not only silencing that voter, but silencing an entire community. And when that happens those communities exempt themselves from participation, even though they are the victims of most of the consequences.

When you don’t vote and you have children in a school district, that school district does not serve your child. When you do not vote, you do not get the road services that you need. Your trash doesn’t get picked up. But you also get a court system that overly incarcerates your community.

And there are long-term consequences that, again, for an international space, it is a signal of how we treat our people. Which means that if the ideals and the values we espouse abroad we do not enshrine at home, then our ability to call for that liberal democracy order that actually does treat humans as humans, it’s eroded. And so we have to recognize that we don’t—we don’t exist in a bubble. People watch what we do and they emulate our behavior. And to the extent they are emulating the behavior of America and the erosion of democracy, we have to recognize that democracy is not a permanent good.

PORTER: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. For sure. (Applause.) So I think this is the time where I give all of you an opportunity to ask your own questions. Please, if you could just state who you are briefly, and then if they could be questions rather than big comments. Back there.

Q: Hi. My name is—(off mic). I work in the digital media space—the digital media space—(off mic).

My question is—(comes on mic)—what criterias do you have and would you encourage us to have as we’re looking at the candidates running for 2020?


Q: Maybe like one or two or three things that you’re like, these are things that I am looking for in a candidate.

ABRAMS: One, I want to see that they actually have a plan for victory. And a plan for victory does not mean I’m going to suppress my values and try to appeal to the broadest group. I want to know that they’re an authentic candidate that stands on the values that they—that they hold and that they’re willing to talk about.

Number two, they have to have a plan to end voter suppression. If they do not have a plan to end voter suppression, that is deeply problematic because they will not win. We have to recognize that the accelerated behavior that we’re seeing in the states that I mentioned will be replicated across a number of states, and we have to—we have to fight.

Number three, I want candidates who recognize that we are not running against Donald Trump; we are running for America. And there’s a difference. (Applause.) If you are running against Donald Trump, then you are localizing his behavior and making that the fulcrum against which you make your decisions. If you are running for America, you’re actually espousing the kinds of conversations we need to have. You’re talking about foreign policy as an authentic and deliberate space that we should operate in, and you’re talking about it in a way that is thoughtful. You are rejecting this notion of fear-mongering and demonization as a way of winning an election. And if we are running for America you bring more people to the table because, well, for a lot of communities fear has always been a part of how they operate, especially minority communities. Fear is a—is a given. Fear is not a reason to vote. A reason to vote is hope. A reason to vote is because you believe change is possible. And we need candidates who are willing to talk about that in that—in that progressive way.

PORTER: Well, thank you. You here, please.

Q: Hi. Thank you for joining us. My name is Simone Williams (sp).

So you started off the conversation saying that a(n) effective leader blends domestic and foreign policy. Well, you’re speaking to a very biased group here—we all like foreign policy—but that’s not the case for the general public at large. So what would you recommend in terms of getting the—getting the conversation out there and then pour it into foreign policy to the greater public at large?

ABRAMS: Part of it is explaining why foreign policy matters. So the examples I used—trade policy, immigration policy, climate change—those are all things that we have to connect the dots for. And this is true about any type of politics, any type of policy. People care about what affects them.

You guys are an interesting group of folks who decided that you care about foreign policy. But I promise if I—if I investigated most of your conversations, you’ll have a reason why it affects you and why you’re doing this. That is true for the broader population.

And so I think the responsibility of foreign policy leaders is to actually remind domestic communities about why it matters to them—that it matters how people operate abroad because it increases our national security if they’re not angry with us. It increases our national security if we are making smart policies about access to weapons but also access to medicines. And so it’s connecting the dots so that people recognize that we are part of a global community, and that we are safer and stronger and more effective when we have foreign allies and, you know, even if our enemies are willing to understand that our power is greater because of our foreign engagement.

PORTER: Well, thank you. So there in the back. Yeah.

Q: Stacey, how are you? My name’s Travis Adkins. I’m a lecturer of African studies at Georgetown University.

And the question that I had for you is around something that I hear lots of leaders and politicians say, and that’s this thing of, you know, this is not who we are, right? But as you speak and you run down this history, the fact of the matter is it very much is who we are, right? And I’m wondering, as a leader looking at 2020, you’re talking about—talk about voter suppression, the other side of that being voter apathy, right, and how do we call people back to the process who are not just apathetic because they don’t care, but they’re apathetic because they come from communities where for generations they were marginalized and disregarded.

ABRAMS: Absolutely. So I would take it in two ways.

One is, yes, this is who we are, but it’s not who we have to be. And so our responsibility is to always have a forward vision that assumes that we will be better than we were. And that’s been the experiment of the United States. Our national experiment has always been about recognizing that we make deeply, deeply flawed decisions, that we have been inhumane in ways that are a shame to our national history, but why we are who we are is that we confront those challenges and we try to improve. We don’t always confront them effectively and our timeliness is horrendous—(laughter)—but we eventually typically do get to the point and we do try to be better. But that also requires that we recognize the pendulum swing against that progress—against that progress is also deeply harmful and predictable. That’s one piece.

I don’t believe in voter apathy. I believe in voter despair, because most of those communities, they are not apathetic. They care. They just don’t think they can do anything about it. And that’s why I am so dogged about the conversation of voter suppression, because voter suppression convinces you that your consequences are your own, that it’s user error and not systemic error. It is—when that happens, then you no longer believe that you have any control over what happens next. And that’s why I engage so deeply in the act of voter engagement, because it’s—going back to the question Simone (sp) asked, one of the ways you get people to vote is that you actually show them how their vote is connected to their progress.

Our group Fair Fight Action, which is fighting voter suppression in Georgia, we’re filing a lawsuit. We do litigation. We do legislation to makes sure better things happen. But we do advocacy, because my responsibility is to remind you you care about voter suppression because you don’t have health care in Georgia because we haven’t expanded Medicaid. And so unless you get to vote, your hospital will shut down and you will die of a curable disease because our nation—our state is too cheap and too mean to take care of you; that criminal justice reform, the progress that we made in a bipartisan fashion in Georgia is not permanent and can be undone by a single person who decides that he no longer cares about the consequences of what happens when you come out of jail or the travails of mental illness and drug addiction.

And so our obligation is to connect the dots for those communities and not to assume that they will connect the dots themselves, because they have connected dots and they have seen that elections do not lead to change. And therefore, we have to have a conversation about how you force elections to lead to change. That’s our responsibility.

PORTER: Yeah. Sure. Sir, here in front. Yeah.

Q: Good to see you again.

ABRAMS: You as well.

Q: My question is, you gave a very clear diagnosis of the problems of America right now—you know, the fact that, you know, American credibility is damaged when we preach on one hand democracy, but at the same time we suppress, you know, voting rights. Our credibility is damaged—when we unilaterally pull out of a—of an international agreement, our credibility is damaged. My question is, even if there was a change in the occupant of the White House, we learned—we have learned in life that credibility is very hard to be restored. Trust is hard to be restored. So would you be able to offer some, you know, thoughts on how we might be able to restore, you know, the world’s trust in America?

ABRAMS: So I think we have to remember our credibility has been threatened before. The Cold War—during the Cold War, Russia was—the USSR was very effective at using the propaganda of America in Latin America, in Asia, and Africa. They basically reminded them: This is a country that tells you to trust them, but they are purveyors of inequality and racism. And why would you believe them? And our credibility was deeply damaged in the 1980s, having a president who said that Apartheid was an OK economic system. So it’s not that our credibility hasn’t been damaged before. I don’t think there has been the sustained attempt to actually harm our credibility that we have seen from the current occupant.

One of the ways to change that is for America to show that we want something better. So there is an absolute good that happens when we change our leadership, when we reject the current order. That restores, at least, an intentionality on our part. And then the next president is going to have to revisit the Paris accords. They’re going to have to revisit what we’ve done with Iran. It may be too late for us to restore that conversation, but we are watching the consequences of pulling out, with Iran restarting its conversations about how it’s going to operate. And so part of our obligation is going to be the immediacy of our response.

But the reason this is so important is that we don’t have a consular corps. We don’t have a foreign service that is ready to actually respond. There’s been a decimation of our foreign service occupants. And that’s deeply problematic, especially at senior levels but also at entry levels. People are leaving in droves. And that was by design. There was an intentionality in reducing who participates in our international conversations because those who were—who were selected by the Trump administration to lead our State Department did not believe in engagement. And so part of the opportunity is there are going to be a lot of jobs available. (Laughter.) And so you need to be ready to take those jobs. (Laughter.)

And one of the ways we restore credibility is to demonstrate that we have a new crop of people who are reflective of the values we saw we espouse, that are willing to do the work of actually building those relationship again, and that there is a sustained opportunity that we actually fix what was broken. There are ways that we need to look at our laws where we should not have been able to lose our place so dramatically, so quickly. And that’s a conversation for Congress, and it’s a conversation for our courts.

PORTER: So back there, yeah.

Q: Hi. Mozar Ross (ph).


Q: So China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative is one of the most ambitious projects in human history. And through their project, China’s going to gain intense global influence. How would you combat it?

ABRAMS: So I—see, I’m about to have—this is a complex question. (Laughter.) And when I’m taken out of context, I want them to at least put that part in the bottom. OK. (Laughter.)

What China is doing with infrastructure, it is deeply concerning that China is leading the way because that type of largess comes with obligations. And the places where they are going, the fact that they are essentially building the infrastructure of Africa, they are investing deeply in South America, the work that they are doing is not out of the good—it’s not altruism. And the way they’re structuring some of these contracts, the consequences for some of these nation-states that are just emerging from, you know, deep authoritarianism to authoritarianism-lite, there are going to be very, very harsh consequences for whomever inherits the long-term debt that will now be owed to China.

But there is a—there is a good to building infrastructure in place where colonization and disinvestment has disrupted development. And so I cannot dismiss as a good the fact that we do need this infrastructure built and America is not doing that. And so while I think the—I think the result of having infrastructure in places that it has low been denied the accoutrements of development is a good, I think we should be deeply concerned about how it’s coming into being. And we need to be prepared to intercede when the bill comes due. Because China understands what they’re doing. They are building out not only infrastructure but relationships.

And they’re building relationships in places where we have exempted ourselves from responsibility or, worse, we have been participants in the undermining of those nation-states. And that is deeply troubling. And that’s one more reason for an international consular corps and an international foreign services that’s actually reflective of diversity, because we need to be able to speak with credibility. And the history of American intervention in most of these countries is not a good one for us. And therefore, having foreign policy conversations that are driven by cultural competency and by awareness, but also by recognition of why these countries took those gambles with China, I think is going to be critically important not in the next decade, but in the next twenty to thirty years.

PORTER: Madam, here.

Q: Macani Toungara, TechnoServe.

My question is, given the widespread nature of voter suppression, what are the top two or three states where we could volunteer to maybe turn the needle in a different direction to have the outcome of changing the occupant in the White House?

ABRAMS: I would welcome you to Georgia. (Laughter.) I mean, look, so here’s how we should think about voter suppression. I listed four states that are doing new bad things. You’ve got a raft of states—twenty-five states that since 2010 have passed laws to increase voter suppression and decrease access to the ballot. Those are largely states—not exclusively—but I think 99 percent of those states are run by Republicans. We know that Wisconsin and Michigan now have Democratic governors, but they also have Republican legislatures, which means that the bad bills that were passed years ago remain in place. The voter suppression of 2010 didn’t disappear with the election of Democrats in 2018. And so we need to be there, because we know those two states where voter suppression had not been as aggressive and active, and if people hasn’t been engaged in despair, we could have won the 2016 election.

We know that Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina are three states that actually outperformed Ohio in 2016. And those are all states where the demography is actually trending in the direction of more progressive beliefs. And therefore, those are three states I would focus on. We know that in North Carolina, Clinton lost, but Roy Cooper won. And, again, you have a Democratic governor, but he has a Republican legislature. Which means, all of the voter suppression activities that they engaged in remain in place. I’ve told you about the horrific nature of Georgia. Please go to FairFightAction.org if you want to know more—dot-com, if you want to learn more. And there Arizona is a place where we know the burgeoning population, but also the fact they’re going to have a very active and aggressive Senate race, as well Georgia, that those are two places where we should go. So if you live in the north, go to Wisconsin, go play in Michigan. And if you want to have great weather, come to Florida—(laughter)—I’m sorry—come to Georgia, or head over to Arizona.

PORTER: Yes, sir. Let me get somebody there in the back. Ma’am, there, yeah.

Q: Hi. My name’s Vanery Kang (ph), and I’m a graduate student at Harvard Kennedy in cybersecurity.

My question is: How do we prepare the future generations to compete in the job market on the global scale within foreign policy?

ABRAMS: So I think you began with an important part, which is cybersecurity. One of the issues I made a central part of my campaign is the fact that we do not teach our children computer skills unless they live in the right district, with the right resources, and we wait too late. I believe that we should start inculcating robotics and coding in kindergarten, that it is never too early to teach that set of skills because there is never going to be a time when those skills aren’t necessary. And we have to start building that capacity. By having those skills, you’re almost necessarily forced into an international frame of mind, because part of being in a global society, part of the way the cyberspace works, is that you are inherently required to think about everywhere else and everyone else, because it is not a parochial conversation. So that’s one piece.

But I think the other pieces goes back to Simone’s (sp) question. We have to start having this conversation and localizing this conversation at the very beginning. For most of us there weren’t—unless you come from a family that had a reason for international engagement, there was no conversation. And absent that conversation, we grow up and away from this international idea. I want us to spend more time pushing people the way I was pushed. I wish I’d had that conversation when I was in high school, or when I was in middle school. But we tend the treat the rest of the world as the rest of the world, as opposed to thinking about America as part of a global conversation.

It doesn’t diminish our strength and our primacy to acknowledge that we are one of 197 countries. And I may be off—I don’t know what’s happened in the last couple of minutes. (Laughter.) But our obligation is to create spaces that aren’t simply about who we’re at war with, who we’re angry with, or who we’re buying stuff from. Our opportunity is to talk about it in terms of how do we enrich who we are, how do we build deeper connections amongst ourselves if we think about foreign policy, and if we think about the international engagement that’s possible.

PORTER: All right. Sir, at the back, been trying for a while. (Laughter.)

Q: Hi. My name is Mark. I’m helping start a nonprofit called Inclusive America, to try to increase the diversity and inclusion in political appointed positions.

Many companies, when they deal with this problem, create a chief—(background noise)—bless you—a chief diversity—(laughter)—or a chief inclusion officer. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are for candidates that are running for president for 2020 including this as part of their platform? Obama included chief technology officer. So we sort of see sometimes copying government the way companies create these positions. If you think that would be a helpful thing.

ABRAMS: I think it would useful, but I think we have to do it across the board, because it’s not just in foreign policy that we have this mismatch. It is the most acute in foreign policy, and this is what you guys talk about all the time so I’m focusing here, but it is true that we need that type of inclusion and diversity in almost every facet of our federal government. But I do think that the foreign policy piece is critical. I would certainly put that in a Twitter—I would—I would tweet it out, because I promise you by Thursday of next week there will be at least two candidates who now have chief inclusion officers on their platform. (Laughter.) But I think—I think your point is the right one, which is that there is—there has to be a proven intentionality to do this. If we simply wait for people to decide they want inclusion, it does not happen. We have to organize for it, because it’s also hard to build.

I mean, this is an amazing room, but to recruit a sufficient number of communities that are disenfranchised, or marginalized, or outside of the norm—to recruit the levels that we need will take a long time. And the reality is, we’ve not only got to fill the corpus of our foreign service, we now have to restore the leadership of our foreign service. And that means that you are going to have to be very thoughtful and creative about where we go to find those folks. And you do want someone who is giving a lot of thought to this, because this is going to be a very intensive operation. And to your question, we’re going to have to stand it up very quickly.

PORTER: Yeah, ma’am.

Q: Hello. Good afternoon, Ms. Abrams. It’s an honor to be in your presence. Thank you for joining us.

ABRAMS: Well, thank you!

Q: My name is Regine Lotlikar.

And I had so many questions, but I will just ask one.

ABRAMS: Oh, thank you. (Laughter.)

Q: I was wondering your thoughts on the future and resolving conflicts or compelling other countries to behave in a way that reflects whatever America’s values are, using trade wars versus armed conflict or military combat. What are your thoughts on that as a future way to resolve conflict? Do you think it’s good, bad? What are your thoughts?

ABRAMS: I think there’s certainly—there’s something appealing about the notion of using trade versus weaponry. The challenge is the harm that is done and the effectiveness of the tool. We—because we have a global economy, our ability to use sanctions to force behavior has been diminished over time. And it requires not simply our engagement but, as with war—with wars that are military—it requires the participation of our allies. And as we’ve seen recently, simply having one or two of the major economies drop out of the conversation completely undermines that reality.

But the other reality is that often the armed conflicts that we enter—not always, and certainly recent experience has demonstrated that we have some poor decision-making when it comes to why we go into war—but there are some armed conflicts where it is about the protection of people’s bodies. And we cannot diminish the importance of America leveraging its military might to actually protect those communities that are at risk. I think we should always be judicious about and careful with our use of military might. War is a terrible, horrific thing. Trade wars have consequences too.

And particularly when you decide to weaponize trade, we run the very real risk of undermining burgeoning economies and burgeoning communities that are the least able to withstand the harm but are not responsible for the behavior. And that is a difficult thing to calibrate in an economy that the world—in the economy the world has today. So I understand the appeal of the idea, but I think we have to be very careful about how we think through the execution and the application.

PORTER: OK. Thank you. Sir.

ABRAMS: This is like foreign policy Jeopardy. (Laughter.)


Q: Thank you. Stacey, thank you for—

ABRAMS: I take—what’s your name?

Q: My name is Earl Carr.

ABRAMS: I take Earl for 400. Go ahead. (Laughter, applause.)

Q: Thank you. I’m representing Momentum Advisors. I’m based in New York City.

You’ve talked a lot about foreign policy issues facing the United States. In your opinion, what is the quintessential foreign policy issue that is facing the United States at this present moment in time?

ABRAMS: OK. (Laughter.) I’d say—I’m going to—I’m going to be a politician on this one, so here we go. (Laughter.) So I truly believe voter suppression is the foundational issue, because it is the direct antidote to the policy issues. So if you do not have the right to vote, if you cannot participate in the values that are leading our country, then we are in danger. And those values are going to be necessary if we are going to address climate change which is probably, outside of democracies winnowing power—you know, we have an existential crisis of our actual—I mean, we use that phrase a lot, but this is truly an existential crisis. If the Earth ceases to function and operate in a way that lets us stay here, we got a problem. (Laughter.)

But we will not address climate change in the United States without the ability of people to actually hold their leaders accountable. And to the extent we have leaders that disengage from this conversation, that’s a problem. Concomitant to that is the issue of—not income inequality, but inequality in and of itself. Poverty is a danger. And as it’s exacerbated in our nation, it makes us weaker. It makes people angrier. It makes it harder to maintain civil society. And because it is also linked to climate change, we can’t dismiss and separate these conversations out. And so—(applause)—thank you.

I call it a political answer because you wanted a single response, but you can’t do single responses with what’s happening in the United States. We are too advanced a nation to actually have a single reply, because most of our pathologies are intersectional and they are integrated. Our gun violence is directly related to our economic beliefs and the treatment that we have of our communities. What’s happening with education and the under-education of our communities has a lot to do with how we think about minority rights, minority participation. And so if we solve the issue of voter engagement and voter suppression, we create a more robust conversation for how we solve all of these other crises that are facing our country. (Applause, cheers.)

PORTER: Sure, yeah.

Q: Thank you. My name is Kazar (ph). I’m from Columbia University.

So there is a lot—there are lot of grounds that argue that there is a link—tight link between income inequality and ballooning private debt, that are generated by corporate, especially Wall Street. I wonder what is your stance for that? There have been a lot of laws that were initiated since 2008 crisis, Basel I, II, II, Dodd-Frank and others, but none of them—all of them, actually, are delayed since—I don’t know, until 2020. I’d like to know your stance for that.

ABRAMS: So I disagree with income inequality. I think it is an economic harm. And I think it exacerbates all of the other tensions that we have in our society. I think the challenge—and this goes back to the question of trade wars—our economy is not simply—I’m hesitating because I want to say a few things at once. Part of our challenge with the way we pass our laws is that we don’t—politicians often don’t want to held accountable for the consequences. And so, yes, we will pass a law that says do X, but we delay the implementation so that it’s long enough that people forget that we did it. And it gives us time to undo it if we decide we don’t want to. And that’s what, I believe, happened in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, that we attempted to respond but we did so in a way that we didn’t want to alienate or offend anyone, including the perpetrators of the crisis. And that is deeply problematic.

What we see happening with the CFPB, that is problematic, that we have an institution that was specifically designed to protect consumers and is being undermined by the very person who’s been in charge of it, who also happens to be, you know, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker in the Trump administration right now. And when you have, for example, a CFPB that’s pushing to accelerate the ability of debt collectors to hound communities, as opposed to protect them, when you have an education secretary who attempts to actually force more debt on students instead of reducing that debt, what we know we have is laws that have no teeth because our ruler have no intent of actually doing the work. And that’s problematic to me.

And so I do believe that we have a framework for addressing income inequality. Now, let’s be clear, I’m less concerned about what the richest person than I am about making sure other people have the opportunity to have that too. And as long as we’re focusing on pulling down as opposed to pulling up, then we’re having the wrong conversation, because when you’re—(applause)—when you’re only focused on the pulling down, people can argue that that’s just classism. What we should be talking about is poverty. And poverty in America now is a much broader range than it used to be, which is why the Trump administration is trying to change the definition of poor.

We have to recognize that income inequality is a danger because of what it signals to our economy. When people cannot afford to participate in their communities, that is harm. And we need to be increasing access to economic security, we need to be taking aggressive steps to ensure that more people can make more money and do more things, but I disagree sometimes with the notion that if we just reduce the top then that’s enough, because if we reduce the top but we don’t increase the bottom and we don’t strengthen the middle, then we’re going to be in the same place again.

PORTER: OK, guys. We have time to squeeze just one more in. I’m sorry, there’s lots of hands up there. But, ma’am, go for it.

Q: No pressure. (Laughter.)

ABRAMS: Oh, no, there’s a lot pressure. Make it really good, OK? (Laughter.)

Q: Ms. Abrams, good to see you again.

ABRAMS: You as well.

Q: I’m here with some of the Obama Foundation Scholars.

The pressure of the last question. We’ve talked a lot—and you’ve talked a lot about how the current administration is doing foreign policy badly or harming our democracy. But what about the threats from Russian state-sponsored aggression, to not only our electoral integrity but the disinformation campaigns that they’re launching against people such as, you know, yourself, who are speaking truth to power, speaking against that. And what are the foreign policy leavers that we, as potential practitioners, can use to arm ourselves against that? And how can we protect global democracy and the international rules-based system when it coming under increasing threat, and nobody seems to want to check an aggressive power? (Applause.)

PORTER: Pretty good one.

ABRAMS: Sit down. OK. So I think about this in three ways. One, the Russian disinformation campaign is not going to stop. And so our only antidote is to overwhelm disinformation with accurate information. And that’s one of the reasons, again, I believe so aggressively in advocacy and voter engagement, because you cannot stop bad from happening—unless our cybercrimes expert can tell us how to do it. (Laughter.) In lieu thereof, your only antidote to bad information is overwhelming it with good information. And that happens when you have an engaged and education populace that has the ability to discern the difference between what seems wrong and what is actually real.

Number two, Russian hacking is an absolute crisis. Georgia is about to invest in machines that have been called the most hackable machines in the country. And we’re going to spend more money than has ever been spent on the acquisition of electoral machines in what we can find as world history—$150 million—to license bad machines. And we’re going to keep paying for this for the next twenty years. And we know that those machines are hackable. We know that there’s a problem. And yet, we refuse to resolve it because there are those who calculate that it is worth the risk of having someone interfere with our elections rather than losing power. And as long as that’s the calculus, then we are in a deeper danger than one that is a foreign policy being—a foreign agent being aggressive. It is an internal crisis when our sense of power is tied to our ability to win at all costs, even if that cost is undermining the very entity that we want to be in charge of.

And this goes back to the question about what happens with our laws. When we pass our laws, when we make our choices, when we deal with income inequality, climate change, any of those issues, Russia has a very deep, embedded interest in the dysfunction of America. Because as long as we are grappling with what should be solved problems, then we are not actually addressing their influence on the South African election that just happened, the work they did—the work they tried to do in France, the fact that they are—as much as China is trying to build infrastructure, Russia’s doing everything it can to diminish infrastructure and to disrupt it. We have to have leadership in this room, and across this country, and around the world who understand that the global good of liberal democracy benefits us all.

And that while we have gone through some gyrations that are deeply problematic, and we have had poor leadership—in fact, we have had horrific leadership, and we have seen the diminution of democracies in favor of semi-authoritarian regimes and autocracies, that we can reverse those gyrations and actually increase our liberal democracies, if we decide that we are going to use the United States as the example that we have been before and can be again, which is that if we are willing to tackle our internal crises, if we are willing to deal with economic issues, and cyber issues, and humanitarian issues. If we are willing to be the people we espouse and to hold up the ideals that we hold to be true, Russia is diminished much in the way we were able to do during the Cold War.

Our response to propaganda is that we got better. When they were able to point to our racism, we actually as a nation-state, as individuals, as citizens demanded better from our leaders, and we got better. And when we got better, the USSR got weaker. We have to do that again. Putin, apparently, is never going anywhere. (Laughter.) But neither are we. And as long as we understand that this is our country, and that we select our own leaders, and that if we—let’s just be clear: 77,000 people made a decision in 2016 that changed the trajectory of our country. But six million people stayed home. You can solve a 77,000-person problem with six million voices being lifted up. And that’s my responsibility, and your responsibility, and that’s how we fix the (world ?). (Applause.)

PORTER: Well, thank you very much, Ms. Abrams. This was amazing round of Jeopardy.

ABRAMS: Thank you. Yes, thank you. (Applause.) Where do I get my check?


ABRAMS: I said, where do I get my check? (Laughs.)

PORTER: Yeah, well, you got to talk to him.

ABRAMS: Thank you.

PORTER: (Laughs.) (Applause.)


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