What to Worry About in 2018

Tuesday, January 9, 2018
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Antony J. Blinken

Herter/Nitze Distinguished Scholar, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Former Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State

General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations

Kristen Silverberg

General Counsel and Senior Advisor, Institute of International Finance Inc.

Elise Labott

Global Affairs Correspondent, CNN

Panelists discuss the potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2018, as well as their global political implications.

LABOTT: If everyone is ready, I think we’ll get started. Hear me OK?

Hello. I’m Elise Labott with CNN and I’d like to welcome you today to a really important panel, “What to Worry About in 2018.”

When I saw the crowd out here, I thought there’s obviously a lot of people—(laughter)—worried or at least—well, we have a lot to worry about in our daily lives, but the amount of people here today obviously tells me that not only did they come for the stellar panel, but that everyone has a lot of uncertainty and anxiety maybe about the coming year ahead. So I think we’re going to have a great discussion based off the Council on Foreign Relation’s Preventative Priorities Survey for 2018. It’s really interesting, the matrix that they put together. And we’ll talk about some of that and the challenges in the year ahead.

I’d like to introduce my panel. Tony Blinken, the Herter/Nitze distinguished scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. You also know he’s the former deputy of secretary of state.

BLINKEN: I almost got a promotion. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: Almost got a promotion. Well, it’s not—it’s not too late, Tony.

Kristen Silverberg, managing director, Institute for International Finance, former assistant secretary of state for International Organization Affairs at the Department of State.

And Paul B. Stares, the General John Vessey senior fellow for conflict prevention and director of the Center for Preventative Action here at the Council. I don’t know if that all fits on your card.

I’d like to all let you know that Paul just came out with a very interesting book. It’s called Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace. So a lot of that will obviously feed into our discussion today.

So let’s get started. The title of the panel is “What to Worry About in 2018.”

Paul, why don’t you kick us off by talking about the survey, some of your main concerns, and some of the trends that you think we’re going to be looking at in 2018?

STARES: So thanks, Elise, and thank you all for being here.

So every year, some of you may know that we conduct this survey of foreign policy experts in Washington, D.C. and we essentially give them 30 contingencies which we’ve crowdsourced beforehand to evaluate in terms of the likelihood of things happening in the next 12 months and the possible impact on U.S. interests. And we take the results and sort of aggregate them, and then we put them into three tiers of relative policy priority.

And we’ve been doing this, as I say, for 10 years now. And it always gets a lot of attention. And I think people like it because it not only looks ahead, but it’s relatively rigorous. It doesn’t just say what could happen, but what would happen if, you know, the contingency actually evolves in the way we specify.

So this year in terms of the tier one, the top-tier contingencies, North Korea is clearly, I think, on most people’s minds in terms of the top concern. A potential confrontation between NATO or a NATO country and Russia. The South China Sea with China. There’s concern obviously with growing friction and mistrust between the U.S. and Iran. That’s another tier-one concern that’s new this year, and I think that says a lot about what people—what’s on people’s minds. And then we have Syria and Afghanistan, they’re probably the last two real concerns that fall into this top-tier category.

LABOTT: Let’s start with North Korea because I think if we read the news and we read the tweets and we see everything that’s out there coming in Asia, I think that’s one of our main concerns right now is what happens with North Korea.

Tony, why don’t you kick us off by talking about if you see—I mean, on the survey here, it says that the impact will be high, the likelihood moderate. Some don’t necessarily think that way. Some people think—with the rhetoric the way it is, with a possible miscalculation with North Korea’s program developing how it is, let’s talk about the likelihood and who gets dragged into this.

BLINKEN: So I guess, Elise, I’m somewhere between, in thinking about this, between Alfred E. Neuman and John McCain. (Laughter.) Alfred E. Neuman, for those—

LABOTT: That’s a very scary place to be.

BLINKEN: —of you who are old enough to remember, was the so-called founder of Mad Magazine. And his motto was “What, me worry?” John McCain famously said that it’s always darkest before it goes completely black. (Laughter.) So I’m somewhere in between the two of them.

But in all—in all seriousness, no, I would put North Korea very high if not at the very top of the list of potential areas for miscalculation. And I think in part it’s because we lack good communications with the North Koreans, so that in the event of some kind of incident that becomes escalatory, it’s very difficult to deescalate. Second, our Chinese colleagues, while their leverage with North Korea remains very, very high, their influence has declined. They’re not listened to in the same way that they were. It makes it a little bit harder for them to control the situation.

And then finally and unfortunately, I think the looseness that we’re getting out of Washington and in particular out of the president in the way he communicates about North Korea raises the potential for miscalculation to a higher degree than it’s been in recent years, coupled with the fact, of course, that North Korea is the primary problem as it pushes the accelerator on developing an ICBM capability that can reach the United States. But increasingly, my concern is that the gap between the way the president engages this and what actually happens is really ripe for miscalculation.

And so we have the infamous incident in which the president said that if North Korea threatened the United States or its partners again, fire and fury would follow. Well, we didn’t get fire and fury from the administration within hours—because there was in fact a provocation again within a threat, within hours, a threat to Guam—we got another kind of fire and fury as it turns out a few months later. But this gap between what is tweeted, what is expressed and what is actually done is very dangerous, because on the one hand it suggests to some countries that there’s not a lot of bark—there’s a lot of bark rather, but not a lot of bite.

But it also risks, I think, creating in the mind of Kim Jong-un, someone who already believes that our primary goal is to bring him down, to change the regime, that in the event of something that has no design to do that, a very cabined military action—now you’re hearing, for example, talk about trying to give the North Koreans a bloody nose just to demonstrate that we can hit them—in this environment in which the president has lowered the rhetorical bar to military action, what might be a gesture to simply bloody the nose and demonstrate something could be grievously misinterpreted by the regime in North Korea as the beginning of a regime-ending attack. And in that instance, cashing in the nuclear insurance policy is not totally out of the question. Certainly, taking some kind of kinetic action that then becomes very hard to control and deescalate, that gives me real pause.

LABOTT: Why don’t we broaden this out a little bit, Kristen, because, you know, people just think of this in terms of, will the U.S. strike North Korea? What will North Korea do to South Korea? But I think there’s larger issues and particularly when you see right now the North Koreans and South Koreans are talking. Some people would see this as an opportunity. Others would say, you know, there are going to be titanic shifts out of this, that North Korea is trying to divide South Korea and the United States. How does Japan act? And that regardless of whether, you know, North Korea is, you know, trying to do this to save themselves or to drive a wedge that this creates more instability in the region, regardless.

SILVERBERG: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, to Tony’s point, there are a few different things going on. One is, clearly, the president’s communications strategy. Some of it is that the interagency is still catching up to technological advances that the IC didn’t anticipate. That’s both on sort of the progress on the missile technology, but also the progress on solid fuel rockets, which completely changes the picture in terms of kind of the possibility around preemptive strikes.

But another big thing that’s going on is that the U.S. government is revisiting their fundamental assumptions about why North Korea wants the program to begin with. So conventional wisdom before the administration was that North Korea wanted the program principally for prestige or for sort of regime preservation purposes. But General McMaster in his public comments and also the National Security Strategy suggest that the U.S. now thinks that North Korea wants it for offensive purposes, either to try to force a reunification on North Korean terms or maybe as a prelude to a war of aggression. And if that’s your fundamental assumption, then the ways that you think about the calculus of deterrence versus preventive strike is totally different.

And so, you know, I think it’s exactly right, as you say, that one of the North Korean objectives will be to try to divide the U.S. from South Korea, both to create some doubt in the South Korean mind about the willingness of the U.S. to defend South Korea, to make sure that that alliance is severed. And I think that this—you know, I have very little kind of optimism that the North Korean-South Korean dialogue is going to produce anything really consequential on the nuclear program, but I do think it will have probably its intended effect of creating some sense of division between the U.S. and South Korea.

I will say just one additional point, that in my mind the biggest risk out there is confusion about the U.S. redlines. So, you know, we all—we live in Washington, D.C., we all follow this issue really closely, and I don’t know what the U.S. redlines are. So the odds that the North Koreans have a really good sense of this are not good. So, for example, is a North Korean live atmospheric test, would that necessitate an overwhelming U.S. military response? I just—I don’t know the answer to that.

And so to your point about the kind of message garble, to me that’s the kind of big risk on the table.

LABOTT: Do you believe this offensive argument that they’re looking for this for offensive, or just as a deterrent?

STARES: We know so little about the motives and what’s going on in North Korea that it’s hard to really evaluate these assertions. I personally think it’s primarily for regime survival, it’s for defensive purposes. They’ve had a coercive capability with us before they had a nuclear one, and so I don’t see this as going to change their behavior dramatically. I think it’s really about, essentially, regime survival.

LABOTT: Wouldn’t using a nuclear weapon guarantee that the regime does not survive?

STARES: Absolutely. I think any kind of serious provocation either against the U.S. or South Korea would bring about that kind of response, and I think they know it.

BLINKEN: I’m dubious about the argument that it really is designed for offensive purposes. That said—for precisely that reason.

LABOTT: I mean, it guarantees that, you know, the response would be overwhelming and—

BLINKEN: That’s right, but—

LABOTT: —North Korea would be over.

BLINKEN: —I think where there is —there is something in the middle, and that is the extent to which that the regime believes it can act with greater impunity, conventionally, thinking that it has the protection of a nuclear weapon and that it would cause us to think twice about taking even conventional action in response. That would be—that might well be a miscalculation, but it’s one that they could make. So it’s less that they would use these weapons offensively—

LABOTT: Right.

BLINKEN: —it’s more that having them not only as a deterrent against us for regime change, but also as a means to be able to take more aggressive action, that’s possible.

LABOTT: Or, you know, let’s just play devil’s advocate, I mean, is there any way that you see a North Korea going by the way of Pakistan or another nuclear power where—I mean, I think even if you talk to officials privately, they know that full and ICVBD, or whatever we call it, these, you know, complete and verifiable denuclearization is not going to happen right away and that there needs to be some kind of dealing with North Korea on, you know, some kind of suspension, some kind of containment. Is there any way to, you know, do some kind of tacit acceptance that they have—well, they clearly have nuclear weapons. So how do—how do we, you know, bring them out, bring them more towards—

BLINKEN: I would just offer very quickly that in the best of all worlds right now, and this is a low probability, I think the best that we can hope to achieve is a multistep process in which we initially get some kind of freeze on their forward-moving activities in terms of testing and get some kind of inspections in, we are able to create some kind of slightly more stable status quo, and then use that as a platform from which to negotiate, hopefully over time, further reductions in (arms sales ?).

LABOTT: That treats them as a nuclear power, though, essentially.

BLINKEN: And that’s probably where you’re left. But it presupposes a number of things. It presupposes that—just even getting there, it presupposes that you actually have a comprehensive strategy to do it. And that requires a whole host of things that are not at least visibly on the table. Maybe they’re there, but we’re just not seeing them. But in particular, I think it requires moving forward very decisively on our defensive and deterrent capacity. That needs to be happening irrespective of anything else.

Second, it means actually sustaining and building comprehensive pressure on North Korea to try to deny the regime the resources it needs to continue to pay for this stuff and to buy off elites.

LABOTT: Which they seem to be—

BLINKEN: Which the administration has done a good—

LABOTT: Which the administration—

BLINKEN: —job, has done a very—

LABOTT: —does seem to be, you know—

BLINKEN: It’s done a good job in actually building on the foundation that was set. But the third piece of this is actually having a diplomatic strategy to engage the North Koreans and also to demonstrate to China that our purpose is not, much as we may not like this, a regime change, our purpose is to get some control over this runaway nuclear state.

And if you’re able to put all those three things together, I think over time there’s still a possibility of at least getting to a better, more manageable place. But I would agree with Paul, I think the idea that we’re going to get to—and you, Elise—the idea we’re going to get to zero is out of the box at this moment.

LABOTT: Let’s branch it out a little bit to China. I mean, this isn’t one of our, you know, kind of high impact, but more moderate impact, but high-likelihood scenarios that there’s some kind of armed conflict with China in the South China Sea.

Now, do you, Paul—how do you balance needing to pressure China on North Korea—


LABOTT: —and getting them onboard there and not kind of, you know, just—not ignoring, but, you know, kind of putting it, you know, on the back burner—

STARES: Right.

LABOTT: —China’s aggressive tendencies in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea with Japan. I mean—

STARES: This is a huge challenge.


STARES: And it’s across, from North Korea to the trade relationships—

LABOTT: Exactly.

STARES: —investments, cyber—

LABOTT: Right.

STARES: —intellectual property rights, South China Sea, East China Sea. And it’s about balancing our interests and signaling our intent in these different arenas which are all—

LABOTT: Because strategically, this seems while North Korea might be a more imminent threat, it seems that strategically China and their aggressiveness and their rise in dominance is a very big strategic—

STARES: So the very—the basis of—you know, we have to be clear about what our interests in each one of these so there can be no misunderstanding about our real policy preferences and where we want to cooperate with them, where we want to reassure them in certain other respects. At the moment, we tend to be, I think, kind of muddled because these are different siloed issues that tend to be treated separately when in fact they are interrelated. And I worry that there’s the prescription for a lot of policy confusion and poor strategic communication because these are treated almost individually.

LABOTT: Kristen, the U.S. pulled out of TPP, which a lot of people would argue would have been a way to kind of combat China in a lot of these arenas. How does the U.S., given the fact that we don’t have that regional foothold in the same way that we might have, how does the U.S. kind of not silo these issues and deal with China comprehensively through a multilateral format?

SILVERBERG: Well, I think that is the critical issue. I mean, I actually would assess the risk of direct U.S.-China military confrontation as pretty low in the foreseeable future, in part because I don’t think that’s China’s strategy. I think China’s strategy is to compete economically, to win without fighting. And part of that is initiatives like One Belt, One Road that give China really kind of far-reaching influence at the same time that the U.S. is pulling back. It’s part of why the withdrawal from TPP was such a great strategic mistake. If there were adjustments we needed to make to the agreement to make it a better deal for us economically, that would be fine. But fundamentally as a strategic question, that was just, I thought, a no-brainer.

LABOTT: And you think that the president didn’t necessarily consider the strategic implications of pulling out.

SILVERBERG: I think that’s right. I think they made it on trade decisions without seeing the bigger picture. And I hope this is one of the things, you know—I mean, to, you know, to the Trump administration’s credit, they learned, they’ve been willing to kind of revisit some questions. And I hope this is one that they—that they really put back on the table.

In part, you saw in the National Security Strategy this real focus on kind of the U.S. economic competition with China and you can see, I think, that some of the—some of the people are sort of trying to channel the trade efforts in that direction, say, OK, let’s leave the Canadians and Mexicans alone. And if they really want to take that seriously, then, you know, reentering TPP and engaging that seriously would be, I think, the best, most effective way to do it.

BLINKEN: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And it’s probably the single-biggest strategic mistake we’ve made in the last few years, at least that I can—that I can think of. And it does have profound repercussions in every other realm because, for example, if you’re trying to take a tougher line with China on some of its adventurism in the South China Sea, it’s awfully hard to enlist allies and partners in that effort, including those whose own rights—

LABOTT: How do you do that, though? I mean, solutions based.

BLINKEN: Well, but it makes it so much harder when they think that the economic future in the region is going to be Chinese and not American, they have to cut their deals, and they’re not about to then join in an effort to hold onto principles of sovereignty when they worry that China may make it more difficult for them economically.

But here’s the challenge. I think we’re in a period where, for a whole host of reasons, there’s going to be more competition with China. And that’s not inherently bad. What we have to avoid are the extreme shoals of confrontation on the one hand and abdication on the other hand. Neither China nor the United States have any interest in getting into any kind of direct conflict. I don’t think that’s where either country is headed or wants to head.

At the same time, I worry a little bit more about abdication, by which I mean, as we talk so much about building walls right now, Xi Jinping is talking a very good game and in some cases delivering a good game in building bridges. Kristen referred to the One Belt, One Road project. Now, there may be a little bit less there than is advertised, but there’s still a lot there.

LABOTT: I think at the State Department they’re saying, holy cow, this is big.

BLINKEN: Well, if it is really $1 trillion of investment and building infrastructure, literally building bridges to connect up a whole host of countries, if it’s creating export markets for China to deal with its excess capacity, if it’s creating an opportunity for its state-owned enterprises to do business, and they need it, if it’s actually giving them, economically, strategic footholds in places they otherwise wouldn’t have it, it’s a very, very smart approach, backed up by the Infrastructure Investment Bank.

All of that is happening at a time when China is also talking a good game about global governance. Xi Jinping goes to Davos, says he’s the champion of globalization and free trade, he’s the champion of the WTO at the very time that we’re pulling back from all of that and the United Nations. China is now the third-largest funder of the U.N., the second-largest contributor to peacekeeping I believe. You know this better than me. And that creates a dynamic in which the appearance at least is of China moving forward and us moving back.

Now, there are profound weaknesses in China’s model: The way it invests overseas, the exploitative nature of it, the fact that it uses Chinese workers and Chinese businesses, some of the shoddy building standards that it has, that’s a problem, the way it restricts investment within China, the requirements on companies that are investing there to have Chinese partners, to give up their intellectual capital and property. The president, by the way, is very right about that. And I think the lack of reciprocity that China has in its economic relations is something that’s not sustainable.

And, of course, China has real weaknesses at home: growth problems, environmental problems, an aging population. But in the absence of a competing model, in the absence of us standing for something, then you can win by default. And the end result is you trade a liberal international order for an illiberal one. And that, to me, is abdication.

LABOTT: It’s interesting, but I want to move on to the Middle East. But I just think it’s interesting that people talk about Russia being, you know, the biggest threat and the strategic threat, but it seems like Russia’s more of a nuisance at this point than, you know, a kind of strategic threat that China—that China poses.

STARES: Yeah, it’s sort of a blocking power.


STARES: Confounds us in various places. It’s about disrupting us, putting us off balance.

LABOTT: Right.

STARES: As a long-term challenger to U.S. primacy—


STARES: —Russia doesn’t really fit that mold.

LABOTT: Let’s move on to the Middle East. I’d rather do these in kind of regional areas. So we have a lot of conflicts, some of them a little bit more, you know, immediate and much more impactful, which would be Iran, a conflict with Iran and U.S. allies, but you also have the kind of other issues that are, you know, playing around that. So that’s, like, all of the changes in Saudi Arabia with the new crown prince and his, you know, some would say very bold policies, whether it’s in Yemen or towards Lebanon. Obviously in Yemen to, you know, to counter Iran, you have the Iranian proxies that are playing into that. And then you also have these other conflicts in Syria, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Talk to me about the strategic environment there. And is Iran really the biggest threat to U.S. national interests? And what happens in Syria if this all falls apart?

STARES: So, you know, I don’t think there’s an issue in the Middle East today that is not being viewed through the prism of this Saudi-U.S.-Iran rivalry. And whether it’s the situation in Yemen, whether it’s the end game in Syria, whether it’s efforts to maintain the territorial integrity and expel ISIS from Iraq, or Israel and Hezbollah, they’re all being essentially framed and more or less driven by this sense that, you know, the biggest sort of geopolitical challenge is how to manage this rivalry between Saudi and Iran.

And, of course, it has a sectarian dimension, too, with the Sunni-Shia tensions. And, you know, there’s a reason why people are worried that, you know, this could be the equivalent of a 30-year war, maybe a hundred-year war and this is going to play out.

And so I think the challenge is, is can we somehow diffuse this before it really gathers momentum and solidifies and you get essentially armed camps that are in a kind of, like, a cold war posture with one another. And I think it’s going to take a lot of, you know, heavy lifting from the U.S. to influence its own partners in the Middle East to sort of bring about more responsible outcomes there and to stay engaged and not cede the ground to, you know, countries like Russia who, as you say, have other motives. And so this is going to be a huge challenge, not just this year, but for many years to come.

LABOTT: Kristen, there was this perception by Middle Eastern allies, particularly in the Gulf, that the Obama administration—and you heard it, Tony—had kind of, you know, disengaged. Particularly, I think, you know, they use Syria as an example. But it seems like right now that you have this relationship with the Saudis that is deepening. A lot of it is between Jared Kushner and the president, but, you know—and Jared Kushner and the crown prince. But where do you see U.S. engagement in the Middle East right now? Is it—it seems as if it’s focused mostly on, you know, the Gulf and the Saudis and those traditional partners. And a lot of these smaller countries, like Jordan, like Lebanon, you know, they’re worried that, you know, in the effort to, you know, maybe have this grand alliance between Saudi and UAE and Egypt and Israel that some of the other countries are going to pay the price.

SILVERBERG: I think the Trump administration sees about 75, 80 percent of this through the prism of the U.S.-Iran issues. And I think Paul’s exactly right about the long-term implications of the sort of, you know, Saudi-Iran contest.

I mean, my own view is that that’s not going to be decided in Yemen. That fundamentally what’s going to decide that issue is how each country deal with its own domestic, incredibly challenging domestic trajectory. Both countries are going to be facing a political transition at some point in the new future. The supreme leader is 78 and King Salman is 82, I think. They both have these very large, young populations with kind of increasing demands. And obviously, we’ve seen that very visibly with the Iranian protests.

But there was a sort of quieter version of that in Saudi Arabia this week. Obviously, the crown prince is trying to engineer this really dramatic economic reform and had raised taxes—or raised prices as part of sort of addressing their fiscal problems, and then in response to objections had to immediately turn around and give a big pay raise to government employees. So they’re trying to kind of balance this how do they keep young people kind of content and employed. And they all have—you know, if you sort of looked at the picture today, you’d think, well, the Saudis have a much better hand. But over the long term, you know, with a different Iranian government, one that has a different set of priorities and a different relationship with us and with Europe, they’ll be quite competitive.

And so, anyway, so, to me, that’s the kind of fundamental issue, is, is how do we increase the chances that the domestic trajectory in both of these places heads in the right direction?

LABOTT: Just one more question. It seems as if, you know, obviously, ISIS on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria and have been, you know, significantly damaged, if not, you know, neutered. Where do you see the terrorist and extremist challenges for the U.S.? I mean, Afghanistan is still not, you know, calm, you still have potential for the Taliban to, you know, deepen the insurgency, especially in an Afghan government collapse. You have Africa and Shabab and some of those others. Where are the biggest strategic threats to the U.S., which could lead to a possible attack on the United States homeland?

BLINKEN: Well, two things. First, I just want to say I think that Kristen is exactly right, she really put her finger on the challenge. Because you’ve got—before I get into the terrorism piece—because exactly as she said, you have major transformations that are happening, whether they like it or not, in Saudi Arabia and Iran. And the question is whether in each case they can be managed in a peaceful, productive, and smart way or whether things are going to erupt.

LABOTT: Do you think they’ll do that in Iran?

BLINKEN: So I think the prospects right now, the prospects for that happening in Iran are very, very—that is, a peaceful transformation—are very, very volatile.

LABOTT: But I did think it was interesting that the Iranian president was giving, maybe it was just lip service, but I thought it was very interesting how he was, you know, giving legitimacy to some of these demands of the protesters, which you haven’t heard in recent—


LABOTT: —you know, in 2009 or during—

BLINKEN: Well, no. And it speaks volumes. And it says, again, that, you know, I think we make—one of the big mistakes we make here is somehow seeing Iran as a monolith that’s devoid of politics when in fact it’s one of the most intensely political places on earth and it’s very, very intense. But whether they can actually manage to get to a better place, I would not put money on that.

But conversely, what’s going on in Saudi Arabia is absolutely fascinating. And if MBS can pull off the economic and social transformation and transition of Saudi Arabia, then there’s a lot of promise there. Now, the way he’s doing it, the forces that he’s alienating, and then the foreign adventurism—

LABOTT: It’s not being exactly done in a democratic way.

BLINKEN: In a democratic or light-touch way. (Laughter.) But at the same time, also—

LABOTT: “Light touch” isn’t the buzzword of 2018.

BLINKEN: Leave that aside. (Laughter.) But these are the two critical transformations. Meanwhile, the other big player, Egypt, is in the midst of basically ongoing paralysis, but a paralysis that could lead, I worry very much, to some kind of real breakdown.

On the terrorism question, very quickly, it will go wherever the vacuum is. And having taken the vacuum away for now in Iraq, although there’s a lot of work to be done to try and build something sustainable so that we don’t get a Daesh or an ISIL 2.0—

LABOTT: That’s possible in Syria.

BLINKEN: And that’s certainly possible in Syria. But look, you have to look no further than Yemen. Right now, we have roughly 8 million people who are at risk, severe risk of famine, a million people with cholera, 3 (million), 3 ½ million internally displaced people. There is no sign of that conflict getting better any time soon. To the contrary, the major players are all looking like they’re going to double down. And it’s not only the Iran-Saudi-Houthi complex of issues, it is al-Qaida, it is ISIL, and you’re going to have returnees from Iraq and Syria who are going there. So I would look there. I would obviously look at Libya as an ongoing problem.

And then as you said, Elise, Afghanistan remains a real challenge.

STARES: Just to hop on on the Iran comment, you know, precedent usually shows that regime change really comes from bottom-up processes. They can provide pressure on the regime, but it’s really whether the regime stays unified. And when that starts to fragment or fracture, that’s when things will change.

LABOTT: Well, it seems as if the U.S. is trying to deepen that fissure between the, you know, clerics and the IRGC and the government, which seems like it would be—

STARES: Right, yeah.

LABOTT: —if they can do that.

STARES: On sort of the post ISIS, if that’s the right way of defining it, you know, there are plenty of ungoverned spaces still left in the Middle East. We have whole parts of Northern Africa, the Sahel—

LABOTT: Libya.

STARES: —to say nothing of parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia where there’s been reports of ISIS. So I don’t think this is going to go away. It may not look like the ISIS that we’ve been dealing with over the last three or four years, it may sort of change into a different form. But it ain’t going to go away, that’s for sure.

LABOTT: OK. We’re going to open it up for questions. We have a lot of people here today and I’m sure we have a lot of questions. So I’m going to ask you to identify yourself, keep your questions short and to a question so we can get as many people as we can. If you raise your hand and show me, then we’ll try and get as many people as we can.

We’ll go right here and then we’re going to go to the third row, to this gentleman in the middle.

Q: Thank you. Paula Stern, happy new year. And I hope everything you’ve talked about doesn’t happen. (Laughter.)

My question is about China and the U.S. and in particular the U.S., our decision-makers, particularly with regard to trade and all the other issues that China has such an important influence on. I see January as the trade month. And I see China probably throwing some goodies, particularly in regard to steel, to satisfy the president and Wilbur Ross. But I see Ambassador Lighthizer putting a big emphasis on other trade issues with intellectual property and nonmarket economy or state-controlled enterprises. So I’m wondering where you think, at least this short term, the Trump administration will come out dealing with China and trade.

LABOTT: OK. Kristen, why don’t you take that one?

SILVERBERG: I think—I think the National Security Strategy was a great indicator. And I totally agree with you that this is going to be early this year. So I’m anticipating decisions on the 232s and some movement on the 301.

To me, the bigger—the bigger sort of outstanding question is what they do on the non-China trade issues and particularly the NAFTA decision. You know, we’re heading up on the last scheduled round, so you could get a decision from the president any time after that. That won’t really settle the issue because there’s enormous uncertainty about whether he has legal authority to withdraw from NAFTA without congressional authorization. So basically, it would just kick off a kind of multiyear litigation. To me, that would just be an enormous, catastrophic mistake. So I hope that it doesn’t head in that direction, but that’s the sort of—the big trade issue that’s biggest on my—highest on my list of worries.

LABOTT: OK, right here.

Q: Thank you. I’m Richard Downie from Delphi Strategic Consulting. And thank you for a very interesting discussion on most of the issues that we probably would have predicted you would talk about.

But I noticed you didn’t mention anything in our hemisphere. And the one that comes to mind is, of course, Venezuela. And that’s probably a good thing, but I wonder if, since we’ve pulled back, that we’re going to let this drop off. Yesterday in The Post, there was an interesting op-ed by Jackson Diehl about the fact that because we’ve dropped back on Venezuela that now the Latin Americans’ leadership is saying, hey, you know, maybe you—the OAS secretary, for example, and others, saying maybe you in the U.S. ought to stop your sales of oil to Venezuela to really put some pressure on them. Is the fact that we’ve pulled back an indication that we really aren’t willing to do something that would hurt us to make a big change in the region, in Venezuela? Thank you.

LABOTT: Tony, what do you think?

BLINKEN: Well, I’d say I think you’re exactly right to put your finger on Venezuela. I mean, if we were going down the list of, you know, potential—I don’t know if it’s a black swan or just something that’s so obvious, that would be very near at the top of the list. You have an economic meltdown, you have crime going through the ceiling, people desperate for food and medicine, a leadership that’s doubling down on its position, and no effective mechanism to try to move the country in a better direction.

I’ve got to say, I had some hope at the end of the last administration that together with some of the leading countries in the region and because our own position in the hemisphere had been improved as a result of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba that there was an opportunity to maybe try to move things in a better direction. We don’t really have that anymore.

At the same time, I’m a little suspect that we would take steps that, a, could have a really negative impact on us, but also could precipitate even more something that could spiral out of control and that we certainly don’t want on our backs right now. So my own sense is—and you may have a better insight—that we’re likely to stay a little bit in retreat on this.

SILVERBERG: That’s my guess, too. That you’ll see additional individual sanctions, and you saw some of that particularly around the drug kingpins, but probably not broad sectoral sanctions. To me, my worry is, you know, as Tony said, that I don’t really see the exit ramp.


SILVERBERG: So, you know, my colleagues are expecting 13,000 percent inflation next year and continued, you know, economic collapse. But I don’t see the kind of, you know, prospect for some political outcome that’s going to enable the U.S. to lift those sanctions. You know, so far, the Trump administration has said they want return of the national assembly and free and fair elections and it doesn’t really look like that’s in the offing. So how are we going to navigate those really awful kind of humanitarian conditions against our quite legitimate interests in seeing political reform? I just—I don’t see the—yeah.

STARES: I think there’s a general recognition that our ability to affect political change in Venezuela is pretty limited and potentially counterproductive if we are the lead on it.

But where I think we can make a difference, certainly in trying to anticipate where this could go in a particularly dangerous way, is managing the potential outflow of migrants from Venezuela and doing some of the contingency planning for Colombia and other places. Because this is already happening, it’s not as if this could happen. There are—

LABOTT: And this is where it could affect the U.S.

STARES: —tens of—tens of thousands and that has implications for homeland security, organized crime, destabilizing Colombia, the FARC process. There are a lot of big issues that, if we don’t manage this larger problem that could arise if things really melt down, is something we need to focus on.

LABOTT: OK. I’m going to go to the front here and then we’re going to go to Mark and then we’ll work our way back.

Q: Thanks. Elisa Massimino with Human Rights First. Thank you for that amazing overview of all the things to be worried about.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which expressed, then at least, this global consensus that respect for human rights is the foundation of peace and security in the world. And almost all of the issues that you’ve touched on today seem to prove that point.

You know, Paul, you just mentioned the potential refugee crisis, but we have a global refugee crisis, the head-in-the-sand kind of approach to that, from the big to the failure of this administration to appoint an assistant secretary of human rights.

What do you see as the impact of this administration’s seeming rejection of the fundamental premise of this kind of cornerstone of global security? And what can we do about it?

LABOTT: I’m just going to tag on Mark’s question because I think it probably flows into it. (Laughter.)

Q: I actually wasn’t going to ask about human rights. Mark Lagon, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, TB, and Malaria.

So as structured, the survey each year focuses on flashpoints and countries. But I’d love if the two of you might speak to a venue, the U.N., and how this administration is handling using the U.N. as a place to solve problems. Some say that Nikki Haley is probably the most sort of recognizable Republican internationalist kind of figure within the administration. How are they handling it, the good and the bad, for solving some of the other problems you’ve been talking about?

LABOTT: Good question. Let’s start with the human rights. I want you to take the U.N., so why don’t you go to the U.N. idea?

STARES: This administration, certainly the rap on it is that it is not paying attention. I’m not sure. I’m willing to give it more credit, I think. And things that Secretary Tillerson has said in the last month or so, I think, would suggest that they have been a little more forward-leaning.

LABOTT: They’re evolving, you are saying?

STARES: Yeah, I think they’re evolving. Take the statement on the Rohingya crisis. You know, that was pretty clear about what our concerns were there and it was very much driven by human rights concerns. So I don’t think it’s a completely negative picture.

Then again, when you look at the National Security Strategy, it really doesn’t get the prominence that it’s had in previous years. And you wonder whether they think this is a nice-to-do thing rather than, frankly, a need-to-do and it has real strategic merits to it. And I don’t think that there’s that, frankly, appreciation at the highest level.

BLINKEN: And I would double down on what Paul said. And I do think that’s one way of trying to persuade the administration to be more outspoken and more insistent on human rights is precisely because of the strategic implications of failing to do that. Leaving aside whether it’s the right thing to do, which—


BLINKEN: —I suspect most of us believe it is, it’s also the smart thing to do. And we know and you know every day from the work that you’re doing that when there is a huge democracy deficit or when there’s a huge human rights deficit, that tends to simply lead to more conflict and conflict tends to, in one way or another, implicate us at the end of the day. So there’s a very profound strategic rationale for doing this that I think it would be helpful to emphasize.

I agree with Paul, I think we have seen some voices. Actually, Ambassador Haley on a number of subjects has been terrific, I think, in New York. The problem has been, and I think everyone knows this, is that we’ve seen too many examples of the administration speaking with one voice except the president’s. (Laughter.) And so you do hear very good statements on a number of issues from the secretary of state, secretary of defense, the ambassador to the United Nations.

LABOTT: But let me—let me push back on you on that. I understand—and we all have a tendency to kind of laugh at some of these tweets and the mixed messages, but are there various—is the—like, what about the idea that we should look at the policy?

BLINKEN: Yeah, that’s a very fair point.

LABOTT: And so you may hear, like, tweets about Russia and, you know, Putin and how great he is, but then the policy on Russia is very tough. And so, what’s the policy on human rights?

BLINKEN: Yeah. So you’re entirely right, Elise, I think, to make that point. And there is a gap between sort of tweet and deed. (Laughter.) And that’s—

LABOTT: So if we look at deed, how do you grade them?

BLINKEN: If you look at deed, I think that it’s still, at least when we’re talking about human rights, I would still say, unfortunately, it has not gotten, in the actual actions of the administration, in my judgment at least, the prominence that it deserves. It’s also not, as Paul said, as bad as it’s sometimes portrayed.

STARES: There’s a similar dynamic, to get at Mark’s point, about the U.N. The general perception is that this administration is not interested in working with the U.N., doesn’t value the importance of the U.N. as well as other international organizations. But in terms of what this administration has been able to do through the U.N. on, say, North Korea and in other venues, it’s actually been pretty commendable. They’ve been quite effective, and so we should give credit where credit is due in that respect.

LABOTT: Kristen, why don’t you pick up on the U.N. idea?

SILVERBERG: I just—yeah. I agree with that. My assumption coming in is that they would just disengage and ignore the U.N. and that hasn’t happened. And that’s to the great credit of Nikki Haley.

She also has done something. You will remember this very well. It used to drive me crazy in the State Department that some bad thing would happen at the U.N. and everybody would complain about the U.N. and forget about the member states who actually voted for the bad thing.

LABOTT: Right.

SILVERBERG: Ambassador Holbrooke used to have a line that blaming the U.N. for a Security Council vote is like blaming Madison Square Garden for a poor showing by the Knicks. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: That’s good.

SILVERBERG: And she—and Nikki Haley, you know, you can overuse this tool, but to her credit she has turned the attention back on the member states who are casting the votes. And I think on the whole that’s a good trend.

LABOTT: OK. Let’s go to Betsy and then to the woman with her hand in the back.

Q: Thank you. Betsy Fischer Martin, American University.

Just to—since none of us are going to sleep well tonight—to flip the topic a little bit, are there any areas that you were concerned about three to five years ago that you now are optimistic about, areas or issues?

LABOTT: That’s a very good question.

SILVERBERG: Take that one?

BLINKEN: Yeah. We’ve been in such a negative frame of thinking, we have to really—that’s great, it’s a good question.

LABOTT: Maybe we should save that to the end, but anyway.

SILVERBERG: I think—I think there’s one actually. So I feel more optimistic on Europe than I have in some time. Europe still has huge, long-term challenges in terms of demographics, migration, internal divisions between the member states. So I don’t think it’s sort of, you know, out of the woods in any long-term sense, but it’s really turned the corner economically, sort of, you know, consumer confidence, the business climate. All the economic indicators are at, in some cases, you know, two-decade highs. And you can start to see unemployment rate dropping, wage growth, all of those things, and that’s going to give Europe some room. Instead of doing sort of crisis management, it’s going to begin them to start thinking about kind of how to tackle some of these longer-term issues.

BLINKEN: And, you know, I think, Betsy, you’re framing something really important, too, which is that we do lose sight of the—or put another way, there’s a real paradox between what’s happening arguably in the aggregate around the world and these very specific problems, which could mushroom or explode into something much worse, that we’re all understandably focused on. Because, you know, as a number of people have pointed out, by virtually every metric we can think of, looking at the course of humanity over the last 70-plus years, starting with our own country, you know, you can make a pretty compelling argument that generally speaking, overall, we’re safer, we’re healthier, we’re wealthier, we’re wiser, we’re more tolerant than we’ve ever been at any point in the course of human history, so we shouldn’t lose sight of that. We should celebrate that, and we should look for why that is happening and make sure that we can double down on sustaining it, and then make sure that we’re also not getting pulled down by the interrupters in that course of progress. But it is kind of useful to step back a little bit.

STARES: I would add Colombia is a case of a good story.


STARES: And some parts of West Africa, frankly, you know, with Ebola happening three or four years ago, there was great concern that this would be a regional meltdown, but it hasn’t happened.

LABOTT: OK. We’re going to go to the woman in the back and then we’re going to go to this side of the room.

Q: OK. Hi. I’m Erica Borghard. I’m actually a CFR international affairs fellow. I’m spending my fellowship here at JPMorgan Chase and U.S. Cyber Command. So my question is about cyber.

In your top tier-one risks for 2018, a significant disruptive attack on U.S. critical infrastructure is up there. So I was wondering whether you could speak a little bit to the threats and risks posed by those kinds of cyberattacks, which indeed play a critical role in many of the actors you already discussed in those tier-one threats. Thank you.

LABOTT: Tony, I know you were thinking about the cyber.

BLINKEN: No, I think that you’re—actually, it’s interesting that it’s taken us this long to get to that—to that word. But just very quickly, look, I think we’re—we’ve obviously been dealing for some time with the challenges posed by cyber and particularly threats to physical infrastructure. And I think what we’ve recognized more recently is that there’s even, in a sense, an even more profound threat to our mental and moral infrastructure, that is, what we think, what we value, what we believe. And we have to find ways to more effectively deal with the threats to both the physical and the moral and mental side.

And I would—I’d say there are three things. And I think over the next year you’re going to see, by necessity, even more and more focus on this, three things that we have to be doing better at. Better defense, and that requires a lot more cooperation between government and the private sector, both in being able to eliminate threats, to harden software and hardware, to deal cooperatively in making sure that platforms are not being abused and misused. And there are a whole of things that have to happen there.

Second, we need to be doing a lot more on developing norms of how you operate in cyberspace in peacetime. And a lot of people, I think, sort of downplay that. And it sounds a little bit too good to be true. But the fact of the matter is, as you develop norms, over time they actually can take on a force. And it took us a hundred years, but we got norms on chemical weapons, on biological weapons, on nuclear weapons. And while they’re clearly imperfect, they do play a very significant role in deterring conduct. Now, it’s a lot harder in the cyber realm because you’re dealing with something that’s a lot harder to see and attribute and it may be a nonstate actor, but norms matter.

And finally, we have to think a lot harder about how we deter the use of cyber weapons, either in the physical space or in the moral or mental space as I call it. And there we’ve been really short of the mark in really thinking through what our declaratory policies are, what we’re actually going to do, and not only what we say we’re going to do, actually do it, because you’re not ultimately going to be able to deter people from malicious actors if they think that what they have to gain is much greater than what they have at risk.

So there’s a lot of work to be done there. And I think this really cries out for much more of an organized initiative that we’ve seen. And it really should hopefully start with the administration.

LABOTT: We’re going to go to this lady here and then this gentleman in the front.

Q: Thank you. Pauline Baker.

In the discussion on the Middle East, I was really struck by the fact that there was no mention made whatsoever of Israel. So would you comment on—you know, this is not an issue which this administration has pulled back on. It’s sort of in their own pocket or Jared’s pocket. We’ve moved ahead and recognized Jerusalem as the capital. Is this headed in a direction where the two-state solution is dead? Are the Palestinians going to take all this lying down? Is that going to be a flashpoint?

LABOTT: That’s a good question. If the peace process falls apart—

STARES: What peace process? (Laughter.)

LABOTT: I mean, look, they’re—I’m not saying it’s moving anywhere, but there is some kind of effort being made. If it doesn’t—if it doesn’t develop into anything, do we have a—you know, are we moving towards another Intifada? What are the flashpoints there?

STARES: If it’s not dead, it’s on life support I think is the way to characterize it.

LABOTT: Dennis Ross used to say that the process is never dead.

STARES: Right.

BLINKEN: That’s why we love Dennis. (Laughter.)

STARES: But I think, you know, there was—we were suspending disbelief about the Kushner initiative and thinking that, you know, there may be some deus ex machina thing that would be pulled out of his hat.

LABOTT: Right.

STARES: And, you know, they would reconcile all these competing concerns and interest there. But with, you know, Kushner under increasing pressure domestically, then, you know, it’s hard for me to imagine that we’re going to see any real movement on that. I wouldn’t say never, but it’s—you know, Tony knows this neck of the woods better than I. And, you know, there’s always room for pessimism in thinking that we’re going to go into any significant process.

The people I talk to, they more or less have written off the idea of a two-state solution. And painful as—

LABOTT: Do you think we’re really headed towards a one-state solution?

BLINKEN: We can’t be. And I’d be the first to recognize that right now the prospect of a two-state solution is looking very, very dismal. But a one-state solution is a recipe for eternal conflict.


BLINKEN: Because when you have—look around the Middle East, no, look around the region.


BLINKEN: Whenever you have in one geographic space multiple sects or multiple nationalities or multiple religions in that space competing for it, you’re going to have conflict. And one is going to try and lord it over the other. In the case of Israel, I think it’s, in a sense, almost wrong to talk about it in terms of a one-state or two-state solution from my perspective as an ardent proponent and defender and supporter of Israel. I like to think about it in, what is most going to guarantee a secure, democratic, Jewish state of Israel? And only a two-state solution has a chance, not a guarantee, a chance of doing that. A one-state solution is not a Jewish and democratic Israel, it can’t be both and it probably won’t be secure either.

So that is what is at risk right now of falling off the table. And I agree with Paul, it’s whatever, you know, metaphor you want to use, life support, that’s where it is. I don’t see it being revived soon.

The question is, what, if anything, can you do to keep some prospect of hope alive and play for time and get to a place where, on both sides of the equation, there are better politics? Because the fact of the matter is there’s not an enthusiastic partner on the Israeli side and there’s not an enthusiastic partner on the Palestinian side. There was a moment because of the strategic rapprochement between the Arab states and Israel on Iran where they could be a much more positive player in buttressing the Palestinians. That’s been a little bit jeopardized by the way the president went about the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

But I think there are things that can be done to keep this at least on life support to see if you get a better political environment over time. And in particular, there are very practical steps that can be taken to just make life a little bit better for Palestinians in ways that actually would be beneficial to Israel and its—and its own security. The electricity problem in Gaza, for example, is a disaster for the people in Gaza. It’s also increasingly a problem for Israel. Sewage doesn’t get treated. It gets dumped in the Mediterranean, winds up on Israeli beaches. That’s a problem you ought to be able to fix and it’s in both sides’ interests to fix it.

There are plenty of very practical economic day-in and day-out projects on the West Bank that would make life more livable for Palestinians, give them a greater sense of hope and at least put off this rising sense of frustration that is very understandable. And again, that’s good for Israel. So do some of the small things, keep that going, and hope for a better day.

LABOTT: OK. We’re going to take one last question and then I’m going to ask each of you to offer some quick closing thoughts.


Q: Andrew Borene. I’m a CFR member.

I guess my question really is on the enterprise scale. So we now have a National Security Strategy. Let’s assume that the ends defined in it are where we want to be in three years. And within that National Security Strategy in the implementation phase now, you can choose to look at this question kind of one of two ways: Either, what absolutely must go right within the U.S. national security enterprise and foreign policy kind of enterprise to advance that agenda within the next three years, as it has been written and laid out? Or alternatively, you could look at it and say, what are the gravest risks to successfully advancing that agenda? Just kind of a question for how your own brain works.

LABOTT: I’m going to wrap that in to ask each person to answer that with their closing thoughts about what are some of the long-term trends that we need to look at, not just for this long year ahead, but beyond.

Paul, why don’t you start.

STARES: Well, it’s a great question. And, you know, it presupposes that there really is a strategy behind the strategy. And there’s a lot of people who frankly question whether—it doesn’t matter how well-written it is, it’s whether, you know, can it really be implemented and not undermined by the president and his tweeting. And I think that’s the big question about it.

What I worry about is—and this is a more sort of general closing comment, which will probably depress you even further—(laughter)—is, you know, the Trump administration has, in many respects, been lucky. At this time last year, we were thinking that, you know, every new administration is tested and it frankly hasn’t faced a major crisis. And I wonder how it really will do when, you know, the you-know-what hits the fan. And it may not be a single crisis. And I think Tony experienced this in the Obama administration. It can, you know, come at you in multiple ways simultaneously, and that just puts an immense strain on the system. And so I worry that we look at these different contingencies as if they’re a sort of individual, sequential thing. But I worry about the full-on, multiple crises.

LABOTT: Kristen.

SILVERBERG: I worry about that, too. I was a young staffer in the White House on 9/11 and I remember how little time there is for a learning curve. You know, the president was signing executive orders on terrorist financing 10 days after the event and then we were negotiating legislation. And so I—anyway, I worry a lot about the kind of readiness for whatever it is, cyber, terrorism, or a pandemic, or whatever surprise comes up.

More broadly, you know, I attend some of these events and people will say, well, geopolitics are a mess, but at least the economy is good. And that’s true. Actually, the global economy and the U.S. economy are growing nicely, but there is definitely some risks out there, what my colleagues call kind of termites in the woodwork, and one big one is global debt which is now, collectively, 320 percent of global GDP. And that’s partly governments who borrowed after the financial crisis to support their economies and, in our case, are apparently going to keep borrowing, and then it’s also nonfinancial corporates, so a huge number of companies who can’t make debt service based on current earnings, a lot of whom are in China. So, anyway, that’s kind of one of the big issues.


BLINKEN: I’ve had the opportunity over my career to work on a few of these National Security Strategies. And we used to say that rarely have so many toiled for so long on a document to be read by so few. (Laughter.) And there was one exception, actually. I think the Bush 2002 was the one document that really did get the world’s attention. This one’s actually gotten more, I think, precisely because people are very curious.

But the truth of the matter is, look, let’s be honest, the number of times that someone in the administration is grappling with a problem and said, gee, let me pull down the National Security Strategy and think about it, that doesn’t happen. (Laughter.)

It really is about three things, I think: one, it’s people, it’s process, and it’s policy. You want to have the best people in place and actually let them do their jobs and bring their expertise to bear. You want to have a process to make sure that that happens, and we’ve tried to grow one over the last, you know, decades with the National Security Council process that I think has been a very good one, for all of its imperfections. And then you want to use that, those people and that process, to actually develop concrete policies that may not survive first contact, but at least give you a place to start. And I think one of the problems that the administration faced, at least in the early going, was a lack of those three things. And my hope is, and I think we’re seeing some signs of that, that that has gotten—that that has gotten better. And I hope it continues in that direction.

Just big trends, big concerns that we didn’t touch on, a huge one is just the global migration crisis. And that is something that on one level it gets a lot of attention and then it doesn’t get enough attention, because we now have more people forcibly on the move from their homes than at any time that we’ve had since World War II. About 70 million people around the world are displaced. If you put them together in one country, it would be the 24th or 25th largest country on earth, bigger than South Korea, bigger than Spain. And, of course, we tend to look at the headlines and we think Syria, we think Iraq, but it’s happening from everywhere, a dozen countries in Africa, Central America, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, as well as the Middle East.

And this, more than anything else I can think of, has both huge knockoff effects in so many ways that all of us can understand, whether it comes on a drain on resources, whether it’s the effect on climate and, by the way, the effect of climate on these crises, whether it is just the effect on the fabric of societies. And it demands a collective response because no country or institution can handle this on their own. And that is grievously lacking and I’d really like to see the United States play a much more forward-leaning role in grappling with that, because if not we’re going to get bitten by it.

Last thing I’d say is I think the other profound phenomenon that we still have to grapple with and that we see particularly in the United States and Europe is, the most profound division that we’re facing right now is not a left-right, Republican-Democrat, conservative-liberal division, it is an open-closed one. It’s between those of us who believe that to grapple with these incredibly complex problems the best thing we can do—and this is not at all pejorative, it’s understandable—is to play defense, to hunker down, to protect ourselves, to build a wall, and those who believe that, no, we’ve got to stay open and connected and somehow shape these forces as best we can, if not to our advantage, at least to mitigate the downsides and continue to build bridges. And that’s the debate that is preoccupying us, it’s preoccupying Europe.

And if we don’t find a way through it, then I really do worry that some of the forces that we’ve seen find expression very powerfully—nationalism, isolationism, unilateralism, xenophobia—those forces will continue to be on the rise. But there has to be a good answer to the problem that they are offering false solutions to. And that’s what we need to work on.

LABOTT: I’m just going to build on that very quickly as we close the meeting. I think from where I sit, one of the things that really disturbs me is the kind of breakdown of social and civil discourse in this country. And all of us come from different walks of life, different parties, different opinions, but I think meetings like this and discussions where we listen to the other person’s opinion and we hear it and we respect it, even though we don’t agree, is very important. It can’t be an us versus them or me versus you. And I think that that’s why groups like the Council on Foreign Relations are so important. And I encourage you to continue to come to meetings in the new year, they’re more important than ever, and to keep having this social discourse.

So I want to remind everybody this meeting was on the record.

BLINKEN: Oh no. (Laughter.)

LABOTT: Feel free to go home and—

STARES: Now you tell us.

LABOTT: Feel free to go—you knew before you came. (Laughter.) Feel free to go home and share what you learned. And don’t forget Paul’s book and all of the good writing on the Council website. Thank you very much.

STARES: Thank you. Thank you.

LABOTT: Happy new year.


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