This special event is being held to honor the memory of Leslie H. Gelb, CFR’s president from 1993 to 2003 and a dedicated member for forty-six years, who died on August 31, 2019. Gelb modernized the institution to reflect the changing realities of the post-Cold War era, and was a passionate advocate of common sense and strategy in U.S. foreign policy.
HAASS: Good evening. I’m Richard Haass, and I’d like to welcome one and all to this special evening in honor of Leslie H. Gelb. We’ve titled the event “Common Sense and Strategy in Foreign Policy” for the simple reason that Les had little tolerance for or patience with impractical ideas that didn’t add up. Much of the evening will be given over to hearing from Jake Sullivan, the assistant to the president for national security affairs, someone known for his common sense and strategic thinking alike.
Les, as I expect you all know, was CFR’s president from 1993 to 2003. He was, as well, a member for forty-six years—a dues-paying member, I should say. (Laughter.) Les passed away in August of 2019. We planned to do something in his honor much sooner, but COVID got in the way of this and so many other things. But we are glad to be able to come together now with so many of you here in the room in person, including Judy and other members of the Gelb family, along with literally hundreds of his friends and colleagues.
The ultimate test of anybody running an institution is to leave it in better shape than he or she found it. That’s not meant as a criticism of those who came before, but just the nature and measure of the task. Les did just that here at the Council. And as his successor, I was the beneficiary.
He arrived at the Council after having had several careers. Most of us are happy to succeed at one. What made Les special was he succeeded in four.
He was a respected academic and author. The book he co-authored with Dick Betts on Vietnam was and remains a classic.
He was an editor, journalist, and columnist at the New York Times, winning a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism.
He was in government—first at Defense, where he was part of the team that compiled the Pentagon Papers; and later at State, where he was the director of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs during the first two years of the Carter administration.
And last but not least, he was here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Les made a real difference in all of these positions, but when he urged me to put my hat in the ring to succeed him he told me that this place—this place was his favorite. It was something I didn’t quite understand at the time, but I do now. The Council brought together Les’s passion for ideas and people, although with less infighting than Washington and better food. (Laughter.) So tonight we’ll celebrate the life and work of this quintessential American, someone of uncommon optimism and great energy.
First to speak will be Winston Lord, himself a former president of this institution, who will give a tribute to Les. Then we will have George Packer in conversation with the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. Jake is here not just in his role as national security adviser, but more important due to the pinnacle of his career when he served as Les’s intern. (Laughter.) And then George Packer is the perfect presider for his event, as his book, Our Man, profile of not just Richard Holbrooke—one of Les’s closest friends—but several others, including Les, for whom the Vietnam War was a personal and professional turning point. We’ll then end with Frank Wisner, who, like Win, knew Les for most of his life, who also made it into George’s book, and who word has it was a regular source when Les wrote for the New York Times. (Laughter.)
What we will do then is follow the event with a reception for those here at the CFR in New York. Those of you who are participating digitally, you’ll have to fend for yourselves.
So, again, thank you for coming out tonight. I’m thrilled that we have this opportunity to honor someone so central to the history of this institution. And with that, Ambassador Lord, the lectern is yours. (Applause.)
LORD: Judy, Adam, Caroline, Alice, and those including tonight’s speaker for whom Les Gelb was a mentor—and tormentor—(laughter)—I speak as well for my wife, who introduced me to the Gelb clan. I quote Bette Bao Lord’s own words: “Three score and seven years ago, Les and I became pals in an era where amity between the sexes was rare. Between a Chinese gal from Shanghai and a Jewish guy from New Rochelle, no way. We met standing in line to enroll at Tufts. Words and laughter, fact and fiction cemented an instant bond. Both of us signed up for the same major. Soon, both we were given an offer we could not refuse: stay in chemistry and flunk; leave chemistry and pass.” (Laughter.)
“As seniors, we talked our gullible professor into excusing us from all classes in exchange for a thesis. It was the beginning of a beautiful tendency.” (Laughter.) “A week before graduation, not a word was written or thunked. Panic finally ensued. On the scorching rooftop of Fiyep (ph), encircled by library tomes, we, barely dressed and openly cursed, typed pages, tossed papers. Had Judy not nursed us with food and advice, we would never have framed our diplomas.”
For those of you who are interested in the European Coal and Steel Community, our thesis exists in the cloud. (Laughter.) So exists forever my unique bond with Les. Betty fails to pass on their A grade.
Why on earth, you might ask, was Les also my oldest and best friend? After all, contradictions abound. He was born to a needy Jewish immigrant family and toiled in their pinched grocery. I am a classic WASP whose ancestors sailed here with the Vikings. (Laughter.) And I was born on third base with a platinum ladle in my mouth. (Laughter.) Why on earth did Les worship baseball’s evil empire in The Bronx or fondle felines, not canines? (Laughter.) Why, inevitably, did I land on his hotels in Monopoly, was out-ginned in Rummy, and trumped at Bridge, thereby financing his children’s education? (Laughter.) He winged his presentations brilliantly while I crafted mine dutifully. He relished conflict while I relied on—(inaudible). (Laughter.) He was a better president of this Council.
No wonder I love Les for his fetching modesty—(laughter)—aversion to battle, kowtowing to the Almighty, sufferance of fools. (Laughter.) Only fools would contest that among our generation no one shined in so many disparate fields: top teaching assistant to Henry Kissinger, executive assistant to Senator Javits, recipient of the highest awards at Defense and State, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for journalism, the Emmy Award for television, the president emeritus of this institution. His book The Irony of Vietnam is a searing revelation of America’s past. His book Power Rules is a searching roadmap for America’s future. About the only award that Les was unable to achieve was the Oscar. (Laughter.) But then, he was incapable of acting and he scorned makeup.
Buried beneath these accolades in his suit of iron lay a heart full of patriotism and generosity. Les the curmudgeon stemmed from Les the patriot. While berating our leaders’ follies, he strove the heal the wounds of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Les the inquisitor infused the mentor. Our future is more hopeful because of the students and fellows whom he tested and took under his wing.
The signal triumph for Les, however, was the more than six-decade journey with his beloved and unsinkable Judy. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health they mastered the valleys and scaled the heights. And during Les’s Job-like homestretch, his awesome stoicism was matched by Judy’s awesome solace. And in turn, both were sustained by the devotion of this succeeding generations.
Those are some of the reasons why Les was my best friend.
Les was also a Moses on international affairs. Here are ten commandments for American foreign policy from his book Power Rules.
One, thou shalt employ common sense. Foreign policy is not rocket science.
Two, thou shalt understand power and use it. Power is power, not hard or soft, not smart or dumb. Through pressure and incentives, make others do what others do not want to do.
Three, thou shalt be wary of the soft power of love and the hard power of marshalled might. One is foreplay; the other is ancillary.
Four, thou shalt exorcise the demons of dogma, ideology, politics, and arrogance.
Five, thou shalt exalt the virtues of pragmatism, realism, moderation, and competence. Set priorities. Distinguish what is achievable and what is beyond reach. Aim for the former and manage the latter.
Six, thou shalt enshrine the precept of mutual indispensability. American leadership is summoned but not sufficient.
Seven, thou shalt ground policy in strategy, not fly by the seat of one’s pants. Strategy is a guide, not a straitjacket.
Eight, thou shalt learn from these masters: Truman, Marshall, and Acheson; Nixon and Kissinger; Bush Sr., Baker, and Scowcroft.
Nine, thou shalt recall the gospel that great nations ultimately perish from within, not without. Foreign policy originates at home. Invigorate America’s values and valuables with vigor.
And ten, thou shalt hark to Leslie Gelb’s clarion call that I quote: “For all America’s faults, don’t doubt that we remain the last best chance to create equal opportunity, hope, and freedom. But this will require something that has not happened in a long time: that pragmatists, realists, and moderates will unite and fight for their America.”
This final commandment hovers over the very last paragraph of Les’s book: I see the faces and hear the voices of my mother and father, immigrants from the Carpathian region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And I remember that day decades ago when they visited my overly-large office in the Pentagon, saw the American flag behind my desk, and wept. I weep over their memory and I weep for my country. Today, the skies are darker. We fear for our country.
America needs many more Les Gelbs. For Bette and me personally, there are no more Les Gelbs. Thank you. (Applause.)
Thank you. We miss that guy. Let’s now welcome George and Jake to the podium. (Applause.)
PACKER: Win, that was just a gorgeous remembrance. And I’m not sure we can really follow it, but we’re going to do our best. Thank you.
Welcome to today’s—this is the formal part of our remarks—Council on Foreign Relations Leslie H. Gelb Memorial Event on “Common Sense and Strategy in Foreign Policy” with Jake Sullivan, who is assistant to the president for national security affairs and has just come back from Kyiv, which is like going to Neptune and back at this point. So we’re really lucky to have Jake with us after a long, arduous trip to a hotspot of the world.
I’m George Packer. I’m a staff writer at the Atlantic and I’ll be presiding—it sounds a little too grand—over the discussion.
So, Jake, you were a disciple, a student. Did you get hit with those ten commandments on your first day at work? Did he say memorize this and maybe we’ll get somewhere?
SULLIVAN: So I was Les Gelb’s intern the summer between my junior year and senior year of college. And when I finished at the end of the summer, he asked if I would keep coming back every Friday—I was at school up at Yale—through my senior year. Years before Power Rules ever came out, I was working on the first iteration of it for him. And by the time I finished and left, he said: You did a decent job, but I’m going to need at least ten more years to finish this book because you didn’t do well enough. (Laughter.) So we didn’t have the ten commandments at that point. He had not quite put them together. But you could hear in his advice many of the points. I actually was smiling when Win was reading through them. And what an impact they’ve ended up having on the way that I think about foreign policy.
And you know, his first rule about common sense, that foreign policy is not rocket science, one of the first things he said to me that just made an absolutely huge impression on the way I approach everything is I gave him some long, convoluted answer to a question he asked and he said: You know what, Jake? A lot of people think that speaking in more complex terms makes you smart. What actually makes you smart is if you can simplify things, if you can get to the essence of things, and that’s what Les was better at than anybody.
And I’ve, basically, spent my entire adult life reaching for that, constantly trying to, you know, get through the cobwebs in my own mind, in my own voice, to get the clarity and simplicity that Les brought to everything. And it was in his writing. It was in his thinking. It was in his advocacy. It was in his analysis.
And I’ve never had somebody in my life who’s had such a profound impact on the way that I’ve tried to operate who also tormented me all the time, as Win pointed out, right. (Laughter.) Yeah.
PACKER: I spent many hours in his living room coaxing memories of Richard Holbrooke and others out of him, and it was just sheer pleasure.
One thing he said—there were just gems of provocation kept dropping from his mouth and one that stuck with me—and I put it in the book that Richard mentioned—was foreign policy makes no sense, which really caught me. What are you talking about—this is your life’s work—it makes no sense?
And he explained what he meant, that, essentially, a great deal of it is people making decisions without enough information with based on some ideology or in a bit of a bubble and then trying to catch up with events halfway around the world that they really don’t understand and then spending the rest of their lives defending their decisions about things that they really never believed in in the first place.
That was—(laughter)—that was the Gelb hard truth about foreign policy.
So I want to ask you about foreign policy.
SULLIVAN: Well, can I—can I just say one thing about that?
PACKER: Yeah. Yeah. Go ahead. (Laughter.) Now, I’m not saying that will ever happen to you.
SULLIVAN: We have everything under control and you have nothing to worry about. (Laughter.) It’s all—it’s all good.
No. Actually, first time I ever went to the situation room it was during the Obama administration, and I remember showing up and sitting at a table and thinking, man, this is it. You know, this is where it all happens.
And then after, like, half an hour I was, like, this is it? (Laughter.) You know, there has to be another room down the hall where the real people are making the real decisions. And, by the way, that is not a knock on any person in that room, who are remarkable professionals.
But it is people who didn’t get to sleep the night before because their kids were sick. It’s folks that have had twenty years of beef with one another having to somehow navigate personal dynamics while also making hard decisions.
You’re doing it all with, as Les said, imperfect information, facing deeply imperfect choices, and the people doing it are as imperfect as any one of us sitting in this room.
So it’s not a surprise that you get imperfect results from foreign policy, and I remember kind of going through that first thing and then coming up and seeing Les and he was asking me my impressions of things, and I had to acknowledge that this point which he had made to me, and in the abstract I thought it was the normal contrarian Les being Les.
I was, like, man, that was some wizardry because you were so right about the challenges that confront us and how difficult it is, and in this moment, in particular, when there is such a wide range of complex and fast challenges coming at us it’s uniquely true, I think.
PACKER: OK. So now I’m going to quote something you wrote in the Atlantic three years ago in an essay on American exceptionalism.
You wrote, “Today, three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. still hasn’t found a durable answer to the most basic of questions, what is American foreign policy for?” Somehow foreign policy makes no sense seemed like about a half a step removed from what is foreign policy for.
So now that you’re right at the heart of it all, do you know what American foreign policy is for? (Laughter.)
SULLIVAN: It would not be an event with Les if you weren’t being put on the spot constantly. So—or an event in honor of Les.
Well, actually, what I say in the piece is, basically, what I believe today, and what I, ultimately, say in the piece is that the answer is, in a way, as simple as the question. I mean, foreign policy, like all policy, is about trying to protect and defend our way of life, and remembering that and then coming back to when we say our way of life we mean the lives of regular people sitting around a dinner table tonight, wanting to lead a better, safer, and easier life for themselves and for their kids.
And so I was really struck remembering that the ninth commandment was that nations don’t end up ending from without. They end from within, and that we have to think about foreign policy as starting at home and as about delivering for people at home, and I believe this profoundly.
And I think one of the things that had gotten a bit unmoored in our approach to foreign policy was that we were abstracting away from the basic security, prosperity, and dignity of the people who we are meant to serve.
And that doesn’t mean that we’re doing this at odds with people living elsewhere in the world. In fact, one of the great things about the United States is we have the reach and resolve to help better the lives of people everywhere.
But it does mean, fundamentally, that our first obligation is, fundamentally, to make the lives of the American people a little bit better, a little bit safer, a little bit easier, and to do it aiming at the achievable things and managing the unachievable things, as Les said in his commandments.
And I actually say in the piece—he talks about indispensability a lot in his book, and Madeleine Albright coined this phrase “the indispensable nation,” and I think indispensability is actually also an inadequate thing because you’re indispensable to somebody else but, you know, what about to your own people? Where does that fit in?
And so I’ve spent a lot of time kind of struggling with the notion of America and its role in the world and how it relates, ultimately, to the welfare of the people here at home but trying to do it in a way that doesn’t fall into the trap of zero-sum logic or isolationism or predatory unilateralism, and I think that’s something that all of us have to struggle with as we think about the future of American foreign policy in a highly contested age.
PACKER: So, later I want to get to a middle class foreign policy, which you’ve researched and written about.
But that line “what is it for” seems specific to the post-Cold War period, which you now have said or the administration has said in the National Security Strategy that came out last month that period is over.
So you seem to be asking in the essay what is it for now, now that the more simple—OK, there was the Cold War. There was the post-Cold War in which we were the sole superpower. Now what? And in that strategy document it’s complicated.
We are in competition not just with one rival but with two, one of which is more of a peer and the other which is more of a threat. But there also needs to be cooperation because there isn’t just the struggle of great powers again but there’s also transnational crises that are threatening all of us.
There’s democracy. In a way, an organizing principle of the document is there is a struggle between democracy and autocracy, which the president talks about quite a bit.
So how do you conceive of this new era in a way that the middle class, the average American, can grasp as easily as, say, Cold War was graspable, or “America first” was graspable? How do you present it to the public so that it makes sense?
SULLIVAN: I think it’s very difficult because it’s not as simple as the Cold War and it’s not as simple as America first. That’s just the reality. So we have to manage the unachievable, in a way.
So I think more about how do we bring—rather than how do we most effectively sell it, how do we bring clarity to our strategy so that the results we deliver for the American people make them say, OK, actually, I’m seeing this work out.
And what we, basically, say in the National Security Strategy—and you summed it up very well—is that we face two strategic challenges at once on an equal plane of importance: geopolitical competition against two countries that do not share our vision for what the world should look like or for what a just society should look like, and a set of transnational challenges that the United States cannot solve on its own and require not just the cooperation of friends but, in some cases, the cooperation of those very competitors. And, obviously, there’s a tension between those two things and it’s real and we need to identify it and not shrink from it and then try to manage it as best we can.
Now, the good news is that the basic strategy that we lay out I believe is fit for purpose for both challenges at once. And it, essentially, is built on two basic elements that could have been drawn out of Power Rules.
The first is replenish the reservoirs of American strength and power at home to put ourselves in a position of strength to compete most effectively and to create the tools we need to solve the great problems of our time, whether it’s climate change or pandemic disease or, for that matter, inflation. So the first is replenish the tools of national power.
And the second is build as broad a base of like-minded allies and partners as possible to leverage our collective strength and influence both to be able to shape the future of the world more in our image than in our competitors’ image and to be able to have the common action necessary to solve those problems.
And so, actually, the recipe for resolution of succeeding in this competition and succeeding against these transnational challenges does come down to the same fundamental ingredients and that is what we have tried to do over the course of the past two years while batting away or contending with or grappling with the huge number of crises that have crossed our inbox.
PACKER: This is going to be a kind of layman’s stupid question but what is great power competition and how do you know when you’ve won?
Like, what’s the goal? What are we—between us and China how do we know when somehow we prevail?
We knew when the Cold War was over. How do we know when this competition is over?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. It’s a great question and, actually, you know, Ronald Reagan famously said in the 1980s “Here’s how I define competition: We win. You lose.” A kind of pithy comment.
By the way, not the view of the strategist in that moment who did not foresee the fall of the Soviet Union just a few years later. They thought they’d be managing that competition for decades on end.
SULLIVAN: But, you know, a nice, easy thing to say. I do not believe that the answer is a pure someone wins the competition, someone loses the competition. We aren’t so lucky as to have an end state like that.
What I believe that we need to strive for is a steady state in which the overall balance of power and influence in the world when it comes to setting the terms with respect to economic rules, our values, an open, secure, and free internet, a reduction in the amount of intimidation and coercion that goes into the resolution of problems, these things that we care deeply about that they are on the ascendancy rather than on the decline.
That is going to be a long-term proposition and it will not have a fixed end date. It will have to be a constant competition, one in which we are trying to tilt things in our favor while at the same time managing and creating guardrails around that competition so that it doesn’t tip over into conflict, confrontation, or outright war.
I know that’s not entirely satisfying but I think that is the best description of the world that we are entering. It is not a world that is purely Manichaean, it is not a new Cold War, and it is not a world rooted in pure zero-sum logic.
There are positive-sum outcomes to be had in many dimensions where if we work together, including with countries with whom we do not share fundamental interests, we can produce better outcomes when it comes to the climate crisis—and President Biden is heading off to the COP, the climate conference, in Egypt in just a few days—when it comes to reducing the spread of nuclear weapons, when it comes to reducing the risk of nuclear war. And so I think this is a competition, from my vantage point, that does not translate nicely back to the history of the Cold War. It is of an entirely different character and requires a different set of tools to get after, and it also requires remembering that at once China is our most substantial competitor and one of our largest trading partners.
Nothing like that was ever the case during the Cold War and, yet, that’s a reality that we need to deal with and, again, not try to simply reduce to, you know, a choice between, you know, the pure binary of competition, you know, versus working together where it’s in our mutual interest.
PACKER: So there is not a new Cold War. But the president has talked about a global struggle between democracy and autocracy.
I don’t know if that’s a direct quote but, certainly, he’s intimated that and the Russian invasion of Ukraine was clarifying for a lot of people in saying, wow, there really is a serious fundamental war that involves ideological opponents.
So is there a global struggle between democracy and autocracy? And if there is, what do we do, for example, about Iran where in the streets of its cities that struggle is as vivid as it is anywhere on Earth but we’re no longer in the business of regime change or democracy at the end of a gun?
What strategy do we have to try to advance our side of that struggle without going back to the bad old days of the oughts?
SULLIVAN: Well, one thing Les would say is that in a competition between democracy and autocracy the first thing that you’ve got to do is prove that democracy can deliver in your own country, that you are actually making this system work, attractive, and appealing.
And then you need to strengthen and reinforce the circle of existing democracies so that democracy is delivering across what you might call today’s version of the free world.
And so President Biden has put a lot of emphasis and energy into shoring up our alliances, working with like-minded partners through the G-7 and other vehicles where we rally with other democracies to show that democracy can deliver for our own people and can also deliver for global problem solving.
Then there’s the element of it that is standing up for freedom-loving people everywhere in the world, including in Iran, and President Biden himself has stood in the well of the U.N. General Assembly and spoken out in clarion terms about our basic support for the proposition that all people deserve to live with dignity and freedom and rights.
We have taken practical steps with respect to making it easier for the Iranian people to access information and the internet and to communicate both with each other and with the world, and we have tools like this that we can bring to bear in other contexts as well.
But I cannot give you a fully satisfying answer to this question. We cannot go around changing the form of government of every other country. And when President Biden talks about the contest between democracy and autocracy, again, he’s not talking about dividing the world into absolutely rigid blocks where we stand off against one another a la in the Cold War.
What he’s talking about is something more fundamental. It’s about being able to answer the question which form of government can better deliver for its own citizens and for global welfare, and from the president’s perspective, his determination, his conviction, is that that is democracy and his determination is to make democracy work for the American people and then to make democracies work for the benefit of greater stability and prosperity elsewhere and to show that the authoritarian path, ultimately, cannot produce the kinds of solutions that lead to a better, safer, or easier life for people around the world.
So that has less to do with the classic kind of proxy war mindset of the Cold War and more to do with charting a course toward a set of solutions. America is a problem-solving country and with a problem-solving people in a world full of problems, and trying to show that it is the democracies of the world that are best suited to solving those problems.
PACKER: So more by example than by intervention, to put it simply?
SULLIVAN: Well, it’s a combination of example at home and then by—so not pure example as in, like, look at our democracy and replicate it. It
the philanthropy, the good ideas, and the sheer capacity to help the rest of the world and in doing so more countries in more parts of the world will say, I like that better than the alternative that’s being offered to me.
SULLIVAN: And the president believes that that is the best way to, ultimately, have democracy.
PACKER: So back to the Jake Sullivan archive.
From that Atlantic essay not since 1945 has the U.S. had the chance to go back to basics and decide which parts to keep, which to scrap, and, above all, which to reinvent. After Trump, it can do just that.
OK. We’re after Trump. You’re in power. What have we kept? What have we scrapped? What are we reinventing?
SULLIVAN: So the first and most important thing that the president has been intent on keeping is the fundamental foundation of America’s alliances as the ultimate force multiplier and as a strategic asset that no other country can come close to replicating.
He has reinforced that through the work he has done with NATO, not just bringing NATO, I think, to the pinnacle of its power and purpose in decades but enlarging NATO.
We are on the cusp of bringing in two members in Sweden and Finland who no one would have thought it possible would be joining the alliance a decade ago. And this is from three years ago when prominent leaders in Europe were describing NATO as, basically, having lost its way.
Our allies in Asia, linking Europe and Asia through the AUKUS partnership where the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have announced a new strategic partnership for emerging military technologies. So our alliances we have kept.
In terms of what we need to reinvent, a good example of this—Janet Yellen gave a speech a few weeks ago about the need for fundamental reform in the international financial institutions and the multilateral development banks.
We have a series of global public goods that need to be delivered in the world with respect to climate, with respect to public health, with respect to migration, and our international financial institutions, which were built after the Second World War and were fit for purpose for a different world, need to be updated to take on these challenges.
But we also need to add new tools that we haven’t brought to bear to get after that same problem.
So, for example, just earlier today, along with members of my team we were meeting with a series of private sector leaders here in New York about this partnership for global infrastructure investment, which is designed by the G-7 to try to invest in digital clean energy and health infrastructure in low and middle income economies around the world, marshaling hundreds of billions of dollars of investment at a moment when that is what the world is crying out for.
We’re, essentially, building that from scratch. And then, you know, what to move away from or beyond. You know, from our perspective, when you think about what a modern international economic system will look like, our view is that we cannot simply rely on, for example, the old free trade agreement model.
That model was right for its time but now we need a new model for economic agreements with other nations, and so we have launched something called the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework with fourteen countries in Asia and are looking at similar models for the Americas in other places.
So I can give you more examples but those are some of the areas where just in terms of the architecture of how we approach foreign policy and international affairs we’ve taken a different approach while also reinforcing the fundamental sources of American strength, including our alliances.
PACKER: You’ve written a lot between 2016 and 2020 about a middle class foreign policy. I have the feeling you were responding to the incredible pain of the election in 2016 by asking—and I think you’ve said this to me—what have—how has foreign policy drifted away so far from the interests and desires of ordinary people that a woman with lots of experience was rejected in favor of a man who was saying why should we care about this stuff.
So what is a foreign policy for the middle class today in the Biden administration? And, for example, Ukraine would seem like a hard test case because explaining why Ukraine matters it’s not impossible but it’s not simple, whereas explaining why energy prices matter is easy. And what if Ukraine and energy prices are moving in opposite directions?
How do you justify the incredible effort that we’ve made in allowing Ukraine to survive and defend itself in light of inflation, in light of gas prices, et cetera, when the middle class might be saying eventually, I’m getting tired of this Ukraine business—I want to see prices go down?
SULLIVAN: So, honestly, what makes me think that Les had just such a remarkable fundamental wisdom about his approach to foreign policy is that I think it was rooted in his upbringing and his—nobody could kind of speak more on behalf of working people in the middle class than someone like Les, and he cared a lot about it.
He used to say to me all the time that the greatest source of American power in the world is the American middle class and if it is not strong America is not strong. This was one of his articles of faith.
And the reason I come back to him in answering your question is this. Les would reject the premise that there’s—that middle class people only care about a certain set of kind of core pocketbook issues and don’t care about kind of fundamental elemental struggles between good and evil.
He would say the American middle class cares deeply about that. If you watch what movies they go watch—you know, have you watched how they operated through the entire Cold War?
I grew up in the Midwest in Minnesota in the 1980s and the movies I watched were Red Dawn and Rocky IV and Top Gun, and I didn’t think, well, though, how did that fit in with energy prices? (Laughter.) I thought, you know, like—
PACKER: Good guys.
SULLIVAN: —I believe in something. I believe in freedom-loving people fighting for their freedom and freedom-loving people helping other people fight for their freedom, and I think there’s no more quintessential American middle class striving quality than thinking, hey, we could help the Ukrainians stand up and defend their country against a brutal aggressor.
And you don’t have to take my word for it, if you look at the outpouring of support for Ukraine, notwithstanding certain comments that have been made, the continuing bipartisan support for Ukraine.
Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t care about those other issues, too, and, in fact, one of the things that we’ve put a huge amount of effort into over the last nine months is how do we actually use every tool in our
toolbox to address the impact on energy prices, on food prices, and to think about a holistic strategy towards Ukraine where those are not ancillary or secondary issues, that those are real important priorities that we’re focused on even as we are working to provide Ukraine with the means and the tools to defend itself.
And I’ll just say one other thing where, actually, I think, grand strategy and the middle class converge. The number of times the phrase “supply chain” was probably uttered on a Council on Foreign Relations stage three years ago was maybe zero in a year. Now it comes up all the time post-COVID.
But COVID merely exposed something that was more fundamental across the board, which is that, essentially, the loss of resilient supply chains and a strong advanced industrial base in the United States has come at a cost to the economic power of the United States. And, you know, you’ve written about this. But it’s also come at a cost to the strategic capacity of the United States.
And so I’m now a national security adviser, probably the first of the twenty-eight who have held my position who thinks every single day about supply chains in one way or another, and whether it’s electric vehicle batteries or it’s critical minerals or it’s advanced pharmaceutical ingredients or it’s semiconductors, this is now something that is a good example of how actually getting away from what really matters to the American middle class also cost us, I think, at a strategic level because we moved to just in time, lowest cost, you know, and we’ll deal with all the threats or problems or challenges later.
And that’s a good example, to me, of where actually a foreign policy for the middle class is a foreign policy that puts—would put the United States in a better position strategically, going forward.
PACKER: Let’s go to questions.
Yes, sir. Right there in front. Yeah.
Is there a mic coming around? We’ll get to you.
Q: Thank you. Thank you, both George and Jake.
But I wonder, Jake, what are you able to tell us about your reported meeting with the Russians and what do you think the outlook is? (Laughter.)
SULLIVAN: I knew someone would ask that so I didn’t bother.
So what I will say on this stage is what I’ve said publicly before, which is that we in the Biden administration have had the opportunity to engage at senior levels with the Russians to communicate, to reduce risk, to convey the consequences of the potential use of nuclear weapons.
We have not described the channels that we have done in order to protect those channels, and I’m afraid I can’t go further than that today.
PACKER: Let’s get a question from virtual membership.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Fred Hochberg.
Q: Thank you, Jake. And, George, sorry to say I loved your last two books enormously but that’s not my question.
My question is—(laughs)—it’s been—a lot was mentioned about the lack of foreign ambassadors around the world and, frankly, we’re at an impasse. You know, we all know the confirmation process is somewhat broken.
So what’s the workaround? Because we do have less representation and it does look like a retreat. So how do we respond to foreign powers that it’s not a retreat and what can we do to work around that? Because the Senate is not going to change.
SULLIVAN: I was going to say, Fred, call your senator now. (Laughter.)
Look, all I can say is I agree. You look at major countries in the world. We’re nearly two years into our administration. We have not been able to get ambassadors who have been duly nominated and sent up to the Senate confirmed and in place. And not having that senior American representative—and there are former ambassadors in the room here who know full well how critical those functions are in every country—and how there is the perception, as Fred said, that if you don’t have someone there, it says something about the United States downgrading the relationship.
All we can do in the Biden administration is to continue to put forward extremely qualified people, get them up to the Senate, and then with elbow grease and shoe leather try to cobble together the votes to get them across the line. And we’ve been able to do that in a lot of countries. It has taken us longer than we had hoped. But there are still a number of very important vacancies. And we feel like we are doing all in our power to move that forward. But for a variety of different reasons, some of these just remain stuck. And I do believe that comes to the strategic detriment of the United States.
PACKER: Well, this is related. And it’s from Peter Tarnoff, who was a president of the Council and a close friend of Les Gelb.
And his question is: How do we get a bipartisan foreign policy? Or can we? Or is it impossible? And that’s a question from thirty years ago or so. I don’t think we’ve had one for a long time.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, no, look, politics has entered foreign policy, I think, in corrosive and problematic ways. But there are still key elements of our foreign policy that do have a strong bipartisan basis. And by bipartisan, I don’t mean totally consensus based. I just mean that solid majorities of both parties support some fundamental elements.
And just two examples. The president moved up the papers for ratification of Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO. And they were overwhelmingly ratified in the Senate within a matter of hours, it may have been days, but, like, an incredibly short amount of time. I believe there may have even only been one vote against that. So—
PACKER: Yes, but—
SULLIVAN: I had a second example, but—
PACKER: But let me ask about that first. (Laughter.) So we’re a day away from the midterms. It does seem as if we’re going to have a rather different Congress for two years. And that Congress might not be as welcoming and lacks about, yes, whatever money you want for Ukraine, go ahead. Ukraine has been the bipartisan success story. So how—
SULLIVAN: Yeah, it was going to be my second example.
PACKER: OK. So how are you going to—how are you going to—
SULLIVAN: Because it really has been. I mean, it genuinely has been over the last ten years. And I’ve sat with President Biden when he’s been with Leader McConnell and Leader Schumer. The day before I was in Kyiv last Friday, Rob Portman and Chris Coons were there together, standing up and saying we’ll deliver. And I guess, to your point, Rob Portman is leaving at the end of the year, but I actually believe that notwithstanding,
again, comments that certain people have made, I believe there’s still is strong support on the Hill for delivering the necessary resources to Ukraine. And I think you will not see these kinds of doomsday scenarios that the purse strings will be pulled shut and it’s over. I just simply reject that. I don’t think the—our analysis of where the members are in both the House and the Senate bear that out.
And some of the strongest voices with respect to support for Ukraine are on the Republican side. Some of the strongest are on the Democratic side. And, yes, there may be an increasing number of voices that raise questions, but it will still be a very distinct minority.
PACKER: Let’s get another question from the room. Yes, yeah, the guy who I thought I called on last time. I’m calling on him now. (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you. Jonathan Guyer with Vox, and a term member.
I’m curious, Mr. Sullivan, what lessons did Mr. Gelb impart to you from Henry Kissinger and how he ran the National Security Council? And maybe you could say a word as well about your brother Tom, who I also believe interned with Mr. Gelb. (Laughter.)
SULLIVAN: I’ll start with the easy part of the question, which is my brother Tom. Who actually worked on Power Rules, worked on the book. He didn’t just intern for Les, he actually worked for him. And also is somebody who reveres the ground that Les walked on and is now working at the State Department. So I guess Les sort of turned it into a family business of sorts with us. (Laughter.)
You know, it’s interesting. I became—I was named national security advisor after Les had passed. And most of my conversations with him were sort of about the larger questions of American foreign policy, and about the State Department, where I spent four years in the Obama-Biden administration. So we didn’t actually really talk about the function of the NSC, per se. And one of the things I greatly miss about not being able to pick up the phone and call him is honestly getting the how-to guide for how to do my job better. And I just never really got that opportunity because, you know, it wasn’t until after he had passed that I came into this role. So I’m afraid that I don’t have a good answer to your first question.
PACKER: A virtual question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Jenna Ben-Yehuda.
Q: Hi, Jake, George. Nice to see you both. I wish I were there to see you in person, and for the nosh to follow.
Maybe building off of Jonathan’s question just a little bit. Jake, you talked about how the international economic system is no longer purpose-built for the time in which we live. I think there were a lot of folks who might say the same about the structures of government which you work to operate in every day. I’m wondering, as you think about the increasing role of the private sector, or civil society, throughout a series of recent international crises, what stands out as an area where government needs to change to conform to the chaotic environment in which we all live in order to be more effective on delivering on some of the goals you’ve set forth?
SULLIVAN: Well, you know, we came in in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when the world’s collective capacity to respond to that pandemic was revealed as being very sorely lacking. And we have really worked over the last year and a half to think about how to build a combination of early warning, financing, and production capacity for countermeasures—vaccines, treatments, and so forth—distributed globally. So, for example, through the Partnerships for Global Infrastructure Investment that I was referring to earlier, we’ve invested in a vaccine manufacturing facility in West Africa, with the notion that this could become a model investment for being able to have the necessary capacity when the next pandemic comes—and there will be
another one—for us to actually have in place the capacity to produce and then rapidly distribute countermeasures.
And to have the necessary financing behind it from a combination of the G-20 and the World Bank to do something about it. And in Bali next week at the G-20 there will be further development of this—of a global health financing facility that is built with pandemic prevention and then response in mind. So that’s just one example of where what we were dealing with coming in and what needs to be built to deal with what comes down the road is—you know, has been kind of present and in our face.
Now, I would say we learned a lot from COVID-19. We’re applying some of those lessons. But what it takes in terms of resources, and building of structures, and actually doing the work now so that we don’t repeat the mistake later, I believe there is still a gap between where we are and where we need to be. And if you just think about the sheer cost—the human cost and financial cost of COVID-19, and the investment that we could make right now to prevent that kind of cost in the future, it’s one of the greatest investments you could possibly make. And yet, we very rapidly forget, even as we’re still dealing with COVID-19, about, you know, getting ahead of these kinds of problems.
So that’s one example. I mean, there are many others, but it’s the one that I most acutely felt when we first came into office.
PACKER: Jim Hoge, did you have a question?
Q: This has been a terrific discussion.
I want to add a modest note of urgency that maybe is out of place. But it’s this, the Koreans have given us another show of what they can do with missiles, et cetera, that’s out of scale to anything it had done before. At the same time, we’re getting reports of neighbors in the Asian region going in for military modernizations, some with an eye towards getting prepared if they decide at some point they need nuclear weapons of their own because of a drop of confidence in the United States as a—and what I guess my question is—I heard less about it tonight—is there some little extra reason for urgency about the tittle in the Far East, which is a festering sort of—(inaudible)—all the time these days? Thank you.
SULLIVAN: I mean, the short answer to your question is, yes. There’s reason for urgency. And a lot of the world’s attention has been focused on the ongoing war in Ukraine. And with moments of turning to the potential war in the Indo-Pacific. But I will tell you that for the Biden administration, we have placed an enormous amount of emphasis on addressing what are two very acute security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. One comes from North Korea. And we just had the entire senior leadership of the ROK defense establishment here in Washington. I believe actually we have taken some pretty profound steps in reinforcing their confidence in our extended deterrence. We have taken the U.S.-Japan alliance, I think, to a new level and, in fact, are working increasingly closely to ensure that Japan’s level of confidence in America’s capacity to fulfill its alliance commitments is robust and sound.
And the second is across the Taiwan Strait. And there we have worked hard to both reinforce that the fundamental tenets of our policy have not changed, that we support peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and oppose unilateral changes to the status quo. And we have also worked on a rapid, accelerated basis to try to build deterrence so that it becomes clear that trying to take some rash action in that part of the world will cost more than it will benefit any actor. So if you look at the actual allocation of effort, resources, and engagement by the Biden administration, a huge amount of it has gone into strengthening our position, strengthening deterrence, strengthening extended deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, and making it clear to both North Korea and to Beijing that precipitous military action will come with really substantial costs. And we will continue to do that, even as we continue the work that we’re doing to support Ukraine.
So it’s not in the news as much. It hasn’t featured as much in this conversation. But it is absolutely central to our National Security Strategy. And it is central to the daily schedule of me as national security advisor, and the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and the president of the United States, who of course is leaving this week for a trip to Asia to consult with both our allies and with other key countries in the region on these big, huge, monumental questions of peace and stability.
PACKER: Let’s get another from the room. Yes, the lady one in from the aisle there. Yes, you. Right? Yeah.
Q: Thank you. Cynthia Roberts. I’m a professor at Hunter and up at Columbia.
So in early 1980s, Les Gelb interviewed Marshal Ogarkov, the chief of staff of the Soviet Armed Forces. And it was one of the most amazing interviews that Les Gelb ever did, because he got Ogarkov to tell him it was hopeless for the Soviet Union and he should stop obsessing about Soviet military power advantages. And it was all because of Western technology and computers. They could never catch up. And they could never catch up because he told Les Gelb that it would require domestic political change.
So thinking this being a Les Gelb affair, and how important that impact had on me, I wanted to ask you what has surprised you the most and what do you think is the most consequential from this Russian aggression against Ukraine? Is it using nuclear threats to shield the aggression? Is it other nuclear threats that might actually lead to their kinetic use? Is it the weaknesses of the Russian military? What do you take away from this? Hopefully you can also cause the same outcome, I’m sorry, to Ogarkov—that he caused Ogarkov. He was removed about a year or so later from that. (Laughter.) Thank you.
SULLIVAN: Look, I do think that the capacity of the Russian military, the conventional capacity of the Russian military, we’ve rated quite differently from how it has performed on the battlefield in Ukraine. And that’s to take nothing away from the bravery and skill and resourcefulness of the Ukrainians. But that’s simply the reality. Our expectations at the start of this conflict, and the way that things have played out, there has been a gap between those two things when it comes to Russia’s capacity to bring force to bear to conquer portions of Ukraine.
And that has, in fact, placed greater emphasis within Russian strategic thinking and strategic signaling on their nonconventional capabilities, because it’s what they’ve got left. And that is, we believe, a source of concern. Now, at the same time, we have been very clear and very direct, as I said to an earlier question, about how the United States would approach the potential use of nuclear weapons. But we have done so privately and directly to the Russians. We have not really talked about it publicly, because we have not seen profit in that. I don’t think Les would have seen profit in that. But it is something that we look at and try to manage every day, while at the same time remaining utterly undeterred in continuing the flow of resources and support to Ukraine as they continue to try to fight for their sovereignty and territorial integrity.
PACKER: Very quickly, before we get to another question, do the American people have a right to know how much risk they’re running in this confrontation? You’ve talked about catastrophic consequences, but beyond that we have no idea what we’re talking about. Is there in a democracy an imperative to tell the public, this is what might happen to you if Russia uses a nuke?
SULLIVAN: Look, I think we have to be honest about this being a risk, and a real risk. And as President Biden himself said, the risk of the use of nuclear weapons can set off a chain reaction that everybody can use their imagination to see where it leads. So we have to be straightforward and direct about the risk. And I believe we have been. In fact, we have lifted it up, and come out. It’s not been pried out of us or dragged out of us. But particular courses of action in response to that and creating the best strategic environment for deterrence so that that eventuality never befalls us, we have a responsibility to do that too. And so I do think there is a balance here. And we’re doing our best to strike that balance well.
PACKER: OK. Virtual question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Elizabeth Economy.
Q: It’s really wonderful to have the opportunity to participate, even virtually, in this tribute to Les and his legacy. And I can’t resist, you know, for Judy, I just want you to know how deeply Les is missed and how grateful I am for the ten years I was able to learn from him and to work in the really extraordinary intellectual and creative environment he built at the Council.
OK. For Jake—who, by the way, is the reason I am stuck here in Washington, working on two things that are going to be coming across your desk, which hopefully at least one of them will give you a little heartburn. (Laughter.) But you talked eloquently about the importance of working with our allies and partners, which is something that Les also stressed. And I think your leadership at the NSC does pay tribute to that. But in a competition with China that is truly global, I do wonder whether we’re paying enough attention to the rest of the world, particularly the global south. And you mentioned PGII, but could you say a few words about our larger strategy for the global south, for the emerging economies?
SULLIVAN: This is a very important moment to be having this conversation because we’re heading off to the G-20. And I think that there are basically four or five issues that are top of mind for emerging economies through the rest of the world that the United States needs to have good answers for.
One is debt. Countries had to borrow heavily during the pandemic, and then had to borrow more to deal with high energy costs. And now they’re contending with serious debt obligations. And they need help from the world. And, by the way, that help has to include China. That China has to participate in meaningful efforts to provide debt relief, sovereign debt relief, to emerging economies.
Another is food security. And the United States has mobilized really an unprecedented amount of funding for both the humanitarian response and also to try to increase production and reduce the extend of export bans, and quotas, and so forth around the world, through various initiatives. And we will drive that forward with countries not just from the G-7, but from the broader G-20, when we’re in Bali.
A third is energy security and the climate transition. We’ll be at COP-27 and then on. And, you know, instead of just talking in sort of very general terms, we’ll have a series of specific announcements about real resources from the United States to help countries both mitigate carbon and adapt to the climate impacts on their societies. There’s the infrastructure issue that PGII is centrally about.
Countries are crying out for investment to build out their digital health and energy infrastructure. And we are actually trying to meet that with a genuine value proposition. And so—and then—and then I mentioned multilateral development bank reform, which is fundamentally about being able to actually unlock huge amounts of resources to deliver to the developing world and the global south.
You take those issues, all of which are touched in one way or another by geopolitics, by the war in Ukraine, by what Jim Hoge raised in terms of instability in the Indo-Pacific. And all of which the United States, I think, has a profound obligation not just to speak to but to deliver on. And I think you’ll see a really robust, specific, clear agenda being laid out and advanced by us, alongside partners, when we get to Bali next week.
PACKER: I think we have time for one more quick question from the room. Yes, in the second row.
Q: Over the past couple years, how do you think identity politics have contributed to the disparity in political parties? Maybe seen in, like, recent debates during the midterms, for example?
SULLIVAN: So one of the things Les would always tell me is mind your knitting. (Laughter.) Talk about the things you’re sort of professionally competent, sort of competent, to talk about, and not things you’re not. And I would say, sitting here as national security advisor, I’m probably less competent to answer that question. So I guess I will finish the day with a disappointment. (Laughter.)
PACKER: And I forgot to say, this is on the record, by the way. (Laughter.) Sorry. I think that that concludes our part of this evening.
SULLIVAN: Yes. I did want to say one thing, which is—I’m not actually going to read it—but President Biden, Judy, has written you a letter. Where’s Judy? Oh. That I wanted to make sure to give to you. In the letter he, of course, extolls Les, but he also talks very specifically about the late-night conversations he had on plane flights with Les Gelb that led to the way he thinks about foreign policy. So fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not just me. It’s the guy in the Oval Office who Les left a real mark on. And President Biden wanted me to convey to you just how deeply he appreciates the memory of your husband and how much he wanted to tell you that directly in this letter. So thank you. And thanks to all of you for sharing in—(applause).
PACKER: Frank Wisner will deliver closing remarks. Afterward, there will be a reception upstairs for those of us who are here in New York.
WISNER: Good evening. Well, it falls to me the very unhappy duty of bringing this extraordinary proceeding to a close. I want to do so on behalf of the Gelb family in particular to thank literally all of you tonight for coming and being part of this extraordinary evening, this exchange between George and Jake Sullivan. Judy, I hope you, Adam, the children, their daughters have all appreciated this as much as I know I have.
I, second, want to say thank you to the Council for the great work that was put into the organization of this evening—to the staff of the Council; Richard Haass, to you for opening the doors to such a distinguished previous president and making it possible to celebrate his life as we have indeed tonight.
It’s also reasonable to say thank you for literally all that happened tonight between George Packer and Jake Sullivan. I have witnessed tonight—and I think many of you would agree with me—a nuanced, deep-ranging discussion of the critical choices before us in our foreign policy. I found it particularly touching—and I won’t trivialize it by trying to pick and choose among the interesting things all of us heard tonight—but I believe it’s fair to say that you have heard as good an account of where the United States is as we begin to adjust ourselves to a profoundly different age, in which American power is critically important but needs to be managed in great care, for that, in the end, was the core message that we bring this evening to—and George and Jake brought this evening—to look at the question of Les’s life and his legacy. And it was an extraordinary life—as, Win, you carefully articulated at the outset, a life in which he literally gave everything in his power to his love of this country, its prospects, its future. And his patriotism, to me, will remain an enormously moving event.
As well, when I think of Les’s commitment to great institutions—to our democracy, to the institutions of our democracy, and indeed institutions like this, the Council on Foreign Relations—and all of us who have the pleasure and privilege of knowing Les, to appreciate his humor—trenchant, persistent, and deep—as we all did, but to admire his fortitude during his years of travail, when illness wracked him and he was able to manage it and continue to be an extraordinarily productive and purposeful person.
So it brings us, therefore, back to the core contribution. And I think it’s come through tonight to all of us that we’ve heard the essence of what Les was about. He was about common sense. He was about a sense of realism in what we do with our foreign policy and the pursuit of our national security, rooted—as, Jake, you put it so well this evening, rooted in a profound recognition that America must be about her own interests and her people. And that’s what foreign policy demonstrates.
It's about strategy—as Les made it all too clear, about strategy that springs from wise statecraft based on common sense. It’s about an honesty—an honesty and clarity of discussion. And if I’m true to Les’s legacy as well, it’s about the inclusion of all Americans—men, women, races, genders, young and old—who participate in the elaboration. Les always paid attention.
These are memories I cherish personally of Les. I think they’ve come through superbly this evening. And Jake and George, particularly my thanks to the both of you for a stunning performance. Thank you all very much.
Ladies and gentlemen, we will repair now upstairs and there is a book to be signed. I believe, if Laura has properly instructed me, you’ll find it upstairs. You’ll be able to put your name in it.
Many thanks to all of you, again. Appreciate having you. (Applause.)
This is an uncorrected transcript.