Washington Director, Human Rights Watch
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State; Former National Security Advisor, Office of Vice President Joe Biden
Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs
Daniel Kurtz-Phelan discusses the March/April 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine with contributors Sarah Margon and Jake Sullivan. The latest issue looks at how the Trump administration has stepped away from the maintenance of world order and foreign policy and the consequences caused by this action.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right, everyone, thank you so much for being at the Council on Foreign Relations today. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. This is the launch event for our March/April issue, which features a lead package called “Letting Go,” which is about the extent to which the Trump administration has or has not changed U.S. foreign policy in its first year or so. It includes five excellent pieces, two of which are by Jake Sullivan and Sarah Margon, who are here today. Jake’s is called “The World After Trump.” Sarah’s is called “Giving Up the High Ground.”
Highly recommend both of them, as well as pieces by Eliot Cohen, Barry Posen, and Adam Posen—no relation to Barry Posen—which are also in the package. I would also just note, we just pre-released two pieces from our May/June issue, which will be coming up in a couple weeks on North Korea, one by Victor Cha and Katrin Katz, the other by Mira Rapp-Hooper and Bob Gervis, both very topical and very well worth reading. So I would encourage you to check those out as well.
You all have bios for Jake and Sarah, so I won’t spend too much time on their backgrounds. You can read those in the handouts you got. I’ll just say Sarah is the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. She was previously on the Hill with Russ Feingold and at Center for American Progress as well at some point, is that right?
MARGON: That’s right.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jake spent most of the last administration in government, was the State Department director of policy planning, national security advisor to Joe Biden, and then was head of policy on the Clinton campaign, is now at the Carnegie Endowment and Yale Law School.
So I will get right into this. We’ll spend about 25 minutes, a half hour talking amongst ourselves and then we’ll kick it to all of you for Q&A. So I wanted to start with Jake. Jake, your piece is a qualified case for optimism about the state of the world and the state of the international order. But you do offer one caveat early in the piece. You say there’s a non-negligible risk of a major cataclysmic crisis. That could be a trade war. It could be a nuclear war with North Korea. It could be a conflict with Iran. I wanted to ask you, how scared are you right now about the state of the world? (Laughter.) What scares you? And are you more scared now than you were when you wrote the piece a few months ago?
SULLIVAN: So it’s really the caveat to end all caveats, right? Everything’s OK, except for that niggling little possibility of nuclear war or an all-out trade war that crashes the global economy. But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln. (Laughter.) You know, it is a case for optimism in one sense, but what it is more is a case against fatalism. What I’m trying to argue is that just saying, you know what, America’s day is done, we’re moving onto some other kind of order, or maybe just outright disorder, is not quite right. That the United States still has very much to offer in the way of playing the catalyzing, mobilizing role in international cooperation that can drive more stability, more prosperity, more progress in the world.
And what we need to do is figure out how you update the elements of this international order so that it reflects current realities, but not give up on it and not give up on what the United States is all about. So in that sense, I’m not really just trying to say: Don’t worry. It’s all OK. What I’m trying to say is don’t quit. Focus on the things we have to do to improve, to renovate, and to advance the basic instruments of cooperation. And in that sense, we’re—understand that the world has changed, and those instruments are going to have to change with it.
But on your specific question about what keeps me up at night, I think that there are two basic categories of things. The first is the known quantity crises that have been sitting out there over the course of the last year. And you have the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula. And what really concerns me about that is there is a view inside the Trump administration that on the one hand North Korea is so crazy that we have no choice but to take military action against them to remove their nuclear program.
But on the other hand, North Korea will be so cowed and restrained that when they take that military action they won’t really respond all that catastrophically. OK, that, in addition to being internally inconsistent thinking, is deeply dangerous because if you believe those two things—two things I think are very difficult to hold at once in your mind—then the case for war is pretty strong.
And I happen to think—I do not believe those two things. But if that is a prevalent view inside the administration, the possibility of military conflict with North Korea down the road is real. I think in the nearer term, Trump is very much on the diplomatic train. He wants to win where all those losers who came before him couldn’t. He wants an outcome from the summit with Kim Jong-un. And he’ll, I think, do a lot to try to accomplish it.
So you have North Korea. You have this ongoing trade tit for tat with China, which could go off the rails if both sides are not very careful about how they make their next moves. But the other category that keeps—that makes me very concerned is that all the chaos and all of the difficulty that we’ve seen over the last year has come without any exogenous crisis being visited upon or imposed upon this administration. And so the extent to which the State Department is getting hollowed out, the extent to which we see this administration not having a functional decision-making process, that has not been tested by a crisis that we haven’t seen, that hasn’t come yet.
And that really concerns me. And that is where I think things could very much end up going off the rails. And, you know, we can talk about some of the more specifics on North Korea and Iran, in particular, as we go forward, but this president is going to face a crisis at some point. And I do not think he or his team are prepared for it at the moment.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s stay on pessimism for a second. Sarah, your piece offers a fairly dispiriting survey of the state of global human rights. Most of those trends, though, are fairly longstanding. They do not start with this administration. That’s true of both some of the trends in U.S. policy and trends in crises elsewhere in the world. To what extent do you see a real change? And to what extent are there deeper forces driving this deterioration?
MARGON: It’s a good thing I’m a baseline optimist, because I’m paid to be a pessimist. I get this question a lot. I actually get this question from my colleagues overseas all the time. And I think the challenge between promoting and advancing human rights for the U.S. government and supporting national security or our core economic interests is always a challenge. That’s clear. I think what we’ve seen here is a complete sidelining, disinterest, and lack of understanding about the role human rights norms, standards, laws, the international community, the global order plays, so that it can help the U.S. not in an American first mentality, but in a multilateral environment.
Furthermore, you have over the last 25 or 30 years a movement that has developed on human rights. You have the explosion of civil society all over the world that the U.S. has literally funded—not just supported by rhetoric, but supported financially globally, that they have supported these longer-term pathways. And to help national groups, to help human rights defenders, independent media build their own democratic societies and support the rule of law, in the interest of global prosperity. And I think what you see now is a president who doesn’t really understand why that matters, if he even knows it happens. You have a White House and an OMB that is cutting the funds for all of that support. Congress is, of course, pushing back.
But then you also have a very clear sidelining by the secretary of state who says, oh, you know, we focus on our interests. Values is sort of what happens. We’re not going to promote our way to other countries. And I think what we’ve seen is that this is not our way. You can talk about the Arab Spring failing if you want. I mean, it has left a mess in many, many, many countries. But what is very clear is that this is not something that America has imposed, these democratic ideals, this is something that people want. Yes, they need food. They need water. They need basic services. But they want freedom. They want to be able to put their ideas to work. They want to test the system.
And I think that lack of understanding and that clear sidelining for those who it sometimes pops up into their analysis or into their radar, OK, we’ll go after it with our adversaries—North Korea, Venezuela, Syria, a few others that are politically appropriate to do and there’s no cost for us to do it. But we’re not going to take the tough cases, because that doesn’t drive forward on our interests. That isn’t how we go after terrorists. We got to defeat them, destroy them. That isn’t what we’re about. That isn’t strong, tough America. And so that’s very different from than what we’ve seen.
There were many times in the last administration where I didn’t agree with the tactics. And I thought, this is not an approach that’s going to—going to bring us a new true human rights policy, or even a parallel. But I know there were debates. I know there were debates on Saudi and Yemen. I know there were debates on Burma, when they lifted the sanctions. I know these were hard, intense debates. And human rights doesn’t always win out. But with this administration, I don’t even think the debates are happening. In fact, I know they’re not. And that’s a huge difference. It’s not even rising to the level of senior level discussion.
KURTZ-PHELAN: But can I push you on the level of rhetoric there’s a level change, on the level of policy process. But when you look at, say, the use of force and drone strikes and the campaign against ISIS, how much did you actually see a change from one administration to the next? And how much is there is in fact continuity both in policy and in targeting and civilian casualties policy and all that?
MARGON: So we’ve—I mean, a lot of it we don’t know because it’s secret. So I can’t tell you the answer to that in terms of the actual policy change. In terms of the rhetoric, generally and then vis-à-vis the anti-ISIS fight, there were changes made at the end of the Obama administration to accelerate some of the battlefield operations. And I write about this in my piece. But I think the key difference is the number of civilian casualties that the media, that a number of NGOs, and that activists that are still on the ground have found, and the lack of investigation by the Pentagon in Iraq and Syria, and also Afghanistan, is astounding. This has clearly reached the secretary of defense. This has come out in some of the comments he’s made in the media.
But that change—and there’s a number of reasons why it could have changed. That change is outrageous, because if you look at the reason we ended up having an al-Qaida 2 or ISIS, it’s not necessarily because the U.S. troops left. It has to do with the hard-core approach of the Iraq government, the absence of U.S. diplomatic engagement, and the disenfranchisement of a number of people in Iraq who felt they couldn’t access a democratic system. It wasn’t—it wasn’t that they felt so grateful to the United States that they decided to take this very extremist perspective.
It was because, once again, they felt alienated. And we heard time and time again—I was in Iraq in 2014 and 2015. And I heard time and time again people say: Living under ISIS was terrible, it was horrible. But this isn’t any better. You’ve destroyed my house. You’ve destroyed my family. I have nobody left. And now I’m living in a refugee camp, or they’re taking my funds and taking my kid into detention and I have no idea where they are. So you put people between a rock and a hard place, and the choices that they make are not the choices that they would make otherwise. So we have seen a change.
And I would also say, just to end, the rhetoric matters. We at Human Rights Watch spend a lot of time saying: Well, prove it. Prove it. How does the rhetoric matter? What is the impact? And I think the two that we have looked at and that I write in my piece are in—(sneezes)—excuse me—Bahrain and Egypt, where the president’s comments in Riyadh when he went on his trip to Saudi were so stark that the Bahrainis decided that it was totally fine for them to wipe out a Shia village. And they had sort of been increasing their work to do so, but they hadn’t been quite as blatantly violent. And shortly on the heels of his trip—President Trump’s trip to Riyadh, they just went after and destroyed some of the villages. And we saw that also on Egypt with the civil society activists, and the passage of an anti-NGO law, and the signing of the NGO law.
And so we do see the rhetoric matters. The longer the president uses this language to embrace autocrats, to support them, to engage with them in chummy ways and tell them they’re great leaders, it gives them a permission slip.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jake, in your piece, what I thought was so interesting is that you shifted the frame, for the most part, away from Washington to the state of the international system more broadly. And to the extent that there really is a case for optimism, it is not so much about what is happening in this town, but what is happening with the international rules-based order that we talk about more broadly. Before the Trump administration when you were in government, there was certainly a broader sense of disarray and collapse in that order. And yet, you make a case that the liberal world really can survive, and that the trends that look so alarming—whether it’s great powers or chaos in the Middle East, or, you know, emerging powers that may not see rules the way we do—that it does not add up to a fundamental threat. So I would be curious if you can kind of step beyond just U.S. policy and talk about that case for the international system.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. You know, a lot of this comes down to a baseline issue. If you baseline is the end of history in 1989, and that the endpoint is going to be a world in which everybody buys into a set of liberal values and operates according to the institutions, alliances, and partnerships we set up, then obviously we’re falling short of that. But if you think about the liberal international order as it was set up after the Second World War, it never included the whole world. In fact, it explicitly excluded a huge part of the world for a very long time. So if your baseline is, in fact, we are going to have to continue a struggle over time on the question of human rights, liberal values, and democracy—a struggle that goes back to the very foundation of this order and where we’ve always had opposition and pushback from large segments of the globe. But at the same time, we can effectively mobilize cooperation in flexible and sustainable ways to deal with the major transnational challenges of our time.
I would say on that score, we have done significantly better than the detractors give us credit for. Think about nuclear proliferation—whether it’s the nuclear security summit that is now working to lock down lose nuclear materials, or the Iran agreement which may go by the boards but shows that a flexible sort of variable geometry can come together with diplomacy to solve a significant nonproliferation challenge, or the Paris climate agreement, or dealing with the Ebola crisis. You can walk down a set of things where actually international cooperation over the last 10 years has headed off some pretty dramatic crises. Stopping a great recession from turning into a great depression, which may not have happened at any other point in human history. But we could pull together the major powers in the G-20 in 2008 to help make that happen.
So my case is that actually the United States has recognized over the last 20 years that this kind of preponderant moment at the end of the Cold War was not going to last forever, that the basic bargain was going to have to shift. And other powers were going to have to have more of a say, as well as take more responsibility to help solve these problems. And actually, by hook or by crook, with lots of mistakes along the way, we have helped contribute to a system that has that kind of flexibility. And so even a Paris climate agreement can move forward, despite the fact that it’s going to have the temporary absence of the United States. And that’s built into the design of that agreement and is based on the learnings of the complete failure that Kyoto was.
So I’m not saying everything’s hunky-dory. But what I am arguing is that the basic insight which says none of major problems can be solved by a single country, all of them require some mode, some mechanism for cooperation, and some country has to be the catalyst for that cooperation because it’s not going to appear out of thin air. And the United States has traditionally played that role. And there’s no one else out there to step into it. That the case for continued American leadership within that set of defined terms—not American dominance, not American dictation of outcome to other countries, but leadership in the sense of being the key catalyst—I think that that can endure beyond the Trump administration.
Now, it can’t endure forever, as I say in the piece. And certainly, if Trump is reelected it will send a very strong signal to the world about the future view of American foreign policy. It’s consistent with what Sarah was saying about the basic underlying principles of who we are what we do in the world, moving from a positive-sum to a zero-sum mindset. But if Trump is defeated in 2020, I think there is not only the capacity for the United States to not resume a traditional role, but to take back up a mantle. And there is a demand signal from the rest of the world that this happen as well, from my perspective. Not from—not from every country, but from most of the significant actors.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Can you say more about the Iran deal? Because it’s not looking quite as stable now as it was a few months ago. What are its prospects? And what happens if Trump does pull out in a month?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. Look, I think the combination of Trump’s own desire to do away with a deal that I think probably, if you pressed him on it, he wouldn’t have the vaguest idea what’s actually in the Iran deal. But he knows Obama did it, so it’s bad. In fact, he has said it is the worst deal in human history. And as someone who helped negotiate it, that would be quite a feat if in fact it were the worst deal in human history. (Laughter.) I mean, there have been a lot of deals done between humans in history.
MARGON: Well done, Jake. (Laughter.)
SULLIVAN: And, you know, so. So you take his instinct and you combine it with Pompeo and Bolton and their attitude towards it. And then there’s a certain—here there’s a certain sense of fatalism setting in, both in Congress and in Europe, that you see in the public discourse, that this thing is headed for collapse—for the United States to pull out of it. I do not yet want to give up putting pressure on the administration to not take that completely counterproductive and potentially catastrophic step.
But if the deal falters, I would argue that the following day things are not going to change totally radically, that the Europeans and our other partners in the P5+1, and the Iranians will sort of try to figure out what that means and how that is going to play out over an extended period of time. But I do think it puts us on a trajectory where Iran will over time decide they have no choice but to go back to trying to gain their own leverage, which is restart the program, advance the capability, and then call to question what does the United States do at that point, now that diplomacy is no longer an option?
So does it increase the risk that we end up in military conflict with Iran? I believe it does. But the interesting thing about the design of this is there can at least be a plausible conversation about whether the rest of the world tries in some way to hold this together, even with the United States walking away from it. I’m doubtful that they will be able to pull that off, but it is commentary on this transition to a different form of international order, that I describe in the piece, that that’s even a live strategic conversation right now.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So one challenge to the international order, or the liberal rules-based order as we talk about, that I think really does beyond this administration is a sense of return to great power competition. I think that’s something we would be talking about regardless of who was sitting in the White House right now. I think this challenge is optimism in both of your areas. Sarah, the last time we were in great power competition, when there were conflicts between the needs to support partners who were not great supporters of human rights, human rights advocates did not often win out. Do you worry about what that conflict means as we go into a new area of competition against Russia, and China, and more?
MARGON: Yeah. You know, I think one of the things we’ve seen—and to your point about the potential for other countries to bring leadership to bear, to create these sort of collective—I think you even wrote coalition of the willing, not in the Iraq sense. But I think that’s where we are, and that’s where it really matters. We’ve seen other countries step up to the plate on a number of issues that are not gamechangers, right? It’s not the Iran deal yet. But it’s an important building block to moving in that direction. We’ve seen at the U.N. Security Council Sweden, Kuwait, Peru step up. They have been regularly moving the Rohingya issue forward. They have moved the Council to take a trip to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. That’s really important. And that’s really different. That is something the U.S. historically I think would have done. But that leadership is not there. They meet on Syria, that’s it, regularly and consistently.
We’ve seen in Geneva, Iceland and the Dutch pick up on really important initiatives at the Human Rights Council, which are not going to be gamechangers globally, but show international human rights defenders and show governments that there are other options out there, and that the system is flexible. And in a sense, that’s what needs to happen in the next three years. I agree, if Trump wins the next election, we are in a much different scenario where it’s basically been validated again that this is the approach the U.S. wants to take to the world. And then the gloves are off, if you don’t actually think they’re off now with Pompeo and Bolton coming in. (Laughs.)
But, you know, that’s—so we’re seeing that. And I think one of the things we have also seen, and I should mention, is that other governments have stepped up to the plate where funding has been cut. So the Mexico City global gag, which cuts—you know, is the most draconian one in existence. It cuts somewhere between $7 and $9 billion to global health programs all over the world. So, you know, women’s empowerment, that this administration actually promotes, is kind of hampered by the fact that many of them aren’t going to be able to get the health needs in a whole range of countries. Norway and Sweden have stepped in and are working with a collective of European countries to try to fund the bill that the U.S. has left. UNRWA, the Palestinian refugee agency, the U.S. has cut a significant portion of those funds. And other governments are trying to step in.
Of course, it gives the Trump administration something of a free pass, but it also says, look, people are still at the center of this. And we, the rest of the international community, are not going to let them suffer unnecessarily because the U.S. has this approach that is very draconian and mixes national security with humanitarian all the time.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jake, you are also relatively sanguine about the prospects of the Chinese challenge to the global order. Is that still the case, given everything Xi Jinping has been saying about Chinese ambitions recently? And what does that mean in terms of how we should be responding to the challenge from China?
SULLIVAN: Look, I think China is very much trying to take advantage of the vacuum the United States has left in Asia, and in a sphere even larger than Asia, to position themselves more effectively to gain from American retreat. I think there is no doubt that they are trying to do that. But the question is, when Xi Jinping shows up in Davos, as he did last year, and says, we are now the guardians of the liberal international order, does he really mean it? And I would argue that at least for the foreseeable future, he does not.
That Chinese strategy continues to rest on the United States playing the role of cost-absorber and burden-bearer on a lot of the key global issues, and that the machinery of Chinese leverage and influence is designed around China being able to improve its relative position. It is not designed around stepping into the role of actually being the author or major forms of major forms of multilateral cooperation globally. Nor do I think they really want to do that for a while. They’d be happy to have the United States sit in that position, while paying due respect and deference to them on the issues they really care about, and while positioning themselves to succeed in great power competition down the road, nudging the United States increasingly out of Asia.
So, for me, this is not the Chinese with their eye at the seat at the end of the table saying: We’re just going to get there. I think they are dividing between competition and cooperation in an interesting way. And smart American statecraft would do the same thing. Now, I don’t think there’s anything actually inconsistent with saying we can play a role in helping hold together and advance a rules-based international order, and say we have to meet the geopolitical competition we see from Russia and China in a hard-headed and sustained way. And you know, just one anecdote on that front, related to Russia not China.
Bill Burns and I were involved in the negotiations after the interim deal had went into effect for the full Iran agreement. And we met with a senior Russian diplomat to try and convince him that Russia had to join us in making a demand of the Iranians related to inspections. And it was a tough conversation. And eventually he came around and said, OK, Russia’s with you. And as we left the room, we had to mention to this senior Russian diplomat that the United States that day had just imposed a series of sectoral sanctions related to Ukraine but thank you very much for your help on the Iran nuclear deal, and we moved out. And it goes to show you that with both Russia and China—more with China than Russia because of its capacities and the role it plays on key international issues—we are going to have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. They certainly are doing that, and there’s no reason that we can’t do so as well as we go forward.
KURTZ-PHELAN: And what does that mean in terms of specific policy? If you were in a job that had you too busy to be here tonight, what would you be recommending in terms of—in terms of policy that’s different from the current administration?
SULLIVAN: Well, so for example—I mean, one thing that I think is just profoundly different from the current administration is take any of these significant global challenges that we are going to have to contend with, whether it’s pandemic disease or loose nuclear weapons or climate change or global financial coordination to make sure that we don’t have another crisis, whether you’re talking about the G-20 or you’re talking about the U.N. or you’re talking about any of these flexible arrangements I’ve described, the U.S. is like what are we doing with any of those? Nothing.
We don’t—we don’t—our Asia policy—our China policy right now is basically a North Korea policy and a tariffs policy, and that’s it. And there is not, I think, a larger framework being imposed that says: What are the top two or three things we’re asking of China on the cooperative side of the ledger, where we need them to bring their influence and capacity to bear? And then how do we make sure that the United States is working with our partners and allies in the region to design a strategy that says: We’re going to be here for the long term, and we’re going to be here in a way where we feel there’s a set of rules that work for you, work for us, and work for everybody else, not ones that just work for you.
So on specific policy, I think you could list any of the transnational issues and say we’d have an agenda on those, when we currently don’t. And on the competitive issues, I would say that, you know, I think this administration, for example, in the South China Sea, for as aggressive as they are in their rhetoric on everything, basically doesn’t really care about it. Doesn’t really even think about strategically how do we manage for something that the rest of the region is watching very carefully and saying: This is a test case for American resolve and presence. And for the current administration, it’s an afterthought.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So before we go to the audience, I want to ask each of you a final question. I think both of your pieces share in the end a quality of a call to action. You ultimately, Jake in your case, are calling on the foreign policy establishment, which is probably not aligned with the current administration, to really think hard about how we can improve the order and the system that you think will survive and what they—and really address the weaknesses. Sarah, you call on lots of outside actors to really take up the slack that you see within the executive branch of the U.S. government. So I’d be curious to push both of you on what that really means for people outside of government, people in the broader foreign policy community today, before we go to the audience for questions.
MARGON: I think the key here is Congress. And I think we can’t forget Congress. And they have done some things. They have stood up. I think those sanctions on Russia are probably the best example, where they boxed the White House in and basically said: You have to sanction Russia. (Coughs.) Excuse me. And I think we’ve seen a much stronger Russia policy, except when the president tweets other things, as a result of really strong bipartisan action. And that needs to continue. And I think that’s where Americans and Congress need to work together. Americans don’t have a great level of engagement on foreign policy, let alone human rights issues. And so that expansion and understanding of why the rest of the world matters and why the U.S. role in the world matters, and why advancing and promoting human rights is actually good for them too, is really important. And that’s a long-term project. That’s not something Human Rights Watch or any other organization’s going to be able to do in four or six months, or even really before the next election. But you can start to build those blocks and look at some of the red states and the purple states where there is an opportunity.
And I do—I see more in the Senate than in the House certain members who are starting to move forward and put their money where their mouth is. There’s a lot of rhetoric, there’s not a lot of voting in the right direction. And so that’s, I think, a big challenge for us in the human rights community, and frankly in the wider foreign policy community. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee needs to stand up and do its job of oversight. And they haven’t done that in a long time. And anybody needs oversight, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, in the executive branch. And that is not happening at an active and sufficient level right now. So I—that’s my big call to action. And everybody on the Hill is probably terribly tired of me saying that, because I say it all the time. But it’s hugely important.
But for the rest of—there are other governments that need to stand up. And one of the things I’ve been doing over the last 14 months is meeting pretty regularly with foreign ambassadors here in Washington to talk to them about how they’re engaging. And I think once we got over the—you know, the question of traditional security arrangements, and whether the U.S. was going to run away from the transatlantic relationship and walk away from NATO, there was some security that that wasn’t going to happen, at least not imminently, and so they could start thinking about the other parts of their relationship and their alliance that mattered.
And so I have been talking to those missions and those ambassadors, and even have gone to capital cities and sort of more traditional allies and said: Look, you need to stand up. You, Dutch, you need to stand up. And if the U.S. is not going to take a stand on Saudi’s role in Yemen, you need to do it. You can do it. And we’ll help you. We’ll help you get your allies. Or, you know, you, Iceland. Iceland, you need to stand up on the Philippines. And you need to put out a statement. And you need to make very clearly that Duterte’s killings are not OK. And then we go to the Pentagon and we say, look, we know it’s not the military. But the U.S. wants to expand its military in the Philippines. You got to weigh in here and make sure that the military is not doing anything to support the police. And talk to the Filipino military and tell them to whisper in the ears of their police colleagues.
And so it’s a very bifurcated strategy in a lot of ways, that goes at different pieces of trying to get people to stand up. And it doesn’t always have to be public. But it does have to articulate the needs that values and rights and basic principles. And humans are actually at the end of these polices. And that’s what I see as being forgotten so often with this administration, is that the discriminatory, cruel decisions, both for domestic and foreign policy, never seem to consider the impact on humans. And, yes, it’s hard. You’re in the White House and in a big executive office building and humans are out there. But it’s not that hard. So that’s sort of where I come down.
SULLIVAN: It’s hard to top humans as a—(laughter)—
MARGON: (Laughs.) Humans matter.
SULLIVAN: I would just say three quick things. The first is that I think that we need to take a hard look in the mirror, those of us on both—in both the Democratic and Republican Party, who have worked on foreign policy and ask the question: Have we gotten—and I think the answer to this question is yes—disconnected from the core project of providing for a strong, vibrant middle class in our countries, in our societies? And what can we do about that? And how can foreign policy and the international system writ large contribute to that?
I was on the campaign trail in 2015-2016. And I was in Ohio. And I used this phrase, “the liberal international order.” And somebody came up to me afterwards and said: I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like any of those three words. (Laughter.) So, you know, what are you talking about? And, you know, it’s sort of a humorous anecdote, but it drives home a point that I think first thing we have to do is say: How do you restore a real connection between foreign policy decision making, between how you want the shape of this org to look, and the lived experience of people in advanced economies and democracies in the West?
Second thing I would say is that we need to get significantly better at understanding and developing strategies in the gray zone, that is where Russia, China, Iran, and our adversaries are exceling and where our capacity for deterrence and managing escalation and holding accountable these actors in these places has not—we just haven’t developed it sufficiently. And as a result, we find ourselves constantly on the backfoot. And I think as long as that is true, it is going to be hard for us to drive the cooperative aspect of the order forward, if we don’t have some theory of the case for how we manage the competitive aspect in a more effective and hard-headed way on these measures short of war.
And then the third thing that I would say is that technology is transforming everything everywhere, including our own—the structure of our economy, but also the structure of the system writ large. And I think talking about the traditional institutions, alliances, and partnerships without having an understanding of the role of technology in its military and security dimensions, in its economic dimensions, in its impact on democracy, as we have seen in the West, that is a really profound set of questions.
And the way that I look at it right now is you’ve got technologists who are experts and you’ve got policy people and strategists who know about policy and strategy, but a huge gap that is not currently being covered between those two things where we have not fully integrated the complexity and the insanity of the speed with which things are happening on the technology front into our decision making. And the lag between policy and technological innovation is getting greater and greater, at a time when it has to get—has to get smaller.
So those are three things that I would say: Let’s take on those challenges. Let’s stare them squarely in the face. And let’s try to do better on them. And that will help us effectively contribute to a more effective and sustainable order going forward.
KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. We will now go to members for questions. Let me just remind people that this meeting is on the record. So if you ask a question, it can be reported on by the reporters in attendance. Also, please stand, wait for the microphone, and state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question. We’ll start in the front row here.
Q: Thank you. Ray Tanter, the American Committee on Human Rights and Iran Policy Committee.
Thank you for your article on human rights. And I’ve been a champion of your kind of values. On the Iran Policy Committee side, I’m somewhat of an optimist. And the optimism comes from the fact that the chaos I think creates an opportunity for this group of institutionalists—and I call Pompeo and Mattis and Bolton institutionalists—an opportunity to change the president’s mind. They have the political confidence of the president. And so I’m optimistic that there will be a recertification in mid-May, and secondly he will not withdraw from the Iran deal, and thirdly values will creep in—back into American national security policy. That’s the question. (Laughs.)
KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s a lot of optimism. (Laughter.)
MARGON: Wow. I’m not sure I share your view, but I appreciate your optimism.
Q: Thank you.
SULLIVAN: So my piece is somewhat counterprograming. That’s like counterprogramming to the counterprogramming in a way—(laughter)—with an even greater level of optimism. You know, it’s an interesting question that you pose about Pompeo and Bolton, because both of them are hawkish in their stated commentary and their policy suggestions from the Hill, and from Bolton’s previous experience in government. I would say hawkish to the point of being rash and reckless. But at the same time, both are deeply political men, who I think also are considering their place in this orbit around Trump. And I think those two—those two sets of through-lines for Pompeo and Bolton are going to pull in opposite directions on certain issues—North Korea being one of them.
You know, Bolton has written as recently as a few months ago that we are not only—not only should go we go to war, but we’re legally authorized to have a preventive war against North Korea. He’s made no bones about the fact that we should rip up the Iran nuclear deal straightaway and get about the business of changing that regime. But at the same time, he’s coming in wanting to make sure that he has sway with the president, and that he’s not running completely counter to where the president’s instincts are. Now, I think on North Korea, that probably means he holds back. But I’m not sure on Iran, because I think that on Iran the president’s instincts are to tear this thing up. And Bolton and Pompeo I believe will both play into that and not pull back off of it. But we will find out very soon which of us is correct.
I hold out the possibility that Trump just declares victory and says I got this or that out of the Europeans. That is possible. But I have to say, right now I am on the side that thinks we have to prepare for the outcome that he walks away from the deal in May.
MARGON: Can I just add to that? Sorry. I mean, I think—I think what we’re seeing is a hardline pivot to the right, likely because of the midterm elections that are coming up. If you look at Pompeo’s record from when he was a congressman, but some of it even continued as CIA director, it’s pretty appalling. He is so dramatically anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim and bigoted, anti-woman. He goes to extra lengths to support legislation that was repealed before he became a congressman.
And he endorsed torture. He said the program shouldn’t have been rescinded. And while he did say some appropriate things about upholding the law in his confirmation process, he went twice—not once, but twice—while he was CIA director to talk about, well, maybe if we had to use other interrogation mechanisms we would look at the law again. He did it at AEI and he did it at Aspen, which is not an accident. And so that gives me great pause because I do agree, he is an institutionalist. And I think he will fill those positions that have been empty, and perhaps hamper U.S. foreign policy from being more effective and more damaging with individuals who have a similar mindset. And Bolton, I mean, I think that’s a dangerous duo right there.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We got a question in the back.
Q: Thank you. Paula Stern, The Stern Group.
My question is for you, Jake. The multilateral system, you sounded very optimistic. I didn’t hear the word trade. And we are in the midst of a very active initiative by this president to take unilateral action and to disregard those agreements that we have made, starting with, of course, the TPP was thrown out, et cetera. But now we’re at this 232 steel and the tit for tat with China. I know the liberal order is not a popular word, but maybe rules and playing by the rules might be a little more popular? I’m just wondering where you fit that into what sounds like a rather optimistic view of where the United States and the world order has arrived here in 2018. And I would say, and a question ask you to address the trade issue.
SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah, for me, you know, the key word is resilience or durability. I guess that’s two key words. (Laughter.) More than it is that I think everything’s going great. Because I think Trump represents a threat to all of these systems that I do think have, by and large, worked to the advantage of the United States. And he is threatening them. But I think the system is resilient in absorbing some of those shocks. That is not going to be true forever, but it’s going to be true to a point.
How does trade fit into that? Couple of observations. First, it’s true that Trump pulled out of TPP. It’s also true that the 11 countries in TPP moved forward and reached their agreement with a minimum level of variance from the agreement that the United States had negotiated with them. And did so with a notion that they are now going to take the mantle up of moving forward the rules writing in the Asia-Pacific region that will itself put some pressure on China and other more illiberal actors in the trade space.
So then there’s question of NAFTA. I think if the president pulls out of NAFTA, it would be a massive self-inflicted wound. And do we believe that there should be an update to NAFTA? Of course. Now, a lot of that was contained in the TPP. But nonetheless, if this ultimately ends up with some modification, some improvement on NAFTA, fine. If he actually pulls out of it, which I think the Congress will try to stop him from doing, so there’s institutional checks here in the United States, that would be really catastrophic. But I think that there is a reasonable chance the system will be resilient there as well on NAFTA.
Then there’s the trade spat over 232 and 201. Here, I think fundamentally this is a test of whether or not my basic observation about resilience is right, or the caveat I offer comes through. Which is, there is a chance this all goes up. I mean, the president holds in his power, both on the security side with starting wars and on the economic side with starting trade wars, to blow the whole thing up if he wants to. But I think there is also a reasonable possibility that a system of constraints will come into play that will keep this from completely going out of control, that they will start working a negotiation, and that we will end up with Trump having done some damage, but not incalculable or irreversible damage. But that could be wrong.
My point is, the longer he has to test this proposition, the higher the chance that sometimes goes catastrophically awry. And if the American people reaffirm the Trump approach in 2020, I think that will be fundamentally changing to the way the entire system operates and the set of expectations and relationships that get restructured. But I would argue that for now, if all of us stay focused on trying to hold him accountable from taking the most catastrophic actions, we can have some influence on that. The system can have some influence on that. And it may be that we can get to 2020 and not be in a place where we have to say, well, the America is era is gone, and Trump helped kill it, and now we’re onto something else. But we can get back to the business of doing what we should be doing.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Question on the right.
Q: Charlie Stevenson, SAIS.
I have a political leverage question for Mr. Sullivan. The Republican-controlled Congress actually rejected all but 6 percent of the proposed 30 percent cut in international affairs spending. What conditions do you think Senate Democrats could seek from Mr. Pompeo that would justify their support for his nomination?
SULLIVAN: Well, I start from the position that, for the reasons Sarah said, that Mike Pompeo is not the right person to lead the State Department at this time. So it’s a little bit hard for me to answer the question what’s the horse trade to kind of put him in that place. But I would say this, that in the course of those hearings, in addition to coming back around at Pompeo on the list of things that Sarah laid out, we need to hear from him very directly on the degree to which if he’s confirmed he is going to be committed to strengthening rather than hollowing out the State Department, the diplomatic base, and the foreign affairs budget. And to the extent he starts going wobbly on that, I think Senate Democrats need to look at Lindsey Graham and other Republicans who have been champions for continuing the funding and the 150 account and say: What are you going to do about this right now? Now, not later, now, to make sure we don’t end up in the same circumstance going forward?
Now, I think Pompeo is the kind of person who’s going to get up and say the right things about this stuff. But the question is, if he’s confirmed, how do you make sure that he is locked into those commitments in ways that he doesn’t try to reverse later, as he has done on some of these other issues. And that’s what I would be advising members on the Hill to be thinking about.
MARGON: Just my addition there is that he’s a tea partyist. I wouldn’t expect him to give very much on the budget at all. He would probably endorse what comes out of the White House. So I don’t think—it’s a great waste of time to try to extract commitments from him on the budget. There’s a whole number of other things they can extract commitments on, including some of the issues I raised. One of my big concerns if Pompeo is confirmed is, and Bolton goes into the office on April 9th, is that we start to see some kind of Muslim Brotherhood sanction, which was circulating—you may all remember—in the early part of the administration. I think that could be deeply, deeply, deeply damaging to U.S. relations overseas and to a number of political parties that the U.S. has supported in countries for many years.
I think the better thing to do is just talk to Congress and say: Keep doing what you’re doing. Stand up and push back on this. This matters. The U.S. has a role to play. The Syrian humanitarian budget, I learned yesterday, is only 7.7 percent filled, total globally. There are so many people in need. If that budget is only filled at that tiny percent, you can imagine what would happen if the U.S. foreign affairs budget is cut even more. So I don’t even think it’s worth engaging in extracting commitments from State Department. Just talk to Congress.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Question here.
Q: Good evening. Shariq Zafir (ph) with ODNI.
Jake, I was struck by your point about connecting foreign policy to middle America, and that part of the country between New York and LA known as America. What’s the role of—beyond the federal government, sub-state actors, mayors, governors, Republicans and Democrats, in promoting American global engagement?
SULLIVAN: Yeah, well, I mean, we’ve seen, you know, in living color in the last year efforts on the climate issue that have been quite striking. There’s something now called America’s pledge, where a collection of mayors and governors, along with private sector actors, are basically trying to say: Here’s how we’re going to pool our efforts and our regulatory requirements to get as close as we can to America’s Paris commitment of 26 to 28. So there are specific issues on which I think mayors and governors have a role to play to advance the basic modes of cooperation around the world on these transnational issues.
But there’s something else too, which is to basically send a message to the world that says: Donald Trump is the president. He’s the commander in chief. You know, we’re not violating the Logan Act by negotiating on his behalf instead of him. But we can tell you that there is a different picture of America than the one that he is presenting to you when he goes out there and says what he says and does what he does. And that that picture of America is one in which the American people believe in an engaged, principled, effective foreign policy, and cooperation with the rest of the world to solve big problems and overcome big challenges.
And that that’s a thing, that is there, there is a reservoir of that in the United States. And I think every person who travels abroad, especially people with stature—the mayors, the governors, the other political leaders—should be driving that message home. And I mean Republicans as well as Democrats. And it shouldn’t be about partisan. It shouldn’t be about just attacking Trump. It should be about saying: You know, we’ve got things to do to better align our foreign policy and this core mission of strengthening the middle class in the United States. And we know that. But at the same time, the American people do not buy into the idea that we should just throw up a bunch of walls and pull up the drawbridge and go home. Some do, but most don’t.
And I think that all of us have a role to play in this. And I know it’s hard for us to travel abroad and think about are we going to engage in a conversation where it’s, you know, are we going to criticize the president versus say, oh, it’s going to be OK, versus say it’s all going to hell, you know? I think we have to—and part of the reason I wrote this piece is I think we have to have a certain level of self-confidence about what our country is capable of, because no one else is going to have that for us. And our adversaries have a lot of confidence right now. And people who want to detract from our values and our interest have a lot of confidence right now. And so I think we should be reflecting and expressing that as much as we possibly can.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Jake, can I press you quickly, since the middle-class point is in some ways at the heart of the crisis of the order that you identified. Can you say, as you have started to think about this challenge, what that means in policy terms—foreign policy for the middle class? Where does that really take us?
SULLIVAN: So just as an example, on trade policy, the way that trade policy gets set right now, by and large, is through chapters in trade agreements. And those chapters, whether it’s to do with data flows and technology or pharmaceuticals and IP or foreign investment provisions for American companies investing abroad, have constituencies built to press for what’s going to be in them. There is not a good mechanism right now to step back and actually define America’s economic interest beyond a collection of these special pleadings, so to speak, to say: OK, how does this actually get at the core question of wages and income stagnation and how are we trading off between jobs in import-competitive industries and making the world safe for corporate investment? We’re not having that conversation in a sustained way. So that’s on trade policy.
Then you have to look at international economic policy beyond traditional FTAs and trade policy and see that some of the biggest threats to America’s competitiveness going forward simply aren’t even covered by the WTO in any way, whether you’re talking about currency issues, you’re talking about state-owned enterprises which TPP began to press on, or you’re talking about a variety of different forms of barriers behind borders. We have to think about what is a strategy going forward that doesn’t just think about trade narrowly, but thinks about a series of market abuses that put American workers at a disadvantage.
And then the third thing is that constituencies for a strong, engaged America abroad I think have to think a lot harder about how they’re package an argument for trade and international economic policy with investments domestically. And I think that’s true for both Democrats and Republicans, and not say let’s do the trade stuff and the international econ stuff, and all that other stuff will get sorted out later by someone else. I don’t think that’s good enough anymore, for those of us who believe that the United States has to continue to play an effective, engaged role in the world.
And so thinking about the link between these two things around the Situation Room table, from my perspective, really matters. And, by the way, almost every other significant country in the world integrates international economic policy and international security policy to a much more significant extent than the United States does. And it’s time for us to step up and do that.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We have time for a couple more. We’ll go here on the right first.
Q: Natalie Liu with Voice of America.
If we were to take the situation on the Korean Peninsula as a case study, does President Trump and his team, for that matter, deserve any credit in terms of both style or manners of conduct, as well as substance?
SULLIVAN: Well, I believe the Trump administration deserves credit for having increased the sanctions pressure and brought the U.N. along with them. Those Security Council resolutions are real. They have been meaningful. They have resulted in greater pressure. And as somebody who was part of the effort to do the same thing with Iran, I know how hard that can be, how painstaking the work is. And we have seen some results from that. And I think that that is one of the factors playing into Kim Jong-un’s calculus at this point.
My quarrel with the administration on North Korea policy does not lie there, where I think they have done a credible job. It lies in converting the leverage we’ve built up into actual diplomatic progress that is something more than a Donald Trump kind of pageantry and photo-op exercise, which I think is what he has in mind when he thinks about meeting with Kim Jong-un. I don’t think he’s really thinking through all of the pitfalls and challenges that lie ahead. Nor has he built a team that is able to go execute on any kind of diplomatic play. No ambassador to South Korea, no confirmed assistant secretary for Asia, no negotiator with North Korea in place right now.
So this troubles me greatly. And at the same time, they are continuing to think about and lay the groundwork for the potential of the use of military force in ways that I think could end up being incredibly destructive and damaging. So I do think that they deserve credit on the pressure side, but pressure only counts to create the leverage you convert into diplomatic progress. And it’s at that conversion point that I have not yet seen signs that they are ready. And I’ve seen a lot of signs that they have actually been removing the tools they need to be able to effectively carry that forward.
KURTZ-PHELAN: We have one more before—in the back there.
Q: Thanks. Jeff Pryce with SAIS.
So for Jake, I read your piece. I agreed with just about everything in it. But the one thing that I would have liked to have seen is something more of a—over an overarching political narrative. So I had the fortune of what I used to call the first Clinton administration. And there was a thing called the Project for a New American Century, which like make America great again, tended to accomplish the opposite of its stated goal. But we also had a narrative, which everybody understood, which was about expanding the community of liberal democracies. And that seems to have gone out of fashion. I mean, you saw the president of Estonia, 1.3 million people, standing up the other day and saying we believe in democracy, human rights, the rule of law. And it seems to me that that kind of a narrative is an essential part of any successful foreign policy. That’s my view. What do you think?
SULLIVAN: I think you’re 100 percent right. I mean, obviously I was writing a piece in Foreign Affairs trying to grapple with some of these kind of crunchier issues of modes of cooperation and the like. So I didn’t think it was the right place to say, OK, how do you take these arguments now and have a story to tell the American people that mobilizes their support for greater engagement along the lines you’ve just described. And I think that is deeply necessary. And part of my argument is that as we head into 2020, I hope that for Democrats, as they go through this primary process, that one of the things that all of them are held to account for.
Because foreign policy tends not to play in these primary fights in a very significant way, that they’re held to account for not just giving specific answers on what they think about the Iran deal and North Korea, but that they are asked, you know, what is the fundamental mission and purpose of the United States in the world, and what are the tools we’re supposed to be using to get from here to there? And I don’t think that we’ve been having the conversation at that fundamental level the way we should have. In a way, Donald Trump gives us a nice opportunity to go back to basics and have it, because he has challenged almost every one of the fundamental premises which need to be—some of which need to be restated and some of which need to be refined.
But your basic point is absolutely correct. And could I sit here right now and tell you something that I feel very confident that’s the winning message? I could not. I could not today. But it’s something I too am struggling with, thinking, OK, how do you now convert the observations and arguments and call to action I made into something where I’m not having someone come up to me at the end and say I don’t know the liberal international order stuff, from Ohio. I think you’re onto something really important.
MARGON: Just to add to that, I think that in the next couple of years, and certainly before the midterms, one of the important things that has to happen is we need to see that conversation at the local—in local media, not just in the newspapers but on the televisions, in the—you know, on radio, because that creates and understanding and awareness, and it sort of primes the pump for that conversation to happen in 2020 in a very different way. Foreign policy is rarely part of that conversation.
But if you look at the number of people that came out to protest at the women’s march right after Trump’s inauguration, I think there is a ready and willing body of people—middle class, not middle class—that are ready to get together. But they need the information. We used to say years ago, you need to feed the beast. They need to understand what the issues are. And so, you know, we—Jake and I—have colleagues that have gone to Michigan, Ohio, all these sort of what, you know, you used to call the flyover states. And they’re sitting down and they’re trying to talk not just to universities, but to—at libraries, to bring people in with them, and sort of say: Here’s what we’re talking about. Here’s what we’re doing. I’m going to bring the Swedish ambassador. I’m going to bring the Norwegians. These are not strangers. These are good people. These are who matter in our world too, it’s not just your tiny community.
So that needs to happen at a significantly—a significant uptick. But it’s hard to do. There used to be a campaign, U.S. Global Leadership, to get Americans more aware of the foreign aid budget, right? It’s 1.7 percent, the foreign aid budget. Everyone thinks it’s 45 percent and it’s eating away at our infrastructure development. That campaign was a 10 year in the making campaign to create an awareness. And it still required tons of military generals to get out there and say, look, foreign aid matters. I need, you know, development not bullets. This is really helpful to me. Diplomacy not bullets. So it’s a longer process that needs to happen, but we can start it now in a coordinated fashion. And it can be foreign policy, rule of law, human rights. This is what America stands for. This is enshrined in our Constitution. Let’s take that out and make it not American values. Let’s make it universal. We all matter. It all matter.
KURTZ-PHELAN: I highly recommend both of their pieces, as well as the others in the issue. Thank you so much, Sarah and Jake, for being here. And thanks to all of you. (Applause.)