Jake Sullivan’s 2017 Owen Harries Lecture
This address was delivered at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on 13 June 2017 (Photo: Peter Morris/Sydney Heads)
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I’m humbled to be giving a lecture today named in honour of Owen Harries. For those of us who grew up in the Cold War, but learned and practiced international relations in the post-Cold War era, Owen Harries is a giant. He did more than just contribute to the conversation on the appropriate role of the United States in the post-Cold War world — he shaped that conversation. And while his views did not always prevail, even his critics have to concede the remarkable consistency, subtlety, and strength of his arguments.
I’m not sure what Owen Harries would make of Donald Trump. On the one hand, Trump gives voice to some of the doubt that Harries has about contemporary U.S. foreign policy and the basic outlook of the foreign policy establishment. On the other hand, Trump is well … Trump.
Which brings me to the subject of my lecture today.
I’m here today to talk about U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, in the age of Trump.
Now, we have an expression in our country, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” As many of you know, one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated at a theatre while watching a play. The expression comes in handy when someone ignores an obvious catastrophe and focuses instead on more prosaic matters.
Given Donald Trump’s basic assault on decency, democratic institutions, and the rules-based international order, my talk could easily be retitled, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
Nonetheless, the world presses on … this critical region presses on … and so we must press on.
We’re approaching the five-month mark of the Trump presidency, so it’s early days yet.
Here is what we know so far:
If “pivot” was the word that described President Obama’s approach to the Asia-Pacific, the word that most aptly sums up the Trump administration’s approach is “wobble.”
The Chinese were currency manipulators, then they were not.
The Japanese were in the doghouse alongside the Germans, then they were the first in line at Mar a Lago.
We were revisiting the One China policy with respect to Taiwan, then we were not.
And then there’s the U.S.-Australia alliance! Well, in his dealings with Donald Trump, Prime Minister Turnbull has certainly seen the wobble in action.
There is an intensely unpredictable quality to U.S. policy toward the Asia Pacific, with a very wide band of possible outcomes from continuity, to neglect, to catastrophe.
Given all this uncertainty, how do we make sense of things? Where does this all end up?
The outcome of American policy toward the Asia-Pacific will be dictated by the yet-unknown answers to five key questions, and that’s what I want to spend my time talking about this evening. I can only pose the questions and provide some thoughts. Time will answer them.
The first question concerns the most urgent security threat in the region today — North Korea. Is there any path forward that does not lead either to war or to living with a nuclear North Korea armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles? Put another way, Washington is asking, can we find an alternative to either hitting North Korea or leaving them in a position to hit us?
This is a vexing question. If Hillary had won, we too would have struggled with an answer. But let’s look at how Trump is approaching this.
Right now, America’s Asia policy is basically a North Korea policy. The North Korea issue for Trump blots out the sun. That is partly because Kim Jong Un has been grabbing his attention with a steady string of provocations. It’s also partly because President Obama made a big impression on Trump during the transition when he told him that North Korea would be the paramount threat and most immediate crisis he faced.
As soon as Trump took over, he and his team immediately started attacking Obama for failing to constrain North Korea, declaring, “the era of strategic patience is over.” There was a certain déjà vu quality to this. Presidents Bush and Obama basically adopted the same logic when they came into office, which can be summed up as, “I don’t know what the bozos who came before us were doing, but we’re going to solve this thing!”
Declaring that your predecessors’ policy hasn’t succeeded and you’re going to find something that works is the easy part. The hard part is, what exactly is the thing that works?
The Trump administration has said all options are on the table, including the use of force. Now, this is a reasonable public position as a means of shaping Chinese and North Korean decision-making and reassuring our allies.
But let’s be honest — the military option is, to use a technical term, a crappy option. Secretary of Defense Mattis has publicly highlighted the extraordinary risks that come along with any military action against the North. For one thing, our intelligence picture is blurry, making targeting a real problem. And retaliation, of course, is a profound concern. Seoul, with its millions of civilians, is less than forty miles from the DMZ and the long-range North Korean artillery positioned just on the other side of it.
Upon closer examination, then, this doesn’t seem like a particularly appealing option.
Okay, so what are the other options?
The best option would be to get China to agree to work with us and South Korea toward a new leadership in North Korea less obsessed with weapons of mass destruction. But this is unlikely in the foreseeable future for a long litany of reasons: China’s historical ties to its communist neighbour; its concerns about the risks of regime collapse; its mistrust of American motives: and the uncertainty in its relationship with South Korea, even under a new president.
The next option would be for China to cut off or at least severely curtail its commerce with North Korea, which accounts for 85 to 90 percent of the North’s external trade, to coerce North Korea to restrain its behaviour. Presumably this is what President Trump proposed to his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at Mar-a-Lago. But China is unlikely to go this far right now, for the same combination of reasons.
That leaves us with the less satisfying option of carrots-and-sticks diplomacy. But it can’t be a repeat of past efforts. There is a growing recognition that the old diplomatic playbook won’t work. Neither will a poorly prepared summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, a prospect that Trump has floated from time to time.
We need to try something different.
In my view, that means playing the China card, but not the way it has been played before. It’s not enough to ask China to put pressure on North Korea to set up a U.S.-North Korea negotiation, and then step back and let us and North Korea figure it out. China has to be a part of the negotiation, too.
In the past, China has stood by while the United States has paid a half a billion dollars to the North for restraint. Among other things, China, rather than the United States, should be paying for North Korea to halt and roll back its nuclear and missile programs. The basic trade would be Chinese disbursements to Pyongyang, as well as security assurances, in return for constraints on North Korea’s program.
Of course, this idea is no silver bullet. It doesn’t answer the question of how you get verifiable, enforceable, durable constraints on the North. But North Korea is the land of lousy options — and this may be the best of them.
There is much more to say on this issue, but let me leave it with this: We are fast approaching an ultimate reckoning with North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, with potentially catastrophic consequences. North Korea’s own decisions will have a lot to do with how this unfolds, but so will the decisions of the United States and China.
This leads to the second question. How long will the Trump-Xi honeymoon last? If it lasts, what does that mean? And if it doesn’t, what happens then?
A colleague of mine who spends his life studying China was recently asked the following question. “Which is it: Does Xi Jinping think he’s got Donald Trump’s number — that he has him where he wants him — or does he go to bed at night nervous about what Donald Trump might do?” My colleague replied, the answer to your question is “yes.” Yes, he thinks he has Donald Trump’s number, and yes, he goes to bed at night worried about Trump.
Xi figured out two things early on in preparing to meet with Trump at Mar a Lago. The first he learned from Vladimir Putin — that Trump responds very well to praise. You say nice things about him — he’s going to think nice things about you. The second is that the North Korea issue was so central to Trump’s thinking about Asia that Xi could essentially trade relative quiet on other issues for the promise of cooperation on the DPRK.
This has played out in China’s favour for now. Trump is effusive in his praise of Xi and respectful in his tone about China, an astounding reversal from his campaign rhetoric. And Trump has thus far taken a less confrontational policy line on China that we might have expected when it comes to issues like trade and the South China Sea. (On this latter issue, Mattis and Tillerson have made tougher soundings of late, and the Navy has conducted its first freedom of navigation operation under Trump — but I have my doubts about whether this will be sustained.)
While Trump plays the short game, China plays the long game. They manage the relationship in multiple dimensions and they calculate across all of those dimensions. So if Trump keeps up his transactional way of doing things, focused on immediate tangible wins, the Chinese will easily best him over time.
If things continue on the current course, advantage China. China will avert a trade war and the instability that would bring to a debt-laden economy, and will have a clearer path to achieving its regional objectives, from the Belt Road initiative to the South China Sea.
But things might not continue on the current course.
Trump could conclude that China is taking him for a ride on North Korea. He could push the envelope on restrictive trade measures that set off a cycle of retaliation. China could overreach or misstep in the South or East China Seas. Any of these could end the honeymoon, and things could escalate quickly.
And let’s not forget the fundamentals. Whatever we think of the personalities of the two leaders, the bottom line is that the basic strategic dynamic between the United States and China remains fraught. The great Harvard political scientist Graham Allison just came out with a book called Thucidydes’ Trap. Thucidydes first observed, millennia ago, that it was the rise of Athens, and the anxiety it caused Sparta, that led to the Peloponnesian War.
Allison studied the last 16 cases where an established power had to deal with a rising power. 12 of those cases resulted in war. So without careful management, there are a lot of structural forces pulling the two countries toward confrontation.
It was with this in mind that China developed a tagline for the relationship a few years back — “a new model of great power relations.” The idea was that this would allow the U.S. and China to avoid Thucidydes’ Trap. President Obama bought into the tagline, and he and President Xi went out and announced this “new model” at a summit in Sunnylands in 2013.
The problem was, the same words meant very different things to Obama and Xi. For Obama, a new model meant that China rises into a U.S.-led order and plays by our rules. For Xi, a new model meant, you stay on your side of the Pacific and we’ll stay on ours. So the term never really took off.
In any event, the basic strategic dynamic that produced the idea of the “new model” remains — the inherent instability generated by the competition between a rising power and an established power. Owen Harries was right when he warned against containment of China. That is a self-defeating policy. But so is acquiescence. We need to strike a middle course, one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based regional order. This requires care, and prudence, and strategic foresight. Even more fundamentally, it requires sustained attention. These are not in ample supply in Washington right now.
Amidst this discussion of the U.S.-China relationship, let’s not forget that where China is headed at home remains a very real question mark. Analysts’ predictions for the Chinese economy and long-term domestic stability range from doom-and-gloom to an inexorable upward rise. Most fall into the muddy middle, where a range of risk factors lurk. How things play out inside China will of course have a significant impact on the future of the U.S.-China relationship.
And let’s also not forget the role of the rest of the region in responding to China’s rise. Do they essentially accommodate, or do they seek to work together, drawing in the United States to provide a durable counterweight?
Different countries will obviously supply different answers — how ASEAN looks at this will be different from India, or from Japan, or Korea, or Australia, and even within ASEAN there will be different perspectives.
I expect over time that our friends and partners in the region will become increasingly concerned about the possibility of a 19th-century-style sphere of influence in Asia, in which China slowly nudges the United States out and consolidates its power and influence in a way that will ultimately force regional countries to supplicate.
However this plays out, it is a good reminder that America’s China policy needs to be about more than just bilateral ties, it needs to be about our ties to the region that create an environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive-sum Chinese rise.
This leads us to the third question — will America’s alliances in the Asia-Pacific stay solid with Trump in charge?
Our treaty alliances have been the basic foundation upon which our engagement in the Asia-Pacific is built. The U.S.-Australia alliance is a model of mutual commitment. We have fought and bled together. We have worked together to maintain peace and stability in this region for decades. We have stepped up in times of disaster, and supported the emergence of new democracies.
Will Trump come to see the need for these alliances? It runs counter to his basic instinct, going back to the 1980s, that our allies are essentially free riders who bring more burdens than benefits. This is a silly proposition, but he keeps returning to it. As recently as a few weeks ago, he was complaining about how South Korea was not paying its fair share, and implicitly threatening to alter our missile defence posture on the Korean peninsula as a result.
And despite his current state of goodwill with Prime Minister Abe, he has persistently raised questions about Japan. On the campaign trail, Trump said some eye-popping things. At one point, he said that if Japan wanted to get nuclear weapons that would be fine, and if they wanted to use those nukes in a war in Northeast Asia, well, as Trump put it, “go ahead, enjoy yourselves, folks!”
Across the Atlantic, Trump has said in the past that NATO is obsolete, and although he has more recently reversed himself on that, his old position keeps peeking out. It was there, lurking beneath his harangue of NATO leaders in Brussels last month.
The idea that alliances are obsolete is one China has been pushing for years. One of their central arguments to American counterparts is that we need to set aside our alliances because they are Cold War relics and obstacles to a U.S.-China condominium. Meanwhile, China is working overtime to pry the Philippines and Thailand away from an American embrace.
Will Trump be beguiled by this argument from Xi? Will he start making more demands of our allies, similar to those he has made of Brussels and Seoul? Even if he doesn’t go that far, will our allies come to believe they can’t trust Trump, even as they try to adapt and play nice with him? And if that happens, will that fundamentally change how they see U.S. policy in the region and how they hedge with China?
It is difficult at this point to answer these questions — but the fact that they are even questions is cause for alarm.
The erosion of our alliances would strike a brutal blow against American leadership in Asia. We should be doubling down on our alliances, making them more dynamic to face the threats and challenges of the 21st century. Let me be clear — this is not about containing China … this is about reinforcing the foundation of regional stability that has, among other things, helped facilitate China’s incredible rise.
Of course, our alliances, and other partnerships in the region, are not just about security — they are also about economics.
That leads to the fourth question. With respect to American economic policy in Asia, is there life after TPP?
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, given the fact that Hillary herself ultimately came out against the deal. In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, I assembled a team of Asia hands and economic experts to think through a comprehensive economic strategy for Asia that assumed the United States would not proceed with the TPP. We talked about immediately dispatching senior diplomats to all of the TPP-member capitals to discuss how we could move forward in its absence. We recognized how crucial this would be to sustaining a positive American role in the region.
Trump killed TPP without any idea for what to do in its place. He doesn’t like multilateral agreements of any kind. In fact, he even pitched a bilateral trade deal with Germany, and the Germans had to explain to him that they are part of the European Union. He doesn’t accept, and probably doesn’t even grasp, the logic that a multi-nation deal can set new rules and standards that will shape economic engagement across Asia and beyond — and that without it, the rules and standards will be set by actors elsewhere to our disadvantage.
Trump’s metric is not how effective the rules of the road are at promoting fair and balanced growth — his metric is trade deficits. He is focused almost exclusively on reducing them. Beyond that, he doesn’t seem to have much of an economic agenda for Asia. Not on trade, nor on economic efforts like the Belt Road Initiative, the RCEP, or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
[Meanwhile, Trump’s disastrous decision to pull us out of the Paris Climate Accord has imperilled our leadership on one of the defining issues of our time and set us back in the race to be the world’s clean energy superpower.]
All of this is a challenge for the United States for the period ahead, but it is not fatal. There will be life after Trump, and I don’t believe the window will close permanently on American economic leadership in the meantime.
Taking the long view, I believe in the fundamental strength and resilience of the U.S. economy. We have the assets to influence the future of the economic order in Asia.
American capital is helping power regional growth — we are the largest investor in Australia, for example.
The American market is absolutely vital to the export economies of Asia. And America’s capacity to support technological innovation in the region is unparalleled.
So American economic leadership in Asia is not fundamentally about capacity, it’s about will.
But I know that Australia and the rest of the region are not just going to wait for us. China certainly isn’t. So our challenge now is to use this period to do the hard and creative thinking about the best path ahead, so that we are prepared to hit the ground running when we next get a chance.
Of course, there are scenarios more dire than simply a period of U.S. drift and neglect. More extreme economic policies that lead to a race to the bottom are still non-trivial possibilities, even if their odds seem lower today than a few months ago. The range of potential outcomes here is much broader than it would be for a conventional president.
Trump’s unconventional approach is relevant to our fifth question. How will the president’s conspicuous rejection of values as a guiding force in foreign policy affect the advance or retreat of democracy and human rights in the Asia-Pacific?
The fact is, the trendlines were already pointing in the wrong direction. Duterte is pursuing an alarming agenda in the Philippines. Thailand is not returning to democracy anytime soon. In Indonesia, the Christian governor of Jakarta has been tossed in jail. Intolerance in India is rising. The plight of the Rohingya continues to tug at the conscience.
Without the United States as an active supporter of core liberal values, these trends are likely to accelerate. Trump would probably say, that’s just fine, as long as I have partners to work with. But what he doesn’t factor in is that the acceleration of authoritarian and illiberal tendencies will create more brittleness and fragility in domestic systems — and more instability in the regional order. Owen Harries did not believe in exporting democracy, but neither did he believe we should remove all moral principles from foreign policy.
Now, I should emphasize that this question of the future of a values-based community in Asia, doesn’t turn on U.S. policy alone. It also turns on whether our allies — our partners who share values of openness, democracy, and human rights — countries like Australia and Japan and Korea — step up and lead in defence of these values. I hope we will see more of that in the period ahead.
Make no mistake. Our model is under pressure. Our competitors and adversaries are waging a sustained ideological struggle to discredit it, undermine it, and roll it back wherever they can.
One recent report summed it up neatly in saying that “authoritarianism has gone global.” Through propaganda, cyber operations, the weaponized use of corruption, and other means, authoritarian states are attacking the democratic institutions of nations around the world. They are not slowing down, they are accelerating, because they believe it is working.
I know that Australia is trying to steer a course that sustains a strong security relationship with Washington and a strong economic relationship with Beijing. That’s understandable. I would argue, though, that Australia has a deep and abiding interest in a values-based community in Asia, and has the capacity to contribute to it — even if the United States is less active on this mission over the next few years.
Beyond these five questions, there is the looming issue of what will happen to Trump’s political fortunes back at home. Trump’s domestic standing will have at least some impact on his decision-making abroad.
The key things to look at: What do the numbers look like in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections? What kind of progress do the FBI and Congress make on their investigations into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia? Where does the investigation into possible obstruction of justice end up? Do prominent Republicans break with the president in any kind of decisive way, on policy or otherwise?
If things break bad for Trump, you can expect at least two consequences for our policy toward the Asia-Pacific. First, he will be distracted, so he and his administration will be paying less attention. And since he has failed to staff up, the normal functioning of the U.S. government will be more anaemic than usual. Second, he will be more prone to dramatic and potentially destabilizing moves, on both the economic and security fronts.
And by the way, the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy goes beyond whether Trump is up or down. We are facing the possibility of another debt ceiling crisis or government shutdown this year, and while I think neither is likely to happen, both are distinct possibilities. I was traveling in Asia with Secretary Clinton when the U.S. credit rating was downgraded during a previous debt ceiling debacle. So I know what kind of impact this can have.
You know, there are a lot of moments these days when I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I want to end on an optimistic note. America has a remarkable capacity for reinvention and self-correction. There is still a strong foundation of support, in both political parties, for an active, engaged, dynamic role in the Asia-Pacific. And, I believe, there is still a strong demand signal in the region.
We’ve been in tight spots before. And we’ve come out the other side stronger and more dynamic. I believe that we will do so again.
And when we do, I know that we can continue to count on a vibrant alliance with Australia, working with confidence and common purpose toward a shared future.
I’ve shared with you my questions — now I’d be eager to answer yours. Thank you.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Well Jake, thank you for a really worthy Harries lecture – one that I think will last, one that revealed your trademark acuity. Thank you also for agreeing to take some questions from the audience. I’m going to take the chairman’s prerogative and ask you the first one.
As I think you’re aware, at the Shangri-La Dialogue a week ago, I asked Secretary Mattis a question about the global order - you’ve been talking to us about the Asian regional order but I asked him about the global order - and I quoted the title of Secretary of State Acheson’s memoir, ‘Present at the Creation’. I asked why given all the decisions over the past few months - the comments on NATO that you referred to, the decision on Paris, all the comments about alliances, why should we not fret that we are present at the destruction of that US-led world order?
General Mattis gave a very interesting response, and one that’s been widely reported, and he responded by paraphrasing a quote which is often attributed to Churchill, and Mattis said: “Bear with us, once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
So, I’d like to ask you two questions actually: first, what did you make of Mattis’ response to that question? And secondly, how would you respond to the question? Is there perhaps something deeper at work here? You’ve spoken a lot about Mr. Trump’s deficiencies, but are the other factors – subterranean factors – to do with the defects in the US political system? Do we see it a little bit in the caution that Obama brought to the presidency? Are there trends that will be accelerated perhaps by Donald Trump that could lead to the fraying of this order that has benefited all of us for so long?
JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, just starting with your question about what I made of Mattis saying this. It’s like one of those moments in a hostage video where he’s trying to signal the world, you know, something, by saying this, and it was quite remarkable that he would kind of put this on the table and say “I know, I know, world, I get it, and we’ll get there, don’t worry!”
I’m not as confident as he is that we will.
You know I was on the campaign trail at some point last year and I made reference to the liberal international order, and someone came up to me after the talk and said “I don’t know what the liberal international order is, but I don’t like any of those three words.” So, I do think it is important for us in answering this question to define what we’re talking about, and what we’re talking about is a system of rules and institutions that are basically seeking to accomplish three things: to manage disputes between countries, to mobilise collective action to solve shared problems, and to govern conduct in key areas – you know, what you can do and what you can’t do. And I’m less confident than General Mattis, Secretary Mattis, that we will ultimately do the right thing under the Trump administration on these issues because all three of those require, above all, initiative. They require the active exertion of effort and influence by the United States to pull together countries to be able to achieve these things.
Now, there is no major problem in the world today that the United States can solve on its own – not even close. But there’s also no major problem in the world today that we can see readily how the United States’ complete absence won’t make it more difficult to solve. There would not have been a Paris Climate Agreement in the first instance without the United States putting a lot of effort into bringing the Chinese on board, the Indians on board, getting the Europeans to come along, etc. If you think about the other challenges that we are likely to face in the years ahead - that the international or global order has to be able to deal with - they will look like that. And if the United States is basically laying back and saying “Eh, that’s not really our business,” then we’ve got a big problem on our hands, and I think that that is – the fact that Trump hasn’t staffed up this administration seems like a bureaucratic issue. But at the end of the day it’s something deeper than that, it is an attitudinal issue about whether the US should even really be doing a lot of this stuff.
And the other aspect of your question is “Is this really about him, or is it about the American people?” I’ve wrestled with this a lot – because I do believe that as a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment that we have missed some things. You know, we had a story about America’s role in the world throughout the Cold War that was based on a defined enemy and a defined mission. Since the end of the Cold War, that tank has been running down towards empty, and now we’re basically out of gas. We need a new story for people of the world what it is that we’re all about, and I don’t think we’ve done that yet. But I believe that the American people want a story that they can buy into, where they think the means are sufficient to achieve the ends, where America’s interests are being looked after, as well as a larger common interest - I think they still believe that. The only thing the American people have really said no to, in my view, is taking and holding territory in the Middle East. Everything else remains on the table. An active engaged American leadership role remains on the table. But it is incumbent on us that care about and think about foreign policy on a daily basis to go back to first principles and explain once again anew about why we do what we do. And I think that we’ve got something to do as the foreign policy establishment. We got caught asleep at the switch over the past couple of years.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Let me ask you another question. Let me ask you to take off your philosopher hat and put on your staffer hat. Give us some advice about how you think other world leaders and allied leaders should behave towards Mr. Trump given all the quirks of his personality you described. You mentioned how Xi Jinping has taken the route of flattery. When we look at allied leaders, we see one model which is Theresa May, which is to basically act as though nothing has changed essentially. It’s the old playbook: invite him for a state visit, for example, even though I gather he’s now said he’s not interested in that till the Brits welcome him. And on the other hand, you have the Macron/Merkel approach, where they’re actively putting daylight between themselves and President Trump and in Macron’s case, I would say actively trolling him in all sorts of ways.
Taking off your Hillary hat, say if you had to advise say Malcom Turnbull or another leader, how would you deal with this dilemma? Because all these countries have interests with the United States, we all depend on US leadership to solve these problems and yet, there are elements of Mr. Trump that are politically toxic, that are frankly personally objectionable. What would your advice to someone like Mr. Turnbull be when he has to interact with someone like Mr. Trump?
JAKE SULLIVAN: Well I would say first of all, it would probably behove him to declare himself dictator of Australia if he wanted to effectively get on Trump’s good side, because I think Trump generally likes authoritarian figures more than he likes democratic leaders and there’s a reason for that. It’s because he sees democratic leaders as kind of annoying – they’re nudging him the way that liberals in the United States nudge him on things like climate change and issues that he finds just frustrating to deal with. He would much prefer a basic transactional conversation about economics and security. So, if you take - removing the glibness of that initial answer, I would say recognising that basic dynamic is important. Lecturing Trump on the importance of the Paris Climate Agreement and pushing him hard on the issue as the European leaders did at the G7 in Italy is not a successful strategy. Coming into it through the back door by talking about the economic opportunities in it for the United States is probably a better way to go.
See, what is interesting about Donald Trump is that he fundamentally rejects what has been a core American proposition of foreign policy, which is that the US national interest can be advanced at the same time as the national interests of other countries can be advanced – a positive sum mentality. Trump has a zero-sum mentality. He thinks if someone else is doing well, then they’re taking us for a ride. And so, figuring out how to inhabit that basic frame - not to give in to a zero-sum conversation, but rather to show Trump that something is going to come out of it for him - has to be part of the equation.
So, the Saudis show up in the United States, and they come with a presentation that is all about domestic investment in America that can be converted into jobs figures. The Chinese come and talk about what they can do in North Korea. The Turks come and say what they can do on ISIS. So, to the extent that Trump can come to recognise that his participation in some broader effort that doesn’t immediately obviously benefit the United States is attached to things he knows he tangibly is going to get, the happier he will be.
And I wasn’t joking, by the way, as frivolous as it sounds, about the praise issue. When people say nice things to Donald Trump, he thinks nice things about them. That is a proven fact over the course of many years.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Alright, now let me give an opportunity for people to ask a question to Jake.
Yes, I saw that gentleman over there. Let me ask you to wait for the microphone. The usual conditions apply: please limit yourself to one question, not a comment, and keep your question short and to the point. Sir.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yes, John Connor. In relation to North Korea, have you ever heard advanced, or has thought been given in the US, to the prospect of a neutral Korean peninsula - with neutrality guaranteed by the US, Japan, China, let’s say - and the effect that could have in terms of going forward? It obviously doesn’t provide immediately for security for North Korean leadership but maybe a nice dinner in Switzerland would do it. But, has that been thought about? Because I’ve indirectly or unreliably heard that it’s at least been thought about in China.
JAKE SULLIVAN: So, it has been thought about, it has been talked about. I say all that in the diplomatic passive voice, because it’s a delicate conversation in so far in that it’s something that has to proceed obviously in close consultation with South Korea, since you don’t want to be bargaining over the future of the Korean peninsula without them. I think that the fundamental stumbling block on that particular proposition - the idea basically being “let’s work towards a unified Korean peninsula in which American troops are removed, the peninsula ends up essentially neutral” - there are two big stumbling blocks to getting to that particular outcome.
One of them is telling the South Koreans you no longer get to choose your alliance relationships, you’re going to have to go with this. Now, maybe in the end they choose that because they think that’s the best outcome. The second I think is more profound, which is that while that the China could entertain that concept in the abstract, way out down the road in the future, they have not yet been prepared to actively engage the conversation about the long-term future of the Korean peninsula in a circumstance in which you don’t have the same North Korean regime in power, because they worry about opening the door to some kind of North Korean regime change. They see the possibility of dramatic instability in the peninsula, and so their willingness to actually have a concrete conversation about the disposition of the Korean peninsula in the event of regime change and reunification - their appetite for that is very low right now.
So, I don’t know how you break through that. I don’t know how we actually get a strategic conversation going along the lines that you describe. But as I said in my remarks, I think the best option, would be one in which, whether or not it’s that precise outcome, or a cousin of it, we head in that direction. That is the most sensible way for this whole thing to get resolved. It is a long-term play, but what we have found over the past few years is that Chinese scholars, Chinese think tanks, will float versions of this, but actually having the Chinese government have serious discussion on it kind of crosses a line that they have yet to be willing to cross.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Herve Lemahieu from the Institute at the back.
HERVE LEMAHIEU: Thanks very much. I’m Herve Lemahieu here at the Institute. My question to you is that, at the same time that the Shangri-La dialogue took place and Secretary Mattis was being questioned by Michael, the Chinese didn’t actually send a delegation this year. They were in Brussels. There was an EU-China summit taking place, on a very different conversation: one on the future of the economic order in Asia as opposed to the future security order in Asia. Now we know the Europeans have taken a different approach to Asia and in particular China, even under the Obama administration. So, for example, in making decisions such as joining the AIIB, being a bit more proactive on ‘One Belt One Road’, we know that the Chinese are very interested in the 500 million consumers that the Europeans have to offer, and we know that since Trump came to power there’s been a further alignment between Europe and China, particularly on issues to do with climate change but global governance in general.
What would your advice be on Europe, and do you think there are merits in taking that approach, and what’s the risk?
JAKE SULLIVAN: My advice to Europe on this? Well, you know, number one: I think engaging the Chinese on economic issues, on climate issues, on this whole range of transnational issues, is a no-brainer from the perspective of the Europeans. It absolutely makes sense. It would’ve made sense even if Hillary Clinton had been elected president. The Chinese still would have and should have shown up in Brussels to have these conversations. And as you say, the increasing economic engagement is something that is happening sort of irrespective of political dynamics happening in Washington.
I also think the Belt Road initiative is an intriguing proposition if it’s done right. What worries me to a certain extent is that any given decision seems small but the collection of decisions over time can add to a big consequence. If all the Belt and Road Initiative turns into - or all the European economic relationship - turns into is the advancement of a long-term kind of spears of influence project, or the Chinese ending up through a combination of influence and corruption dominating the economic space between China and Europe – I think that that redounds to everyone’s detriment, ultimately including China’s. So, I think that the Europeans have to think hard about taking a larger role in a project that the US has been engaged in for some time. It is doing everything we can to both facilitate and encourage China’s economic rise and to support it – because a thriving China is good for Europe, it’s good for the United States, it’s good for Asia. But at the same time, to be clear about the parameters of the system within which China is rising. And I worry that the Europeans have basically allowed to do the United States to do that bit of it without really doing it so much themselves, and as they take on a larger role in the relationship it is important that they step up on those issues as well.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Can I ask you Jake about the approach to Asia under the Obama administration - the pivot, or the rebalance - with which Secretary Clinton was heavily involved? President Obama announced that ‘pivot’ to the Australian Parliament in 2011, but especially I would say in his second term the rebalance came in for a fair amount of scepticism and criticism in the region, in regional capitals where people said that there wasn’t enough meat there, or that the reality didn’t match the expectation. Do you think it’s fair to say when you look back on the pivot, was it oversold at the time? And what is left for the next President, the next president, the first post-Trump president to pick up and run with? Because my fear is that this idea, intended to be a strategic doctrine for the ages, looks like it hasn’t survived a single presidential transition.
JAKE SULLIVAN: Look, it’s under a lot of pressure because it requires a lot of sustained effort and attention and with neglect and drift we will end up essentially losing the heart of the rebalance if current policy continues, so I am very worried about it.
You know, I’m biased, but I think – look, when you declare a term like ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’ you’re almost begging people to say it didn’t live up to the hype and I understand that. But I think that a fair and honest accounting of US engagement in Asia during the Obama administration would have to acknowledge some pretty profound gains in the security domain. I mean, if you look at the distribution of the US force presence – places that we have been shut out of that we are now engaged with, security partnerships that were enhanced over time, alliances that were deepened and strengthened, it looks pretty good. If you look at the institutional aspects of the Asia-Pacific, the US joined the East Asia Summit, the US in trilateral and quadrilateral mechanisms has strengthened cooperation both between it and a number of its partners, but also among its partners which is more dynamic now in part due to US encouragement.
I think the big place where obviously the United States – the gaping hole in this strategy, which is maybe the asterisk that swallows the whole thing - is the economic side. Had TPP gone through, we’d be having a much different conversation. It didn’t. Hillary Clinton herself came out against it – I myself, have profound questions about the actual details of the agreement, but what we were intending to do was come up with a replacement for that that would be some comprehensive economic strategy for the region. This president has not done that. That’s why I posed it as one of the core questions here facing the future of US engagement in Asia because unless we can figure out an answer on the economic side of the equation, then the ‘pivot’ or the ‘rebalance’ is always going to be deeply incomplete. And right now, I don’t see what that is going to be. But I don’t think again that it’s somehow because China is becoming so economically powerful and the US doesn’t have enough to offer. I don’t actually buy that argument, based on the assets we already have to bear and that people just take for granted. I do think it’s going to require a level of creativity and leadership that does not appear to be present right now.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Let me take one last question here. If you could just wait for the microphone Bruce.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you. It’s in the context of the first question that Michael asked about losing leadership in the post-war world. But also, because American politics, the country is divided – more divided than ever before – and Democrats are moving left. So my question is, what does Democratic foreign policy look like in the next election?
JAKE SULLIVAN: That’s a great question. In fact, we were talking about this beforehand. I think that there will be trends within the Democratic Primary debate in 2020 that feel kind of Trump-ian. We heard that occasionally on the campaign trail from Bernie Sanders who himself sort of questioned NATO and the alliances and ‘what’s this all about?’. But one interesting thing about Donald Trump – maybe, a silver lining in the cloud – is that by taking the positions that he has taken on some core aspects of American policy: on allies, on values, in particular on those two issues – it’s actually had a galvanising effect on Democrats. I would’ve worried more had you ended up with a Rubio or a Kasich or a Bush in the Oval Office right now about where the long-term trajectory of the foreign policy for Democratic party would have been, because I think it would have steered much more in the retrenchment direction. But because Trump has exposed some of the deficiencies and challenges with these positions, he has created a space - even for people on the more progressive end of the spectrum, who may end up running for president - to take up the position of “You know what, the United States, has to play a principal leadership role in the world based on alliances and based on values.” And I think the area where you’re likely to see continued reticence, continued withholding, will be on this question of American military deployment. And that is a place where it’s almost like an article of faith for the Democratic party. The idea of the United States going abroad and engaging and the taking and holding of territory in another country is going to be off the table, for someone running in the Democratic primary. But I am hopeful that actually, while some candidates will carry the standard of retrenchment and even isolationism, there will be a strong current of reclaiming the mantle that actually is going to appeal to a lot of Democratic primary voters.
That all may be wishful thinking, by the way, since I’ve sort of exposed my bias. I mean, the truth may lie somewhat further down. But I will tell you that I spent a lot of time on the Hill with Democrats right now: people who two or three years ago would have had, if they’ve got two voices on their shoulder, one the kind of base constituents who say, “What are we doing with all this foreign policy stuff?”, and the other, sort of their instinct of, their idea of, who America is as a country. This voice - of who America is, what we represent, what we should and can be at our best - is speaking louder right now thanks to Trump, and I think that will have an impact on where the party ends up on these issues.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE: Jake, I’m going to ask you the last question, and I feel I need to ask you one question about the campaign. I’ve just read, for my sins, preparing for this, that first campaign book ‘Shattered,’ and I know you wear the scars of that campaign. But for those of you haven’t read it, Jake is about the only person who comes out of it well.
You said you spent two years on the campaign but you spent a lot longer in a way. What did you learn on the campaign trail in 2016? How has it changed your views on politics, and has it made you more determined or, well, what has it done to your determination really, or your view of politics, as a way of affecting change?
JAKE SULLIVAN: So, I think we’ve got to move to a couch for this portion of the conversation.
So, the first thing I learnt is don’t work on presidential campaigns. That would be one. The – honestly, I still am in a place where I’m pretty dejected and disillusioned about what I saw in the last two years. I mean, I think at the end of the day, I believe deeply in something I mentioned in my speech, which is our country’s capacity for reinvention and self-correction. It was only eight years ago that we elected Barack Obama, the first black president in the United States – that was only eight years ago. So, I don’t – I haven’t lost all confidence in American politics or being personally involved in the political process. But you can’t spend two years watching the horrors unfold as we did and not come away just feeling pretty bruised and battered and I’m still in that place six months later.
I’ll just say three things. First, I still lie awake at night thinking, “Oh, if only we had done that, or said that, maybe this would have come out differently.” And when you lose by 70,000 votes across three states, any little decision is the difference between winning and losing, and there were thousands of little decisions over the course of the campaign that I was involved in. So, to the extent that I have been less than articulate it is because I have lost a lot of sleep over the last few months.
The second thing is that I actually feel it’s important for all of us who participated in this campaign to step up and take responsibility and say we could have and should have done things differently, but I also think it’s also important to recognise some of the structural factors that were at play and one that I don’t believe that gets enough attention is the sexism that was deeply embedded in this campaign.
I have not read the book ‘Shattered,’ but I’ve been told that one of the core theses of the book is that Hillary Clinton could never answer the question, “Why are you running for president?” Well, it’s an interesting question. But it’s a question, if you think about it, that is only really posed to a woman candidate. Nobody asked Barack Obama “Why are you running for president?”; nobody asked Donald Trump “Why are you running for president?” It’s like, “Of course you’re running for president! You’re a big man. You’re running for president.”
But they asked Hillary Clinton, and I think that’s just one of many examples of what she faced and I think that we all collectively need to figure out what does that mean for us and our politics, not just at the presidential level but at every level.
And then the third thing that I would say is that the nature of the political conversation in our country today, as someone who believes deeply that I don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and perspectives, the Democratic Party doesn’t, that other people have points of view that we have to acknowledge and accept – it’s profoundly depressing how balkanised the political conversation has become. People who live in the right-wing media ecosystem have one vision of reality that is totally different from people who live in the left-wing media ecosystem, and never the twain shall meet. And I honestly don’t know what the solution to that is. But until we come up with a solution to that, we are going to be struggling with not just partisan polarisation, but a fundamental divide in really the core question of who and what is America, and that makes me quite nervous. I am, at the end of the day, someone who believes that we will come out the other side okay, but that is a big, big problem that I can only admire without having any useful solution to.
So those are some disconnected thoughts on how all of this played out and, you know, I also think while American institutions and American political culture is resilient, I think we are seeing a degradation of it. And I make jokes and say glib things about Trump but there are aspects of it that I find frankly deeply disturbing, and I think good people need to step up in a non-partisan, non-ideological way, and make sure that we’re defending the core instruments and institutions of our democracy and of our way of life. And that’s something that matters deeply to me – and I may not be the best vessel or messenger for that as somebody who spent two years trying to stop him getting into office, and he did anyway – but I have been really gratified to see a lot of my peers, people my age, throwing their hat in the ring for 2018, thinking about what they can do to fight back, and I think that’s really, really important.
And I would just ask, for our good friends in Australia, and friends around the world, to see the United States for what it is: a big complex, messy place that is bigger than any one person or even any one president. And that you know, we have to all face some collective challenges – not just to US democracy but to the question of what’s going to happen with advanced economies the world over, with democratic institutions the world over, and like-minded people from democracies around the world need to kind of come together to come up with the solutions to these challenges so that, you know, we can produce a better future for ourselves and for our children.
So, that was probably more than you wanted to hear from me, but, there you go.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE Well, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming along this evening to listen to Jake Sullivan’s Harries lecture, and to listen to him, and to put questions to him.
Jake finished on a note of sadness and in a way, that is completely understandable, but if I can say Jake that the very impressive nature of your speech and the thoughtfulness and honesty with which you are addressing these issues on a stage like this is actually a cause for optimism, for those of us who are great admirers of your country. And to me, you are really a remarkable example of the best kind of American public servant, so I think in your honesty you’ve actually given us more cause for optimism than pessimism.
It reminds me of a story that I’ve read that your former boss, Hillary Clinton once recounted, about telling her husband Bill Clinton that she’d just employed you. And she said something like, she said the following: “When Jake Sullivan first came to work for me, I told my husband about this incredibly bright rising star, Rhodes scholar, Yale Law School, and my husband said “Well, if he ever learns to play the saxophone, watch out!”
JAKE SULLIVAN: I cannot play the saxophone.
MICHAEL FULLILOVE We know that President Trump’s victory has had implications for your career in the short term but like Hillary Clinton, we all have enormous confidence in you as someone who’s going to continue to be a very influential voice in the American debate, and indeed in the global debate.
So, let me thank you very sincerely for coming to Australia as the Telstra Fellow and for giving this evening a really great Owen Harries lecture. Jake Sullivan, thank you.