Senator Durbin discusses the U.S. role in the world, countering historic and current strains of American isolationism, and the importance and benefit of continued global engagement.
MCMANUS: Good evening. Please take your seats, and welcome to this evening’s meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations with Senator Dick Durbin.
Senator Durbin needs no introduction to an audience like this. He has—he’s now in his fourth term in the Senate. He was elected to the Senate in 1996 after several terms in the House. He has been most impressively the Democratic whip since 2005, which means his own colleagues have elected him to that job eight times in a row.
I am Doyle McManus, Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times and also now directing the Journalism Program at Georgetown. I will be presiding today, as you know. We are going to be on the record this evening. Senator Durbin is going to have some brief opening remarks, which he will give from the podium, and then the two of us will recess to the seats, we’ll have a conversation, and we will come to you.
Senator Durbin, the floor is yours. (Applause.)
DURBIN: Thanks, Doyle. It’s an honor to be here with the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss America’s role in the world and the value—the critical value—of international engagement and partnership. Let me say a few words before I try to answer questions from Doyle and then from the audience.
I want to start by remembering a good and wise man who thought long and hard about America’s role in the world: Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, diplomat, truth-teller, connector of dots, patriot. The son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants who worked fourteen hours a day in their corner deli. Worked his way through college parking cars and washing dishes. He served under two presidents at the Pentagon and the State Department before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. And he inspired and mentored a generation of American statesmen and -women. His passing a week and a half ago is a great loss. America and the world need more Les Gelbs.
These are anxious, uncertain times for America and the world. The U.S.-China tariff trade war is rattling global markets. Russia continues to attack world democracies, aided by a U.S. president who cannot or will not acknowledge plain truth. Strongmen and nationalism are on the rise. Old hatreds are reemerging, too often stoked by opportunistic leaders. North Korea continues to test-fire dangerous missiles that Kim Jong-un undoubtedly hopes can deliver someday a nuclear weapon. Brexit is convulsing Great Britain. Climate change is accelerating at an alarming rate. The Amazon rainforest, our world’s lungs, are burning. And the president of the United States is not playing a fiddle, but close. He is rage-tweeting in the middle of the night, browbeating our closest allies, and flattering autocrats and dictators. His only guiding principle, if one can call it that, seems to be driven by ego and uninformed reaction.
For me, one of the most unsettling moments of his presidency occurred at the G-20 meeting of the world leaders in Osaka in late June. You may remember it. Just before the gathering, Vladimir Putin had given an interview to the Financial Times in which he charged that liberal democracy, quote, “has become obsolete.” Ever the KGB agitprop troll, he maliciously defined, quote, “the liberal idea,” close quote, as letting, quote, “migrants kill, plunder, and rape with impunity.”
Any other American president might have responded as the president of the European Union, Donald Tusk, did when he asked about—when he was asked about Putin’s comments. Tusk said that Putin’s remarks suggest, quote, “that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete, and human rights are obsolete.” Tusk added: “What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, and the rule of oligarchs, even if they sometime seem effective.”
President Trump, on the other hand, clearly struggled with the question. He thought Western liberalism meant California. He said that San Francisco and Los Angeles are, quote, “sad to look at” because they are, quote, “run by liberal people.” And he defended Putin for just, quote, “saying what’s going on.”
This is alarming, but not surprising. At a time when American democracy and democracies around the world are struggling and under attack, we have a president who does not understand the most basic terms of democracy and is contemptuous of the norms of democracy. He believes mistakenly that the strengths of democracy and its principles, such as inalienable right of individuals and equal justice under the law, are actually weaknesses. He embraces actions that betray our character as American people and diminishes our moral standing and our ability to lead in the world.
To make matters worse, this president also does not understand the critical importance to America and the world of alliances, especially alliances with nations that share our values. In his maiden speech two years ago to the U.N. General Assembly, an institution dedicated to finding collective solutions to global problems, he declared that every country is on its own; that alliances are held together by self-interest, not shared values.
With Russia on the prowl and far-right, anti-democratic movements on the rise, NATO is facing its greatest challenge since the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly thirty years ago. Yet our man in the Oval Office speaks of our NATO allies as freeloaders rather than partners in the most successful military and security alliance in the history of the world.
This is not only dangerous, it’s reckless. We need to defend our democratic allies, not disparage them. In his new book, General Jim Mattis, whom I respect, states a simple but powerful truth: quote, “Nations with allies thrive, nations without allies wither.”
To be clear, President Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the frustration many feel with democracy today in America and other nations. That frustration is understandable. It’s fueled by factors such as the global financial crisis; rapid, often disruptive technological change; a war in Iraq, a disastrously misguided response to the terrible attack on our nation.
What follows is not a comprehensive prescription for curing all of America’s ills democracies’ needs worldwide. It is, instead, a list of five ways that I believe the United States can and must work with other nations to solve common problems. By acting in concert successfully we can bolster faith in democracy.
First, the United States should reaffirm the Paris Agreement and we should lead the search for solutions to climate change. Today’s global refugee crisis is nothing compared to the refugee crisis that awaits if we ignore this existential threat.
Second, the United States should work with the global community to combat proliferation, and we should start by rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement in order to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That Iran nuclear agreement, worked out with the United States and the four other permanent members of the Security Council, can be amended if necessary. But to simply walk away from it makes the Middle East and the world far more dangerous.
To head off a new and dangerous arms race with Russia, the United States should ensure that the New START Treaty is extended beyond its upcoming expiration date.
Third, China is, in fact, a bad actor on trade. Practices such as forced transfer of technology and outright theft of intellectual property are serious. But a tariff war that hurts America’s farmers and businesses, and costs every American family up to a thousand dollars a year and could tip the world into recession, is the wrong response. We waged a global tariff war before. We tried it. It ended up in the Great Depression.
Our allies want to end China’s trade abuses as much as we do. Instead of going it alone, we need to work with our allies and through the World Trade Organization and force China to follow fair rules—a united effort. The president’s go-it-alone tariff war actually strengthens China’s standing among nations by allowing it to posture as a champion of global trade agreement.
Fourth, with our NATO allies, America needs to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Demand that Russia stop interfering with democratic elections. No more killing journalists and political opponents on Western soil. And Russia must respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors, vacate the Ukraine, stay out of the Baltics and Poland and every other sovereign nation.
Fifth, the United States should resume accepting refugees and adequately fund our foreign aid budget. We know the story. In 1939, hundreds of desperate Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany aboard the S.S. St. Louis denied permission to enter the United States returned to Germany, where about a third of them died in the Holocaust. In the years that followed World War II, America learned from that lesson. We set out to set the standard for the world in accepting refugees.
Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States had resettled an average of eighty thousand refugees annually under both Democratic and Republican presidents. These are among some of the most vulnerable people on Earth.
Sadly, the current administration is closing America’s doors to refugees. In the midst of the greatest global refugee crisis in history, this administration has slashed and then slashed again the number of refugees our nation will admit. Last year, the Trump administration set a ceiling of forty-five thousand refugees, ultimately allowing 22,491 into the United States. This year, they slashed the refugee-admissions target to just thirty thousand, and likely to accept even fewer. The administration reportedly is even more drastic in the cuts it proposes for next year.
This administration is also doing everything in its power to block families and children fleeing horrific gang and sexual violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And its policies, like shutting down legal avenues vulnerable families and children fleeing persecution must turn to, and terminating humanitarian and security assistance in the Northern Triangle, has further destabilized the region, leading to even more migrants at our borders. These policies must end.
We must also adequately fund our nation’s foreign assistance programs, including development and disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, to reduce the crises that drive people from their homeland. I mentioned the administration’s counterproductive decision to cut $500 million in U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle. The president’s proposed cuts and refusal to send appropriated funds in other areas are deeply troubling.
For example, the Trump administration has terminated hundreds of millions of dollars in developmental aid and humanitarian assistance for those living in the Palestinian territories. The cuts include all U.S. funding for the U.S. (sic; U.N.) Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, 200 million (dollars) in economic support funds for projects in Gaza and the West Bank, 25 million (dollars) for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.
This administration has slashed support for U.N. peacekeeping operations by 40 percent and proposed even deeper cuts for U.N. humanitarian assistance. Its budget proposal for the current year included a 30 percent across-the-board cut to foreign operations, 24 percent reduction in antipoverty programs.
As the Council on Foreign Relations has noted, it’s true that the U.S. is the world’s single-largest foreign donor in total dollars spent. When you look at foreign aid as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product, we rank near the bottom among developed countries. We are twenty-second out of the twenty-eight OECD nations. The Trump cuts in foreign assistance represent only a tiny fraction of our U.S. budget, but they inflict real, needless harm on vulnerable people around the world and on America’s reputation as a moral leader.
John McCain and Dick Lugar, both conservative Republicans, patriots, and friends, used to speak often of the power of the American idea. They understood that America’s strength comes not only from our military and economic might, but from the power of our values.
When you fly into an America airport from any other nation and look at the incredible mix of people, all Americans, waiting in the customs and immigration line to show their passports, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride in what we have achieved as a diverse nation. Multicultural democracy isn’t easy, and yet we’ve done it better and on a larger scale than any nation in history. That’s part of the American idea.
Siding with democracy over tyranny, that too is part of the American idea. When democracy protesters stand up in Moscow, Hong Kong, or elsewhere, they’re counting on Americans for support. John McCain knew this. That’s why he stood with democracy protesters in the bitter cold on the Maidan Square in Kyiv.
Sadly, President Trump does not understand these truths—these basic truths—about America. He has undermined our role in the world because he just doesn’t grasp the nature of who we are as Americans, nor the strength of alliances and friends.
A final thought before I close. Tomorrow marks the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, a day none of us will ever forget. As we prepare to commemorate this solemn day, we know that America is still threatened by terrorism, homegrown and foreign. We also face other urgent threats, including nuclear proliferation and, if we continue to ignore it, a climate catastrophe. No nation can solve these problems alone. They demand global alliances and concerted global cooperation and action.
The scene that is burned in our memories from 9/11 is the terrible image of the Twin Towers falling and crumbling into ash. But there are other images from that time that we need to remember as well. At American embassies and consulates around the world, crowds turned out spontaneously to mourn with the United States. The front page of Paris Match on September 12 read: “We are all Americans.” I would say it in French, but it’s been a long time since I was at Georgetown. (Laughter.) That same day, for the first and stiff—and still the only time in history, NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter, the mutual defense pledge originally intended to protect vulnerable European nations from Soviet invasion during the Cold War. NATO also sent up five fighter jets to help defend American airspace.
We cannot know the future, but we know from our past that America and the world are more secure and prosperous when we work with our allies to defend our shared values and interests, and solve our shared problems.
Thanks for letting me share these views with you. Now, Mr. McManus, I am ready for your questions. (Applause.)
MCMANUS: Thank you for that high-altitude tour de raison and especially for two things. One was the very clear set of priorities, which I think is useful. And secondly, for mentioning that invocation of Article 5 after September 11, which I think too many Americans—perhaps some of them in office—have forgotten. So I think that was good to hear.
I will get into the meat of your comments in just a moment. But first, with apologies and for the sake of my colleagues in the press who are in the back of the room, I do want to ask two questions about the news of the day.
First—and we can get through this fairly quickly. First, the resignation/firing of John Bolton. Do you have a sense that this may presage any shift in emphasis or orientation for the Trump foreign policy? And do you have a candidate you’d like to recommend? (Laughter.)
DURBIN: That would be the end of that candidate’s chances. (Laughter.) Did he jump or was he pushed? I don’t know the answer to that. All I can say is that it is—it is quite a challenge to work for this president. Apparently, the exit doors are very busy from this administration.
And John Bolton and I, I can remember when he languished for months, maybe years, in pursuit of his position at the United Nations. He was controversial then, still controversial when he was chosen by this president. I only had one direct conversation with him, and it related to Venezuela. He clearly had a direct interest in that, and he inferred—played some role in the efforts to oust Maduro. I had been to Venezuela the year before, was one of the last. I think Bob Corker was the last U.S. senator to visit there before they have gone through this current upheaval. Bolton always took the hard line, in my estimation always leaned toward confrontation and war. That’s not my style. I have to say I’m not sure it’s President Trump’s style. I think this notion of getting into a war is something that’s not all that happy about and doesn’t readily embrace. And I think Bolton may have been too hawkish even for Donald Trump.
MCMANUS: Question two, Afghanistan. Zal Khalilzad go to where he thought he had a draft agreement. The president invited the Taliban to Camp David, then disinvited the Taliban. My question is, has this episode in a strange way created a kind of bipartisan consensus that negotiations with the Taliban are a good thing, but we need them to step up and hit more benchmarks than were in that draft agreement?
DURBIN: I remember eighteen years ago we were debating the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan, and I just barely remembered a couple words from something I had read long before, and I went back and looked it up: “When you’re wounded and down on the Afghan plain and the women come out to cut up your remains, jest roll on your rifle and blow out your brains and go to your God like a soldier,” Kipling’s words after the evacuation of Kabul when the British left in a hurry and there weren’t many of them left at the end of the day, maybe one and a horse. And it was a reminder to me then and still to this day of the challenge of Afghanistan. Foreigners are not really all that welcome as a matter of course in that nation, and particularly if they plan on staying very long or exerting any influence on the people of that country. I understood—and the reason I voted for our invasion of Iraq—or Afghanistan; I voted against the invasion of Iraq but for the invasion of Afghanistan—really related to the fact that I thought they were directly traceable to the attacks of 9/11, and that anyone who did that to the United States should expect a return message very quickly. I had no idea at the time that I was voting for the longest war in the history of the United States.
I cannot tell you how many times publicly and privately I was assured these Taliban negotiations were just about there. This has been the word on the street for months if not years. I don’t know in the turmoil of Afghanistan today whether any agreement is worth its salt, even with the Taliban as far as I’m concerned. And I certainly don’t understand the president inviting those leaders to Camp David. That, to me, never made any sense whatsoever.
I think we are wary—all of us are wary—of a continued presence in that country. I personally am. I don’t know that our continued presence there and the price that we’re paying—the heavy price; we lost an Illinois soldier there just a few weeks ago—I don’t know that it’s all going to end well. I still remember Kipling’s words. We are still invaders in their country, and I don’t believe we are going to be the key to stability.
MCMANUS: So where does that take you in terms of a bottom-line recommendation if the administration were to ask a calendar for withdrawal with conditions, without conditions?
DURBIN: I at this point believe we should bring our troops home. I think there are possible roles we can play in the future there, but we have too few troops to take control and too many people to lose by staying there.
MCMANUS: And should the administration continue pursuing negotiations with the Taliban?
DURBIN: Well, I met with Mr. Khalilzad and talked about it. He still was optimistic to the end. But it’s been a few months, I should say, that I met with him. I am just not that optimistic. I don’t think this is going to end well no matter how long we negotiate.
MCMANUS: OK. Let me get to the meat of your remarks.
And you talked about five ways to bolster democracy. You mentioned the Paris Agreement; proliferation, including the agreement with Iran; China; Russia; refugees; financial assistance. Technically, that was six items. You crammed two into one, but that’s OK. (Laughter.) We’ll grant you that.
My question is, this is an election year. The country is polarized. Our politics is polarized. You’re the minority whip. The Senate is polarized. Of those five items, where is there opportunity for the Senate to take bipartisan action and have an influence on what the administration does?
DURBIN: I can only think of one, foreign aid. Lindsey Graham is an internationalist and I sit on that subcommittee. And he’s proven is before. He’s rejected the Trump budgets and put in money for foreign aid. So I think we have a chance there. I don’t think we have any chance when it comes to refugees, nor the other items. I think the president’s really in command of that.
MCMANUS: How about Russia?
DURBIN: Well, listen, my mother was born in Lithuania. She was an immigrant to this country. I was there. I count my blessings that I happened to be there when the Baltic nations proclaimed their independence once again, and fought for it, and died for it. And I—always looking over my shoulder at Putin and Russia and what they have in mind when it comes to the Baltics and I might add Poland, since I represent Chicago. (Laughter.) But you know, I worry about him and I worry about the license which the president seems to give to him so often to continue in his escapades.
MCMANUS: I mean, it has been remarkable that, in fact, the Senate has pushed against the president—
MCMANUS: —on sanctions, on a whole list of issues.
DURBIN: And two of my colleagues—I guess I could just mention their names—Senator Johnson, as well as Senator Lee, and Senator Sasse who I might add, just got back from a trip to Ukraine. And they are on pins and needles there as to whether or not we are going to send the assistance which was put into the appropriation bill but has not been spent by the administration this year or even next year. We’re trying to work on some language to make sure that the money’s spent. But so far, as the president holds it back, they’re pretty uncertain about their future.
MCMANUS: One final question from me before I got to our members, and this one again is far afield. It’s off the subject of foreign affairs. But one issue on which members of both parties have said they would like—some members have said they’d like to see some action on is gun safety. And Senator McConnell even has said he’s willing to move ahead with measures on gun safety if his members get approval to do something from the president. As a realistic matter, do you see any opportunity to get something done?
DURBIN: Very skeptical, and that’s based on many years of experience. And I would just say that with a Republican-led Senate and a Republican president and his position on the gun safety issue, it’s highly unlikely. I’ve never seen—well, I’ve seen numbers similarly overwhelming on the issue of the cost of prescription drugs, but that’s the only other issue I can think of that generates the numbers you saw this morning in the Washington Post. The American people are fed up with these gun massacres. When I think about my granddaughter in the second grade in Brooklyn being—coming home and telling her parents they just had an active-shooter drill, and told her get under the desk and don’t stand by the windows and don’t look outside, come on, folks. She’s seven years old. And to think that she has to live through that, I mean, it—can anyone rationalize that as the real meaning of the Second Amendment? Not in my book, and I think most Americans are fed up with these massacres and are ready to take some action. And it may take until November of 2020 for us to feel it.
MCMANUS: Let me now turn to our members to join the conversation. A reminder that this meeting is on the record, so please keep your questions clean. (Laughter.)
DURBIN: Is that a problem, generally? (Laughter.)
MCMANUS: No, it’s rarely a problem at the Council, but there’s always a first time. (Laughter.) Please wait for the microphone and speak into it. Please state your name, your affiliation, make your question a question, and limit it to one question as concise and pointed as you can. And I give the floor to the first member to raise her hand. Ma’am.
Q: Good evening, Senator. Thank you so much for your comments. My name is Esther Brimmer from NAFSA, the Association of International Educators. Thank you so much for your strong support of international education.
For seventy years the United States has led in welcoming students and scholars to the United States. Would you comment a bit about soft diplomacy and how we connect with other countries in addition to our humanitarian and other assistance? Thank you.
DURBIN: I think it’s critical, and I think the Muslim travel ban really hurt us dramatically. The leaders of universities that I spoke to afterwards said they could—they could feel it in terms of the students who said we’re not coming here, we’ll stay back home or go to some other country for education. We pay a price when that happens. You know, I really believe these exchanges, the soft exchanges, really build for the next generation.
I was fortunate enough before I was elected to anything to be part of a program called the—modest title—the American Council of Young Political Leaders, which sent me to the Soviet Union for two weeks back many, many years ago. I came away with a better understanding of this world and the Soviet Union than any book had ever taught me along the way. The old saying you don’t appreciate your country till you leave it, don’t appreciate another country till you visit it, I think is true. And I think we need more exchanges and not fewer.
Q: Thank you very much for your—(comes on mic)—very trenchant remarks. I’m Priscilla Clapp with the U.S. Institute of Peace.
While the Congress was in recess during August, the White House took aim at both the defense budget and the foreign aid budget and tried to impose rescission on unobligated money before the end of—in the—in the foreign aid budget, and raided the defense budget for the wall on the border with Mexico. Is there time for the Congress to do anything about this before the end of the fiscal year?
DURBIN: There may be time, but there isn’t the will. There just aren’t enough votes. When we challenged the president’s emergency authority to do these things, we mustered fifty-nine votes. I think six Republicans or maybe more joined us in the effort, but not enough to make a difference. At this point, you know, this morning when we did the defense appropriations bill—(you came to ?) my opening speech—I said this is an existential moment. If we as a coequal branch of government with a responsibility when it comes to the power of the purse cannot send an appropriation bill that will be honored by an administration or a president, why are we here? What is this all about? This man wants a blank check. And that’s where we are. If he can move billions of dollars into construction of a wall to keep a campaign promise and take them away from things which they told us just a few weeks before were critically important for America’s future and its security, and we don’t protest it, what good is it? I mean, I would—I’d hope we can rally some more Republicans now that he’s reached into some of their states, at least in the Senate version reached into some of their states. Some have become awakened to the reality of what the Trump administration will do to build a wall.
MCMANUS: Let me ask a distantly related follow up. For many years a small but persistent brand of senators—band of senators have tried to get some reexamination of the AUMF, the authorization for use of military force, which has ended up authorizing all manner of operations without explicit congressional authority. Is sentiment on that issue growing, waning? Any prospect of action?
DURBIN: I give my credit to Tim Kaine, who’s been a leader on this, and I couldn’t agree with him more. I was involved in this in the House and been involved in the Senate. Tim has really taken the lead most recently.
There wasn’t a single member of that Senate—and there aren’t—many of them are still not—are not there today—there wasn’t a single member of that Senate eighteen years ago who believed that that AUMF was designed to sustain all of the military operations that have followed for the last eighteen years. There ought to be some shelf life to an AUMF. You ought to at some point be forced to vote again to make sure you still have the same level of commitment to whatever the military undertaking might be.
I don’t know that that’s growing. I mean, when it comes to foreign policy decisions you noted earlier, Doyle, the Republicans have broken occasionally with the president, but not in large numbers.
Q: I’m Meredith Broadbent. I was a commissioner at the International Trade Commission.
Where do you think it’s possible to cooperate with Japan and Europe on the economic confrontation with China? What do you think the U.S. should be doing?
DURBIN: Well, I mentioned TWO (sic; WTO) as a possibility, you know. And I don’t want to whitewash the situation. China has been a bad actor when it comes to trade policy. We all knew it, you know. And I remember just a few months ago a conversation with a CEO of a major defense contractor, and I asked this CEO, so, do you have a presence in China? The response was I wouldn’t even consider it. I wouldn’t take sensitive technology over to China. First they want us to make it there, then they want to copy it, and then they want us to leave, and I’m just not going to let that happen to my company. And that is repeated over and over again—currency manipulation, other things.
But I will say this, and I want to share this if you’ll bear with me for a minute because I really—it has guided me for so long. I was on a CODEL with Harry Reid, and we went to Tel Aviv, and we met with Shimon Peres. And Harry Reid said, Mr. Peres, what’s the greatest threat in the world to the United States? Peres didn’t hesitate. He said: China, don’t you see that? And I thought to myself, you know, he could have given a lot of different answers to that—terrorism, loose nukes, on and on. China.
And so I started paying closer attention to China. This goes back a few years. And I started asking every foreign visitor to my office at the end of the conversation, hey, before you leave, what’s going on with China in your country? Well, it’s interesting you would ask. You know, they’ve arrived. They’re part of our economy. They’re this, they just won a contract for this, on and on and on.
Then I went to Ethiopia and I visited with Prime Minister Meles, who’s since passed. We had a thirty-minute meeting scheduled. As it was about to end, three minutes before noon, I said, one last question: What’s the presence of China in Ethiopia? We stayed for thirty minutes more. He said, you are missing the boat here. You don’t understand what’s happening. The Chinese, when we need $100 million, give us a hundred million (dollars) and say just pay back eighty million (dollars), that’ll be just fine. But when it comes to that project, we have some architects for you, some engineers, some contractors, and half the workforce, and they ain’t leaving when it’s over. He said, they are doing this all through Africa. Well, they’re doing it all over the world.
So the point I’m getting to is that when it comes to this current situation with China, we have to accept the obvious. They have a mercantile vision. They have a plan. They have a strategy, One Belt, One Road, beyond that—way beyond that. And we have this notion that if we just let the American people know the concept and principles of capitalism, that’ll be good enough. Doesn’t work that way anymore. I think we have to be much more aggressive.
So resolving the trade dispute with China is important. I think other countries will join us. But we are naïve to believe that that is sufficient. At that point we need to have our own worldview when it comes to the development of an economy.
MCMANUS: Let me follow on that. Actually, most Democrats now, most of the Democratic presidential candidates except perhaps one I believe, still oppose United States participation in TPP. Is that a wise decision?
DURBIN: No. The TPP had its faults and its weaknesses. But I remember when the ambassador from Australia sat in my office and said, we got a choice here; we either go with you or we go with them. We’d like to go with you. And if we’re going to go with you, we need an agreement that brings us together so that we are a force in Asia together. I don’t know if the specifics of that TPP would have answered it, but that challenge is still out there.
Are we going to cede all of Asia to Chinese control, or are we going to be players in that part of the world? President Obama suggested we start looking more and more to the Pacific. I think he’s right. If you look at the ultimate economic growth in this world, at least in the near term it’s going to be focused on Asia. We need to be part of it.
MCMANUS: Well, let me—mic this side of the room. Sir.
Q: Hi. My name’s Larry Garber and I’ll ask this question from my perspective as a former mission director to the—for the USAID program in West Bank and Gaza.
And I appreciated your comments about the Palestinian assistance program. And I wonder if you think there’s any possibility of changing not only the administration’s policy, but also congressional policy with respect to Palestinian assistance, which in itself has been one of the reasons why the administration has cut off assistance or at least has used it as an excuse for cutting off assistance, and whether you see that as something that’s being politically possible in this environment.
And second, given the announcement today by Prime Minister Netanyahu, whether you think there’s any reaction that the administration, Congress, or even the Democratic Party should take in response to his promise, if elected, to annex parts of the West Bank.
DURBIN: Well, on Netanyahu, it’s no surprise leading up to an election that he’d say that or something like that in an effort to try to win control back of government. And I think we all know his relationship with President Trump, how close it is and how many efforts have been made by the president to deal with the Netanyahu agenda in a positive way.
I don’t think it’s in the best interest—the long-term best interest of Israel or peace in the Middle East. I think at this point to treat the Palestinians in this fashion is not humane and it just doesn’t make common sense. I am prepared and working on either supporting or introducing an amendment to restore some of this Palestinian money that’s been cut for hospitals, for example. I don’t have a great hope to win when it comes up before the Appropriations Committee, but I think it’s the right thing to do. And I hope that they can come to some sort of a conclusion.
Now, the thing that complicates this—and you’ll know this because you’ve been there—is it used to be two-state solution, two-state solution, and then the Palestinians started saying it’s not going to happen, it’s going to be one state. And we know what that means in terms of the future of Israel as a Jewish state, as a democracy. It puts them on the spot as to who—whether majority will rule in their country in the future. I still believe there should be some secure homeland for both the Israelis and the Palestinians emerging from this. But as they occupy the West Bank and build all of these settlements, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how that’s going to happen.
Q: Senator, good to see you. David Ensor, recovering journalist now at George Washington University.
Just a comment and a question. The comment is I served in Afghanistan as a diplomat, and I would predict to you that if the troops entirely withdraw there will be terrorism being planned against the United States in some of the valleys of Afghanistan within twelve to twenty-four months.
But my question is about the role of foreign policy in the upcoming presidential election. It seems every time we have an election we talk only about domestic issues, and yet the greatest powers of the presidency in the Constitution appear to me to be in foreign policy. Is there a way that the Democratic candidate, whoever he or she is, can make foreign policy an issue that can have some impact this time, given who’s president and the kinds of policies he’s pursuing?
DURBIN: I think the only presidential election I can remember in recent times that was—I thought had more focus on foreign policy than domestic was just after 9/11. You know, it was still—terrorism was still and the devastation of 9/11 still fresh in our minds. It rarely rises to the level of other issues, the economic and cultural issues which drove the Trump victory just a few years ago.
There’s only one issue that I think straddles this, and that’s climate change. It is an international issue. It’s a foreign policy issue, but it’s also an existential issue for us as a nation. And when I started off with the Paris Climate Agreement it’s because I really cannot imagine the fact that the United States is the only nation in the world that is not a signatory to this agreement, so I think—I put it first. It’s the first thing that we have to resolve and fix. So otherwise, I think we’re going to still be dealing with these—I hope you heard me carefully—cultural and economic issues, because I think both are at play in this Trump era.
Q: Building on that last comment, I’m Frances Seymour from the World Resources Institute and I can’t tell you how happy I am that you led with climate change as the first of your five issues.
You’ve already implicitly said you don’t really see any opportunity for progress on that issue under the current presidency, but I wonder if you could spin out an optimistic scenario for a post-2020 era in which the United States reestablishes leadership both domestically and internationally on this issue, and what we can all be doing in the meantime to make that scenario more likely to play out.
DURBIN: I get a lot of visits from farmers from Illinois, all kinds of corn growers, soybean growers, farm bureau, farmers union. And six or eight years ago I started asking them the following question: Do you believe that our activity as humans on Earth has anything to do with what’s going on with global warming, climate change, and the like? And without fail they’d say, no. (Laughs.) And I’d say to them, well, OK, explain this to me. You can see the glaciers melting. You can see what—I mean, this is tangible now, and you don’t—can’t connect up what we’re doing and this? How do you explain this? And they would say very politely, well, Senator, some years God sends me a flood. Some years God sends me a drought. I just deal with whatever God sends me.
Well, that was the answer six or eight years ago, almost universally. One or two people were brave enough to say I’m just not sure, but—I’m using my farmers as kind of a test group here—it’s changed. It’s starting to change. The conversation’s starting to change. Extreme weather is changing the conversation. They’re just seeing too much evidence of it day in, day out. They’re still concerned about a heavy-handed government response to it and what it means to them as individuals, and they feel very individual.
But I sense that the awareness is growing in this country, and I think that’s going to fuel—that’s the wrong word—that’s going to spark—that’s another wrong word—(laughter)—that’s going to encourage people to be prepared to make some sacrifices, and I think they will. I really believe that there are ways to approach this that people in my generation looking at kids and grandkids feel like, for God’s sake, that’s not too much to ask when it comes to the car I drive or the way I live my life. I feel more hopeful that that’s going to come about.
I wish I felt that the Republicans were onboard for that. And there was a time—there was a time. You know, it was Lieberman-McCain. That’s what we used to vote for. I think it can return, maybe with the next generation of Republican leadership.
MCMANUS: Let me follow on that and ask, do you think it has—this has been a change we’ve all seen coming very gradually, and your focus group is a good—a good way to measure it. Are you seeing it happen quickly enough that it is going to change sentiment in the center of the electorate in this cycle?
DURBIN: Good question, and they’re tough to move.
DURBIN: You know, they’re smack dab on that center stripe. But I think if it’s done rationally, you know. And I—they’re talked about whether we can legislate or regulate it, and I just don’t believe that works. I don’t think it’s likely to work, particularly with that group. But if you start doing something very fundamental that is supported by corporate leaders like putting a price on carbon, it starts making sense. I said to a farm group I had in today, you now are leasing out a little plot of land and sticking a wind turbine on it and got a nice check coming in, right? Oh, yeah, it’s pretty nice, thanks. Well, I do believe that your farm can be part of the solution to this problem. There are things that you can do that have a positive carbon impact that may be worth a carbon credit that is worth as much as what you’re growing on the land. Let’s have this conversation. Let’s talk about. Let’s see how we get there. And I think as we open that conversation to other sectors of the economy, I’m more hopeful.
MCMANUS: Question here in front. Yeah.
Q: Senator, thank you for your leadership.
My question is about polarization in the political system. The president’s had a corrosive impact on U.S. leadership in the world, but polarization is a real barrier to success in U.S. leadership and it has many authors. You’ve been gracious over time. I’ve visited you a couple of times, once as President Bush’s envoy from—for human trafficking and recently on AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. I’m with an organization on that. Are there any lessons to be learned from some of these issues that are islands of bipartisan cooperation like human trafficking or fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria that could spill outward to help undo polarization? Is there any hope for undoing this mess of social media turning to different sources of your truth and bitter partisanship?
DURBIN: I’m an optimist or I wouldn’t even be sitting here. I believe the answer is yes. I am—I’ve got this supreme confidence that we will emerge from this era into something that’s good and be stronger for it, and maybe even appreciate some fundamental values that we took for granted for way too long when it’s all over. Key to it is the person sitting in the White House, and who that person is, and how they approach this reconciliation.
There are—there are parts of our political world that are never going to be converted over to the other side on right and on the left. Just never going to happen. But I do believe that center stripe is wide in this country, and I believe people of goodwill are waiting for leaders who are going to appeal to this bipartisanship. Whenever I get a chance I remind people that, yes, I’m cosponsoring this amendment with Marsha Blackburn, who is a Republicans of Tennessee; Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa; just to let them know that the conversation still continues. At the highest level we’re shot at the moment, but I really feel more confident that we can get back on track with the right leadership in the White House.
Q: Hi. I’m Jeff Smith at the Center for Public Integrity.
You’ve made some remarks about big subjects, so I apologize for asking you about something—a smaller issue of the moment. But I’m—you know, one of the areas that’s a bit polarized is the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is now before the Senate and the House to discuss and resolve. There are some specific differences over the president’s nuclear weapons policy, the deployment—the creation and deployment of a new warhead, and the construction of a new ground-based missile, and so forth and so on. Have you turned your attention to this yet? And do you have any forecast about how these disputes are going to be resolved?
DURBIN: I’m sorry, I don’t. Really, I don’t have any special expertise in that area. I know that there was the abandonment of agreement with Russia on some nuclear weapons, but sadly it doesn’t seem to follow that we’re going to sit down at the table and try to find some common ground. This president has not been especially good at that, and I don’t know that he’s surrounded himself with people who are. That’s another item to be concerned about. (Off mic)—get any deeper into the subject, I’m afraid.
MCMANUS: In the back.
Q: Senator Durbin, thank you so much for being with us today.
I am a proud CFR term member. I am also a proud leader of a network of philanthropists who work on peace and security. And I’m also a proud refugee. I know that you’ve been a leader in refugee issues many, many years, and some of the things that we don’t talk about here in the Council—we are all who we are in our titles, in our jobs; we’re also human beings. So what works with you? What can we do—what power do we have as citizens? I’m now also a proud American. So what power do we have as citizens to help you shepherd the leadership that you’ve been doing on refugees, on climate, on all these issues that we’ve talked about today?
DURBIN: Some of you know the name Jack Valenti, the late Jack Valenti. He said every good speech contains six words: let me tell you a story. And he’s right. People hate speeches, but they don’t mind it if you have a few stories to tell.
We need to tell more stories about refugees. I introduced a bill called the DREAM Act eighteen years ago. Still is not the law, but I’ve been on the floor of the Senate 120 times with color photographs telling the stories. And I think public sentiment is strong for the passage of the DREAM Act, or DACA, because people now can put a face on a name or on a category of people. And the same thing is true of refugees.
And when you think about our record in the United States on refugees—I mentioned the S.S. St. Louis—when you think about how many people fled Castro’s Cuba to come to the United States and the fact that three of our Hispanic senators are Cuban Americans today, there’s a refugee story behind those facts, and there’s a refugee story to be told in so many different ways and places. And I just take pride in the fact that whether it was the Soviet Jews or people coming from Cuba or those who helped us in Vietnam and feared for their lives to stay, all of those people came and made this a better place—by every measure a better place. And they all didn’t come with engineering degrees, either.
And I’ll also tell you the key, as I feel it now, is not only to have leaders in the religious community get behind this—and as a Catholic, the Catholic Church, its future looks very Hispanic in the United States. They are showing a lot of strength in that regard. But I also have to say the business community needs to speak out a lot more than they have about immigration and refugees. There’s an awful lot of need for those workers all over.
A friend of mine is my alderman in Chicago, Tom Tunney, owns a great shop with cinnamon rolls—Ann Sather’s, don’t miss it—and he said to me, if you took away the undocumented workers in Chicago you’d close down the restaurants and the hotels and most of the nursing homes and a lot of other places. We need people in the business community to speak up about the need for people from other shores coming here. And we ought to be able to take some pride in the fact that we are turning to some people in the most desperate life situations imaginable and giving them a fighting chance in this country.
Q: Hi. Lauren Williams with Federal Computer Week.
I want to go back to the NDAA and speak a little bit more broadly. Is there anything that is on the chopping block or should be on the chopping block in terms of resolving the differences between the House and Senate versions of the NDAA?
DURBIN: On the authorization bill?
DURBIN: I’m an appropriator. (Laughter.)
Q: I know. I want to know what you think.
DURBIN: I spend my world, my life, my time, my effort, my talents in building an appropriation bill and we have two questions on authorization. (Laughter.) Yes, you know, of course I considered its merits and I voted for it and I support it. But no, I can’t tell you. I really don’t know. I’m not in the conference on that, so I can’t answer that. I’m sorry.
Q: Hi. Zach Vertin from Brookings. Thanks very much, Senator.
I wonder if you could comment on the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. There previously was some momentum in Congress about providing a check on the administration’s relationships there as well as arguably outsized impact on American foreign policy, and I wonder your thoughts on that. Thank you.
DURBIN: It’s sure a good question, and it’s certainly timely, and it’s certainly complex. I for one am very critical of our involvement at all in the war in Yemen. That has become such a massive humanitarian disaster. I don’t want the United States to have any fingerprints on this. I don’t know where Saudi Arabia is today in terms of the future of Yemen, but they certainly have been engaged in policies there that have caused human destruction at a level we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and more to follow on that score.
What happened to Khashoggi in Turkey was unimaginable. I talked to MBS’s brother, who was the ambassador, who assured me that it was all going to work out, I’d understand it all at the end. I didn’t. I understood that this man was assassinated because he was a critic of the regime in Saudi Arabia.
An interesting thing’s happened, though, in the last few weeks. There’s a new ambassador, Princess Reema, who has—grew up in the United States when her father was ambassador and is very articulate. Came to my office ready to answer any question. What a departure from the image of Saudi Arabia to have this articulate, well-educated young woman speaking now for the Kingdom? It was an extraordinary public relations move. Whether it will change people’s minds about that regime is another story. I remain skeptical.
MCMANUS: We have time, I think, for one last concise question. Sir.
DURBIN: (Laughs.) Concise. And, Senator, how does that work? (Laughter.)
MCMANUS: I didn’t say answer. I said question. (Laughter.)
Q: My name is Razi Hashmi. I am a term member with the Council and also at the Department of State. My wife is a proud Chicago native.
So we’ve seen that a number of autocratic regimes have used technology to oppress their people, whether it be the blackout in Kashmir or the surveillance of Uighurs. What role do you think technology companies should play in empowering their people?
DURBIN: Wow, what a question. That will be your next topic of your next meeting—(laughter)—and you can bring some real experts in.
And I—technology. I mentioned to you earlier that I happened to be fortunate enough to be hanging around Vilnius when they decided to break from the Soviet Union, and blood was shed and people died, and there was extraordinary courage. How did the—how did the—one of the things that helped to make that occur, that breakaway occur, was technology. The Soviets could not control the flow of information out of Vilnius because they couldn’t control the fax machines. The fax machines, they hummed all night long in Chicago and Washington, all the information coming out. They couldn’t stop them. You know, they had ways of jamming other things; they couldn’t figure out how to stop them. And we were learning on a day-to-day basis what was really happening in the streets, and I think it was a factor, a positive factor in their emergence as an independent country.
Now fast forward twenty-five, thirty years. We’re at a new level of technology. And when I consider this whole facial recognition issue in China, I’m not surprised that the demonstrators in Hong Kong are all wearing masks—many of them, I should say, are wearing masks—because they know that their identity is going to be recorded by someone along the way, possibly not to their benefit. And I’m very concerned about it.
I grew up in an era of something called telephone booths. (Laughter.) People would actually get into a little closet and close the door for a telephone conversation. Now the first time the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac here at Washington National I know exactly what’s for supper behind me, how the babysitter fared today, and whether we’ve got problems with our mother in law. You know, it’s all being announced on these cellphones by everybody on the plane. (Laughter.) So the notion of privacy is evolving, and I guess I’m old school when it comes to it.
But more specific to your question, I think we’re naïve to ignore the reality of the accumulation of data and information, not just about us but about the world. It’s beneficial in so many ways in research, in developing answers to questions which have been posed for generations, but it also is a compromise as to each of our own identity and our privacy. And someone is picking up that information. The Russians tried their damndest in 2016 and they fell short although they had an impact—I believe they had an impact on some issues. 2018, we came back at ‘em and stopped them from their intrusion. But they’re not going to quit, and neither are some other countries that are accumulating this information to be used against us.
I hope that we can get some bipartisanship on that issue. That ought to be fundamental, that this is our election to be waged and not any foreign power should have—that no foreign power should have a voice in it.
MCMANUS: The Council prides itself on letting members of the congressional leadership get out once the time allotted has expired.
DURBIN: (Laughs.) You’re pretty good.
MCMANUS: We’ve come pretty close. Please join me in thanking Senator Durbin for the time and passion. (Applause.)