Democrats are announcing Presidential bids seemingly every week, and they will soon be forced to craft foreign-policy agendas. Last week, we got a taste of some of the dynamics at play, when the Senate voted overwhelmingly in opposition to President Trump’s proposed withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. The twenty-six senators who opposed the resolution included the Presidential candidates Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, which raised the interesting question of how the Democrats’ foreign policy would and wouldn’t distinguish itself from President Trump’s.
To talk about this subject, I spoke by phone with Jake Sullivan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College, and the former national-security adviser to Vice-President Joe Biden. He also worked as Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief-of-staff during her tenure as Secretary of State. Recently, Sullivan has written about the need for Democrats to recapture the idea of “American exceptionalism,” which he believes has been misused by the likes of Trump and Dick Cheney. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the biggest foreign-policy dangers for Democrats, the real reasons that the Obama Administration aided the Saudi war in Yemen, and whether Trump’s embrace of foreign strongmen is really so different from the realpolitik of previous American Presidents.
How do you define American exceptionalism, and how do you think Democrats can or should employ it in the coming election?
The best view of American exceptionalism, from my perspective, is not that America is better than other countries—not America, love it or leave it, but America, warts and all. The notion that the United States has unique and distinctive attributes and capacities that really do distinguish us from any previous power in history and any potential future power—that allow us not only to deliver for the American people but to also contribute to the greater global common interest.
What are the “attributes” that differentiate us?
The United States is unique among countries in having been founded on an idea, not on territory or tribe, and that idea has dimensions that are core to the American story, but also core to the broader human story—a sense of aspiration, a sense of human rights and freedoms and the idea that actually we are all interconnected and that we need to work through institutions to safeguard our life and freedoms and to advance them more generally. So that’s one aspect of it.
The second aspect is that American foreign policy, unlike the foreign policy of other great powers through history, has not been zero-sum, has not relied on a notion that a dog-eat-dog world’s O.K., as long as you’re the biggest dog.
Third, we are a nation of problem-solvers in a world full of problems. There is a streak among the American people and throughout American history, and especially in difficult times with our foreign policy, where we look around the world and see challenges and roll up our sleeves and say, “What are we going to do about that?”
It’s not to say that we don’t screw up, and it’s not to say that we haven’t had plenty of failures and foul-ups in our foreign policy, but it is to say that we aspire to something, and, if we keep working to achieve those aspirations, as imperfect as the work along the way will be, then we can be a different kind of power than the ones that have typically been seen through history.
Without quibbling for now about what U.S. foreign policy has been, you are essentially describing the United States’ foreign policy as the polar opposite of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy. Do we need to face up to the fact that this is perhaps what American foreign policy is now, without wishing it were something else?
I certainly can’t be complacent. We’ve got to fight for it. Part of what I’m trying to do is to make the case for something that many people, including myself, took for granted for a very long time, took for granted in part because of the sensibility I developed as a Minnesotan growing up in the late Cold War. We can no longer do that. We can no longer take this for granted. I can’t sit here today and tell you the United States is innately thus and it will always be thus. What I can say is these attributes and these capacities are still very much alive in this country.
What do you think has been the Trump Administration’s biggest break from the foreign policy not just of the Obama Administration but of the postwar era?
I think you could select from a menu, but at the top of the list would be the shift from positive sum to zero-sum. The notion that if another country is doing well, it must necessarily be at our expense, rather than all of us can do better together. At its best, American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War has rejected that view, to our benefit. We have had a notion of enlightened self-interest. It’s what led us to rebuild vanquished foes. It’s what led us to continue to invest in Europe so that we didn’t have a Third World War in the twentieth century. It’s what led us to shape a secure environment in Asia, that, yes, actually did contribute to the economic growth of many countries in that region.
A very close second on the list, though, is the view that Trump has espoused that values don’t matter at all in U.S. foreign policy—that, you know, how people are treated around the world, whether they have access to basic rights and dignity, is irrelevant to the United States. We don’t care about it. If another country’s willing to buy our goods, or buy our weapons, then it’s all just fine and good. They can do whatever the heck they please. That’s been a big break, too, from a strong bipartisan tradition in our foreign policy that has tried to stand for something more, that has actually tried to reflect our values.
How well do you think the Obama Administration stood up for the values you’re talking about, and are there areas where you feel like the Administration came up short?
Every Administration comes up short on this, because the charge of a President and the object of U.S. foreign policy is to secure and safeguard the basic interests of the United States, and that requires engaging in geopolitics. That was true during the Cold War, it was true after the Cold War, and when you’re engaging in geopolitics you’re sometimes necessarily pitting short-term security and stability interests against long-term commitments to values, and you’re having to balance the two against each other. Others have said more eloquently than me that hypocrisy and inconsistency are the necessary by-products of a foreign policy that both has to look out for our interests and tries as best it can to advance that. Just as a broad commentary on U.S. foreign policy going back to our founding, we are always falling short of our ideals, and we certainly did do that during the Obama Administration.
The fact, for example, that we were not able to more effectively play a role in stopping hundreds of thousands of people from dying in Syria and millions and millions more losing their homes. That’s a great regret of mine.
I think, looking at the U.S.-Saudi relationship today, through the prism of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi, you know, in a way, the Trump Administration is dealing with the same balance or the same conflict between the security interests we share and the places where we diverge on fundamental questions of human rights and democracy and values. They’ve chosen to just ignore—a hundred per cent ignore—one half of that calculus.
I think the Obama Administration, like previous Administrations, did not do enough to elevate the priority of human rights and reform in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. If you take something like the conflict in Yemen, which has caused massive loss of life and is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe facing the world today, it was the Obama Administration who began the support for the Saudi-led coalition in that effort, I think with the intention of trying to shape the behavior of that coalition so that it reduced human suffering, but the result of it was deeply negative. Those are a couple of examples of where I think we could have done better.
You gave testimony this week to a House committee calling for an end to American involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen. You mentioned that the Obama Administration wanted to minimize civilian casualties. Was there something more cynical there, too? This was going on at the same time as the Iran deal, which obviously pissed off the Saudis, because they felt that the United States was getting too close to Iran. How do you understand how the Obama Administration got involved in this thing that I think everyone now recognizes as calamitous in many ways?
Well, first of all, it’s important to recognize that this was sprung on the Administration. It was not the product of deep strategic consultations between the Obama Administration and the Saudis or other coalition partners. The Saudis and the partners just started it. Then the question was posed to the Administration: Are you better off trying to engage on various forms of logistical assistance, to shape the behavior of the coalition and make it more positive, and to minimize the risk of the worst consequences and maximize the possibility that you can constrain bad behavior? Or do you just sit it out and let them do as they please?
The view of the Administration at the time was that our participation would be a net positive to reducing the worst potential outcomes of the military action. After now going on four years of that experiment, it’s clear that that calculus did not bear out in practice. Now, of course, the Trump Administration has taken the more qualified support and turned it into a foreign blank check, it seems to me, but still the basic bet the Obama Administration made, with positive intentions, did not pay off, so that’s why I called for ending it.
Now to your question about whether these other factors, broader regional factors, including the Iran deal, and Saudi concern about the durability of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, played into this decision? I don’t think that they were the central issue the way that it has been framed in some of the writing about that period, but I cannot make the case that this was an irrelevant factor. It was present. It was a contextual, ambient factor in the decision-making about Yemen, that our relationship with Saudi had been strained by the J.C.P.O.A. [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran deal], and that probably put a thumb on the scale in the decision making.
How do you understand the fact that the Khashoggi murder has become such a huge story?
Well, first, I think when you can put a name and a face to an event like this, it takes on a greater emotional valance for people than when they’re just hearing statistics or hearing disembodied reports of repression. What’s happening inside Saudi Arabia and what’s happening in Yemen is less immediately evocative to the American people than this one person who had this thing happen to him. Point 2 is that the nature of the actual murder is the stuff of fanciful movie scripts. Two planes of Saudi thugs flying to Turkey to go find a man inside the Saudi consulate to kill him as a reaction to his criticism of the young crown prince, who himself has become something of a global celebrity—that’s a story line that is made for an ongoing kind of saga, that with each new piece of evidence and each new revelation keeps gripping the public.
Several years ago, Obama wrote the entry in the “Time 100” for Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India: “When he came to Washington, Narendra and I visited the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We reflected on the teachings of King and Gandhi and how the diversity of backgrounds and faiths in our countries is a strength we have to protect. Prime Minister Modi recognizes that more than one billion Indians living and succeeding together can be an inspiring model for the world.” Modi presided over ethnic violence that killed about a thousand people. He was banned from coming to the United States for a long time before he was Prime Minister. I think the response from a lot of people when they read something like this is, well, it’s ridiculous, but it has to be done. It’s realpolitik. But when Trump does the same thing, it freaks people out more. Why?
I think Donald Trump looks at these dictators and thinks to himself, That is what real leadership is. By the way, I think he also thinks, I want what you have. I don’t want to have to deal with all this democracy stuff. We are lifting off in a very affirmative way the idea that America’s best friends and the people we can trust the most and the people we should respect the most are the most thuggish, brutal dictators around across the globe.
I think, for Americans, they just naturally recoil at that, because that is so inconsistent with their view of what this country is and what it stands for. I think there’s another aspect to it, too, that does not sit right with Americans, which is this point I was making before, about the transactional nature of it, with Trump saying ‘I excuse everything a dictator does as long as he spends some money here.’ This kind of desiccated, purely mercenary view of our relationship with the rest of the world, the removal of any sense that we have to stand for a set of values or principles—that also really, I think, makes Americans deeply uncomfortable.
When you hear the Modi piece being read, now that you’re out of government, what is your feeling about it? Do you recoil a little?
Well, you know, it’s interesting. I mean, I made this point earlier in this conversation about how we strive to live up to our values in foreign policy, but we don’t always live up to them because we are balancing a whole range of interests, of which advancing our values is one. I might nitpick a word here or a word there, but the basic idea that we’re going to deal with the Prime Minister of India, despite the horrific acts that he had overseen in his home state when he was the chief minister, I cannot disagree with that policy decision. I don’t believe that it was tenable for the American President to simply say, ‘We ban him from coming to the U.S. We don’t like him and we will not deal with him.’ I don’t think that’s tenable.
Therefore, in my view, the way the United States should talk about these issues is to say not that we perfectly live up to our values in every circumstance but that we always work to take them into account in our decision-making, in a sincere and real way, and that alone, in my view, for a great power, is impressive enough. As long as we are sincere and real in doing that and actually having the hard conversations internally. How do we handle this Modi thing? This does bother us. This is a problem. What is the best balance? As long as that is baked into the serious, sober reflection of how best to manage our interests and values, then I think American foreign policy is on the right track. It’s when we just say we’re setting that aside because it doesn’t even matter that I think we start to head down a dark path, and that’s the path that I think the Trump Administration has put us on.
What is your biggest hope and your biggest fear about what sort of foreign policy the Democratic candidates will put forward?
The biggest danger I see is that the entire Democratic foreign-policy debate is just about what Trump is up to, and it’s hard to avoid that, to a certain extent, because he is the Commander-in-Chief and he is making real-time decisions that matter for the United States. The Democrats need to also have a serious debate about the future, because the world has not stood still since Donald Trump was elected, and the world the Democratic President would face in 2021 demands some new and innovative approaches on everything from trade policy to how we handle multilateral coöperation around an issue like climate change.
My biggest hope is that actually Trump has provided the opportunity for a clarifying moment for our party, to really be the party of engaged, effective internationalism that is built on a sense of patriotism about America and what we’re capable of.
It seems like our foreign policy over the next forty or fifty years is going to be very impacted or overshadowed by global warming and its consequences. Was there a sense of this in the Obama Administration? Do you feel that enough was done to prepare the American people for global warming as a foreign-policy issue? And what do you think the next Democratic nominee should do on that subject?
It definitely grew over the course of the Obama Administration, and the level of intensity that went into first striking the U.S.-China deal, making this a paramount issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and then getting Paris done, with the result of this being a top priority from the President on down in the period from 2013 on. [In 2014, the U.S. and China jointly announced their goals ahead of the Paris climate negotiations.] I think, if a Democrat is elected in 2020, we are well situated to lead a global conversation that dials up the ambition radically, and Paris was built not just to allow for that but to demand it. I think that will be a singular issue at the top of the next Administration’s priority list, is to figure out, O.K., how do we now deliver on this in the period 2021 and 2022?
Now, this obviously raises what I think is the other big feature of foreign policy that will be with us for the next forty or fifty years, which is the disappearing line between foreign and domestic, and, when it comes to climate change, I think that’s increasingly true. The question is: Can we deliver on the kinds of policies at home that will make the United States a credible actor in rallying the rest of the world to do what they need to do to solve this problem?
A question for me is, even if we are deeply active in rallying the rest of the world, can we deliver on the promise of aggressive American action here at home? And that is why thinking of this less as a foreign-policy issue or as a domestic-policy issue than as an all-encompassing issue that requires us to break down the line between foreign and domestic is going to be such a central part of how the next Administration has to deal with this.
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