Twenty-Sixth Term Member Conference

Thursday and Friday, November 4–5, 2021
Twenty-Sixth Annual Term Member Conference

The Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program is supported by a generous gift from the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation.

Virtual Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations With Linda Thomas-Greenfield

BODURTHA: Good evening. I’m Nancy Bodurtha. I’m the vice president of meetings and membership here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And on behalf of our Board of Directors and our president, Richard Haass, it is an absolute honor to welcome the U.S. permanent—the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, to the Council this evening for this Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. In just a bit, I will turn the program over to our presider, Marcus Mabry, who will properly introduce the ambassador and facilitate our conversation with her. But I do want to take a few moments to offer some words of welcome as well as some words of appreciation for those who made tonight possible. In addition to welcoming the ambassador, I want to welcome all of you. Our members have turned out in fine force tonight. We have five hundred members joining via Zoom. We have about a hundred members who are participating in person here in New York and about a hundred term members joining us from the Council’s venue in Washington, D.C. So this evening is, among other things, a bit of a sneak peek at what hybrid meetings will look like with any luck here in the coming weeks and months. This is our biggest hybrid venture to date, and I am very pleased that we have such a robust audience for this year’s Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. The lectureship is a real anchor of our annual meetings calendar and it has become what is truly a signature program for the Council. It was generously established in 1996 by Gillian and Ted Sorensen, and the lectureship brings prominent speakers to the Council who are intimately involved with the workings of and the issues pertaining to the United Nations. Over the years, through the generosity of the Sorensen Lectureship, we’ve convened events with the former U.N. Secretaries-General Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon. We’ve had several of Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s predecessors, the U.S. permanent representatives to the U.N., as well as a number of leaders from a broad array of U.N. agencies. And in fact, when I was looking over the historic roster of all of the speakers who have come here under the auspices of the Sorensen Lecture, there was one evening that I remember quite well but leapt out at me. We had the five heads of U.N. agencies here all on the same evening. We had the heads of UNICEF, WHO, UNHCR, the World Food Programme, and the U.N. Population Fund. And what was striking about that evening was it was five women on this stage, including—(cheers, applause)—including two women who are members of the Council on Foreign Relations. Carol Bellamy was the head of UNICEF at the time and Catherine Bertini was leading the World Food Programme. I don’t know how we managed to make the planets aligned to have the five of them together, but these are just some examples of the impressive range of speakers brought to this stage by the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. We’re delighted to have Gillian Sorensen here with us this evening. Gillian, thank you for your family’s generosity in establishing and supporting the lectureship, as well as for your continued involvement with the Council. As many of you may know, Gillian has had a long career working with and for the United Nations, including serving for eleven years as the assistant secretary-general. Thank you for being here tonight, Gillian. And of course, on this occasion many of us are very much missing Ted, who was such an important presence here at the Council for nearly forty-five years. For those of you who didn’t have the privilege of knowing Ted Sorensen, he had a distinguished career as both a public servant and a prominent lawyer. He is well-known for his work as President John F. Kennedy’s advisor, speechwriter, and special counsel in the White House, and he subsequently went on to work in international law advising governments, multinational organizations, and major corporations around the world. But as busy as Ted was, he gave an awful lot of time to the Council. He served on the Council’s Board of Directors and attended upward of a thousand events throughout his membership. And one of the things that I remember quite fondly about Ted is that without fail he could always be counted on to ask the most incisive question put forward at any Council event where he was present. So in that spirit, I hope that when we get to the Q&A session of tonight’s program you will all do your very best to emulate Ted Sorensen. Tonight is the 20th Sorensen Lecture, and we are also presenting this evening’s program as the opening keynote session of our annual conference of the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program. The Term Program is named in honor of prominent investment banker, devoted philanthropist, and global citizen Stephen Kellen, who was a Council member from 1982 until his death in 2004. He became a real champion of the Council’s Term Member Program, which is designed to bring young professionals into CFR to help further develop their interest and expertise in foreign policy and international relations. Indeed, the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program is a critically important way in which the Council furthers its mission to develop talent and to cultivate the next generation of foreign policy leaders. I want to acknowledge and thank the Kellen family for the generosity of the Anna Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation in supporting the Term Member Program. And in particular, I’d like to thank CFR member Andrew Gundlach, who is also Mr. Kellen’s grandson and an alumnus of the Term Member Program. Andrew has been instrumental in securing the ongoing support for the Term Program. While I have a captive audience and since we’re speaking about the Term Member Program, I want to remind you all that the next opportunity for rising young professionals between the ages of thirty and thirty-six to apply for this five-year Term Member Program is upcoming. It’s January 3rd. You should feel free to be in touch with me or with our director of membership, Vera Ranola, if you have prospective candidates that you’d like to discuss. Term membership really represents the future of the Council, and members are absolutely our very best recruiters. In fact, one of the ways that Gillian and Ted Sorensen have been exemplary citizens of this organization is in the impressive number of individuals they have supported for term membership over the years. And now, finally, I’d like to turn the proceedings over to someone who is a beneficiary of the Term Member Program, my friend Marcus Mabry. Marcus first came to the Council in 1999 as our Edward R. Murrow Visiting Press Fellow. I didn’t have an opportunity to fact-check this, but Marcus may have been the youngest Murrow Fellow in Council history. After his fellowship year, he went on to become a term member. He is, of course, now a life member, he is one of our moderators extraordinaire, and until very recently served for over a decade on the Council’s very hardworking Committee on Membership. In fact, there are probably many of you here this evening who owe Marcus a debt of gratitude for your election to the Council. Marcus is currently the senior vice president for content strategy and global programming at CNN Digital. Marcus, thank you so much and over to you to chair this very special edition of the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations with our guest, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

MABRY: Nancy, thank you. (Applause.) That was like the nicest introduction I think I’ve had like in, I don’t know, forever maybe. Thank you so much, Nancy, for that. It is such a pleasure to be here with you in person—(laughs)—at the Council. You know, it’s a very special time, of course, when we get to find our colleagues and our families and our extended families and our professional families again. So this is kind of the upside of a waning tragedy, right, for the globe, so it’s great to be here with you all tonight. Nancy has told you who I am and what I do. And I’ll welcome you again to the Sorensen Distinguished Lecture on the United Nations. It is—I am honored, obviously, to be joined by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. I’ll go over a bit of her bio for you. She is the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and the U.S. representative to the U.N. Security Council. She previously led the Albright Stonebridge Group’s Africa practice. And between 2013 and 2017, she was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs at the U.S. Department of State. From 2012 to 2013, she was the director general of the Foreign Service and director of U.N. resources at the State Department. That’s a 70,000-strong workforce, so that’s an HR job for you. Between 2008 and 2012, Thomas-Greenfield served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia. Between 2004 and 2008, she served as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of African Affairs and as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department. She also served as several—in several other positions in the Foreign Service, including postings in Gambia, Jamaica, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Switzerland. She is the recipient of several honors, including the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Public Leadership Award, the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award, and the Warren Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Global Affairs. She was also the inaugural Distinguished Resident Fellow in African Studies at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy from 2017 to 2019. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University, a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Liberia. Madam Ambassador, thank you for joining us this evening.


MABRY: It’s a pleasure.So can we start by diving right in and detailing what are the administration’s global priorities, especially as they relate to international cooperation and the United Nations?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, let me say how pleased I am to be with you here tonight and to have the opportunity to engage with you. You know, on January 20th President Biden took some key actions. First, we rejoined the World Health Organization. Secondly, he announced that we were rejoining the Paris agreement. And thirdly, he announced that we would be starting a campaign to rejoin the Human Rights Council, and we were just elected to the Human Rights Council last year and will—last month and will start our term in January. Those three actions really define for us administration priorities. There are many priorities, priorities among the priorities, but, one, we have to deal with the pandemic. Being part of WHO gave us the opportunity to engage the world on what is a global problem that we could not deal with alone. President Biden has made very clear that the U.S. will be the arsenal for vaccines. And we have contributed about $15 billion toward that effort and committed a billion doses of vaccine. And I have been lucky enough over the course of my assignment here to see vaccines being delivered and put in arms in Thailand. I saw vaccines delivered and put in arms in Niger. I saw vaccines delivered in Mali and Gabon on my most recent trip. The effort is ongoing, but it is very clear that this is a high priority for the administration. 
Secondly, half of the administration is in Glasgow right now at the climate summit. Rejoining the Paris agreement reflected that commitment, and we have upped our commitments to climate change and appointing former Secretary John Kerry as the special envoy for climate, I think, really highlighted the priority that the administration placed on dealing with climate, which has been identified as an existential threat to the entire world. And then, third, joining the Human Rights Commission—Human Rights Council laid out our priority to bring our values back into our foreign policy. We know that if we are sitting on the Human Rights Council we can raise the ante for those who are human rights violators to make sure that they are called out for those violations, to make sure that our voice is heard, to make sure our values are put on the table. The president will be hosting in December a Summit on Democracies as we try to address what we are seeing as, really, an attack on democracy, authoritarians really trying to push forward a false agenda for their people, and we know that it is democracies that will serve the best interest of their people. 
I could go on, but I know you have more questions. 

MABRY: Oh, that’s a great start. It’s quite a list, right, to start with. You and the president both use this phrase “America’s back” quite often, and fresh off that second international tour and perhaps the most consequential of his administration so far, which included the meeting with the Pope as well as the G-20 and as well as opening of COP26, in what ways do you think the U.S. has demonstrated—you’ve, I think, listed some of them—that America is back? And maybe this is more to the point, since you listed a number of them, where do you think you still have something to prove to the world that the U.S. is really back?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, clearly, we are back and the current trip that the president is on, the travels that I have engaged in since I took on my position, the travels that Secretary Blinken has engaged, shows that America is engaging with the world and that we are back on the international stage. 
There are some challenges. I mean, part of the challenge is convincing people that we’re back, that we’re actually back, that they can believe that we’re back. And so we have to show them every single day our commitments to it—to all of the values that we have all worked with them on, at the United Nations showing that we want to engage with our partners, that we want to embrace our partners, and that we want to work with our partners on common interests. I have done that over the course of my tenure at the—here in New York, working with our colleagues on the Security Council, the A3—the African countries—on the Security Council to ensure that we bring issues before the council that are important to the world. We’re dealing with issues like what is happening in Ethiopia right now. We’re dealing with Yemen. We work to ensure that we pass a resolution on Syria that kept the last border open that provides more than—food and assistance to more than a million people. So it’s not just for countries we’re back. It’s for the world that we’re back. 

MABRY: Following up on Ethiopia, because you raise it, I wonder, and this—you know, and whenever you have the kind of job you have there are so many priorities, as we just talked about—in Ethiopia I wonder—this is kind of a journalistic question we often ask ourselves in our kind of daily editorial meetings, where is the world on fire? Like, where is—and I wonder, is Ethiopia the place? And I just wonder, given those priorities, where—what’s the most urgent one? And that’s a hard question, but I— 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, it’s hard to say what the most urgent one is because there’s so many. Ethiopia is very, very worrisome. There is an internal war going on in that country where Ethiopians are killing Ethiopians. Ethiopia was a country two years ago that we saw on the brink of taking off as one of the fastest-growing countries on the continent of Africa, and today they’re involved in a civil war where hundreds of people are being killed and a humanitarian crisis is upon us.
Sudan—clearly, we’re concerned about the situation in Sudan, where the military has pushed out the civilians that they aligned with in this transitional government. People fought for the changes that were needed there. We’re terribly concerned about the situation in Yemen that has been going on for so long and how to find a solution there. Burma, where the military again took the unfortunate decision of pushing out the civilian government. In our own region, Haiti, the assassination of the president was just one in many crises that this poor country has had to address, along with climatic crises and insecurity. There are numerous places where the world is on fire but there are also numerous places around the world where we do see hope. I was in the Sahel. I visited Niger in the middle of the desert. Niger had their first democratically-elected government in their history and were able to transition to a democratically-elected president who is extraordinarily thoughtful about what he wants to see for his country. So I left that country feeling extraordinarily positive about the future of a country that is dealing with all kinds of challenges. 

MABRY: So let’s continue there. That was a Security Council trip you all made to Niger and Mali. Oftentimes, especially when one approaches Africa, even in a place like the council, which is a rather sophisticated approach, sometimes Africa is all lumped together. How can you distinguish the situation in those two countries, for instance, in Mali and in Niger? You talked about Niger a little bit there.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I always start, having been a professor and teaching African—a course on Africa at Georgetown, Africa is not a country. (Laughter.) It’s a continent, made up of fifty-four different countries, and Niger and Mali are two of them, and they are on the belt of the Sahel where North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa meets. In that belt, they’re dealing with dramatic climatic changes. They’re dealing with terrorism. They’re dealing with demographics that will raise your eyebrows. Mali has a huge youth population. In Niger, the median age is fifteen. So they have a huge youth population and they have people who are looking for opportunities. They want to—they want jobs. They want to be invested in the future of their country and the future of the world, and everything is working against them. Terrorism is a huge problem, and part of what the council went there for was to look at the situation in Mali where we have a U.N. peacekeeping force and to see how we can help that country address their insecurity, despite the fact that they have had two coups d’états in less than a year. So we had meetings with the president and with members of the government there. But we also met with civil society. We met with women’s groups. We met with the opposition, and we were able to express in no uncertain terms our concerns about the situation there but also our message to the president that he needed to move toward a transition as quickly as possible. We were concerned that they were expressing some intention to use a Russian mercenary organization that we had seen operate in other places in Africa, and we made sure that he heard from us that we did not see that as an alternative for dealing with the security issues in that country. But we were there to listen and learn and I think we did that. We were all pleasantly surprised when we got to Niger to see that that country had actually found a way to bring the entire country together, different ethnic groups and different issues, bring them together and address them in a common way that we were able to leave that country with a sense of hope. We will be meeting in the council on the extension of the MINUSMA peacekeeping force there and determine what that force should look like in the future, but also looking at how we can better support both countries to deal with the security situation that they both face. 

MABRY: You came to this position after a long and distinguished career and went into retirement. Then you came back in to do this job. (Laughter.) We can talk later on about why one would make that decision. But I wonder, sitting in this seat, even with having sat in many other positions around the world representing the United States and its interest, what have you discovered in the seat you’re currently sitting in as far as what’s been your biggest surprise, let’s say, at the U.N. doing this job with this remit? 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, first, I came to New York at the end of February, four days before I took the seat as president of the Security Council. So I had a very steep learning curve. I had four days to meet all fifteen members of the Security Council as well as the secretary general, and then meet my staff, and then learn how to preside over a meeting of the Security Council. 


THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So what was surprising to me is that I was able to do it—(laughter)—and I’m still in shock that I got through that extraordinary month. But what was new to me and I think what surprised me when I arrived in New York was the way that the U.S. was embraced. There was a sense of euphoria about the U.S. being back and being back at the table and engaging, and we got it from friends and foe. Everybody was—seemed to be happy that we were back. So I have to say I was surprised by that. I was surprised by the warm welcome that I received. And I think I was given a bit of a pass for my first few months because everyone knew that—they’d seen me go through my hearing—they knew that I had been waiting and behind the curtain to come out and they were willing to be patient with me. 

MABRY: What have you found to be, likewise, in that seat the biggest obstacles or challenges to the accomplishment of U.S. goals at the U.N.?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we are—again, we are the big player on the block but we don’t pay our dues. So we have huge arrears in the U.N., about $300 million, and I have been working with members of Congress and within the administration to ensure that we pay our dues, because when we pay our dues our voice is much more effective than when we don’t pay our dues. Now, people are giving us a pass because of who we are. But we do need to figure out a way to make others pay more in the U.N. system, which is a problem for us, to make the U.N. system more effective, to bring about some reforms. But we can’t do that if we have not paid our dues. And so that’s been the biggest challenge. There’s a sense that we’re competing with China. The Chinese are paying their dues. They’re not paying as much as we pay. Their assessed fee is about 12 percent. Ours is 25 percent. But we see their assessed fees going up and the more they pay the louder their voices can be, the more—the stronger their voice is. So we need to maintain our strong voice so that we can work against some of their malign efforts in New York. 

MABRY: And how do you see that desire to pay the U.S. assessed fees—how do you see that going? What’s the state of play? 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, I have met with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and there are different views. But I have seen that there is—there’s a core group who understand the importance of us paying our dues and they have been working with me to find ways to make sure that we put that in the budget and that we catch up on our arrears but also continue to pay our assessed fees. 

MABRY: So I’m going to—I’m going to ask, after Tuesday’s election results—which were, obviously, very tough for the president and his party—do you think the likelihood the political—I’m asking about the political balance of power. Does he think—does it get harder to get the administration’s goals like that one in Congress accomplished? Is it—is it harder after Tuesday? And then—I’m asking you to look in a crystal ball, so I appreciate—

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, I don’t think so. I think it’s hard now, and so I’m not expecting it to be harder. I expect that I have to continue to work hard to prove how important it is that we continue to engage in this multilateral space because it’s in our interest.

MABRY: As you know, this is the term member annual conference, and so a lot of people here and out there in Washington and watching virtually are early—or some could say mid-career but I’d say early career, given how old I am now. And so to get a little personal about it, you and your peers are at the heights of diplomacy. Your background is not, you know, similar to most of them. So I’d like for you to on a personal level tell us about where you came from and how you came to where you are.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I’m from Louisiana, a proud, proud Cajun and I know there are a few of you here in the room, and you might have heard as I talked about my engagement that I practice gumbo diplomacy, and it does work. But I grew up in a small—a poor family. Neither of my parents were well educated. My father was, in fact, illiterate. The oldest of eight kids, and I always say to people that the first chapter of your life does not define what the last chapter is going to be, and I don’t know what my last chapter is going to be. This is probably chapter twenty-five. I hope I have another twenty-five more. 
But in this little small segregated town that I grew up in, Peace Corps came there in the mid-’60s to train Peace Corps volunteers who were going to Africa. They were training them in siSwati, those who were going to Swaziland, and some who were going to Somalia, and they invited the young kids—I was in eighth grade—to come over to the campus to learn one of the languages and I learned siSwati. I don’t remember a word of it now so don’t test me on it. But it really kind of tickled my imagination that there was some places—there were some places in the world beyond this little small town that I grew up in. And I kind of forgot about the experience, but I always had that deep, deep urge to do something a little bit bigger than Baker, Louisiana, or Louisiana State University and I ended up going to the University of Wisconsin, started to study Africa. And, interestingly, while I was at the University of Wisconsin, the teacher who taught me siSwati in eighth grade was there as a graduate student. 

MABRY: Oh, wow.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: And I happened to see her in an audience and I heard people calling her name, Glory, and I went up to her and I said, are you Glory Mamba (sp), and she said, yes. And I said, my name is Linda Thomas and I’m from Baker, Louisiana, and she remembered, and for me, that was a huge sign, that connection, you know, to happen, you know, twenty—almost twenty years later was extraordinary. But that was where it started and here’s where I am. 

MABRY: That’s amazing. My own background, too, is not traditional for where I sit during the day, and I’m the son of a single mom on public assistance growing up in the projects in Trenton, New Jersey. And, yet, we find ourselves here on this august stage at this moment. What message would you send to the people who are watching who are early in their career out there, especially in places other than New York or Washington? What lesson does our story—

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah, I’ll start with where I just concluded. First chapter is just that. It’s your first chapter, and you can rewrite your chapters all along your lives. So I will say what President Sirleaf, who I—who was president of Liberia when I was ambassador, she gave a speech at Harvard, I think. maybe around 2012, and she said to the young people, dream big, and if your dreams are not big enough, if your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough. And that’s what I would say to young people. Dream big. Dream big enough to scare you. You’re going to get to someplace you might not have imagined yourself getting to.

MABRY: I’m going to ask you another semi-personal question in that I’m the dad of two eleven-year-olds, so two Gen Z-ers. Some, you know, Gen Z-ers may be watching. Older Gen Z-ers may be watching. And that I love Gen Z. It’s a very exciting generation. You know, they have very high standards and they let us know that all of our past standards were too low, and my kids do that at eleven, and my kids are lucky enough to be blessed with phenomenal educations already. Actually, one of them is in seventh grade and did a whole report on Libya and what the climate change means to Libya. So he knows there’s fifty-four countries in Africa. But as biracial kids and one actually being transgender, they are learning the very complete history of America and that was one of the things that roiled elections this past—this week. This kind of illusion of what critical race theory is, for instance, has been a very effective wedge issue in the electorate and it has been actually painted kind of as an indictment of all things, really, diversity, equity, and inclusion wise in many places, and that’s a very effective political discussion happening out in the country right now. So my kids have the opposite of—having grown up with a very fulsome understanding of American history and of our struggles and of our creation, and sometimes they are, frankly, very jaundiced in their view of our country and its role in the world. And I try to explain to them why, despite our history, warts and all, they should be very proud of—to be Americans and of America’s role in the world. 
In your job—this is part of your job is to go out there and spread this message—what can I say to my kids? How can I let them understand, despite understanding the fulsomeness of our history, there’s a lot to be proud of here?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: There is so much to be proud of. Our country is not perfect but our country embraces its diversity. You can be different in this country. I have traveled around the world. I’ve been in countries where people are not allowed to be different. And while sometimes it comes back on us in ways that none of us appreciate—we’ve all experienced racism, we’ve experienced sexism—but we know that we have laws in this country that we can use to support us and we have people around us who will support us and we don’t have to deny who we are. And there’s nothing that I have seen in any other country that allows you, your sons, to be who they are, where they are, and be able to fight for what they are and who they are. They are not going to find a perfect country in this world. But if there’s one close to perfect, it’s ours, and I can say that with confidence, having traveled all over the world. 

MABRY: Excellent. Thank you for that. I’m going to take that back to them. (Laughter.) With that, we are going to open up our discussion. We’ll get all those questions. (Laughter.) Before we start, I’m going to hit on just a few ground rules. At this time, I’d like to invite the members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. We will take our first question—sorry, New York—from the virtual audience and we’ll go back and forth. But we’ll come back to you guys soon. I promise. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Emerita Torres. 

Q: Hi. It’s so great to be here virtually. My name is Emerita Torres. I’m the vice president for policy research and advocacy at the Community Service Society of New York. Also a proud former diplomat and alum of USUN, so this is a really special conversation for me to be a part of. So thank you. My question is around—so the secretary of state, Tony Blinken, talked about last week modernizing diplomacy and some of the ways to do that, and one thing that he talked about was including state and local actors in foreign policy discussions. And, you know, from my purview, you know, foreign policy is pretty elitist—you know, how we talk about it, how we engage with it, and how we do outreach around it. And so I think local diplomacy is really key to creating a foreign policy constituency. So I’d love to hear, Ambassador, what you think about that, especially given your incredible career and what you’ve done and what you’ve seen, and now working at the U.S. mission, you know, leading our efforts there. So thank you. 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Thank you so much for that question, and absolutely. The president started at the beginning saying that we were creating a foreign policy for America, and I think one of our biggest failings as diplomats is that we have not done a good enough job in engaging American people and helping them understand that what we do we’re doing it for them, for their prosperity. When we are overseas and we are engaging companies and trying to get companies who are looking to invest in the U.S., we’re promoting trade with the U.S. We’re creating jobs for American citizens. When we work on the pandemic and look for—here in New York for mechanisms that will help us address the next pandemic of the future, we’re doing that not just for ourselves. We’re doing it for the American people. And what I think we need to do a better job of, and I’m trying to do that in this position and I know that others are as well, getting out to not just around the world but getting out to America, going to far-flung places like Baker, Louisiana, and speaking to a high school or going to—as I did when I was assistant secretary for Africa, talking to a high school in Clarkston, Georgia, going to Minnesota and speaking at the University of Minnesota, or in Riverside, California, to talk to ordinary citizens about what it is that we do and why it’s important, that they understand what we are doing and how it impacts their lives. And I am looking forward over the course of my assignment here to make sure that I do that and not just—actually, you know, I talk about going to Baker, Louisiana. I want to do it here in New York City as well because what I’ve discovered is the U.N. is a little bubble around Turtle Bay, and you can go across the river to Brooklyn and people don’t even know what we do. So I’ve talked to some of my colleagues in the Security Council about taking the Security Council to a high school. So if any of you have some ideas about a great high school for us to go to, let me know and I will work with some members of the council to see if they will join me in going to talk to young people. Because once we start to talk to young people about what we do and once they start to understand what we do, then they understand why it’s so important for them to vote, why it’s so important for them to advocate for certain policy positions, why it’s important for them to understand what is happening in a country like Ethiopia or what is happening in DPRK or anywhere else in the world, how that impacts their lives. 

MABRY: Thank you, Madam Ambassador. Our first question is right here, the young lady in the red jacket. 

Q: Thank you so much. My name is Tara Hariharan. I work for a hedge fund here in New York. Thank you so much for your service, Ambassador. I would love for you to expound a bit further on how you see the tenuous U.S.-China relationship playing through at the U.N., both the cooperative and the competitive elements, and especially not just because China is such a big financial player but also because of its increased influence in the developing markets. Thank you. 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we see China—the relationship is a complex one. We see them as a competitor when we need to compete with them. We see them as a partner when we need to partner with them and we see them as an adversary when they play adversarial roles. So it’s a complicated and complex relationship that we have. When we can cooperate with them we look for opportunities to cooperate. On climate change, we’ve found an area where we have some cooperation with them. But when it comes to the values of the multilateral system, the role that they’re playing is not a positive role and we will push back against that. They push for the sovereignty of the state over the sovereignty of the human rights of the people within the state. We fight against that. We call them out when they commit human rights violations against their own people. We call them out when their malign efforts are bringing a message to countries where we see different values. So, again, I have found that since I’ve arrived here that we do have a respectful relationship with each other. But we know where our red lines are and I’m not afraid to make sure that I raise my concerns with them and I do it publicly. It’s not always about fighting, though. If the international system is to work, if we are to accomplish what we need to accomplish, we also have to find a way to work with our adversaries. 

MABRY: There’s always a question with China and it’s vacillated over the decades, of, you know, if they’re inside the system they’ll be better partners than if they’re outside the system, trying to bring it down from the outside, and it waxes and wanes. Given the policies of Xi and where they are now—some would say they’re in a kind of internal re-consolidation and not being open, especially as they take on their own business sector, which is kind of shocking to those of us who’ve known China for the last few decades—do you think it’s a moment right now where we have to write them off as far as being part of the multilateral system or is there—


MABRY: —are there opportunities to—

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No. We certainly can’t write them off. They are proactively engaged in the multilateral system. They are aggressive in the multilateral system. They are present every single day. They’re looking for opportunities to push their agenda that benefits their country, their economy, that promotes their values. So they’re there and we have to be there. And what we have found during the four years that we pulled back from the multilateral system, we left vacant space and they filled it. So we’re now pushing back against that. 

MABRY: Excellent. Thank you. So we’ll go to Washington, or to the virtual space. You guys tell me; who’s next?

Q: Hi, Ambassador. My name’s William Wagner. I’m also a USUN alum, a proud USUN alum, like Emerita before. I work for Bechtel now. My question is about the Security Council and your views on the Security Council’s impact. I think between persistent P-5 division and, you know, the Council’s sort of peripheral role on new, emerging threats like cyber and the pandemic, it’s hard to feel a lot of optimism about the Council’s impact these days. So I wondered if you could share your thoughts on sort of your outlook for the future of the Council, the Security Council as an institution and its impact.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The Council will always be important on the international stage. I will agree with you that we are not as effective as we could be. But we are able to accomplish a great deal in the Council and we are able to find areas of agreement, even with the P-5. As I look back on my brief period—again, and I mentioned this earlier; one of our biggest accomplishments, working within the Council, was to get the Council to agree unanimously to continue with the Syria resolution that kept a single border open that provides subsistence and support, humanitarian assistance to over a million people. It was clear that this was not an easy thing to accomplish, but the Council was able to do it and I think that was an important accomplishment. And there are others that—where we have been able to come together as a Council and move forward our agenda. Also, the rest of the world, and particularly ordinary people, look to hear what the Council has to say. When the Council is quiet, people are—feel that they’re being ignored. When we’re able to have a meeting, as we are going to tomorrow, on Ethiopia, the people of Ethiopia are listening to what the Council has to say. Our travels to the Sahel were important, the engagements that we had with people. We’re able to engage with heads of state but we’re also able to advise and assist the secretary-general to carry out his agenda as well. So it’s not a perfect organization. It’s an organization that is constantly struggling from within. But we still have a strong voice and we are still able to accomplish what we need to accomplish.

MABRY: Back to New York. Yes, right here. 

Q: Hello, Ambassador. I’m Grace Choi, formerly the director of policy with the New York City’s Mayor Office so I do have some suggestions of schools in New York—(laughter)—to teach more IR to, and formerly also with the Obama administration serving in the White House liaison’s office at the State Department. So it’s good to see you again. My question is related to pipeline building for women of color in particular within the foreign policy space. I know you’re already aware of Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins’s Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security, which I’m a board member of, and Diversity in National Security that Laura Kupe and Camille Stewart founded. But we still see the political pipeline of women of color needed still in the State Department, at USAID, at Defense, and all of the foreign policy think tanks and institutions in the U.S. too. So I guess my question is, how do we fix that—(laughs)—and what are things that you feel like you can do from your vantage point as the permanent representative at USUN?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, it is a problem. It’s a problem that we have to acknowledge, and acknowledging the problem is a major step. So having wins and other organizations that are bringing young women together to encourage and support and mentor them I think also is a huge step forward. I have seen more women named in senior positions in this administration than I’ve seen in any administration in the past, so I do think we are making progress, but it’s still not enough. I spend a tremendous amount of my time mentoring and encouraging, and when I was out of government, I had even more time to do it, and that’s pretty much all I did, teaching at Georgetown, encouraging young people to look at foreign affairs careers and to engage in the policy arena. It’s important that we do because we bring a different perspective. And anybody who’s different will bring a different perspective. So we need diversity to do that. I always talked about that we actually need to have a conscious bias toward encouraging diversity, because if we’re not conscious about it, it doesn’t always happen. So I am always in a room—people don’t know—I’m counting; I’m looking at how many women are sitting in this room. If there were not enough women sitting in this room, I would have already raised that as a concern. But it’s not just for me to do; it’s for our male colleagues as well. Male colleagues have to be conscious when they’re the only ones in the room and there are no—there’s no diversity in the room with you. You have to also take this on and make it a value and make it a priority for you. But again, I think we’ve seen some progress, but we can’t sit on our laurels and say, oh, but we’ve achieved some success. We still have to encourage young girls to think about foreign policy careers. And sometimes people—you know, it’s family issues. Well, family issues are male and female. And so we need to make sure that it’s not just the female side of the family that’s taking on the burden of—and that probably wasn’t the right word—the responsibility of family that your partner has to—and if you don’t have a partner, then you build a community around you that will support you to have a family. And you can do both. I have two children, so I know it’s possible to do both and I know it’s possible to do both successfully. My children may disagree with me, though. (Laughter.)

MABRY: (Laughs.) I also think you raise a question about male partners or male colleagues in the room. When women are in the room, you also have to watch and see well, who’s speaking, even women are in the room—who’s speaking in the room? I think the next question is going to be a virtual one.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Tracy Roosevelt. 

Q: Hi, my name is Tracy Roosevelt. I’m an attorney at Foley Hoag where I represent states in treaty breaches and other conflicts. I wanted to say first that I think you’re making my great grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, very proud, and my mentor—(laughs)—my mentor from Louisiana, Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan, agrees as well. And so what I wanted to ask was how your time in Liberia prepared you for dealing with conflict and in particular the COVID crisis. 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Wow. It was tough. I mean, I came to Liberia after Liberia had gone through almost two decades of conflict. But I actually got the opportunity to watch a president, who happened to be a woman, really—I watched her operating and I watched her deal with the politics in the country, but what really impressed me with her is that her compassion never diminished. She could not—she would be on her way to a political meeting with her parliament and children would be on the side of the road and she would stop and talk to them; she would stop and engage with them. She engaged with women. She would start her day at 6:00 in the morning where women would line up just to come and talk to her. And what she taught me during that period is that you can deal with hard political issues and still be compassionate and true to yourself. Liberia also—immediately after I left Liberia, Ebola hit the country, so there they were; they had gotten out of the worst part of their civil war and then they had to address this terrible disease. And where they were able to succeed where others didn’t was having leadership, and that same leadership meant not just leadership at the top, it meant leadership all the way down the line. And so they were in a much better position to deal with COVID when COVID happened. I happened to be in Liberia on the 2nd of March in 2020 when COVID hit. In fact, I was worried I was going to get stuck there. We were hearing that planes were going to stop flying. But when I arrived there on March 2nd and COVID—the crisis was just starting. When we got off the plane, we were—our temperatures were taken and we had to wash our hands. And everywhere you went in a public building there were handwashing stations, as early as the 1st of March. So they were able to start to deal with this issue very early on because of the experience that they had had with Ebola. But I came away from my four years in Liberia feeling a lot more empowered as a leader and as a woman because I was able to see strong leadership work. 

Q: Thank you.

MABRY: Come back here to New York. Right here in the middle. The black mask. (Laughs.)

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: The black mask. The masked man. 

Q: Thank you so much. Dhruv P. Singh from DEWS Holdings. First off, thank you so much. This is absolutely wonderful. A question I had was, how much of a disadvantage is our four-year time horizon and really just continuity of international policy making, is part one of the question. And part two—and of course, that’s when compared to others, say, China or Russia, with much longer time horizons. So that’s part one. And part two is, what’s your strategy to overcome this? 

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, we have—while our presidents change every four years, or every eight years in many cases, we have strong institutions. And I say that somewhat guardedly because our institutions were under attack, but our institutions survived. And it is our institutions that provide us with the continuity that we—that gives us our strength to continue to engage internationally. And our policies will change, but I think that’s also part of our strength, that we’re not stuck on the same policy track for twenty years because we haven’t changed our leadership. So I don’t see it as a disadvantage. Every four years or even every year, this year, we give the American people an opportunity to speak to their leaders. They can vote and say whether they’re happy or unhappy. And what that will do is force our leaders to recalibrate, and we’re seeing that play out as we speak.

MABRY: You don’t have a political position, but I have to ask because you left an opening for me. What recalibration should we take from the message that happened this week?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, President Biden has been on the news. I have been watching the news all day and it’s like the American people have spoke. They want us to take some actions and they want to see these bills that the president has put forward passed. I’m not political. I’m very much still a career person, despite the fact that I’m in a political job. I’m a—I’m a professional bureaucrat, so being on the political space—in the political space is uncomfortable for me. But I think the president has been very clear in his messaging today that we need to listen to the American people.

MABRY: All right. I’m going to go to Washington for the next question.

Q: Ambassador, first, thank you so much for some really insightful comments tonight. My name is William Denn. I’m a military officer currently serving on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. At this point, the U.S. military and particularly the U.S. Army is going through, I think, a period of some real institutional and self-reflection, observing after Afghanistan the Afghan security forces fell and the Afghan government fell in August. I’m curious from your perspective, as well, what are we doing to have that same self-reflection across the U.S. government and particularly with your role at the United Nations now? The reality was that Afghanistan was a multinational effort between NATO and the United Nations. What are our allies and partners saying about what we should take away from this effort over the last twenty years? Thank you.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, the—we had tremendous support from our allies and partners on the president’s decision on Afghanistan. We were there for twenty years. For twenty years, we gave America’s treasure to the people of Afghanistan. We helped them in years of conflict. We provided opportunities for young women to be educated. But at some point they have to take the reins themselves and the U.S. could not stay there forever. And all of our allies agreed with us on that decision. None of us could have speculated how it was going to turn out, and I will say we have not turned our backs on the people of Afghanistan. We are still engaging. We’re still insisting and demanding that the Taliban respect human rights, that they provide opportunities for women to work and for women to go to school, that they allow for humanitarian assistance to continue to be provided, that they allow for free passage for Afghans to be able to travel or not travel in their country, and we’re holding them to this. We’re not going—they’re not going to get international respect or recognition until they are able to show that they’re ready to be part of the nations of the world who respect human rights. But no one can question the commitment, the sacrifice, the contributions that we gave to Afghanistan over the past twenty years.

MABRY: What did you hear? What were you hearing, sitting in your seat, as we were all watching those traumatic images, even those who understand the foreign policy decisions? The pullout, of course, didn’t look like anyone would have wanted it to look, and it was gut-wrenching. What did you hear from your peers around the—

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, what I was hearing—and I was hearing it on a regular basis—is we support your decision. We support your decision. We see this is not going well, but it is not your fault or your responsibility that it is not going well. Afghans have to accept some responsibilities for this, and we all have to work together to help the people of Afghanistan address these issues. We worked together in the Security Council. And while there was some tension within the Security Council, particularly from our Russian and Chinese colleagues—who, interestingly, in normal circumstances would say having your military is interfering in the internal affairs of a country—they were saying it’s because you’re leaving that this country is falling apart. And we had to remind them that this is the—an internal situation in Afghanistan that we have—you know, we’ve given our best to. So I’m sure that there were people saying things that I wouldn’t have wanted to hear, but they weren’t saying them to me.

MABRY: OK.Yes, sir. Right here in the front.

Q: Hello. My name is Stephen Schlesinger. I’m with The Century Foundation.
I actually wrote a book about the San Francisco conference in 1945 that set up the U.N. Charter. The U.N. Charter only gave five members of—five states the permanent membership on the Security Council. Ever since then, there have been efforts to reform the Council and either expand it or abolish the permanent members. What is the U.S. position today on that particular issue? And have you found that there is any movement on the issue of reforming the Security Council as far as the permanent membership goes?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: It’s a constant issue that is being raised across the board. Our position is we support Security Council reform and we support the expansion of the Security Council. How that happens, of course, is—will always be an issue of contention. You know, who should be the new permanent members? Will they have a veto power or not? Will the five permanent members give up their veto power? Our position is, no, we won’t give our veto power up and we don’t want to see others with the veto power. But we do want to see the Council reformed and we do think it’s important that other countries—other regions of the world have more permanent—a more permanent presence on the Security Council. But, you know, how that happens I think is much more complicated than just saying it.

MABRY: We’ll take a virtual question next.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sarah Miller.

Q: Hi. This is Sarah Miller from Refugees International. Thank you so much for your thoughtful words tonight. I wanted to go back to Ethiopia, which I’m glad has come up a few times. We’ve been working a lot on the situation in Tigray and, of course, you’re very aware of what’s been going on in recent days. And I was wondering if you could share a little more about what you hope for from the Security Council, what you think might be possible? And maybe that can also speak to broader questions about the tools at the disposal of the U.N. to effect change in countries where we’re seeing civil war, mass displacement, human rights violations, sexual violence. So really keen to hear your thoughts. Thank you.

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Now, the Security Council has expressed itself on the—on the situation in Ethiopia. Again, always a battle on what we say and how we say it. I think we have a statement coming out tonight. I don’t know, Jeff, has it come out yet? We’re working on a—on a—we were working on a statement when I left the office that we hope to get out tonight that would support the secretary-general’s call for a ceasefire, encourage the two parties to come together in talks, encourage humanitarian assistance to be allowed to come in, and supporting the efforts of the region to bring the parties to the table. But the first thing that has to happen is there has to be a ceasefire, and without a ceasefire you cannot provide humanitarian assistance. The situation in Ethiopia has been extraordinarily distressful for all of us. As I mentioned, this was a country that really was on the verge of development success. They were the fastest-growing country in the region. And to see this country having this internal fight where, again, thousands of people have been killed and a humanitarian crisis is in front of us—a famine, in fact, is looming—is unacceptable. Having the humanitarian community being restricted from giving needed humanitarian assistance is unacceptable. So it is important that the humanitarian community, organizations like Refugees International, and others raise your voices as loudly as you can on this issue. In the Security Council, we will continue to push the parties to come to a ceasefire agreement. We will continue to support the efforts of the Kenyan president, who has been proactively engaged in negotiations, the efforts of the AU special envoy. And as we speak, our envoy, Jeff Feltman, is in the region, and has had meetings with the Ethiopian authorities, and is continuing to push for a ceasefire. We have also pulled out some of our other tools, such as the possibility of sanctions. We have not placed significant sanctions on the government yet, but we do have those sanctions available to use as needed. And we have—we will have no hesitation in using them if we’re not able to get the parties to accept and move forward in ending this carnage that is taking place on—in this country.

MABRY: We’ll come back to New York for our last question. In the back there.

Q: I hope it’s good wrap-up question. Thank you so much, Ambassador, for your service. My name’s Flynn Coleman of Harvard University. And I also studied African politics at Georgetown, so we’re honored to have you as part of that community at Georgetown as well. So we talked a little bit about Gen Z, Ethiopia of course, China, a rising tide of digital threats, cyber. I’m curious if you’re seen the need or perhaps there already is a rising tide of changes in how we practice diplomacy. When we’re thinking about Gen Z, China, cyber, all of those things, what do you see is happening or needs to be happening at that level to meet the challenges of today?

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: You know, it’s technology. I would not have believed even three years ago that we would have virtual Security Council meetings or virtual meetings like this. We’re able to engage with people all over the world because the technology allows us to do that, and that technology I think is important. It has to be managed. It has to be managed in such a way that we’re able to do our work without fear, without fear of people invading our privacy, but we’ve been able to do it. And we’ve had international meetings. We hosted a COVID meeting virtually at the White House. We are—as I said, we hosted—the entire month that I was president of the Security Council, we hosted all of our meetings virtually. So we know that that can happen, and we know that we can transfer information and news a lot more quickly than we could in the past. One of the things that has shocked me is the impact that Twitter has. I very much recall when I was assistant secretary saying to one of our ambassadors that we don’t do diplomacy over Twitter. You know, we’re not going to tweet our communications to another government. Well, here we are today and—(laughter)—you know, the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is look at what’s been tweeted and sometimes tweet back. So Twitter has become a tool of diplomacy. But again, we have to be careful because those tools are not always as effective as being able to sit in the room. To do effective diplomacy, you want to sit across from someone. You want to be able to look them in the eye. You want to be able to gauge from their body language whether they’re being sincere. And you can’t do that virtually. So I think there will always be a role for face-to-face diplomacy, for talking to people face to face, but we’re also able to start those conversations in ways that we might not have been able to five or ten years ago. And this new Gen X—no, Gen Z?

MABRY: Z. (Laughter.) Gen X, woo! (Laughter.)

THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Yeah. (Laughs.) They will perfect this in ways that we can’t even imagine, so they probably will have a way of actually doing virtual meetings where they can look a person in the eye and gauge from their body language whether they’re actually genuine. But what they won’t be able to do is gumbo diplomacy—(laughter)—and bring people over a wonderful meal where you’re able to know who you’re talking to and understand who you’re talking to and develop a relationship that will help you move your agenda forward.

MABRY: Thank you all for joining today’s Sorensen Distinguished Lecture. Please join me in thanking the ambassador. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Plenary Two: Memes and Militants: Threats to Democracy in the Twenty-First Century

SIMS: Thank you very much, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations 2021 Term Member Conference Plenary. This session will focus mainly on threats to democracy in the twenty-first century. I’m Calvin Sims. I’m the executive vice president for standards and practices at CNN and I’m pleased to be presiding over this session today.

So this session kicks off day number two of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Term Member Conference, and we’re so pleased and grateful to the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program, which has been generously supported by Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation and we are grateful to them.

So we will be talking to three experts today on what is the threat to democracy, democracy in peril, not just here at home in the United States but abroad. And we have three great panelists: Ellen Cushing, who’s the special projects editor at the Atlantic; Yaël Eisenstat, who’s the Future of Democracy Fellow at the Berggruen Institute; and Bruce Hoffman, who is the Shelby Cullom and Kathryn Davis Senior Fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations.

So I want to start by calling on each one of you to really determine, in your own mind, what do you think is the most important salient threat to democracy both here and abroad? So I’ll start with Ellen.

CUSHING: Just a light question. You know, I have been covering the technology industry for a long time so my answer might be a little bit predictable. I think the way that social media and social networks are used, especially overseas, is really troubling and scary.

I just spent the last, like, four weeks of my life combing through the Facebook Papers and my main takeaway is just that, like, the version of Facebook that we have in the United States is the best possible version of Facebook, which might be a little bit scary to you. It’s a little bit scary to me.

Overseas, in some of the most vulnerable democracies on Earth, we’re seeing, you know, weaponized disinformation, human trafficking, hate speech, and none of it is regulated in the same way by Facebook, moderated in the same way that it is here. So, to me, that is the biggest thing.

SIMS: OK. We’re going to come back to that. But I’m going to let Bruce weigh in on what he thinks is the biggest threat.

HOFFMAN: Gosh. Well, where does one start? (Laughter.) I would say from my perspective in terrorism and homeland security, I think we often forget that terrorists use violence as a strategy of provocation to provoke a response, and I worry that we’re very much at a similar point that we were in the mid to early 1990s before we had the tragic Oklahoma City bombing and that we’re on the verge of something similar to that, just given the kind of overheated rhetoric, the endless echo chambers, that we see in social media and so on.

And, you know, for me the big question is, if there were a major terrorist—domestic terrorism attack in the United States, would it bring us together as the 9/11 attacks did, perhaps only ephemerally but at least for a decade or more? Or would it further divide us? I mean, where would we go?

You know, after January 6, I think, this has to be, I think, the most important question is, you know, how would we respond as a nation to some challenge like that that deliberately seeks to divide us.

SIMS: And, Yaël, what is it, in your mind, is most pressing?

EISENSTAT: Wow. I also don’t know if I can distill that down into one thing. So I’m going to go back to a piece that I wrote about five or six years ago before going to Facebook to try to—I don’t want this whole thing to be all about Facebook because I don’t think they are an individual actor that’s not within all of our broader societal issues. But most of you know that I worked at Facebook so that’s a lot of my perspective.

But in 2015, I wrote a piece and it’s the first piece I ever published after leaving government. I wasn’t ready to say CIA out loud yet, but I will just say former government person. And the title of that piece, which I argued with the editor because I thought it was too extreme at the time, was “American Hate is a Bigger Threat than Foreign Terrorism,” and that was the title that now kind of seems obvious. But five or six years ago, people thought I was ridiculous.

And the reason I wrote that piece was having spent most of my career in the counter extremism world—I mean, I was a pre-September 11 CIA hire, then became a diplomat. I spent most of my career working on extremism issues overseas. I fundamentally believed that the breakdown in our ability as Americans to have any sort of conversations that did not come from a place of hatred was a bigger threat to us.

And so I still believe not necessarily it’s the biggest threat. I don’t know that I can quantify what’s the biggest. But our breakdown in a shared reality, our inability to distill fact from fiction, the manipulative online information ecosystem, it’s eroding our ability to actually find—we don’t have to find common ground, but we have to be able to participate as members of this shared democracy if we want it to continue. And the same—we’re seeing the same thing in other countries around the world as well. So that was a long answer. Sorry. But yeah.

SIMS: Yeah. Let’s go to social media and spend some time talking about this. And I read your piece that you wrote about, “Dear Facebook, this is how you’re breaking democracy.” I want to go back to Ellen and talk about Facebook in particular.

You know, with what has happened with that entity and its importance around the country, and there doesn’t seem to be on Facebook’s part any move so far to correct what has happened, what do you think is the outcome of this? Is this a call for government intervention? Is this something that Facebook itself should intervene—you know, fix itself? What do you see as the prospects, moving forward?

CUSHING: You know, I do think Facebook has taken some action to try to limit the spread of extremism on its network. I do want to give it some credit. But I don’t currently believe in Facebook’s ability to regulate itself. You know, it has an oversight board. I don’t—I just don’t think that that is the right solution. I do think we need government intervention here. I think that there are things Facebook could do that it is not doing to sort of stop the flow of hate and extremism and bad information on its network.

I think it’s trying but I don’t—I mean, I just don’t believe that without kind of, like, external stimuli it’s ever going to do the things it needs to do.

SIMS: And there’s nothing internally, really, that could be done? Yaël, you worked there for some time, a short period of time. You said you weren’t very successful in trying to bring around some reforms. What’s it like internally?

EISENSTAT: Yeah. So, again, I always have to say this because I’m one of those people who gets accused of blaming Facebook for all of societal harms. So it is one player in the—what’s happening today, but they are one of the biggest players.

Listen, you’re right. The piece you mentioned that was my TED Talk about how Facebook’s breaking democracy, and I’ve been screaming about this for years. But now I can just point to the documents that the whistleblower, you know, turned over to Congress and the SEC. So it’s no longer just me screaming in the wind.

Fundamentally, what has been proven through those documents and what many of us have said for years is no matter how much employees within that company tried to do the right thing—I mean, my team built an entire plan for how to ensure that political ads didn’t engage in voter suppression and it was not approved because it wouldn’t scale globally because we were just working on the U.S. midterm election at the time.

Fundamentally, I still believe it was not approved because it wasn’t a priority and because it would mean that we would have to fact check the person who was the president at the time, and that was something that would have threatened Facebook’s power relationship with a government that had the capacity to regulate them.

And so why I say all of that is it doesn’t matter how many people that work there want to do the right thing and it doesn’t matter how many plans are put forth and research is done on how to protect the public, democracy, teenagers, you know, people who are from vulnerable communities from some of the most harmful things going on on the platform. At the end of the day, the leadership has proven again and again that it is not their priority if it challenges their ability to continue to grow to dominate the entire space.

And so I think the number-one thing that I would point people to if they’re really trying to explore some of the Facebook issues is not—this is not—to me, it’s not about free speech. I’m pivoting for a second but it’s really important. Facebook would have you believe that this is a problem of whether or not people want to stifle free speech.

That is not what this is about. This is about a company whose entire platform, as has been proven in some of the documents—I recommend to everyone, if you only want to read one piece about the Facebook Papers that will help you understand this issue, read the piece “Carol’s Journey to QAnon.” It’s what I’ve been screaming about four years.

It’s not about everybody is just already this way and Facebook is a mirror to how we are in society. “Carol’s Journey to QAnon” was a fake account that a Facebook worker made to check if their algorithms really were driving people towards extreme content within. They put a fake account of a woman in North Carolina who followed a few conservative accounts, but she wasn’t following violent accounts. She wasn’t following extreme rhetoric.

Within two days, the recommendation engines pushed her into conspiracy theories and under five days they were recommending her into QAnon groups. This is a fundamental threat to our democracy when we have an information ecosystem that is pushing people further and further towards extreme groups.

That’s not about free speech. I didn’t—that woman didn’t go online looking for QAnon. She was recommended to that content, and that is something the company could fix if they wanted to, but they would have to fundamentally redesign how the entire platform works and is monetized as opposed to these whack-a-mole things they are always talking about. We took that group down. We took this person down. And that’s a huge challenge and we’re not getting to the core of that. One man at the head of one company has enough power to fundamentally change the way we engage online and the way we view information.

SIMS: Bruce, do you want to jump in in terms of the government being the arbiter of what a company like Facebook could or should do?

HOFFMAN: Sure. But let me preface that by saying, you know, for far-right extremists in the United States, Facebook, social media, all these platforms, are a dream come true. You know, we often think that dominant trends in terrorism such as online radicalization or lone wolves originated somewhere else, in the Middle East or in South Asia, from extremist Salafi jihadi groups, for example.

I mean, that’s not the case at all. In the early 1980s, it was American white supremacists who first used very primitive dial-up modems to connect that movement both internally in the United States and to obviate or to overcome FBI wiretaps and other surveillance, but also to link them with like-minded hatemongers in Canada and West Germany.

So this was a movement that always had aspirations to be transnational or international. Fortunately, the technology back then prevented them from doing so. But now with social media, of course, they can move at hypersonic speed.

I’m a terrorism specialist and, unlike Yaël and Ellen, who know much more about the media space or social media space, but, you know, the one advance I’ve seen in recent years, and maybe I’m overselling it, but it was the effort by the United Kingdom’s Home Office and its Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Digital Media when in March or April—I think it was 2019—came out with an “Online Harms” white paper that tried to position the government more actively not just in, you know, countering hate speech and intolerance, but online bullying—you know, the cesspool that, of course, is human trafficking and pedophilia and so on.

And at least it was a start and at least there was a conversation. I mean, obviously, things like Brexit and the serial British national elections and then COVID completely derailed what they hoped would be introduced as legislation in the fall of 2019, but it struck me that this was a very sensible document.

Obviously, it’s not going to be a one-on-one match for the United States because there’s no Constitution and First Amendment in the United Kingdom. But at least that government was trying to grapple with this entire issue and actively push parliamentarians to engage in some legislative remedies. And I just see ourselves as being so far distant from that, and that’s even two years ago.

SIMS: Countries most vulnerable—how do we here in the United States or just globally for international organizations start to intervene and put pressure on Facebook to change these procedures, these activities? Is that likely to happen? Will it happen in time?

EISENSTAT: Who’s the question for? Sorry. Who are you asking?

SIMS: Anyone who wants address it. (Laughs.)

CUSHING: I mean, I—like as Yaël said, I think that what we see with Facebook is there’s a fundamental tension between integrity and engagement. These two things are in conflict, and over and over in every country on Earth, Facebook chooses engagement. I just—I think that we—I mean, it’s a United States-based company.

In the United States, the government, you know, regulates industries. This seems like a no-brainer to me—(laughter)—that there are things the government could ask Facebook to do right now that would—you know, of course, social media is people, right.

It’s also bots, but it’s, largely, people and, of course, you know, social media just amplifies all of the extant problems in our world. You know, like social media did not invent extremism or human trafficking.

But we know now—we’ve had it for long enough that we know that it amplifies these things and now we know the things—you know, the things that we can do to stop that amplification.

EISENSTAT: I’ll add a thought here as well. I’m not going to go unless somebody really wants into all of my regulatory and legislative ideas. I’ve written extensively about them. I’m going to also say something that everyone expects me to always just talk about Facebook.

But similar to Bruce, I mean, my whole career was actually in counter extremism and counter terrorism before going to Facebook, and I do want to point out, which is part of what my TED Talk was all about, is what makes people vulnerable to extremist messaging and to actually, whether it’s on Facebook going down this rabbit hole or whether it’s in, you know, the real world in a more traditional way that people are recruited.

And I think the thing we don’t like to talk about enough is how our own government has fundamentally failed so many people in our country and that in and of itself also is why so many people are more vulnerable to the types of messaging online that pulls them into more extreme content.

Let’s be clear. When Facebook trains their algorithms, they’re not training their algorithms to try to find the most extreme content and push you towards it. They’re training their algorithms for engagement, to maximize engagement, and the algorithms have figured out that the way to keep you engaged is to push you towards extreme content and that’s because people are engaging with it.

And I have lots of thoughts on how to regulate Facebook but I don’t think we talk enough about has our version of democratic governance actually served the vast majority of people in our country, and I would say some of the biggest threats to our democracy is the way our elections are funded. It’s the amount—the way—I mean, again, people aren’t serving people in need in this country as much as they are fundraising to be able to compete in an election.

And so part of what’s happening on Facebook, and yes, I have plenty of blame to give to Facebook. It is pouring gasoline on a fire, but the fire is has our capitalist and democratic system really served the vast majority of Americans, and income inequality, in my opinion, is one of the biggest threats to democracy, moving forward.

SIMS: So let’s—

HOFFMAN: Well, you know—yes, sorry, Cal.

SIMS: Yeah. Go ahead. Go ahead.

HOFFMAN: No, if I could just add something about also, you know, how our government is—well, just what Yaël was talking about as actually having an overseas effect. You know, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were rightly extremely critical of other countries that were not restricting their own platforms of radicalization and extremism. I mean, particularly, we beat up on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the export of Salafi jihadism, or a particularly violent interpretation of Deobandism.

I mean, we need to look in the mirror honestly. The United States has become that kind of an exporter to many other countries of, you know, the—QAnon is a case in point. I mean, the vilest most ridiculous conspiracy theories are openly peddled from the United States.

We have one of our closest allies, Canada—I mean, I’ve studied terrorism now for nearly fifty years since I was first in graduate school. I don’t think I could ever have imagined Canada designating domestic U.S. extremist groups as terrorist organizations in part because of their ability to weaponize social media and have this tremendous reach that, as I said earlier, has just fulfilled their wildest imaginations from forty years ago.

And that, to me, is remarkable that there’s a slew of groups—the Base, Atomwaffen, Proud Boys, and so on—that Canada has designated as domestic terrorist organizations. I mean, this is—you know, it just, you know, really begs ones, you know, credulity that this could happen and it’s all because the U.S. has become exactly as Ellen and Yaël is describing, has become the platform and the mouthpiece for the wildest types of conspiracy theories.

SIMS: And the rise of terrorist groups, once again, fertilized over a period of time. It’s not just Facebook, but there are other factors there as well, right?

HOFFMAN: Well, yes. I mean, certainly. I mean, I recall, you know, in the spring of 2020 how, until Facebook started to take them down, I mean, just the pervasiveness of Boogaloo Boys groups, and the openness that people were—again, it strains credulity, but talking about sedition and treason. I mean, there’s no other words for it, and finally it was taken down. But it was well after it had gathered momentum.

I’m not particularly tech savvy, but it was so easy for me, you know, with my anemic capabilities, to get into so many of these groups and see what they were arguing. And, of course, you know, this isn’t a—these aren’t normal times in any event because COVID has also sort of, you know, just hyper exaggerated this entire process and often blended it together. So yeah, certainly, this is the case.

SIMS: Is there the anticipation that we will see a broader, you know, eruption of terrorist attacks, going forward?

HOFFMAN: Well, as I began the talk, you know, my concern, in some respects, is less with the people who showed up on January 6—six hundred or so people that are being prosecuted now. It’s those that have drawn conclusions from those events and who are way under the radar and who themselves, as individuals or small cells of individuals, just like Timothy McVeigh and Michael Fortier and Terry Nichols in 1994 and 1995 took it upon themselves to try to implement, to fire, the opening salvo of what they hoped would spur a nationwide revolution of some sort.

Well, back then it was fanciful and, of course, fortunately, it just fizzled out and, certainly, the efforts of law enforcement in the aftermath of Oklahoma City really suppressed these groups. But now I think the challenges are just so enormous and so overwhelming, not least at a time when we see al-Qaida and ISIS, who we thought we had put in the rearview mirror, resurfacing because of events in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So, uniquely, we’re confronted, at least as terrorism specialists, you know, with a waterfronts of threats. Twenty years ago, we didn’t face anything that was at all domestic. Now, as we’ve discussed, I mean, the domestic issue, perhaps, has even superseded the foreign terrorist threat, and because of the power of social media, I think we’re just constantly flatfooted and constantly reacting and responding.

EISENSTAT: Yes. So if I may, that’s where the social media angle, to Bruce’s point, really comes into play, right. I mean, I was working at the National Counterterrorism Center in, like, the early 2000s when a few of us were batting around some of the extreme people in the U.S. and it was just impossible for the U.S. government to consider any domestic group, except for maybe an environmental group, for some reason, as actual terrorists. Like, it was just—it was something we weren’t ready to wrap our minds around yet. I think—personally, I think that took way too long. But, fine, that’s where we are now.

Where the social media angle comes into play on this is it’s not just that you have people who are angry, disgruntled, have been left behind by their governments, all of these different factors—and let’s call it out, because a lot of us are too afraid to say this—and a demographic of people who are losing power in a country that is becoming less and less white and are afraid of that.

I mean, if we—we’re afraid to just admit that that’s a huge part of what’s happening. But these people are fed a steady nonstop diet online of election conspiracies, of hateful comment, of things that are feeding off their own biases to reinforce their biases, to constantly confirm that they are right, something is wrong, their election is being stolen, these terrible people are after them, nonstop being fed that.

And so when—going back to the Facebook Papers and the leaks, what really bothered me is so many of the things we were seeing in the Facebook Papers were implying that this was all new in 2020 and how they really did everything they could to protect that election and then they were, like, woo hoo, we did it.

This has been going on for years. They have allowed this steady increase of hateful, like, conspiracy-ridden election fraud QAnon steady diet infect so many people. To think that in five minutes before the 2020 election you’re suddenly going to fix it and it’s going to be over is ridiculous.

And many of us said the most important—you know, for people—this is a CFR thing. I’m sure there are many people on this call who work overseas. Most people who work in—you know, I spent most of my career working in Africa—most people who have worked overseas know that the most volatile period of an election is between the election and when it is certified. It’s that counting period, right. That can be a truly volatile time.

I’ve heard other people—I think it was Rose Jackson who I heard recently talking about this as well on another event, and that was a time where, like, Facebook was, like, high five, we did it and other people were screaming, wait a minute, but stop the steal was growing, and to Bruce’s point, you could find these hateful groups very easily on the platform.

And so this is why I do put a lot of the blame on social media. But we also have to think about what are the underlying root causes of why so many people in our country are currently vulnerable and susceptible to the things that are happening on social media.

SIMS: Before we go to the audience, to our members, I’m just wondering, what is the prospect for some international cooperation or joint efforts to combat this? Is anyone thinking about this? Are there, you know, groups at the U.N. or other alliances that are taking this on?

EISENSTAT: I don’t want to dominate the mic. I have answers but, Ellen or Bruce, so if you guys go first.

CUSHING: Go for it.

EISENSTAT: All right. So this is complicated for a number of reasons. If we’re talking about the social media angle as opposed to, you know, in terms of just elevating the fact that democracy in and of itself is an issue we need to focus on, let’s be frank. It hasn’t been on our agenda for a long time because we’ve just assumed democracy is solid.

So the fact that the president is calling for this, you know, Democracy Summit and the fact that we are actually elevating the need to actually think about how to protect democracy, I think that’s very important. I don’t know if much will come out of the Democracy Summit but I do think it’s critical that we fundamentally recognize that we shouldn’t take democracy for granted anymore. So that’s one.

But in terms of what to do about social media, let’s be frank, a huge part of the complication is because the United States is so far behind the rest of the world in thinking through how to handle some of this stuff because we’ve allowed these platforms to weaponize the First Amendment in a way that is actually not authentic, right.

They will use the First Amendment as their excuse to get away with everything including with how they target things, including with how they use our human behavioral data, including with things that have nothing to do with the human being’s right to free speech.

And so the rest of the world will tell us, United States, you’re the problem. Like, you’re the ones where these companies are headquartered. They’ve exported their ideology to the rest of the world in many countries that didn’t have a robust free media and democracy to begin with, and you refuse to tackle it because you’re allowing them to claim it’s all about the First Amendment.

I’m not hopeful. We are the ones who are not participating strongly enough in the world’s efforts to figure out how to make a healthier information ecosystem. So there. I just screamed about my own country on a CFR event. (Laughter.) I hope I’m invited back sometime.

SIMS: Well, thank you.

Now, let’s invite our members to join in this conversation with questions. We do want to remind you that this meeting is on the record and we’re going to take some questions from our term members. It’s on the record, and the operator will remind us how to join the queue.

So let’s open it up now and you can address your question to any specific panelist or just in general.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will be from Shannon Kellman.

Q: Hi. Thanks so much for doing it this morning. I’m Shannon Kellman. I’m the policy director at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

We have seen just a really wide range of really toxic misinformation around the pandemic, for sure around the election, and I get this question a lot in my work in public health and do not have a great answer for it. So hoping you all can help.

But how can we be combating misinformation and, more specifically, how do we need to adjust how we are speaking to the general public and how do we need to adjust how policymakers are speaking to the general public to make sure that the facts that are out there are the ones that are actually being internalized?

SIMS: Bruce?

HOFFMAN: Well, I mean, it is a little—it’s a little outside of my lane in counterterrorism. But as I said earlier, the “Online Harms” white paper was, to me, an exemplar of at least a start in this kind of dialogue and to scope out government’s responsibility to protect society from an entire variety of threats.

But, you know, in this current environment, I mean, there just doesn’t seem to be very much movement towards that and that’s why I began my talks by saying, you know, potentially, the next Oklahoma City is around the corner, and what would be the effects and what would be the impact.

And that’s something that worries me profoundly compared to the 1990s when actually this threat went into abeyance for many years and has now resurfaced, and resurfaced with such vile volatility because of the power of social media.

EISENSTAT: Ellen, do you have thoughts? I don’t want to—

CUSHING: Yeah. I was going to say, so I have covered conspiracy theories for a long time and, you know, one of the things that, basically, all conspiracy theory scholars agree on is that conspiracy theories sort of thrive in darkness. You know, the less people understand about a process or a system or how the government works in their particular country the more they are willing to turn to conspiracy theories.

So I do think that part of this is that public health can be confusing. The way vaccines work can be confusing. I do think a lot of this is about preemptive education. One of the things we see all the time is that some bad information, you know, like Bill Gates has a microchip in the vaccine, for example, will go super-duper-mega viral, and then all of the corrections and the debunks will get, like, a tenth of the engagement that the original thing did.

So a lot of this is about, like, not whacking the mole at all and being proactive about the way we talk about things that are complicated to people and the way we talk, you know, like preemptive messaging about public health.

EISENSTAT: You know, if I can just add a thought to what Ellen said, because that’s spot on. I mean, I get asked this question all the time. I like to say those of us who unpack the problems don’t necessarily also have to be the ones who have all the solutions. (Laughter.)

But, you know, it’s an unfair fight, to be clear, because most of us do not understand how we are actually manipulated by our online ecosystem and so it’s a bit unfair to say that we’re the ones who have to take control. But we do also have to take control.

So I think also pushing for the government to invest more in digital literacy, for—I mean, these are things we can push for as citizen participants in our democracy.

So, Shannon, I don’t know that individually that you’re going to be able to combat this. But one thing that I know much of us in the, like, ivory tower-ish type of world hate to admit, the world of nuance and smart, like, complicated messaging in journalism is over, and we—if we want to get more facts to rise to the same level as all of the conspiracy theories or manipulative so-called information out there, we might need to adjust the way we communicate as well.

When the CDC puts out, like, a super wonky fact-based thing, it’s never going to get the same engagement. And I’m not saying we should practice click bait, but we should start thinking about how can we appeal—how can we make sure our messages are also surfacing more and it might mean having to figure out how to do less of a very wonky boring presentation that nobody’s going to read and understand the game of how to make content more palatable to a world that consumes information differently than we did when we were young.

So that’s not a fun message but that’s part of what I think we’re missing as well.

SIMS: We’ll take another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Tyler Godoff.

Q: Hey, everyone. Thanks, Sam. Excellent panel. Thank you all for all your work on this, Yaël. Just it’s so important on what you’re uncovering.

And the question I’d like to ask is about the people becoming radicalized both on the right and left. As I said, I’m so glad you’re talking about it because I’ve seen it in my own life. Some people who, through spending so much time on social media, their worlds get incredibly small and radicalized.

So you’ve spent a lot of time focusing on what it looks like on the right. Could you talk about what it looks like on the left? How are you seeing that radicalization forming and how does it look similar, how does it look different, than individuals on the right?

EISENSTAT: Bruce, I’m looking at you.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. OK. (Laughter.) So, you know, it, certainly, is occurring on the extreme left as well. I mean, interestingly, we read a lot in the newspapers, especially because of January 6 or hear a lot on the news or read a lot online about, you know, far-right penetration of the military and police.

I mean, interestingly, both extremes actively recruit veterans, for example, or people serving in the military because of their various skill sets, and not just in weaponry and blowing things up but in communications, for example, in logistics, and so on.

I would say, though, that the threats aren’t even remotely congruent, that on the extreme left, I mean, certainly, this is occurring. Certainly, this is a problem. I mean, when one thinks about it, one of the more serious, I would call it—(inaudible, technical difficulties)—it might not be classified as such, but one of the more serious incidents, in June 2017, was, again, one of these lone actors, not belonging to any terrorist group, not following anyone’s orders, who attempted to kill several members of the Republican congressional delegation at an early-morning baseball practice.

But the thing is, the threat is just so much more and I think Ellen and Yaël can speak to this better than I can. But at least from my observations and, again, as, you know, a sexagenarian technophobe, it’s just so much more pervasive on the right. There’s just not any kind of comparison.

The power of QAnon, let’s say, to have jumped from the United States to the United Kingdom to Germany to Scandinavia and Russia—I mean, you know, it has nothing, I think, like the reach, let’s say, of anarchism or far-left extremism in this respect. So it’s really pretty much coming from the right.

I think the danger on both sides, though—so this is not unique to either extreme—is that the self-sustaining echo chambers just goad people and push them to believe in whatever theorist theory is—they’ve wrapped themselves around without any kind of mediation, without any kind of mitigating factors.

And this is why I go back to the point that it’s less the people that showed up at January 6 that concern me. Those that are taking the message from that that have burrowed deeper underground, have become even more obsessed with U.S. government surveillance, let’s say, that may be at a very modest level and that, actually, from everything that I gather really does adhere to protecting people’s free speech. I mean, online postings do not trigger criminal investigations unless it comes really up and crosses a line of active violence and personal harm.

But I worry about the people who burrow deeper underground, become even more enveloped in this groupthink and see themselves as Timothy McVeigh did twenty-five years ago or so as this revolutionary vanguard whose act of violence is designed to inspire imitation and emulation.

And in the United States today, I think there has to be, you know, some concern about that. You know, on a very mundane level—I haven’t checked recently, but at least as of a few months ago it was impossible in multiple states to buy standard-issue factory-produced bullets, right. You would go to sporting goods stores or gun stores—and I’m talking about Louisiana, Virginia, Maryland, California—and the shelves would be empty of bullets. This has been the case since around April 2020 when the COVID pandemic really started gathering momentum.

I mean, I can’t recall any time in history where you can’t buy standard-issue factory ammunition and that, I think, is a very alarming sign of how easily people are—their views are exacerbated and manipulated and goaded in this echo chamber on their own to carry out acts of violence, just like Timothy McVeigh. I mean, unfortunately. Now there’s how many Timothy McVeighs out there and how much more empowered and radicalized are they by social media?

CUSHING: Yeah. Bruce, I think it’s really smart to not—you know, like, we don’t want to create a false equivalency here. Like, there is—there are really bad things happening on the left. Thus far, those bad things have not, you know, kind of, like, curdled and manifested into these, you know, brazen acts of racist violence that we’ve seen elsewhere.

But, of course, this is happening on the left. I grew up in Berkeley, California, and all of my family is still there and, you know, like, this is sort of like the stew that I’ve been stewing in my whole life. And, of course, you see, you know, vaccine misinformation that is sort of of a different flavor than what we think of as kind of the right side vaccine misinformation but it, certainly, exists. Even stuff like, you know, eco-terrorism, like, that stuff kind of foments on, like, the super leftist internet and we can’t ignore that.

You know, the political scientist Joseph Uscinski at the University of Miami has this theory that’s sort of a truism that I think is really interesting that’s, like, conspiracy theories are for losers and what he means by that is conspiracy theories—and I think we can extend that to sort of the conspiratorial thinking generally—is something that people use to explain a world that feels really unfair to them.

And I think right now, to Yaël’s point, you know, like, we are in a moment where there are a lot of people who are sort of looking to their left and looking to their right and seeing that the world they maybe feel like they were promised is not the world that they are getting. It’s a world where white culture is less dominant. It’s a world where they may not, like, be—you know, be sort of promised the things that they thought they were promised and so I think that’s why we’re seeing this.

You know, like, January 6 was about people who felt like the presidency that belonged to them had been taken—had been stolen. So I think—while I think that it’s important to not kind of, like, you know, say—draw false equivalency between what we’re seeing on both sides, I do think it’s important to know that, like, these things can swing, you know, and, like, all it takes is sort of, like, the right match and the right accelerant for something like this to happen in any community, I think.

SIMS: So we’ll go to the next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Mansoor Shams.

Q: Hi. Good morning. My name is Mansoor Shams, founder of

A question for Yaël and, I guess, Bruce. Actually, it’s—what a coincidence that both things have been hinted upon that was in my question but this would add a little bit more clarity. So an interesting point has been mentioned about freedom of speech, in particular, the way Facebook frames the discussion.

But as mentioned, the issue is larger than Facebook. It’s the way our system is set up. I think a good correlation could be made with the Second Amendment and gun ownership, where I can go online and order unlimited amounts of ammunition, dangerous ammunitions, delivered to my doorstep, which I couldn’t do as a U.S. Marine. I didn’t have access to unlimited amounts of ammunition.

So is there, like, a fundamental misunderstanding in the way we understand our Constitution? Is it dated? I know this is touchy and, you know, people get very, you know, personal about this, and if the answer is yes, who’s to fix it and how? I feel like our country is in the middle of a(n) identity crisis and with everyone having their own interpretation of everything. Thank you.

EISENSTAT: I’m going to give a real short answer. I’m hoping Bruce has a better answer than I do.

Mansoor, I totally agree with you. I think part of the issue is the untouchable, is the discussion about the Constitution, right. Like, we’re talking about all the things that are all affected by it. But in the year 2021—this is why I brought up the First Amendment—isn’t it time for us as a society to actually ask are we still interpreting our Constitution accurately in a way that makes sense for the reality of our world today?

But that feels like a really fraught and untouchable—this is why I’m concerned when so much of the conversation, like, revolves around this whack-a-mole what should Facebook take up and what should they leave—sorry, leave up and what should they take down today, as opposed to the deeper question of are we over interpreting the First Amendment when we’re saying that it’s OK for Facebook’s recommendation engines to push people towards QAnon. Like, we’re still using the idea of free speech to protect that, and as, you know, Renée DiResta said years ago, freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. Like, this is a totally different situation.

Well, it’s harder for us as a country—it would be an incredibly difficult conversation to have to say can we rethink how we are interpreting the First Amendment, the Second Amendment. I think that’s what we need if we want our democracy to continue to grow. I just don’t see how it’s going to happen.

Bruce, I’m hoping you have a better idea than I do on this.

HOFFMAN: Well, I think that—I think that was a great answer. But if I could just build on it a little bit.

You know, well, first, I think—I’m not a—far from being a jurist. That’s not my field, much less a constitutional scholar. But at least my impression, at least, from when I was an undergraduate in government classes is that the Constitution was a living document.

It was meant to be interpreted in light of changes in society and not some fundamentalist screed that we adhere to from the eighteenth century, and what worries me is exactly the line between freedom of speech and public safety and public safety writ large, not just in a setting like Charlottesville.

And there is a very interesting trial going on now in Charlottesville that reveals just the planning and the clarion calls to violence that occurred ahead of time that, really, people in authority did not pay sufficient attention to, again, because of wanting to err on the right of the First Amendment.

And, again, I’m not a jurist but there’s an excellent book by Michael Signer, who is a jurist—actually has a law degree and a Ph.D. in political philosophy—Cry Havoc. He was the mayor of Charlottesville at the time, and he discusses precisely how we have to strike a new balance in an era of social media in particular, because social media—and we’re talking about now an event that’s four years ago, that, you know, had such a big role and would have an even bigger role today. And he points to, like, a Supreme Court decision like Terminiello v. Chicago in 1947 that had defined this line between First—you know, First Amendment rights and actually advocating outright violence. And, clearly, I think that line needs to be reexamined yet again.

It also needs to be reexamined, I think, in another context that we haven’t talked about, but it’s the personal level, and that’s, of course, what drives a lot of this as, I think, so many people sitting at their computers, even if they’re not in the real world because of COVID or whatever other reason, feel so vulnerable and so threatened.

And, of course, that just feeds the sense of paranoia and xenophobia in its literal sense, hatred of any kind of strangers. I mean, think about the power of—like, of what social media has done in terms of personal security and the invasions of privacy. I mean, doxxing has become just such a common thing and such a popular form of harassment.

It’s gone beyond holding public officials responsible to really impinge on people’s well-being and on their personal security. We have absolutely no debates about this. I mean, for, basically, $0.99 you can go online and there’s any number of these online search engines that’s going to provide you with, you know, a download, including Social Security numbers, relatives, where they live, of anyone that you might want to seek information about, and this is something that has been weaponized by both sides as a tool. Some people argue that it’s positive because, of course, it’s outed Nazis and neo-Nazis and white supremacists from their jobs, for example. But on the other hand, though, it’s also used against normal people, against election officials.

And we’re in a different world in terms of how our information can be accessed and how that, in turn, plays into what has become a national insecurity, which is driving, I think, a lot of the conspiracy theories at a time of profound destabilization that’s been caused by COVID. We really have been knocked off balance, and it’s so difficult to gain our balance because of, you know, these very powerful gale like forces.

SIMS: Is there another question in the queue?

OPERATOR: We currently do not have anyone in the queue. If term members would like to ask a question, please feel free to raise a hand. But I will turn it back over to you.

SIMS: Sure. So I’d like to revisit something we talked about a little bit early that was mentioned, I guess, what I would call social media literacy. How do we get to the point where we start to educate the public, writ large, as well as young people about the pitfalls of something like Facebook and what has happened? Is there some thought to that? Have you heard, you know, efforts that are underway to do that?

HOFFMAN: I’ll weigh in on something. But, again, I hope, if I’m completely wrong, Ellen or Yaël will correct me.

But, you know, we haven’t yet discussed Section 230 of the Federal Communications Act, which was passed in the mid-1990s when virtually everyone got their news from traditional platforms that were edited, that were mediated, where there was some time delay often, and it seems to have really outlived its relevance at a time when it depends what newspaper or what newscast—you can see what era I’m from. I’m not even talking—I don’t get any of my news online. I mean, I really am a dinosaur.

But, you know, the point is whether it’s a quarter, a third, or half their people getting their news from Facebook, to me, that’s absolutely astonishing. I mean, I like getting my news from sources that I can trust where there are editors involved that are checking what the reporters are reporting. And that, like the “Online”—the U.K. “Online Harms” initiative from years ago that I cited earlier, it’s also struck me that, you know, occasionally you hear things about looking at Section 230. But there’s been absolutely no movement on that and, as I said, it seems to have outlived its relevance.

EISENSTAT: I have some thoughts. But, Ellen, do you want to go first?

CUSHING: Yeah. Oh, sure. I was just going to say that I do think a lot of this—and this is sort of an unsexy answer but I think a lot of this is about what we teach people in school. You know, when I was in school, in, you know, primary school and high school, I learned how to read a news article.

You know, like, I had a teacher who explained, like, how journalism worked. And this wasn’t a journalism class. It was—I think it was a history class. But it was so helpful, and I think, you know, like, as an editor, I’m pro-editors. I’m pro—you know, I think that most people should be consuming their news from, for example, the Atlantic, but that’s not what’s happening.

People are getting their news on Facebook, and I think so much of this is just about giving people the tools to understand how to tell if something is true. Like, what is a primary source? What is a secondary source? It’s so boring to talk about but it’s so important. You know, I think people just don’t—by the time people get a Facebook account or, let alone, a TikTok or Instagram or whatever account—and people are getting their news from TikTok and Instagram, too—people don’t know, you know—like, that is happening before people get the education to understand how information flows and where it comes from and how to sort of sort the good information from the bad. That’s not the only part of this problem. That alone will not solve, you know, the problem of extremist violence in America and abroad. But I do think that’s a really big part of it.

EISENSTAT: Total plus one to Ellen. There are—part of the issue is there are lots of organizations, and I work with a number of them, who are really putting a lot of effort into media literacy, into digital literacy in schools, starting at a pretty young age. One of the things that is the most shocking is how much they have to scrape to fundraise to do so because our government is not actually investing in adding this to any sort of public curriculum, which is really unfortunate.

Other countries are beating us on these. There are—some of the Scandinavian countries, I think, are some of the examples that are doing this better than we are, that are really investing in digital literacy. And to Ellen’s point, it doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s—we don’t even teach civics anymore in school, apparently, which is one of the most shocking things in the world to me.

But, again, I will say I think that this is an incredibly important part that is incredibly under resourced, but it’s still—we are still up against a not fair fight. So people like me will continue to fight to figure out how to legislate and regulate this online environment while others need to continue to fight to get more funding for digital literacy programs. They go hand in hand.

SIMS: We have two more hands raised. So let’s try to get these two questions in before the end.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from James Siebens.

Q: Hi. Good morning, everyone, and thanks very much for this delightful conversation.

So let me just press on the question of regulation of the media landscape and the importance of media literacy. I studied the role of the media in U.S. politics as an undergraduate and one of the things that struck me as somewhat discouraging was that the—our media landscape has left the American public with a number of significant misimpressions or illusions about the world we live in. Some of that was specifically surrounding the war in Iraq at the time I was studying it.

So is there better regulation that the FCC can undertake to ensure that the information purveyed by our media companies is actually factual and that there are consequences for purveying false information to a mass audience?

And, similarly, for our public officials, who are also some of the key highly-visible purveyors of false information, in some cases, when they swear their oaths of office can they not also take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and be bound by that somehow?

Thank you.

EISENSTAT: I’m just going to touch on the second part. I’m not a constitutional scholar, but as someone who’s worked a lot on studying Section 230 and where free speech applies and where it doesn’t, our Supreme Court has made it clear over and over again that political speech is somehow even higher bar. And so as much as I love the premise of your question, I don’t see a way that we will ever regulate that politicians have to say the truth.

What I do think is the problem, and any of you know me know that one of the reasons I was pushed out at Facebook was because I was the one who tried to build in a fact-checking program into political advertising. Because it’s not free speech. It’s paid speech with the benefit of micro targeting tools to give different messages to different people.

But I got to tell you, this is not—that’s a piece that I don’t see ever being legislated, as much as I get the core of your question.

CUSHING: Yeah, it’s such an interesting question. It kind of, like, stopped me in my tracks. As a member of the media, I think I have to say that I’m not wild about the idea of the government being able to regulate the content of what we say or do. I sound like a broken record, but I really think this is about amplification.

I think that if we were in an information environment where mistruths, whether they’re from, like, your wacky cousin on Facebook or from a major cable news channel, if we were in an information environment where that clip can’t go viral and sort of ping pong around the social web and get amplified and amplified, I don’t think we would be having this conversation.

So I don’t really think—I don’t think the solution is to regulate what the media can and cannot say. You know, journalism is—the practice of journalism is telling the truth as you see it, gathering information, synthesizing it. It scares me to think about being in an environment where you can be, especially at a moment when the industry is falling apart and, you know, most newsrooms are kind of hanging on by a thread the idea that you could be fined for publishing something that was false.

You know, we have processes. Defamation lawsuits exist. We have processes already in place that regulate this to some degree. But the idea of, you know, being fined or something like that for publishing that—for publishing something that later turned out to be false sort of gives me the heebie-jeebies a little bit.

HOFFMAN: Reminds me a lot about the debate or discussions about whether we need domestic terrorism legislation. There’s pros and cons, and there are, certainly, very profound dangers, especially if these things are manipulated by persons in power without integrity, which one understands.

But I still believe we need to have these discussions and I think that for the past several years, where most—I mean, not these discussions on forums or platforms like CFR but legislatively by government, and I think, you know, these are the hard questions that will only be resolved through legislative probing and then testing in the judiciary, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for it.

I mean, I think there are people who are—like ourselves who are arguing that the current system is eroding democracy and has posed threats that because of social media and because of digital platforms we’ve never had to face before.

But that’s precisely the point. I think that’s why these types of discussions and discussions that go beyond CFR and beyond think tanks is so important. It’s what we’ve been, I think, avoiding, and eventually there’s going to be a reckoning of one sort or another, unfortunately.

SIMS: And on that note, given Council on Foreign Relations’ practice to end events on time, I want to thank the panelists for, you know, engaging in this really intriguing conversation, to Ellen and Yaël and Bruce, and thank you very much for taking the time.

So I want to note also that the video and transcripts of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR’s website, and for our term members please rejoin at 11:30 a.m. Eastern for a salon discussion on what’s next for Afghanistan.

So thank you all very much. This has been really an intriguing and enlightful (sp) conversation, and hope to see you all again at some point. Thank you very much.


This is an uncorrected transcript.


Concurrent Plenary: Cybersecurity and Great Power Competition


EDELMAN: Good afternoon. Welcome back to the 2021 Term Member Conference. I’m David Edelman from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and I’ll be your presider for this on-the-record session: “Cybersecurity and Great Power Competition.”

We have over 170 members registered for today’s virtual meeting and we’ll do our best to get to as many questions as possible during the Q&A session in about thirty minutes. But first, we’re going to hear from our three distinguished panelists, a veritable dream team of what’s happening at the intersection of cyber affairs and national security. Their full bios are linked from the event page, but to introduce them briefly.

Mieke Eoyang was appointed deputy assistant secretary of defense for Cyber Policy at the Pentagon earlier this year after running the National Security Program at the think tank Third Way and, prior to that, a series of senior national security roles on Capitol Hill.

Vishaal Hariprasad, better known as V8, is the CEO and co-founder of Resilience, a cybersecurity firm, after stints in the Air Force, where he remains a reservist.

And Jackie Schneider is a Hoover fellow at the Hoover Institution, a nonresident fellow at the U.S. Naval War College.

Welcome all three of you, and thank you so much for being here.

All right, so let’s dive right in. Now, let’s start for a minute in talking about the nature of this competition. Just yesterday General Nakasone, head of NSA and Cyber Command, said—and I’m quoting him here—“Strategic competition with a number of adversaries is alive and well today in cyberspace.” And so, over the course of our discussion today, I’m hoping that everyone will, one way or another, start to answer this question: What exactly does it mean to be engaged in strategic competition in cyberspace? What do we actually hope to achieve? Is this a winnable competition? What are the off-ramps to it?

But before going that broad, why don’t we get to some narrower questions, specifically something that’s been in the news all over for the last several weeks and months and a specific place that we’re starting to see this competition play out, because ransomware, where our adversaries might take, you know, machines hostage, often for ransom, it’s on a lot of people’s minds right now and people are seeing it all over the pages.

So, Mieke, if I can start with you: Yesterday the NSA revealed what press agencies have been reporting for some time that the agency, quote, “conducted a surge over the past three months to address ransomware attacks.” Now, I don’t need you to talk about any specific incident, but just generally, I think a lot of us see ransomware as a criminal act; we think about it as something that law enforcement pursues, not the military. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that, and are we starting to see a policy shift here and are we trying to make a statement to our adversaries about what’s permissible and not in this broader space?

EOYANG: Yeah, so let me step back a little because there’s a lot to unpack in your question here and just talk a little bit about how the department has evolved its role, operational role in cyberspace over time. And so when I first started in this business, a lot of what we talked about in cybersecurity was specific on system and defense, and we talked about, how do we secure the systems from adversaries? And we were talking about, like, what do we need to do for ourselves and our own networks? In 2018, the department made a really big shift forward when we talked about—openly about the fact that we are going to have to operate off of our own networks to go meet the adversary; it was the first time the United States talked about, like, offensive action and we talk about defend forward and persistent engagement. And as we’ve had more operational experience with that, with the stand-up of Cyber Command and other things, I think one of the things that we’ve seen is there are places where the nonstate actor represents a national security threat. So in the department we have three main missions in cyberspace; one is to defend the DODIN—that’s defend our own networks; two is to prepare to fight and win the nation’s wars, so the cyber parts that go along with conventional conflict; and the third is, defend the nation. And when we talk about “defend the nation” in the department, we’re talking about whole-of-government activities in which the department plays a role. We may not necessarily be the lead actor in this but we play a role in defending the nation. And you saw us step into that role in the defense of the 2018 and 2020 elections, and as we look at ransomware that has the capacity and has actually, when we think about it, had impacts to our critical infrastructure, then we’re talking about things that are more than just the criminal, financial impacts; we’re talking something that is much broader that affects the national security.

So yes, ransomware where it rises to that level of potential—actual or potential impact to critical infrastructure, that becomes a national security concern, and the department is very much engaged in whole-of-government efforts to disrupt ransomware actors and impose consequences on them.

EDELMAN: So it sounds like, if we’re trying to disrupt and impose consequences, the first word that comes to my mind there is deterrence. Right?

And Jackie, I know you’ve studied and written about this question of deterrence for a long time, and this idea of deterring cyber operations with cyber operations. We’ve talked about this for a decade. Is cyber deterrence dead or, in this era of persistent engagement and defend forward that Mieke was just telling us about, is it sort of having a bit of a renaissance here? What do you see as working in this space?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean, I think if you listen to the verbs that we just heard there, the word was disrupt and not deter, which is actually a really, really large shift than kind of what were the main verbs that we were using when we were talking about cyber a few years ago. Unfortunately, you can’t quite kill this deterrence thing; it still keeps coming up, no matter how you shake it. But I think there has been, like, a very significant move within the Department of Defense. You see—and General Nakasone yesterday talking about, hey, you know, we’re really not doing—this is not deterrence. I think that’s a useful frame, a useful move away. But I think there is some small room for deterrence. So I think in general, when we say we want to deter something as the United States it’s because we’re not really—we’re really happy with the status quo.

Now, that’s changing in cyber. We’re no longer happy with the status quo and so we have to change the verbs that we’re using, and with this defend forward and the idea of persistent engagement, you’re thinking more about, how can I—instead of sitting back and trying to either deter or to respond to significant incidents, what can we do instead? And the work I’ve done that looks at kind of whether cyber operations can deter—I’ve used wargames and experiments—finds that cyber operations are generally not great signaling mechanisms. And so, in general, deterring cyber with cyber has not been very effective. And still, the best deterrents are the big, scary things, the deterrence by punishment. And so I think there’s still some room for strategic deterrence, so deterring state actors like Russia and China from taking large-scale cyberattacks against civilian critical infrastructure—I think there’s still room for that. But that’s generally not because we’re going to deter it with other cyber things; it’s because we have a very credible conventional and nuclear arsenal that we can rely on for those larger strategic deterrence initiatives.

EDELMAN: So we’re not necessarily trying to deter per se, we’re disrupting that which might otherwise get—raised to the level of national security concerns, as Mieke said.

Mieke, can I just follow up on one sort of follow-up question to what you raised, which is, do we have more to lose in this space than some of our key adversaries? I mean, you think about those that have engaged in relatively brazen attacks that have been attributed to their nation states—think about North Korea in the Sony attack, which was against a company and we’ll come back to that in a second. But, you know, you think about a country like North Korea or Iran; it seems to many that in the great power-competition frame the U.S., by virtue of our digital dependency, by virtue of our economy, by virtue of the way we run our government, has a lot more to lose here. Is that the case? And how do you think about what, therefore, rises to that level of a national security incident, in your mind, as you’re thinking about policy?

EOYANG: So I think one of the things—the way that I think about it is that we have a much larger attack surface, and the adversary’s reasons for going at that attack surface are, as you say, right, we care as a democracy about what happens to our populace, so we are much more responsive to attacks that impact the American people that other countries might only care about the impact on the leadership cadre. We care more about the health of the global economy, so—whereas other countries may be more disconnected—because of sanctions or other things—from the global economy. And so we have a lot more leverage points because of our interconnectivity to the rest of the world, and one could—one might argue that that’s a disadvantage, but actually, it’s a core feature of America, American society, and American governance, that we are that open, multi-stakeholder society; we believe in technological innovation. So we will always have that broad attack surface.

I think one of the challenges, when we think about the term cyber deterrence, is it implies that you can deter certain amounts of—you can deter cyber activity, malicious cyber activity to zero, and when we look at that activity, a large portion of that activity is espionage activity. And I like to remind people that espionage is the second-oldest profession in humanity, so, like, we are not likely to be able to turn adversaries off from the need to conduct espionage. And so—but then there are questions of, like, what are the appropriate rules of the road? How do we signal acceptable and unacceptable behavior, responsible and irresponsible behavior in cyberspace?

And the other thing is I think that when we talk about cyber deterrence, it suggests that like nuclear deterrence that there’s deterrence that is sort of within the domain—cyber activities to deter cyber activities. And I think that what we are seeing in the department, and as we’re talking about integrated deterrence, is that cyber can play a very important role in cross-domain deterrence and, likewise, right, so you may have cyber activity that deters kinetic conflict, or you might have diplomatic activity or law enforcement activity that deters cyber conflict. So we have to think about how these domains have impact on each other and what adversaries’ core interests are and what their motivations are for deterrence and whether or not deterrence—you know, importing the model from the nuclear space is, I think, actually not helpful for conversations about deterrence because cyber tools are inherently very different. They are not as transparent. They are not as attributable. They are not uniquely in the hands of a state. They do not have the same temporal or physical impact as nuclear weapons have. So when people try and import the arms control and nonproliferation models to cyber, you actually wind up mapping a pretty poor set of policy solutions by trying to import those frameworks of arms control conversations and transparency and verification into the cyber domain. Cyber is very different than that.

EDELMAN: So that’s a great point. And let’s move into another domain that is given a little bit of short shrift in this context, too, which is the economic context. I mean, you talk, Mieke, about this broad attack surface. And of course—(laughs)—no broader is the attack surface anywhere in the world than our digital economy. Right? And, you know, we’re talking about this great power frame and usually it’s so easy when we’re doing, you know, unhelpful comparisons to the Cold War to just leave the economic part out entirely, but of course, we can’t here because these networks are, in large part, owned and operated by the private sector, and, in many cases—and this seems to be particularly different in this domain—you know, with cases like NotPetya, right, where you’re seeing massive critical infrastructure disruptions. Right? I shudder to think what would happen if Maersk suffered the same sort of shutdown right now in the midst of our supply chain discontent. I mean, these were state-grade, geopolitical actions that were taken against economic targets.

So V8, I want to bring you in here. How does industry think about the fact that it is now—(laughs)—increasingly sort of shouldering the cost and shouldering the burden of these national security incidents, in some cases, including in cases like SolarWinds? I mean, is this sustainable?

HARIPRASAD: Yeah, David, it’s a great question, and actually I’d like to come back to what Mieke said. You know, the difference between—we can’t just drop in what worked in the previous era in the cyber arena. It’s not the same in construct, and again, as you said, it’s entirely run by the private sector. There’s a big difference, though, between espionage and destructive and/or criminal acts, and the economic numbers actually show this. NotPetya is probably still one of the largest financial losses in the cyber insurance industry with over 10 billion (dollars) in losses since it came out. Conversely, compare that with SolarWinds. Right? It seemed—it’s right now early days but attributed to more espionage-like activity, and that’s only been 90 million (dollars), so a whole order of magnitude difference in terms of the loss. The interesting part here is, given the defense of our nation, of our companies, is a big part of this. We can’t write policies and hope that our internal companies will adopt them unless we also give them a financial incentive. And I think the interesting part here—we talked about—Mieke started with disruption, Jacquelyn came in with deterrence, and I’d kind of like to add another D here: to deny, and denying that attack surface to our adversaries, making it harder, making it less profitable for their operations to succeed. And we think about it from an economic perspective. There’s ways in which the government can address cyber risks, and the way the private sector approaches it, at least from an economic standpoint, is, where does the buck stop in terms of responsibility? In the private sector, I think of it as three concentric circles. The inner circle are individuals and companies. Have they done what is within their locus of control—patching their systems and everything up to their network perimeter? Beyond that, they don’t have any access or purview, and that’s kind of where—that gray space is where the government should be taking over and helping police or take some level of protective actions. Systemic risks that allow things like SolarWinds to happen are things that are outside an average company’s control, but you would hope that the vendors, the suppliers are held to higher standards. Now, NIST and other frameworks out there can provide that level of standards and verifications and uphold that for companies.

And then there’s the final, third, and outer ring: malicious and opportunistic actors. That includes crimeware; that includes foreign adversaries and great powers. The buck stops at that point with our federal government, our ability for us to go out there and deter and stop those opportunistic attacks, and that’s where the disruption and deterrence really come in. But in those latter two rings, that’s where policy can really play a big role. And we can get that in here as we go forward.

EDELMAN: Can I press you a little bit on that denial piece, though? Because, you know, for a decade I remember that there were great hopes and ambitions for the idea of an effectively functioning cyber-insurance market, which sounds less than scintillating. But if you think about it, getting the incentives right, such that there might actually be a cost mechanism and a reimbursement mechanism for companies that are taking disproportionate risk could help with that denial piece. Right? So tell us a little bit about that, I mean, a case where all these companies are both the—(laughs)—source of our risk and the solution, too, on some level. Right? I mean, these are software bugs we’re talking about. Where does the insurance market—can it come in even in a world where we’re talking about national security issues?

 HARIPRASAD: Yeah, great question. And so, if you look back for the last twenty years, cyber insurance specifically, it’s a lagging, not a leading, indicator, and it’s more responsive to financial losses. Where are the losses coming from, and then let’s react to it.

In the case of ransomware, which is very much top of mind, the economic impacts are real. You know, cyber insurance premiums, what companies pay to get cyber insurance, it’s up 96 percent from last year; it will probably go up another 40 (percent) to 50 percent next year. It was up 40 percent just from Q2 to Q3 of this year, due to ransomware losses. And some companies are just collateral damage in all of this. They are being charged 200 percent more on their premiums, even if they’ve not—even if their security posture is the exact same.

Now, this is exactly—this is the concern that a lot of companies have had for a long time in terms of, if I do something that protects me and makes me a better risk, will I see the financial reward? Interestingly enough, in ransomware, cybersecurity, the industry itself, has known about multifactor auth and backups for over a decade. They’ve been preaching that. The insurance industry has not made that requirement until now. But I will say, and what is a favorable thing to look forward to, is you can very rarely—90 percent of all insurance policies issued now require multifactor auth and backups. If you don’t do that, you’re not getting insurance today. So a good way to think about it is, insurance is a lagging, not a leading, indicator, as it’s currently written, but the opportunity is there and the financial pain is there to drive those incentives. If you want better risk transfer, you’ll need to adopt these controls. Now, how do we make that faster? How do we get that ahead of the game? That’s an interesting topic of discussion.

EDELMAN: And of course, there are some cases where perhaps a well-functioning insurance market, which doesn’t sound like we necessarily fully have yet, if people’s premiums are going up by 200 percent year on year—where there’s nothing they could do. I mean, let’s take the SolarWinds example, right, which was brought up before. This is an exceptionally sophisticated operation, as best we can tell from—that’s out there and open-source—since attributed potentially to Russia, aimed at stealing information but doing it at a broad scale, in a way that introduced a certain amount of systemic risk because it was broad across every user of this hyper-supervisor sort of system.

So at the time—now let’s get to policy. At the time that happened, I remember now President Biden said that a line was crossed and that we will respond. Again, I’m not going to talk about the specific questions of how we responded here, but Mieke, if I can put you on the spot a little bit: As a matter of policy, what is that line that we, the United States, were trying to draw in a case like SolarWinds, which was espionage? What’s new or different about this one?

EOYANG: Yeah, so I think one of the challenges is that it wasn’t just SolarWinds. Right? SolarWinds—yes, the breadth and scope of it, the concern that we have, the supply—the novel supply chain attack, that was all very concerning. But you have to remember that the Russians had a broad pattern of malign cyber activity coming into SolarWinds—interference in the 2018 and 2020 elections; we’d had a whole series of things like NotPetya and other things. There were a lot of places where I would say there was a lot of accountability coming and we made very clear that we found that behavior unacceptable and the United States has been, you know, has been talking about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in cyberspace. And we did impose consequences on the Russians for that activity, through diplomatic, through economic, and other channels. We’ve also—SolarWinds helped us really talk about this with our partners and allies in the region, as Russia as a continuing cyber threat. And so I think there were a lot of places where there were real serious consequences for the Russians on this.

I do think that a lot of people come back to this question about, OK, a few months later we had the Microsoft Exchange Server—web shells emplacement that—known as HAFNIUM, attributed to the Chinese, and the response from the United States government was different and that’s because not all countries, when you’re talking about a diplomatic state-to-state response, are equally situated to the activity and equally—you know, you have to make sure that as you’re responding you’re thinking about the impact on the other party. And what we saw with HAFNIUM, in the attribution statement that we issued there, which was echoed by partners and allies around the world, was a very strong, international response to China’s malicious activity, and more importantly, what we saw as the presiding over and allowing for a(n) ecosystem that allowed other malicious actors to flourish in that space. And one of the things that we are trying to drive towards is the—you know, sort of a digital Westphalianism—how do we try and make sure that you can hold states accountable for the offensive activity that emanates from their territory for the state-related activity? And so making very clear what we consider criminal activity—and the Department of Justice and the FBI have been very aggressive in how they are going forward against the nonstate actors—and then how we convey what we think are appropriate state practices to other countries through diplomatic and other channels. So, you know, we have to think about, what does it mean to try and get more accountability in this space, and understanding who is responsible for what in the cyber domain.

EDELMAN: And this joint naming and shaming union, so to speak—this does seem like a pretty novel development. Obviously, we’ve seen this growing over the course of the years, more and more allies and partners being willing to identify particular malicious incidents, being willing to stand up with us, either to impose consequences or to simply identify that it’s off-limits.

Jackie, I want to turn to you because, of course, there are a lot of analogies here to draw to other partnerships and alliances, even some outright alliances. We’ve seen NATO just this week report that it came out with a new cyber strategy. I think that’s not out in the public yet, but a fact sheet was released. The State Department just I think two weeks ago—Secretary Blinken announced the creation of a new bureau that will centralize both digital policy and cybersecurity issues. So it seems like we’re seeing this buildup, a drive towards broader alliances, broader diplomacy. Jackie, what do you think can be achieved here? What’s the goal?

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. And I think—you know, so I was—I served as a senior policy adviser to the Cyberspace Solarium Commission and one of our big recommendations was that State Department recommendation. So it’s really exciting to see that coming to fruition. And the recent statement that was put out about the Microsoft Exchange Servers that was a partnership between NATO, EU, and the United States—that’s a pretty big movement, especially against China because, to be honest, in many other domains it’s very difficult for those three—(laughs)—entities to say anything in one voice against China. So I think there’s some kind of forward movement here we have, right, both domestically in the United States and I think there’s increasingly international consensus about, like, what is appropriate and what is not. And I want to make, like—there’s a distinction. There are things that we don’t like that states do in cyberspace; there are things that are not appropriate. Those Venn diagrams are not always the same.

So creating norms about things that we don’t like that states are doing, I think cyber exploitation—you know, where they’re stealing broad swaths of information—that’s very difficult to create norms, either norms that are binding or even norms that are not binding. But it’s a little bit easier to create norms around things that we just think are just truly inappropriate behaviors. And I think, you know, when SolarWinds happened, Biden—President Biden came out and mentioned, OK, there are sixteen critical civilian infrastructures; it’s not appropriate to target those. And it got a little bit complicated, and I think, actually, the message got diluted. In the end, what does the United States, what does, you know, a lot of our democratic partners want? We don’t think it’s appropriate for states to attack civilians as a legitimate means of foreign policy. I mean, that seems to comport relatively nicely with existing norms about what is appropriate when it comes to the law of armed conflict?

So I think there are—I think that is actually something that we can kind of all—we can agree on, or at least start the discussion. And if you look at what’s coming out of, like, the U.N. GGE after years of really kind of stalled conversations, the U.N. GGE is putting out reports now that suggest that we’re moving to more and more consensus on what is appropriate. And I think in some ways we’re going to have to talk more about what is appropriate and less about kind of what we dislike, because the chance that we’re going to be able to convince Russia and China not to spy on the United States in these big, broad ways, that’s not going to happen, right, because, to be honest, the U.S. would probably take similar opportunities if they came. But there are things that are—I think we can all agree are inappropriate.

And I think—we were talking earlier about whether the United States was asymmetrically vulnerable, and, like, definitely, when you compare us to North Korea—(laughs)—right, this country’s, like, not really networked. But I think that Russia and China are more conscious of their cyber vulnerabilities, and specifically when you look at China. If you look at their doctrine from 2010 to how they talk about cyber and critical infrastructure now, they’ve seen that they are very, very dependent on cyber. I mean, they’re, you know, all in on AI and automation. So I think they are more cognizant of their own vulnerabilities, and I think that the United States can, you know, remind them—not necessarily by attacking but by discussing, hey, look, you guys are also similarly vulnerable. We might find, actually, that there are things that we can agree on that are kind of mutually not beneficial for both the nations.

EDELMAN: So I want to encourage members who are with us to start thinking about your questions because we’re going to move to Q&A in just a couple of minutes. But before we do that, I want to talk about the barrier that we might have to getting to any of the sort of outcomes that we just described. And when we were talking earlier about this panel, one area I know all of you have strong views about is this notion of cyber talent, and is it lacking? And what will it take as a government to position ourselves to be able to take on this threat, both at the governmental level but also in the private sector?

And so, you know, let me just start with you, V8. I mean, you’re thinking about this from the private sector angle and some have criticized this idea that there’s a fair amount of brain drain from the USG—they get trained up at the NSA, Cyber Command, elsewhere, and then come out because, of course, they can make a lot more money, they can do fantastically in the private sector. And I think, as a counterpoint to that, obviously, we’ve seen the value at a national security level of having trained operators in the private sector. Right? I mean, some of the early attribution of some of the key things we’ve been talking about took place with blind spots that may have existed for the government but didn’t for our cyber companies. So can you talk to us a little bit about that talent race right now, what it’s taking to get it, and do you have concerns about the U.S.’s ability to posture ourselves to take on this broader space?

HARIPRASAD: Well, Dave, first off, thanks for calling me out there. (Laughs.) I did do the NSA/Air Force thing and then went to the private sector. But I was lucky enough that I could still serve as a reservist and still play both parts. And actually, to your point, the revolving door and the brain drain: It is true; there’s a huge war for talent. I think it was the Department of Commerce that said there will be over five hundred thousand open cybersecurity jobs in the next year that will not be able to be filled, just by pure training and manning alone, around the country. And I see the U.S. government as a necessary back and forth that gives the right level of exposure and training.

If we come back to those three concentric circles, blue space, gray space, and red space: By law, private companies cannot operate beyond their own networks, and if all you ever see is inside as a defender, you lose the context of what the adversary’s doing, how they operate, how they think. You know, when you’re in the government sector and law enforcement and intelligence, espionage, you get to see the gray space and you get to see what’s going on and how these things can affect your personal networks. And then, finally, as a military or espionage operator, you get to see the red space, down to the adversary’s keyboard and how they’re actually thinking, the human element of cybersecurity. In my mind, what I’ve been very fortunate enough is to be able to go to the civilian sector but still maintain a foot as being part of the cyber mission force as a reservist is super-awesome. Being good at one makes me better at the other. As we think about capability development, I’m able to provide my unit with information of the best practices of software development in this paradigm from Silicon Valley. As I’m thinking about working with cybersecurity vendors, the lessons I’ve learned from my time working against adversaries and foreign state actors provides the context that’s missing if you only do one or the other.

Where I think the opportunity lays is, how do we incentivize and encourage the right level of participation from the civilian sector to the government level without all of the extra classifications that—and false barriers that are there, as well as the financial incentives? And I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of folks that are willing to do the time, not necessarily for the pay but just for the impact that it will have. But they’re not willing to waste their time if those opportunities do not exist. I’m very fortunate because of the military side of things, but I think the vast majority of our great civilian talent might not be suited for the military, but there is—it’s very hard to commit two years to go to D.C. or to East Coast-based central areas of service. And I think that’s a great opportunity for us in the future and I think necessary, both for our private companies and for our government, to have a ping pong back-and-forth, as you start at the technical level and move up to strategic, seeing red, gray, and blue space.

EDELMAN: So, Mieke, what does the DOD need here in terms of talent?

EOYANG: So the way that I think about it, and, you know, I think that’s most useful for the CFR audience, is I think about how we’re developing talent across two axes. Right? What does everybody who works in the foreign policy space need to understand about cyber in order to make informed decisions about how to deal with particular adversaries, how to work with partners, how we think about conflict, to understand what the opportunities and costs are in cyber so they can make smart national security decisions. Because of our vulnerabilities and because the adversaries know that that’s an attack vector for us, everyone’s going to need to understand something about cyber as just one of the tools in the foreign policy tool kit.

And then there’s the vertical. What do the cyber operators need to know? How do we develop that talent for the people who are actually doing the things? And that’s where I think Vishaal’s points about, like, how do—where are we in that competition for talent? Where is the private sector short? That is the piece that, as I think about it, is a real challenge. And, you know, in the ’90s I spent a lot of time doing military personnel and we thought a lot about what was going on with the airline pilots. And the military’s sort of role in the airline industry and the role in the cyber industry have a lot of analogies—can pay a lot more on the outside; the military training that you get on the inside is necessary. We need to think about how we are managing our pipeline of those cyber operators in order to be able to feed the national shortfalls but also with an understanding of where the national shortfalls may drive attrition inside the department to be able to deliver the kind of skills that we need.

So as we go forward on the Cyber Posture Review and the next Defense Cyber Strategy, you’ll see some of that thinking evolve, but, you know, I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with retention tools and incentives, service commitments, things like that, so we are thinking much more holistically about how to manage the cyber workforce as we are also spending an effort to try and understand, across the DOD enterprise, how are we training senior leaders to understand cyber? And this is a place where I know for a lot of folks cyber can seem daunting and, like, a place where if you don’t know how to code you cannot play. I am a lawyer by background. I’m—(I do ?) cyber. Like, you do not have to have that deep technical experience to understand how cyber works in the national security context. And so I think going forward it will be the tool that presidents are looking to most frequently to be able to respond to a situation, rather than kinetic, and so I think people need—who are intending to work in government and to advise senior leaders about what their options are, they need to understand cyber, they need to understand the cognitive terrain that cyber provides and the vulnerabilities in that terrain for ourselves in order to be able to responsibly advise senior leaders across government.

EDELMAN: All right, so you don’t have to code to have a meaningful opinion and be informed in this space, and nor do you, members who are with us today. So I’d like to do that; I’d like to invite all of you to join our conversation with your questions.

As a reminder, this meeting is on the record, for whatever that’s worth—you know this already.

Sam, could you remind us how we’re going to get our questions in?

OPERATOR: David, we’re still waiting for questions to come in and I’m sure that they’ll start rolling in, but I’m going to turn it back to you while we wait for people to raise their hand.

EDELMAN: All right, well, let me go back, then, to the question that I teased you with at the beginning, and I promised we wouldn’t start, which is, you know, this question of, like, what is our ultimate aim in this space? Specifically, we’re talking about great power competition. I think we all recognize this idea that competition among states is going to continue; it’s existed since time immemorial. And we talked at length about the ways in which this space may or may not be different. But let me turn this on its head a little bit. There has been discussion here and there about this notion of “cyber peace”—sort of a contrast to cyber war—and rather than get into the sort of A and B of it, my question is this: What are the off-ramps to this kind of competition? Right? I mean, we’ve seen a sort of ratcheting up, a consistent ratcheting up, escalation, in part based on adversaries being in our cyberspace taking new and aggressive tactics in terms of elections and elsewhere. What do we see as those mechanisms that might actually help de-escalate, particularly as it would pertain to bringing countries that maybe are thinking about being aggressive in this space, maybe aren’t completely aligned with the United States, and are trying to figure out where they’re going to spend their money here?

So anyone who wants to take that question.

SCHNEIDER: So I would say that I think that competition in general is about, especially how cyberspace, you know, reacts with competition, is about the ability for us to continue our digital economy, society, and government. And the largest threat that we’ve had so far from cyberspace has not been the Pearl Harbors or the Armageddons or the one-off kind of large-scale attacks, but it’s been the way in which kind of thousands and thousands of ransomware attacks degrade our trust in these digital capabilities. So in a long-term competition, then what is cyber strength? Cyber strength is the ability to take attacks and continue. Right? So it is incentivizing and creating resilient networks, whether those are kind of technological networks or civic networks or, you know, weapons of—networks of warfare, while at the same time being able to rely on strategic deterrence to deter the very large-scale attack. And then I think a huge element of this is the disruption that we saw coming out, you know, that the DOD has been experimenting with when it comes to defend forward and persistent engagement, as well as the information-sharing initiatives that you see really being spearheaded by CISA. I mean, we haven’t talked about that agency here but they’ve done an extraordinary job of being the information valve between the U.S. government and civilian infrastructure. And that’s a big shift.

So I see that as kind of the larger kind of goal and role in cyberspace, and it will be less about, you know, can we create the biggest cyber weapon ever—(laughs)—and instead, how do we create networks that are able to be resilient, survive, so that we can compete in these other domains where I really think it’s kind of the true competition between U.S. and China, which is economics, which is about ideas, societies, and governance, and all with the hope that you could avoid full-out conflict. But I will say, based on my research, that I am—I think it’s highly unlikely that cyber operations are the things that drive these two countries to conflict but that in conflict cyber operations may make accidents and inadvertent escalation more likely. And that’s where I think actually conversations with the other side about what is kind of responsible use of cyber is really useful and helpful.

EOYANG: Yeah, I mean, I think, David, to the points on, like, what does strategic cyber stability look like, I think part of the challenge here is that, as Jackie pointed out at the end there, we don’t have good dialogues right now with adversaries. The domain is relatively new and I think not a lot of policymakers really understand the cyber vulnerabilities and opportunities well enough to have those conversations. You know, I’ve had people say, well, why don’t we just have, like, an arms control conversation and we’ll bring our list of targets and they’ll bring their list of targets and we’ll sit down and negotiate down from there? And it’s like, if you showed up with your list of targets and they showed up with their list of targets, everyone would change targets and they’d go home and patch. And, like, so that’s not really the way to strategic stability in cyberspace the way that it is—it may be in the nuclear domain.

But I think one of the things that we need to think about more carefully as we think about cyber, and this goes to the evolution of the way that we think about it over time—this goes back to this sort of thinking about it as, first, system and defense, where we didn’t do anything about the offense, you know, the attacks that were coming in. And so the attacks just proliferated, because we were just focusing on that, and you cannot secure your way out of that problem. And then we thought about, OK, well, how do we go on offense at the adversary’s tools and how do we go off net to disrupt the attacks coming in? But we’re still talking about in the system layer. At the end of the day, there’s another piece to that and that’s the human layer, and what is the cognitive impact if you cannot actually disrupt all the tools, right, that you cannot defend yourself and you cannot disrupt all the tools because all those things leave the individual malicious actor free to come back at you, to reconstitute, to, like—you’re just taking them down for a period of time.

What is it that you need to do in this space to change the adversary’s calculus so that they stop attacking you? And what is that at the nation state level and what is that at the individual level? And so, like, at the individual level, like, if this were a hockey game instead of, like, not having a goalie or, like, not having an offense, right, how do I go about recruiting off of the other team the best possible players so that they’re just left with a bunch of second-stringers? And, like, how do I think about resetting the rules of the game in a way that is fairer to me, or better for me? And so I think there are a lot of places where we need to think about what the cognitive terrain is here for the adversary to say, I don’t even want to play; if I engage in this it’s going to be difficult and forget it, recognizing there’s some activity that we can’t deter to zero. But I think that if we are not thinking about the impact on the person on the other side of the keyboard, or the person ordering that person on the keyboard, then we’re not really doing a lot to stop the current status quo, and this is a, I think, devolving status quo if we don’t do something to change the way that people think about this, because the malicious activity scales.

EDELMAN: That’s a great point.

EOYANG: Technology allows that to continue to proliferate.


So, Sam—and I think we have a question now from the members.

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will be from Elizabeth Bodine-Baron.

Q: Hi. This is Elizabeth Bodine-Baron from the RAND Corporation.

My question is, given that if you look at the phases of a cyber operation and cyber kill chain—pick your favorite phrase— a lot of the steps that are taken for an espionage purpose are essentially the same as the steps that would be taken for a destructive purpose. You know, up until that very last step when you’re actually deploying your cyber weapon, it’s hard to tell from a defender’s perspective whether someone is going after you for exfiltration of information or to actually have a destructive effect, or an effect that could degrade your operations. So if we’re going—I’ve heard people propose that from a norm-setting perspective, we draw a line and differentiate between cyber operations for espionage purposes and cyber operations for perhaps physical effects in the real world or in the financial world or something like that.

But given that it’s hard to tell before that final step, how do we actually implement that as a norm? Would it make more sense to have a dividing line and differentiate between the types of targets—so, for example, an IT infrastructure-based system versus something that provides critical infrastructure versus something that is specifically used for military operations or something like that? Do we differentiate based on the type of system or what we think the adversary is planning on doing with their access?

EDELMAN: Thanks, Elizabeth. Let me suggest that V8 take a first hack at that from a technical perspective and then we can turn to Jackie and Mieke and what you want to add at the policy level.

HARIPRASAD: Thanks, David.

So, Elizabeth, I agree with you that the kill chain is the exact same for the vast majority of operations. It’s the intent that’s different.

I’ll come back to what Mieke said in terms of—as we set our norms and standards, we need to take a look at the human element, what is the potential ramification impact—similar on the financial and economic side—the loss potential, and set those standards and make them clear. Again, going back to the NotPetya or the SolarWinds examples, one had a significantly lower economic damage than the other, and I think that is—we start bringing rising cybersecurity from a technical level to a whole-of-government, whole-of-nation, diplomatic, economic factors, gives us more of a standing to draw those norms and redlines that I know Jackie’s been thinking a lot about it. So let me hand that to her.

SCHNEIDER: Thanks. Yeah, you know, I thought about this problem a lot and I think that there is no way—personally, I think it’s very difficult to differentiate, but there is something different about human and organizations about the decisions they make to find an access or an exploit and the decision to use an access or an exploit in a way that creates significant effects. That decision making is deterrable, and I think you can have a conversation—I think actually states are restraining themselves here. So, I mean, I think that there’s room here. And that’s why I do think—I agree with you that I think the target is very important. I think there are two really important strategic targets that we might be able to coalesce some sort of understanding about. First off, I think military targets are up for grabs. It is within bounds and completely appropriate that states are going to be looking for exploits and accesses on most military networks and targets. That’s just warfare. However, there’s something very special about nuclear command, control, and communications, especially nuclear control. Theoretically the idea that you would introduce nuclear control as being a special kind of target that even cyber-network exploitation would be inappropriate on paper sounds really good. The problem is that the entanglement of different assets and network capabilities sometimes makes it very difficult to implement that in practice. So I would say, if we could, you know, think of any particular target that we would have a separation between—that we say, hey, look, we’re not even OK with exploitation, it would be in nuclear control. But in order to do that, you’re going to have to reveal some information about nuclear control, and so kind of the arms control side of that are really, really difficult.

The other thing that I think is really—and we were talking about targets—is I really think civilian infrastructure and attacks on civilian infrastructure that create death and destruction is—that is a fundamentally different kind of target than even the financial system. I think those are important attacks but I think there’s something very fundamentally different about attacks that could have the potential to create physical effects—so, you know, attacks on dams that flood mass areas or attacks on power grids that lead to direct deaths or attacks on hospitals. Right? I think that there are discussions that we can have where we’re able to look at targets that are just morally reprehensible where we might be able to find agreement between countries. And once you have those agreements, then you can have some sort of—a bit of, like, a norm—crafting a norm cascade, but I think if we focus on the kind of morally reprehensible, we might be able to actually find more room where we all agree with one another. But I agree, there’s absolutely no way—(laughs)—that you’re going to be able to tell Russia or China, hey, look, we’re also not OK with you trying to look for accesses, because the ability to enforce that is just nil.

EOYANG: I would just say on the norms conversation, I really appreciate all the effort and work that goes into having this conversation among the civil society and the academics. Norms are only as good as their enforcement and norms are reflective of state practice. I’m in the state practice business and so I think about what it is that we are comfortable doing or not doing, how we would hold adversaries accountable for what is done or not done to us, and, you know, by the actions of the U.S. government in operating in cyberspace, we are setting standards of responsible state behavior.

To Jackie’s point about the NC3 system, so I think it’s incredibly important, and to any nation state that’s thinking about attacking United States NC3 systems, I would just say, the United States is in a launch-on-warning posture and interference with our nuclear command and control systems would be incredibly destabilizing, and people should take that into consideration if they think that that’s something that they want to pursue.

EDELMAN: And on that cheerful note, Sam, next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Tara Hariharan who asks: Might we discuss the digital currency space as China is actively moving toward a digital yuan while the U.S. Federal Reserve seems to be holding back, and the potential for pitfalls for cybersecurity ahead as digital and crypto are used increasingly for ransomware purposes? And she says, thank you to the panel for a great discussion.

EDELMAN: All right, who wants to take the perennial crypto question? This is a tough one because it does fall pretty much outside of most folks’ remit. There is an interesting kernel beneath this, though, that let me try to reframe a little bit in the interest of buying some folks time if they want to engage on this, which is this: The question has been raised rightly of whether China’s rush, sort of punctuated rush, towards a digital currency, particularly like a state-backed digital currency, a digital yuan, might ultimately have the potential to weaken the primacy of the dollar and, in turn, limit our bucket of tools, our tool kit broadly, in punishing some of the activities that we’ve been talking about here. Look at what’s happened over the last ten years. What’s been the number one tool that we’ve all read about, in part because we can’t read about a lot of the stuff that DOD might be doing? Right? It’s sanctions—law enforcement activity and sanctions. And the idea that cryptocurrency, particularly as it started to create a sort of destabilization for the broader currency space and the rails might start to be more numerous than they are right now—could take that tool out of our tool kit. And so let me offer and pose back as a question to the broader panel: If you accept as a premise that we might be losing, you know, economic sanctions in the medium to long term as efficacious, and—let me merge this with another question that was raised by a member that was a good one—we’re looking for other off-ramps to escalation that aren’t warfare. What’s left in our tool kit? And do we feel like we have the options we need right now?

HARIPRASAD: So I’ll take a first answer on this one here, David. Recently for cyber or for crypto payments for ransomware, the Department of Commerce and Department of Treasury just released, a few weeks ago, guidance that any cyber exchange that facilitates this transfer will be sanctioned or will have significant ramifications. This has had a knock-on effect in terms of the ransomware operators are not able to cash out and it’s drying up a lot of their resources. So I think it’s an interesting avenue for future—if everybody’s going to crypto, the same thing can apply, whether that’s a dark web operator or mixer for crypto or a federal reserve of another nation state. If it’s still being utilized to fund nefarious or illegal activities, it’s something that is traceable and sanctionable. And so I think it’s very fascinating, regardless of whether it’s a nation state or a non-nation state actor moving to crypto, the end result will be the same as it relates to ransomware and other crime-based cyber activities.


Sam, next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Daniel Mandell.

Q: Hey. Good afternoon. Daniel Mandell, also a lawyer who’s way out of his depth here. (Laughs.)

Apologies if this is a little extra-topical, but I’m thinking that in talking about great power competition in this area, should we be including the large technology companies that really have just as much power as many nation states and, in fact, define the experience in cyberspace for most average people? These companies have just as much money and arguably more influence over the lives of people, especially in developing countries where people get their—you know, their information comes through Facebook. And even here in the U.S., universities rely on Gmail to operate their email systems and events are organized through Facebook and Google Meet and everything else. So how does the recognition of these types of companies and the power that they wield, how does that change the opportunities, the challenges, and the risks that exist in this area, where normally we could just talk about nation states? Here—do we—should we be, do we need to, and how does that change when we bring in these technology companies?

EOYANG: Yeah, Daniel, I appreciate the question and I notice that there are countries that have sent, like, an ambassador or cyber ambassador to Silicon Valley, and some tech companies are talking about negotiating international agreements. I would just say, like, even as powerful as these companies are, they have a territoriality to them; they are protected by, regulated by, pay taxes within, and must abide by the rules of particular jurisdictions. So when we talk about a lot of this activity, while those companies play an important role, in some ways they are the surface, and so I think we have to think about it in that context, as opposed to, do they have some sort of independent sovereignty in this space? And I think that—but I do think that American technology companies have a very important role not only in providing cybersecurity but they carry with them to the rest of the world a lot of American values about openness, free speech, and innovation, and as we see a contest between democracies and autocracies, as we see the rise of digital authoritarianism, these companies are very—they are in many ways on the front lines as countries try to regulate their activities inside their territory, and they continue to try and remain true to their original founding values, to share information, to allow people to communicate with each other, to hold each other accountable for things. And so, when you look at something like the IISS recent assessment of state power in cyberspace, one of the things they actually do consider as part of that power calculus is the technology industry in a particular country, and so I think that that is part of the calculus as we go forward.

EDELMAN: All right.

Sam, next question?

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Nathan Fleischaker.

Q: Hi. Thanks. Thanks to the panelists for a great discussion.

I want to ask a bit more about impediments to—challenges to having conversations. You talked earlier about how technical skill is a real impediment, but I think—let’s talk about secrecy. So much of—like, so much of the cyber operations are highly classified, so even folks with the typical security clearances, you know, aren’t qualified to see the real stuff. And then it also goes to this idea of international norms where—norms and treaties where a lot of the idea of proliferation regime is based on monitoring. The whole presence of cyber is based on espionage which is secret, it’s very hard to monitor, so is that possible? So the next question is, the fact that cyber is so secret, how much of that is really an impediment to having meaningful discussion about that and are there ways to overcome this kind of secrecy problems? Thanks.

EDELMAN: So rather than put Mieke on the spot, Jacquelyn, you’re doing—(laughs)—you’re doing a lot of work in this space that has a lot of sensitivity to it. Do you have thoughts on this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I mean, arms control agreements in cyber—secrecy’s not the only problem. (Laughs.) Right? You know, uncertainty is a tenet of the domain, not like something that can be fixed. Right? And even in the arms control community, arms control really only—oh, I’m going to say something that’s going to make people angry—arms control really only works in, like, very specific instances, and monitoring is extremely important, which makes this just—I think it’s actually kind of a wasted—(laughs)—a wasted discussion oftentimes; it’s just a bit of a waste of time. But I do think—I mean, secrecy matters. It matters because it allows states, I think, an area to—in the past, an area to control the narrative about cyberspace. Right? So if I’m a state that’s been attacked and I have attribution, in the past, you know, the state could control who it told or how it told or how it gave attribution, or it could even say, well, I don’t really want to respond to that; I’m going to say I’m not quite sure about that attribution. Now, that’s changing, right, because private companies now increasingly are willing—(laughs)—to provide attribution prior to the government, which takes away some of the government’s value in kind of—how it manipulates and thinks about secrecy. But I think secrecy has an interesting role to play in kind of how cyberspace actually can be used as a tool in this gray-zone competition prior to conflict without the chance of escalation. I mean, what I found when I used wargames is that individuals like—who already don’t want to respond to cyber operations use secrecy as a way to incentivize or allow for restraint, whereas, you know, players that are kind of already—kind of what we would say in international relations—revisionists that kind of want to attack anyway and can use that secrecy as a way to manipulate or to try and create more offensive operations. But I think in general, secrecy is—I don’t think it’s as big a problem in how states interact and I don’t think it’s what makes arms control impossible. I think there are other reasons why cyber arms control is a really difficult, if not impossible, endeavor.

HARIPRASAD: And I’ll just add onto that really quickly because I agree with what Jackie’s saying, and historically it has been a lot of secrecy but I’m very heartened to see things like CISA, things like the new Department of State—or State Department’s new Bureau for Cyberspace and Digital Policy and the new Bureau of Cyber Statistics. There’s all these new government organizations coming online that will have a forum to make more meaningful data-driven discussions, that will do the clarifying and cleansing so we don’t have to worry too much about the secrecy and get to the facts.

SCHNEIDER: And I will say—you know, when I started working in this, everybody—like, you’d go to a cyber conference; if you had, like, your cyber bingo card they’d be like, cyber attribution—be like—(laughs)—check—attribution problem. But I really think that the consensus on that has changed. One, I think that just technically it is easier to attribute than we thought in like—(laughs)—the early 2000s; the second is this rise of private companies, which has really made attribution a much quicker process. And then I think when you compare to other conventional kind of gray-zone operations—for example, like, the, you know, Russian downing of an airliner—(laughs)—over, you know, a contested territory, that took like a year to attribute, even though we kind of all knew it was Russia, whereas if you look at kind of the attribution when it comes to SolarWinds or the attribution when it comes to the Microsoft Exchange Servers, that actually happened in like a relatively condensed amount of time. So I think, like, if that’s a lesson that anyone can take out of this is that attribution is no longer kind of a unique characteristic or a unique problem for cyberspace.

EDELMAN: And we could probably do this for another hour because this has been fantastic, but unfortunately we’re coming up to the top of our time so let me—first of all, please join me, to the extent you can virtually, in thanking our three fantastic panelists. I want to thank you for joining us for this year’s Term Member Conference. The audio and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR website soon. And a programming note: We hope you’ll join us for the next plenary session, which is the “Fight Against Climate Change: What’s at Stake in Glasgow,” as we speak, coming up at 3:00 p.m. So thank you so much for joining. Have a great afternoon. And see you then.


This is an uncorrected transcript.


Concurrent Plenary: The Future of Global Governance in the Southern Hemisphere: How COVID-19 Changed the Rules

SCHIFRIN: Thank you very much, everyone. Welcome to “The Future of Global Governance in the Southern Hemisphere: How COVID-19 Changed the Rules.” I’m Nick Schifrin. I’m the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour. More importantly, I am or was, sadly, a term member. Apparently, I’m too old to be a term member, so I’m jealous of all of you to go to this conference, which is really the highlight of the term membership every year.

So joining me are people who are not too old to be term members. Paul Angelo, the fellow for Latin America studies at CFR and a current CFR term member. Abigail Bellows, who has recently become the deputy, policy of the Anti-Corruption Task Force at USAID, also former non-resident scholar of democracy, conflict and governance programs at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a CFR term member. She is here in her personal capacity. And Amaka Anku, who is the practice head of Africa for Eurasia Group, also a CFR term member.

A reminder this is on the record, and so we’ll just jump right in.

So, Paul, let me start with you. Latin America historically seems to have been a place that has relied or has wanted to pursue multilateralism. But do you believe that’s no longer the case, that we’re actually seeing more countries than ever looking inward?

ANGELO: Thanks, Nick.

And it’s a real pleasure to be here with everyone. It was also great to see so many familiar faces last night at the distinguished lecture event and also the happy hour.

And in terms of your question, I would say that when we think about the Americas, two decades ago there are two assumptions that we could have made about most of the region with the one exception being Cuba, which was always the holdout. Firstly, that support for democracy was strong; and secondarily, that multilateral institutions were more relevant in this part of the world, in this hemisphere than they were in other regions of the world.

And sadly, today, and in part due to the pandemic, I don’t think we could make either of those two statements without—neither of those two statements really holds true. I think recent Latino Barometer polling shows us that support for democracy in the hemisphere is stable over the past couple of years, but at a record low of 49 percent. That means fewer than half the people in Latin America believe in democracy as a preferred form of government. And then places like Honduras you have a real apathy where people feel that there really is no difference between a democracy and authoritarian regime.

In 2021 the Inter-American Democratic Charter turns twenty years old in September, and that Inter-American Democratic Charter reflected a regional consensus that things like armed revolution or bureaucratic authoritarianism were failed governance models and that for a region coming into its own at the turn of the century, especially as people were being lifted out of poverty and benefiting from increasing connectedness with the world, that democracy was the preferred way to channel citizen preferences and also that regional mechanisms had emerged and remained because countries of this hemisphere believed that conflicts with neighbors should be resolved peacefully and through dialogue.

And in the interim we saw a proliferation of multilateral organizations—be it Mercosur, the Pacific Alliance, Caricom, CELAC, ALBA, Unasur—it’s a whole bunch of acronyms—but nonetheless, reflecting that commitment to multilateralism. Unfortunately—and this is not a cause of the pandemic—but unfortunately over the past decade we’ve seen a considerable erosion of that consensus and of the interest or the capacity of organizations like the Organization of American States and other multilateral bodies to defend democracy. The OAS used to be a really robust forum to deal with peacekeeping, anti-corruption, the professionalism of civilian bureaucracies, and today it mostly writes reports and does elections monitoring. And so for the longest time the U.S. was used as a forum for countries like Venezuela to corral like-minded regimes on the basis of ideology or on the basis of trade interests through subsidized oil schemes to support Venezuela as it systematically dismantled democracy, and used populist authoritarianism to erode checks and balances in the country. And that’s a model that unfortunately has taken hold in any number of countries across the region. And then you lay on top of this the economic recession that has been induced by the pandemic and the fact that over the past year and a half, 22 million people in Latin America have slipped back into poverty, 34 million are unemployed, there’s a real malaise that has beset the region. And I don’t think the region right now is relying on the tools that it has traditionally relied upon in order to solve its common challenges.

SCHIFRIN: So, Abigail, we have trends there that preceded COVID, that were accelerated by COVID, and the economic issues accelerated by COVID that Paul just identified—on top of that, what you look at, transparency and corruption and what some have called a corruption festival during COVID. How has that changed things?

BELLOWS: The trends that Paul lays out are sobering but unfortunately not unique to the region. We’re seeing in many parts of the world the way in which global governance is more important than ever for responding to all of these kinds of transnational threats, both climate change, pandemics, mass migration but also of course the transnational nature of corruption. But the foundation upon which global governance is built is really legitimacy and capacity at the national level. And national level governance is more strained than ever. When governments don’t enjoy that credibility at home, their ability to forage meaningful external partnerships and work through multilateral institutions is of course limited.

So why is it strained at the national level? In terms of what we’re seeing on governance indicators, one is that polarization is high, both in Latin America. But also we’re seeing that in Southeast Asia and other regions, which makes political compromise more difficult, and then makes it harder for governments to deliver and show the ways in which they’re, you know, really responding to citizen needs. As a result, and in a vicious cycle, citizen trust in government gets lower and lower as governments aren’t able to address those needs, which we know from past pandemics is a real challenge to being able to respond in a robust way to the public health measures needed during a pandemic.

And we’re seeing this trust in government, it’s important to say, not just in autocracies, but also in democracies, often even more severely, actually, in established democracies than in autocracies, according to surveys by Edelman. And one of the ways that that lack of trust is manifest is in this tidal wave of protests that has continued through the pandemic, many of which are driven by corruption grievances. In fact, half of those recorded in 2019, of global protests, were based on corruption concerns.

And what we’re seeing is citizens rejecting the old status quo, demanding more transparency and accountability, and confronting the ways in which the long-term problems of corruption are scaring away private investment, deepening inequality, leading to some of the concerns we have about degradation of the environment, and potentially accelerating climate change.

So those concerns about the growing role of corruption are changing in one important way. It used to be that we thought of corruption as a very domestic issue kind of contained within a particular country. And that’s how most people probably see it. It’s not like a virus or a regional conflict that people, obviously, see it as transnational.

But in fact, corruption is increasingly transnational, because the leaders that steal from people in one place tend to launder their dirty money across borders. We see here in the United States where money stolen in Ukraine is laundered through real estate in the Midwest, and those opaque corporate entities end up fueling the rise of corruption at the local level. So because this isn’t an issue that can be handled in isolation within one country, it’s really one that demands global governance and demands a global response or transnational cooperation.

But the challenge is that during the pandemic, we’ve seen that cooperation rather than surging has in certain ways taken a back step, and the pandemic in unfortunate ways has made the corruption—corruption has made the pandemic worse and the pandemic has made corruption worse. It’s really allowed for a flourishing of opportunities to abuse public power for private gain. Shady deals for life saving medical equipment, stealing PPE, undermining transparency and procurement—we’ve seen all of these scandals mount both in Latin America and in other regions. And that’s really derailed countries’ ability to effectively and equitably respond to COVID-19 and created a perfect storm when it comes to corruption because we have this huge increase in public spending at a time when there’s a big decrease in oversight. And so the gap between the two of increased spending and decreased oversight, which we see during many disasters, whether health related or climate related, it really creates this perfect storm. And so I think the question for all of us is, how do we use what has become revealed during this pandemic of the crisis in governance faced at the national level and try to respond in a more robust way, both locally and transnationally?

SCHIFRIN: And we’re definitely going get to some solutions and some bright spots I think that each of you see.

But first, Amaka, we’ve got these trends laid out, right? We have governance, national governance being strained. You have trust in governments reducing. You have the expansion of corruption. And at this moment when multilateralism is perhaps most important, it’s actually reducing. Are those the trends that you’re seeing in the part of the world you cover?

ANKU: Actually, not quite. So I think what’s a little bit different for sub-Saharan Africa is that we had sort of, you know, arguably the lowest levels of productivity, arguably the lowest sort of levels of societal expectations, right, when it comes to government service delivery, and health care, and all of these sort of, you know, important service of deliveries that were interrupted by COVID.

And so, because you started off with fairly low level of expectations, and you had this global pandemic that every government in the world was struggling with, you know, for many sort of average African citizens, they got more from their government than they would otherwise. Right? And at the time when you can look, you know, if you’re an average citizen in, you know, Ghana, right, you can look, and you had Nana Akufo-Addo—they actually spent a lot of money. People were getting free electricity and free utilities. We can talk about, like, all of the fiscal risks that creates later. But you look at Italy, and you look at the United States, and you’re like, wow, like, that looks like a mess over there, right? Like things look actually pretty good over here. So, you know, governments held up pretty well.

You know, there were a few places with significant social unrest. You know, I would say, let’s say meaningful social unrest, Nigeria, in particular. But it wasn’t necessarily, you know, tied to COVID. You could say it was aggravated by the fact that there were a lot of people who were at home. But it was more about police brutality. It’s probably more or less inspired by Black Lives Matter protests here than it was by COVID. So generally speaking, we saw kind of lower levels of pressure on government, and probably a bigger trend of sort of increased political will to digitize government services, which we can talk about later.

SCHIFRIN: The bright spots for a couple minutes. I know each of you have examples. Well, let’s just start with Amaka, what you were just saying. So talk to us about the digitization that you’re seeing and why it’s seen as so important, why it is so important, and why it’s increased thanks to COVID.

ANKU: Yeah, I mean, obviously, it’s important because of the world we live in, where we’re moving into a world in which the digital economy is the future. So one of the biggest gaps that were exposed by COVID is the fact that you still have a lot of government services that people have to show up in person for. And so we did see, during the pandemic, that some governments were digitizing processes—big deal in most places where people were still taking notes in courts, right? People were digitizing with voter registration. There’s now several countries working on like eNaira e-currency, like the central bank digital currencies. And there was tremendous growth in digital payments, all of which governments are now trying to capitalize on to create more visibility into their economies and help them collect revenues.

One of the other biggest trends we saw, again, was that there’s still a big problem with access to reliable internet, right? And so in some places, we saw lots of governments reduce the fees that are required for what we call right of way payments, right of way fees to lay fiber optic cables and things like that. So in general, this has led to much more strength and political will to create the space and the infrastructure needed to connect people to the internet and digitize more government services.

SCHIFRIN: Paul and Abigail, I know you each have examples of multilateralism that are nontraditional or not what we would think of as CFR term members when we think of what is multilateralism.

So, Abigail, you start. What is the Open Government Partnership, why is it important, and how has COVID actually helped that kind of partnership?

BELLOWS: This is partnership formed in 2011 by the United States and several other countries. It has now grown to over seventy-five members. And what’s innovative about it, and I think an intriguing model as students of global governance, is that rather than just bring together country governments across the board for some sort of set of shared commitments, which is usually what we see, it brings together both governments and citizens to make commitments about transparency and accountability and participation. And in doing so, it’s a way to use horizontal accountability across countries to facilitate vertical accountability between governments and their own citizens. So they jointly develop national action plans that commit themselves to certain progress. And in that way, it’s kind of like the Paris Accords. It’s not like a top-down imposition of what you must commit to. It’s more a bottom-up development, which helps with the sort of sovereignty concerns that we sometimes hit upon in the global governance space.

So it’s an intriguing model, and they track it independently and monitor it over time, and I think one that during the pandemic has shown itself to be a useful tool for facilitating exchange of best practices to try to facilitate a race to the top on some of these governance topics.

But we’re also seeing a flourishing, I would say, of other kind of innovative models when it comes to what it means to work together across borders beyond just traditional fora, like, you know, the UN and the OECD—although those continued to play important roles.

So I’ll just share a couple examples that I find most inspiring and interesting. So to take the corruption context, and a case study of that, so we’re seeing some partnerships across countries in the law enforcement space. So there’s this international Anti-Corruption Coordination Center hosted by the UK, that came out of the 2016 London Anti-Corruption Summit. And it’s several countries working together, literally sitting in a room, sharing information, and sort of comparing notes when it comes to where the money is flowing. And those sort of pooled efforts is super important as we think about how to trace illicit flows across borders, because if you just are working in one country, you’re just going to kind of hit the wall pretty quickly and not be able to continue to follow the trail. So those sort of partnerships can be exciting in the law enforcement space.

In the civil society space, we’re seeing the power of transnational investigative journalist partnerships. I see that in this call we have to term member Camille Eiss here, who is from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. And that’s one of the investigative journalist partnerships that are taking a networked approach to tracking a networked threat and really seeing the way that unlike the old model of journalism—which I mean, I don’t want to speak; Nick could tell me more—but my understanding is that—

SCHIFRIN: I was the one who said I was old at the beginning, so—

BELLOWS: Right. So the old model, which Nick grew up with, is to take the lone wolf approach, you know, this competitive environment where you’re trying to avoid being scooped by other journalists, and you’re trying to make sure that what you can report on is, you know, late breaking or an exclusive, etc.

But this new model that transnational investigative journalist networks are using are what Miranda Patrucic from OCCRP called radical sharing. So how can you actually increase collaboration in a truly profound way so that the journalists are all pooling their information and collectively working on whether Panama Papers or Pandora Papers or other sort of collective investigation. So it totally upends the model actually of, you know, much history of the profession and I think is like a really intriguing way forward.

A couple other quick examples that I find super exciting. So one is, globally, we’re also seeing more networks forming among advocacy groups, so that you could take the sort of exposes of corruption that journalists are revealing, and then turn that actually into targeted advocacy campaigns and policy impact. Partnerships, like the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium that Transparency International is part of with OCCRP, those really help turn exposure of the problem into action, which helps avoid citizen apathy. Because otherwise, if you’re just exposing more and more corruption or poor governance, it can actually be demotivating. It can lead citizens to feel like why should I bother participating, or why should I bother voting if it’s all just rigged, and it’s not going to make a difference. And so, helping link the kind of exposure of the problem to responses to the problem through these sort of new kinds of partnerships that are forming between journalists and activists is a really important and, I think, exciting development.

And then finally, I think we’re seeing the donor community and external actors like the U.S. government and also others start paying more attention to what is being called windows of opportunity for reform. So these are places—Zambia, Moldova, the Dominican Republic—where you see a landslide victory for an elected official who campaigned on strengthening democracy, embracing the rule of law, fighting corruption. And we know that in these moments, you have a brief window to really effect systemic change. Often change on these topics doesn’t come incrementally, it comes in waves, and then there’s probably a backlash and kind of two steps forward, one step back over time. And so if you aren’t as a donor community prepared to really be agile and responsive during those brief moments, then you can really miss the window and lose the ability to effect generational change.

And so I think that’s another form of transnational cooperation, in a sense. is thinking about how can the established democracies of the world and international financial institutions and others really embrace the reformers at these pivotal moments when they’re early in their days, they have a lot of political will, a lot of momentum behind them, and they need to deliver. and deliver quick and big, before the forces opposed to change have time to regroup and kind of neutralize that effort. So that’s another exciting development, I would say, in this area.

SCHIFRIN: Paul, what we’re seeing in Latin America in terms of new versions of multilateralism, if you will, seem to be focused around the climate. So tell us about that, and tell us what the Escazú Agreement is.

ANGELO: Great. Thank you.

I just wanted to pick up on a couple of comments that Amaka and Abigail made first, simply because I think I was struck by the level of optimism, maybe because I’m so siloed in a region of the world where there aren’t a whole lot of good news stories to be found. But I will say that when Amaka said that expectations were low in Africa to begin with, it kind of left the region feeling fairly well off by comparison to countries like the United States or Italy, where COVID really was, at least through media, projected to be a more insurmountable, a more difficult kind of challenge to deal with.

And in Latin America, I’d say that—and this goes to Abigail’s point—the expectations for government in Latin America were fairly low, because COVID-19, it fell sort of on the heels of an anti-corruption crusade. And so you know, the Odebrecht scandal, you had the CICIG in Guatemala, the MACCIH in Honduras. These were all anti-corruption institutions or bodies or investigations that revealed the deep penetration of organized crime, or sort of the complicity of state actors with criminal actors across the region.

And so I think expectations in Latin America were fairly low. And then the pandemic struck, and you had all these middle-income countries, and the pandemic just sort of revealed the deficiencies in state capacity. And so that fueled frustration, which fueled protest movements, and has also been accompanied by a nativist rhetoric that populist authoritarians are continuing to use to corral electorates and allies in Congress and even in the courts.

And so I just said that’s sort of the backdrop against which we can have this broader conversation about why Latin America, it’s really hard to find a silver lining. But I say, if there was a silver lining, it would have to be on the way which governments across the region are working with one another on the environmental front.

And you know, this is not a movement that’s being led by the big countries and the big economies of the region. It’s really the smaller countries that have more to gain and to lose if we don’t act quickly as it pertains to climate change. In Mexico, you’ve got President López Obrador, who’s doubling down on fossil fuels. And in Brazil, obviously, Bolsonaro is relying on agribusiness to maintain his governing coalition.

But outside of those two big economies, we’ve seen a consistent and steadily growing commitment to green causes. In 2019, you had the Leticia Pact, which brought together seven of the eight Amazonian countries to expand regional cooperation to protect the Amazon through a variety of institutions and information sharing. In 2019 at the U.N. Climate Summit, 10 Latin American countries committed to the objective of 70 percent of their energy consumption from renewables by 2030. Costa Rica is the global leader for the use of renewables. And across the board you’re seeing investment in renewables soaring, and this is largely a byproduct of an impulse to diversify following the 2014 extractive energies value drop.

And then as you mentioned, Nick, the Escazú Agreement entered into force this year, and Latin America, regrettably, is the region of the world where 60 percent of the world’s murdered environmentalists were working. And this agreement recognizes the human rights of defenders of the environment, and also obligates countries that have ratified the agreement. Twenty-four countries have joined the agreement, and twelve have ratified so far. It obligates those that have ratified the agreement to provide protections for environmental defenders, to provide public access to information about the environment. And I think that shows sort of a new model of cooperation and is sort of a nucleus by which the region can continue to advance its work on protecting the environment and combating climate change.

SCHIFRIN: Apparently, my camera froze there, but I’m still with everyone. Sorry.

ANKU: Can I add something on expectations?


ANKU: It’s about what Paul said, because I think it’s interesting, because we looked at this, right? So the thing sort of with protests in Latin America is that there’s a big, relatively big middle class. Protest is a middle-class phenomenon globally. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, even in the major markets that we cover, there’s very small middle classes, right? So when you have sort of sustained protests, it turns into looting. It’s just sort of poor people grabbing stuff. And that’s not sustainable, right? Like looting is not something that you can do, because it ends up getting kind of cracked down on pretty quickly, because the middle-class people disappear. Like, we don’t have any anything to do with this. There is no support from the population. You know, in my view, this is, I think, what’s the main difference between what we what we’re seeing in Latin America and in sub-Saharan Africa, is that you have a much larger middle class in much of Latin America who have higher expectations of their government.

There’s also an angle here with urbanization. Much of sub-Saharan Africa is rural. Sub-Saharan Africa is still 60 percent rural, and in some of the big markets like Kenya, it’s up to 80 percent rural, right? And what we’ve seen globally is that it’s much, much easier. Well, there are two things. The concerns of people in urban areas are often very different from people in rural areas.

So people in urban areas are more likely to have concerns about systemic governance failures, people in rural areas are more likely to be concerned about sort of basic welfare, food on the table, right? Which is why—and because much of political power has sort of been with rural areas in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the politics tend to take a cue from sort of, do I have food on the table, which is why a lot of politicians campaign by handing people rice, right? Whereas urban voters are more likely to want to know, well, what’s your plan? How are you going to do that? Blah, blah, blah. Corruption, jobs.

And then number two is, is it’s just much easier to organize protests in urban areas, right? So those are the two main things that in this pandemic has shown has kind of combined to decrease pressure on governments and make it look like, well, you know, things are not so—it’s not—if you’re getting, you know, some basic needs met, you’re less discontent than you might be in other parts of the world.

SCHIFRIN: So there’s a lot to talk about there. I’m cognizant of the time. It’s 1:31. So just a reminder for questions. We’ll go just a couple more minutes, because I want to get a couple more points out. For questions, raise your hand, as always, or you can write it to us, as well. So just please think about those questions and send them in if you’re ready.

Just a couple more points before we turn it over to questions, because I know there’s a few other issues that we should raise in order to get the questions going.

Paul, very briefly, talk about another negative trend. I’m a journalist. So in general, I tend to be cynical about these things. So kind of a sandwich here, slightly negative, then positive, then negative in our three rounds. Talk about the militarization, something that we’re really seeing across Latin America—militarization of aid, militarization really of the popular space in Latin America to the point that we haven’t seen in the past.

ANGELO: Thank you.

SCHIFRIN: And sorry, make it make it brief, because we’ll go to questions. Thanks.

ANGELO: Sure, sure.

So militaries have, across the board, generally an incredible and unmatched surge capacity, given that the military is constantly in a state of readiness. And you know, typically prior to the pandemic militaries across Latin America and the Caribbean were used to respond to humanitarian assistance disaster relief missions in ways that were both discrete, responding to a particular incident—so something like an earthquake or a hurricane—and they were timebound, typically, because they followed a natural disaster. Military would be used for the first couple of weeks or months, and then civilian agencies would come and fill the gaps after the fact.

But during COVID-19, because it so revealed the gaps in governance, and particularly the deficiencies of civilian institutions, militaries across the region became more involved in the provision of all manner of public goods, and across Latin America the military was relied upon to provide national security cover in unconventional but not wholly surprising ways. Things like border security. Uruguay, Argentina, Ecuador, the military was sent to enforce borders. In El Salvador, President Bukele engaged in the mass detention of people who violated stay at home orders, using the military and the police, and he did so in a way that violated a Supreme Court ruling even, which shows how the military was even used as an instrument to undermine democratic governance.

You also had militaries across the region being used for logistical lifts. So militaries like Colombia and Peru recalled their reservists to set up field hospitals, used C-130s to move ambulances around the country. You had Blackhawks being used to transport priority patients from homes to hospitals, etc.

And then really, the military has been used as well for the purpose of medical care. It’s a region of the world that invests so little in healthcare to begin with. Prior to the pandemic Latin America and the Caribbean spent four times less than the OECD average on public health. And as a consequence, during the pandemic, the one budget that legislatures do not feel uncomfortable contracting—in fact, they feel very comfortable bloating—is the military budget. And so militaries across the region have been used to help cover gaps in health ministry services. And the military is now routinely delivering social policy, and that includes the administration of vaccines.

And you know, this is a risk in a region where for many decades militaries had outsized political power. And we know that in instances when military has greater contact with civilian population, it tends to result in an increase in human rights abuses. But you know, also when you’ve assigned an open-ended mission like a pandemic response to the military, this process of militarization is very difficult to reverse, because the armed forces are seen as essential by the public. And moreover, the institutions themselves enjoy the greater resources and the greater attention that they’re getting from across the population and from across other government ministries. And so unfortunately, this militarization, I think, in the long run will only serve to disincentivize the proper resourcing of civilian government institutions across the region.

SCHIFRIN: Let’s just be really brief, but just bring in two more points before we go to questions.

Amaka, briefly talk about civil service capacity. You talked about how, you know, low expectations are being exceeded. But just very briefly, listening to Paul, the obvious question to you is, you know, the need for an increased civil service capacity and the challenges there.

ANKU: Yeah, I mean, this is one of I’d say, you know, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest challenges behind mobilizing revenue, right? Like sub-Saharan Africa mobilizes very little revenue, on average 15 percent of GDP compared to 30 percent in OECD countries, and that impacts the ability to have really strong civil services, because you have to pay people, right, to attract the right people. And I would say this has been a major challenge for development. Because in my view, you need a strong state not only to provide the kind of public services you need to create a competitive economy and underpin growth, but also to sort of ensure direct—and provide efficient regulation, direct sort of the level of investments you want from the private sector—(inaudible)—on and so forth. So this, this remains a major challenge.

I would say that the gaps were exposed during COVID. And one of the things that we’ve seen some governments doing is there were several kind of lower grade civil servants were asked to stay home, right, for example, during COVID. And in many places, governments found out that they weren’t missed, right? People stayed home for months and months and months and months, and nobody noticed. And so some governments are starting to try to move some of these lower level bureaucratic staff into actual service delivery positions—agricultural extension workers, you know, primary health care, you know, teachers, things like that. So that’s something to watch, right, because I think that could be a major shift that could help the governance in the future.

SCHIFRIN: And, Abigail, quickly, it seems like we need to bring the U.S. in here. The Biden administration describes or says that it is launching a historic focus on governance, on anti-corruption as an important part of national security, international security—an acknowledgement that corruption is part of the destabilization of certain countries around the world. You obviously are playing a part of that, even you’re here in a private capacity. So address that briefly.

And then this is a good transition to the first question, what do you think about the Summit for Democracy? And how do you think that plays into it?

BELLOWS: So, yes, as you mentioned, I think the U.S. is trying to play a leading role currently in reinvigorating what it means to do transnational cooperation on these topics. I think there is more recognition than ever coming out of the pandemic that these are not issues that can be handled in isolation. And we’re seeing, not just on the COVID side, all the multilateral engagement that we saw at UNGA at the U.N. General Assembly, of course, the Climate Summit, but then also on democracy, that democracy similarly can’t be handled in isolation within a particular country.

And so the Summit for Democracy that you mentioned, in December, December 9th and 10th, is going to be one way that the U.S. tries to play a convening role in bringing people together around this agenda. And the idea is that it will be a kickoff of sorts, because there will be a second follow-up summit a year later. And the notion is that during the in-between year, countries will have more time to really go deep, really talk with citizens, talk with businesses, talk with others in their country, and think through what would it mean to make meaningful advances on this agenda, and how could that dovetail with our commitments in the Open Government Partnership, the OECD, the other sort of multilateral architecture that exists already in this space and be complementary to that and reinforcing of those efforts?

I think we’ve collectively learned that these sort of multilateral events, they’re forcing functions; they kind of get people geared up to make big commitments. But when push comes to shove, the question is will they have the follow-through to deliver back at home. And so the goal is to not kind of organize events for the sake of events but organize events as a way to jumpstart or amplify kind of longer-term efforts. And so there, I think there’s a lot of appetite within the U.S. government, especially on the anti-corruption agenda, to really make generational progress on this issue.

So in June, President Biden announced that he was elevating anti-corruption to be a national security priority. This isn’t something that really had been taken seriously at that level previous in the U.S. government, and arguably in many countries. And so that national security study memorandum that he issued kicked off an intensive process where all the departments and agencies are now coming up with input about what they could do to step up their efforts. And so that strategy is going to be launched at the end of this year. And I think that’s just one way that the U.S. is trying to reckon with this moment. And I know countries around the world are also in their ways trying to acknowledge and grapple with the way that COVID has exposed the stakes when it comes to fighting corruption and improving good governance.

SCHIFRIN: Although. of course, there are debates over this Summit for Democracy—or of Democracy, as the Europeans are telling me there’s debate on which preposition to choose. And some countries have wondered whether it could alienate some partners. Anyway, that’s another topic.

I want to open up to questions. I know we have a couple. So the hands that were up, do you guys want to raise them? And let’s hear from you.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We do not have any other additional questions outside of the written one.

We just got one. We’ll take our first question from Felicia Appenteng.

Q: Hi, everyone. So thanks for this really wonderful and just really thoughtful panel. Felicia Appenteng, chair of the IE Africa Center, based out of Madrid.

So my question actually is in the education space. So I think that there’s a way in which you can look at some of these global scandals around corruption really as sort of the kind of the failings of higher education, right, because we have not instilled the values properly in people that are leading certain parts of the world. And so my question is, what role, if any, do you see for in universities and in the governance space?

SCHIFRIN: Who wants to take that first? Saw some nods.

Amaka, you want to start?

ANKU: Sure, I’ll start.

I mean, we have been approached to do sort of several programs that will help to train public servants. I do think that there is an important role for universities to play, at least in sub-Saharan Africa. But I think it’s really more in generating ideas, right? I think, you know, in my view, we have an ideas crisis in sub-Saharan Africa—generating ideas and pushing governments, right, to like, discuss and have real policy issues. I don’t know how much value you can really squeeze out of, you know, training the people who are currently in the civil service without paying them more, right? I think that the bigger challenge is that you have to attract the right people. Because if you’ve been in universities, and you have all these nice degrees, and you’re going to be paid $100 to $200 a month, you don’t want to go work in government, right? So I think that’s the logic to me. For the civil service, that’s the bigger challenge really, is that salaries are just so low.

SCHIFRIN: Paul, you want to jump in?

ANGELO: Sure. Thanks, Nick.

I would just say that, you know, I would agree with you. I sympathize with your comments, Felicia, about how this may reflect sort of the failings in higher education. However, I don’t think our focus should be exclusively on the universities, because at that stage of the game, you’re only tackling the problem in elite circles. I mean, in many countries, in Latin America, for instance, the average educational attainment is something like sixth or seventh grade. And so there are a lot of people who’d be unaffected by those kinds of initiatives. And so I think it has to go deeper.

And we’ve seen any number of particularly many municipal-led citizen culture initiatives across Latin America. I can think of some from Colombia, a place where I spent several years living—culturasedana (ph) in Bogotá and similar initiatives in Medellin—that really tried to create a different kind of model for coexistence, particularly in rapidly urbanizing spaces. And I think that that is another sort of elemental aspect of trying to tackle broader societal corruption. Whether or not somebody is going to pay a bribe to a police officer, the onus is not just on the police officer. It’s also on the citizen.

And speaking on education front as well, framing this in terms of the pandemic, I would just say that Latin America is the region of the world that has most suffered due to educational institution closures during the pandemic. For upwards of a year, 97 percent of students were not attending school in person in Latin America.

And so basically, we’re sowing the seeds for a lost generation of students or young people in Latin America. And unfortunately, this has also created incentives or provided the kinds of circumstance in which organized crime groups, gangs, can really prey upon this idle, uneducated, and unsupervised in many cases—because parents are still going to work—unsupervised population. And so we’ve seen actual recruitment by organized crime and gangs, organized crime groups and gangs across Latin America surge over the pandemic. Likewise, we’ve seen drug consumption among youth in Latin America surge over the pandemic, as drug traffickers, unable to get their market to European or products to U.S. market over the pandemic due to border closures, merely tried to make up for the bottom line by diversifying their markets and getting younger people in rural and urban marginalized communities addicted to drugs.

So these are all sort of problems. It’s a new frontier of problems that we’re confronting, thanks to what has been a pretty terrible year for education systems across the region.

SCHIFRIN: Abigail, I saw you nodding while the question was being asked. Do you want to jump in before we turn to the next question?

BELLOWS: Nothing further to add.

SCHIFRIN: Nothing further, okay, all right.

I think we have a written question. Can you let us know what that is?

OPERATOR: Absolutely. We’ll take a written submission from Shannon Kellman, who asks: To what extent have we seen corruption in specifics around combating the pandemic, either through distribution of commodities or shoring up of health systems? With aid trickling from high-income countries and multilaterals to low- and middle-income countries, are there any concerns about misuse of funds or redirection of resources? And from the donor side, what actions can the U.S. take—again, either through bilateral donations or multilateral engagement—to ensure health aid is used in the intended manner?

SCHIFRIN: Abigail, you want to start, given that you may know a little bit about what the U.S. may or may not be thinking in that sense?


As you hinted at in your question, Shannon, corruption is like gasoline poured on the flames of a pandemic. It really just makes it so much worse, really causes this explosion of disease and the spread of the virus. And part of that is because the health systems that were already weakened by graft and struggling to meet people’s basic needs, aren’t able to keep up with the increased demands that they face. So if citizens can’t afford to pay bribes, they may be locked out of access to testing and treatment, which then can accelerate the spread of a virus. Or we saw reports from Cameroon, from Uganda, elsewhere, where there were quarantines in place and people were able to bribe their way out of the quarantine. And so then you have the kind of transmission spreading.

At the elite level, of course, a flurry of procurement fraud scandals that have emerged during the pandemic. As you indicated, the kind of increase in funds, both budget funds and the external assistance funds that are flowing through—let’s say leaky pipes, you know, processes that are vulnerable to diversion—is coming at a time when the traditional watchdogs, when the sort of auditors are all working from their living rooms, and all of the, you know, kind of oversight personnel and the parliaments are struggling to figure out how to connect or how to monitor processes. Emergency procurement measures are often lower in their level of rigor and competition and transparency.

So all of these problems have revealed themselves during the pandemic. And I think the donor community is working to figure out, you know, what’s the after-action report on the pandemic, what’s the way in which we can really learn the lessons that we need to learn and put in place the right preventive measures for the future. There’s actions to be taken at the national level, of course, and at the multilateral level.

At the national level, one of the things that I’m most hopeful about is the open contracting partnership and other initiatives like that have made a huge push around emergency procurement. So how do you put in place emergency procurement legislation that’s fast enough to be able to respond when there’s a disaster, whether it’s a future pandemic, or a climate emergency, or whatever it is, but still competitive and open and merit based and less vulnerable to the kind of kickbacks and fraud that we saw so often when emergency procurement measures actually just suspended all oversight, which, you know, is too often the case.

So I think the design of these sort of emergency procurement measures that can be still rigorous, is really encouraging and the way that countries are taking that on board—actually, in Latin America, the work of Transparency International Brazil has been really pathbreaking. They’ve developed a whole kind of rating system where they’re comparing municipalities and their level of rigor and openness on procurement. So there’s a lot of developments in that space that I think will be really important for future pandemics.

In the multilateral space, I think donors are also reckoning with this. And I’ll just share this briefly, because then I know we have other questions. So I think that the IMF, for example, over the course of the pandemic groups like Transparency International were engaging quite rigorously with them to try to put in place stronger anti-corruption safeguards in some of their emergency lending and kind of rapid response lending. And Transparency International has said that it’s increased over the course of the pandemic the kind of level of rigor of those safeguards and guardrails that countries were being asked to comply with for accepting these sort of funds.

And I think on the U.S. side, there’s a real commitment to try and make sure that future investments in global health don’t just, as administrator of USAID Samantha Power said yesterday, just put shots in the arm, you know, just try to kind of focus on the short-term measures of vaccinating the world, but also how can this whole push around the global COVID-19 vaccine actually strengthen cold chains, strengthen supply systems, support the health workforce, support boring stuff like health information management. All of that stuff is important to set up countries to be better positioned to treat populations for the long term and make those health systems less vulnerable to graft. So I think there is a recognition that we have to kind of do the short game and the long game at the same time, and the question is going to be how do we make sure to do that as ambitiously as possible?

SCHIFRIN: Let’s go back to the queue.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Ari Shaw.

Hi, thank you. I’m Ari Shaw. I’m with the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Thank you for this really wonderful conversation.

Abigail, I wanted to go back to what I thought was something you were saying earlier that was really interesting about OGP and sort of anti-corruption frameworks that employ this kind of cross cutting of vertical and horizontal accountability mechanisms. And I just wonder if you know of or if other panelists know of ways that we’re seeing this in other policy areas, or if you see opportunities for institutionalizing this kind of multistakeholder engagement in other domains that can strengthen accountability and governance, even, you know, perhaps in human rights or other areas outside of kind of corruption, per se.

SCHIFRIN: Yeah, Abigail.

BELLOWS: So I think OGP is probably the largest of the initiatives that are operating in this kind of general governance democracy space that have this multistakeholder design. But there are a couple others that are tagged to certain sectors, which I think is what you’re getting at.

So the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is a big one, because they’re bringing together governments, companies, civil society organizations, all focused on this very high-risk extractive sector. And we know that oil and gas and mining can be very, very vulnerable to diversion, and is correlated with increased conflict risk, etc. So by focusing efforts and bringing companies in alongside governments and civil society, that can be quite exciting.

There’s other sector-specific mechanisms. There’s one called CoST, which is about the construction sector, which is another high-risk sector. There is a Maritime Anti-Corruption Network. So these sort of sector-specific collective action mechanisms, whether just among businesses, in some cases, or bringing governments together with businesses, they can all be really innovative ways of dealing with settings in which you have low political will for law enforcement, because if your only tool is fighting corruption through law enforcement, and the government is complicit in the corruption, then you’re going to have impunity, you’re not going to be able to kind of respond robustly. So these sorts of creative multistakeholder race to the top kind of bodies I think are an important and exciting way to help address this sort of context.

And the last thing I’ll say is that there’s a model called an integrity pact that was piloted by Transparency International. And it’s actually trying to apply this multistakeholder approach to a particular project. So if there’s like a stadium that’s going to be built, or other sort of big, big project where you know there’s going to be a ton of corruption risks—there always are on these big, big projects—then they bring everybody together—the people who are going to bid on the project, the civil society groups locally, the government actors, maybe at the municipal level, and they commit collectively in advance to a higher level of transparency and a higher level of oversight and monitoring in advance. And by creating this sort of collective action arrangement, they put a big bear hug around that project and say, for this project, we are going to undertake this higher level of scrutiny and rigor, which is another way to have a carve out, essentially, in a system that otherwise might actually not be as rigorous or as accountable. But for these sort of high-risk, high-profile projects, there’s enough momentum to get across the finish line through these multistakeholder approaches.

SCHIFRIN: We’ve only got three or four minutes left.

Amaka or Paul, do you guys want to jump in on that? Otherwise, I’ve got one last question for you.

AMKU: I’ll jump in. I just think kind of to reiterate what I was saying earlier. I think that the conversation about corruption internationally doesn’t, in my view, focus enough on the structural causes, right? I think there’s a lot of treating the symptoms. And like, at least from the approach of the international, I would say, from the donor community sort of focuses more on values. And I think I would urge us to focus more on the structural drivers, which is, for state capacity, what should we and can we be doing to improve state capacity and to improve government’s capacity to raise revenue, so that civil servants are better paid, right? What should and can we be doing?

Because if civil servants are better paid, you structurally raise the stakes of engaging in corrupt behavior, right? And what else can we do to sort of improve the political discourse in places so that there is a clearer connection between, you know, the role of the civil servant, of the public servant, you know, high officials in delivering services, right, rather than sort of this sort of broad non-issue politics that ends up being more be focused on like ethnicity and identity politics, which then reinforces this idea of, well, my person is in government. That means I should benefit from it. And if you don’t remove that driver, it doesn’t matter what else you do, because the pressures—you know, if my person is in government, and I go to the office and every day go to the office, there’s a hundred people in line outside my office waiting for me to give them money to pay their school fees and duh, duh, duh, duh, where am I going to get that money? Right? Certainly not from my salary. So I mean, I just think we need to be thinking a little bit more, you know, doing more on some of these structural drivers.

SCHIFRIN: Paul, you get the last word. I’ll let you talk for ninety seconds about the structural drivers of corruption, or I’ll give you a chance to focus in on something that we in the news business focus on a lot of but we haven’t in the last hour, which is migration, and the impact of migration, which is a huge, a huge topic, obviously, and how COVID has exacerbated that. So ninety seconds. You get the last word. I’ll leave it to you.

ANGELO: Great, thank you.

I think I’ll opt for the conversation about migration, because it’s what I spend a lot of my time thinking about—particularly this year, because U.S. authorities this year detained more than 1.7 million migrants along the Mexico border during the previous fiscal year. And it was the highest number of arrests made by Customs and Border Patrol ever recorded.

So you know, this is a banner year for migration. But something that’s new about the conversation that we’re having about migration is that migration to the U.S.-Mexico border is truly global now. It’s not just about deterring Mexicans and Central Americans from coming to the U.S.-Mexico border or trying to cross the U.S. border in an undocumented fashion. You’ve got Haitians, Eritreans, Indians, Senegalese, Brazilians, Ecuadorians people from all over the world who are using the land route of the Central American isthmus into Mexico as a way of accessing the United States.

And that is not a challenge that the United States can necessarily handle on its own. It’s not something that even the United States and Mexico can handle on their own, even if we find ourselves in a circumstance where the U.S. and Mexico are finally working together and are in sync on this issue. And so that’s why I think that particularly in Latin America, or in the countries of the Western Hemisphere, we need to reconceive or reconceptualize the way that we do migration or manage migration. And I think a regional migration accord could help bring us back from the brink, which is where we find ourselves today. And the foundation of that would be a shared responsibility. So that’s things like using robust civil society infrastructure that exists in South America and Central America and Mexico to help mitigate the fallout of the consequences of this migration, strike up diplomatic agreements on guest worker programs across and family reunification across the hemisphere. And this is not a burden or a responsibility that should only be shouldered by the United States but other high-performing economies.

And then, of course, surging support for communities that have been left vulnerable to climate change. And many of the countries in the world that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are right here in the Caribbean Basin. And that’s something that our bilateral development financing institutions and U.S. governmental assistance, foreign assistance to countries in Latin America and Caribbean really hasn’t contemplated until very recently.

SCHIFRIN: I think that’s a great place to end, a major challenge and possible solutions, or at least some ideas for how to tackle it going forward.

So we are out of time. And I’m cognizant of everyone’s time. So on behalf of the whole audience, thank you to all of you.

Paul, Amaka, and Abigail, thank you very much for being here.

And I want to let you know that the next plenary session, “The Fight Against Climate Change: What is at Stake?” we hope you join us for that, and the transcript of today’s meeting will be posted to the website. So thanks very much to everyone.


This is an uncorrected transcript.


Plenary Four: The Fight Against Climate Change: What Is At Stake In Glasgow?

VAITHEESWARAN: Thank you. I’m Vijay Vaitheeswaran. I’m the global energy and climate innovation editor at the Economist, and host of our new podcast on climate change called To a Lesser Degree. I invite you all to join us today for this fantastic session, “What is At Stake in Glasgow?” Could there be a more timely topic, and indeed a more important topic, than this, “The Fight Against Climate Change”? You will note that this is Plenary Four of the Term Member Conference. As a former term member myself, it’s a particular honor to be presiding over this session, as well as on the topic itself, I think, of the hour?

And I’m so pleased that we have such a distinguished group of experts, as well. We have Sarah Kapnick, who’s a senior climate scientist and sustainability strategist at JPMorgan Chase; Stewart Patrick, who is a senior fellow in global governance here at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Nargiza Salidjanova, who is director of China products at Rhodium Group. So let me welcome our panelists to this session. Thank you for bringing your wisdom and, hopefully, your wit as well to this—what will be a lively conversation. We will start things off, and ultimately we’ll bring in our members, as always, for their questions. I want to remind everyone this is on the record. So please do bear that in mind. And there will be a recording available on the website afterward.

Now let’s set the frame. What I’d like to do today is when we think about the long arc of history, the arc starts somewhere, you end up where you are now, and then there’s somewhere you’d like to go eventually. And so taking inspiration from all of time, I want to start with a little bit of how did we get here? So for that context, let me first start—maybe, Stewart, you can give us just a little bit of context to this particular COP meeting, this U.N. process, annual get-together that’s happening this year. It, of course, is part of a twenty-five-year arc. Can you just give us a little bit of scene setting, and I may ask Sarah for just a little bit of the science that came out of the latest IPCC report as well, to give us the urgency for what’s at stake. So, let’s start maybe with a little bit of the politics and the governance story.

PATRICK: Thanks so much, Vijay. It’s wonderful to be participating in this as a former term member myself. Yeah, I mean, what’s at stake? Just the future of the planet. We will talk about this stark IPCC report and the emissions gap report. It suggested that we need to get to about seven times as fast emissions reductions as we’re currently on pace for. But I was equally struck by the recent national intelligent estimate on climate change, which is quite a landmark document that came out from the National Intelligence Council recently, which talked about the huge geopolitical, to say nothing of economic and ecological, impacts of climate change.

So, you know, basically as you pointed out, we’ve been doing this—or, we’ve been at this for almost thirty years, really, since the United Nations signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. During that time, there has been sort of a huge amount of frustrated progress, the frustrations in progress in terms of emissions reductions. We have gone into Glasgow on a trajectory to get to 2.7 degrees temperature rise from preindustrial levels, which would have catastrophic impacts, which we can talk about later. So far what we’ve seen is a mixed bag. No big breakthrough going into the summit. World leaders basically hitting singles and playing small ball when they need to be swinging for the fences. There have been some important national pledges, which we can get into, but many of them come with huge caveats. And of course, all of these commitments that countries are making are nonbinding.

Taking a step back, I think it is important to temper our expectations about what any single multilateral confab can possibly accomplish. You know, we’ve learned a few things over the last three decades. One of them is that this is the mother of all collective action problems. It’s pitting developed and developing countries, petrostates versus consuming countries. And it’s rife with temptations for free riding. And that actually helps explain one of the dynamics that we’ve seen, which is the rise of mini-lateral coalitions, a sort of small group of selected states, hopefully likeminded, trying to actually deal with some of these problems, and chew different pieces of things.

Another thing that we’ve seen, of course, is that national leaders—and Joe Biden is experiencing this too—face massive hurdles in trying to reconcile any ambitious global climate action with their domestic—basically the domestic political constraints. You know, during the yellow vest protests a few years ago, somebody was quoted as saying that Macron cares about the end of the world and we care about the end of the month. Those types of dynamics are still very much at play. And I think most fundamentally I think what we’ve learned is how hard it is to reconcile a political order—the international pollical order, that’s composed of 193 sovereign states, with a biosphere that doesn’t obey any of these boundaries. And that’s the subject of my recent Foreign Affairs article on the subject.

We need to learn how to govern the world as if the Earth mattered. But the challenge, of course, is how to get there. Just a final reflection is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We will be dealing with climate change for the rest of the century and beyond. There has been some progress already made at Glasgow that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, even if it’s not nearly enough of what we need.

VAITHEESWARAN: Great. So that’s some fantastic scene setting. We get a sense both of the long arc of the problem and the potential solutions that need to come, but also some of the complications and fractiousness, the coalitions of the willing being the positive, but as well the disconnect between what leaders want to promise on the global stage and what they’re able to deliver back home given political realities. And nowhere is that as true as it is right here in the U.S. at the moment. Indeed, just look at actions in the House of Representatives today and what may come in coming weeks as a result of that. So that gives us a little bit of a sense of the complexity and urgency what’s going on.

Sarah, can you give us a quick backdrop as to why this matters so much? What do we know from the science in the most up-to-date assessment?

KAPNICK: From the recent IPCC report that came out in August, the language that they used in this report was so much stronger than in the past. They used the language “unequivocal.” “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, the land and ocean.” There is no doubt at this point in the science of the influence that we’ve had on the climate system. The warming, when we started looking at this through—in 1990, with the first IPCC report, was only—was half a degree since the 1800s. In the last thirty years, that has now jumped to 1.1 degrees since the 1800s. So over half of the warming that’s been observed since the industrial revolution has happened in the last thirty years. And that’s expected to accelerate over this next century if emissions aren’t reduced.

What has been seen is seen worldwide. One degree may not seem like a lot, but it is actually causing climate impacts in every corner of the world. And that is what this recent IPCC report really highlighted, is even though it’s only one degree, one degree translates to warming in the atmosphere, which translates to more moisture in the atmosphere. One degree Celsius change increases the moisture by 7 percent, which increases extreme precipitation events. So there’s bigger, stronger storms, more rain falling from the sky, which leads to flooding. But this is also causing droughts and increasing drought risks. The recent drought that happened in Central America, the risk of that has been increasing and expected over the next century that a drought that would happen once every couple of years—or, even tens of years will happen almost every single year.

So the extremes and the pace of change of these extremes is starting to be detected, and it’s expected to accelerate over the next century. Another piece of the IPCC report that was really important was that every ton of carbon leads to more warming. And so there’s still time, through emissions reductions by the middle of the century, to actually stay below 1.5 to two degrees. But that will take reductions in emissions. And then, by the middle of the century, it will also take figuring out new carbon removal techniques to be able to actually reduce the carbon. So unless that happens, we see these major changes over the next century.

VAITHEESWARAN: So, to put it bluntly, we’ll have to start sucking carbon out of the air through direct air capture or other forms of technology. We can get into that in a minute, just for those in the audience.

KAPNICK: We can get into that. But, yeah, in—it’s interesting, because in the IPCC scenarios, there are these technologies that are used, that are assumed, that are removing carbon from the atmosphere, because it was assumed that you can’t do so through other technologies. Depending on—other scenarios just—can get there just on changes in technology alone and changes in energy. But, yes, that is a major part of the recent IPCC. And it’s been—we’re seeing it in COP26 right now, discussions about nature-based removal of carbon right now.

VAITHEESWARAN: Sure. And I’m assuming there’s a self-selected crowd on this call who knows what the IPCC is, but of course that’s the U.N.-convened Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading climate scientists that convenes regularly to update us all on the state of science. And so thank you for that update.

Now, there are a few big themes that we need to touch when talking about what’s at stake here. But really, the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to climate is China, as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter today, although not historically, it must be noted. We can talk about historic emissions in a moment. But certainly, today and going forward. And in particular, the challenge of coal in China. Nargiza, you spent a lot of time studying this political economy problem. Can you give us a sense of where do we stand with China’s commitment and its—or, lack thereof—to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions coming from its coal sector? What’s the status of the promises they’ve made? And what can we expect from China?

SALIDJANOVA: So I think, in a way, Vijay, you know, Xi Jinping, China’s leader, and sort of China as a whole was sort of part of every conversation at COP. And yet, Xi Jinping wasn’t there physically. So he was a sort of invisible presence, right, in every conversation. And there’s a very good reason for that, as you said. China is the biggest emitter. And just to put a little bit of context on that, right, it’s not the biggest by 1 or 2 percent. You know, China alone emitted as much carbon as the next four biggest emitters combined, right? So it is orders of magnitude. And it is consequential, obviously, for this fight, and yet coal is king in China. And we can talk a little bit more about kind of the dynamics there.

But, you know, the timing of COP26 was also sort of, you know, perhaps very fortuitous for China, which is experiencing a major energy crisis right now. And one of the outcomes—or, one of the solutions proposed by the government sort of undertaking rapidly this program is to actually ramp up coal production. So new coal capacity coming online, not a great look when the entire world is sort of watching very closely what your, you know, energy situation looks like. And of course, you know, China is firing up its coal power generators, even as, you know, there is still a great degree of uncertainty about what and how its ambitious goals for peaking coal, carbon emission, and for achieving carbon neutrality are going to be realized.

You know, I think, you know, there is kind of a great deal of concern as well connected to just the political reality, the economic reality, of how China’s economy runs. Coal is still the biggest by far source of energy in China, and it’s going to continue to be so for a very long time, even when—if China realizes its promise of peaking emissions by 2030. That means it’s actually going to be ramping up its emissions till they promise to peak. And that means that a lot more emissions are going to be pumped out into the atmosphere, into the global commons.

VAITHEESWARAN: So let me—let me press you just a little bit on this. That we have seen China make announcements at the recent General Assembly gather, for example, to stop funding coal overseas. And they were a big funder in the past, historically. Although, some people suggest that’s really because renewables are cheaper now anyway. They became more economic. That’s the reason China doesn’t want to fund those projects in Africa or Latin America anymore, or Southeast Asia. But could it be a sign that they do care about appearances, that they do want to be seen as a good global citizen, to some degree? Is that—is there a shift in how China’s thinking about its commitment to the world and its role on the world stage? Or do you read it really as they will do what’s right for their domestic economic growth, and therefore probably not rein in their coal ambitions or coal production and consumption over the next ten years?

SALIDJANOVA: So this is going to be a very tricky calculus, right? Because it is absolutely true that China’s government does care very much about appearances. They want to appear as a responsible leader when it comes to clean energy transition, not least because it’s actually a very economically advantageous thing, right, to be on the leading edge for a lot of these technologies. And we know that, you know, China is responsible for something like 80 percent of photovoltaic panels, for example, when it comes, you know, to the solar sector.

At the same time, as you said, you know, the promise to stop funding coal-fired plants outside of its borders was sort of a relatively easy promise to make, because the funding actually has already been falling, right? So in a way, it was—it was quite nice to say, sure, we’re going to do this, because we’ve already done it. And part of that is market dynamics. Part of that is appearance. But the bigger problem always remains within China’s borders, right? The coal capacity that they currently have, the coal capacity that they’re actually bringing online. Last year they brought in additional forty-one gigawatts of coal power plants online, in just—in that one year alone. And those plants are going to have a life of at least thirty-five years, right? And they will continue emitting. So what does that look like for China’s carbon emissions situation and for the global carbon emission situation?

VAITHEESWARAN: Right. OK. So clearly there’s the elephant in the room continues to be in the room. It hasn’t left the room.

You had alluded to something that I want to pick up on, that is we’re in the midst of something of an energy crisis globally. We’ve seen far from emissions reducing. We’ve seen greenhouse gas emissions rebound with the global mini-recovery from the sort of emerging from the pandemic in some parts of the world, if you want to call it that. We’re not post-pandemic, of course, by any means. But we have seen coal power—coal-related power plants in China and India, a natural gas crunch across Europe, especially Northern Europe, shortages in wind, in hydro, relating to scarcity of power, and concerns across the board with something of an energy shock.

Stewart, if I can turn to you. This is not the backdrop that environmental ministers would have wanted for a gathering like this, where they want to ask countries to sign up for more and ambitious commitments—that is, ratcheting up of ambition. The scenario where granny might freeze to death because of lack of natural gas in Germany this winter, or Russia playing politics with its pipelines, this is really the conversation even in Brussels—the greenest place in the world—is about the energy crisis as much as it is about the imperative of dealing with climate change. How much does that hinder efforts at coming to a more ambitious outcome of Glasgow?

PATRICK: I think it—I think it hinders things quite a bit. And it’s largely, as President Biden tried to say, a question of timeframe, of course, right? You know, when he’s—it was ironic in the extreme to have him be trying to browbeat OPEC nations to increase, you know, production, at the same time as we’re talking about the decarbonization of the world economy, and trying to press countries—not least Saudi Arabia—to actually accelerate their shifts off of—or, at least reduce their emissions. So I think it’s a huge—it’s a huge obstacle.

And politically, you know, I think the White House itself has been whipsawed between, you know, those who are really looking—like John Kerry, the special envoy—to try to be as assertive and as forward-leaning as possible, and those who—obviously, have foremost in mind the fact that American electorate—the American electorate is going to be facing much higher prices at the pump. And obviously, increasingly we’re in a political environment where even just some sort of off-cycle elections have shown the vulnerability of the Democratic Party. And so it adds an extra layer of difficulty for the president as he’s trying to make his case abroad.

VAITHEESWARAN: So we’ve seen two topics we’ve discussed so far that are complications or obstacles. One is the domestic imperative for economic growth within China. The other is, in some degree, the political realities of an energy crisis, and the revival of fossil fuels this year. And the numbers show we are increasing more coal than we did, and more natural gas, and almost as much oil as we did before the pandemic. But there is some good news, at least. Some promising developments already within the first week of COP. And I want to turn to that.

Sarah, we have seen momentum for a global agreement, or at least a coalition of the willing agreement, on methane. Can you tell us the significance of methane as a warming gas? Of course, it’s much more potent than carbon dioxide, but much less long-lived. And so where does this fall in terms of priorities? And what can we achieve with a global agreement on this, if we can get a more ambitious outcome from this conference?

KAPNICK: Yeah. Even in the last IPCC report there was a discussion on methane, because methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas, but it has an outsized influence. It’s a much more potent greenhouse gas, as you said. And so the goal is if you start reducing it now, you’ll actually see impacts on global climate change immediately. It’ll be very, very fast. And so the goal is to start with methane as one of the greenhouse gases to remove quickly and stop the release of it, because there’s releases in methane from oil and gas production, trying to pull it out, orphan wells. There’s a ton of different parts of the economy and of energy production. There’s also parts within agriculture that can start handling methane to try and reduce it. And so this was seen as something that is also a waste problem, because it’s often waste in agriculture or waste in energy. So it’s an easy problem to solve, versus some of the other emissions problems related to energy production.

VAITHEESWARAN: And is this something that we have the technologies at the ready? I mean, I know, for example, that a number of environmental groups and others are turning to new satellites to spot methane leaks and fugitive emissions. And part of what they’re discovering already, even using official satellites, is that the reported leakage rates from the oil and gas industry, even in the West where they claim to have very high standards and high-quality equipment and monitoring, turn out to be too low. That is, the reported numbers were incorrect, where we’re leaking much more than reported. And we know the story of Gazprom and some of the old Soviet pipelines, which had leaked quite a lot. And we’re finding informal landfills and other ad hoc locations where there’s massive emissions—maybe temporary emissions. So is it really so easy to tackle?

KAPNICK: I think you’re hitting on a really important part about global climate change, is that we’re dealing with a gas that’s invisible. And so it’s really hard to track where it’s coming from, and then be able to stop it when it leaks. And these new technologies, through either airplanes going up in the sky with monitors that are pinging down on the ground to be able to find methane leaks, or the new satellites that are expected to go up in the next few years, they can actually monitor the concentrations of methane in the atmosphere. And it shows up, when you look at a map from the satellite data, it shows up like clouds around the pipelines or around the agricultural regions.

And so you can actually pinpoint everywhere around the world where these leaks are. And then you can go back and try and find where they’re coming from and either, you know, repair that pipeline, plug that well that’s been orphaned after it’s no longer producing a lot of natural gas or oil, or you can go to the agricultural locations and try and put in new practices to be able to capture that as well. And so it’s a matter of actually being able to monitor it, being able to track it, and then have accountability for the places. Which is why methane, in some ways, is a much easier one to tackle at this time.

VAITHEESWARAN: I see, politically easier. Now, there is a political issue that’s related to methane. Natural gas, as we commonly call it, certainly in the U.S. Methane is one if its biggest constituents. And natural gas is a subject of great controversy at the moment, including in continental Europe, where it’s now being considered as a potential—being given a green sheen. After years of being demonized by the environmental movement as sort of an enemy, a chimera to the green transition, the current troubles are now leading some in Brussels to think about adding natural gas as a bridge, including nuclear also getting a green sheen. We’ll see if that happens in Europe.

And I wonder, Nargiza, give us your perspective. In the countries that you look at, do you find the appetite for natural gas, for LNG as it would be, the liquified cargos that are typically shipped to China and other emerging markets in Asia, is this like—what’s your forecasting suggest will happen with natural gas? Are they continuing to see this as a bridge to low carbon? Or is there also something of a challenge and a tension between that and commitments to renewables?

SALIDJANOVA: So I think, Vijay, you know, part of the challenge here, of course, is that fossil fuels—and natural gas is one of them—are going to continue to be very important parts of the energy mix for a lot of countries that are biggest purchasers or biggest users of energy in the world, right? And when you look at China, coal is the vast majority of it. They’re trying to increase their natural gas consumption because, in some respects, it’s actually slightly less polluting. It’s greener than using high-polluting coal.

But it’s very difficult to see kind of, you know, concrete commitments coming to the fore and radical reductions when you have situations where, you know, strange bedfellows emerge in conversations, right? So the United States and China are under—you know, are in the middle of a political and economic contestation, and yet you see them sort of joining together to not sign up for things like committing to reducing use of coal. So I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to wean anyone who currently depends on selling natural gas from selling it, and then anyone who’s actually is purchasing it from purchasing it, because ultimately it’s a question of energy security for a lot of the users.

VAITHEESWARAN: Stewart, how do you see this question of natural gas, which is a political flashpoint when it comes to thinking about, whether it’s a bridge to renewables—it’s well known that the U.K. got off goal through a dash to gas. One could read how the U.S. dramatically decarbonized its power sector in effect by retiring coal plants and switching to gas. And you can see that story repeated in several other economies. If that tool is removed from the arsenal again, because of the fact that it does emit greenhouse gases, and especially if it’s not done properly with high-quality emissions capture, it does become a climate change problem, what does that mean for the green transition? Does it help or does it hurt?

PATRICK: Well, I mean, I think that one of the big issues, one of the big obstacles with taking natural gas off of the—out of the portfolio is particularly important for developing countries. There has been, as you know, an agreement that the U.S. and about twenty other countries are not going to invest public funds in overseas oil and gas. And there’s a huge emphasis being placed by the Norwegian government and others, who of course have quite a good investment in fossil fuels themselves, in not investing in fossil fuel exploration and extraction abroad. And this proposes a huge problem for a number of African countries that actually have quite large reserves of natural gas. And I think there is an increase—there’s a lot of north-south differences when it comes to climate change.

But I think it’s actually increasing the sort of chasm between some folks in the developing world, who are wondering why they, having not contributed to greenhouse gas emissions, are in fact being asked not to use a reliable, quite abundant resource in their countries, to actually do better by their populations. And this gets us perhaps into the conversation about the sort of burden of adjustment that different countries around the world should bear to move towards a post-carbon future. There was quite eye-popping demand from developing countries for $1.3 trillion per year provision of green financing over the last couple of days in Glasgow, which is going to create a lot of headaches as we go forward in these multilateral negotiations.

VAITHEESWARAN: Right, this question of resources going from developed countries to developing continues to be quite thorny since the Paris negotiations.

Sarah, you wanted to jump in.

KAPNICK: Yeah. I was going to say, to highlight it, that was the financing that’s needed to help those developing countries to be able to decarbonize. The total value that’s expected worldwide is around 100 trillion (dollars) over the next thirty years. So to size the problem, it is a tremendous amount of money that is required for this, to be able to scale up the decarbonization and energy technologies that we need. And the money isn’t necessarily there in those countries. And that’s why it’s a major point of discussion at COP26, is how do we figure out how to finance decarbonization globally, because, again, the atmosphere and the Earth’s climate, it does not matter where that emission is coming from. It will continue to warm and change no matter where the emissions are coming from.

VAITHEESWARAN: Well, you make a wonderful point. And to pick up on this, the how is this financed, now, there’s no shortage of money in the world. Is it going to the right things is the question, right? And that large number you just mentioned, we saw an announcement by a large number of financial institutions, led by Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of England, saying that assets under management of something like $130 trillion, if I remember the number correctly, are now committed to not financing fossil fuels and to, you know, greening portfolios over time, to net zero eventually.

Which sounds like a very huge number, bigger than the number you said. How much of their assets are actually going to finance windmills, or clean grid, or hydrogen? It remains to be seen. So it was a pretty vague promise. But the amount of money coming from ESG and similar kinds of investing approaches is large. It’s a question of, presumably, the details. But what are the incentives? How much of this is greenwashing versus how much of it is actually going to be financing the necessary tools of this energy transition? And how much of it will remain, let’s say, in Europe, where we may end up with too much capital, versus moving to the emerging markets, as you rightly point out, where a lot of the capital needs to be deployed for those transformations to take place?

I promise to talk about one other bit of promising news that’s come up already in the COP process, although I want to encourage our members, please, start thinking about questions. I want to come to you. And start letting us know through the chat function what your questions are. And that the second bit of good news that’s come up so far is a deal on deforestation—on coping with deforestation, to reduce it. Sarah, I wondered if you could give us a sense of deforestation in the context of nature-based solutions. How big a deal is this? How seriously should we take an announcement like the one we heard? And, more broadly, the role of carbon sinks that use forests. Is this a big part of the solution?

KAPNICK: Yeah, it’s a huge deal. So right now the only technology that we have at scale to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere are nature-based solutions. Nature-based solutions, the technology is forests and mangroves and kelp farms, and wetlands. So right now, roughly seven billion tons of carbon are removed annually by forests naturally worldwide. If you think about the size, what seven billion tons of forest removal is, that also is the same size of emissions, roughly, as the Russell 3000. So the U.S. stock market emissions of all—of, like, sizing, is roughly the amount that’s removed naturally every year by forests.

Now, the natural amount that’s removed by forests annually is not something that’s actually offsetting the Russell 3000. It’s actually a natural process that carbon is removed every year through nature-based solutions. So this new statement about deforestation is trying to stop those forests from continuing to be cut down, and naturally taking out carbon from the atmosphere. And it’s a huge step. It’s a huge step in trying to say that we are going to preserve our natural lands, because also scientifically for forests, when you start cutting them down they actually can start emitting more carbon at a certain point, and they become less healthy, and they can also—they also have—rainfall is regenerated by them, which sustains them.

And so, like, right now the Amazon is at a tipping point where certain science articles are starting to come out suggesting that it’s no longer capturing more carbon than it’s emitting. And that actually there might be this process, this positive feedback that is going to lead to the Amazon deforestation happening naturally, not just by people removing trees. So it’s really critical to stop deforestation globally if we want to maintain that natural sink, that removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Because if we don’t, then the globe will warm at a faster rate because more carbon will be left in the atmosphere as a result.

VAITHEESWARAN: So I leave—I thought I’d be encouraged by this news, but in fact I leave depressed because what I thought could be a silver bullet that could solve our problems, just plant more trees, and everyone’s agreed to do it, and that could suck out all that extra carbon. Now I find out even the job the trees were doing is now at stake. We need to act just to keep them doing what they’ve been doing forever, until we came along. So, well, I guess this is a hard problem.

KAPNICK: I think—I think the climate thing is there is no silver bullet. That is the solution. There is no silver bullet. We need to figure out all the solutions. We all need to be working in our different spheres of influence and our expertise to be able to solve this problem.

VAITHEESWARAN: On that wise point, let me ask our operator to bring us our first question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Shelley Ranii.

Q: Hi. Thank you. Thanks to the panel for the interesting conversation on some of the things we’re seeing out of COP this year. My name’s Shelley Ranii. I am the director of global marketing at Alcoa, which is a global aluminum producer.

And my question for you all is: Do you see a coordinated global price on carbon emissions emerging? If so, how do you see that playing out? Because we’re clearly not there today. And if not, how do you see the regional carbon emissions pricing schemes evolving? In particular in Europe, which is the global leader in this area, and very interestingly, in China, who announced their emissions trading scheme this year. Very curious to hear the panel’s thoughts on this.

VAITHEESWARAN: Shelley, thank you. I’m particularly touched by your question. I think I wrote my first leader in the Economist more than twenty years ago arguing for a global carbon price. Sadly, I’ve been proven wrong by the politics of carbon ever since.

Stewart, let me ask you, as an expert on governance, what do you think about the prospects for a global carbon price, or at least regional prices, given that at the moment, in my last reading, at least—less than 20 percent, maybe a quarter of the world’s economic output, was covered by any kind of carbon price, and the average price was a few bucks—a measly price. What are the prospects? Could we see something coming out of COP or maybe other processes to get us there?

PATRICK: Yeah, I don’t—I actually don’t have much hope for a global carbon price or a pricing scheme coming out of COP. There’s, obviously, been a huge amount of interest in that over the years. I’m not a particular expert in this—in this field itself, so it’s possible that Nargiza may have some thoughts about it in the regions that she covers. But, you know, I think that there are—one of the difficulties with carbon prices, of course, is they’ve been set, you know, far too low in many cases. There’s also, obviously, huge problems with carbon trading schemes, as well as carbon offsets. And I think there are—there has been some pressure on Glasgow to move forward in at least helping to address those sort of market or quasi-market mechanisms, so that, you know, when it comes to carbon offsets, for instance, there’s a tremendous amount of smoke and mirrors and double counting that actually occurs. But in terms of setting actually carbon markets, that’s less of an expertise of mine. Thanks.

VAITHEESWARAN: No worries. Nargiza, do you have a thought? I know China has experimented with some elements of carbon pricing, implicit and explicit. What do you read from your set of countries you look at?

SALIDJANOVA: Yeah. So I’ll have to be prudent and not opine on the global—on the global stakes here. That’s sort of outside my area of expertise. But I’ll just note, you know, China’s emission trading scheme is quite small and very notational, right? So they are only covering power generation stations, and not all of them even to that effect. And I think, you know, one of the interesting things to observe looking forward, with hope but also caution, is to see how they expanded. Because some of the most polluting sectors of China’s economy are in the steel and cement and chemicals, which are very closely tied to China’s real estate sector and sort of the construction boom there. So I think watching kind of how the emissions trading scheme grows, what—(inaudible)—attitude is going to be critical to consider the impact globally.

VAITHEESWARAN: Very good point.

Sarah, quick point on this?

KAPNICK: Yeah. It’s actually 22 percent are now covered by some sort of emissions scheme. And that’s because of China covering more energy.


KAPNICK: With 7 percent came from China, of total global emissions covered under the new scheme. And I would say, you know, standards need to emerge. That is the big problem that we’ve seen so far—that there’s corruption, and double-counting, and all these other problems. But if standards start to emerge that don’t allow for that, that make it very clear what the standard should be, that they’re based in science, I think this market can evolve. And Europe, in some ways, has been leading by suggesting, in their Fit for 55, a cross-border adjustment tax, so that other trading partners that don’t have a carbon tax will now be taxed entering the EU, which effectively starts to become a global price on carbon. So if we have enough cross-border adjustment taxes from enough regions that start having a carbon tax, you—it could force a global carbon tax, even if one doesn’t emerge.

VAITHEESWARAN: Right. That’s a really good point.

SALIDJANOVA: And if I could just weigh in there—

VAITHEESWARAN: Please, jump in.

SALIDJANOVA: —sorry—just very quickly, of course, you know, China does not like the border adjustment tax very much. And they’ve already declared that these measures violate international trade principles, right, and hurt economic growth. I think there’s going to be a lot of reconciliation that needs to happen.

PATRICK: Can I just say, very quickly, just on that?


PATRICK: Really quickly, on the carbon border adjustment. You know, there’s a lot of thinking within—amongst international trade experts that it’s actually quite WTO compliant. But, and my colleague, Jennifer Hillman, who’s obviously a major international trade expert, has written on that topic. But a lot of people are suggesting that the easiest thing to make that point clear would be to have a blanket waver for such instruments within the WTO.

VAITHEESWARAN: Great. So we’ll see how that trade law works out. I’ve seen that analysis as well. So we’ve seen—the worry that I have is not that it’s not WTO compliant, but will we see this used as an excuse for tit for tat tariffs? The U.S. has already talked about imposing these sorts of border tariffs, even though we have no carbon price at home to peg it to. It would simply be a protectionist barrier on one view. And if we’d just end up seeing that, then it would actually end up making things worse, in my view, rather than making it better. But an excellent question, nevertheless.

Let’s move to our next questioner, please. Operator.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Bhakti Mirchandani.

Q: Bhakti Mirchandani, Trinity Church Wall Street. Thank you for a fascinating discussion.

I had two questions. One is, what do you see as the trajectory for hydrogen in the low-carbon transition? And the second one is, what do you see as the most important step to make sure that the costs of the low-carbon transition don’t fall on the people least equipped to bear them? Thank you.

VAITHEESWARAN: Great. Thank you, Bhakti. Why don’t we start with hydrogen? It’s a topic I’ve been looking at closely and have written about, but I’d like to know what my panel thinks. Sarah, do you want to take a stab at it as a scientist? What do you think about this idea of hydrogen as a part of the decarbonization story?

KAPNICK: So right now the way that we get hydrogen that is green hydrogen is you need a lot of renewable energy to be actually—be able to produce it without using a lot of carbon emissions. So we need to scale up renewable energy to be able to produce the hydrogen that we need today. And so the majority of the green hydrogen that is used is only coming from places like New Zealand or Iceland, where you actually have sources of a lot of renewable energy in excess of what is needed for the rest of the grid. So until that point, we won’t be able to have it scale very quickly, but, you know, it’s been—it’s in the Biden plan to be able to expand hydrogen fuel cells.

And so it’s an emerging space, although scientifically I’m also curious how it will evolve. We’re seeing in snow there’s—in Antarctica, they’re actually able to see the hydrogen values are increasing. So there is also leakage of the hydrogen. And so I think we’ll see how hydrogen works, what the environmental impacts are, and it will evolve at the same time as the technologies evolve for it.

VAITHEESWARAN: Anybody else want to jump in on hydrogen?

PATRICK: It seems to me, like, that there is a—I mean, there obviously are huge questions about sort of blue hydrogen versus green hydrogen. And obviously, amongst a number of fossil fuel companies there would be some enthusiasm in trying to, in a sense, retrofit some of the existing sort of distribution infrastructure for—

VAITHEESWARAN: And for our members that are not as close to the hydrogen cognoscenti as clearly you all are on my panel, blue hydrogen is derived from natural gas and uses carbon capture and sequestration in order to be billed as a potential climate change compatible solution. Am I right, Stewart?

PATRICK: Yes, that’s right. And I think that, you know, a lot of environmentalist and folks who want to foster a quicker clean energy transition are a little bit leery of blue hydrogen, partly because it’s sort of perhaps keeping the fossil fuel industries perhaps more in business than they would like. And there are questions about the degree to which it actually is a clean fuel, though clearly cleaner than other forms of—clearly cleaner than fossil fuels. Thanks.

VAITHEESWARAN: We have four more questions in the queue so I’m going to just—maybe just take a very brief moment to kind of give my view on this, since I’ve looked at this and talked to a lot of the players recently. I think that it’s not possible to achieve the deepest decarbonization that is required to achieve goals like 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels unless we get the hard-to-decarbonize industries like steel and like cement and like some of the others that might require high industrial heat of the sort that renewable electricity cannot easily provide. You can’t achieve deep decarbonization with just windmills and Teslas. And there is reason to think that hydrogen, which is not an energy source, it’s an energy carrier. You have to make it, like you make electricity, from a primary energy source. It could provide a role—a useful role, maybe 10 percent of the total depending on who’s estimates you believe. But that’s how—that’s the thought I would leave our members with. Again, it’s a bigger topic to be continued another time.

Let’s have the next question, please, Operator.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Susan Purcell.

Q: Thank you. I’m Susan Kaufman Purcell. And I’m an independent consultant.

My question’s—well, actually, two quick ones. The first is, from what I’m reading about this whole energy problem issue, whatever, it seems to me that some of the pitfalls are really quick striking, and the obstacles. I mean, if you look at what Germany did in trying to reduce its fossil fuel imprint, it ended up having to import coal because the renewables couldn’t produce enough energy, especially now with the winter coming along, or maybe it’s even there in Europe. I mean, this is—this is not a good point. And it’s not discussed enough.

The other is, I don’t understand why there isn’t more effort to reverse President Biden’s decision to immediately, without warning, close the Keystone Pipeline, stop work on it. Because as a result of that, we are now—Biden is begging the—I was going to say the Soviet Union—begging Russia to ramp up its production of oil and other fossil fuels in order so that we all don’t have—so that we all have enough energy. We have a lot of energy. Why is he favoring Russia, which we’re in a certain amount of competition with, instead of allowing our own people to have jobs and produce the plentiful fossil fuels and help, you know, not get back in a Mideast conflict?

So, and the third is, just very quickly, the—

VAITHEESWARAN: Well, let’s just keep it to two, Susan.

Q: Yeah, OK. That’s fine.

VAITHEESWARAN: Those are two very big and provocative questions.

Q: OK, fine. Thank you.

VAITHEESWARAN: So let’s see what my panel has to say about that. Who would like to jump in?

Stewart, can I count on you to come in and offer some wisdom here?

PATRICK: Yeah, I mean, I think that what you’re pointing to, what Susan’s pointing to, is just the dislocation that is coming about as we try to make a clean energy transition. And, again, it’s something of a timing—something of a timing issue. As you point out, you know, in your German example, there are—it’s all well and good to want to depend on renewables, but if you don’t have storage and distribution and transmission networks to be able to make sure that those sources are reliable when the sun isn’t shining and when the wind isn’t blowing, for instance, I think that’s—you point to a real dilemma.

One way out of that dilemma, presumably, would be to go a little bit more heavily into nuclear power. But, of course, there are enormous political—enormous political obstacles related to that, largely environmental safety concerns. But it would seem to me that, you know, sort of smaller scale nuclear reactors and just a greater willingness for folks who are on board with the clean energy transition agenda to actually consider nuclear power. Obviously, you know, the permitting process and the political obstacles, you know, I don’t minimize those in any way. But it would strike me that this is—would be a very important, you know, quiver—arrow to have in our quiver when it comes to clean energy. And it mystifies me that people are so reluctant to consider it. Thank you.

VAITHEESWARAN: I certainly underline your point about having alternatives to a form of energy that intermittent, both in terms of storage—and batteries, even on the Californian grid, which is the most advanced—they can provide about four hours of backup storage at the grid scale, which is not very much. You know, we need multi-day, ultimately multi-season storage that ultimately, for example, new generations of batteries or possibly some form of green hydrogen could provide. There are alternatives, but they’ll take years to get up to scale. And you need to have backup or baseload power. Nuclear was one example. Gas is a common example. And of course, coal is out of favor in developed countries, so that’s not much of an option anymore. So the way that markets are liberalized in Europe, for example, with natural gas, left them much more reliant on the swap market for LNG cargos, liquified natural gas, cargos. And China’s competing for those, bidding up the prices. So it was a perfect storm that’s developed parts of the natural gas and oil markets at the moment.

Let’s get our next one, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Leela Ramnath.

Q: OK. Thank you. And thank you for an excellent panel. Leela Ramnath. I am head of ESG at Warburg Pincus, a private equity firm.

My question is, you know, coming out of COP—or, coming into COP and out of COP, a lot of the most ambitious commitments were actually from the private sector, which were far ahead of many commitments from countries. At the same time, you know, companies making, you know, net zero targets, science-based targets, et cetera. But a lot of this is really all based on self-reported data. And, Sarah, you mentioned, you know, if there’s methane technology out there, and there are some enforcement mechanisms. But I’m curious if you think there’s a way beyond. You know, carbon pricing is a big question. I think the methane rules are a good step in the right direction. But how can we ensure more accountability for private companies or public companies that are making large commitments that they’re getting a lot of attention to? And they, in many ways, can actually really move the needle more effectively or more real-time than some of the broader kind of economy-wide commitments. How can we make these companies more accountable? Thank you.

VAITHEESWARAN: Great. Great question, Leela. Thank you. And especially because we’re seeing so much noise being made by CEOs and coalitions, the question of accountability, transparency, reliability comes into mind. And Leela mentioned the word “science-based,” so I’ll turn to you, Sarah, in the first instance. Can you help us get a grip on how to tell what’s greenwashing or what’s vague, ill-defined promises, where a net zero might be met by buying a lot of cheap carbon offsets of dubious quality versus what’s measurable, what a company can actually be held to account for?

KAPNICK: Yeah. I think this is another example where the standards are evolving. And we’re finding that the standards are evolving as the data becomes available and then people can be held accountable. And so I think the entire industry is figuring out, what are the metrics that we need to start measuring? What is the reporting? How do you measure them? Because it’s being done differently in different places. And I think as there becomes pressure, there becomes standards, people start reporting in a very common way, and then we’ll be able to hold them accountable but also compare against companies. And we’re seeing that with development of regulation in Europe, as well as hints of it. Like even this week the SEC said that they are going to start looking at claims of greenness and look at how things are reported and asked for and ask for it in filings.

And so as that evolves, we will see more measurements, more numbers around this that we can then benchmark and then hold people accountable. But without that, without the measurement, it’s a guess. And I—the last thing I will say is now that the commitments have been made, the hard part is figuring out how to get there. And we’re already seeing the activists move in that point. Great. You’ve made a net zero commitment. Now show us what you’re going to do exactly.

PATRICK: If I could—


PATRICK: Yeah, sure, thanks, Vijay. If I could pick up on Sarah’s point, there’s also the—some really wonderful movement when it comes to pressure for disclosure for climate risk, particularly within the financial sector. And I think that that is tremendously important, including from—you know, pressure from regulators. Janet Yellen has tried to be quite out in front on this—on this topic. And I actually think that in the aftermath of COP, not only are we going to see sort of movement towards disclosure of financial risk, but I actually think we’re going—that we already are seeing a broader movement towards corporate disclosure of exposure to nature loss, and nature risk.

There’s a taskforce on disclosure of nature loss, in the sense of, you know, what are you doing to damage the Earth? And what is your exposure to an Earth that is becoming damaged? And obviously, unsurprisingly, some of the first sectors being interested in this are sort of insurance folks, but then, obviously, big asset managers who are under a lot of pressure. But I think increasingly I would expect that there will be stronger and stronger standards in this regard.

VAITHEESWARAN: I would—in addition to seeing more action by regulators and quasi-regulatory bodies in 2022, I’d encourage members to look at the science-based targets initiative, which is a U.N.-led effort with broad resources instituted and several other excellent partners that have high standards of disclosure. They don’t accept carbon offsets, for example, from companies that are members. And if you look in the last decade, companies that were members of that organization with these high-quality commitments reduced overall emissions quite significantly, whereas industry at large increased emissions, even places that had made more dubious kinds of promises to cut emissions. So there is some movement in the right direction.

Let’s get another question. We have a little bit of time. Let’s hopefully do a lightning round with a couple of questions. Operator.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jeffrey Glueck.

Q: Hi. This is—hi, this is Jeff Glueck. I’m a CFR member and CEO at a health startup, Salvo Health.

But my question is about the couple financing announcements that have happened at COP for the panel. So you had Mark Carney’s $130 trillion pledge, but does the panel think that’s anything more than, you know, a PR announcement? Is there any substance to the bank’s claiming 130 trillion in assets behind institutions to support net zero? And then I wonder if you could comment on the, I think it was, around twenty countries pledged that their export credit agencies would no longer support unabated fossil fuels, particularly coal financing. But I believe Japan and maybe some of the other major, you know, sort of development finance entities were not included in that pledge. So is that—is that a substantive shift to the sort of carbon trajectory of coming out of that piece of the financing? Thanks.

VAITHEESWARAN: Thanks, Jeff. Appreciate it. No, we’ve talked a little bit about the Carney stuff. Let’s talk about the fossil fuel accord. Does someone want to pick up on that? How important is it? It got a little bit of play. Does anyone think that’s a serious deal to pay attention to?

PATRICK: I think it is, for—or, with respect to the United States. I mean, the Ex-Im Bank and other official development institutions in the United States, you know, have significant portfolios or investment in oil and gas overseas. So I think the pledge by the United States not to invest public funds, I believe the U.K. was also involved in that, believe Canada as well. You know, you’re right in suggesting—in noting that a number of countries have not participated, or at least are not yet prepared to participate, in that pledge.

And obviously, when it comes—I think Europe itself was—the EU, that is, member states of the EU was quite—was quite divided—were quite divided on that question. So it, obviously, weakens the commitment, makes it seems a little bit less credible. One could have imagined this could have been a(n) OECD-wide. If it has been an OECD-wide commitment that wouldn’t have included other, you know, emerging market economies, that would have been, in a sense, bad enough. But the fact that the OECD world appears at least currently somewhat divided on this was a worrisome sign.

VAITHEESWARAN: I would add one thing to watch for going forward. I hear from several emerging economies’ leaders that they’re willing to accept anyone’s support efforts to get coal out of their energy mix, but not gas. They actually see gas as an opportunity to decarbonize their sectors. And so they oppose blanket policies that include oil and gas as part of a bigger fossil fuel ban or phaseout. And so there is some friction there as well that I think institutions like the World Bank and others are grappling with.

Let’s see if we can sneak in another question before we run out of time. Again, everyone on their best behavior. Short question, short answer.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Alex Wallace.

Q: Hi. Alex Wallace. I run content at Yahoo.

We spend a lot of time talking about slowing/reducing climate change. My question is about what Alice Hill of the Council talks a lot about, which is adaptation, and how much that came up at COP. And what is going to be the global structure around sharing best practices around adaptation?

VAITHEESWARAN: Great questions. Stewart, want to jump in?

PATRICK: Yeah, sure. Hi, Alex. Adaptation is a huge topic, particularly for developing countries. There’s been an insistence that half of all green financing goes to adaptation efforts. And as many have pointed out, there’s a place to skyrocket adaptation annually right now. The expense is, according to UNDP, is about $16.7 billion annually. The expectation is that will go to $300 billion annually by the end of the decade.

So there’s—that, obviously, is one reason why the huge price tag and the $1.3 billion request for climate financing, which the developing world is not going to get, since the OECD world has only come up with about $80 billion so far of the $100 billion that it’s been proposing. So, obviously, this is going to have to be a huge effort to try to leverage the private sector and private sector involvement. You know, people have been talking for a long time in terms of the infrastructure gap in the developing world moving from, you know, billions to trillions. And I think that the same thing is going to happen here.

With respect to—you know, there international financial institutions have been at the forefront, the World Bank in particular, of helping, you know, design and do mutual learning when it comes to adaptation projects. There are a lot of public-private partnerships around the world trying to do the same thing, to ensure that when the development is—and takes into account the needs for adaptation and the need, frankly, to preserve natural capital and have a more inclusive approach to capital in the developing world.

KAPNICK: I would also—

VAITHEESWARAN: Sarah, a thirty-second intervention. We’re just running out of time.

KAPNICK: Ninety to 95 percent of all financing in the past has been for mitigation, not for adaptation. And most adaptation happens after a major event. Like post-Katrina, they spent $14 billion on the levees to be able to stop a flood from happening. And that’s stopped actually with Ida. But there needs to be a shift of the money going in before those events happen, because otherwise those events will happen, people will leave the areas, they’ll be become depressed, and they won’t have a tax basis to rebuild. So it’s really important to have that adaptation before those events start happening in the future.

VAITHEESWARAN: Absolutely. I think it’s probably the most important thing we’ve said in this time together is the importance of adaptation and how neglected it is. But also, just to end on a positive note, the last major report on adaptation, there was a big commission of poohbahs led by Bill Gates and others. Only 2 percent or so of the money coming in came from the private sector, but that is increasing. We’re seeing more private sector money and including innovative mechanism.

We saw Europe issue the first adaptation bond some time ago. And reinsurance companies are taking the lead in investing in mangroves and coral reefs and so on as part of packages that they’re offering, specifically related to adaptation. And so I think we’re finding lots of interesting thinking, blended finance approaches as well. And so we’re—I think there’s some hope on this front, even though it may not get the headlines anywhere—whether it’s at COP or anywhere else. Let it be not said that at the Council we didn’t emphasize its importance.

So on that note, it’s time for me to draw our gathering to a close. It would be impossible to try to summarize such a wide-ranging discussion like this, but I think you’ll agree that this has been an incredibly useful, timely and insightful set of contributions from our panelists. So I want to thank Sarah, Stewart and Nargiza for your insights. We are very grateful to you as well, and to thank our audience as well. I want to remind our members that the video will be posted on the CFR website. And there’s now a one-hour break.


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Closing Plenary: All Eyes on Taiwan: What’s Next for U.S.-China Relations?

BODURTHA: Thank you, Carrie. Good afternoon. Welcome back. Welcome back to the final session of the 2021 edition of the annual Conference of the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program.

I’m Nancy Bodurtha. I’m the vice president of meetings and membership here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I’d like to thank you for joining the conference. It kicked off last evening with Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and continued throughout today with a very full agenda. We’ve spent the past several hours discussing at least some of the very pressing issues facing our nation and the world at this time, including climate change, global governance, the future of democracy, what the future may hold for Afghanistan, and also cyber threats and cybersecurity. I hope that the conference has sparked some thought-provoking conversations on these critical issues and more. I also hope that the conference has afforded you opportunities to connect and engage with one another.

Before we move on to the closing session, and at the risk of repeating myself particularly for those who were with us last evening, I do want to make a pitch for term member recruitment. We are continuing to grow the next generation of foreign policy leaders through the Council’s Term Member Program. A little bit of trivia: The program was established in 1970 with ten term members. Fast forward, today we have nearly eight hundred term members and we could always use more. And as we think about the future of the institution, I think that it is incumbent on all of us to help create a member community that’s fully reflective of American society, and we very much rely on our members to recommend prospective candidates for term membership. They’re our best recruiters, so I would encourage you to think about your various networks of friends and colleagues and folks in your midst who could add to and benefit from participation in the Council as a term member.

My colleague Vera Ranola, who is the director of membership, and I are always available to speak with you about prospective candidates and offer our guidance on the process. The next application deadline is January 3rd.

Longtime Council member Stephen Kellen, for whom the Term Member Program is named, I think chose very wisely to invest in the future of this organization when he chose to direct his philanthropy towards the Council’s Term Member Program. And so I’d like to acknowledge and thank the Kellen family, including Council member Andrew Gundlach, for the extraordinary generosity of the Anna Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation over the years in supporting the term member endeavor here.

I would also like to extend my thanks to the Council’s mighty meetings team for all of their hard work in planning and producing this year’s conference. And in particular I’d like to recognize the director of the Term Member Program, Meaghan Fulco; our associate director, Sam Dunderdale; and our program associate, Connor Sutherland for their leadership in organizing the conference, as well as countless other term member meetings over the course of the year.

The meetings team doesn’t do this all alone. We also rely on the help and support of a number of colleagues across the Council. And so I would also like to recognize our colleagues from the membership team, the Corporate Program, events management, and also our facilities staff for all of their contributions to this year’s conference.

And with that, I am pleased to turn the proceedings over to our speakers for a discussion on Taiwan and the future of U.S.-China relations. Our moderator this evening is Council member, alumna of the Council’s Term Member Program, and now president of Radio Free Asia Bay Fang. Bay, the virtual floor is all yours.

FANG: (Laughs.) Thank you so much, Nancy. It’s great to be here.

And welcome, everyone, to the closing session of the Council on Foreign Relations 2021 Term Member Conference: “All Eyes on Taiwan: What’s Next for U.S.-China Relations?” I am Bay Fang, president of Radio Free Asia, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

We have an amazing group of panelists for you tonight, starting with Bonny Lin, who recently joined CSIS as director of the China Power Project, and who was previously with RAND and also served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, also a fellow Harvard grad.

We also have Shelley Rigger, professor of East Asian politics at Davidson College and author of the book The Tiger Leading the Dragon: How Taiwan Propelled China’s Economic Rise, which I was very happy to see highlighted on John Oliver’s recent segment on Taiwan.

And last but not least, Danny Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He was most recently the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and prior to that was the senior director for Asia at the NSC. I was joking with him that I mainly remember his time at State with bitterness—(laughs)—since at the time I was deputy assistant secretary in the bureau for Europe and Eurasia, which was kind of seen as the loser during the time of the pivot to Asia, but that’s just a joke.

So I’d like to start the discussion with a question for each of you to set the stage and provide some context for the discussion. There has, obviously, been a lot in the news about the provocation of China sending fighter jets and bombers on October 1st, its National Day, and in the days following into Taiwan’s air defense zone, and Xi Jinping following up on that by saying that reunification with China must be fulfilled. So can you each give me your own assessment of what is China’s approach to Taiwan? What’s Beijing trying to accomplish? And how can we better understand their motivation? So, Bonny, do you want to start us off?

LIN: Sure. Thank you very much, Bay. I’m very delighted to be here on this panel with you, as well as with Shelley and Danny.

So on your question of what is China’s approach towards Taiwan, I guess my first point is China has a relatively clear large goal of unification with Taiwan, as you pointed out, and over the years China’s—the tools that China has used to move towards unification have involved a range of political, economic, and military tools which include both incentives as well as various types of coercive and more punitive measures. But I would just characterize China’s approach as China has these large goals, but I would say that China’s—I don’t think China actually has a clear, coherent strategy for unification with Taiwan. So despite what you may have seen in the media and all the various—for example, the military movements that you were talking about, it’s not clear that China has set an explicit date or specific timeline by which it seeks unification with Taiwan. It’s also not clear that China has a clear set path forward for how to achieve that unification.

I would—I would argue that China has a clear approach to prevent Taiwan independence, but that’s different than an approach to seek unification with Taiwan. So you can see the measures that Taiwan—China has to prevent independence. The most notable of that is the 2005 anti-secession law. And recently, I think this was—this came out either—I guess either today or yesterday China’s time—the punitive measures that China put in place to sanction Taiwan leaders—the Taiwan premier, the Taiwan foreign minister, and the Taiwan legislative speaker. But if you look at where Taiwan is now on a spectrum between, I guess, full independence versus fully unified with China, I would say Taiwan is probably a little bit closer to more on the independence end than right in the middle or more—or towards unification.

So if we were to see China develop a strategy towards unification, I think it would involve at least three major elements that would—or at least changes for Taiwan. First, I think whatever China’s approach would have to have some degree of PRC administration, oversight, or control of Taiwan, involving reshaping of Taiwan’s political system to acknowledge Beijing’s final authority. It would probably have very little if any space for Taiwan to conduct independent foreign policy. And the third element, I would say, is there would be big questions as to whether Taiwan would be able to maintain its own military.

So having laid out some of—some of the big steps that would be needed for Taiwan to be unified with China, I just don’t see China as having a coherent or clear strategy towards achieving those. And I also don’t see how that could be accomplished, given all the different actions that China has already taken vis-à-vis Taiwan.

FANG: Great. Thank you so much.


RIGGER: Yeah. I really agree with everything that Bonny has just said. I think it’s really important for us to differentiate between the sort of necessary and sufficient policy goals that the PRC has. The sufficient—the thing that would—that would represent the attainment of China’s national destiny would be unification, but the necessary achievement is the prevention of Taiwan independence—is to keep—is to foreclose the possibility of Taiwan permanently separating itself from the Chinese nation and making the idea, the possibility of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait existing under a single flag impossible in the future.

So when I look at the PRC’s recent behavior, I think to me it looks a lot like deterrence. It looks a lot like psychological warfare. But it doesn’t necessarily look like the first steps toward a plan that would ultimately produce, you know, a single flag over both of these territories. So just to say that, you know, I think Bonny’s exactly on target there.

And what I would add to what Bonny said is that it’s not just Taiwan that’s being deterred here; it’s also the U.S. I think what a lot of—so Taiwanese and Americans both fail sometimes to understand the PRC’s perspective on this issue. Taiwanese tend to think: What are—why are we being subjected to all of this pressure? There’s no chance of Taiwan independence, so what are they so worried about? And a lot of people in the U.S. also say, you know, the U.S. is not encouraging Taiwan to make a move toward formal legal independence, so that can’t be Beijing’s real motivation—you know, their real motivation can’t be that they’re worried about this. And I think in both of these cases, we are underestimating the degree to which many people in the PRC genuinely worry both about developments in Taiwan which they perceive as moving in the direction of formal independence and in the U.S. which they perceive as diminishing in its commitment to the underlying principles of U.S.-PRC relations that have guided and enabled the—Washington and Beijing to have a relatively—(laughs)—constructive—relative to prior to 1979 constructive relationship.

So I think for Beijing, I mean, they look at stuff that happens in Taiwan and in the U.S. and they see a genuine threat of the strategic environment deteriorating for them. And so I think we can also understand their actions recently as at least partially motivated by the desire to send a strong message to the U.S.: Do not encourage Taiwan to take chances here because we are ready to respond if we need to.

FANG: Great. Thank you so much.

Danny, over to you.

RUSSEL: It’s really hard to follow Bonny and Shelley, who made incredibly insightful points, which is another way of saying I totally—they said what I wanted to say and I agree with them. (Laughter.)

I’d build on it slightly just to add—well, first, reinforce the point that unification is absolutely a priority, but it’s not the top priority, right? Preventing Taiwan from crossing the line towards independence is the top priority because no Chinese leader, let alone Xi Jinping, can tolerate that or could tolerate that and survive. So deterring that is not just a priority; it’s an obsession.

And really, as Shelley was saying, any move by Washington or Taipei or even others that seem to chip away at the One China construct is tremendously alarming to Beijing. I mean, remember, these are Marxists who think in terms of historical trends and so on. So even if any given move by Washington or Taipei is minor, is symbolic, may even seem perfectly reasonable, it’s alarming because it’s a trend in the direction of some attribute of statehood or towards independence. It sets off alarms throughout Beijing.

I’d say secondly regarding Beijing’s approach, I mean, I think there is abundant evidence that unification by force is not Beijing’s preferred option, but that they’re, you know, determined to ensure that it is at least an option. The coercive parts, the intimidation pieces, and their behavior is what gets all the attention. But as you just heard, the nonviolent lines of effort are significant also, and we—it would be dangerous to overlook them—you know, building up economic leverage over Taiwan; the cooption of various Taiwanese interest groups, businesspeople, mayors, students. You know, they offer scholarships and subsidies and lucrative mainland job offers, and so on. There’s a real brain drain to the—to the mainland. They make big agricultural purchases in what—you know, what they call blue districts, in the KMT districts, but not in the more pro-independence DPP green strongholds. Plus, cyber operations, information and influence operations, and so on.

And you know, you look at the polling and you think, hey, this—these just aren’t working. It’s all backfiring; attitudes are so negative towards the mainland. But the intimidation track is meant to convince most Taiwanese that independence is just not a viable option, and the inducement track helps to create more of a sense that, well, some form of integration is probably inevitable and, all right, it won’t be the end of the world.

And as Shelley said, I think the third piece is deterring the U.S. not just militarily, but discouraging actions that give Taipei the confidence or the wherewithal to resist pressure. Again, it doesn’t seem to be working very well at the moment, but I think the Chinese Communist Party isn’t going to give up.

FANG: So we’ll get further into the sort of Taiwanese domestic politics later on, but I did want to point out that Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who was reelected last fall and whose election was seen as a rebuke by Taiwan’s electorate towards—of China, of moving closer to China, she has said that they just want the status quo, that they don’t want to move any closer to independence. So I’m curious what you guys see as most concerning about the situation now. What are the circumstances that might trigger a confrontation, both from the Taiwanese side and from the U.S. side? Bonny, I’ll start with you.

LIN: Sure. Thank you.

So I think both Shelley and Danny touched on this. From Beijing’s perspective, Beijing does not view President Tsai as maintaining the status quo. They view her and her colleagues as pushing towards independence. So in terms—I guess what worries me in terms of larger cross-strait issues, I think the first—and Shelley sort of alluded to this—is I am worried that there might be less support within Beijing and less belief that peaceful unification with Taiwan is still possible, because as Shelley mentioned there—the polls are not in favor of—not in favor of Beijing. An increasing number of polls of Taiwan show that the young generation—as always, Taiwan people in general are not leaning towards unification. Most would prefer either the status quo—most do not view themselves as necessarily—their identity as tied to the mainland as, say, five or ten years ago. So I think the real threat there is if Chinese leaders assess that there is no path towards peaceful unification, my concern is that puts Chinese leaders in a relatively difficult position where they have to ramp up these more coercive options, including options to use military force.

The second concern that I have is I’m not really sure the extent to which either Chinese leaders or the Chinese people might be underestimating the obstacles and challenges of unifying Taiwan with mainland China, because if you look at this from—historically speaking, the last two, I guess, territories that China unified with was Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, right? And the path for how those two territories got unified back with China was relatively smooth because the U.K. gave up Hong Kong and Macau—Portugal returned Macau, right? It was the U.K. and Portugal negotiating on behalf of the folks in those territories.

If that’s the framework that Chinese leaders or Chinese people have in mind, that’s not an appropriate one for Taiwan because Taiwan people and Taiwan leader are not going to—are not going to follow that model. But if that’s the framework that folks in Beijing or China’s leader have, they might be thinking that the process is a lot easier and they might not be—they might not be looking at all the obstacles that might—that actually might accompany Taiwan’s unification.

And the third thing I would point out here is that I am also generally concerned that there is a(n) increased risk of both accidental—(inaudible)—an escalation in the Taiwan Strait even short of, you know, significant moves by either side. I think both sides are flowing more assets, military assets, into the Taiwan Strait. The PLA is increasingly engaging in military activity near Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait. Similarly, the Taiwan military has to defend itself. And we’re also seeing the United States and our allies and partners being more active in the region. So as more military forces are becoming active in a small region, there’s increasing risk of miscalculation or an accidental collision, whether at sea or at air.

But I’m sure there are a lot of different areas at risk when we’re looking at U.S.-Taiwan—sorry, China-Taiwan issues, and this is just a small subset of issues I am quite concerned with.

FANG: Thanks so much.

Shelley, go ahead.

RIGGER: Yeah. I mean, I think Bonny named a lot of the things that we are worried about.

I think in the near term, obviously, the most concerning possibility is some kind of military accident or unintended confrontation. And the fact that the triangular relationship is so degraded at the moment really makes that prospect very chilling. You know, the U.S. does not have good communication with the PRC, and so managing a crisis would be very difficult. So I think, you know, to me, that is the—that’s the primary short-term concern that I would have.

FANG: Great. Thanks.


RUSSEL: Well, again, I totally agree with both Bonny and Shelley. I think that not just an incident itself, but even a substantial misreading of the other side’s actions and intentions could serve as a trigger.

Let’s not forget that there is the—you know, the accumulation, the accretion of relatively small steps that paint a picture. We see a picture—a coherent strategy or comprehensive strategy, at least—in the little things that the PRC is doing. I’m sure they see something similar. So we could be in straw-that-breaks-the-camel’s-back territory at some point.

And as Shelley points to—and I can attest to this as a former diplomat who did a lot of the work directly with the Chinese—we right now don’t have the tools. We don’t have the lines of communication in place, and we don’t even have the political support in either capital for taking anti-escalation—de-escalation steps to contain a situation and to prevent a crisis from spiraling out of control.

I’d add, though, that, you know, there’s a lot of hand-wringing and concern about, you know, war, and is China planning a full-on amphibious invasion by 2027 or you name it. And look, we can’t afford and certainly we wouldn’t want our military to fail to plan against worst-case scenarios. My own experience and sense, and I think Chinese modern history, suggest that they’re much more likely to use their military to inflict punishment, to teach a lesson, kind of shock and awe, than they are to launch a major war. And you know, so I think that while not a trigger, a scenario that we should be concerned about is not just full-on war and the risk of nuclear war, or war between two nuclear powers, which is scary, but some sort of double-dare situation that puts the United States on its back feet in an impossible fix. Because I think that Beijing’s tactical intent would be to demonstrate that the United States really can’t prevent China from doing what it wants to Taiwan, and thus, by extension, these implicit guarantees of military support by Washington are not translatable into reality.

FANG: That’s really interesting. I want to actually dig deeper into that because, you know, the last commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific, Admiral Phil Davidson, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year that he expects to see China attempt a takeover of Taiwan in the next six years, an assessment that was largely echoed by his successor. So I am curious: What do you guys think—what are the possible scenarios from the perspective of Washington policymakers? What is the Biden administration gaming out right now?

Danny, you started talking about this a little bit; if you wouldn’t mind expanding on that and then I’ll go to the other two.

RUSSEL: Right. I mean, I think that what Phil Davidson said was that there is a perceived window by the Chinese over the next six years; I don’t think he was making a hard-and-fast prediction. But certainly the U.S. military is on alert and planning against that contingency. So, I mean, I think that certainly if I were back in my old jobs in Washington, my first order of business, as both Bonny and Shelley pointed out, is trying to reduce the likelihood of an unintended incident, a mistake, a misunderstanding that somehow triggers a crisis, you know, an EP-3 type of incident such as the collision between a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter back in 2001 really couldn’t be handled very easily and wasn’t so easy to handle in 2001 either.

In terms of scenarios, I know that there’s been a considerable amount of discussion about the possibility of the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army, seizing one of the islands administered by Taiwan. They certainly have, you know, an abundance of military assets that are eminently capable of doing that at practically a moment’s notice. There are political and other reasons why it may not be so likely, certainly why they haven’t done it. I think there is one island in particular, Dongsha, Pratas, which in the South China Sea is a pretty good candidate because there’s no civilian population there, a couple of, you know, a few marines, no other claimants. And this also fits into the double-dare category, in effect, by saying, OK, we didn’t kill any Taiwanese, we showed just a hint of what we are capable of, you know that we’re unhappy now, and what are you going to do about it? Are you going to go to war with a nuclear power to retake this shoal in the South China Sea? Or are you going to, you know, shake your fist at us and put a few more meaningless sanctions on Chinese Communist Party members and the world will see that you really have no recourse?

Lastly, Bay, I would—I mean, I have a nightmare scenario, frankly, which is if the Chinese repeated what they once tried to do in the East China Sea and declared an air defense identification zone or essentially expanded their airspace and maritime space to include Taiwan—I don’t mean even a blockade—simply instructing all civilian aircraft that they have to follow directions from Chinese aircraft control from now on. And, you know, we know safety, passenger safety is going to make every airline tell its pilots, do whatever they tell you to do to get into country safely. I think that’s another sort of variant on the theme of proving that the Americans are really toothless tigers, that they talk a good game but when it really comes down to it, there isn’t anything they can actually do to protect Taiwan or stop China from doing what it wants to do.

FANG: Is there anything preventing China from declaring that air defense ID zone right now?

RUSSEL: Well, this gets into a bigger question about how Chinese leaders are making their calculus, you know, and that connects also to the question of what constitutes deterrence. I have my own views. I think the only thing that’s stopping them is the cost-benefit equation. But, you know, it’s very, very hard to know whether we are a millimeter away from that tipping point or whether we’re a mile away from it, and it’s not the sort of thing that you can afford to get wrong when you’re making policy in Washington.

FANG: Great. Thank you so much.

Bonny, please go ahead, and I do also want to get into the cost-benefit equation after this, but go ahead, Bonny.

LIN: Sure. I very much agree with what Danny mentioned in terms of some of the, I guess, worrisome scenarios. But first I want to go back to your question about 2027. So I think one of the reasons why 2027 appeared in Admiral Davidson’s speech was because it is one marker for PLA modernization—it’s a date that the PLA has set for itself in terms of its modernization goals and timeline. So that has been interpreted to mean advancements in a variety of capabilities, some of which will be relevant to Taiwan contingencies.

So the Department of Defense actually just, I think, earlier this week—I want to say Tuesday; maybe it was Wednesday—released its annual assessment of the Chinese military capability, the China Military Power Report, and in that report it did say it is possible by 2027 that the PLA might have more confidence in its ability to launch a larger-scale invasion of Taiwan. So I think some of the debate was in D.C. about 2027 is very capabilities-based and very hardware-based. But having said that, that same DOD China Military Power Report also said that the PLA in its internal assessments of its capabilities had highlighted what it has called the “Five Incapables”—that is basically PLA leaders are not capable of, one, judging situations, understanding higher-level authorities and intentions, making operational decisions, deploying forces, and managing unexpected situations. Basically that means—(laughs)—PLA officers aren’t great officers. Right? So even if they have the hardware, there’s a lot of uncertainty among Chinese political leaders as well as the PLA leadership as to whether China can sufficiently operate in a joint way, be able to consistently operate all of its newly acquired hardware to be able to execute successful, very incredibly complex operations to conduct an invasion of Taiwan.

So I think since Admiral Davidson’s pushing of the 2027 and linking back to the Taiwan debate, there’s been quite a bit of discussion. And General Milley has been on the record saying that, you know, he had a slightly different perspective; he’s not sure that it is that linked to China’s both decision-making calculus but also in terms of whether China will have the capabilities for sure by 2027.

In terms of the scenarios that Danny laid out, I just want to point out that I do think what Danny pointed out in terms of China seizing one of Taiwan’s offshore islands is very problematic. Partially it’s because the Taiwan Relations Act actually does not cover these islands. So the Taiwan Relations Act covers the main Taiwan island and Penghu, because if you read at the bottom, it says that Taiwan is defined as blah blah blah. Right? It does not cover Kinmen, it does not cover Matsu, it does not cover Pratas, and it does not cover Itu Aba. So if you’re looking for a way in which China could try to act to try to convey to the Taiwan leadership and Taiwan people the United States is not behind you, taking action against those islands or features could be a way to try to deliver that message to the Taiwan people but also to the United States.

FANG: Thanks so much.

Shelley, go ahead.

RIGGER: Yeah, I think I want to just go back to something Bonny said a while ago which is, the question is not so much, you know, the day that—whether or not the PRC could seize Dongsha island; the question, what happens the day after? Like, how do you translate that military success into the political outcome that you desire? And I just want to, you know, align myself with Bonny’s position earlier that this is extremely hard.

And, you know, it is true that the reabsorption of Hong Kong and Macau into the PRC phase one was very easy, and I guess with Macau—(laughs)—phase two was easy too. But phase two of the reabsorption of Hong Kong into the kind of inner body of the Chinese nation was spectacularly violent, costly, damaging, and utterly demoralizing to the Sinophone world outside of the PRC where it is possible to see what actually happened and is continuing to happen now. So, you know, I don’t think the PRC leadership could possibly look at Hong Kong and say, ah, that went pretty well, right, and certainly not if they’re paying any attention to how the Hong Kong experience and crisis are being digested within Taiwan.

And you know, that very—that agonizing process, which we watched unfold over a couple of years and which is still unfolding now in Hong Kong, was under circumstances where the political leadership, the business leadership, and the law enforcement apparatus were all aligned with Beijing from the beginning, whereas in Taiwan, you’re talking about a society where the political leadership—the business leadership is perhaps a little bit divided, but I don’t think in a military crisis you’re going to see a lot of Taiwan businesses, like, slipping off to take Beijing’s side. I’m not even sure how, from a pragmatic standpoint and sort of action items, how they could do that. And not only is the law enforcement apparatus in Taiwan not aligned with the PRC, Taiwan has armed forces; it has a military capable of mounting resistance.

So, you know, that’s—to me that’s the real problem. I can never logically move my chess pieces through from military action to the achievement of the PRC’s actual goal. I can see that happening through political processes that unfold over a significant period of time. I am not of the opinion that some kind of resolution is impossible because of the political and kind of social attachments of the Taiwanese population. But I don’t see how it happens through military force. I really don’t.

FANG: I mean, just to play devil’s advocate, there is the possible scenario of China just not even worrying about that—(laughs)—next step, but, you know, just deciding that a military takeover, you know, is the first step towards its eventual goal.

But I guess I want to dig into that in terms of the cost-benefit question, as Danny mentioned earlier. What are—actually, Shelley, if I could stay with you since you’ve written about this. What would happen to the—what are the consequences for the global economy? How does, like, Taiwan’s, you know, semiconductor industry play into, you know, both sort of China’s calculations and what the consequences might be?

RIGGER: Yeah. Obviously both the PRC and Taiwan are very important players in the global economy and also they are together an important player in the global economy. There is still a massive amount of Taiwanese investment in mainland China, and a massive amount of output from the PRC is in fact attributable to Taiwan-based companies. So, you know, we would have to—if we’re talking about military conflict, we’re talking about the disruption of the PRC’s exports and imports but we’re also talking about the disruption of Taiwan’s exports and imports and the exports and imports that they collectively generate. So it is a very complex problem, and I think, you know, there’s a lot of focus on TSMC and the semiconductor industry because the world’s manufacturers got a nasty surprise when they failed to anticipate demand for semiconductors during the high tide of the pandemic, but I don’t think it’s only semiconductors. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that comes out of Taiwan and a lot of stuff that comes out of China that is—that it is possible to manufacture because of components that are made in Taiwan.

So, yeah, you know, it would be a massive disruption to the entire global economy, and I think for the PRC surely that is a consideration, to have brought that on the world through, you know, a decision that it makes on its own would be highly costly, which is why I also think that the PRC is always looking for justification for its actions in the behavior of others. So waiting for a provocation that could divert the blame off of Beijing and onto probably, you know, if we’re honest, Taiwan, but also, to some extent, onto the U.S. as well.

FANG: Great.

Bonny or Danny, do you guys have anything to add? Or we could move onto my next question which has to do with the domestic politics in Taiwan.

LIN: I just have, I guess, a quick point to add here. I agree with Shelley and I think this is also where Danny appears to be, that China’s use of military force against Taiwan is not the preferred option. Right? There are a lot of other options short of large-scale use of force against Taiwan. And of the options to use military force, the invasion is the worst option probably—rather, the least-preferred option for China. But having said that, I don’t think we could completely rule out the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The Chinese have been planning for this for decades. That’s where all their military investment capabilities have been. China’s military investments and planning have also taken into the account that the United States would likely intervene on behalf of Taiwan. And I think the reason why China wants to keep its option open is China’s also quite wary of where Taiwan might go moving forward. Right? So right now, fortunately for us, we have President Tsai, who has been remarkably—a remarkable leader of Taiwan and in many ways kept cross-strait relations relatively stable. I think what’s a little bit unclear is who her successor will be and will we see a next leader of Taiwan who wants to push the envelope a little bit more, right? And in those situations—and if, for example, the United States changes our policy on Taiwan, and if, for example, we even see U.S. forces on Taiwan, we could see a number of factors, once we start adding it together, where a Chinese leader might feel that he or she has no other option but to use force against Taiwan, but to invade Taiwan. Part of that is because the Chinese leader might not be able to sell the narrative that if he doesn’t use force against Taiwan, Taiwan will not go independent.

So I think, even though right now, at least the next couple of years, we don’t see the likelihood of Chinese invasion as that high, I don’t think any Chinese leader can risk not at least planning for that possibility.

RUSSEL: If I could jump in on that—

FANG: Yeah, please.

RUSSEL: Well, first on Shelley’s point about Hong Kong, that it can’t be construed as sort of a template for Taiwan by Chinese leaders—and I agree at one level. And as Shelley and Bonny have pointed out, the challenge of unifying Taiwan, let alone unifying by force, is just gargantuan. But I will say, only half tongue in cheek, that as a veteran of government I think I have a healthier respect for the ability of leaders to delude themselves that a failure is actually a success and that the things that may have gone wrong were actually somebody else’s fault, so let’s be careful there. But the lesson to take away from the destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomy and political space is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that really has to be the driving mindset that we apply to the situation of Taiwan, namely, how to prevent a disaster, not, you know, how you would retaliate afterwards.

And, you know, that goes back to Bonny’s point about urgency, because I think that the formula here, it’s kind of algebra, in a way, when it comes to China’s approach to unification is you’ve got the urgency of action and then you’ve got the cost of action. And that’s where the risk—that forms the risk equation because the higher the urgency, the greater the risk that China may act, even though the cost is high. So if our policy is exclusively built around deterrence, we may be raising the cost to China for acting, but at the same time, we may be also raising their sense that the window of opportunity is closing. American and Taiwanese capabilities are going to grow; they are in 2024, as Bonny pointed out, very likely to move into a political approach that is much more pro-independence overtly, so it’s now or never. In that circumstance I don’t think that we can count on the cost of action to be ultimately a deterrent, so we also have to work with the other variable, figuring out ways that we can convince decision makers in Beijing that it is not an urgent now-or-never proposition and that they can afford to maintain what is, you know, at least in their view, an acceptable status quo.

FANG: And—

RIGGER: If I could jump in here—

FANG: I’m sorry, go ahead.

RIGGER: This is why the kind of hawkish rhetoric in some quarters in the U.S. is so incredibly dangerous because if the message from the U.S. is Taiwan is a geostrategic asset that we are going to use to prevent the rise of China, then it is urgent and there’s no way to reassure Beijing that they can wait or, you know, calibrate this thing in any way. So as long as the fundamentals of U.S. policy are the same, you know, we just need to see a peaceful resolution, we don’t want to see either side changing the status quo unilaterally, I think we’re—this is possible. But if the U.S. position becomes, we will not let Taiwan be unified with the Chinese mainland under a single flag because that is a violation of U.S. strategic interests, then I think the PRC has every reason to say, well, then, start the clock.

FANG: So, then, what are some of the methods for more prevention and more deterrence? Danny, you had mentioned that we actually don’t have sufficient lines of communication for this de-escalation, but can you guys give us some ideas for what these methods might be?

RUSSEL: Well, I’ll start just quickly to say leaders are human and, you know, without anthropomorphizing nations, human psychology is a powerful force in decision making. And so the question is, how can you—how can Washington reassure Beijing that the tenet of our one China policy, the Shanghai Communiqué that Shelley described in a nutshell, is the guiding principle here, is in operation, and that all of the evidence to the contrary is not a conclusive sign that in fact, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi likes to say ad nauseum, the U.S. has a “fake” one China policy; you say you adhere to these principles but in practice you actually don’t.

So reassurance is uniquely difficult today because, number one, we’re in an atmosphere of really virulent mutual distrust and suspicion between Beijing and Washington; number two, because the Chinese Communist Party, let’s face it, is, for all its strengths, a paranoid Leninist system that has no trouble with contradictions between what they say and what they do, right, and fully assumes that the same thing is true for others, that the Americans are also lying through their teeth. So they are no more likely to accept our verbal assurances that we don’t support Taiwan independence than we are to accept their assurances, I don’t know, that camps in Xinjiang are just vocational training centers for the happy natives. And of course, in today’s environment, in both capitals, there are political pitfalls in extending reassurance, you know, backlash at home from the perception that, you know, the administration isn’t being tough enough. I think there’s also the risk that, and it’s a real risk, that the Chinese misperceive gestures of reassurance and de-escalation on the part of Washington as signaling weakness somehow and that it backfires because they feel more emboldened. So this is not easy. Nevertheless, figuring out through a consistent pattern of actions, being deliberate, being consistent, and trying to narrow the gap between what we say and what we do, and as Shelley alluded to—she was pretty polite about it—but, you know, dialing down the chest-pounding, you know, fist-waving, you know, rhetoric, well, let’s just say that’s a start.

FANG: So I have many more questions for you guys, but I think at this point we should turn to questions from our members. So at this time I’d like to invite members to join our conversation. And just a reminder that this meeting is on the record.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our first question from Seema Mody.

Q: Thank you so much. Fascinating conversation. This is Seema Mody, correspondent at CNBC Business News.

We touched on the effect on the economy. I’m curious, what are the consequences for business, financial markets? Because from what I hear, you know, everyone from Blackstone to Bridgewater, they see China as the biggest investable opportunity over the next five to ten years. So do you think the business community stands by China regardless of what they do with Taiwan, or is there a way to get Wall Street to sign on to U.S. policy goals or implement sanctions if they continue to invest in a country that takes actions that are looked down upon?

FANG: Great question. Who wants to take that?

RIGGER: I mean, I can say a little something from the sort of perspective of this Taiwan issue. I don’t think the U.S. should be discouraging American companies necessarily from investing in China right now. Right? You know, we’re not—the U.S. government is not sanctioning the PRC in a kind of comprehensive way and so I think it’s two separate questions. I think if there were—if the PRC takes military action against Taiwan, then there will be sanctions and U.S. companies will need to comply with those and Wall Street will no longer be excited about investing in the PRC. But at present, I think one of the ways that we actually signal to the PRC that we do not have hostile intent against them is to recognize the valuable opportunities that exist for American investors in the PRC economy. Like, I would not want—I think a financial decoupling would be another sort of step in this security-dilemma spiral that is taking us toward conflict rather than managing conflict.

FANG: Anyone else on that or should we go to the next question?

LIN: I’ll just add my—one addition to Shelly’s point is that if we think about—and this goes back to what Danny was saying in terms of Beijing’s cost-and-benefit analysis. Right? The more Beijing relies on the United States, international community for its economic development, the greater cost, economic cost to China for a conflict or a major military move on Taiwan will be. The more decoupled China is economically from us, the less ability we have to actually impose economic costs on China.

FANG: OK, next question. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Take our next question from James Siebens.

Q: Hi. Good evening, everyone. Thanks very much for this fascinating conversation.

I think I agree emphatically with most of what has been said this evening. I wanted to ask you about a specific policy indication on the U.S. side. You know, I tend to prefer to focus on the things that we do control in this country through our own actions. And the Biden administration has emphatically stated that it does not intend to depart from the one China policy and that the Taiwan agreement, quote/unquote, remains in effect, but that also includes the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Taiwan. As we know, last March the U.S. Coast Guard signed an agreement with Taiwan to increase security cooperation. There have been U.S. military aircraft somewhat frequently landing on the island recently, and the Wall Street Journal recently reported on the presence of U.S. forces for the past year or so. The Department of Defense has removed the placement of U.S. troops on Taiwan as a potential Chinese redline, in spite of any evidence from the Chinese side that they have rescinded that element of the one China policy. I want to ask you all if you think that this apparent policy shift is a wise one intended to enhance deterrence, or if this has increased the likelihood of a straw that breaks the camel’s back?

FANG: Who wants to take that one?

RUSSEL: Well, I’ll jump in first and say that the third U.S.-China communiqué juxtaposes a reduction, a steady, gradual reduction of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as long as the mainland is following through on its commitment to peaceful unification. That communiqué’s been largely honored in the breach by both sides over the years, but I’m not aware of an express prohibition against the temporary visit of a U.S. military asset to Taiwan. I think the problem is that it comes perilously close to connoting state-to-state affairs and recognition therein, not to mention the fact that the actual deployment of U.S. military forces on Taiwan, the establishment of a base or something, would be understandably perceived by Beijing as a very direct threat and certainly a contradiction of the spirit, if not the letter of the three communiqués. But it’s certainly not my impression that there’s any kind of permanent military presence by the U.S. on Taiwan. There may well be some training of sorts. But, for that matter, the presence of the American Institute in Taiwan with retired U.S. diplomats to conduct business and communicate is still a far cry from the establishment of an actual embassy. So I think that it’s bad strategy to publicize the temporary presence of any U.S. military officials or servicepeople, but I don’t think that, as long as it stays within bounds, that’s intrinsically a fundamental change to, or structural change to the U.S. one China policy.

FANG: Anyone else want to jump in?

LIN: I’ll add to Danny’s point. I don’t think, James, to your question, I don’t think DOD has changed its policy with respect to Taiwan. And I think exactly like what Danny said: These developments are, you know, they’re temporary rotations or they’re temporary training engagements; they’re not—basically, they should not be interpreted as any change in DOD policy towards Taiwan or any change in—or, any increases in significant DOD—significant strengthening of, for example, DOD’s presence on Taiwan.

FANG: I’ve never seen so much consensus on a panel before. (Laughter.)

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Matthew Ferraro.

Q: Oh, hi, everyone. Thank you so much for this really fascinating panel. I’m a lawyer and I used to be an intel officer.

So my question is, if I’m hearing you all correctly, it sounds like you’re taking the reunification of Taiwan and the PRC as a given at some point, either politically or militarily. And I guess my question is, is there not a path for Taiwan remaining an independent country, either now—which I think it’s functionally independent—or more formally in the future? Thank you very much.

LIN: I don’t—

RIGGER: Yeah, I definitely think that there is such a path. I mean, one of the things that this whole conversation is predicated upon—and it’s a reasonable assumption on which to predicate, you know, a conversation of something so dangerous and important, is that there is a kind of if not absolutely linear, then at least upward and continuing upward trajectory to the rise of China, and that, you know, China will become more and more capable of asserting its will on its neighbors. And I think that is an assumption that we can examine. You know, so that’s one thing. I think we can—I think there are reasons to—or, there are ways to construct a future for China where it is more constrained by domestic challenges, by international backlash and resistance than it is today.

And I also think that there are ways to imagine Taiwan kind of—if you think about it from the PRC point of view, kind of coming around. You know, why Taiwanese are so opposed to interaction with the PRC at this moment—and I, you know, looking at survey data—we’re not doing that today. But if—(laughs)—we could. And what we would see is that there’s just no appetite for unification, limited appetite even for engagement. And why is that? I think it’s really a combination of two things. One is the very shocking experience of Taiwan’s relatively limited opening to the PRC between 2010 and 2012, a period of time in which the number of PRC visitors to Taiwan went from zero to a couple million in a couple of years.

You know, that was really—I think Taiwanese people were kind of OK with cross-strait interaction, as long as it was a one-one strait. But under Ma Ying-jeou it became a two-way strait. And that was very shocking and destabilizing to the people in Taiwan. And it’s out of that experience that we get a series of escalating social movements between 2012 and 2014, culminating in the Sunflower Movement in 2014. So one thing that is making Taiwanese right now reluctant to consider better relations with the mainland is that the last time it went too fast, and suddenly there are—you know, there were millions—literally millions of PRC visitors in Taiwan, almost overnight.

And then the other thing is I think that while it is very popular, and I’m constantly criticized for daring to say such a heretical thing—heretical from standpoint of certain people in Taiwan and certain Americans who take positions about Taiwan—you know, it’s common for people to talk about Taiwanese identity as a kind of ethnocultural phenomenon that makes it impossible for Taiwanese to reconcile with a Chinese identity for themselves, and that that is a prerequisite for a single flag over the two sides.

I actually think that Taiwanese still do see themselves as meaningfully originated in mainland China, for the most part. Obviously, not everybody in Taiwan has ancestors from mainland China, but most people do. And, you know, I think what people really object to is the PRC political system. And the things that enrage them the most are, you know, the lack of democracy, lack of freedom, censorship, absence of rule of law, the stuff that happens to the business community, the suppression of people in Hong Kong and elsewhere. You know, it’s PRC politics that most alienates people in Taiwan. So if the PRC political environment were to change, I think it might be possible for people in Taiwan to reconsider their resistance to even having a conversation about something that would qualify in Beijing as unification.

FANG: Who else wants to jump in?

RUSSEL: I will say very briefly, I think, Anthony, that there is nothing inevitable about the unification, it’s not really the reunification, of Taiwan and the mainland. But it is certainly the path of least resistance. And that perhaps all or nearly all citizens of the PRC believe that it will happen. And a shockingly high number of Taiwanese believe that, whether they like it or not, ultimately someday it will happen. And I would predict that if the policies and strategy of the United States are insufficiently clever, it very well might happen.

FANG: Next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Lindsay Iversen.

Q: Thank you all for a really terrific discussion. I’m Lindsay Iversen, at the University of Chicago.

And as not a China watcher, this has been oddly reassuring in the sense that you’ve outlined a really—you know, through a lot of consensus it seems like—a really compelling case for stasis and stability in the relationship—in the sort of, like, ambiguous space. And one of the things that I kept coming back to in my mind was that, again, as not a habitual China watcher, but that Xi Jinping has not really been a stasis and stability kind of guy—(laughs)—in a lot of ways in a lot of other areas of domestic PRC policy. And so I’m curious what your perspective is on how he sort of personally and politically might change the calculation going forward. Thank you.

FANG: Great question. Who wants to take that?

LIN: I can jump in first, if you don’t mind. I guess, Lindsay, I would push back. I don’t—at least, I’ll speak for myself. I don’t see our discussion as outlining a relatively stable cross-strait relations and a relatively—depiction of dynamics in the Taiwan Strait as one of a stasis. So I think what we had discussed earlier, we talked about that it’s probably not that likely that China will launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, if Beijing has a choice, anytime soon. But there’s all these other measures that China could take, short of a full-scale invasion, that I think are well-within China’s playbook, right? So we had talked about some of the incentives, which I think are probably most stabilizing than not. But some of the coercive measures that we had outlined included what Danny had talked about in terms of China seizing one of China’s offshore islands.

Danny had illustrated the—and talked about China potentially expanding its ADIZ across Taiwan. We also see significant activities that China would engage in in the Taiwan Straits, whether that’s more flights over the center line, whether that’s more circumnavigation, whether that includes flights over Taiwan, right? So there are a range of ways that China could escalate. And I believe at least there are incentives for Xi Jinping to see this continue to escalate. But the question is, and I think we can argue, is because there’s all these measures short of invasion, we might not see the full-scale invasion anytime soon. So in that sense, there is some stability at the very high end, but I wouldn’t characterize the picture of the situation in the Taiwan Strait as one of stasis and one of, I guess, stability in general.

FANG: Who else wants to jump in?

OK, next question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Rashad Jones.

Q: Hello. I’d like to thank the panelists for the discussion. And just a shoutout to Bonny, Shelley, and Danny. It’s great to see you all. I’m Rashad Jones, a foreign service officer based in Taiwan right now.

And just wanted to talk a little bit about the issue of communication between Taiwan and China. As you all know, China really likes to emphasize the importance of the ’92 consensus. And while that may have worked under the KMT, who was willing to accept sort of a one-China framework, we see that the current trajectory is not moving in that direction, especially since I think maybe Taiwan voters have seen what’s happened with Hong Kong and the one country two systems framework. And so my question is, what is your assessment of a—I guess, the ’92 consensus remaining a viable framework in the future? And if it—if it isn’t, do you predict that there’s a potentially new framework that Beijing and Taipei may use as a—I guess a basis for constructive dialogue?

FANG: Who wants to take that?

RUSSEL: I would, if I could. Hi, Rashad. It’s great to see you.

Look, I think that the—I find it mystifying and really tragic that Beijing failed to recognize that for a DPP leader, Tsai Ing-wen is as good as it gets. And that they’re looking down sort of the barrel of, I would say a gun, but they’re looking at the 2024 election, where the prospects of someone from the DPP who’s vastly more independence-oriented, and a lot less careful than Tsai Ing-wen is. Such a real possibility raises the question of why in the critical weeks and months after Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech they didn’t purse the very question that you’re raising.

Is there some variation on the theme or some alternate nomenclature to capture the underlying concept of the ’92 consensus, namely there’s only one China and we’re in. (Laughs.) And we’ll leave it to—you know, in our place it’s us, and in your place it’s you, but we’re not going to talk about that. It was a fig leaf, let’s face it. And the bitter truth is that today not even the KMT is willing to back the ’92 consensus. So it certainly looks to me like a—as an outsider—as a painful, lost opportunity.

At this point, I really don’t know whether there is an alternative formula or a euphemism. And more importantly, it’s very hard to see politically either Tsai Ing-wen moving in the direction of a sort of compromise towards Beijing, or Xi Jinping moving in that direction of some sort of compromise with Taipei.

FANG: Thank you so much. That is a great place to end. And I’m sorry, I know there are other questions, but we do want to end on time. And I want to thank all our panelists for this awesome discussion. And also thank you to all the members for joining today’s virtual meeting. Please note that the video and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. And also we hope that you can join the virtual happy hour, beginning at 6:30. And thank you all, again.


This is an uncorrected transcript.


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