Human Progress and the American Military: A Conversation with Mac Thornberry

Tuesday, May 7, 2019
Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
Mac Thornberry

U.S. Representative from Texas (R); Ranking Member, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives


Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs

Congressman Mac Thornberry discusses his views on how American military strength has built and supported the liberal international order, and why continued global engagement is integral to the continued existence of that order. 

Click here to view the slides from this presentation. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Good morning, everyone. We are very welcome to have Mac Thornberry with us today for breakfast. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. I’ll be presiding over the discussion today. I’m going to briefly introduce the congressman, he’s going to talk and do his presentation, which he will—he will give you a bit of background on. I’m going to take the opportunity to ask him a few questions, and then I will throw open the floor to all of you for anything you want to ask in reaction to the presentation or anything else. All of you have a longer bio in your packets, but I’ll highlight a few things.

Mac Thornberry’s from the 13th District of Texas. He is currently ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee which, as most of you probably know, oversees the Pentagon, all military services, all DOD agencies, including both budgets and policy. He chaired the Armed Services Committee from 2015 to 2019. And on the committee before he’s been a really central player and really prominent voice on this whole set of issues. So we’re lucky to have him today. He also, I should note, worked at the State Department early in his career working on legislative affairs during the Reagan administration, is that right, under Secretary Shultz. So he has seen this from both the DOD side and the State Department side. So with that, I will hand it over to the Congressman, and we’ll go to Q&A from there.

THORNBERRY: Well, thank you, Dan. I appreciate y’all taking the time to come and visit a little bit this morning. And I ought to say at the beginning I very much appreciate the work that the Council does. I certainly benefit, and have for a number of years, not only as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations but as a member of Congress, from the work that goes on associated with the Council.

What I wanted to do today was to offer some of—probably an abbreviated version of some remarks that I am trying to make around the country outside of Washington, primarily to business community leaders, about what we’ve done and the choices before us. So this is not really designed for folks who live and breathe foreign policy and defense every day, but as I was just saying a few moments ago it is perfectly consistent and on-topic with the latest—the leading articles of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. So I wanted to go through this right quick and then, as was mentioned, see what y’all’s reaction is and, of course, be happy to talk about anything else that y’all would like to. Make sure I can work this thing.

Let me start with a question. Do you think the material quality if your life is significantly better for you than it was for your parents and grandparents? For most Americans they say: Absolutely. And if you take just a second to look at the data, it confirms that. This is life expectancy in the U.S. and the world. We are living about eleven years longer in the United States today than we were in 1950. And life expectancy in the world is 23.4 years longer than it was in 1950, just after World War II. If you look at extreme poverty, it’s been going down. But I want to point out, there’s an elbow there where it sharply starts to go down. And that year is about 1950.

This chart pulls a lot of different things together. This is GDP per capita, both the United States and the world. And, again, you can see it humming along, industrial revolution has a trajectory upwards, but there’s something that changes between 1945 and 1950. It gets a little squiggly, but you see dramatic uptick, especially for the United States in what happens. Another way to look at it is how much of our income do we have to spend on the things we want to spend on. This is how—the percentage of income Americans spend on the basics—housing, food, and home, transportation. Again, since World War II it has been on a steady decline, giving us more money to spend as we like.

And just looking briefly beyond material wellbeing, number—share of humanity living in democracies up, and then we had a backslide, again, 1950 dramatic increases. Countries that have equal rights for women to vote dramatic increase. Again, look at the trajectory change, about 1950. Let me inflict one more on you. This one I can’t read but I’m taking somebody else’s data. This is share of world’s population that have died as a result of conflict going back to 1650. So lots of ups and downs with different wars, but what’s hard to see but is true at the end is you see something that is different form the historical pattern. You see battle deaths and total deaths decline at the very end. It is not part of the historical pattern.

Now, some people say that all these changes are the inevitable result of human progress, of scientific discoveries, of a more enlightened way of looking at the world. But then it’s pretty hard to explain what happened in the first half of the twentieth century, when the number of democracies went down, when approximately 120 million people died in two world wars, and the word saw a sort of cruelty and barbarity that most people didn’t really even—couldn’t imagine. So the point is, history tells us that civilizations can and have moved backwards. The progress of the last seventh years that we saw in those charts is not something inevitable. Something changed.

And my argument is what changed was the United States made two crucial decisions after World War II. One was to stay engaged in the world and the other one was to have a strong military. That was counter to our historical and geographic inclinations. But we did engage, by establishing the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, the U.N. We went help to Europe through the Marshall Fund—I mean, the Marshall Plan. We kept our troops in Europe and Japan, created the Department of Defense, and the Central Intelligence Agency, became a founding member of NATO.

So why did we do all of that when it was especially contrary to our views and inclinations before that time? I think the answer is that we finally realized that isolation and weakness had tragic consequences. It was the shock of World War II, a culmination of both wars, that led us to do something different. And y’all well know the story that we didn’t want to get involved in Europe’s conflict, got drug into World War I, came home—helped win and came home afterwards—and went back to our old ways. Refusing to engage in the League of Nations and weakening our military. But when evil returned, as it tends to do, no one stood up against it in time. And that led to World War II, and it led to this sort of devastation, not only among the losers but devastation among the winners as well.

Now, things have not been all sunshine and roses since 1945. We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve had disappointments. But I think it’s hard to argue with the fact that life is better and longer here in the United States and around the world in the last seventy years than it has been before. Robert Kagan describes what we decided to do in The Jungle Grows Back as an act of defiance against both history and human nature. And I believe that those two decisions, to stay engaged and to keep a strong military second to none in the world, have been the crucial elements that have allowed all of the rest of this progress to occur. One of the things we’ve learned over the last eighteen years in Iraq and Afghanistan is if you don’t have an appropriate security environment your best intentions and money and programs cannot be effective. So you have to have the security environment for the other factors to take effect.

The reason I think it’s important to remember all of this is that both of these decisions that we made—to stay engaged and to have the strongest military—are under attack in both political parties today. And we face a world with lots of challenges, but yet those two decisions are being questioned. I won’t go through the challenges we face with Russia, China, Iran, North Korea. As we had to learn again on Easter Sunday, terrorism is not gone. We also face threats in a number of domains. This is what we primarily focus on on the Armed Services Committee. We think of land, sea, and air, but of course these days it’s also the domain of cyber and the domain of space that we have to pay attention to.

So we have to—have to deal with a wide range of actors and a wide range of domains. We can talk, if you want to, a little bit about the state of our military. As always, the most important part are our people, who are amazing. But there are, as you’ve seen probably, recruiting challenges and other sorts of difficulties that make getting and keeping top quality people—especially if you’re competing with Google and others—a real challenge. When it comes to weapons and equipment, we have largely been coasting off of the buildup of the Reagan years. Most of that is wearing out. And that is presenting some bills that are all coming due at the same time. And that is part of what we are grappling with currently with the Armed Services Committee.

A major issue of our focus now are future capabilities. Russia and China are focusing in on some key areas—hypersonics, counter-space, for example. So we can’t leave what we’ve done, but we still have to prepare for the future—artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing. And we have—I will say, we have one problem Russia and China don’t have, and that is when some centers of innovation in the United States decide they want to rise above it all and not do business with the American military. Hopefully they will continue to be a very small minority, but it is a challenge for us that others do not have.

We have a key asset that others don’t have, and that are our allies. And you put it all together, how much does it cost to defend the country? It costs 15—one-five—percent of the federal budget. And as you can see from this chart, about three—less than 4 percent of GDP, which is—other than a couple of years around the year 2000, just before 9/11—this is the lowest level since World War II of our domestic product—of our domestic wealth that is being used to defend the country.

As I mentioned, both of these key decisions—to be engaged, to have the strongest military—are being questioned in both parties. And I don’t argue that you shouldn’t look for improvements, that everything has been perfect, but I do argue it would be a mistake to walk away from the key pillars that have led to such remarkable historical progress. We’ll never know what the last—what the last seventy years would have looked like if the United States had made a different decision after World War II, if we had decided that we would again come home, that we would not participate in international organizations. I believe, however, that the last seventy years would have been darker, uglier, more dangerous. And I also think that’s a pretty good description for what the future will be like if we make that decision at this point.

Whichever nation, whichever set of values sets the tone for the rest of the world matters. And it matters a lot. I’m sure y’all are probably aware of what China is doing with this system of monitors and camera that can track everything from personal finances, social media activity, credit history, health records, online purchases, people that you associate with. They’re even putting sensors on school children, not only so that they can make sure they go to school, but they can—they have one on each shoulder so they can make sure they stay awake during school. And then you get points for good behavior. And those points can, among other things, affect the job you get, where you can live, even whether you can go to the front of the line at the hospital emergency room.

When someone crosses the street—when someone crosses the street, a nearby billboard can light up their face and number so that everyone around there knows that this is someone with bad numbers—a bad social credit history and beware of doing business with this—with this person. It is truly a system of authoritarian monitoring that no science fiction writer could have imagined just a few years ago. And yet, according to the New York Times a couple weeks ago, they have already sold some parts of this system to sixteen other countries. If that’s the standard, the world becomes a different place.

Another example of why it matters who is the leading nation, of course, is the South China Sea. This shows crude oil flows. But studies show that about one-third of global shipping goes through the South China Sea. If you—if China succeeds in turning it into a Chinese lake, obviously the economic stranglehold they place on not just countries in the region but countries around the world, is enormously troubling. Now occasionally, as you know, we’ll send a ship through there to try to make the point, no, these are international waters. But we have such a shortage of ships, especially given the vastness of the Pacific, that we can’t do it very often.

So what can we do to make sure that it’s not China or anyone else that helps set the rules for international structures that determine whether civilization is able to move forward or not? My answer is that we affirm the two key decisions that we made after World War II. And that is, we have to stay engaged and we have to keep a strong military. And I think in many ways we’re at a crucial decision point. The late Charles Krauthammer wrote a decade ago that nothing is inevitable, nothing is written, for America today decline is not a condition, decline is a choice. And Richard Haass has written: If we—if we make this path, it will be the first time in world history that the leading power has abdicated. And that is a choice as well.

So, again, as I’m going around the country talking with community leaders and others, we talk about, OK, what can you do to help influence whether the United States makes the right choice or not? I have three simple suggestions, and they apply to everyone in this room as well as the other rooms around the country. Number one is to be careful about what you read and share. We know in great—in significant detail from the Mueller report what the Russians tried to do in the 2016 election. We know that they tried to intentionally pour controversy on controversial issues to divide us, to distract us, and to undermine our willingness to be engaged. Well, if individual Americans are a target in the way somewhat that civilians were a target of bombing in World War II. But this time, if we’re each a target in social media, the new can be part of the defenses by thinking critically, double checking, not just automatically forwarding, being careful about social media.

A second thing we can do is help educate and remind each other about what America has done. I’m sure y’all have seen studies that show that the American people don’t really know our history very well. You may have seen last fall there was a study that found more than half of the people they surveyed could not pass the basic citizenship test that we give to new immigrants who come here. There was also a survey last fall that found that 60 percent of those surveyed did not know who our adversaries were in World War II. Now, just think about that for a second. Even if it’s in the ballpark of being right, not only does that reflect a gap in historical knowledge, it’s a gap in moral knowledge. If you don’t know about World War II and what happened and the atrocities that were committed, then you don’t really appreciate the way that civilizations can go backwards, what man can do to his fellow man.

So all around the country people are concerned about schools, about what we’re teaching our young people, about not—them not knowing about the American history and what we’ve accomplished. I’ve come to believe that that’s really important. But what’s just as important is the person who do know who we fought in World War II have a responsibility to remind each other about what we’ve done and what it took, the sacrifice that has been made. We’re at a point, just as one illustration, where 16 percent of the people currently serving in the U.S. House of Representatives and 18 percent of the people currently serving in the Senate were there on 9/11. Sixteen percent and 18 percent were there and remember that day and especially the very challenging decisions that had to be made as to what we were going to do about it.

Now, in the years since, I will say, we’ve had some remarkable people who have served in the military who have come to Congress in both parties. But I can tell a difference from those people who were not there and how they see terrorism and the challenges we face than the people who were there. President Reagan said: If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. And I think, if I could summarize this—my concern in one sentence, that would be it. He also said, all great change in America begins at the dinner table. Well, most of us visit a dinner table now and then, and have the opportunity to, again, educate and remind about America’s story, about what we’ve done, about the sacrifice that it took to accomplish what we’ve done. And I think we have a responsibility to do that.

The third thing that I think we can all do is remind those who work for you in Washington—your congressmen, your senators, and others—about what’s at stake, and press them on what they’re doing. I’ve had thousands of constituent engagements during the time I’ve been in Congress. I cannot remember one time that somebody asked me: What are you doing to preserve the international structures that the U.S. built after World War II? Every once in a while I’ll have somebody ask me: Are you doing enough to support the military? And that’s a fair question. But y’all are about to have, I suspect, a parade of presidential candidates who come through New York and the Council on Foreign Relations.

Obviously there are people running for House and Senate, people who are already in those offices. They need to be asked these questions, because I can tell you from personal experience, during a typical day you have people pulling you in a million different directions. And it’s very easy for us, just as it is for all of us, in the flood of information that comes at us in the moment, to kind of—it’s hard to step back and look at the bigger picture. But congressmen and senators work for you and need to be reminded that your livelihood, your business, whatever you care about depends, in part, upon international security and international prosperity that is made possible by our being engaged in the world and by a strong military.

So I did an internet search, the way we all do, and it turns out 116 artists have recorded songs on 100 albums that have the words: You never know what you’ve got till it’s gone. And again, I think that’s another good summary for what we’re talking about. I believe, as Madeleine Albright said, we are the indispensable nation, that we’re the greatest force for good. But I believe Americans have benefited from the last seventy years more than any other people. The world has benefited, but we have benefitted most. And yet, we’re at a crucial decision point.

Margaret Thatcher used to say: First you win the argument, and then you win the vote. There’s not going to be a vote tomorrow or the next day in Congress that make this decision for us, but the argument is happening all across the country right now, in the campaigns, in social media, in editorial boards, about whether we are going to back away, allow our military to weaken and atrophy, or whether we are going to commit to stay engaged in the world and keep the strongest military. My bottom line is that much is riding on this decision, and that the people in this room and the people across the country are going to help us make that decision. And I pray that we make the right one. Thanks. (Applause.)

KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you, Congressman. You’ve given us a lot to both think about and worry about, I suppose, in that presentation. Maybe we should have everyone tell a CFR staff member who we fought in World War II as they’re leaving the room, just to make sure we get 100 percent hit rate in this crowd.

I’m going to ask a few questions, then I will throw it over to all of you. You know, my first question relates to a moment you referred to a few times in your presentation in the 1940s, when the United States really took on the leadership role and built many of the structures that still really underpin our foreign policy today—whether our alliances or international institutions. One thing that was very striking about that moment is that there was a bipartisan effort to sell that vision to the American public.

I wrote a book about George Marshall, so I’ll refer to him specifically. When he was out trying to promote the Marshall Plan to a lot of the kinds of audiences you’re speaking to around the country—business groups, civic groups of various kinds—he worked very hard to bring Republicans along with him. He was serving in a Democratic administration. He made sure to give Senator Vandenberg, Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, equal credit for the formation of the Marshall Plan.

It’s striking that there is not that kind of bipartisan spirit in Washington, or at least not evident to those of us outside of Washington today. So I’m curious how you see the task of promoting this kind of commitment to a strong foreign policy and national security policy, given partisanship. Can we do it, given how partisan everything has become?

THORNBERRY: Yeah. Great question. Side note for a second, isn’t it remarkable what they did after World War II? I mean, I realize—or, I make the point, they were shocked into it because of the devastation of World War II. But if you step back today and look at all the decisions they made, the institutions they began, and especially how, against our history, and inclinations, and culture it was, it’s in a way like a second founding. I think it’s remarkable. And the key feature of the last seventy years has been that what they began has had bipartisan support. Presidents of both parties, Congresses with majorities of both parties have supported those key decisions that were made. And there’s been ups and downs. And there’s been, you know, some outliers in both parties. But the broad consensus of the middle has been right along the line of what those folks did in the late 1940s.

So, yes, we can continue to do that. And I think that today there is still a broad bipartisan support for those two—to stay engaged, to keep a strong military—in Congress today. I think it exists. But you’re exactly right, the forces of partisanship are stronger now than they’ve ever been. And the danger is you’ll have Democrats say: If Trump’s for it, I’m against it. I mean, that sort of partisan reaction—and it goes the other way too. And so I worry about the—as I mentioned, first you win the argument then you win the vote. The argument is happening. And you can see it play out most clearly right now within the twenty-whatever people running for president on the Democratic side. But it’s happening in the Republican Party too. And so with both parties you have this debate. And that’s why I think this is really a time for folks around the country to weigh in on it.

They—so the bottom-line answer to your question is: If people around the country demand that we keep a bipartisan approach to national security and foreign policy, it will be that way. If they’re too busy with their lives or distracted by their social media to engage, then I don’t know where it’s going to end up.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Another striking thing about the late 1940s is there was a threat, there was fear that was driving a lot of this. It’s striking, as you talk to people in Washington, that there is real bipartisan consensus around China, I think, at this point. And there are disagreements about what exactly to do about it, but I noticed that Senator Schumer tweeted in support of a hard line at trade talks and urged President Trump to be tough in trade talks, which I think was indicative of the level of bipartisan support for that policy. Do you see China as the kind of issue that motivates commitment in this era, the way the Soviet Union did the 1940s?

THORNBERRY: I don’t think it’s quite to that point yet. And there are certainly some elements, maybe in both parties, that do not see them as the—especially the kind of military threat that the Soviet Union was. But part of the challenge with our whole country is that China is not just a military threat. You know, we keep striving for a whole-of-government approach. China has this whole of nation approach, where they use economics and the whole range of tools available to promote their national interest. That’s somewhat more subtle. But it’s also somewhat more challenging for us to counter. But I think in general you’re right, there is acknowledgment that China is the threat to us in the bigger sense. I don’t think it’s as immediate or as motivating as the Soviet Union was right after World War II.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Fair enough. You know, you and I both served in the State Department. And there is this constant lament, or there has been since 9/11, about the over-militarization of foreign policy, over-emphasis on military solutions, more support, more funding for the Defense Department and the intelligence community than the State Department. Do you agree with that assessment, that there has been an over-militarization of U.S. foreign policy? And whether or not there is, how do we get a similar level of support for diplomatic solutions and tools alongside the more traditional security elements of this policy?

THORNBERRY: I think it is definitely true that in the last eighteen years we have relied too much on the military to do too many things. And part of the reason was because they would do it. I mean, part of the challenge for, I think, the State Department and diplomacy generally is that those tools have not been updated in a way to make them as relevant as they need to be for our current situation. And so I am absolutely for putting more resources not only into the State Department generally, but into our foreign assistance programs and so forth. But they need to—we can’t just assume that the way we have done diplomacy and foreign aid for the last seventy years automatically fits the world today.

And I guess that’s back to part of my central point. You always have to update and make improvement to the programs with which you engage in the world, whether it’s military diplomacy. (Coughs.) Excuse me. But the basic pillars, the basic principles by which you operate I think should stay the same. So just like the military has to work on hypersonics and so forth, State Department has a whole variety of ways to engage, ways it needs to update its diplomatic approach. And I think it would be more effective if it did.

KURTZ-PHELAN: So since we have a slightly different audience than you’re usually giving this presentation to, I wanted to kind of turn the line of questioning on its head, in a sense. I think when we, in settings like this, talk about this particular problem of generating support for strong foreign and national security policy among the broader population, there’s this implicit assumption that we have everything right. You know, the way we’ve managed things over the last few decades has been basically right, and that if only we did a better job of selling it to the public, everyone would understand that. What do you think we, in settings like this, have gotten wrong about strategy recently? What do we need to change about our fundamental approach to the issues in order to better response to some of the concerns that you hear from constituents around the country?

THORNBERRY: That’s challenging. I don’t know that we—in rooms like this we’ve gotten it wrong. But I do think part of our—the characteristic of the American people is a sense of idealism. So whenever we engage, we go to, you know, help in Iraq, for example. When we don’t live up to expectations, we get overly discouraged because we start out with more idealistic expectations to begin with. And so it’s that managing expectations of outcomes that I think in general probably our leadership has not done as well as it should over the years.

Now, you know, I understand you want to motivate people and explain why you’re doing it, and the principles involved. But yet, again—and that—and that appeals to our idealism. But things usually don’t work out in an idealistic way. And so I think that then leads to an overreaction going back, you know, to not be engaged. So I think it’s that swinging back and forth. And what we’ve tried to do the last seventy years that’s the biggest disappointment—but just to repeat myself for a second. But if you stand back and look at the whole, yes, there’s been ups and downs, but it’s been remarkable. And we should not lose sight of how remarkable it is.

What I worry about is that you have whole generations that have never known anything else. If you don’t know who we fought in World War II, then you don’t know what can go wrong. And so you assume that everything is going to be all hunky-dory all the time. And that’s what worries me, is that we have—and our—I’m not sure our leaders have done a—I do not believe our leaders have gone a good enough job in helping put things in context. And I think that’s one way that you can—we can all build support with the American people, is help put things in a better context.

KURTZ-PHELAN: I can’t resist the temptation to ask you one defense wonk question, given your expertise and experience on these issues, before we go to the audience. There’s a piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs by Chris Brose, who was the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, arguing that we need a new revolution in military affairs, that we’re spending money on the wrong things, buying lots of big, expensive planes and weapons systems when the future of warfare, in his view, is going to be lots of small, cheap systems, and robot swarms, and AI systems, and all of that. Do you—do you share Chris’ estimate that we need a new revolution in military affairs? And, you know, what is the next thing in warfare, as you assess it? Is it going to be hypersonic weapons? Is it going to be directed energy? What are the new frontiers that you’re focused on?

THORNBERRY: Yeah. I spent lots of hours in a small closed room with Chris and McCain in hashing through defense bills over the last several years. I think the general direction he outlines in that piece is exactly right. We have got to get away from a few very big, expensive systems—whether it’s satellites, aircraft carriers, you know, whatever it is—towards more distributed smaller, cheaper, networked together systems in every domain. And so I think the thrust of what he’s saying is right. The challenge is, you know, we’ve all heard the metaphor, changing the aircraft engine when the plane is in flight. Well, that really is what we’re talking about.

So you can’t stop doing things when we and the world are incredibly dependent on it. You can’t say, OK, I’m not going to that anymore, I’m going to go do this. You have to do both. You have to continue doing what you’re doing and transition over to the new things. And you have to do it all at the same time, which is part of the reason that I’m concerned 15 percent of the federal budget, 3.2 percent of GDP, is not going to be enough to get that done, and so it really does get, to some extent, to resources. I think the direction is right. But I worry about the transition, how you get from here to there.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Quick last question before we go to members. As you have talked to audiences who do not spend all of their time thinking about the world and about foreign policy, has anything surprised you about the questions you’ve gotten, the reactions you’ve gotten from the audience you’ve given this presentation to so far?

THORNBERRY: I don’t know that anything has really surprised me. I think the audience has—especially for older folks, they are very surprised if people have forgotten who we fought in World War II and forgotten our history, and that sort of thing. So I do think it helps alert them, maybe, remind them of how important it is to talk their kids and grandkids. So that’s part of what I’m trying to do.

But I really find that most people in the country, they think of the military as, you know, they’re fighting terrorists, they’re trying to keep Russia at bay, but they don’t relate their pocketbook, their economic prosperity, the quality of their life to what the military does. And so that’s one of the reasons I try to put a greater emphasis on that in the presentation when I do it, is to make sure everybody’s invested. It’s not just something you see on the news as you’re walking through the living room. It is your daily life, your wellbeing, and whether your children are going to have the sort of wellbeing and quality of life that you had that’s at stake in these two decisions. At least, that’s what I want to get them thinking.

KURTZ-PHELAN: All right. I have a list of questions, but I’m going to resist the temptation to keep going and go to members. Let me just remind people this meeting is on the record, please limit yourself to one question, keep it relatively concise so we can get to as many as possible. We will start there.

Q: Colonel Matt Reid, the Marine Corps fellow here this year.

You brought up the metrics post World War II, and they are significantly upward. But if you pull those metrics just across the arc of instability, I would argue they’d be a lot less significant. In the absence of the shock of, say, a post-World War II world order being established—you know, we did the clear, we did the hold axis powers out, we held massive occupation armies, and we built through the Marshall Plan. I would argue the DOD did do the clear and the hold in Iraq and Afghanistan, but we tend to just leave. So going forward, what do you see as the United States’ role? And how do we get those metrics to trend up better across that arc of instability in this era of great power competition, multipolar world, all these discussion points that are coming out? And how would you communicate that to the public?

THORNBERRY: Yeah. I think one—you highlight one of the challenges that I usually try to get into a little more depth. So in World War II we had clear enemies. In the Cold War we had clear enemies. Now, we have—we have more potential—real or potential adversaries all at the same time than we have ever had before in our history. And so part of the challenge—whether you’re talking about the Middle East or wherever—are all the other players who are involved—who want to either poke us in the eye or create space for themselves. And that is a new feature of the world we have today, which also informs what sort of military capabilities that we need.

I think directly on your question, we haven’t gotten the answer down yet. We’re doing better, however, as far as helping countries develop their security forces so they can prevent instability within their countries, to prevent that from spreading. Again, it’s not perfect, but we are better at that then were were—more economical, more effective than we were. But I don’t think we, or anybody else—well, I don’t know. Let me back up with that. Couple weeks ago I was in South America and including Colombia. So there are some real successes of what we have done in more recent years. But we have been participating with the Colombians for, what, twenty years? So it requires sustained engagement.

We have sent U.S. military folks to assist them. They have done most of the fighting and the institution building, and so forth. But we have been there, and we have been there with our dollars, with our advice, and so forth. So maybe as we think about what works and what doesn’t, that is something that there are more lessons to be learned from as—not that you can rubber stamp it in Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia. But still, I think there’s some principles there that probably we would benefit from.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Go to this side of the room, red tie right there.

Q: Hi there. Joe of Oliver Global.

My question is related to some of the sort of non-military international institutions. And so thinking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, thinking about the World Bank, where we’ve got a skeptic now in charge there, and the administration’s sort of foreign assistance requests. I know Congress has been great in sort of up-leveling the foreign assistance requests. My question is, do you think the current administration has a sort of hostility to some of the international institutions, non-military, that you were talking about being a sort of cornerstone of international stability? Thank you.

THORNBERRY: Yeah. I think they’re skeptical. And what else I think is that the current administration in many ways reflects what they believe the opinion of the American people are—or is. So if they think most Americans don’t really appreciate the benefit of foreign aid, they’re going to say: We spend too much on foreign aid. And that’s a different approach to political engagement than maybe we have had before. So the challenge for us so to acknowledge that, yeah, we could—we need to reform our foreign assistance programs so they can be more effective, to do a better job of really helping people, not just lining the pockets of some, you know, authoritarian person who runs the country or whatever—you know, whatever it is.

And then we, and this is we as in Congress, need to step up and actually make those reforms. So if it’s a contest between, you know, traditional foreign aid and I’m against foreign aid, we’re not going to come out very well. You have to be willing to step up and make reforms. It’s part of what I believe for the military. So I’m asking for more resources to be put in the military, but at the same time I have a responsibly to see that the military uses that money better. So we have the first time the Department of Defense just got audited. We are squeezing efficiencies and changing the way the department does thing. I think for those of us who believe in these institutions, and all of the good that they have done and could do, we also have a concurrent responsibility to reform them so that they are more efficient and more effective. And I think that gives us a better way to go to the country rather than just do you like the way this has been going? And, you know, that doesn’t work so well.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Go to this side. Woman in black right there.

Q: Thank you for an enlightening presentation.

Last year was the first time, or one of the few times in the last eight or nine years, that the budget was passed on time rather than having continuing resolutions. While the military looks to either stay competitive or catch up, depending on which area, on important areas like hypersonics or directed energy, one could argue that making those long-term budgetary decisions is a national security issue. So with that in mind, what are your thoughts on kind of shutdowns to drive national security at the border? How can we have a more sane dialogue around national security and the budget process?

THORNBERRY: Well, I think you’re exactly right that nearly as important as how much money we provide the military, giving it to them on time makes a big difference, so they can plan, use the resources effectively, and provide some stability. Again, we’ll never be like China, but, on the other hand, if Xi says go do this, it happens. They don’t have to squabble. They don’t have government shutdowns. They move out on hypersonics, or whatever the issue is.

So I see this—I think we can very easily get next year’s defense budget done at time at a good number. And you probably don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I think both parties acknowledge that the 20 percent cut in the defense budget from 2010 to 2017 really hurt and not only our standing in the world, but there were tragic consequences for some of the people who served our nation in the military, and that we had to turn that around. And that’s part of the reason that it was done on time this year. I think we can duplicate that, but you’re right, you can’t get all hung on other issues and other differences that there may be.

And I do worry that—let me give you one other example. I think on the border there are a lot of things that everybody agrees on. We’ve got to do—have more resources to deal with the unprecedented number of women and children coming from Central America who are showing up on our border. And if you could take politics out of it, yes, some more resources, probably changing our asylum laws, some other things could—would be things that, you know, we could call—of course you would do that. What I worry about is the knee-jerk partisanship—he’s for it, I’m against it, therefore—you know, that kind of back and forth. And I don’t know what all that will envelop, if that sort of thing continues. So, but I think we have a chance to do the—to do it again this year, and I hope we will.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to Mark Hannah.

Q: Thank you, Congressman. And it has been a really enlightening conversation and appreciate your time.

You mentioned partisanship. It seems to me that there are areas where Democrats seem to be agreeing with this president more than Republicans, specifically with his motion to make a precipitous withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. All the 2020 Democrats in the Senate—Warren, Kamala Harris, you know, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker—they all came out in support. And it was Senator McConnell that opposed this president. Bernie Sanders has been on record supporting engagement with North Korea, with a lot of people in the American Enterprise Institute and others opposing that—conservatives.

So I’m wondering where do you see opportunities for—and I think this has all been driven by the American people’s desire for a more sort of restrained foreign policy, and their disenchantment with the militarism of the past 25 years. On that, you mentioned the word engagement as sort of synonymous with military intervention. And it strikes me as intervention or active sort of military engagement being a response to a failure of engagement. So I’m wondering, what military intervention in the past twenty-five years do you think has been successful and made America stronger and more secure?

THORNBERRY: Yeah. Let me back up. By engagement, I did not mean military intervention. I mean participating in these international institutions. It means trade agreement. It means the sort of diplomacy that we were talking about earlier. Engagement means being involved in the world and trying to make things better, short of military intervention. Now, at the same time, you got to have a big stick. And the big stick is the strong military, which is there, you know it’s there, you know it cannot be contested, and that helps, I think, lead to better outcomes.

There were—what’s happening in the Democratic Party is kind of what happened in the Republican Party. So the people—remember, the people running for president are appealing to Democratic primary voters. And so their challenge is how do you differentiate yourself one from another? And that leads to this movement to the further and further left. And a somewhat similar thing happened in 2016 on the Republican side, going to the right. I do not believe, by the way, your premise that most Democrats support complete withdrawal. Those people running for president who are trying to make a name for themselves are trying—and, you know, going further to that end talk about that. But I don’t—most Democrats in Congress do not.

And so that’s why I have hopes that there is still salvageable a strong middle of Republicans and Democrats who believe in the bipartisan policy of the last seventy years and can withstand it. But I think you’re exactly right that the argument is happening in both parties about both pillars of that policy—to stay engaged. You know, a lot—I have gotten a steady stream of mail since I’ve been in office about kicking the U.N. out of the United States from my constituents. So there’s elements in both parties about—who disagree with engagement. There’s element in both parties about—who disagree with military—a strong military. And my hope is that we don’t let either fringe decide what the country is going to do.

KURTZ-PHELAN: In the back.

Q: Thank you, Congressman. Rick Niu from C.V. Starr. We founded AIG and we’re a global financial services company.

I noted that on Monday last week the State Department started an interesting new effort. The secretary’s team is developing a strategy for China based on the idea of a fight, quote/unquote, “with a really different civilization” for the first time in the U.S. history. I think you alluded to that. Quote, “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology. The United States hasn’t had that before.” And the Soviet Union, which you mentioned, and that competition, in a way, it was a fight within the Western family because of the influence on Karl Marx’s indebtedness to Western political ideas. It is the first time, with China, that we will have a great power competition and competitor that is not Caucasian. So do you agree with that assessment? And you mentioned China and how to deal with China. So what exactly should we, as a country, do with China at the tactical level, given the challenges?

THORNBERRY: I do think that there are differences in the Chinese way of looking at things, differences from us. And, you know, I learn a lot, as always, from, Kissinger’s book on China, and others who have written about the different outlook on the world that China has. And it’s absolutely true that we need to understand that better in order to compete in a variety of domains around the world. And tactically, the challenges we’ve talked about a few moments ago is that China can and does have an integrated approach across every tool available to them, including Chinese companies. And in the United States, we have trouble about getting one department to talk about department of the U.S. government, much less the sort of—and, you know, we never duplicate them. We should not try to do so. But it does present challenges because, as I said, even the Soviet Union did not challenge us economically, morally, culturally in the way that China is and has the potential to do.

KURTZ-PHELAN: We have time for one more question. Go there.

Q: Hey, there. David Litwak. I’m a tech entrepreneur.

I kind of wanted to go back to the second part of his question, because I feel like the other side—the other point is we’ve had three wars recently that haven’t resulted in a good scenario, and perhaps even made things worse—with ISIS, et cetera. And there doesn’t seem to be a comprehensive theory of change—military theory of change saying: Here’s exactly what we want to do when we want to interfere. If—I think if every conflict in the last twenty-five years had ended up with a revitalized and democratic Japan or Germany, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, right? So they have a point. And I feel like I haven’t really heard a lot about kind of what is that strategy, how are we going to change it? Is it kind of that we just don’t understand these new conflicts? Yeah, I’m curious to hear your opinion.

THORNBERRY: Yeah. I engage in a bit of this, but it is really hard for us to know what would have happened had we not done this in Afghanistan, this in Iraq, what would have happened. We can never know the answer for that. As I say, I engage in a bit of that. What if we had become isolationists after World War II? What would the world look like? What I know is that we have been engaged, for example, in Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming another base from which terrorist attacks could be launched against us. What I know is even with everything we’ve done, there’s still, they estimate, twenty-something different terrorist groups operating in the vicinity. And not all of them, but some of them, continue to have aspirations to attack us.

So I don’t—and we can—you know, Iraq is probably even more complicated because certainly our—what our assumptions going in proved false, that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. And our expectations were not realized, although I will say they’re doing better these days with limited U.S. presence to help keep ISIS from reemerging, the Iraqis seem to be pulling their country back together. I guess the bottom line to me is I don’t think you can have a blueprint that says in countries in Asia, South Asia, Middle East, South America this is how you fix them. The world is too complicated for that. And I also do not argue that we got to be engaged everywhere, that we have to fix all the problems. You definitely have to pick and choose.

But my bottom line continues to be you have to be willing to be engaged diplomatically, economically, and so forth. And you have to have a military that can act when you—when it is decided that it is in your national interest to have the military act. And to repeat myself, I do think we’re doing better at preventing those situations where we would have to directly send U.S. combat troops in. We are doing better at helping build up resilience of the local security forces, which was not really a mission that we paid a lot of attention to through the Cold War. So we are doing better there. But I don’t think there’s a blueprint that you can say: OK, this is how we’re going to approach all of these things. I mean, it requires partly historical knowledge. It requires judgement. And it requires honest communication with the American people about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. And as I said, I think if that is—has not always occurred in recent years.

KURTZ-PHELAN: That’s a good note to end on. Congressman, thank you for joining us. And good luck as you take this around the country.

THORNBERRY: Thank you. (Applause.)


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