Progressive Foreign Policy: A Conversation With Senator Chris Murphy
Senator Murphy discusses his progressive foreign policy vision and national security interests in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
TALEV: Thank you. I’m going to be really concise, conciser than normal, this morning because the Senator actually has somewhere to be a little bit early, so we’re going to do half an hour of the you Q&A in twenty-five minutes. So we’re going to make this happen.
Good morning. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Senator Chris Murphy. I’m Margaret Talev, the politics and White House editor for Axios, and I will be presiding over today’s discussion. Senator Murphy, as you all know, is the junior senator from Connecticut. He is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the top Democrat on the Subcommittee for the Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, which will explain all of his planned adventures this summer, most of which got cancelled and redirected. He is also a leading advocate, as all of you know, in the bipartisan push right now for a gun control package that the president or Republicans can get behind. And his congressional district before joining the Senate included Newtown, Connecticut, home to Sandy Hook Elementary.
So with that introduction, Senator Murphy, please come on up, make a few comments, and then we will move to this portion of the conversation. Thanks, again, all of you for being with us. (Applause.)
MURPHY: Well, thank you very much, Margaret. I’m excited to spend some time with you here on stage. Thank you to all of my friends at the Council for having me back once again, and for all the great work that you do to keep the foreign policy community connected to Congress here in Washington.
I want to talk to you a little bit this morning, for about ten minutes or so, about the future of what I will call progressive foreign policy, with an eye towards the next administration. In the two Democratic debates that we’ve had so far, if you count generously, candidates about spent about thirty minutes talking about foreign policy out of nine hours of debate. That’s less than 6 percent of the time on stage. And only two of the candidates have released anything that could be fairly characterized as a foreign policy plan. And we’ve seen a lot of plans from candidates.
I get that primary elections generally aren’t decided on international issues, and this one probably isn’t going to be different. But if tonight’s debate plays out like the first two, I’m going to actually stat getting worried for my party for two reasons. First, I just think Democrats who are running for president have a civic responsibility to flesh out their vision for the world before they sit in the Oval Office. If Congress remains divided, then it’s going to be foreign policy where the next president has the most discretion. And I want a president who has given some real, deep thoughts to these big, hairy questions of how America intersects with the world before they get there.
But second, I think in the last few months, and indeed just in the last few weeks, we have seen a major opening for Democrats to seize on the issue of national security. Trump won the election in part by selling himself as a deal maker who could get big things done with Iran and North Korea on nukes, with China and Europe on trade, with Mexico on the wall. But Americans are now coming to grips with this realization that none of those deals are getting done. It’s the most potent indictment of those dealmaker claims. And Trump’s casual flirtation with war with Iran, and his waffling on troop levels in the Middle East have made Americans really worried that Trump can keep us safe.
Now, Democrats maybe can’t completely close the national security gap with Republicans that traditionally exists. But Trump gives us reason to try, because if we did we could make more progress on this gap, this election, than in the past. And that might make the difference in 2020. So here are a few thoughts to chew on, a little unsolicited advice for the small cadre of foreign policy thinkers who are advising our 2020 candidates.
First, let make a simple argument, and it’s this: There is almost no important domestic progressive value that can be advanced without a foreign policy complement. You care about repairing America’s broken democracy? Well, the better China gets at exporting the tools of tyrants, the less check Russia feels on its efforts to manipulate foreign elections, then the less healthy our own democracy becomes. You want to focus on immigration? Well, the less involved America is in fixing broken counties in Central America the more refugees show up at our borders. And guess what? The xenophobic national movement is, indeed, global. When antiimmigrant parties score victories in Europe it strengthens the hand of similar movements here. Now, your priority is the climate? Well, you can’t save the Earth without global engagement. And rejoining Paris is just the easy part. After that, we need a massive global diplomatic effort to convince countries to comply.
My point is this: Even for the Democratic candidates who say it’s time to focus on American problems, our issues don’t exist in a vacuum. If you care about democracy, or human rights, or the environment here, then you have to care about these fights everywhere. And you need to be engaged on them everywhere. But of course, there’s another reason for America to reenter these values fights. The world is a safer place the more people have access to self-determination, and freedom of speech, and protection from persecution or discrimination.
The ideas that undergirded the post-World War II order have not suddenly come undone. Democracies still tend not to attack each other. Countries where women have equal rights to men, they breed fewer terrorists. Participatory democracies and open economies are still the best protection against instability. And of course, progressives should never cede ground about which party or political movement cares more about protecting America. We put our nation’s security first. And that’s why we think that we should put democracy promotion, and human rights, and climate change, back at the center of American foreign policy.
Now, really, in some ways, that’s the easy stuff, elevating our game on these critical topics. Here’s the tougher sled, and it’s what I want to spend just a little bit more time talking to you about this morning. The foundational crisis that the next president will face is that his or her foreign policy toolkit, the levers that the president can press to try to protect and advance our interests abroad, is basically a 1988 Ford Taurus on a road that is crowded with shiny new Teslas and Land Rovers. Our obsession with defense buildups in a world where the most significant threats to the United States are not conventional military threats, and our refusal to create capacities to meet our enemies where they exist—this destines to slide us into global irrelevance, unless we figure out a new way to meet modern threats with modern capabilities.
Now, before I go through a few of these new tools that the next president is going to need in order to be successful, let me give you just two examples of how our current toolbox is totally failing American national security interests. First, let’s look to Ukraine, where a new reformist president, who I met in Kyiv for the first time last week, is trying to deescalate tensions with Moscow. The American response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has been mostly a military one, because that’s what we do. Four billion dollars a year in new troop and equipment deployments to Eastern Europe, radar systems, javelin missiles, troop training packages for Ukraine.
But Putin doesn’t change his behavior. Why? Well, because Putin actually doesn’t want to march his army on Kyiv. He wants to politically and economically destroy the country so that they eventually tire out and decide to cut a deal and return to Russia’s orbit. Brigades and missile systems aren’t a bad idea, it just can’t be our only idea. Putin delights when we spend $4 billion on military hardware and virtually nothing to try to break his energy grip on Europe, or attempts—or his attempts to hack into and disrupt the Ukrainian economy, or to use bribery to undermine an already corrupt military system. We’re not meeting Putin where he sits in Ukraine and the region.
Second, let’s look at how the American government today is dealing with the global information war. China, Russia, North Korea, terrorist groups, they’re all putting billions of dollars into manipulating information flows around the world, especially in sensitive political environments. Now, it’s taken us way too long to catch up, but finally a few years ago Senator Rob Portman and I passed legislation establishing a new center at the Department of State, the Global Engagement Center, to combat global propaganda. Now, that’s the good news. The bad news, the money’s not in the State Department. The money is in the Department of Defense. And so the Department of Defense is quietly ramping up its antipropaganda messaging operation because, well, they’re the only ones who have the money to do it.
Now, it would be more effective to empower voices in countries on the front lines of Russia or China’s information wars rather than American military bureaucrats. With small budgets, you can only afford to entertain small ideas, so we’re not thinking about funding high-quality content to help independent media outlets or funding a Russian language version of Al Jazeera that could be a real alternative to Russian satellite channels. There are hundreds of other examples of how badly we bungled our smart power tools, but the bottom line is this: the obsolescence of American foreign policy—of the American foreign policy toolkit is the real crisis. And building a new toolkit serves progressive values in two ways.
First, it allows us to more effectively fight for democracy and human rights in climate, which are both domestic and global priorities for progressives. But creating more effective national security capabilities and relying less on the bluntness of raw military power and arms exports, it will get us into less dumb wars and military conflict. That’s a progressive value as well. Now, listen, we shouldn’t let our guard down. We’re never immune to a conventional military attack, and neither are our treaty allies. And I do believe that peace comes through military strength. I’m not arguing for a massive downsizing of our military budget.
But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, especially when military spending comes at the expense of creating capabilities that actually meets the threats that we face. So what do we need in this new foreign policy—this progressive foreign policy toolkit? I’ll end with just a few ideas. Number one, we desperately need more economic leverage around the world. In the Cold War, there were two superpowers. We, frankly, didn’t need to be that nimble to win economic friends because your only other choice was the communist Soviets. Not so today. The Chinese, the Indians, the newly semi-capitalist Russians, the Gulf states. Everyone is looking to win friends over to their value system based on economic relationships, and we’re losing out.
Consolidating our international development agencies, it was a nice start, but we need to supercharge the investments that America—still the world’s biggest economy—can offer other nations. For instance, the Chinese are developing a model where they midwife a technology in their closed government-subsidized and controlled economy, and then they release it onto the world at a dirt-cheap price. Now, we need to have an answer to what China has done with 5G, and what they’re going to do with advanced batteries and AI in the next decade. And it can’t just be a robust campaign of shaming other nations who partner with Chinese companies. We need to put real public dollars, ideally in coordination with the Europeans, behind partnerships with Western companies who want to develop true competitor products to Chinese tech exports.
Number two, progressives shouldn’t be afraid of new multilateral trade deals. Free trade can be a progressive idea. Now, we should rework the Trans-Pacific Partnership so that it’s less friendly to corporations and more friendly to workers and the environment, but it’s a mistake for progressives to not see trade policy and critical statecraft. We can use trade agreements as a way to export our values and our interests. We shouldn’t forsake this tool just because we signed some bad trade deals in the past.
Number three, let’s get really serious about supporting existing democracies and fighting corruption in all countries, whether or not they’re democratic. If you total up all the money that the U.S. Department of State spends annually on protecting democracy and fighting corruption abroad, it’s about $2 ½ billion. Now, that sounds like a lot of money, but that’s as much money as the Department of Defense spends in two days. And it, frankly, pales in comparison to the amount of money that China, and Russia, and others are leveraging to undermine fragile democracies. So how do we do this? Well, here’s just one idea: Let’s create a new category of foreign service officers dedicated to fighting corruption abroad so that every single embassy in the world has one or more dedicated American staffers that put on—that are working on putting and protecting the rule of law first and from attack.
Number four, and lastly, we need to harden the State Department and USAID. I always think back to this trip I took in 2011 when I was visiting Western Afghanistan. We met with a capable group of Army commandos who were protecting Afghan farmers from attacks by the Taliban. And that was great. What was not so great, the farmers that were protecting were growing poppy and selling it to the Taliban who now, with this American protection, at least paid for the crop, instead of having the Taliban steal it. What those farmers really needed were agricultural advisors to help them grow another crop and Afghan-speaking political advisors to help them negotiate a détente with the Taliban once the poppy supplied disappeared. But because all we can do in dangerous conflict zones is deploy twenty-year-old commandos, we are stuck guarding the poppy fields for the enemy.
Or in Syria, where during most of the conflict over the last decade you know how many State Department advisors we’ve had side-by-side with our thousands of soldiers there? One. General after general tells us Syria is a political, not military, problem. So why don’t we have diplomats there? Well, because we haven’t developed any real hybrid class of diplomat warrior, despite the general failure of soldiers to do effective diplomacy. That can change. And progressives should lead that effort.
And these are just four ideas. They’re the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new capabilities to meet Russia and China extremist groups where they lie. But the lack of creativity in American foreign policy today is maddening to me. But as I said, so is the lack of attention to serious national security thinking amongst leading Democrats. And if we don’t start thinking outside of the box about how to bring progressive values to the world stage, then no matter how the next president reorients American priorities, he or she won’t actually be able to effectuate new goals with the same military-heavy toolkit that exists today.
Recognizing the new realities of the threats that we face and shifting our capabilities to meet these threats, that should be the goal of progressive foreign policy. This shift will benefit progressive values at home and keep us from falling into more ill thought out wars of choice abroad. Thank you very much for your time this morning, and I really look forward to a good discussion. Appreciate it. Thank you. (Applause.)
TALEV: (Off mic.)
MURPHY: (Laughs.) I am going to watch the debate. I didn’t watch all of the first two, because it was just hard to follow that many candidates. This one will be a little bit easier.
TALEV: The seven-hour climate change debate?
MURPHY: What’s that?
TALEV: The seven-hour climate change—it wasn’t a debate; it was a town hall.
MURPHY: And I guess—listen, I made the point that my friends who are running for president should be thinking more about foreign policy and that those that are questioning them should ask them more about it because it’s important. But I would also argue, it probably would expose some interesting differences between the candidates. If all you’re interested is fireworks on the debate stage, I imagine if you asked some pretty complicated questions about the negotiations with the Taliban or the future of U.S. relations with Israel, you might get some distinctions in the way that the candidates on that stage present their arguments and their beliefs. And so, yeah, I think there’s a lot of good reason for it to be a bigger part of the debate tonight and going forward than it has been.
TALEV: I’m going to ask you about John Bolton, because we’re all thinking about it. But I want to ask you, just in terms of the Democratic field right now, as far as you can tell who do you think actually has the most substantive sort of built out foreign policy plan? I know you haven’t decided to, you know, publicly support anybody yet, but does everyone have a robust foreign policy team? Are you familiar with who everyone’s advisors are?
MURPHY: No, I think it’s remarkable that there has been so little serious discussion of foreign policy proposals and priorities thus far in this campaign, especially because, as I mentioned, there’s been no shortage of serious thinking about policy. So there’s dozens of domestic policy plans that have been released by these candidates. But as far as I can tell, none of them have put down on the table an idea—their idea for what American presence in the Middle East will look like during their four or eight years in office, or what they would do alternatively in Syria or in Afghanistan. I get it. There’s maybe not a lot of demand for that amongst voters in Iowa or New Hampshire. But if you haven’t thought about those questions before you show up at the Oval Office, it’s hard to make it up on the fly.
Bernie and Elizabeth have given speeches or written pieces outlining some of their basic priorities. Pete Buttigieg has given some interviews on this topic. Obviously those who come from the Senate, you know, have a just built-in set of experiences and expertise. Cory is on the foreign relations committee. But I think it’s really fascinating how little this discussion has been present. And I think that needs to change.
TALEV: Do you think the phrase, “progressive foreign policy,” is there an agreement on what that means? Because I see different people use it in different ways. There’s a piece in The Atlantic this morning that, I’m paraphrasing, but the headline is something like: The problem with progressive foreign policy, or why it can’t work. And I’m just—I think I understand the rhetorical appeal of the phrase, but does it mean the same thing to everybody?
MURPHY: No, it probably—it probably doesn’t. And, you know, the case that I’m making here today is that we should perhaps sort of simplify the discussion that we’re having about progressive foreign policy. I think we should connect our domestic progressive priorities to the fights that we have abroad. We need to understand that if you’re fighting for democracy here, if you’re fighting for human rights here, you have to be engaged globally on these issues. And, second, I do think that what does unite progressives is the idea that we should learn from our mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, while not withdrawing from the world. A progressive foreign policy is one in which we give the presidents the tools to succeed globally, other than the deployment of American troops or the export of American arms.
I think that’s at the center of progressive foreign policy, right? We want We want a role in the world, but we want that role to look different than what has been available to prior presidents who really, when they saw a crisis, could only respond to it militarily. And that’s why I’m talking about capabilities. That’s why I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of what a president has at his disposal in order to respond in Ukraine, or in Syria, or in Central or South America. I think a progressive foreign policy is about capabilities. It’s a much more concrete discussion. And I think it ultimately gets us to the place where we want to be, which is forward-deployed with less chance that we get into dumb military conflicts, or we export weapons that end up facilitating or fueling dumb military conflicts.
TALEV: Is it an anti-war platform?
MURPHY: It’s not an anti-war platform in the sense that we always reserve the right to use military force in order to protect our interests abroad. But it is a recognition that, you know, over the last thirty years the threats that we faced are, by and large, not conventional military threats. But we don’t have the capabilities to meet Russia or China where they exist. And often, we try to—we try to create an adversary that is focused on fundamentally unconventional military attack. That’s why I make this point about Putin’s aims in Ukraine. Yes, he has figured out a way to sort of create hybrid military conflict, in which he’s invading without really invading. But ultimately he doesn’t want to march that army all the way to Kyiv. And we don’t have the capabilities to meet all of his asymmetric tools.
TALEV: John Bolton’s departure this week as the national security advisor, it sort of had all the drama we’ve all come to expect out of daily operations at the Trump White House. But I’m wondering, like, what do you think it actually means for foreign policy? I’ve heard a lot of people this week say it doesn’t matter who the next national security advisor is because Trump’s going to do what Trump wants to do. Do you think that’s true? And, like, what are you looking for in the next month, kind of as he—you know, the president has said he’s going to name a new national security advisor probably next week. UNGA is coming up. You know, the spectrum of a potential Rouhani meeting—although the White House keeps downplaying that. Like, what are kind of the litmus test that you’re looking for in the next month, and do you think it matters that John Bolton’s gone? What impact do you think it will have?
MURPHY: Well, the choice of national security advisor can’t not matter. Proximity to the chief executive always matters. And I think it matters in particular with this president. And the fact of the matter is, no matter how empowered Mike Pompeo is by the departure of John Bolton, he still isn’t in the White House every day. The national security advisor is. And so this choice does matter. Now, Trump, you know, is obviously very personality driven. And so if it’s somebody that he trusts and grows to trust, that person will naturally matter more. And so we’ll all watch this choice very carefully. But I don’t think you can say that it doesn’t matter.
One of the points that I’ve tried to make in the last few days, which has been lost a little bit by my progressive friends, is that as bad as John Bolton is, we do have to also remember that there’s, you know, about 20 or 30 percent of foreign policy that is truly controversial, right, where there’s big differences between Republicans and Democrats. Seventy percent of it, you know, is basic blocking and tackling of American interests abroad, in which we don’t have disagreements. I was in the Balkans last week. And, you know, there’s not big disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about the role we should play to bring Serbia and Kosovo together in mutual recognition. And John Bolton was working on that, just like he was working on other things.
And so I have always worried about John Bolton’s fascination with war, but I also worry about how fast we’re cycling through personnel in this administration because on the stuff that we don’t disagree on, this instability of personnel at the top of the White House is making the advancement of our interests impossible. When, you know, the president of Serbia and the prime minister of Kosovo don’t know who to talk to on a regular basis, even on the stuff that Republicans and Democrats can agree on, we can’t get anything done.
TALEV: You must have agreed with John Bolton on some things, like perhaps his stance on Russia. I mean, do you—like, do you think that every instinct John Bolton had took the president in the wrong direction or do you think there are some firewalls that he put up that did help to slow down or hold back policy that you might not have been comfortable with?
MURPHY: Well, I mean, listen, there’s not going to be anybody, you know, that occupies that position that I will disagree with on everything. And, you know, John Bolton, you know, did seem to have brought us to the brink of war with Iran. And so we were dangerously close, perhaps minutes away, from entering a conflagration with Iran that would have essentially dragged down the entire region. So you know, as dangerous as we thought John Bolton was, he might have been just that dangerous. But, yes, there were issues upon which he was giving good counsel to the president. But it doesn’t seem as if he had much impact. If he was trying to tell the president to put conditions on our reintegration of Russia with the G-7, the president wasn’t listening to that advice. The president seems to have made up his mind on some pretty big topics around the world. And no matter who you put in these big jobs, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of success in convincing him not to talk to dictators without preconditions, not to try to find ways to bring Russia back into the global hierarchical infrastructure.
TALEV: Do you expect the president to meet with Rouhani?
MURPHY: I don’t know. I mean, I guess I stopped trying to predict or expect anything from this White House. You know, I was—listen, obviously, you know, I’m torn, admittedly, on, you know, how this White House should conduct diplomacy. I generally am not a believer in refusing to talk to adversaries, or even enemies. But it is just absolutely startling how little diplomatic blocking and tackling this administration is willing to do ahead of a meeting between the president and a leader of a nation that is adversarial to us. And while I supported Trump’s initial talks with Kim Jong-un, in the end, you know, those series of talks didn’t move the needle significantly on any of the issues that are of concern to American and our allies. And it did legitimize his regime. And so if you’re going to just meet with Rouhani for a photo op, and you’re going to actually do nothing to bring them back into the JCPOA or try to address concerns about their ballistic missile program, then I do think we have to ask questions about whether we’re better off with or without that meeting.
TALEV: And sanctions—if dialing back sanctions are a precondition for a meeting, do you support that at this time? Do you think the sanctions on Iran are appropriate right now?
MURPHY: Well, no, I don’t believe that the sanctions are appropriate, in that they were applied to—as part of the president’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. And of course, this report from last night is just sort of too hard to believe, the idea that the president is going to release $15 billion in coordination with the Europeans to get Iran back into the compliance with the agreement, so that he can get his photo op, right? The idea that we are now paying additional money—or thinking about paying additional money to the Iranians—to get them to comply with a deal that they were already complying with, so that Trump can get a photo op, is kind of the personification of this administration’s foreign policy in many ways. And a sign of, you know, in fact, how hard it was always going to be to get any kind of deal with Iran that was better than the JCPOA.
TALEV: I hate this clock. This clock is killing me. Let’s do a couple real quick, and then I know you guys have amazing questions so I will—I’ll forgo some of my other amazing questions.
MURPHY: I’ll give short, amazing answers.
TALEV: (Laughs.) Next month marks the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Do you think that the Saudis are being held accountable by the rest of the world, and by the U.S.? And can you bring us up to speed on the latest with your plans, along with Senator Young, on forcing the vote on U.S. security assistance?
MURPHY: The Saudis are not being held accountable. Mohammad Bin Salman has gotten away with murder. And it frightens me. The message that’s being sent to dictators and would-be dictators around the world about what they can get away with, especially when it comes to people under American protection. And I’m just absolutely heartbroken that the United States has somehow overnight become the inferior partner to the Saudis in our bilateral relationship. They call the shots, not the United States of America. And especially today, when we are less reliant on their oil than any before it confuses me as to why that would be the case.
Senator Young and I have discovered a unique means by which we may be able to change our bilateral relationship for the better. Inside the Foreign Assistance Act is an ability to take a vote to compel a human rights report on a security partner. And then after that report is filed, Congress can pass legislation with fifty votes rather than sixty to change the nature of the security relationship in any way, put conditions upon it, for instance. I think that that’s an important new vehicle to try to perhaps put some conditions related to the investigation of the Khashoggi murder on our security assistance. But I think the president’s made it pretty clear by now that he’s going to veto anything we do to change our relationship with Saudi Arabia, as he did with our resolutions to pull United States troops out of the military coalition vis-à-vis Yemen.
And so I think we need to keep the pressure up. I think we need to keep forcing these debates in the Senate to make the world understand that this silence on the Khashoggi murder from the administration is not shared by Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But I don’t know that that eventually results in legislation being signed into law.
TALEV: We haven’t talked about Russia yet, and getting denied entry. Perhaps someone will ask. I want to close the part of our conversation actually with a domestic policy question, but I think it has broad interest to the rest of the world given the U.S.’s sort of unique status when it comes to guns and the general public. You, and Joe Manchin, and Pat Toomey, and Lindsey Graham, a bit, have all been trying to figure out what kind of a bipartisan gun control effort is ultimately amenable to President Trump and passable in Congress. And I’m just hoping you can briefly bring us up to speed. We know that you were in discussions with the president as recently as yesterday. Will you talk to him today? And how imminent is a decision or announcement on what could happen?
MURPHY: So we had a—you know, about a forty-minute conversation with the president yesterday. We got into some of the details about expanded background checks. Others talked to the president at length later in the day. I don’t know whether I’ll talk to the president today, but I expect that our teams will be meeting throughout the day. I think the president needs to make a decision about whether he wants to get behind the 90 percent of Americans who support expanded background checks. And I think what we don’t know yet is whether he’s willing to do that, because it would involve taking on the NRA. The gun lobby is never going to support any expansion of background checks in this country. And the president has, I think, the right instincts, which is why he’s still personally involved in these talks, that the gun lobby is weaker than ever before, and this has become a voting issue for swing voters, and a turnout issue for young people in this country. But I don’t think he’s made the decision to break with the gun lobby and really sit down and do detailed negotiations with those of us who work on this issue.
I will agree with you this is an international issue. I always remember a story that Matthew Barzun, our Obama-era ambassador to Britain told me. He said when he would go around to schools, he’d hand out two cards. And on one card he’d ask kids to ask a word that reflected something they liked about the United States, and on the other card a word that reflected something they didn’t like or confused them about the United States. And he called me to tell me about this exercise because he said, Chris, if you believe it, that on 70 percent of the cards in the second category the same one word is on the card? And this is sort of 2013-14. And so I was wracking my brain. I said—
TALEV: Right after—right after Sandy Hook.
MURPHY: Well, it was right after Sandy Hook. But it was also right after the disclosures about tapping Merkel’s phones, it was still in the—you know, in the aftermath of the Iraq War. So I said, well, is it spying? Is it Iraq? He said, no, it’s guns. It’s guns. Seventy percent of kids in England say the one thing they don’t understand or don’t like about the United States is guns. And so our inability to deal with this issue is one of the things that pushes us away from our allies. And from the very start, our foreign policy has been predicated on creating a model—an economic and a governance model here in the United States—that is so attractive to the rest of the world that they want to sign up with us. It’s not just about how strong our military is overseas. It’s about what the American experience represents to people. And this failure to deal with the epidemic of gun violence in this country, it is part of the story as to what drives allies and potential allies away from the United States.
TALEV: Thank you.
OK. At this time—oh, good, I see a couple hands—I would like to invite members to join in our conversation. And I want to remind everyone, this meeting is on the record. There are cameras in the back, as you can see. When I call on you, please wait for the microphone, and then if you would share your name and affiliation with us also that would be awesome. Keep them tight. We’ll get as many as we can.
OK, let’s start right here.
Q: I’m Paula Stern.
And I’m going to ask a question based on my service for 10 years at the U.S. International Trade Commission, which I chaired. The use of economic nonmilitary instruments, you talked about trade and you talked about the idea of a progressive policy that would have a new multilateral trade negotiations. I’m wondering if you would address the existing theories of bilaterals we have put in place, the Trump administration has, and specifically the steel Section 232 restrictions on many of our allies, and many of the countries, for example you mentioned Ukraine three or four times. Whereas, there have been deals made separately with some other countries to not have the restrictions, as spelled out in the original proposals, country by country, that the president placed. So I’m wondering how you use our trade relations with these individual countries, recognizing that you said that military is something that we real on way too much, and that your new progressive policy should look at non-military means.
MURPHY: Sure. Well, listen, there are all sorts of other elements, I would argue, to a progressive foreign policy vision of the world that I did not mention. One of them is the reinvestment in international associations and bilateral—multilateral arrangements. So I think progressives do believe that the world is safer if we all have forms through which we are interconnected. And that is something that this administration fundamentally does not believe. They are interested in the delegitimization of bilateral associations, organizations, and efforts. Which is why, on trade, they have chosen to conduct themselves on a bilateral basis. That is connected to their overall agenda of trying to delegitimize bilateralism.
I share in the concerns of some of my Republican colleagues, Pat Toomey chief amongst them, who we just mentioned, the way in which the president has gone around Congress to try to use tariff policy as a national security tool, when it is actually Congress that is vested with the authority to institute tariffs for economic reasons. And so I think Congress has to capture back tariff authority. And the president has, you know, tried to convince us that it’s all about national security when really he is using it for classic economic justifications.
And in general, I just think you got to be really careful about using trade policy and sanction policy as a tool to try to push American interests around the world. At some point the dollar may not be the world’s default currency. At some point, people may tire of the United States using our economy as a means to try to bully nations into complying with our national security priorities. Now, I’ve supported sanctions efforts. I’m not saying that I haven’t voted for those efforts. And I do actually think sometimes it makes sense to call countries to task with tariffs. But we have become generally over-reliant on using tariffs and sanctions as a way to bully countries into working with us on host of issues. And that has some real danger for the nation moving forward.
Q: I’m William Hauser, Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society.
And my question is, do you support or oppose the expansion of petroleum supply across Central and Northern Europe by Russia?
MURPHY: So part of my trip last week that we’ve referenced a few times was to Germany, to make—are you talking about Nord Stream 2? I assume you’re talking—
Q: About petroleum pipelines going through Europe.
MURPHY: Right. So part of my trip last week was to—was to Germany to make the case to them that the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is about bringing gas into Russia—into Germany and Europe from Russia is a terrible idea, and that we are essentially countermanding the effectiveness of our sanctions policy against Russia, which we have jointly agreed to, by then allowing Russia to build pipeline capacity into Europe that obviates their need to continue gas flows through the Ukraine.
Senator Johnson and I, he’s a conservative Republican from the Midwest. He and I have a piece of legislation that would stand up a billion-dollar American development capacity to support efforts inside Europe and other places to make them truly energy independent. Right now, again, we give advice of how you can wean yourself off of oil and gas produced in other places. We, again, try to sometimes use sanction policy to stop our friends in Europe from becoming more dependent on outside-produced fossil fuels. But we don’t really offer any help to them to do that. And so my view is that we should use the largess of the American government and of our finance institutions to actually help finance some of these wind projects, these solar projects, these geothermal projects in and around Europe.
So I have grave misgivings about the construction of new pipeline capacity. But I think we can’t just complain about it, as the United States. We actually have to help the Europeans, especially some of the—some of the less-developed of the Europeans, come up with new plans.
TALEV: So we found something you and President Trump have in common, on Nord Stream 2.
TALEV: OK. In the back. Yes, in the white dress.
Q: Hi, Senator. Thank you so much.
Can you also speak a bit more about a progressive foreign policy vis-à-vis some other transnational challenges? And specifically I’m thinking about climate change, about nuclear nonproliferation, and about refugees.
TALEV: Don’t forget to identify yourself.
Q: Yes. Who am I? Alex Toma with the Peace and Security Funders Group, and a very proud term member here at CFR.
MURPHY: You know, so I did—I did reference these issues, as I was talking about, you know, progressives domestically care about the issue of immigration, and the treatment of minority groups, and of course if you care about those issues domestically you have to care about them internationally. You have to invest in economic development and security assistance in the Northern Triangle in order to allow people to stay home, which is what they want to do. They don’t want to have to flee to the United States. And of course, if you care about protecting our interests in the Middle East, then you have to understand the danger that refugee flows out of places like Syria presents to our national security and the national security of partners there.
You know, we could care about refugees in dangerous places around the world because we are compassionate progressives, but we can also care about refugees in dangerous places because of cold-blooded national security interests. And so you know, from a progressive foreign policy viewpoint we can—we can pick, right, either genesis of our—of our concern.
And I mention on climate change, one of the reasons why, you know, you need a massive investment in diplomacy generally around the world, and why you need to sort of fix our relationships with our allies and with our—and with our competitors, is that, you know, joining Paris is going to be the easy part, right? I mean, we have come to sort of mistake Paris for the end of the negotiation rather than the beginning of the negotiation. And so you are going to—you are going to have to have a surge of diplomacy as part of a progressive foreign policy agenda, because in order to negotiate to the climate—the climate goals in Paris, you’re going to have to have American leadership in a way that it doesn’t exist, obviously, today.
Q: I’m Ari Baki (ph) with the Council on Foreign Relations and Lehigh University.
Senator, you put democracy promotion at the heart of a progressive foreign policy. And what I would like to so is ask you to be a little bit more specific in terms of how you would apply this when the Democrats come to power, and say you were influential in this. And I’ll give you essentially three sets of countries to see how you would deal with them. Let’s start with alliances like Hungary and Turkey, where you have authoritarian leaders that have usurped the democratic processes. You have adversaries like China and Russia. And then you have important countries like India, where a populist leader is increasingly doing things that are quite undemocratic. So how would you approach these three types of problems, if you want, in terms of democracy promotion and give some meat to your arguments?
MURPHY: Sure. So, you know, we often—we often create this dichotomy in American foreign policy in which we have interests here and values over here. And then we sort of ask how you would choose between values and interests. I think that’s a mistake, because, as I’ve argued, promoting democracy abroad is an interest. It’s not just a fuzzy value that Americans have. It’s an interest. We believe that the more people that have access to democracy, the more safe the world and the less threats that we face, and that ultimately the more stable our own democracy is.
And so I think you have to sort of sit democracy promotion in a list of interests that you have in every one of the bilateral conversations that you referenced. And my argument is that you should be elevating democracy promotion in the conversations that you have with a sort of sometimes ally, like Turkey or the countries in Europe, that you mentioned. And that you need to be raising these issues and concerns earlier in your bilateral meetings and negotiations in a way that we aren’t today. Second, I think we need to be working together with the European Union in raising and presenting these concerns. I think if you’re not doing it jointly, then you aren’t making real efforts.
Third, I think you’ve got to recognize the threats that are presented to democracy in these places. Part of the reason why I think we have to have these new beefy anti-propaganda efforts is because Russia is sort of taking advantage of the fact that we’ve downgraded democracy promotion in our conversations in a country like Turkey, right? They use information warfare to spin up anti-democratic narratives in those countries and provide excuses for Orbán to consolidate power. Well, I would argue that we have to be playing defense and offense when it comes to the information warfare against democracies. Defense in the sense that we need to identifying and rooting out these Russian trolls, and bots, and working with our allies in places like Hungary, for instance, to do it. Offense, in that we need to be funding counternarratives. We need to be actually putting money into truly objective journalism that’s going to identify the trolls, but also tell less objective narratives in these countries. That’s actually what the Global Engagement Center was setup to do.
And then I do think occasionally you have to draw some hard lines and send some messages about allies that have just gone too far in attacking freedom of speech. And that’s why, to me, Saudi Arabia is a really important case study here. I think that when we don’t convey real consequences for murdering a journalist, a dissenter, someone that sought protection in the United States, then we are sending a message to all of those countries that you mentioned about what they can get away with. And so I wouldn’t argue that you break off relationships with every country just because they are backsliding on democracy. I think you attack some of the insidious forces that help those attacks. I think you elevate the conversation in the bilateral relationship.
But then you do find ways to send hard messages that there is a moment that you’ve gone too far, right? There is a moment at which you can’t be part of Europe any longer if you’re not going to be a democracy. There is a point at which American security assistance does shut down, if you start going after—physically going after journalists or political dissenters. And we’re not doing any of those things. We’re not elevating the conversations. We’re not attacking propaganda. And we’re not showing where our bottom line is.
TALEV: The pink jacket.
Q: (Off mic)—from Al Jazeera.
I just wanted to pick up on the issue of Saudi Arabia. You sent a letter this week, along with Senator Young, to the Saudi crown prince, regarding aid to Yemen. Do you think—is this a new approach to, you know, address him directly? And do you think that you will get any response from the Saudis? And what would happen if that aid is not released? And just one quick question, regarding the resolution that you have introduced along with Senator Young, is there a timeline for forcing that vote in the Senate?
MURPHY: So I am—I’m infuriated that this withdrawal of funding for the U.N. has not gotten more attention here in the United States and globally. The beginning of this year, the UAE and the Saudis committed $750 million each to the U.N., which was commensurate to their commitment last year, in order to stave off what is going to be the inevitable starvation and disease this fall and this winter in Yemen. Cholera numbers are already spiking in and around the country. The Emiratis and the Saudis welched on their commitment. They literally pulled it back and decided that they weren’t going to make it, too late in the funding cycle, really, for other nations to make up the difference. And so as we speak feeding programs, health care programs, immunization programs that the U.N. runs in Yemen are shutting down.
And tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, many of them children, are going to die this month, and next month, and the month after because the Saudis and the Emiratis have decided that they are not funding the promises that they made. That is a moral abomination. And we should be raising this every single day with the Saudis and the Emiratis. And I’m going to be honest with you, this administration is not doing it. They are raising it, but they have all sorts of other issues that are on the table with them that often come first—many of them related to Iran. Iran dominates our negotiations and discussions with our Gulf partners. And as long as they are doing what we ask on Iran, then we let them go on Yemen and on their commitments to the U.N. And that is not acceptable.
Senator Young and I sent a letter to the Saudis, who have frankly been more intransient than the Emiratis on this question. I don’t know if it will work, because so long as they don’t feel like they’re getting real pressure from the highest levels of the administration—and I’m not saying that assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries aren’t asking the Saudis and the Emiratis to put up the money. I’m saying they’re not hearing that from the president, and they’re not hearing that enough from the secretary of state. And this is now a matter of life and death in Yemen. And it’s a stain on our country’s conscience to be still involved in a military coalition with the Saudis and the Emiratis when they are refusing to put up money to stop the humanitarian disaster.
TALEV: And your timing on forcing the vote, this next couple weeks or what?
MURPHY: You know, I think it’ll be—it’ll be this—my hope is it’ll be this fall. So the next couple weeks, September/October.
TALEV: Gentleman in the back.
Q: Nadeem Yaqub, a journalist with Voice of America.
Quick question. By trying to host Taliban and Afghan government at Camp David, do you think President Trump killed the opportunity to have a deal on Afghanistan? And related to that, second question, if the negotiations or the dialogue, you know, continues after the presidential elections in Afghanistan, do you think the Afghan government will have a more important and robust role in the negotiations?
MURPHY: So, I mean, I have not opposed the idea of having negotiations and talks with the Taliban. Obviously I would prefer the Afghan government to be a part of those talks. I would prefer for them not to have to occur sequentially, in which a deal with the Taliban—between us and them was a prerequisite to the Taliban’s talks with the Afghan government. But I think we have to admit that the emperor has no clothes. I mean, the policy of the last eighteen years has simply not worked. And the idea that we should just do more of the same of the next eighteen years—be engaged in a military conflict with the Taliban, the perhaps permanent occupation of Afghanistan—I don’t think is acceptable to the people that I represent in Connecticut.
But the way in which Trump decided to orchestrate the denouement of these talks was cataclysmic. I mean, why on Earth did this agreement have to signed at Camp David? What was the benefit of bringing the Taliban and the Afghan government to the United States? How would the agreement be more legitimate being signed on American soil than on Afghan soil? I mean, this made no sense, these Camp David talks, except for the fact that Trump’s foreign policy is essentially first, second, and third about photo ops. And this at least would have been a photo opportunity for the president.
Now, I don’t think he thought it through very well, because he might have gotten the initial photo op and then two, or three, or four days later the talks would have embarrassingly fallen apart, perhaps leading to even more violence then we’re going to get now. But the instinct to have this conversation was not wrong. And I guess in my mind, I’m upset that the photo op and the bad idea to bring the parties to Camp David, has caused the talks, which may have actually happened in something positive for U.S. national security interests, to collapse.
TALEV: I’m being told I have time for one more question, unless you change your mind and you want to run late for Senate for us.
Right here in the front.
Q: John Duke Anthony, a long-time consultant for DOJ and State.
If you can just elaborate a bit more on this pushing allies away. And it’s obviously that you’re conflicted, many of us are conflicted about how far, how fast you push and press an ally, who snaps back and says: Look, if you think you can get a better friend than us, then you must be smoking something. If we held elections here, it’s practically guaranteed that we will be displaced or deluded. The Islamists will come to power. You’ll have a far more entrenched, vociferous adversary than you can imagine. So over the years it seems as though pushing, presenting democratic values, processes, dynamism is very much for us psychologically intelligible. But at the end of the day, politically expendable, because other interests seem to trump it at the final hour. This leaves us in a very sticky, illogical, embarrassing situation. I’d like to see you elaborate a bit more, if you would.
MURPHY: Sure. Listen, I don’t—I don’t think it needs to be embarrassing to the United States that we continue to deal with countries that have not made a transformation into a democracy. Again, that’s why, you know, I approach democracy promotion as a value—or, excuse me—as an interest that stands aside with other interests. There may be nations in which there are other interests that we have that may cause us to put democracy promotion in the middle of the pack. Others where we may make it a higher priority. And so my argument here is not that we should not be dealing with nations that haven’t made a commitment to democracy. My argument is that it should be higher on our list. And second, that we should take a whole bunch of steps to try to make it easier for democracies to expand or flourish in these places, which is why I make the argument that pushing back against propaganda or pushing back against the development and export of tools out of China that make autocracy and dictatorship easier, is really important to the broader fight for democratic values.
And then lastly, I think we have for a long time been addicted to our form of democracy, right? So you don’t have a democracy unless you have an American-style democracy, or whether you have a British-style democracy, right? If you don’t have a parliament, and you don’t have a prime minister, then you’re not engaged in self-determination. I think we need to be flexible about the mechanisms by which people have greater ability to have a say in the way that their lives are run. You know, take a look at some of the transitions that have been happening in Jordan, for instance, in which they do not have a democracy, by Western standards, but they have a parliamentary system that, you know, over time has had a little bit more to say about the way in which things are run.
Local democracy is still democracy. There may be ways in which, you know, autocrats still have control at the federal level but that there are decisions being made with democratic inputs at the local level. And so I think we got to be flexible about sort of the demands we make to empower individuals to have greater say over their lives. We’ve got to have mechanisms to push back on the influences against democracy, not just beat our friends over the head to be better about it. And then we have to look at it as an interest that stands side-by-side with other interests. And sometimes exists here, and sometimes exists there. And then do it all in coordination with the Europeans.
You know, if we’re not doing democracy promotion with the Europeans, we’re not doing it—we’re not doing it well. And, again, you know, Europe and the EU stands as a great attraction to countries that are trying to correct their—correct for democratic deficiencies. And as the European Union disintegrates, with help from the United States, it makes it a whole lot harder to, you know, go to the Turks and say, hey, listen, you know, you don’t have a future with Europe if you’re not going to fix the flaws in your democracy. Well, today they look at Europe and they say, well, it doesn’t look like the members that are inside the EU have much of a future with the EU, the way things are going. So why should we get our act straight to be part of that club? And so if we don’t invest in these multilateral institutions that are part of our leverage on developing democracies, then we’re also—we’re also not doing all that we can.
So that’s a big answer, but there are all sorts of approaches that you can take to try to—to try to elevate these conversations. And of course, we’re going backwards on all of those counts in the Trump administration. If we just start to make some progress forward in the next administration, and we start to have some candidates that are thinking a little bit more about this before they get there, we’ll be better off.
TALEV: You don’t have time for one more do you?
MURPHY: We’ll do one more. All right. All right. You didn’t need to pressure me that much, but one more.
TALEV: Oh, good! Else is going to be so happy. (Claps.) All right.
Q: Thank you, Senator. Nice to see you again. Elise Labott from Georgetown University.
I was wondering, in the context of some of the things you were saying on Iran and Saudi Arabia, you’ve been, you know, very tough about Saudi Arabia’s role. But at the same time, you see these kind of constellations happening in the—in the Gulf, and with Israel, Saudi Arabia working closer with Israel against Iran. President Obama, one of the reasons he reached out Iran and wanted, you know, to have more of a rapprochement is because he said that the thought that the Saudis and the Iranians needed to share the region. And I was wondering in the context of the last year or so, with Mohammad Bin Salman and the concerns about Saudi Arabia, how you view a kind of—you know, this landscape going forward. What is Iran’s role now? Qatar has been playing an increasing role. What is, in your mind, the ideal kind of situation of great powers in the region, including how to incorporate Israel? Thank you.
MURPHY: You know, I think that Obama’s instinct here was twofold. One, he thought that by taking this question of Iran’s nuclear weapons program off the table we could more effectively organize the international community to address Iran’s other malevolent behavior in the region. We never got a chance to really test that proposition. Second, he believed that we were better off having a dialogue with Iran than not, and that you can’t solve the various quandaries of the region without America being able to talk to both the Gulf states and the Iranians. And Yemen is a perfect example, right? We could have absolutely—John Kerry came very close to a peace deal in Yemen right before he left office. And he did that only because he could talk to both the Iranians, and the Saudis, and the Emiratis. And had we kept up our ability to talk to the Iranians, we might have been able to get a settlement of accounts in Yemen long ago.
And so our decision to not talk to the Iranians makes everything harder in the region—Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, et cetera, et cetera. So, you know, I—listen, I think the Iranians are horrible actors in the region. But I also think we’ve closed our eyes to all of the dangerous things that the Saudis and the Emiratis have done over the years to undermine our national security interests. I mean, the idea that we just sort of, you know, put blinders on when the Saudis for twenty years have been funding the export of Wahabism, which serves as the building block to the international extremist movement, is nuts to me. And Hezbollah’s terrible, but so are the Sunni extremist groups that might not exist but for the decision of the Saudis to move an intolerant version of Islam all around the world. We talk to the Saudis. Let’s talk to the Iranians. And if we went back to the Obama-era premise, isolate their non-nuclear bad behaviors, and still have the ability to talk to them, side by side with the Gulf states, we’d be much better off.
TALEV: I want to thank all of you, and Senator Murphy, for spending extra time with us. Thank you. Appreciate it.
MURPHY: Thank you, guys. Thank you, everybody. Thank you, Margaret. (Applause.)