Security and Foreign Policy in Campaign 2020: A Conversation with Washington Journalists
August 2, 2019
Kathleen Hicks: All right. Good evening, everybody. I’m Kathleen Hicks. I direct the International Security Program here at CSIS. And most importantly, I have the privilege of getting to oversee the Smart Women, Smart Power Series. We really appreciate all of you who are joining us here in the room tonight, and of course those who are joining online. We’re thrilled to have this panel of journalists today, very distinguished panel, for a conversation about security and foreign policy in the upcoming – or, should I say, already started – campaign cycle for 2020. These women before you here represent a diverse array of news outlets and areas of expertise. And we’re hoping for a really dynamic conversation. I have a feeling we’re going to see that.
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Our Smart Women, Smart Power speaker series would not be possible without the support of Citi. Citi has been extremely helpful in helping us amplify the voices of women in foreign policy, national security, international business, and international development. So please join me in welcoming Candi Wolff, executive vice president for global government affairs. (Applause.)
Candida Wolff: Thank you, Kathleen. And thank you all for joining us in this very special event in our series, with an impressive group of women that really exemplify what this series is all about. And this is a bit of an unusual event for us, because we’re usually accustomed – we have women who are deploying smart power in government or in the private sector or in the NGO community. And tonight we get to hear from the fourth estate. (Laughs.) The journalists who play such a crucial role in our democracy through holding those with power accountable. And so I think I’m very excited, and I hope you all will be, to hear what they have to say about the upcoming election. And I’m clearly relieved that I get to leave before I get asked any questions from this formidable group of journalists.
At Citi, we’ve long supported organizations that work to preserve the freedoms of the press and to protect the rights of journalisms, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Overseas Press Club. And so I want to commend all of these women for the important work that they’ve pursued in their careers. We’re present in more than 100 countries around the globe, and so our global footprint gives us a unique advantage, I think, on a lot of the challenges and opportunities in the economic and political climate in which we work, and in which we see, and in which we confront. And so, you know, our mission is to confront those challenges in a way that we can provide financial services that enable growth and economic progress.
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Kathleen Hicks: I think I know who’s here, but I – it would be nice to use the actual titles. OK. So I still don’t have the right piece of paper. I’m going to do this going down the line. We have Lara Seligman from Foreign Policy, who covers their defense and national security work. We have my good friend Susan Glasser from The New Yorker, at this point – yes, I’m keeping up. And Jennifer Griffin from Fox News. And our fabulous moderator tonight is Beverly Kirk. Beverly is the director – oh, that’s funny. (Laughs.) She also has my remarks – (laughter) – and is the director of our Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative.
Beverley, over to you with the panel.
Beverly Kirk: Thank you so – (off mic) – regular moderator, Nina Easton, is on the West Coast tonight. And we are sorry that she’s not here to do this regularly. I’m normally the person walking around the room making sure everything is happening as it should. But I’m happy to fill in for her tonight, and happy that you all are here.
Let’s start with, I guess, an obvious question. How much of a role are foreign policy and national security expected to play in campaign 2020, which I guess is even if not officially underway it’s technically underway?
Jennifer Griffin: Well, I’ll start, just because I’m sitting right here. And I think what is also surprising to me is how little foreign policy is talked about on the campaign trail. You have – and I was just going through the list of the 20-plus Democratic candidates. And it’s very hard to distinguish between the candidates’ positions. And in fact, some of their positions are Donald Trump’s positions. And what I thought was interesting is they’re all talking about ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, that seems kind of interesting because what we saw yesterday sitting in the White House is President Trump sitting with the Pakistani prime minister is talking about that every same thing.
So we haven’t heard enough of a differentiation. There’s certainly a sense that all of the Democratic candidates are coming out wanting to say we have to get back to normal, we have to get back to normal relations. But if we look at what just happened tonight, Boris Johnson just took over as prime minister in England. What is that going to mean in terms of the U.K. relationship? He’s closer to Trump than he is to a President Biden, for instance. So I think it’s always amazing that given that a president has the one area that a president can actually influence or take executive action and is in foreign policy, we don’t hear enough about it.
Susan Glasser: Well, you know, it’s interesting, because in many ways the conventional wisdom, you know, certainly used to be and probably will be again this year that the less you talk about foreign policy the better it is for actually America’s foreign policy. To talk about it on the campaign trail there’s a sense that, you know, first of all, most presidents find that when they come to office their ideas and their campaign rhetoric collide with reality and, you know, you have pretty sharp pivots generally speaking. You know, you had George W. Bush who came and thought that Bill Clinton was wildly unrealistic when it came to dealing with Russia, and he’d made a terrible mistake in personalizing the relationship. And then of course, what happened? President Bush came, he met Vladimir Putin, looked into his soul, personalized the relationship all over again.
And of course, there’s numerous examples, Democrats and Republicans. So, you know, certainly in the old days, you know, of circa, say, four years ago, the view was that it was that it was much safer not to talk about foreign policy on the campaign trail from the point of view of America’s actual foreign policy. Now, interestingly, I would say that – you know, Donald Trump, you know, upended that conventional wisdom, along with many other conventional wisdoms, four years ago. If you look at his campaign, he actually talked a lot about his pretty sharply different view of the world than the view of the national security establishment in both parties. Of course, Trump has very much been at odds with what had been the Republican foreign policy consensus for many years, as well as the Democratic foreign policy consensus.
So I guess my question, as we are at the very beginning of this 2020 race, is the extent to which we are going to see Democrats begin to reflect and to begin to have a conversation about what the world after Trump really looks like. Is this a definitive break that we have seen. You know, regardless of whether they agree or disagree with Trump’s policies, I think the interesting question is will Joe Biden’s point of view win the day, which is essentially: Hey, world, we’ll be back. And in fact, I was in Munich at the annual Munich security conference earlier this year and that was literally the speech that Joe Biden gave at the Munich security conference, which was, you know, hold onto your seats, world, you know, we’re coming back. And then there’s a new generation, I think, of Democrats who are just getting the first inklings who are saying, no, you know, it’s going to be a different world after Trump.
Beverly Kirk: Lara?
Lara Seligman: Yeah, definitely. I think that it certainly is a whole new world right now. I think President Trump has really – since his campaign really upended the way that campaigns and foreign policy is brought. Right from the beginning he was – he was talking about foreign policy a lot. And to the surprise of many of the people who elected him and lawmakers, like, he actually followed through with many of his foreign policy promises, which often, as you know, candidates will make these promises and then turn around and do something completely different – as President Obama has done. So it’s a whole new world.
One thing I really found interesting in the most recent Democratic debates they were asked what the biggest – the greatest national security threat to the United States is. And none of them agreed. They all had different answers. Some of them said China. Some of them said Russia. Some of them even said climate change. I think someone said Donald Trump. So it’s interesting that there is not a consensus right now on what should be the greatest threat going forward. And I think there’s a lot of room for discussion.
I think also, to echo Jen’s point, the Democrats are in a very strange position right now. They have to walk this fine line between breaking with the – and distinguishing themselves from what Trump has said about getting – drawing down Americans, getting out of the forever war, and not alienation some of their Democratic base as well. So they’re walking this very – they’re in this awkward position and walking this very fine line there.
So we’re still early days. None of these campaigns have really laid out a detailed blueprint for their foreign policy. Even Vice President Biden, which was very surprising to me, that his foreign policy speech did not really have very many specifics in it. They just all say they hate Trump’s foreign policy and everything about Trump. So I think they really have to lay out their vision for what the world would be after Trump.
Jennifer Griffin: Well, I also think that if you look at the news of the day, right, this last week Iran has sort of taken over the headlines in terms of international relations and crisis. And if you look at what the Democrats, many of them have laid out, most of them say they would get back into the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal. They would like to reenter that. But what nobody’s taking account of is that Iran has moved on. Iran is moving on. Things will have changed so much in the next year and a half that I think the world is just moving at a pace, and it’s being led by very radical forces. Strongmen are in the – and it’s mostly men – who are in positions of power. And they are negotiating person to person, cutting side deals. It’s much more of a – I think what we’re seeing is the global order, of course, is not just fraying because of Trump, but it was eroding anyway.
And so all of these multilateral institutions that people like Joe Biden grew up with and want to go back to and return to, and work through NATO and through the U.N. – who knows what condition they’ll be in at the end of the day?
Susan Glasser: Well, I think – look, there’s a huge difference between four years of the situation we’re in and eight years. And I think – you know, while it’s true that you’ve seen a longer-term erosion of American power and of these institutions when it comes to, you know, essentially the rise not only of China but other powers, you just see the relative decline, which was inevitable, for American power and leadership in the world, regardless of who was president. However, there are specific decisions which 100 percent depend on President Trump having come in and essentially pursued an anti-Obama policy.
So the nuclear deal, in fact, is actually a great example of that, right, in the sense that for one year, it was one year ago and change that Trump unilaterally withdrew from this deal, which was negotiated not only with Iran, but with five of the world’s other leading powers. They have essentially all agreed to remain in this deal. And it’s only now, after more than a year, with the effects of economic pressure and new sanctions from the U.S., that Iran has begun to take sort of calibrated steps outside of it. Our European partners, along with Russia and China, have remained in it. If you think that Trump is going to lose, then you might be able to wait it out. It’s not going to survive six years.
Jennifer Griffin: But will it even – but, Susan, will it even survive one year with Boris Johnson taking over? They are holding a U.K. tanker – oil tanker right now. They tried to take two more in the last few days. How much is the British public going to stand for staying in the nuclear deal? I just – I think what we are seeing is all of these assumptions of candidates who are putting together their policy positions, they’re all going to be outdated by the time they actually hit the campaign trail.
Susan Glasser: Yeah, no, I totally agree with that. I think the question is what kind of a calculation are other world leaders going to make about whether they think that Trump is going to be reelected? Until recently, I think they thought there was a decent chance that Trump would lose. I see the Iranians and others, actually, starting perhaps to think more seriously about what a Trump second term would look like. And I think that’s going to be a dynamic that exists at the exact same time as these candidates start to formulate their foreign policy world views as well.
Lara Seligman: Well, it also – while it is true that candidates did say they wanted to get back in the JCPOA, they did not want to get back into the same JCPOA that President Obama signed. They want some changes made to it. I think they want – and it certainly could be a stronger deal. It could be – I think they want it to cover the ballistic missiles. They want it to cover Iran sponsoring terrorism around the world, the malign activities that the U.S. loves to talk about. So I think –
Beverly Kirk: And we’ll talk about those in a bit. (Laughs.)
Lara Seligman: Yeah. Right, exactly. So I think that there is – there’s a lot of room for negotiations there. And I think that, like you said, Iran and other leaders around the world are looking at the possibility that Trump does get reelected. And I think that may be part of the reason why Iran is continuing to do some of the things that it’s doing in the Gulf, because they know that their only option in terms of getting sanctions relief really is through their European – through the Europeans that are still in the deal. So, you know, squeezing oil prices, doing these kinds of things in the Gulf. They are hoping to get some sanctions relief. It’s –
Jennifer Griffin: But then why would you provoke Britain if you wanted to create a divide between the U.S. and Europe? It doesn’t look like the Iranians are really thinking very strategically.
Beverly Kirk: And do you guys think that because of the events – and we’ve only talked about Iran. We haven’t gotten to North Korea, China, Russia, global migration, immigration, Venezuela – any of those other hot spots where there are –
Susan Glasser: Good thing we don’t have anything to talk about. (Laughter.)
Beverly Kirk: I didn’t – going into this, I did not know what we were going to discuss.
But do you think that – just because of the one issue that we talked about here, and everything else that’s stacking up, this election could come down to being about foreign policy, national security, and what the world looks like – or, at least what people may think it may look like over the next four years.
Lara Seligman: Well, I think that one area in particular that will get a lot of attention is China. And that’s an area that is really where these two economic and trade and foreign policy really come together, with a lot of other really interesting things – like technology, for example. And President Trump has made China obviously a big priority with the trade war, but not just the trade war. It’s – the U.S. military is also taking note of what China is doing in the South China Sea and in really spreading their influence everywhere, not just with building up military capabilities but also debt diplomacy and corrupt economic practices. So I think that this is one of the few areas where these two distinct things might overlap. And I think that the 2020 candidates may need to start talking about China from both a foreign policy and an economic policy perspective.
Susan Glasser: Although I would caution you that, you know, we’re still obviously – we’re not even in 2020 yet – but this is an area where, A, there’s – to a certain extent, there’s a little bit more consensus, right? You have Democrats and Republicans kind of reevaluating, which in a way makes it less of a good election issue. And then there’s – of course, there’s the really – I think there’s two issues and two ways you might see Democrats start to talk more about foreign policy.
The first is pretty obviously classic what’s Trump’s record? He doesn’t have a great record so far. And so he’s talked in pretty sweeping terms. He’s alarmed a lot of the world. He’s, you know, caused a great uncertainty about what is actually America’s foreign policy at this moment in time. And yet, you know, he has essentially kind of opened up a lot of questions surrounding our relationship with China, our relationship toward European powers. He has suggested that he’s going to revise in a way that could ultimately be good, but has yet to produce results when it comes to back actors in the world – like Iran, North Korea, Venezuela. He has signaled, in other words, sharp dis-junctures in our policy, but he hasn’t produced results yet.
With China, very much uncertainty around his policy of tariffs and whether that’s going to produce a new economic deal with the Chinese, and if so what is the nature of it. The unapproved trade deal so far with Mexico and Canada. Is that going to get through Congress or not? So we don’t really know what the record is he’s running on. I suspect you will see Democrats make a strong argument that he has not – he’s been all talk and no action. That he’s better at breaking deals and withdrawing deals – form deals like the Iran nuclear corridor, the Paris agreement, than he is at making them. So that’s one aspect, which is the record and whether it will be critiqued. That’s a pretty standard thing.
Then I think you’re going to see one other bucket that’s even more Trump specific, right? Any president would face scrutiny over, you know, what does he actually produce with his foreign policy. Trump, I think, opens up a new line that’s quite interesting, which is almost a values argument when it comes to the world. Jen alluded to a little bit, but, you know, the president of the United States lavishing dictators with praise is not something that any of us are used to. And you know, we’ve had many policy debates in this country over the last several decades about how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program, or Iranian bad actions in the Middle East, right? That’s not something that’s a new debate.
It is, in fact, something that is fundamentally new, which is to have a president who not only doesn’t make human rights a pillar of his policy – again, we’ve had presidents like that in both parties including arguably Barack Obama. But we’ve never had a president who seemed to have a marked preference for dictators and authoritarians. And I think that you will see, and already do see, Democrats making essentially a values argument around Trump, and connecting it with the domestic argument about his views on the rule of law, his attacks on the independent press, and the like. So I would think that’s something for those of you who are interested just in how foreign policy connects with our domestic politics, that’s something I would expect, and we’re already seeing.
Jennifer Griffin: Well, what I think is interesting – I think if you polled any voter – whether it’s Republican or Democrat right now – very few would put China at the top of their list of what they’re voting about. Maybe you will have some farmers who have been hit by tariffs out in the Midwest who might change their vote and be annoyed that they’re losing their crops because of tariffs. And maybe some of the workers will be happy that there are these tariffs because they feel like China’s just been selling these products and competing – you know, at unfair terms. Maybe.
But I think for the most part if you try to talk about what’s happening in the South China Sea, forget about it. There’s not a single voter in this country who’s really concerned about that. And so the problem is, as I’ve watched Trump – President Trump from the Pentagon and from the perspective of the military, and wondering at what point does he lose some military support, or – and I’m not seeing – I’m not seeing his strong support erode either within the military, even when he does things that I think are counterproductive to what are military values. I’m not seeing – I think Democrats are going to try to tap into this issue of American values and leadership.
But I also think it’s a very unnerving world right now. I think they see – I think voters on both sides see a lot of ungovernable countries, basket-cases that they’re tired of hearing about, feeling that America can’t fix everything in the world. I’ve started not notice even on our own network there is a much more pacifist group of opinion people who anchor some of our shows that are more on the opinion side of the news division than I am, who are really – people are fed up with wars. All of the tectonic plates have shifted. And I think when President Trump talks about Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, I think as time has gone by I’m seeing more people saying, well, nothing else has worked. Nothing else has worked with Putin. Nothing else has worked with Kim Jong-un. What’s wrong with him walking across the line into North Korea, becoming – the things that used to horrify the foreign policy establishment is not – they’re not horrifying voters.
Susan Glasser: Well, if I could just make one point, because I think Jen has raised a really interesting dynamic. Which is we started out talking about the Democratic foreign policy debate. But the truth is, the Republican foreign policy debate was never resolved in 2016. And, you know, Trump won and so he came into office. But as we’ve seen with the incredible turnover inside his government, there has continued to be essentially a war within the Republican Party. You could sum it up, and I’m more able to say this than Jen is – (laughter) – but it’s the Tucker Carlson versus Sean Hannity primary that is still taking place, you know, four years after Trump won election. And of course, that’s true inside his own government.
He’s on his third national security advisor, his second secretary of state. He recently overruled both his secretary of state and his national security advisor in refusing to take a more aggressive response to the Iranian shootdown of a drone. And so, you know, you have a situation where it’s unresolved. And that’s why I said there’s also this enormous uncertainty that exists both inside the United States and, of course, internationally as well, as to what is our policy. Because the answer is, is that we don’t really have one in many of these key areas. We have presidential instincts. We have the records, instincts, and actual words and actions of our foreign policy and national security apparatus, our bureaucracies. And then we have the political conversation that swirls around them. And those are not the same thing.
You could take any of these issues in fact – whether it’s Russia, Syria, Iran, Middle East peace, not – putting aside the whole question of, you know, trade and our economic policy. And you actually really can’t answer in a very specific way. You can find evidence to support different interpretations, but you really can’t give one definitive answer. And will that be a part of the broader kind of political debate in 2020, which goes to the president’s, call it unconventional, call it something more, style of governing? But, you know, chaos and uncertainty by the world’s leading superpower in the past has not been seen as a – either a national or a political asset. It may or may not have any direct impact. You know, to Jen’s point, his supporters remain his supporters.
And, you know, pulling back, you know, not just on foreign policy, you’ve got to say probably the most remarkable thing is that if you just looked at opinion polls over the last few years of the president’s approval rating, you would think nothing had happened in the world because they’re basically – it’s a straight line.
Beverly Kirk: If I could play devil’s advocate, because you were talking about the president’s foreign policy. And his voters would say to you he has had some successes in the foreign policy space. They would point to he pulled out of the Paris climate change agreement. He pulled out of JCPOA. He moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And I think that you may hear those kinds of arguments put forth as the campaign moves forward.
Susan Glasser: Well, I would say it’s – if you don’t believe that climate change is a national security issue – although our leading intelligence agencies and the Pentagon have said that it is a very serious both national and international threat. If you agree with President Trump on the political point of view that climate change is not a global problem that the United States needs to make a pillar of its foreign policy, then you can say, well, he’s followed through on this campaign promise to pull out of the Paris climate accords. But I think it would be hard to argue that that’s a success. That’s following through on a piece of campaign rhetoric.
Same thing with Iran. The question would be, now the president said that the Iran nuclear deal was the worst deal ever. And there are many critics in both the Democratic and Republican Party who think, you know, there are many troubling aspects that weren’t resolved by that deal, right? A success – the president of the United States would have a success if he were able to produce a different outcome. He has not done that. So I don’t think it’s going to enough to say that unilaterally ripping up a piece of paper – it’s pretty hard to run on that as a – as a success. You could say I’ve achieved a different negotiation.
And in fact that does seem to be what the president wants to do, is to actually sit down and talk with the Iranians. I think many of his advisors inside the administration are quite worried about that because it’s going to be pretty hard to get a better deal than Obama and all the world’s other powers achieved, especially since you’ve just ripped up the previous deal. And so why would anyone negotiate with us?
Lara Seligman: It’s very true.
Beverly Kirk: Let’s shift the conversation a bit to the misinformation, disinformation, malign influence efforts. FBI Director Christopher Wray said today in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Russia is intent on interfering in the 2020 election. Does the media have a particular responsibility in what it covers and what it presents as information to make sure that it’s not – the information that’s being put out there is not something that is intended to divide or to misinform people? Because a lot of things in 2016 were reported that, you know, had its basis in some of the malign efforts?
Jennifer Griffin: Well, I think the obvious answer is yes. The media does. And I think what is different about 2016 is that journalists themselves, news organizations, are aware now that – of what Russia was up to, what they’re capable of, but also what other groups – because it’s not just Russia that is going to be trying to interfere. I am noticing numerous countries, particularly in the Middle East, who are trying to influence our election and debates and policy decisions.
So the question is, how are news organizations fighting back against this? I think the problem is that it’s not just news organizations – traditional news organizations that are the problem, but it’s the platforms – like Facebook and Twitter. And they have still not done enough to stop the kind of fake news that gets into the bloodstream. I see it on a daily basis. And I often say to people that at this point, after 11 years at the Pentagon, I spend more time keeping news off the air than getting news on the air, because it is a constant onslaught of slightly believable but fake pieces of information that either come through Twitter, or come through a newspaper overseas that then gets picked up by a legitimate news organization, that we in real time are trying to track down.
The only people I know who are successfully debunking at least videos that are out there that are fake is a group called Storyful that is up in New York. It was started by a former CNN producer. It was bought by actually Rupert Murdoch. And it – Storyful is verifying in real time videos that come from overseas. And it’s just one small effort that is successful in terms of trying to get some of the fake videos that are out there off – out of the bloodstream.
Beverly Kirk: It’s like a pebble rippling in the ocean.
Jennifer Griffin: But it’s small. And I don’t know how they even – you know, I don’t know who they’re doing what they’re doing as it is, because they’re very effective. But what are we going to do about deep fake videos when they start showing candidates saying things that they never said? It is – we are in for – we are far from – through – I mean, 2016 will just be the beginning – the first chapter in this because I think the Russians realized how easy it was to divide us using our own institutions.
Lara Seligman: And the scary thing, really, is also what is – what has been happening to journalism itself over the past 10 years or so. We have a lot more of the – of the legacy people who really know their beats leaving journalism. We have a lot of younger people coming in who don’t really know anything about the beats they’re thrown in. And these are very well-meaning, good young people. But often their editors will ask them for – they want clicks, right? So they’ll ask them to sensationalize a story. They’ll put a different headline on a story than what, you know, one of us would have put on it. And often these journalists – these young journalists are under so much pressure. And they see something on Twitter. And they say, oh, that looks great. And then they write a story about it. And that is one way that some of this misinformation gets around the internet, because you see something and it’s a ripple effect. And no one takes the time to actually fact-check it. And then it becomes the “truth.”
Susan Glasser: Well, I think those are all really important points. And it’s true that I think that we will look back on this as, sadly, early days of this problem. But, you know, just to step back even more, right? You – Russia didn’t create our internal divisions. They were extremely successful at amplifying them and exacerbating them. And they operated essentially in concert and in a positive feedback loops with a campaign in this country. And you know, that is something we just – we haven’t seen before. It’s something that the tools and the techniques exist, but it also comes at the moment of essentially a systematized assault on our institutions, right? We’re dealing with a broader crisis of confidence in our institutions, including the media.
And of course, in that sense, we’ve also never had a president who’s gone to war against truth and against facts. And why does that matter? Because at a moment in time when you have the president of the United States sitting next to the prime minister of Pakistan. And what were they doing yesterday? They were commiserating about the evil media. And actually, President Trump had an incredible exchange with Imran Khan, who at that moment had banned his chief opposition figure from having her interview in the media in Pakistan televised. The main opposition network was pulled off the air for his visit to the United States of America. What did the president of the United States do? He said, oh, you don’t have it nearly as bad as I do. The media here is much worse than anything you could have.
This would never happen in any situation ever before in this country, OK? You don’t have the president of the United States, regardless of what party he’s coming form, commiserating with an authoritarian leader of a country that is coming to us seeking aid, seeking to cooperate with us, and complaining about fake news. And as we go forward into the election, again, you have a very divided government. You have people inside our national security establishment who take the threat of international interference in our domestic politics very seriously. In fact, just a couple days ago you had the director of national intelligence announce that he was appointing essentially an election czar, a deputy director of national intelligence who was going to be in charge of overseeing election security looking into 2020.
That’s exactly what the experts, it’s exactly what the very non-partisan infrastructure of our national security establishment has asked for. Well, what’s the big picture context? Is that the president’s about to fire the DNI because he doesn’t see him as really being on the president’s team.
Beverly Kirk: I was just about to ask if you thought that the election czar, so to speak, would make a difference at all. Will it? Or is just another drop in the –
Jennifer Griffin: It’s awfully late in the day to be appointing an election czar. (Laughs.) Two years into – you know.
Beverly Kirk: It’s – we talk a lot about Russia, because that’s, you know, what the intelligence community found. They’re the people that they were called out. But there were other actors, other countries who are in this space – China being one. I read just recently about China’s influence or attempted influence in the Taiwanese elections.
Jennifer Griffin: And Australia.
Beverly Kirk: And Australia. So are we – while we should focus on Russia, should we also be giving equal time – no pun intended – to others who are in this game? Because it’s not just Russia. And different countries have different motives for wanting to influence an American election.
Susan Glasser: Yeah. Well, that’s exactly right. And, again, you come with this – I mean, it’s really almost an unwinnable situation. Essentially it’s perpetually asymmetric. You know, North Korea is a hacking superpower, and yet it’s a country where they can’t have lights on at night. You know, so you have North Korea. You have Iran, China, any country. Anyone has the tools and capabilities to influence this. You know, global jihadist communities, you know, the list is as endless as the number of groups and interests in the world. We haven’t figured out how to deal with it just as a general matter. And then as a specific matter, you have the – it seems to me, the real gap between whatever our stated policies are, whatever our capabilities – which are considerable when it comes to – as a tactical matter, we have a lot of capabilities.
But do we have policies? You know, we are a divided country. We’re a country where the president speaks for a minority of the people – a minority that is fixed, loud, and angry, but does not represent the way that the country has agreed to go forward. He doesn’t have a consensus within his own administration, in particular, on many of these foreign issues. So I think it’s very hard to imagine that we’re going to suddenly get our act together. The president, as you see with this testimony this week, he views conversation around election security as an implicit questioning of the legitimacy of his victory in 2016. And so that also, of course, has hampered the ability to talk about it.
Jennifer Griffin: I will say that – sorry, Lara. I will say that before Jim Mattis left his position as defense secretary, he did quietly set up – authorize U.S. Cyber Command at the NSA to essentially protect the elections. And so there are units there that are working very actively to sort of take down the Russian bots that – and target the St. Petersburg group. He also set up within the Joint Staff in the Pentagon a unit that is protecting against Chinese infiltration, cyber infiltration, which is more focused on stealing secrets. But as I walked out of the Pentagon last night I actually was talking to one of the members of that team who said that, well, basically they had stolen everything. So we’re just preparing ourselves for the next wave of innovation, to try to protect that. So that didn’t make me feel any better, but that’s what they’re focused on. So Jim Mattis did have a pretty big role in setting out, even without the presidential authority, a way to combat this threat.
Beverly Kirk: Before we move onto audience questions – so if you need a card to write down a question, please raise your hand and the folks in the back will make sure that you get a card to write down your question and pass it forward.
We have a new defense secretary, just confirmed today, Mark Esper. Is he going to keep that up? What you mentioned that Jim Mattis put into effect?
Jennifer Griffin: Oh, I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t. In fact, if you heard him at his confirmation hearing, when he was asked whether he was more along the Jim Mattis line of defense secretary or whether he was going to side with President Trump on everything, he actually came out on the side of Mattis, which I thought was pretty bold during a confirmation hearing. But I think what’s interesting at the Pentagon right now is that we have really faced an incredible vacuum. For something that – for an institution that has $738 billion, largest budget in our government, it is a power vacuum right now. And Mark Esper being confirmed is going to help to some degree, but he’s already coming in with a weak hand.
Already for the last seven months not having a defense secretary in position, other than an acting defense secretary – Secretary of State Pompeo has become the power center. I saw yesterday he was down giving a speech to the VFW, not the defense secretary. Normally it would be the defense secretary. Veterans of Foreign Wars. Why is the secretary of state? Usually that’s reserved for people who are running for president – which maybe he is someday. But it was notable that between him and John Bolton, they have really taken the national security power. And so Mark Esper’s going to have to come in and try and reestablish the Pentagon. But, you know, the lights have pretty much gone out at the Pentagon in terms of any kind of press briefings. I mean, we have fewer press briefings than the White House does, and that’s not saying much. (Laughter.)
Susan Glasser: Well, it’s been 130 days.
Jennifer Griffin: Well, I think we’ve been over a year, for a spokesman. So we’re really in a very unusual time at the Pentagon.
Lara Seligman: Yeah. I mean, talk about press freedoms, the Pentagon press briefing has barely been used in the last year or so. I think there was a tweet – there was a tweet that I saw, a former advisor to Jim Mattis, was saying, oh, look, now that Pakistan is in the news now, that Trump is talking about Pakistan, now finally everyone is talking about Afghanistan. And one of the reporters replied to her: Well, if you had had a briefing about Afghanistan, and you talked to us about Afghanistan, maybe we would write more about it. So it’s not necessarily the press’ fault that, you know, we’re not – these kind of situations, like in Afghanistan, are not in the news as much. It’s really driven by the president. And he is more often than not just doing policy by tweet.
And the really scary thing about that, I think, is that the American people seem to really like that. To the extent where the national security advisor is even taking up that strategy as well. He’s tweeting as well. There was a really interesting series of instances that Jen will remember over the last week or so, where the – we have this rift with Turkey over buying a Russian missile system. And you know, it’s been coming for years. They should have been prepared for it. The Pentagon, in fact, was ready to go with a briefing. But they stopped – they were not allowed to do the briefing. They postponed it and postponed it because the president – they had to wait for the president to basically announce his policy, which he did via tweet, I believe.
So when you have a national security enterprise that’s stymied by what the president is saying on Twitter and the fact that he could change his mind – and he’s the only person, not anyone else on his national security staff, that knows what’s going to happen. So when you have a situation like that, it just really – it really shuts down the conversation.
Susan Glasser: Well, Lara, I think that is a great example, actually, because, first of all, not only would there have been extensive Pentagon briefings but, actually, of course, this would have been a big part of the White House press briefing itself as well, because this is a major rift with a NATO ally. It’s been years where the United States has tried to head off the Russian purchase of this. And you know, it represents, I think all of the things that we’re talking about, right? There are different policy fights with different, you know, specifics to them.
But it just – it represents a break that is sort of a non-ideological and yet quite fundamental, almost systemic break with how we’ve run national security in the last few decades. In other words, it’s not about any particular individual policy fight, or even the fact that President Trump has as different world view than, arguably, previous leaders from both Republican and Democratic Parties. But that the president has also chosen to govern and use his foreign policy executive authority in a way that’s just simply radically different than anything I think that we’ve ever seen.
Beverly Kirk: We have a question on Venezuela. Venezuela is arguably a key issue for the campaigns given the importance of Florida voters, since many people who have fled Venezuela have ended up in Florida. Yet, according to this question, no real difference between the parties has emerged in terms of their policy approach toward Venezuela. How do campaigns differentiate themselves on this crisis? Or, dare I say, are they even paying attention? It’s Latin America. We don’t talk about Latin America that much.
Jennifer Griffin: Well, I don’t think you’re going to hear the president talking about Venezuela on the campaign trail, because when his national security team promised him that a coup would occur, it didn’t happen. And you notice they pivoted pretty quickly to Iran after that. And that’s when we started hearing so much about Iran, is when the Venezuela coup didn’t materialize. And you know – you know, it’s a problem when they send the Vice President down to – that’s when you know the president feels that whatever he’s been sold in terms of a policy is not working.
And so I don’t think you’re going to hear as much about Venezuela on the campaign trail. And the – some of the feeling at the time was that the president wanted to use Venezuela as an example of a socialist country that failed. But I think it’s a murky situation at best for a campaign issue.
Susan Glasser: Yeah. Although, you do still hear him, you know, sort of making these very outlandish claims that, you know, any Democrat who doesn’t like it – and this week it’s these four Democratic congresswomen but it may turn back to the Democratic presidential candidates, essentially want to turn America into, you know, a socialist hellscape. And you know, he himself is relatively undeterred by the lack of actual results. It’s something to talk about. I do think it’s an element of the rhetoric he’s unlikely to let go of. But you know, that, to me, is a really fascinating example of the almost Kremlinology that we’re all forced into right now, right?
So you have – clearly this is a pet project of John Bolton. And how can you tell that? Well, because as Kremlinologists, you know we don’t, you know, have human sources. We have Twitter now. And so we can see that Bolton has taken to using his twitter feed. And it’s almost exclusively about Venezuela. Whereas, you actually hear the president very little talking about Venezuela and Pompeo very little talking about Venezuela or tweeting about it in public statements. So you can kind of gather that it’s a pet project, if you will, of John Bolton. How long with John Bolton last as national security advisor? Will this project outlive his tenure in the White House?
Beverly Kirk: In the age of America first, how can we encourage Americans to care more about foreign policy? (Laughter.)
Jennifer Griffin: We’ve been trying to do that for 30 years. (Laughter.)
Lara Seligman: Well, I think that one thing that Americans do seem to care about – and we touched on this earlier – is bringing home the troops from the forever wars. That’s been – even on the Democratic campaign trail, that’s something that everyone seems to agree on. We need to end these forever wars and bring the troops home. So I think that’s one way that these candidates and President Trump as well can reach the American people. And I think that the Democratic candidates can argue, and rightly so, that though the president has said he is bringing troops home, he hasn’t actually done it yet. He hasn’t actually put this into practice. Whatever he may tweet, he has not actually successfully managed to bring the troops home yet.
So I think that the Democrats – the contenders have reality on their side in this one. And I think that they can – if they can come up with a more detailed solution to – and emphasizing working with allies and partners to bring about some kind of end, or at least solution to these forever wars, where you have the allies and partners actually taking control of their own problems – in Syria, in Afghanistan – and bring the troops home, then I think that’s a place that the contenders can actually draw a comparison between themselves and President Trump that will actually – the American people will listen to.
Jennifer Griffin: Well, I wouldn’t count out the president bringing troops home from Afghanistan in the next year and a half. I think they’re setting the table for that with the meeting with the Pakistani prime minister and the Taliban talks in Qatar. I mean, it’s a pretty high priority. So I think it would be – I would expect on the eve of the election something like that to happen – whether it’s a good idea or not. I mean, that we can debate. That we can debate. But –
Susan Glasser: That’s true. Well, it’s better than nuking 10 million people, which was the other unbelievably alarming thing that the president said yesterday, which goes back to this question of, like, essentially is foreign policy conversation actually going to end up being a proxy conversation in 2020 for what the heck was that? You know, that was really one of the most extraordinary things I really ever seen a president of the United States say. And what was fascinating about it was that he said it not once, like, as an aside, but several different times, suggesting that there had been a briefing or something that had stuck in his head, or that he even wanted to say, like, hey I could nuke you, but I’m so generous I’m instead going to hand the country over to the Taliban. (Laughter.) It’s a very interesting either-or.
But you know, again, so that’s one aspect. But it goes to, you know, this questioner’s excellent point. Do we actually want Americans to care more about foreign policy in an election context, or not? You know, there is a really interesting historical argument to be made that basically foreign policy really only figures into American domestic politics when something’s gone terribly wrong.
Jennifer Griffin: A 9/11 type of thing.
Susan Glasser: You know – exactly. Or a Vietnam War. And that – you know, is that – is that a conversation that’s going to, you know, really benefit or illuminate anything other than the starkness of our national divide? So that’s one way of looking at it.
The other point that I think is an important one – and, again, I think you’re probably hear more about this – and I totally agree with Jen that Trump is conscious of wanting to deliver on some of these things that he thinks are popular going into 2020. But the flipside is, you know, you talk to a lot of people who spent their careers, you know, trying to understand geopolitical risk. The situation we’re in right now is so unconventional is that essentially the United States and our own domestic politics are arguably the biggest geopolitical risk in the world. You know, the truth is that Afghanistan is a terrible situation that has been going on for 19 years. The truth is, is that nobody really expects Jared Kushner to deliver Middle East peace, or to change the situation radically. What’s changing is the United States and the role that it plays in the world.
And so there has been a weird fusion, in effect, of our domestic political conversation and the geopolitical conversation. And so, you know, it’s just a really, really different environment going into this election than any other election.
Beverly Kirk: Because Boris Johnson – I almost said Boris Yeltsin. (Laughter.) Because Boris Johnson just was chosen as the party leader in Britain and will tomorrow go before her majesty and ask to form a government, how do you see the special relationship changing because of Johnson’s victory in a United States where there might be a President Biden?
Lara Seligman: Well, a good example of this, actually, just happened in the past couple of days with Iran. So the U.S. has proposed a maritime coalition to help out with policing in the Gulf. And what we saw yesterday was the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt saying, actually, we are going to start our own coalition to police Iran in the Gulf. So you’ve already seen, interestingly, the British government kind of breaking out and trying to go their own way in terms of – in terms of national security and Iran specifically. So I think that Britain will probably try to take a step forward and maybe assert itself a little bit more in terms of the rest of the world.
But I also think that they are going to need the United States. And I think that Boris Johnson will probably try to cultivate that relationship with President Trump, while at the same time trying to distinguish Britain from the rest of the world, and from Europe in particular. So I think it’ll be a really interesting relationship to watch, especially as we saw all these little kind of poking that they – has been going on between the two countries recently, with the resignation of the ambassador in particular. I don’t – I think that rubbed a lot of Brits the wrong way. So I think there will be this really interesting sort of push and pull that we’ll see between the two countries going forward.
Jennifer Griffin: I think you’ll see a very close relationship between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. I think you’ll get Nigel Farage or somebody as the ambassador here. And you’re going to see a very – it’s going to be us against the world with the Brits. But what you’re also – I laughed when you said that the Brits and the French had set up their own maritime protection group, because there was a great tweet from one of the senior British national security advisors saying: But the U.S. is the only one with any assets. (Laughter.) So you know, and look how well did the Brits do in terms of protecting their ships going through? So right now, now the U.S. is saying, hey, we’re going to lead from behind. We’re not actually going to put our warships out there and escort ships.
So I think it’s very much a – it’s a mess in the Strait of Hormuz. And I think the Iranians are having a great time poking at all – and they’re going to create divisions. And they’d love to bait the president into some sort of military action. And it’s no coincidence that there were reports that some of his chief advisors and some of them on my own network had told him the only way to lose the next election is to start a war with Iran. So the president’s very aware of that. And I think you’re going to see – they’re going to take this brinksmanship right up to the line, and not any further.
Susan Glasser: So I agree with Jen totally on that analysis, on the Iran side. I would say when it comes to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which is almost as unlikely a three words – four words as President Donald Trump, you know, the interesting trick for him is, you know, what does it mean to embrace Donald Trump? And Britain desperately needs the United States if it’s going to pursue the Brexit strategy that Johnson has promised. And remember, he has promised a Brexit by Halloween, October 31st. The exact Brexit deal proposed by Theresa May failed three times. There’s nothing at all on the table right now that has any better prospects of passing Parliament. And just because he’s won election as the Conservative Party’s leader does not in fact change the numbers. If anything, it may harden some of the opposition to the Tory’s Brexit plan, as his opponents push for a new general election.
And so the question that I have is now that he’s gotten the position of prime minister, due to help from Donald Trump who took the very unusual step of essentially intervening in British domestic politics and pushing openly for Boris Johnson, elevating him even over his interlocutor at the time, Prime Minister May. That’s obviously not a normal intervention in another country’s politics. What is Boris Johnson going to get out of Donald Trump? That is really not clear at all. And that’s going to be fascinating, because Britain is desperate for a few free trade agreement with the United States, a bilateral agreement that would help to ease the pain of Brexit. There’s no significant signs – and frankly there’s basically zero election year prospects that the United States would be able to deliver on that. So my question is, like, for all of you, to watch very closely, is Boris Johnson disappointed in what a bear hug from Donald Trump means.
Beverly Kirk: OK, we have time for two more questions. And as you can see I have more than two questions here. But I will combine the media question as a final question. But there is one question about what can the next president do in the next term to repair American leadership on the world stage? And that – the assumption behind that question is that you’re unhappy with current American leadership on the world stage. But, you know, does American leadership need repairing? Back to your point about how interested are Americans actually in foreign policy.
Lara Seligman: Well, for starters, he could fill all the vacancies at the Pentagon and the State Department. That would be a good start. (Laughs.) Aside from that, you know, he could – I mean, the real question is, does he want to, right? Does he want to really be – does he want to take us away from what he’s being doing now, which is more America first, right? Does he want to really be a leader on the world stage? And do the American people understand that? And do the American people want more of that now too?
Beverly Kirk: Go ahead.
Susan Glasser: Well, I mean, I just think your point is actually an interesting way of phrasing the question in that what does it mean to have – right now, we have a very, very unpopular president. Before we had a very popular president. Many of the problems are very similar, right? There’s a few –
Jennifer Griffin: Overseas.
Susan Glasser: Yeah, exactly, internationally. Well, also domestically. We have a very unpopular president. But, again, what does that mean? You know, it’s not necessarily the case that because our partners in Europe don’t like Donald Trump – you know, the U.K. is a great example. Donald Trump is extremely unpopular in Great Britain, even among many conservative voters. But there’s still a great interest in – a national interest in the U.K. in working with the United States. They don’t have an alternative to go anywhere in terms of security.
So, you know, the question of consequences and, you know, viewing international relations as a popularity contest is challenging, right? You know, Europe didn’t like George W. Bush because of the Iraq War. They loved Barack Obama as the anti-Bush. Obviously many of our traditional partners in Europe are very down on President Trump. In the first year of his presidency there were only, I think, a small handful – maybe even like three countries in the world where President Trump was more popular than Barack Obama – Russia, Israel, not sure where else. What are the consequences of it? Is it something that’s going to cause Donald Trump or even a Democratic successor to make policy? I’m skeptical. I think it’s a lagging indicator, not a leading indicator.
Jennifer Griffin: But I think – I think what we’re not – or, we’re coming around to realizing is that more and more leaders around the world are starting to look more like Donald Trump, and that Donald Trump is not aberration. This is – this is – we are in a period where more and more countries are looking towards strongmen. And so – you know, I think the presumption that there’ll be this return to normalcy is really a presumption.
Beverly Kirk: Well, I will wrap up with – there are three different media-related questions here. And unfortunately don’t have time to ask all three and give you each a chance to answer all three. So I’m going to put them out there and you pick which one you want to answer.
If you could advisor federal government officials working on countering foreign interference in the elections, how would you suggest combatting the disinformation? And I’m going to do a commercial for CSIS because we have one report already out on the gray zone and another report coming out later this week on gray zone activities, which is what countering foreign interference in an election basically boils down to. It’s that area between diplomacy and full-on warfare. But how would – you know, what would you say if wanted to fight back against this? That’s one question.
You talked earlier about the lack of Democratic foreign policy priorities. What about journalists choosing to focus on issues such as China, Russia, election security? And then finally, what might a federal government role in fostering sustainable local media look like? Which is not a point we talked about, but local media is certainly very important.
Lara Seligman: Yeah, that last point , I think, is really, really important, and kind of goes back to something that I was saying earlier about the state of journalism. I mean, I think about one of the biggest problems today, and one of the things that is causing the great polarity in this nation, is the fact that there just aren’t as many journalists covering these local issues anymore. And they’re not – and there’s not as many journalists covering issues in nuanced ways anymore in particular. And that’s not just local journalism. That’s every piece of journalism. That’s foreign policy as well – you know, breaking it down into simple terms for clickbait that they think people want to read.
So I mean, it’s a difficult question because can – is there a role for the government to play in giving some of these journalistic efforts money? Is there – is there a role that they can play in sponsoring young journalists? I think you get into kind of a gray area when you talk about the government funding some of these publications. That seems very un-American. But I think that the government can do more to maybe sponsor young journalists, sponsor programs for young journalists to maybe meet older journalists that are more experienced and know how to do this well. So I think it’s a difficult question, but one that’s definitely worth exploring.
Jennifer Griffin: I actually don’t think there’s a lack of young people who want to be journalists. I think the problem is that there aren’t – that we have so many newspapers that are failing and places where local news organizations are going under and closing, that really the only model that I see working is not a government-sponsored kind of journalism – because, A, that’s not going to be trusted, and certainly in this current environment. But what the Philadelphia Inquirer has done is you have foundations who are buying newspapers in cities where – and so if we get away from the profit incentive, and start to decide on both sides of the aisle that a shared set of facts and good journalism is something we believe in, then these foundations, like the Gates Foundation and others, everyone can – it’s like adopt a city, adopt a newspaper, and let’s get back to good local reporting.
I’ve been involved with a group called Report for America that started a year ago. It’s based on the same model as Teach for America, getting young people to go out to places where there aren’t journalists located. So – and so we go through – we had something like 8,000 applications for 80 positions. And these are all young people who want to be journalists. And we could fund 80. And through some great grants that are coming through from foundations, like the Pew Foundation, they are going out to the border, they’re going out to Appalachia, they’re going out to places in West Virginia that haven’t had journalists. So we have to take these models. And I think we have to decide that journalism is worth saving. And it has to – there has to – we have to take the profit incentive out of it.
Susan Glasser: So I think that is fantastic. And by the way, Jen’s work in that group – that’s a really – that’s a great new model. And I think the crisis in local journalism is real. And it’s probably even more serious than you thought about.
But in terms of what we’re talking about today, in terms of, you know, America’s role in the world stage and how the crisis in our democracy affects it, that’s what I would leave you with because I do think these are related, but they are slightly different things. And I do – I do think that we’re having a crisis, both internationally and inside our democracy. And the war on journalism, and the war on truth is part of it. And it’s very hard and even astonishing to say that, but you know, it’s not – it’s not a partisan thing to say that. It’s simply something I never expected in my lifetime.
And you know, I spent four years in Moscow as the Washington Post bureau chief along with my husband during the period when Vladimir Putin came to power. And I have to tell you, if you had told me – and that was less than 20 years ago – that I would be living in Washington 20 years later and the president of the United States would be calling journalists enemies of the people, and because we were such a divided country there would be people who said don’t pay attention to it and it doesn’t matter, and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about – you know, come on, folks. You know, we’re better than that.
And we are having a crisis in values. And, you know, believe me, journalists who are worth their salt have spent a lot of time taking a piece out of Democrats and Republicans. It’s not a partisan thing. It’s an American thing to say that we’re having a crisis in our country if the president of the United States calls journalists enemies of the people. So when I lived in Russia there’s a phrase called “vrag naroda,” and that means “enemy of the people.” And that is the sentence that was used to condemn millions of people to the gulag, OK, enemies of the people. There is no mistaking what that means, where that phrase comes from, and the fact that the president is using a Stalinist term to refer to journalists is something that is in fact making the United States of America today a geopolitical crisis.
Now, does it mean the end of the world? Does it mean – no. Does it come from nowhere? Absolutely not. Jen’s point is super important and well-taken, which is to say that Trumpism is not a phenomenon that is confined to Trump or to the United States. We’ve seen a global trend over the past 13 years, according to Freedom House, in which the number of democracies around the world has declined over the last 13 years. So obviously we are living in a moment of time that, you know, people like me didn’t expect when we graduated from college at the period of the end of the Cold War, and what we thought was a global march toward democracy.
So, you know, I’d just leave you with that big picture context, because, you know, I don’t know the right answer. And it’s kind of disconnected in many ways from our traditional conversation about Iran, or Afghanistan, or North Korea. Those are important and valuable conversations . This other conversation is kind of this big, wild elephant in the room, if you will. But thank you so much to you, Beverly, and to everybody here tonight. I really appreciate it.
Beverly Kirk: Well, thank you all. And before you go, I should note that Helene Cooper from The New York Times was supposed to join us on this panel tonight. And as the life of a journalist will tell you, she was called at the last moment to do a work trip to New York. So she wasn’t able to join us tonight. But she did send her apologies. She really did want to be here tonight. But thank you all very much. And as a formal local reporter, I can’t tell you how much I believe that local journalism is critical in this country. It has nothing to do with what we’re here to talk about tonight, but the Miami Herald is the sole reason that Jeffery Epstein is in jail. (Applause.) So thanks again.
And for all of you fans of Smart Women, Smart Power, we’re taking the month of August off and we’ll be back with you with more events coming in the fall. And I hope you’ll be able to join us then. Thanks again.
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