Dean, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University; Adjunct Senior Fellow for African Peace and Security Issues, Council on Foreign Relations
C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Deputy Director, Foreign Policy Program, and Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy and Energy Security and Climate Initiative, Brookings Institution
Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations
LINDSAY: Good evening, everyone. As Irina said, I’m Jim Lindsay, the director of studies here at the Council. It is my great pleasure to welcome all of you here to CFR’s College and University Educators Workshop. Tonight is the opening plenary session. Before we begin our conversation, a couple of logistical items. Most important one is I want to remind everybody that tonight’s meeting is on the record, and an audio and video recording of the event will be posted on CFR’s award-winning website, CFR.org. I’m contractually obligated to mention that three times, one down two more to go. (Laughter.)
It’s my great pleasure to be on the panel with my co-panelists. Before I introduce them, however, I want to do a shout-out to Irina Faskianos, who opened up with the opening remarks, because she is a truly remarkable human being. She has done a tremendous amount of work to make tonight happen. She leads a terrific team. So if you could just join me in thanking Irina for all of her hard work I’d appreciate it. (Applause.)
I’m going to introduce tonight’s panelists. You have their complete bios. I’m going to do a brief introduction of each for people who are going to be watching this video later on to know who it is that is on the panel. I am going to introduce them alphabetically.
So we’ll begin in the middle with Ruben Brigety. Ruben is dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. Ruben is also an adjunct senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he works on Africa peace and security issues. He previously served as the U.S. representative to the African Union, and permanent representative of the United States to the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.
To my immediate right is my colleague Liz Economy. Liz is the C.V. Starr senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, where she directs our Asia Studies Program. She’s also currently a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She has written widely on China. Her most recent book, it’s a really terrific book, is The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. Not only should you read it, please note that it comes out in paperback in August, and it makes a good read for your students and your courses, if you’re doing anything related to China or Asia.
And on the other side of the podium from me is Suzanne Maloney. Suzanne is senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, where she is also deputy director of the Foreign Policy Program. Now, she previously served as a member of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s policy planning staff. She is the author of Iran’s Political Economy Since the Revolution and Iran’s Long Reach. Iran is a pivotal state in the Muslim world.
So please join me in welcoming Reuben, Liz, and Suzanne. (Applause.)
I want to begin by laying out our plan of attack for tonight. We’re going to engage in a conversation here for about thirty minutes, then I’m going to bring the rest of the room into the conversation. The way we’re going to proceed is we’re going to start in Africa and basically march eastward to China. And so I’m going to begin with Reuben first of all. And normally when we do global outlooks, Reuben, we often begin with crises and problem areas. I want to do something a little different here tonight and I want to take advantage of your particular expertise, having spent a lot of time in Ethiopia. Over the last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has really changed the course of Ethiopian politics, and I think it has some ramifications regionally. So can you sort of walk us through what has happened?
BRIGETY: Sure. Well, thanks, Jim. And good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Council. Delighted to have all of you here.
So in brief, Ethiopia’s an ancient country, an ancient civilization. And it’s literally no exaggeration to say that what has been happening in Ethiopia in the last eighteen months is—aspects of it are unprecedented in two millennia of Ethiopian history. The country, as you may know, was long governed by a long imperial line, the last of which His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, who was then overthrown by a communist dictatorship in 1974 that was brutal. That dictatorship was overthrown in 1991 by an insurgency led by Meles Zenawi, who was largely regarded as a visionary and certainly a crucial partner of the United States for many years, until his death from cancer in 2012—August 2012. In the six years after that, Ethiopia technically was governed by the deputy prime minister, who became prime minister, a man named Hailemariam Desalegn. But there was an awful lot of talk that Ethiopia was really governed by a ghost, and that is the ghost of Meles.
And that was meaningful in two important ways. One, because he was such a strong leader with such a strong vision for helping Ethiopia become a middle-income country, using the development state model, but also quite frankly because he was such a strong leader, and because Hailemariam, his successor, came from a smaller tribal group, there was never really any strong political backing that could help move the country forward. And at the same time, Ethiopia, like a lot of countries in Africa, was struggling with some really quite substantial youth demographic changes, as well as, quite frankly, levels of corruption that were rising, that had not been the same in the early years after the downfall of the Derg.
All this really came to a head with the uprising of the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, principally called the Oromo, in the Oromia state, to the point where there were a series of uprising around the capital and around the country that were put down with various degrees of violence by the—by the government, to the point where in January of 2018 it almost felt like Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, the diplomatic capital of all of Africa, was about to fall. And then something happened that hadn’t happened in 2,000 years of Ethiopian history. The sitting ruler of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned, voluntarily, while still alive. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: The tradition is to resign after you’re dead?
BRIGETY: (Laughs.) And—but no. That created the space for a new ruler to be, in this case, appointed by the ruling party, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali. And people in Addis were talking about Dr. Abiy in this—he’s like a combination of JFK, Ataturk, and Jimmy Graham all rolled into one. Honest to goodness. People talking about him as the savior for a variety of reasons, one because he came to power talking about love, about the importance of stitching together all the various ethnic groups, but also crucially because he was talking about finally making the kinds of economic changes that needed to be made and creating openness for political space that hadn’t happened before.
So I could talk—we could talk all night about the changes, but it’s important to say that Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in all of Africa. It’s the second-fastest growing economy in the world this year, according to the World Bank. Last year it as the fastest growing economy in the world. It occupies a vitally important strategic space in East Africa. And, quite frankly, all of Africa is watching with bated breath to see whether or not these reforms can actually take hold.
LINDSAY: So let me sort of ask you this question then: Can we tell a similarly optimistic story, at least hopeful story, about other significant countries in Africa? And I think, most notably, of Nigeria, of South Africa, Kenya?
BRIGETY: Not yet, is the short answer.
LINDSAY: So which of the three worries you the most then, if you’re worried at all?
BRIGETY: Oh, gosh. (Laughter.) I’m going to give a counterintuitive answer and say South Africa, and I’ll tell you why. It should be Nigeria, because of the size of Nigeria, because of Nigeria’s importance to the security of all of West Africa, and because of the precarious nature of contemporary Nigerian politics. But Nigeria always feels like a bus with the wheels about to come off. So in that sense, yeah, it’s worrying but it’s always worrying. So is it really much more worrying now than previously?
Kenya is stable for the moment. The Jubilee Party under President Kenyatta has won another election successfully. He has made peace with his rival, Raila Odinga. There are serious security concerns in Kenya that are rooted, quite frankly, not only in the rough neighborhood it’s in, but also in issues of corruption in the security services. So, for example, Kenya doesn’t have—Kenya and Ethiopia have the same—roughly the same size of ethnic Somali Muslim populations. And yet, they have not been anything close to being destabilizing in Ethiopia like they have been in Kenya.
South Africa really worries me because the expectation level amongst the population is so high relative to the returns of the government since the end of Apartheid. And one can easily see a government that—where things really start to unravel, where—in fact, you’re already starting to see it, in terms of the ability to deliver services, in terms of the downgrading of the credit rating of South Africa. Fortunately, Jacob Zuma is no longer president and Cyril Ramaphosa clearly has the right ideas. But it’s a really—first, he has to deal with the politics internal of the ANC, which is not fundamentally reckoned with its contradictions since the death of Mandela. And then, secondly, has to figure out how to get the economy truly moving again. So for all those reason South Africa worries me the most.
LINDSAY: OK. I want to shift the focus from individual countries to regional governance. And I want to take advantage of the fact that you were ambassador to the AU. And, by the way, you very kindly hosted us on a delegation. Thank you very much once again. Could you give us a sense of how well the AU, the African Union, is functioning, given that it was designed to replace the Organization of African Unity, which was seen to have failed in many of its missions?
BRIGETY: Sure. Let me shamelessly plug—(laughter)—a debate that I gave at the Oxford Union in January, where the Oxford Union debate resolution was, quote, “This house would embrace an ever-closer African Union.” Just Google: Brigety Oxford Union. You’ll find it. I completely nerded out. Something I’ve always wanted to do. It was a great honor to be invited to a debate. (Laughter.)
But the basic argument that I made was that on the one side the AU was, without question, stronger than its predecessor organization, the Organization for African Unity. Two, that one of the great underreported stories in the world right now is that as multilateral organizations are under pressure and questioned in other parts of the world, most notably the entire prospect of European Unity, in Africa it’s actually picking up pace, both with the strengthening of the AU—just today Ethiopia registered its Articles of Signing the treaty that would create the Africa Common Free Trade Area, which now with Ethiopia signing is now real, creating the largest free-trade area in the world, geographically and also by number of people.
But the caution I would make when thinking about the AU is comparing the AU against some platonic ideal either of what it should be, or what international organizations as a whole should be. And as I said in the Oxford Union debate, if one took that approach with the, for example, questions of liberal democracy, one might take the state of the current British Parliament and reject the notion out of hand. (Laughter.) So I am optimistic about the AU, with one big caveat. And that is, the AU will only be as good as the leaders of African states want it to be. And there are always incentives both to invest in the organization and also to disinvest in it.
One last thing, just this last week CFR hosted the new president of the Democratic Republic of Congo Felix Tshisekedi, an event that I moderated in Washington. He’s come out swinging against the AU in favor of regional organizations. Why? Because the AU questioned the legitimacy of his election—appropriately, right? But nevertheless, when he’s around his other heads of state and has questions about the legitimacy of the organization, will it be in his interest to weaken it or not? We’ll see.
LINDSAY: OK. We’re going to get back to you, Ruben. I want to move onto the Middle East.
Suzanne, I guess where I want to begin is in the Persian Gulf. I think it’s safe to say that the Trump administration has, from day one, put Iran in the crosshairs of its foreign policy. It is applying a policy of what it calls maximum pressure. Among other things, it has also left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. Part of that effort of putting pressure on Iran seemingly is to back to the hilt the government in Saudi Arabia. We’re going to talk about Saudi Arabia in a minute, but I guess could I get you to begin by giving us your assessment of whether or not this maximum pressure strategy is going to pay off?
MALONEY: Thanks, Jim. And thanks to you all. I’m really looking forward to the conversation here tonight. And tough act to follow, Ruben.
In terms of Iran, I think what we see with respect to the administration’s approach is a tactical success and a strategic stalemate. Tactical success in the sense that the administration opted to walk away from the deal just about a year ago, a year ago early May, over the objections of even many Republicans, who were opposed to the deal, and Democrats who’d been opposed to the deal. Certainly over the objections of all of the other parties to the deal, which of course included the rest of the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany.
And there were a lot of trepidations about exactly what might happen in the aftermath of that decision to spurn an agreement that was more than a decade in the making that had at least deferred, if not permanently resolved, the very urgent concerns about an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. And so there were many people who anticipated, on the one hand, that Iran would seek to find ways to retaliate against American interests and assets. There are certainly a number of places where they have the capacity and the opportunity to do that across the Middle East. That, in fact, the sanctions might not be terribly effective because of the opposition of so many of the other states that had been party to the economic pressure that led up to the deal in the early part of this decade.
And in fact, on both those counts I think what we found is that, as I said, it’s a tactical success. The sanctions have been incredibly effective. No sooner had President Trump finished his speech last May announcing his withdrawal than companies were really running for the exits. And in fact, many had not returned in full force to Iran simply because of the concerns about the existing residual sanctions that had been left in place on Iran, and increasingly about the concerns of the commitment of the Trump administration to the deal. So the economic impact on Iran has been pretty drastic.
There have been predictions just this week that Iran’s economy will shrink by 6 percent over the course of this year, which is extraordinary. There has, you know, been an enormous hit to the value of the Iranian currency, which has played out on the pocketbooks of ordinary people. There are product shortages of foodstuffs and all kinds of other required goods, and ration lines that stretch around buildings in much the same imagery that we saw during the Iran-Iraq War.
It’s also been a tactical success in the sense that the Iranians haven’t retaliated across the region in any more significant way than they were already engaged. And they haven’t walked away from their obligations under the deal. So in effect, what the Trump administration has gotten is Iranian compliance with some nonproliferation objectives on the cheap.
But where I say we’re in a strategic stalemate is I think because of both the lack of clarity about what the administration is, in fact, trying to achieve with respect to this pressure on Iran, and because of the fact that fundamentally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will, within not too many years, begin to expire in terms of the restrictions, and we are in absolutely no position now to mount a diplomatic campaign to work with our allies and partners to address that issue.
The Iranians appear to be trying to kind of hold out and wait out the administration. It’s unclear to me that they’re actually going to be able to do so. But if they were, they could in fact put themselves in the driver’s seat, because they approach a new either Democratic or a second term of the Trump administration in early 2021 with an arms embargo having expired, only a couple years away from the sunset clauses that were the most urgent element of the administration’s concern about the deficiencies of the deal. And to be very close to being on their way to having an internationally recognized and legitimized nuclear program, and no real cohesion in the international community to actually address that.
So I think we have a diplomatic crisis on our hand. It’s very slow-moving. And of course, this is an issue that has compromised our long-standing transatlantic relationship and hurt American leadership, as Jim has written about and can talk about in greater depth than I can.
LINDSAY: Let me ask you about the other side of the Persian Gulf, our support for Saudi Arabia. Again, clearly this administration is backing the government in Saudi Arabia, particularly the young crown prince MBS. But I would say the crown prince has shown himself to be rash if not reckless, whether we’re talking about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the detaining of the Lebanese prime minister, the war in Yemen. Can you sort of walk us through whether or not this decision to throw our weight behind Iran makes sense?
MALONEY: Well, I’d suggest that, first, it’s not wholly inconsistent with past U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia. There’s a tendency, in part because of the optics of this administration and some of the rhetoric that’s deployed, to sort of see everything in a very different light than it might have been in the past. But in fact, every American administration over the course of the last sixty years has sought to maintain a close alliance with Saudi Arabia. Has avoided, if at all possible, public criticism of the kingdom and its leadership, has avoided any real pressure on the kingdom to address some of the internal issues, particularly to push for democracy even at the height of the freedom agenda under the Bush administration, Saudi Arabia was a nonissue.
But it’s clear that the Trump administration has given a sort of free pass to Mohammad Bin Salman, the very young—in his early thirties—crown prince who has launched, as you suggested, a number of reckless foreign policy adventures across the region, beginning with his orchestrated intervention in Yemen as intended to try to cauterize Iran’s very initial attempts at that stage to gain a beachhead there, and to begin to harass Saudi Arabia through proxies on its southern border. In fact, by doing this—by doing so, what MBS has created is a long-standing humanitarian crisis and a conflict which is not going to abate, irrespective of what the Saudis are able to accomplish there. And what they’ve done is to entrench Iranian influence there as well.
And we can play this out in a number of other arenas: His decision to persuade the Lebanese prime minister at the time to visit Riyadh and to announce his resignation under what was clearly duress. At the same time, he was holding hundreds of businessmen effectively as hostages, to try to force them to consent to some kind of anti-corruption efforts that involved large throwbacks of millions of dollars to the Saudi state. And, of course, culminated with the Khashoggi murder. What we don’t see is a learning curve on the part of MBS. And that, plus the sense that he has a blank check from the Trump administration, I think has created some very dangerous dynamics.
The one constraint that I think we are seeing applied is coming out of Congress. And that is, again, a product of a kind of long-standing history. There’s always been a greater skepticism, if you harken back to the 1970s, from within Congress about the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It has, of course, become intensified by developments over the course of the last several decades, particularly 9/11, and the conviction on the part of many Americans, and certainly many of their legislators, that Saudi Arabia had a role in spawning the extremists—Islamic extremism that we’ve seen play out in a number of different areas.
And so I think what we’re seeing now is a much more activist Congress. This is one of the few bipartisan issues. Even some of the president’s most loyal supporters on the Hill have been critical and have been very active in trying to put pressure on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And I think we’re only at the very early stages of that.
LINDSAY: OK. Normally when we talk about the Middle East, we talk about the peace process. I will note that the peace process seems to be—what’s the kind word I can use for it—moribund. (Laughter.) Not only has the Trump administration thrown its weight behind the government in Riyadh, it clearly has backed Prime Minister Netanyahu, who just apparently won his fifth term as prime minister. This administration has moved the embassy—the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. It has recognized the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that when he is—continues his term in office, he’s going to annex settler-occupied areas of the West Bank. So I’ll ask you the big question: Is the two-state solution now officially dead?
MALONEY: I think it has been all but dead for years now. And what we’re now seeing is really just the declaration and the eulogies written formally, without any clear sense of what comes on its wake, because obviously there is no one-state solution that we will see the international community mobilize behind, at least not in the short term. But the president’s close association with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own shift over the course of his political career—from what had been a centrist position to a much more right-wing position—in part reflects a shift within the Israeli body politic. And I think a sense of weariness with the very concept of peace processing, or the prospect that one could even find a solution to this long-standing conflict.
Nonetheless, the actions of the Trump administration, whether it’s the recognition of Jerusalem as the formal capital of the Israeli state, or what we now, I think, should come to fear, that annexation will be the kind of deal of the century that President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have in fact promised over and over again, leads us I think to a situation in which we’re in a much more dangerous scenario. And what it also does is—to bring this back to the Gulf and where we started—is it will certainly corrode what had begun to be a creeping normalization between Israel and the major Arab powers—at least those powers in the Gulf. The tacit cooperation on military, and security, and intelligence matters had become all but open.
And I think that there were many who saw an opportunity to weave, in part through the opposition to Iran, in part because in fact the issue and the community concern about the Palestinians had long since abated in favor of a number of other issues on the Arab street. There had been this opportunity to create a kind of new Middle East in the sense that we’ve been all striving for decades now. If inf fact what we see is not a serious attempt to bring about a Palestinian state, as I think we all expect, we have now, once again, sacrificed an opportunity to see a more normalized relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
LINDSAY: OK. Liz, I want to talk about China.
ECONOMY: OK, let’s go.
LINDSAY: And based on reading your book, Third Revolution, it seems to me we can’t talk about China without talking about Xi Jinping. He has just begun his second term. I don’t know if it’s his last term.
ECONOMY: I doubt it. (Laughs.)
LINDSAY: It’s clearly his second term. So help me understand, what did he accomplish during his first term? And what do you see him trying to do, now that he clearly has consolidated his power?
ECONOMY: So, thanks. It’s great to be here, have the opportunity to talk about China. And I really look forward to the comments and the questions a little bit later.
Look, I think by anybody’s calculation Xi Jinping has had a kind of banner first five years, based on what he wanted to accomplish, the sort of steps that he’s taken, and what we now see as he’s sort of halfway through his sixth year in office. I think he can tick off across the board, both on the domestic front but also in terms of foreign policy, really he’s had a transformative impact. So, you know, on the face of it, what has he—what has he managed to accomplish?
I think first, at the home front, certainly he’s managed to consolidate power. You know, he sits on top of all of the most important committees and commissions that oversee, you know, broad areas of Chinese policy. He’s launched an anticorruption campaign that has only become more robust year after year. So it’s a shocker. You know, anticorruption campaigns are, you know, part of Chinese history, dating back centuries. But usually they last for a year or two and then they kind of, you know, peter out. But Xi Jinping, every year more Chinese officials have been punished than the year before. I think this past year, 2018, it was up to 621,000 officials that were punished for corruption. The year before it was 527,000. So it’s really quite extraordinary. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think corruption was really his primary—was at the heart of his sort of initial, you know, speeches when he first took power. That was what he wanted to address, and I think he’s really made a pretty significant stab at it.
He, of course, you know, managed to abolish the two-term limit for presidency. And that is also an extraordinary accomplishment, because that was instituted by Deng Xiaoping in 1992 as a mechanism of ensuring some form of orderly succession. And actually, the Chinese at the elite level and through the broader populace took a lot of pride in that, right, because it was sign that they were not simply, you know, one among many authoritarian dictatorships, right? They knew that at some point in time at least the presidency, if not the general secretary of the Communist Party or the chairman of the Central Military Commission—which are the other two most powerful positions—that at least the presidency would turn over after ten years. But he managed to get that abolished. So he’s really consolidated his personal institutional power in ways that I don’t think anybody could have anticipated. Having said that, I will add a caveat that institutional power, of course, does not equate to political legitimacy. And I think there are plenty of pockets of discontent and dissent within China. And we can talk about those later.
I think the second major accomplishment on the domestic front really was the reassertion of the Communist Party into the Chinese society and into the Chinese economy. And that was another thing that he put out there at the outset of his first five years, was that he wanted a robust Chinese Communist Party at the forefront of the political system. And so you can look at everything from the surveillance system that he’s put in place, you know, some two hundred cameras capable of facial recognition. He wants to get that up to six hundred million by 2020. But they’re doing voice recognition and gait recognition, how you walk. Just in case you have plastic surgery, they want to be able to track you by how you walk. You know, I think that’s extraordinary. The social credit system. I’m sure you’ve all read about that. It’s gotten a lot of attention in the Western media. But, you know, this is really—this harkens back to the Cultural Revolution, again, something that I don’t think we would have anticipated happening in China today. But really a marriage of Cultural Revolution, naming and shaming, with the advanced technology that China has, right?
So basically tracking and scoring Chinese citizens, sort of giving them scores based on their political and economic trustworthiness. So do you—did you participate in a protest? Your score goes down. Did a friend of yours participate in a protest? Your score will go down, right? An ingenious way of bringing social pressure to bear on your friends and neighbors.
LINDSAY: And what happens if your score goes down? What are the consequences?
ECONOMY: So as of now, there are forty pilot projects underway. So there are different metrics being experimented with in different parts of the country, and different kinds of punishments and rewards. But some of the punishments—for example, you don’t repay your debts, right, you can’t board a plane or a high-speed train. There’s some twenty-three million Chinese who can’t basically get out of the country at this point. So that’s one kind of punishment. It might be—again, a reward might be that you can jump to the front of the line at an airport, or that you can rent a bike without putting down a deposit, or that you can get a child in to the best school in the—you know, in your region. So different rewards, different punishments. But the same principles apply. And we’ll have to wait to see, you know, there’s not going to be a national program in 2020—which is when they’re going to have a—so every part of the country is going to have one of these social credit systems. There will be regional differentiations, but I expect that as the program becomes more intense and the metrics become—sort of go deeper into people’s personal lives, like at one point one place was experimenting with how many hours of videogames you’re playing on your phone, right? Something else they’re going to track. And too many hours—
LINDSAY: Is more better or worse? (Laughs.)
ECONOMY: Yeah, what do you think? More is worse.
LINDSAY: I don’t know.
ECONOMY: And that will lower your social credit score. I think the more intrusive that the party becomes in this regard, the more pushback that they will get.
I will note that when I was doing the research for the book I interviewed about fifteen just random people in 3Q, which is kind of the Chinese equivalent of WeWork. It’s a really cool space and filled with sort of twenty- and thirty-something-year-olds. And I asked them: What do you think about the social credit system? And one of them didn’t know what I was talking about. But most of them—the vast majority of them favored it, right? And one young woman said to me: You know, we don’t have much trust in China outside the family. And this social credit system is a good way for us to know how to trust people, which was just a good reminder to me that, you know, we in the United States may have our own ideas about what we want for privacy, and our personal space, and other political cultures, as I’m sure everybody in this room is aware, you know, have very different conceptions. So I think that was—you know, that’s another way in which the party has become obviously much more intrusive.
Certainly we can look at what’s going on in Xinjiang as the most extreme example. But also, you know, in the Chinese economy, right? Xi Jinping has really favored the state in terms of over the market. And so he’s enhanced the role of the party in state-owned enterprises, but also in Chinese private enterprises, in joint ventures, really looking to make them extensions of the state so that he can push his economic agenda, not only through the state-owned enterprises but through private enterprises and joint ventures. So I think on the home front he’s made a lot of progress, right, in terms of both the consolidation of his own power, in terms of strengthening the role of the party throughout society.
I just had one of China’s top scholars of the United States in my office a few days back. And I asked him about that app, right, where you study Xi Jinping thought and party doctrine. And I said, do you really—
LINDSAY: Do you have that app?
ECONOMY: (Laughs.) Do you really—have to—I don’t want the Chinese, like, evaluating me on that. I said, do you really have to do that? Because I kind of thought, you know, it doesn’t necessarily apply at a certain level. You know, certain people can kind of be exempt. And he said absolutely he has to do it. And he has to report to the party secretary of his university, which I won’t name, on how many hours. And his score is examined. And that then goes further up the chain as well. So, you know, that kind of thing is, you know, not attractive to many Chinese.
So let me just say I think—we can talk about foreign policy later, but I think—
LINDSAY: But I want to talk about it now.
ECONOMY: Oh, you want to talk about it now? OK.
LINDSAY: I want to talk about it now.
ECONOMY: OK. All right. Well, let me just—
LINDSAY: I got these great questions to ask.
ECONOMY: OK. Well, I’ll just say I think on the face of it he’s made a lot of progress on the domestic front. But I do think that there is a degree of backlash on the political side, and also as the Chinese economy is slowing, I think that also works to undermine his political legitimacy. I think that is the one thing over the next year or two, that if the economy does not rebound, that could really bring a lot of political pressure to bear on him, because having made himself sort of emperor king of everything, everything then does redound to him. And so I think that is the one thing that could force him to have to take a step back from his sort of primacy position in the leadership.
LINDSAY: OK. So let me ask you about foreign policy. I actually have two questions, but I’ll do them one at a time. First question, Belt and Road Initiative. This is sort of the big Xi Jinping initiative overseas. Is it working for China?
ECONOMY: Yeah. So mixed bag, I would say. I think initially, you know, Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road—or, One Belt, One Road, as the U.S. government calls it; but everyone else calls it Belt and Road Initiative—in 2013, in a set of who speeches. One in Kazakhstan and one in Indonesia. And the idea at the beginning was really about connecting China through to, you know, the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa through hard infrastructure—pipelines, and railroads, and highways—as a means of both reclaiming a sense of Chinese centrality, you know, recalling the Silk Road and the maritime spice routes. But also, exporting Chinese overcapacity and helping to develop some of the poorer interior regions, connecting them to global markets. So that as the Belt and Road in its initial conception.
It has evolved significantly since then to move from hard infrastructure to satellite systems and, you know, fiber optic cables and ecommerce. So there’s a digital Belt and Road. There’s a polar belt, right, so to connect China through to the Arctic—I mean, through the Arctic to Europe. China’s welcomed Latin America into the Belt and Road. There’s a security component now, right? China has its first military logistics base in Djibouti and has control now of some seventy-six ports in thirty-five countries. And even though it says that these ports are for commercial purposes, we’ve seen that in several instances PLA Navy ships have paid port visits, right? And a lot of people are talking about China building a base in Cambodia right now.
When I was in Beijing in January, I talked with a military official at a conference and asked him: How many bases do you want? And he said, you know, a hundred, right? So I think there’s clearly—whether it’s a hundred or not—there’s clearly a sense that China is going to be—as its economy expands, as capital goes, you know, further afield, as Chinese laborers and people go further afield, also it wants the ability to secure those people, those assets. And its military is going further afield as well.
And there’s a political component. I think this is one of the issues that’s just now getting attention and is absolutely critical, that China is not exporting Communist Party, but it is exporting elements of its authoritarian system. So if we’re looking at the surveillance system for example. Now some thirty-six countries have adopted Chinese surveillance systems, have bought the technology from the Chinese companies, including countries in Latin America, like Peru and Bolivia’s looking at it. It’s training officials. It held a two-week seminar on cybersecurity for Belt and Road country participants, where it trained them on managing the internet, on how to do censorship, and how to do sort of big data analytics. So, I mean, it’s extraordinary what they’re doing actually.
So I think this kind of expansion—and Tanzania has just written its own sort of internet governance law that’s modeled on Chinese law. And Chinese officials were very active in training the officials there on this front. So I think the Belt and Road has expanded, you know, quite significantly. It’s very opportunistic. I don’t think that China had in mind all of this when it first started out. But through the economic expansion, it has also gotten, you know, security and political opportunities. So success for sure.
You know, failure maybe not yet, but, you know, about a third of China’s—you don’t know how many projects there are, somewhere between nine hundred and nineteen hundred projects. But about a third of them have been stayed of cancelled. So there’s a lot of pushback. There’s a lot of concern about the sustainability, right, the debts that are being sort of piled up in many of these countries. There are concerns about the governance in a number of countries, such as Malaysia. You know, when deals are struck with one leader, when a new government comes in they review them, find out there’s a lot of corruption, there’s a lack of transparency around the way that China does a lot of these deals.
I mean, actually, none of this is surprising. This is just exactly the way that China’s been doing business since 1999, when it had its first go out strategy for natural resources. But just the extent of this, the degree to which China has gone out has been so amplified I think that now countries are really waking up and saying: Yeah, let’s put the brakes on this. And local populaces are unhappy too because, you know, some 89-90 percent of the construction projects are being done by Chinese firms and Chinese laborers. And so they don’t feel necessarily that they’re getting the benefits of these deals on the ground.
So I think China’s going to have its second Belt and Road forum this month. I think we’re seeing some—a little bit of a step back, even as China pushes forward and signs a new memorandum of understanding with Italy. Nonetheless, think there’s a pretty significant call within China, especially among Chinese economists, for China to stop—to take stock of the projects, and maybe to not push forward with so many new, but to consolidate and to rethink some of the sort of larger strategy.
LINDSAY: I want to bring everybody else into the conversation, but I said I had a second foreign policy question. So if I can get a quick answer to this—
ECONOMY: Quick answer? OK, got it.
LINDSAY: How is Beijing reading the Trump administration’s approach to U.S.-China relations? Obviously you have the trade war, you have the increased freedom of naval operations, particularly in the South China Sea. How is—how is Xi Jinping and his people making sense of this?
ECONOMY: So I think there are a number of different narratives that are present in China, but I’ll be brief. I think there the narrative that this is just containment, right? That the United States is out to contain China and we’re concerned, right? China is rising, the United States is declining, sort of the last gasp of the, you know, American empire. There’s also a narrative that has been put out by Wang Jisi, who is a very renowned Chinese scholar, that says, you know, U.S. policy has changed because Chinese policy has changed—because China’s policy has changed. So there is a slightly more sophisticated understanding, I think, in many scholarly circles, that actually the U.S. response is, at some level, merited. In fact, I had one Chinese scholar say to me: I’m just glad that the United States now sees China for what it is.
And then, frankly, there is a narrative among many liberal intellectuals in China that Trump is the best thing that could have happened to China. That because he is pushing back in the way that is pushing back, he is the only thing that is effective, right, in reining in Xi Jinping’s ambitions. So, you know, on the trade war, they were grateful to President Trump for pushing back in the way that he did. So there are really many narratives within China about, you know, why the U.S. is doing what it’s doing, and sort of the impact on China.
LINDSAY: OK. At this point I want to bring the rest of the room into the conversation. We have a practice here. We ask you to stand, wait for the microphone to arrive, please identify yourself, and ask a question. Let me remind everybody that this meeting is on the record and is being videotaped. It will be shown on CFR.org. That’s number two mention. I got one more to go. (Laughter.) OK. So and you can indicate that you wish to be called on simply by raising your hand. You don’t need to stand up yet.
Go to this gentleman right here, in the middle table in the middle of the center. Someone could bring him a microphone.
Q: Right. We good? OK.
Suzanne mentioned that one of the people who—one of the groups pushing back on U.S. Middle East policy is Congress. And I wonder if you and maybe Jim could both talk about sort of the pendulum of power between Capitol Hill and the White House over the first two years of the Trump administration. Kind of how has—has Congress been effective at pushing back here? Or has it kind of been all show and no real effect?
ECONOMY: Identify themselves.
LINDSAY: OK. Could I ask you to identify yourself? Liz is reminding me to do my job.
Q: I’m sorry. I’m Scott—
LINDSAY: She does this often.
Q: I’m Scott LaDeur. I’m from North Central Michigan College. Thank you.
MALONEY: I think where we’re seeing it most dramatically is on the question of Saudi Arabia. It predated the midterms, but the pushback has obviously been intensified and accelerated by the fact that you now have a Democratic House. And as I said, this concern about the Yemen War, and the sense that there’s an opportunity here for the United States—which has played a key logistical role in the prosecution of that war—to actually shape a better outcome, rather than simply try to support the Saudi-led—Saudi-Emirati-led campaign. So I think that’s one issue where the Congress is going to continue to maintain its focus and probably have some real effect. We’ve already seen resolutions passed to cut off support for the war. I think there has been—there have been no new arm sales introduced to Congress for approval, simply because of the recognition that this is such now hostile territory.
On a number of other issues, though, it’s very difficult for the Congress to play a meaningful role. And obviously politics plays a part as well. And speaking to people who work on the Hill, even those who are dissatisfied with the president’s decision to walk away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action say they see no political upside to trying to take on the administration on Iran policy in the runup to 2020. So I think it’s going to be very selective. There will be areas where we actually see some efficacy. But in fact, for the most part, Congress has to defer to the administration in most areas of foreign policy.
LINDSAY: I agree with the general thrust of what Suzanne said. And I’m up here to moderate, not talk. So we’re going to go back to the gentleman who stood up. And we’re going to give him an opportunity to ask a question.
Q: Thank you. My name is Richard Tapia. I’m from Miami Dade College.
I just have a simple question: Can you—can you talk about the leverage, or lack of leverage, or the advantage of leverage that China has taken advantage of since the United States decided to exit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, when it comes to climate change, when it comes to human rights, when it comes to trade, when it comes to even national security with the Spratly Islands? And can you elaborate on has China been able to capitalize on the exiting of the U.S. in that trade regime? And also, does the trade war with China make up for any leverage that China may take advantage of? Thank you.
ECONOMY: Thanks very much. So you know, certainly the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific took a hit when the president withdrew us from the final stages of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And certainly I would say, let’s call it 2017, when you had Xi Jinping at Davos standing up and saying: China’s going to be a defender of globalization, and we are going to a be a leader on climate change. I think the U.S. media and much of the world was very quick to say, yes, China’s stepping into the breach. China’s going to be the global leader. The U.S. has, you know, basically taken itself out of the game.
I think, you know, since that time, there’s been a much more realistic assessment of what constitutes Chinese leadership on the global stage. And I think it has been found wanting, right? So if you look at Chinese leadership on climate change, you know, CO2 emissions in China have increased for the past two years, right? China is exporting coal-fired power plants through its Belt and Road program. Yes, it’s doing some clean energy as well. Yes, it’s doing some good work on clean energy within China. Nonetheless, it is far from being able to be called a climate leader.
In terms of whether it’s been able to capitalize economically, it has its own, and had had its own, sort of initiative, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which was not as high-end a trade agreement, certainly, as the TPP. But it has also run into a number of problems, largely due to the inclusion of India. So there’s a lot of discussion and debate around that. It doesn’t seem to be moving forward that aggressively. So I think, you know, has China managed to capitalize? Probably a little bit.
But let me just say—pick up a little bit on this issue of Congress. You know, the Trump administration is actually far more internationalist and multilateral when it comes to efforts in Asia than it’s given credit for. If you put the president aside, right, and his—all of his rhetoric and all the harm that he does in terms of our, you know, allies and partners—if you look at what the Defense Department’s doing, what the National Security Council’s doing, and the State Department, USAID, we are out there in full force. And when I travel in Asia, many countries will say it’s the best relationship we’ve ever had with the United States.
I can detail many of the programs and policies if people are interested later but suffice it to say I think the media has done the administration a disservice because at levels below the president—and Congress has been just extraordinary in their efforts to put the United States back out in Asia.
LINDSAY: I’m going to come here to the front of the room. If you could wait for a microphone.
I have a question also about Chinese foreign policy. How much has, in your opinion, the relations between China and Russia changed—
ECONOMY: How did I know you were going to ask that? (Laughter.)
Q: Yes, of course. I am originally from Ukraine, so I have to ask to specify how much has it changed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea? And do you see that Chinese are taking great advantage of the weaknesses that Russia faces right now? And is it more beyond just the personal relations that Xi Jinping seems to enjoy with Putin? Are they talking about more institutionalized forms of cooperation between the two countries?
LINDSAY: Can I actually broaden that question out? Because I get Suzanne talking a little bit about Russia’s role in the Middle East, and Ruben give us a sense to what extent the Russians are showing up in Africa? I know they’re showing up in Latin America, but I want to ask you to talk about that.
ECONOMY: OK. I’ll be quick. I think, look, Russia and China have often had coincidence of interest. We’ve seen them vote together in the United Nations for decades, right? But there has been an increased robustness to the relationship over the past several years, in particular since Xi Jinping came to power. So you know, military exercises that never took place before at the level they are now are taking place. Trade just topped $100 billion. You know, Russia is mostly exporting, you know, oil and gas to China, but I think it’s on the way—if it already is not—to being China’s largest source of oil and gas. So the economic relationship is expanding. You know, Russia was willing basically to subsume the Eurasian Economic Union within the context of the Belt and Road Initiative, right? It still exists, but really the Belt and Road Initiative is the much more overarching structure.
You know, Russia’s there in the Middle East. China doesn’t play in the same way. It plays economically. It doesn’t play in the security sphere. They—you know, China doesn’t bother Russia about Crimea. Russia doesn’t bother China about the South China Sea. You know, I think the one area where maybe there might be a little bit of conflict moving forward is the Arctic, where even though they’ve worked together, they talk a lot about investment, I don’t think that Russia’s particularly interested in having China move from being on the observer council to being a member of the Arctic Council. And China clearly has that ambition. So but I think overall the two leaders are united in their sort of opposition to the United States and have found a number of different ways to work together over the past several years. And I think each country has given an award to the other leader at this point. (Laughter.)
MALONEY: Well, Russia has become the indispensable player in the Middle East, which is an irony because, of course, for at least the past twenty to thirty years Russia had become a less and less significant actor in almost any of the major issues or conflicts that had arisen in the region. And so somehow over the course of about a five-year period, the Russians have come back and come back in an essential way. They have good, strong, constructive relationships with each of the major powers in the Middle East—Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran—on obviously an array of different issues.
And they’ve managed the tensions and conflicts between those three players, as well as the other subsidiary actors, really successfully, which of course confounds the logic of the Obama administration and many in Washington who presume that the decision on the part of Putin to intervene in Syria was going to be a disastrous one, it was effectively going to bog the Russians down in a conflict and give them ownership of something that was going to be quite costly in terms of both diplomatic capital and their own resources. It’s turned out just the opposite.
I think now there’s a recognition in Washington that in fact we have to begin to push back, not simply because the Russians have a different conception of the Middle East, obviously less interested in seeing any kind of liberalization or support for democratic progress in the region, but also because this is now an arena for great power competition between the United States and Russia. And to the extent that the Russians have achieved the upper hand in a lot of the—in a lot of key arenas, the United States has to become more of a player there. So I think we’re going to see more focus on this, but there isn’t clearly a place where there’s a lot of leverage for Washington to engage Russia successfully in the Middle East.
LINDSAY: Ruben, maybe a little bit of Russia or even also China. And Liz has raised the issue of China’s role in Africa.
BRIGETY: So with regard to Russia, the most significant thing that Russia has done in Africa is to help the Trump administration recognize that there is Africa. (Laughter.) And by that I mean, this, so the national security advisor, Ambassador John Bolton, made a speech this past winter articulating U.S. policy towards Africa. And it was steeped in renewed great power competition, as it were, for influence in Africa, noting the rising influence of China and Russia. Quite—to be pretty brutally frank, Russian influence in Africa pales to that of China. But quite frankly because, as you mentioned, Liz, that most of the Russian exports are oil and gas, the contemporary African economies don’t need as much of that right now. So what’s the nature of Russian influence? Its potentially, frankly, serving as spoilers, and helping to support security apparatus across the continent, as for example they’re doing very effectively in Venezuela, for example, right now, right?
With regard to China, I mean, look, the Chinese are eating our lunch across the continent. And I could talk all night about it. Let me just kind of give you two data points. So in addition to all of the various for a that Elizabeth talked about, there’s also something called FOCAC, the Forum on Chinese-African Cooperation, which meets basically every other year to talk about, you know, various projects between China and Africa. This past year, this past September, FOCAC was, I think, ten days or so after the U.N. General Assembly meetings here in New York. More African heads of state went to Beijing than came here to engage in New York. In fact, every single one went to China.
Let me give you the second major data point. We talked about growing Chinese military influence and other influences. And so as Elizabeth said, the Chinese have established a base in Djibouti. Here’s a fun fact to impress your students with: Djibouti is the largest residence of foreign military bases of any country in the world. Six foreign countries have active military bases in that tiny little sliver of land. The Chinese have about 2,400 troops there. Djibouti is a critically important strategic gateway into all of East Africa. Ethiopia, the second-largest country on the continent, doesn’t have a coastline. So anything that is not flown into Bole International Airport or Addis Ababa is basically shipped in through Djibouti. The port of Djibouti was built by Dubai Ports World. Djibouti this last year nationalized it, because they’re up to their necks in debt to China. And they almost certainly, before the end of this year, basically hand the whole thing over to a Chinese investment firm.
And why does that matter to us? Because the only permanent military base the United States has in all of Africa is in Djibouti, literally a stone’s throw away from this port. And this is the game plan that the Chinese are making all across the continent. And we’re going to wake up in a few years and wonder: How did Africa get wrapped and handed over to the Chinese?
ECONOMY: OK, that was brutal. But can I just—can I just ask you a question? (Laughter.) Because I’m an eternal optimist. You know, I was looking at numbers and it seems in terms of overall stock, but also in terms of last year’s investment, the U.S., since 2017, was the largest investor in Africa—larger than China by a significant amount. Is there—is there an element of, you know, China’s investment is, you know, 99 percent state directed. Ours is obviously not. Is there an element where we should just be developing a different kind of narrative, where we should be bringing together, you know, our private investment and our companies and kind of developing a story and an effort to make the case that, A, the U.S. is there, and we’re there in important and good ways?
BRIGETY: Right. So as my friend Michelle Gavin said on this stage a couple years ago: Africa’s big enough that you can find any series of fact pattern to basically support any theory you want. (Laughter.)
ECONOMY: OK, fair enough.
BRIGETY: And so there are a couple other counter sort of stats, right? I mean, so China long eclipsed the United States as the largest trading partner in Africa a couple years ago. China was the largest foreign creator of jobs on the continent, more than anybody else by a long shot. But more significantly, to answer your question, with regard to how do we get more American firms to engage on the continent, this is the entire gist of the so-called Prosper Africa initiative. I was just at a meeting yesterday with the national security advisor, now senior director for Africa, and a couple of other senior folks who are beginning to roll this out as the Trump administration’s approach to Africa.
Conceptually makes complete sense. The challenge is, how do you effectively get American companies, who are happy to take risks in Asia and Latin America, to see Africa as it currently is as opposed to, frankly, how investment boards or how private equity banks think about Africa, and therefore price risk differently? And also, quite frankly, see the nature of opportunities. Seven of the ten fastest-growing economies on the planet are in Africa. And yet, American companies don’t seem to see the opportunity in the same way they’ve seen in other parts of the world.
LINDSAY: Can we go back to the lady in the way back.
Q: Thank you. Emily Blout, University of Virginia.
Q: Thank you. Thank you. It was all me. (Laughter.)
Just to continue with the doom and gloom a little bit—I’m sorry, Elizabeth—but this is actually a question for all the panelists. And it’s regarding Iran, that’s my focus and interest. But really I wonder about—can you talk a little bit about the relationship between Iran and China, and how that might be mirrored also in Africa, in terms of, as you said, the development of internet and technology, and the dependency of whole populations on this technology and infrastructure, following the Chinese pattern? Is there a relationship, for example, in Iran, especially with the American pullout and the collapse of the Iran deal, and the reimplementation of sanctions? I wonder what role is technology and internet playing in those kind of relationships?
ECONOMY: You know, honestly, I don’t know whether Huawei has already spread through Iran or not. And I don’t know whether the Chinese are in there training the Iranian officials. I think maybe you do, Suzanne. It would not surprise me. And certainly the U.S. sanctions are—that is an area where it has left an opening for China. I just don’t know the extent to which the Chinese—the Chinese have business efforts underway. They’re very active, not only in sort of trying to do major investments, but also on the ground with smaller business people, you know, and the sort of small enterprises in Iran. So they’re there, but I don’t know the answer to whether or not they’re there in the context that you’re discussing. But maybe you do, Suzanne.
MALONEY: Well, Emily, you may know this answer better than any of us do, because of course we—this has been the subject of some of your work, or at least the Iran and communications. But I’ll just note two things . One is that in my experience in Iran, technology has been second to personal intervention and exposure. So I was in Iran at a time where there were—when there was a lot of upheaval. I was trying to report back on that to folks in Washington. This was literally twenty years ago. And I was worried about doing it from internet cafes. And someone explained to me, they’re less likely to be filtering your or actually sort of monitoring what you’re typing, than having someone looking over your shoulder. It’s just cheaper and easier for them. (Laughter.)
Second point is just, yes, I mean, there’s an enormous economic relationship between the Chinese and the Iranians. It has come with some backlash, in part because of the experience during the sanctions—the prior round of sanctions, when the Chinese came in and backfilled projects in which the Europeans and other firms had pulled out of, and often slow rolled them or in other cases crowded out domestic Iranian industry. And this is one area, the tech sector, where the Iranians are actually really well-positioned to manage their own—their own concerns. So they’ve been looking—on a project, as you know better than I do—of trying to nationalize the internet, trying to get greater control over information technology all around the country.
But the difficulty, of course, is that Iran was an early adapter to all sorts of technology and has this incredibly well-educated population. There are twice as many SIM cards as there are Iranians. There’s a lot of facility with kind of evading filters. And so I’m more optimistic that Iran can avoid a wholesale implementation of the Chinese model, either through important from China or through domestic imposition, simply because you have a fairly tech-literate population.
LINDSAY: We’ll go right over here.
Q: Hi. My name is Sara Mitchell from University of Iowa.
And I study territorial and water conflicts. And so I wanted to ask something to each of you about water conflicts that are going on. So with respect to Saudi Arabia, Egypt sold the Tiran and Sanafir Islands to Saudi Arabia. So I’m wondering about what you think about that in terms of control of that waterway. With respect to Ethiopia, I’m wondering about how the leadership change is affecting negotiations over the Nile. And then I’m wondering about maritime militias, really following the use of fishermen as an expansion of the Chinese naval capability.
LINDSAY: Who wants to go first?
MALONEY: I’ll start, in part because I don’t have a great answer to your question. What I would point out is that, you know, it was seen across the Arab world as—a non-answer, but I’ll admit that from the outset—it was seen across the Arab world as a capitulation in the way that signified the changes in the broader geopolitical dynamics across the region. That if you think back twenty, thirty years, the idea that, you know, you’d have an American president who was—whose first port of call would be Riyadh, whose primary relationships would be the Gulf States, who effectively—I mean, since he’s been in Washington—but effectively has been forging a regional policy in which the major countries of the Levant and North Africa are minor players, and the smaller states of the Emirates, to a lesser extent Qatar, certainly the Saudis have become the major drivers of policy across the region. I think this was emblematic of it, and it also speaks to the fact that you have a Saudi effort to try to impose its will on its neighbors, and that has left a lot of bitterness and dissatisfaction, including in Egypt.
BRIGETY: So the conflicts over the use of the Nile to develop the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a conflict that on its merit need not be a conflict, because if ever there were a potential win-win, like, that’s it, right? And also, quite frankly, on the one hand the use of the Nile is an existential issue for the Egyptians, as you might know. But of course, as you also know, by geography, the Nile doesn’t start in Egypt. It starts in Ethiopia. It does through Sudan and then to Egypt. And so thus, the question about who has the right to use that water source and how is a very legitimate one in international affairs. And certainly no one has a right to deny it.
Now, having said all of that, it ought to be a win-win because if the dam works and it helps to regulate flow of the Nile, helps the Egyptians actually use the water downstream—upstream, downstream—more effectively. It can help to generate electricity all throughout the region. Egyptians don’t see it that way. You may have seen that the engineer who was the brainchild behind the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was assassinated late this past spring. There are various debates about how that happened and who was really behind it. There publicly has not been as much angst between the Ethiopian and Egyptian governments with regard to the dam. The Ethiopians, to take a bit of an argument from their perspective, have been more—have been more sort of lenient in terms of increasing the time it’s going to take to fill the reservoir, to make the dam work, from three years to five years, which hopefully should decrease some of the concern on the Egyptians’ part.
But despite—this has the potential to be one of the dumbest conflicts in the world. (Laughter.) And yet, it could get really, really bad, because the Ethiopians are hellbent to leather. They will make this work. They have taken extraordinary economic sacrifices in order to make this happen. They know they need the power in order to kickstart their economy. The Egyptians are hellbent to leather that they will not let anybody potentially disrupt the flow of the Nile, for what it means for their culture. And thus, we’ll see how it plays out.
ECONOMY: Yeah, I mean, in terms of the maritime militia, look the answer is, yes. And it’s a problem that we don’t seem to have a good response to, right? So the Chines mobilized fishermen. They mobilized—they’ve got their Coast Guard and they’ve got their navy. They have a whole sort of series, right, of different levels of assets that they can call on. You know, I think in our—one of our most recent freedom of navigation operations we actually had a Coast Guard ship accompanying, you know, our naval vessel. But it’s not really a response to the ability of the Chinese, you know, fishermen to go out and swarm, right, islands. And so, you know, I don’t know what we do in response. I don’t know what the local countries do in response. But this is a significant challenge, I think, in the region.
LINDSAY: We have time for one last question. Before I take it, I want to remind everybody this has been on the record. (Laughter.) And yes, wait for it, it will be posted on CFR.org.
OK. We’re going to go to—we’re going to go over there, since I don’t think I called anybody from that table.
Q: I am Albert Celoza. I teach at Phoenix College.
Would the three of you evaluate the capacity for global engagement of the United States, considering the rapid change in personnel, resignation, firing, and vacancies, acting positions, and all those—and resignations, retirements, and all those things going on in the American foreign policy establishment? Thank you.
LINDSAY: OK. We have three minutes to accomplish this task. (Laughter.) So if my math is correct, you each have one minute a piece. We’ll go from my right over this way. Suzanne, you get first crack.
MALONEY: Tough to do in a minute, but I’ll say, you know, it’s a difficult situation but ultimately I am optimistic. I served in the Bush administration at a time when I think there was certainly not the lull that we see today but a lot of concern about how America was engaging with the world. And yet, what you see is just an incredibly dedicated group of professionals in the U.S. government who are determined to preserve American engagement and to, in fact, advance a better role in the world. So this is a low point, but I wouldn’t count the U.S. government out.
BRIGETY: I’m incredibly pessimistic. (Laughter.) I think when you not only take a look at the vacancies, as you say, when I talk to many former diplomatic colleagues around the world, they are, you know, profoundly concerned. I think the architecture of our foreign affairs platforms are taking a serious beating. And it’s especially true at the State Department. I could kick a football from my front office and hit the State Department. I’m that close to it. And so I hear from colleagues all the time about how challenging—how challenging it is there, notwithstanding their individual dedication.
I will sort of wrap up by saying that it need not be this way. And it’s not partisan either. I would highly commend to you—Google James Baker American Academy of Diplomacy. When Secretary Baker received the top award from the American Academy of Diplomacy this year he gave a speech which I consider to be the most trenchant defense of diplomacy in support of American foreign interests that I’ve ever heard. It’s a great thing for you show your students. And there have been giants of American foreign policy on both sides of the aisle. Not once have we ever seen an administration that’s taken a baseball bat to the institutions that are meant to help conduct American foreign policy like this one has. And it’s incredibly concerning.
LINDSAY: Liz, you get to cast a tiebreaking vote.
ECONOMY: I’m glad I get to, because now I get the final word and I get to be optimistic because—(laughter)—let me say, in Asia—in Asia, as I said at the outset, this administration is much better than it appears in the media. So just to give you some examples, we have the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, right, which puts the United States out there. A billion and a half dollars a year for political capacity building. We have the—and for military, mil-to-mil relations, and for advancing U.S. economic interests. We have the BUILD Act. We have the construction, unbelievable, of an entirely new agency with this administration devoted to promoting overseas investment by not only U.S. companies but also other multinationals.
We have a Congress that’s been energized on issues like Xinjiang. We have—you know, look at Ambassador Lighthizer, has stood each of the past two years with the Japanese trade minister of the EU trade commissioner calling out China. So there is actually a lot of efforts at multilateralism, at internationalism that are underway. We have a project in Papua New Guinea to bring—to electrify Papua New Guinea, with Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. And so there’s a lot going on on the ground, if you’re willing to look. And so I think if you ignore the president, even ignore some of the members of the Cabinet, but really look at the—
ECONOMY: (Laughter.) No, no, you can’t laugh. You can’t laugh.
BRIGETY: Sorry. Sorry, sorry. (Laughter.)
ECONOMY: If you look at the level of, you know, assistant secretary, if you look at the NSC person in charge of Asia, you will see not only people who are committed to an internationalist foreign policy, but people who are actually pursuing and practicing it.
LINDSAY: OK. On that note—
ECONOMY: Take that.
BRIGETY: I didn’t mean any disrespect. Well, done. Sorry. (Laughter.)
LINDSAY: We are going to stop on that note. If we have one rule here at the Council on Foreign Relations is we end when we say we’re going to end. I’ve actually violated that. I think I’m two minutes over. I know there are a number of people who had questions I did not get to, but I think that is just a testament to how thought-provoking and informative my guests have been tonight. So please join me in thanking Suzanne, Reuben, and Liz. (Applause.)