Progressive Players: Rising Democrats’ View of Asia Grand Strategy with Kelly Magsamen and Mira Rapp-Hooper

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Ben Rimland: In part one of a two-part discussion, Mike is joined by Kelly Magsamen, vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress and a former pentagon and NSC official; and Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Yale Law School China center. With the Democratic presidential primary in full swing, the three discuss the history of Democratic grand strategy in Asia, noting the prevalence of both realist and institutionalist tendencies in Democratic administrations. Stay tuned for a further discussion on the importance of trade strategy, defense issues, and democratic values in a future Democratic administration’s Asia grand strategy in part two.

Mike Green: Welcome back to the Asia Chessboard podcast. I'm Mike Green from CSIS and Georgetown University, and joining me are two of the rising stars on Asian strategic thinking, foreign policy and defense, Kelly Magsamen and Mira Rapp-Hooper.

Mike Green: We're going to talk today about whether there's a distinctive Democratic Party or progressive approach to foreign policy towards Asia. My guess is there will be a lot of overlap. It's one of the least partisan areas of foreign policy or politics in Washington. And also, what Kelly and Mira think we ought to be doing about the China problem, North Korea, and our interest in Asia.

Mike Green: I want to start by asking you both how you got here. Kelly, your journey to working on foreign policy strategy toward Asia began in ...

Kelly Magsamen: The State Department.

Mike Green: The State Department.

Kelly Magsamen: Yes, I was a civil servant. I came in as a presidential management fellow during the Bush Administration actually.

Mike Green: You're allowed to say that if you're -

Kelly Magsamen: I'm allowed to say that. I was a civil servant. I served proudly for my country. I worked on Iraq, Iran, Middle East issues mostly before heading to the NSC, then continued to work on Iran issues late in the Bush Administration. And then, I was one of those classic holdovers that everyone calls them now. The Obama team held me over in the NSC, and I stayed there until 2014 when I went to the Defense Department.

Kelly Magsamen: I started my career on Middle East issues, and I like to say I'm the embodiment of the Asia rebalance because I essentially pivoted to Asia security.

Mike Green: You pivoted yourself, and you were the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, which is-

Kelly Magsamen: That's correct.

Mike Green: ... which is a job that involves both managing that rather large office, but also directing the policies. Tell me about who in the Defense Department or the White House shaped your thinking about Asia, as you were pivoting to the pivot.

Kelly Magsamen: As I was pivoting to the pivot. Well, obviously, you know Mike of course, your scholarship, many folks, Kurt Campbell, others I worked with, Danny Russell, Evan Medeiros, many names everyone in the Asia sphere knows very well. I would say who shaped my actual strategic thinking, I have a couple of mentors. Dr. Eliot Cohen, who I worked for at the State Department, and he was also my professor at Johns Hopkins.

Mike Green: He runs a fantastic Strategic Studies program at SAIS. Really one of the best out there. I'd say the best, but I'm now at Georgetown, so I have to be ecumenical.

Kelly Magsamen: Well he's now the Dean, so he's fleeted up, so to speak to that role, which we're really happy about. And Dennis McDonough, who was my day to day management boss as Deputy National Security Advisor at the NSC who also shaped a lot of my thinking. So I credit those two mentors for a lot of my success.

Mike Green: And Mira, you're from New York originally and a Columbia University PhD and I know you had a lot of intellectual mentors, but you started out on the nuclear side of all this, right?

Mira Rapp Hooper: I did indeed. And I became an Asia security hand, largely owing to one Mike Green. I did my academic work at Columbia, I focused on nuclear weapons and alliance politics, and had the great good fortune to have my first job after my PhD program be, working for and with Mike Green standing up the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS which was a wonderful baptism by fire in maritime and territorial issues in Asia.

Mira Rapp Hooper: And really pulled me over to the world of Asia security and I have stayed there ever since. My subsequent jobs have allowed me to pull back a little bit, to spend a little bit more time focusing on strategy and big broad national security in U.S. foreign policy issues in the region, but my real turn towards Asia-Pacific as more of a regional security expert came very much because of you, Mike, and because of the chance you gave me at CSIS.

Mike Green: People are going to think this is just a huge mutual admiration session, but I do remember when I interviewed you for that job at CSIS doing our maritime initiative, would you have any questions for me, and you said, "Yeah, why do you want to hire me?" Which was a bold and interesting question in an interview, and the answer was because you really understood hard power.

Mike Green: I mean, you were working on extended deterrence and nuclear strategy and what our allies were basically thinking about our commitment. But what was so interesting is both of you come from progressive, broadly speaking, progressive intellectual backgrounds, but I think of you both as hard powered realists.

Mike Green: Mira, obviously your work on nuclear strategy and stopping maritime coercion. Kelly, your work on rebalance was about counterbalancing China in many ways.

Kelly Magsamen: That's right.

Mike Green: How did you guys, if I can say it, become realists? Maybe start with Kelly. Because you come out of a progressive background. And I think it's a characteristic of your generation of democratic Asia hands, there's a lot of real hard powered realists. I think of Tom Wright, Ely Ratner, a lot of hard powered realists in the Democratic camp. That was not the Democratic Party of Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter. Tell me how you got there, Kelly, and then I'll ask Mira.

Kelly Magsamen: Gosh, I mean I don't know if I have a really good answer to that, except just basic experience. I mean, when you get involved on these issues, and you're serving in government, and you're dealing with allies, and in particular when you're dealing with adversaries, of course I was hardened a lot by my experience on Iran issues. I saw the value of some of these things. But also China, I mean, frankly my experience at the Pentagon with China and the change China was undertaking in the region, really essentially shaped my thinking about what we need to be doing as a country to address it.

Mike Green: How about you Mira?

Mira Rapp Hooper: I had the great good fortune as a graduate student to work with some of the really leading realist thinkers of our time, Bob Jervis, Richard Betts, and while he was still alive, Ken Waltz, all at Columbia, which was really just an extraordinary experience. And I went to Columbia, of course, because I was interested in working with those giants in the field, but they really shaped the way I saw the world, which in turn was part of why I became attracted to Asia as a region, as I finished up my dissertation and moved into the working world because it was the region where I saw all of the hard powered dynamics that I cared about and found fascinating taking place.

Mira Rapp Hooper: I had learned about alliances and extended deterrence, and great power politics from examples that were fundamentally derived from Europe during the Cold War. But when I looked out and saw the world, they were all happening in Asia now. So as far as I recall, I have always been a realist, and happened to have always been a Democrat as well.

Mike Green: As our Chinese friends would like to say, you are both stuck in a Cold War mentality.

Kelly Magsamen: No, I'm not. We can get to that though.

Mike Green: We'll get to that. Tell me then, you both got into this business on Asia. You both have backgrounds in the academy and in other policy worlds, but you really both got into this Asia stuff in the 2008, 2009, '10, '11 timeframe, basically as Xi Jinping came into power in China. And as older, more senior China hands probably didn't have an explanation for what was happening in China, but tell me a bit, we'll start with Mira, how you see China's evolution and what it means for U.S. interests, because you got into this business as we were seeing a different China than many of the traditional Asia experts, and particularly China experts expected.

Mira Rapp Hooper: Yeah, I think that's right. There's so many people in our field who I respect, who have been working on China as country experts their entire lives, and for those folks in particular, the changes that we've seen occur in China and in Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping, are just absolutely startling and very difficult to digest.

Mira Rapp Hooper: And while I certainly share the horror at some of the things that are taking place in China domestically currently, and the displeasure at the more assertive turn that Chinese foreign policy has taken, precisely because I have been working on Asia and China for relatively less time, and because I've always been interested in Asia for national security and strategy reasons, I tend to see things more through a lens of traditional great power competition and perhaps I'm a little bit less startled by what we've seen out of China.

Mira Rapp Hooper: What I mean by that is the fact that China is of course a rising power, and while of course I do not believe there is anything inevitable that need bring the U.S. and China into direct conflict with one another, I do think that competition is always likely when there is a dominant power that has a strong foothold in a region, like Asia, as the United States does, and a rising power that seeks to regain its footing in its own region, as well as globally.

Mira Rapp Hooper: I tend to think that some amount of tension between those two powers is likely to be the norm. And indeed can be managed, although it will and already is the fundamental foreign power challenge of our time.

Mira Rapp Hooper: So do I mind these dynamics? Because of the vantage point that I come from, and the fact that I come to them relatively more recently, may seem a little bit less surprising than I think they do, for the extraordinary China scholars in our field who'd been working so deeply on China for so very long.

Mike Green: Kelly, some of the senior China hands have been a little grumpy about your generation of foreign policy thinkers. Is it just because you think that you guys came into this business when China was showing a different face to the world?

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah, I mean I think that's definitely part. I mean I think what Mira said is correct. Our experience with China has been very different. We come at it from a different angle. We're not deep China scholars who sit there and study the issue for decades and decades, and we see it from a more strategic lens. When I was at the NSC, I was also the Senior Director for Strategic Planning, and so I see China in the context of a larger global set of challenges to the United States.

Kelly Magsamen: I come at it from that direction as well, and I do see a competition lens. But I also see the competition and the importance of what we do here in the United States to make ourselves ready for that competition in the next century, and I think that is another lens that I view it at, through also a domestic decision making and policy making lens.

Mike Green: That may be the most progressive part of a progressive foreign policy strategy towards Asia, the debate about the role of the U.S. government in building up our competitiveness economically at home, where Republicans would generally be more of a laissez-faire free market approach.

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah, I mean I think there's a big debate opening up about, I mean we're obviously not a state driven economy, but whether or not there's industrial planning for example, what kinds of investments we make in our research and development infrastructure, and those are the things that I think progressives and Democrats are going to focus a lot on, with respect to China's strategy.

Mike Green: Although it's not really completely accurate, the usual dig is that the Republicans tend to the realists, or maybe the neo-cons, and Democrats tend to be Liberal Institutionalists. Bill Clinton ran on more multilateralism and Barack Obama ran on more multilateralism. His first national security strategy, which you probably worked on-

Kelly Magsamen: I worked on the second one.

Mike Green: Okay. Well, the first one posited that the US and China would come together over global issues like climate change. It was not the first time by the way. I mean the national security strategies under Bush, the first one also said the U.S. and China would come together around terrorism. Every national security strategy up until 2017, somehow posited that U.S.-China relations would be managed by common challenges we face, but it seemed to me like a tension within the Obama administration.

Mike Green: There was this liberal institutionalist impulse that rivalry was something you could have easily manage by focusing on global challenges like climate change, but by the second or third year of the administration, it seemed pretty apparent that wasn't the case. And it always struck me at the Pentagon on the other side of that debate, not saying global challenges aren't important, but balance of power, regional security, these traditionalist alliance issues, they matter. Is that fair? Do you think that tension was there?

Kelly Magsamen: I think that is absolutely a fair assessment of the debate that was happening in the administration. Of course I can argue both sides of that debate. I do think that-

Mike Green: You did.

Kelly Magsamen: ... worked together. I did actually. I do think working together with China on climate is a huge, important priority for the United States, or at least it should be, but at the same time, I was dealing in the day to day changes, and the situation in the South China Sea, obviously China's activities around the region, pressuring Taiwan, etc. The East China Sea tensions, and so we were watching in real time, the face of China changing, but in particular when it came to the United States and security issues.

Kelly Magsamen: And the Chinese were very good at running plays where they try to obfuscate and focus leadership conversations on the things that are in their mutual interests and try to bury what they were actually doing on the ground. In the Pentagon, our job was to focus on the downsides of the relationships.

Mike Green: Right. I was in the Pentagon with Kurt Campbell in the Clinton administration, and I think both Clinton and Obama administrations Asia policies shifted towards a more pronounced balance of power focus, and it came out of the Pentagon in both cases.

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah.

Mike Green: That generally doesn't come in a Democratic administration from the White House or the State Department. What about institutions? I assume you have not given up on liberal institutional approaches. What's the role of institutions in Asia? You guys saw ASEAN not function, a lot of multilateral diplomacy, well played, it didn't work out.

Kelly Magsamen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mike Green: But going forward, I'll start with you Mira on this one, what's the role in a progressive, Democratic foreign policy vision, there's a clear balance of power piece, what's the role of institutions? Is multilateralism dead in Asia? Can we revive it? What's the prospect?

Mira Rapp Hooper: So it's a great question, Mike, and I'll start out by tangling with the premise just a little bit.

Mike Green: Sure.

Mira Rapp Hooper: I tend to see balance of power politics and institutionalism as something of a false dichotomy, or at least somewhat reconcilable. Because they're really ways of talking about how you're emphasizing things, what elements of foreign policy you would like to emphasize, where you put your heavy foot, what tools you're prioritizing.

Mira Rapp Hooper: I think we can accept that we are absolutely thinking long and hard about the future of the balance of power in Asia as a fundamental foreign policy question of our time, while also agreeing that there's a role for institutions as a means to further our interests, and allied interests, and global interests in the region. So to start out, there is absolutely an interest in renewing American commitment to regional institutions which I daresay, has been lacking in the last few years.

Mira Rapp Hooper: You're absolutely right that performance by ASEAN and the United States’ attempts to work with ASEAN produced some lackluster results, but it doesn't mean that the attempts didn't have some value, namely as you so often say Mike, Asia is a region where part of the value and part of the battle is just in showing up and the commitment to those institutions is part of reminding our partners in the region that we consider ourselves a Pacific power that will be around for the long haul.

Mira Rapp Hooper: Of course alliances are, in and of themselves, an institution although one which tends to emphasize the more hard power elements. But they are institutions that facilitate cooperation amongst treaty allies, even if they're not open to everyone.

Mira Rapp Hooper: But I also highlight a third category of institutions which is the fact that we're going to have to think about areas in Asia which currently are ungoverned or under-governed, but are going to require multilateral governance in the future going forward.

Mira Rapp Hooper: And there I'm thinking about everything from Internet governance to AI governance, places where we really don't have international governance thus far, and where countries like China are really unlikely to sign on to the way that the United States and like-minded partners think about those domains. So potentially coming up with new forms of international institutions and regimes that are very much about Asia, and I daresay competition in Asia even if they're not universal in their buy-in.

Mira Rapp Hooper: And finally, I'll mention a fourth category, which is the fact that competition in Asia and with China is taking place over various forms of international order and institutions themselves. So of course one of the things we've seen China do in just the last several years, is proffer its own new regional institutions in the form of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative, which is loosely an institution, although it's far too sprawling to really be considered in traditional institutional terms.

Mira Rapp Hooper: But the overarching point in this fourth category, is the very ship of international order and international institutions in Asia will be part of this great power game that plays out, along with the participation of other regional states over the coming years and decades. So the United States absolutely has to be engaged in institutions in Asia because shaping the landscape in Asia is what this is all about.

Mike Green: No doubt about it, the US is absent. WTO meetings, ASEAN, the old Woody Allen line, nine tenths of success in life is showing up. That's a critical tactic going forward, but Clinton came into office promising to strengthen APEC. He ran on that in New Hampshire actually, and building institutions. And Obama came in promising more institution building, in particular the strategic and economic dialogue with China.

Mike Green: What I'm hearing is almost a realist theory of institution building, that we have to be there to compete with China so we don't lose ground, and that may not be fair, but for Kelly, can you imagine a democratic administration coming in with some big design for architecture in Asia? Is institution building really about holding the line, showing up, preventing a vacuum that China will fill? Or are there some things you can think of that we could do bilaterally with China, multilaterally?

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah. I mean I think it's going to be a little bit of both. I think some of it's going to be holding the line, I think also a new Democratic administration is probably going to put a big emphasis on multilateralism just in part as a contrast to what we're currently seeing in Asia.

Kelly Magsamen: And of course that's also, I think, reassuring to our Asian allies and partners who don't like the idea of being locked into this U.S.-China dynamic. Yes, I do think you'll see that. One area I think we should emphasize is, and I think progressives think about this a lot, are the importance of our democratic values in the context of some of this.

Kelly Magsamen: To Mira's point about building up institutions around the challenges that are going to shape the future, whether it's AI or climate or pick your issue that's going to require some multilateral governance, I actually think that's going to come in the form of maybe more ad-hoc arrangements, like we've seen it in the past.

Kelly Magsamen: And I think the core of that ad-hoc arrangement, at least from my perspective, needs to be democracies because I do think that democracies have a qualitative advantage in some of these areas, and specifically in places where we are competing with China. We don't want China shaping the rules of the road on artificial intelligence. We want to be shaping the rules the road.

Mike Green: Yeah.

Kelly Magsamen: And so I do think you'll see that Vice President Biden came out and talked about a summit of democracies the other day in his speech. If you look at that through like a Asia lens, where could democratic countries partner collectively in maybe coalitions in ad hoc manner to do things?

Kelly Magsamen: I think one big area is digital trade. I think that the United States could lead a multilateral initiative though our democratic partners, the Five Eyes, the EU, and others on digital trade in particular. So that's something that's at the front of my mind. It was something that we talked about in our recent China strategy, but that's going to be one of the more immediate issues I think we have to take on.

Mike Green: I would say gone is the idea which I saw in between the alliance of the Obama national security approach initially, that these multilateral institutions and cooperation will transform great power politics. And instead we got to do it, because as Mira said, there are these ungoverned spaces, Internet governance, rules for digital trade, 5G and so forth. Just to protect our interests, we need to work with other like-minded states in a way that I assume you would say is eventually inclusive of China.

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah.

Mike Green: But not where China gets in and writes the rules.

Kelly Magsamen: We want to write the rules and build out from there.

Mike Green: So the curmudgeon-y conservative rebuttal on Democrats' support for multilateral institutions is this is just an excuse to not spend money on defense and hard power. And to say, "We've got this covered," through classic liberal Kantian institution building, so we're not going to have to spend a lot on defense so we can spend more on things Democrats really like to spend money on, social welfare, education.

Mike Green: You make the case compellingly we got to do multilateral institution building because there are real issues that have to be addressed, but what about the defense side? Do you think democratic administration…one thing about republican administration, they predictably increase defense spending. You were in the Pentagon. Is there a story you can tell us that will be reassuring about where you think a democratic administration might go?

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah.

Mike Green: I mean we have, I don't know how many hundreds of candidates.

Kelly Magsamen: Yeah, I think we have a compelling story to say. I mean frankly some of the budget decisions that are made through this current administration's National Defense Strategy were things that were incubated during the Obama era, because we were looking at not just how much we spend on defense, but what we spend it on.

Mike Green: Incubated within the Pentagon?

Kelly Magsamen: Yes. Incubated within the Pentagon. And so the investments we make with respect to competing, especially in Asia, are going to be investments on things that we haven't traditionally invested in. And it's going to be space and it's going to be cyber, and it's going to be AI and technology. It's not necessarily going to be aircraft carriers and surface fleets that are huge that are just sitting ducks.

Kelly Magsamen: So I think there's a qualitative aspect to defense, but that needs to get injected in the conversation. Of course there's always quantity. Of course levels are important. And sustainable and predictable budgets are important, but more important is actually making sure we're spending on the right things to be competitive in this century.

Kelly Magsamen: I think you will see a new administration, democratic administration, make serious choices. Obviously I think we can do a lot with our defense budget without spending a ton. I think we can be more creative in how we think about defense in the Asia-Pacific and what we spend the money on, so I guess I come at it from a more qualitative lens, than necessarily a quantitative one.