Internationalism, Exceptionalism, and American Leadership
VI: I want to talk about concerns and issues that candidates should be addressing in the foreign policy realm as the 2020 election approaches. Is this an opportunity for redefining the new direction and position of the United States within the world community?
Jake Sullivan: I think the best way to think about this is that Donald Trump has been the equivalent of a natural disaster hitting America’s standing in the world. He’s been like a hurricane that has essentially wrecked the infrastructure of cooperation that we've built on everything from climate change to nuclear proliferation, as well as damaged the fundamental foundations of our alliance system. The way candidates should think about going forward is the way mayors think about it when a hurricane hits their town, which is not just built back the way things were before, but “built back better.”
When you’re thinking about the future of NATO, for example, it’s not just going back to 2016. It’s reinforcing the underlying foundation of the Alliance but at the same time, getting oriented towards new problems, whether it's cyber, the use of corruption as a national security tool, or the myriad other issues that the Alliance now faces. The notion really should be about not just building back but building back better. That fundamentally requires a future-oriented mindset and frame for foreign policy for the candidates to put forward.
VI: Is this all to be blamed on the Trump administration itself? Were there underlying fissures and warnings that were on the horizon that this day was coming, more or less because it was needed, and Trump was just the catalyst for it to happen? Or do you see him as an abnormality – the devastating 100-year storm that came along that no one was expecting or prepared to deal with?
Jake Sullivan: It’s very difficult to answer that question because I think the truth very boringly lies somewhere in the middle. There are aspects of Trump which are so egregious, so unusual, and so deeply unnecessary, that there is no way that this trope can be totally right that he’s just the epi-phenomenon and there’s an underlying phenomenon that would manifest itself one way or the other.
I think defining and recapturing and reclaiming this idea of exceptionalism, warts and all, is an important part of an effective foreign policy going forward.
On the other hand, the fact that he was elected and that many of his arguments resonated, and because he has taken a radically different approach to foreign policy, we have to look at what aspect of that has to do with him and what aspect of that has to do with the way the US has done its business globally over the last 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, 50 years. Honestly, probably the most important exercise is to separate the wheat from the chaff here. What are the things that he has revealed that require us to learn some lessons and change and what are the things we just have to say, “No, it’s patently ridiculous to question the Article 5 commitment – we are going back to that Article 5 commitment.” That's a big and very important project.
VI: Part of this great disruption of American foreign policy is the whole questioning of this concept of American exceptionalism and what that has meant in the past. Is that another thing that needs to be redefined and re-explored?
Jake Sullivan: I do believe the idea of American exceptionalism needs to be redefined and re-explored but I also think it has to be recaptured.
In my view, in response to Trump’s argument which basically says, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and that’s just fine because we’re the biggest dog,” those of us who believe that the United States stands for something bigger and more appealing than that need to figure out what the unique capacities and attributes of the United States are and how they can be applied to advance not just our own national interest, but the greater common interest of the world.
How to think in positive-sum terms – which at its best has been one of the hallmarks of US foreign policy. Unlike many great powers in history, the US has frequently thought not just about its own wellbeing but about advancing the collective wellbeing. The notion that we all do better when we all do better has had a reverberating effect.
My view is that we should not shy away from being proud and patriotic about the unique dimensions of the United States, including enormous material power and the capacity to do good in the world, a history based on a set of ideas that have been appealing to people far beyond our borders, as well as this positive-sum mindset I’ve described. If we can put all that together, then we can tell a story to the American people that links patriotism and internationalism in a powerful way that could form the foundation for a more effective foreign policy going forward.
VI: This seems possible because the American people are attuned to the idea of fundamental principles. Would you agree that there is a commonality of the global community that the United States needs to be part of and should play a leadership role in?
Jake Sullivan: I totally agree with that. I think the American people, Donald Trump notwithstanding, are overwhelmingly proud of the fact that our country was founded not on territory, not on tribe, but on a set of ideas, on a set of principles. That those principles have motivated not just our people but people from everywhere. Lee Kuan Yew said once that in the long term competition between China and the United States, China has 1.3 billion people and America has 7 billion.
What he meant by that was, we have the appeal and attractive force to bring talent from all around the world, to bring entrepreneurial-minded people, to bring families to contribute to this experiment that falters and fails repeatedly but all gets back up and figures out how to regenerate itself. It’s interesting we can get complacent about that as a country. That can even feel at times like a distant and abstract proposition but there are clarifying moments and Trump has been providing those on a regular basis. His behavior has created a real demand signal among the American people for an argument for US foreign policy that is not merely rooted in what threats we face but what aspirations we have.
That’s why I think defining and recapturing and reclaiming this idea of exceptionalism, warts and all, is an important part of an effective foreign policy going forward.
The American people are hungry for this more optimistic forward-looking, forward-reaching story which says something much more than just getting rid of the guy currently in the Oval Office.
VI: In this time of great cynicism, and worry, and negative thoughts about the future, do you see a positive way forward as we move out of this particular disruptive time into a period of perhaps new opportunities for American leadership and the world to come together and redefine what are important principles?
Jake Sullivan: It may sound like counterprogramming, it may sound inconsistent with the current mood of the country and the division that we’re facing, but I think there’s a deep vein of this for candidates, political leaders, civic leaders to mine. The American people are hungry for this more optimistic forward-looking, forward-reaching story which says something much more than just getting rid of the guy currently in the Oval Office. It says, “We can aim for something much bigger, much firmer, and much more lasting.”
It’s difficult when you’re in the middle of a Democratic primary, people need to drive contrasts with one another. They need to try to explain why they’re better than the other 20 people running. But when all of the noise and smoke clears, my hope is that the message that is coming from the ultimate standard bearer is one much more focused on this optimistic account of what's possible. Because all of the underlying attributes and capacities in this country are still incredibly impressive and are there to be mobilized for positive purposes.
VI: Do you see this as a grassroots, bottom-up movement as opposed to a top-down, leaders decide which way to go situation? For example, the citizen’s movement that is taking place as the world comes to grip climate change challenges?
Jake Sullivan: I think climate change is one of the great examples of where ultimately it will be people power that drives political leaders to do the right thing rather than the other way around.
I think climate change is one of the great examples of where ultimately it will be people power that drives political leaders to do the right thing rather than the other way around.
Of course, it is going to require both. It’s going to require a grassroots bottom-up element, but it’s also going to require leadership. It’s going to require someone stepping up and saying, essentially, to borrow a phrase from a recent president, “Yes, we can.” I think that’s why Trump is betting that he can turn this thing sufficiently into a form of combat as opposed to a more elevated debate about where the country is going. That works better for him and how he approaches politics. I just think it’s important not to fall into that trap.
VI: What do you think of efforts within the Trump administration, even within the State Department, to attempt a redefinition of what human rights mean for Americans?
Jake Sullivan: Well, let’s not forget that Dick Cheney had a view of American exceptionalism that I feel was deeply damaging, which was essentially, we can do what we want and the rest of you do what we tell you to do. It was a view that “we cannot sin because we’ve already been saved” – that the US can do no wrong of any kind because of our “greatness and our goodness,” which is the phrase that Cheney uses in his book on American exceptionalism.
To come to Trump and his administration, they have an even more damaging vision of American exceptionalism. What their argument is that the US was in fact founded on tribe. It was founded on a particular, narrow interpretation of Judeo-Christian values, not on universal values of freedom and justice and opportunity and dignity and so forth.
VI: So should these be considered fundamental rights of all people in the world, not just all Americans?
Jake Sullivan: Exactly, and then if you’re not buying into that, then you’re excluded from the definition of what it means to be American, leave aside excluding the whole rest of the world from some common vision of human good. It’s not only divisive between the United States and the rest of the world, it’s actually divisive within the American community itself. That is the ultimate assault in my view on what American exceptionalism should be, and the fact that this is happening at our State Department is troubling and sends a damaging message both at home and around the world.
VI: There have always been changes in foreign policy and attitudes to global issues from Democratic administrations to Republican administrations. But there has also been some consistency across administrations. Is there any hope for a bipartisan American worldview that can help reestablish American leadership in global affairs? Or is the new normal likely to be divisiveness?
Jake Sullivan: This is an area where I’m a bit more pessimistic, honestly, after sounding many notes of optimism through the first portion of this conversation. It is hard for me to look a former foreign counterpart in the eye, some of whom I’ve worked with when I was in government and say, “If a new president is elected after Trump, then we’re going to have an uninterrupted period of 20 years where there is a fairly consistent US foreign policy regardless of who’s in the Oval Office.” I think we are in for a period where there is going to be a back and forth swinging of the pendulum.
I suggest we place a lot less emphasis on making the world safe for corporate investment and much more emphasis on what’s going to raise wages and strengthen jobs in the domestic economy.
VI: You think it is too polarized for any basis of commonality to be found?
Jake Sullivan: That is not a certainty and we should all strive against it. But I think that is a sufficiently distinct possibility that we actually have to think about designing foreign policy strategies that take that into account.
Actually, the Paris Climate Agreement is an interesting example in this regard because even though the Trump administration has announced they’re pulling out of it and even though they’ve tried to dismantle a huge amount of the federal government’s efforts to mitigate carbon emissions, the agreement is built in this flexible way where state, cities, actors in the private sector can try to fill in the gap. The result is going to be that Paris will continue, Paris can get built upon, a future president can come back to the agreement and enhance and strengthen it even further. It can withstand an administration like a President Trump.
I think we have to think about that model as applied to other contexts as well. Because as someone who thinks it’s very important that the United States be playing a central role in rallying the world to solve the great challenges of our time, I have to confess that I’m nervous about this aspect of our politics – that constancy and steadfastness are going to be a rare commodity because of the back and forth nature of our politics.
VI: Beyond the governments and the parties and the individual administrations, what about the other influences on global affairs and foreign policy – namely the world of the multinational corporations and global financial groups that have their own agendas when it comes to international affairs?
Jake Sullivan: One of the wake up calls from the 2016 election was for the center-left, for more moderate Democrats. The international economic policies of the major actors in the world was overweighted toward the interests of the multinational forces and are underweighted toward the interests of working people, middle-class families and so forth.
I would urge future administration to think about the question of how we write rules of the road for international economic policy going forward. I suggest we place a lot less emphasis on making the world safe for corporate investment and much more emphasis on what’s going to raise wages and strengthen jobs in the domestic economy. As an example, part of the Trump trade agenda with China is more access for American companies in China, including financial services.
[T]he way that I tend to think about this is that the international order that was built after the Second World War was like the Parthenon. The pillars are very geometric.
I think we need to ask ourselves, “Does allowing JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs to have a greater foothold in the Chinese financial system help American GDP, American jobs, American wages?” If the answer is no. then why is that a negotiating priority of the United States?
I think there is a conversation that has been stimulated over the last few years, not just among hardcore anti-trade advocates but among much more moderate center-left voices as well. It says we can’t just continue down the path of prioritizing and elevating the needs of multinational corporates or, in particular, global finance and the flurry of money around the world that actually net/net are creating more dislocation and more disturbances, particularly for middle-class people in places like the United States. I think that’s got to be a much larger priority of the United States. In my work at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, I’m part of a project that we’re calling “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” which is in part looking at this issue. It’s something that a future president will really have to attend to.
VI: Would that also necessitate making the international institutions that are supposed to monitor these things more robust as Trump has attacked and threatened to dismantle the WTO and other organizations like the World Bank, IMF, and UN?
Jake Sullivan: Let’s take the example of the IMF or for that matter the G20. Think about some of the ways in which current international economic cooperation is not sufficiently addressing underlying current and future problems. Global tax evasion is a great example. We’ve continued to have a race to the bottom around the world. A tax rate to try to attract investments so that companies can end up paying nothing. This problem can only be solved through international institutions. It can’t be solved by any one country acting on its own. That’s just one of many examples of how when the Trump administration walks away from multilateral cooperation, it undermines our ability to actually get at those problems. That has to be a big part of the priority of a future administration.
VI: There are these established international institutions that are part of multilateralism but there’s also a phenomenon called minilateralism. Chris Brummer at Georgetown and Ann Marie Slaughter at New America have written about the informal networks throughout the world that actually make the day-to-day of international business and finance function. How does minilateralism factor into envisioning effective foreign policy strategies?
Jake Sullivan: I think we’re going to see more and more of that. I think we are moving in general, in the realm of international institutions and global corporations, from the formal to these more flexible, from the legal to the more political and grassroots, from the universal like the UN or the World Bank or the WHO to the more particularised, regionalized coalitions of the willing.
As an example, it was not fundamentally the WHO who resolved the Ebola epidemic back in 2014. (By the way, we’ve got another one going now in the Congo.) It was an informal collection of actors – the public, government, international institutions and non-government actors rallied by the United States that really drove the response to that.
Now the international system looks like this funny mix of substances, structures and messy lines, but it ends up being just as beautiful if we do it the right way.
Similarly, when you look at issues related to climate change. If Paris is going to work over time the actions required go way beyond just what the UN will do. If we look at civil society, the private sector, religious organizations, cities and states, regional organizations, they will step up and implement public policies and citizen initiatives that will make a real contribution to addressing climate challenges.
I think this is where things are headed, and one question is, “What is the function of international law?” If we are moving from a more formal, to a more functional and flexible approach, we’re also moving from clear legal regimes to less clear norms. Does that undermine the foundation or fundamentals of international law? I think that’s a really fascinating question.
A last point on this – the way that I tend to think about this is that the international order that was built after the Second World War was like the Parthenon. The pillars are very geometric. The UN, Bretton Woods, and all of the associated international agencies – the IAEA, the FAO, the WHO, and so on. Well, we have moved from formal Greek to Frank Gehry. Now the international system looks like this funny mix of substances, structures and messy lines, but it ends up being just as beautiful if we do it the right way.
VI: And as you see it, these are not just self-interested organizations but they actually have the ability to factor in “What’s good for the rest of the world? What’s good for us? How can we cooperate through these networks to work our way out of this morass that we’re in?”
Jake Sullivan: Yes. Technology is enabling that to a greater extent. Technology is both compounding the problems and compounding the solutions. This whole trend that we’re describing needs to be understood in the context of the degree to which the ability of loose networks helps people to make an impact on the world and is growing by leaps and bounds because of the enabling power of technology.
VI: Elizabeth Warren has come out with a comprehensive plan for restructuring the State Department which makes it more diverse at home, and more inclusive abroad. Do you see this as a positive plan? Do you think that it would be possible to do that kind of restructuring in the next administration?
Jake Sullivan: I think it was an excellent contribution to the conversation. It was specific. It was right and I think we should be elevating the discussion around how we can elevate diplomacy as the core pillar of American power and influence in the world.
Yes, I do believe this will be a very high priority for the next president, if someone other than Trump wins the 2020 election, and it is absolutely doable. We are not talking about huge sums of money here. We are talking about a rounding error in the federal budget that can add substantially to the civilian power of the United States, reinvigorate diplomacy, get new voices and new faces into the State Department, and bring the Department truly into the 21st century when it comes to the use of technology, and the way to navigate this complex international landscape that we’ve just been talking about. I think that would be a massive priority.
Technology is both compounding the problems and compounding the solutions.
I would also add that there is substantial support for this on the Hill. Many of the efforts of the Trump administration to gut the State Department, and to gut our development funding, have been met with stiff resistance, not just by Democrats, but by Republicans on the Hill. A new president could actually drive this forward as an agenda that appeals to both sides of the aisle.
VI: It’s the power of the ideas that are going to move this forward?
Jake Sullivan: It’s the power of the ideas, and frankly, it’s the demonstrable need for these assets and capabilities. The fact that, for example, right now we lack ambassadors and assistant secretaries in so many critical countries and regions of the world is not lost on both our friends and enemies, and it’s not lost on members of Congress who are saying, “What the heck is going on here?” It’s the persuasive power of the idea, but it’s also the cold reality of what happens when we do not invest in diplomacy, and how that exposes the US to vulnerability.
VI: Maybe we found a bipartisan basis here.
Jake Sullivan: This is one. I actually believe that this is an area where you can get strange bedfellows, like Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin and company to come together.
VI: Switching to another aspect of foreign policy concerns – the national security sphere. After 9/11, a giant shift took place within the United States in order to confront this terrorist threat. It generated the Global War on Terror to fight dangerous non-state actors that were threatening our society and others in the world. Now that state entities like China, Russia and others are entering the picture, do you see a need to once again restructure national security priorities to deal with this reality?
By far, the single most important thing for the United States to do in the competition with China is invest in ourselves, and our sources of national strength.
Jake Sullivan: If you look at the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (which I don’t believe the president has ever read), or if you look at The National Defense Strategy which was even more explicit on this point, there is a recognition among our defense experts, our intelligence experts, our diplomacy experts, our counter-terrorism and our homeland security experts, that we are in an era of geopolitical competition which is going to require a rebalance in the resources from strictly counter-terrorism fight to this broader set of challenges.
I think that is a sound basis on which to operate, with the rather large caveat that just because today we aren’t thinking about terrorism the way we were the day after 9/11, doesn’t mean it’s disappeared as a problem. It has morphed, and it still needs our significant attention. By that, I don’t just mean terrorism of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but also the white nationalist terrorism we saw in a political display in El Paso.
We are no longer going to be able to as we did in the years of 9/11, look at our foreign policy through this single prism of the terrorist threat to the homeland. We’re going to have to work at it through a much wider lens of threats, and in particular, the challenges that come from major great power competitors that do not share our values, but with whom we have to work on certain key issues.
I’ve just written an essay in Foreign Affairs with Kurt Campbell, who was a colleague of mine at the State Department, on how a new Cold War with China would just be a terrible idea. The right approach instead is to figure out some steady state of coexistence that remains favorable to our interests and values.
By far, the single most important thing for the United States to do in the competition with China is invest in ourselves, and our sources of national strength. This does not mean battleships, it means infrastructure, research, and development, education, and immigration. It’s really all about taking care of ourselves at home. If we do that I believe that US-China relationship will not entirely take care of itself, but will be a long way down the road.
VI: China is a rational actor that can be approached on that level. Russia, on the other hand, seems to be a bit more of an irrational actor, because it’s tied up with Putin and his ideas of the resurging of Russian nationalism. How can a foreign policy cope with this?
Jake Sullivan: China is a country that has these enormous and growing capacities. In a way, they can afford to take a little bit more of a careful approach. Russia is a country of declining capacity, and in a way, has to be more disruptive to express itself, whether that’s in Syria, or Ukraine, or through all these asymmetric means like information warfare against the United States and our European allies.
I think Putin’s overall strategy is one of destabilization and division in an effort to dismantle western led institutions, western alliances and the like. Not pure nihilism, but something approaching it, because he sees all of that as a threat to cohesion in Russia, to Russia’s own standing, and to his own power. That’s a really hard type of leader to deal with, very hard. I think we’re just going to have to keep trying consistently to push back against his worst impulses, to minimize the extent that things get out of control, and maximize the few areas where there is still a possibility of some cooperation. For example, on the issue of arms control and nuclear proliferation. Sam Nunn and Secretary Moniz just wrote an article about how we’re getting to a very dangerous point, and to compete with Russia on nuclear weapons, maybe as dangerous as any point since The Cold War. Finding some cooperative space I think is going to be pretty important.
[T]he extent to which Donald Trump has securitized the immigration issue, tried to turn it into a national security, homeland security, personal security issue, when, of course, it is much bigger and broader than that.
VI: Thank you, Jake, this has been a good conversation. Anything else you’d like to put on the agenda for candidates to seriously consider in the foreign policy realm?
Jake Sullivan: The only other thing I would flag in this conversation is the extent to which Donald Trump has securitized the immigration issue, tried to turn it into a national security, homeland security, personal security issue, when, of course, it is much bigger and broader than that. I think Democrats are going to have to have a practical set of answers, for how we actually deal with the set of challenges on our border that go beyond the very real, and very right, moral outrage over what the administration’s been doing. We have not typically thought of immigration as a foreign policy or national security issue, I think recently we’re going to have to do so, including how you assess the Northern Triangle, how to work with partners like Mexico, and so forth. I think that will be a huge part of the campaign conversation, over the course of the next year.
Jake Sullivan is a Martin R. Flug Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School. He served in the Obama administration as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, as well as deputy chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Sullivan also previously served as a senior policy adviser and chief counsel to Senator Amy Klobuchar from his home state of Minnesota, worked as an associate for Faegre & Benson LLP, and taught at the University of St. Thomas Law School. He clerked for Judge Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States and Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S.