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A Conversation With Jake Sullivan

Jake Sullivan discusses the Biden administration’s work over the first year in office to address the current and future challenges facing the United States

  • Council on Foreign Relations | 22/12/2021

Council on Foreign Relations

SpeakerJake Sullivan

Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, Executive Office of the PresidentPresiderRichard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction@RichardHaass 

Jake Sullivan discusses the Biden administration’s work over the first year in office to address the current and future challenges facing the United States.

HAASS: Well, it’s like old times. (Laughter.) With slight exceptions. Well, welcome to today’s meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s one of the final meetings of this, our 100th year as an institution. For those of you I haven’t seen in one or two years, I’m still Richard Haass. (Laughter.) Still the president of the Council. And our guest today is Jake Sullivan, the twenty-eighth assistant to the president for national security affairs, more commonly known as the national security adviser. You have his bio before you. I want to point out one lapse, one omission, that it left out the most important piece of his background, that for several months over two decades ago he was an intern at the Council on Foreign Relations. (Laughter.) I’m not quite sure why that was scrubbed, but I’ll probably come up in the Q&A part.

We obviously have members here in the room in Washington, D.C., and across the country. The plan this morning for Mr. Sullivan, who had a long commute to get here—that’s also a joke, if you know your geography. Didn’t do as well as the previous one. Jake is going to deliver some remarks, some opening remarks. Then he and I, I’ll join him up here for a conversation, and then he’s agreed to take questions from our members, both in the room and in virtual land. And we’ll juggle it. We’re starting a little bit late so we may go on a little bit over, if that’s OK with you and with others here. And glad to see everybody masked up and being as safe as we can under the circumstances.

So with that, Jake, the microphone is yours.

SULLIVAN: Well, thank you, Richard. And I will fix that oversight promptly. But part of the reason I scrubbed it is because I was actually an intern for the previous president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and I wouldn’t want to detract from the glamor of the current president. (Laughter.)

It is a genuine pleasure to be here in person with so many friends, people I’ve engaged with over the years. This is still, of course, a novelty, in-person events, one that we’ve all learned not to take for granted. And I’m grateful for those of you who are here and those who are watching as part of the extended CFR family, and the public beyond. You know, I was reflecting as I was coming over here how remarkable it is that we find ourselves nearly a full year into the Biden administration and the holidays are now upon us. The days have been long. They have been very long, in some cases. But this year has actually felt incredibly short, now that we’re coming to the end of 2021.

One year ago, we were in the process of navigating our way through a challenging transition and preparing to take the helm at an unbelievably tough moment for our country, both domestically and globally. At home one year ago, deaths from COVID-19 were rising without limit, seemingly. The economy was reeling. Supply chains had cracked. Internationally, every region of the world was grappling with its own version of the twin health and economic crises that we were facing here at home while this significant disjuncture in American foreign policy over the previous four years left an impact crater. Whether you think for good or for ill, it left an impact crater worldwide that, from my perspective, we are still working to dig out from that crater. It was daunting and it is daunting. It’s a challenging world out there. But we face it with a sense of confidence and purpose in our strategy and policy as we approach the end of 2021.

Standing before you today a year later, I believe, fundamentally, that the United States is in a better strategic position than the day we took office and that is because President Biden has set forth and then asked us to execute a vision of America’s renewed role in the world, one that is measured to match our times, that really, fundamentally, is about both investing in ourselves here at home and then leveraging the force of alliances and partnerships globally to take on the great challenges of our time.

We’ve had to make tough calls. We’ve had to deal with crises. We’ve had to deal with tragedies. But through that and everything that has been thrown at us, we have been steadily, month by month, building a foundation to confidently and effectively prevail against the full range of threats and challenges we’ll face in the years and decades ahead, those that arise from nation state competitors and those like climate and COVID and nuclear proliferation that confront all nation states.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Dean Acheson spoke more than once, as many of you know, about the concept of situations of strength. It’s a simple idea but profoundly important for U.S. foreign policy in his time and in ours. A cornerstone of our national security and foreign policy strategy should be working to put the United States in situations of strength for whatever particular crisis or challenge we face and for every opportunity that we seek to seize, and under difficult circumstances over the past eleven months that is precisely what we’ve worked to do.

At the beginning, that meant, really, reclaiming America’s place at the multilateral table—rejoining the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization on day one, extending the New START agreement for five years to preserve the only remaining treaty between—that would safeguard nuclear stability between the United States and Russia, an agreement that would have expired within weeks of our coming into office.

At the same time that we were exercising the effort to come back onto the world stage, we were putting an enormous amount of effort and emphasis—and when I say we, it starts with President Biden and, obviously, at the center, it was our domestic team. But the National Security Council was right at the heart of this as well, of replenishing our own reservoir of strength here at home. That is the North Star of this administration, and we in the NFC have supported our colleagues over the past year to secure the passage of once-in-a-generation investments in precisely those areas we have too long neglected—our infrastructure, our innovation, our human capital—to overhaul, modernize, and make resilient the basic building blocks of our economy and society. And that work is not done, but we have made huge strides and we are putting our shoulder to the wheel to get the remaining pieces in place.

There is nothing inevitable about the United States being able to maintain our core strength and comparative geostrategic advantage in innovation, in talent, in capital, and entrepreneurship. It must be renewed, revitalized, stewarded, and that is a national security imperative as well as an economic and social imperative.

As national security adviser walking into an office on day one where key functions had badly atrophied across our government, that has also meant building a National Security Council that is structured and staffed to contribute to these investments, so driving issues that sit at the intersection of domestic and foreign policy, like energy prices or ransomware or tax policy or supply chains or the manifold questions of technology that we face as we go forward.

Over the past year, I’m proud that we built at the National Security Council an outfit that has positioned us to be not only responsive but out in front of these nontraditional challenges that are going to become increasingly traditional in national security conversations, going forward.

So, step one, replenish our reservoir of strength at home. Step two, build a latticework of alliances and partnerships globally that are fit for purpose for the challenges of this century. When we came into office, we were in a deep, deep hole with a lot of our allies. And the path out of that hole has not been perfectly smooth over the past year. But as we stand here in December of 2021, I believe that our core alliances are in fundamentally good shape, and in the kind of shape we need them to be in to deal with both great power competitors and with the significant transnational challenges of our time.

Today Europe and the United States are fundamentally aligned on the biggest challenges we face. You look at what the European Union just came out and said today with respect to the threat posed by Russia to Ukraine, you look at the European Union and the E3 sitting with the United States in Vienna on the JCPOA, on both Iran and Russia, and growing alignment on the challenge posed by China. And we are on the same page when it comes to trade, technology, and climate to an increasing degree, in ways that are actually really producing results.

And this is important because much of the power—much of what we think of as power will be measured and exercised in the twenty-first century in economic terms, according to trade and technology. And our focus these past eleven months has been on bringing democracies and market economies of the world together to set the rules of the road in these areas. So from a global methane pledge, to the commitment to the global minimum tax, to the launch of the Trade and Technology Council, this is a work in progress, but we have significant progress under our belt.

A year ago, the EU was finalizing a wide-ranging investment agreement with China and reticent to speak out in dangerous Chinese economic and human rights abuses. Today that deal is on ice, and nations came together at the most productive G-7 in memory to condemn forced labor in Xinjiang. A year ago, the U.S. and the EU were levying new damaging tariffs on one another. Today we’ve resolved significant trade disputes on airplanes, on steel and aluminum. And we’ve done so in a way that protects our workers and also rises to the non-market economic challenges that China poses. A year ago, we were isolated from our closest partners on how to deal with the nuclear threat from Iran. Today we stand shoulder-to-shoulder, just as we do, as I mentioned before, on Russia. Speaking with one voice on both the severe consequences that Russia will face if it further invades Ukraine, and on the diplomatic path forward we seek, in concert with our allies, to safeguard stability and security in Europe.

And just as we have revitalized the transatlantic relationship, we’ve done so in every region of the world: elevating the Quad to leader level, launching an innovative and far-reaching security partnership with AUKUS, restoring the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines, reengaging with ASEAN and APEC as cornerstones of our engagement in the Indo-Pacific, hosting the leaders of Japan and Korea for remarkably substantive and successful visits. Here in our hemisphere, we’ve revived the North American Leaders Summit to consult with our closest neighbors, and we’ve now launched an effort to build a regional migration framework that will tackle what has become truly a hemispheric-wide challenge. We focused on deterrence, diplomacy, and de-escalation in the Middle East. We’ve reengaged with the nations of Africa after four years of neglect.

Now, operating from a position of strength, building this latticework of flexible partnerships, institutions, alliances, groups of countries that could tackle problems, does not mean that we don’t face real challenges that we haven’t faced setbacks. The DPRK hasn’t halted its forward progress. Unrestrained because of the catastrophic decision of the previous administration on the JCPOA, Iran is driving its nuclear capability forward. Ethiopia remains a deeply challenging, even tragic, civil conflict that resists active diplomacy for now, although we continue to work, day-in, day-out, on that front. The world is anything but calm. We have multiple overlapping crises that will continue to test us. We’re going to have to make hard choices going forward, just as we’ve had to make hard choices today.

Afghanistan was one of those hard choices. The scenes over the course of August in Afghanistan were harrowing. The human costs, heartbreaking for Afghans, for people who served there. But President Biden also had to think about the human costs of the alternative path as well, of remaining in the middle of a civil conflict in Afghanistan. But when you conclude twenty years of military action in a civil war with the impact of twenty years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make hard calls, none of them with clean outcomes. What you can do is plan for contingencies, to flow thousands of troops to an airport, to be able to rescue tens of thousands of people and get them out of harm’s way.

Standing here in December, that strategic decision remains the right decision. For the first time in twenty years, there are no U.S. troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan this holiday season. We safely and effectively drew down our diplomatic presence. We lifted tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans to safety in a unique American example of capacity, commitment, and shared logistics. And through our diplomacy and deterrence, we have been able in the months that followed August 31st to off a plane seat to every American who has wanted to leave Afghanistan. And we continue to fly SIVs and other vetted Afghans out regularly. And we will continue to do that in the months ahead as we follow through on the commitment that President Biden made.

We also believe that the end to this conflict in Afghanistan has better positioned us to take a full-scale, comprehensive, integrated approach to the changing nature of terrorism in today’s world, across continents, geographies, groups, and tactics. And fundamentally, as President Biden has said, we have to deal with the problem of terrorism not as it existed in 2001, but as it exists in 2021 heading into 2022. And across the board, we believe that we are better able to focus on the issues and challenges that will define the next twenty years, not being bogged down or dragged back by the past. Under President Biden, we think based on the painstaking work—a lot of which is not glamorous, a lot of which does not grab the headlines—we are positioned to leverage renewed domestic and international strength to win what I believe will be a decisive decade, between now and the early 2030s.

Just a couple of other points, in closing. We’ll talk more when we get into the Q&A on big questions relating to Russia and China. But part of what we have tried to set up for is to put the United States in a position to deal both with those challenges that come from beyond nation-states, to be able to rally effective coalitions to address the climate crisis, to beat COVID and build back better for future pandemics, to set the rules of the road in critical areas like trade and technology. And that requires one form of diplomacy, but it fundamentally rests on the same two things that dealing with China rests on. Which are investing in our sources of strength so that we have maximum capacity to bring to bear and building those alliances and partnerships so that we can solve those problems and we can deal with a China or a Russia when they pose a threat or a challenge to our interests and values.

And so whatever the particular nature of the issue that we have to confront, we believe the fundamental recipe is sound. We are relentless in the way that we are trying to execute against that. And though it’s only been one year, the first of an administration that has a great deal of work ahead of it and new tests arising every day on the horizon, we do believe that we have a stronger foundation for America to capture opportunities, to face down crises, and to confidently and effectively prevail against anything that the world throws at us. And that we’ll be prepared to throw a heck of a lot against these problems in the months and years ahead. And I thank you for giving me the opportunity to give your opening remarks, and now look forward to, you know, really being able to get into a back and forth, first with Richard and then with all of you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

HAASS: Well, thank you, Jake. You alluded in your opening comments to big questions about Russia and China, so let’s begin with big questions about Russia and China. Let’s start with Russia and Ukraine, the immediate crisis. The president has taken off the table the idea of a direct U.S. military response in Ukraine. And the emphasis has been on sanctions and support for Ukraine—sanctions against Russia, support for Ukraine. What can you say on—about the diplomatic side? Essentially the Russians, as we read in the paper today, have essentially said they’re not—they don’t simply want Ukraine out of NATO, but they want NATO out of much of Eastern Europe. What is our sense of the conversation we’re prepared to hold with the Russians about European security?

SULLIVAN: So we have been clear, as the United States, and just yesterday, the thirty nations of the NATO alliance were clear in a statement that came out of the North Atlantic Council, we’re prepared for dialogue with Russia. We’ve had dialogue with Russia on European security issues for the last twenty years. We had it with the Soviet Union for decades before that. That has sometimes produced progress, sometimes produced deadlock. But we are fundamentally prepared for dialogue. Russia has now put on the table its concerns with American and NATO activities. We’re going to put on the table our concern with Russian activities that we believe harm our interests and values. That’s the basis of reciprocity upon which you would pursue any kind of dialogue. We can make progress in some other areas; in other areas, we’re just going to have to disagree, and that’s in the nature of dialogue as well. But fundamentally our strategy is going to be to coordinate closely, to have allied unity, and then be prepared to sit with Russia and respond positively to the idea that we can have a discussion in the appropriate format on the principle of nothing about you without you, and see where it takes us.

HAASS: I’ll expect others will want to follow up, but let me get a few other issues on the table before we open things up, which is China. And in particular, we’ve had interesting public comments in recent days and weeks by the leadership of both Australia and Japan about Taiwan and how seriously they took Taiwan’s security predicament, how they were prepared to go to bat for it, and here we are, after Afghanistan, after what the Obama administration did and didn’t do in Syria, after Hong Kong, Crimea, what the previous administration did to the Kurds, now Ukraine, where we’ve ruled out direct defense. Why not be clear about our willingness to come to Taiwan’s aid if China acts aggressively against it? How—particularly given what we’ve done in Ukraine, and how do we explain why we would be prepared to help Taiwan if we’re not prepared to help Ukraine?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think the U.S. position when it comes to Taiwan actually is clear because it’s a position that we have sustained to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait for decades. It is rooted in the “One China” policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, the three communiques. And the Taiwan Relations Act is a unique instrument—we don’t have it with other countries; we don’t have it with Ukraine—that does talk about American commitments to support Taiwan in various ways. But the whole purpose of American policy towards Taiwan and towards cross-strait relations is fundamentally designed to ensure that we never face a circumstance in which we need to directly answer the question that you posed. That is how we have approached things in the Biden administration, and to the extent that we see China diverging from the kinds of policies that could help maintain peace and stability, that they are taking actions that undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, we will call them out, and we have called them out because we believe that there is a formula that works to maintain the status quo, to not have unilateral changes to that status quo. That is what the Biden administration is pursuing and we think that that is well understood by our partners and should be well understood in Beijing.

HAASS: I will keep hopscotching around the world and then I’m counting on our members for the follow-ups, unless I can’t resist.

You mentioned Afghanistan and you emphasized what you thought was the correct strategic decision. As you know from our exchanges, that’s not a unanimous view up on this stage here. And you talk a lot about the efforts we’ve made to get people out, Americans and Afghans. Let’s talk about what seems to be now the biggest immediate issue, which is you’ve got millions of people in Afghanistan who are on the precipice—I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say—of death, as winter approaches, mass starvation, a lack of access to medical care, a totally non-functioning economy. And many would say the biggest impediment right now is less the Taliban than it is U.S. sanctions and U.S. influence and various international financial institutions which is making it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for the Afghanistan economy to function. Could you say something about the conversations with the Taliban about conditions that we are suggesting need to be met before help could be forthcoming? Are we prepared to provide certain amounts of help unconditionally?

SULLIVAN: We have and we are providing assistance to Afghanistan. The United States is the largest donor to Afghanistan. We’ve provided nearly half a billion dollars—allocated over half a billion dollars just over the last few months for humanitarian purposes in Afghanistan through the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations. The Treasury Department has issued general licenses to make clear to the United Nations, international institutions, and NGOs that they can operate on the ground in Afghanistan and provide humanitarian assistance, including food assistance, which has been a major part of the emphasis of U.S. aid. We’ve done a general license to allow remittances to flow from Afghans outside the country to their families inside the country. And we have worked with the United Nations and other international institutions to dramatically accelerate the provision of liquidity, as well as resources to ensure that the basic human needs of the people of Afghanistan are being met.

We’re also talking to the Taliban and telling them that to the extent they would like direct assistance from any country, including the United States, they need to live up to their basic obligations, their international humanitarian obligations, their human rights obligations, and their commitments on questions of counterterrorism. We’ve had that conversation directly and clearly with them, and our view is that at the moment, given what we have seen so far, the United States and the international community should be routing aid not through the Taliban government but through international institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

HAASS: And if this situation persists, say, for another couple of months, do you think that a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan could and would be averted, or do we need to consider—if the Taliban are not going to do what we would like them to do in certain areas, are we prepared to consider, for example, unfreezing Afghan, you know, funds in the United States?

SULLIVAN: So the Afghan funds that are frozen in the United States are subject to litigation here. That needs to be worked through. But that is not the proximate issue. The proximate issue is actually getting the relief to people across the country as winter approaches. We’re going to do everything we can financially, logistically, operationally to help what is a really intrepid and remarkable group of people who are out there trying to solve this problem, to help them be able to solve it. This is a problem of immense human significance. As you said, it’s a life-or-death issue and it matters to us in that respect. It’s also a matter of strategic significance, because of course the collapse of Afghanistan in a full and fundamental way will have all kinds of reverberating impacts. So we are attuned to this, we are engaged on it, we are working intensively with international partners, and we’re also calling on other countries in the region to step up and do their part. The United States has a responsibility here, to be sure, but countries in the region, neighboring countries also have a responsibility, and they should be asked to do their part as well.

HAASS: And do you see—speaking of one neighboring country there—that Pakistan, which played a damaging role for two decades in providing sanctuary to the Taliban—do you see any evidence that Pakistan is playing a more responsible role now?

SULLIVAN: You know, there is a lot in terms of the engagement between Islamabad and the folks in the Taliban and the Haqqani network that we do not see, so it is difficult for me to characterize the nature of their role. What I would say is that from the point of view of allowing humanitarian access and allowing other forms of relief, the Pakistani government has also been very worried about the crisis there and has wanted to be forward-leaning in engaging with us, the United States, on trying to address some of these fundamental elements of the humanitarian situation.

On the broader politics of Afghanistan, it’s difficult for me to characterize.

HAASS: You mentioned Iran in your comments. It was obviously you and your colleagues’ preference—I assume it still is—that we get back—we the United States and Iran—get back into the 2015 JCPOA. Two questions: One, how is it going? (Laughter.) And on the off chance not so well, what is the limits to our—as you acknowledge: Iran is well on its way, it’s already in the zip code of becoming what you might call a threshold nuclear weapons state, and the amount of lead time we would have if they decided to make a sprint towards nuclear weapons has been dramatically reduced because we’ve seen the unraveling of the JCPOA—for the record, initiated by us with the unilateral exit by the previous administration in 2018. What are the limits to our tolerance? And does Iran understand that? Do they understand there are limits to American tolerance about their nuclear activities?

SULLIVAN: We have communicated, both through the Europeans and directly to Iran, our view on their continued forward progress on the program, our alarm about it. And I’m not going to say more publicly about what those precise messages are, because I believe that Iran understands them, but don’t want to negotiate in public on them.

To your broader question on how’s it going, it’s not going well in the sense that we do not yet have a pathway back into the JCPOA. The last few days, I think, have brought some progress at the bargaining table. But in the meantime, since we walked away from a deal that had fundamentally put a lid on Iran’s nuclear program, they have raced that program forward. And getting that program back into the box through a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA has proven more difficult over the course of this year than we would have liked to see. And we are paying the wages of the disastrous decision to leave the deal back in 2018.

That being said, what is going well is unity with our European partners, greater alignment with China and Russia, and I think an increasing recognition by Iran that it needs to come to the table in a seriously constructive way and that our patience is by no means unlimited. I’m not going to circle a date on the calendar, next week or next month, but I will say that as they continue to move their program forward, it does imperil the fundamental viability of the JCPOA over time.

HAASS: Lots of people have noted that neither China nor—and particularly Russia—is, shall we say, wildly enthusiastic about Iran having nuclear weapons. Is it your assessment that they’re prepared to do some serious lifting to see that that doesn’t happen?

SULLIVAN: You know, it’s interesting. Back in the 2013-to-2015 timeframe, as the Iran nuclear deal was being negotiated, Russia played a particularly important role in bringing it home. You know, all of the P5+1 had a role to play. But the United States and Russia, even through difficult times—I mean, this was the same time period that Crimea and Ukraine were unfolding—were able to work together quite constructively.

I believe that we actually have constructive engagement in Vienna with Russia. China, over the course of the last week, has leaned forward to try to press the urgency of getting to a deal.

And so I think there is a shared view among the world powers that we have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, that doing so through diplomacy is the best way, and that if we don’t get a diplomatic outcome, the alternatives are deeply problematic from those countries’ perspectives. So that gives them some motivation to try to push for a resolution at the bargaining table.

HAASS: Just one last follow-up to sort of prolong it. Do you think there’s some danger in continuing to repeat the line that it’s essential that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons? Because it seems to, almost like any red line, open up an awful lot of real estate just south of that.

SULLIVAN: I mean, I guess, in some sense, you could calculate what is it—what kind of exact impact does it have on Iran’s thinking with respect to the advance of its nuclear program. But I would say two things about that.

First, we defined the parameters of that program in the JCPOA. So let’s get back to that, because that actually sets the bars and limits well, well, well short of the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Second, and equally importantly, sometimes you just need to speak in plain English and say what’s true. And it’s true that we have, as the object of our policy, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. It’s straightforward. It’s simple. It’s clear. And it helps organize the combination of diplomacy and deterrence that we brought to the table.

HAASS: There’s another country that has quite a—we’ll get to the questions in a minute. There’s another country that already has quite a few nuclear weapons, as well as delivery vehicles—North Korea. It’s been, though, strangely missing, in certain ways, at least publicly, from the foreign-policy agenda of the administration. As you noted, it’s, you know, almost, what, 11 months, plus or minus.

Is this like an iceberg? There’s a ton going on underneath the surface? Or is it simply—in the post-love-letter age, is it—(laughter)—have you had trouble figuring out an approach with North Korea that might have any chance of working?

SULLIVAN: I mean, basically our approach with North Korea when we came in was to look at the last two administrations. And the Obama administration, especially as the policy evolved over the course of the eight years, really adopted this view of strategic patience, which was essentially—I would call it sort of none for none; you know, just kind of let things go. And then the Trump administration in Hanoi pitched all for all, the grand bargain.

And essentially the thrust and purpose of our policy was to come in between those two, to be prepared to engage in diplomacy, to make step-by-step progress towards the ultimate goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We have not gotten traction in diplomacy with North Korea on that over the course of this year. We have communicated our willingness and readiness to engage in that diplomacy. And in that meantime, we’re continuing to enforce our sanctions and align closely with our allies, South Korea and Japan.

And the North Koreans have continued to test certain capabilities, have refrained from other forms of provocation. And we continue to indicate to them, both directly and publicly, as I’m doing right now, that we are prepared to engage to try to make progress against the basic points that were laid down in the Singapore summit back in 2018.

HAASS: Just to decipher on diplo-speak, when you say we haven’t gained traction, does that mean they have or have not specifically rejected what I would call something for something?

SULLIVAN: When I say we haven’t gained traction, we have not sat down at the table with North Korea this year to have that conversation.

HAASS: One or two more issues, and then I’ll open it up. You just had a democracy summit. I’d be curious to hear what you think it actually accomplished. But more broadly, what impact has January 6th had on the ability of the United States to operate in the world? When you go about your business, you meet with your foreign counterparts, the president does, how do you see it having changed the way people see the United States and, as a result, recalibrate, to the extent they have, their relationship with us?

SULLIVAN: January 6th has had a material impact on the view of the United States from the rest of the world, I believe from allies and adversaries alike. Allies look at it with concern and worry about the future of American democracy. Adversaries look at it, you know, more sort of rubbing their hands together and thinking how do we take advantage of this in one way or another.

What President Biden has done over the course of this year is project a deep sense of confidence in what America can be and will be if we make the right investments and pursue the right course in terms of the strength and health of our democracy going forward. But he has also acknowledged, as he did in his remarks at the democracy summit, that these pressures on our democracy, as evidenced, for example, on January 6th, are pressures democracies are feeling the world over.

And that really was the fundamental purpose of pulling countries together. It was not to chest-thump about a particular form of government, though we do also like to do that because we believe democracy is the best form of government. It also was to say, at this moment of challenge for democratic institutions, that emanate both from within and from without, let’s learn lessons from one another. Let’s support one another. And let’s prove, over the course of the next decade, as President Biden has said, that democracy will bear out over autocracy as the form of government that can best deliver in our time.

But it’s a topic. January 6th comes up. It comes up in conversation. And it is brought up by countries that wish us well, and it comes up by countries that wish us ill. And I think political cohesion, political stability, a common commitment across party lines to the basic institutions of American and values of American democracy, those are the kinds of things that would actually provide the kind of national-security propulsion that we really need to be able to serve our interests abroad effectively.

HAASS: Two last questions; then we’ll open it up. Bear with me. Bear with me. I only get two last—we’ll have time. We’re not stopping at two. We’ll have plenty of time. One is on—

SULLIVAN: Captive audience up here, yeah. (Laughter.)

HAASS: One is on climate change. Whatever else you thought of what COP26 in Glasgow accomplished, there was an awful lot it didn’t accomplish. Are you thinking about a more ambitious policy? Because right now, given what China’s saying, what India’s saying, the fact that the world is turning even more than ever, at least in the short run, to coal, we are not closing the gap between where the world should be and where it’s heading on climate. The New York Times has run a very powerful set of images this week about climate change.

Are you contemplating, as an administration—simply, is COP27 more of the same when it meets in Egypt? Or are you prepared to think about something more ambitious?

SULLIVAN: Well, so, first, I think, almost by definition, we have to be more ambition (sic; ambitious), because more ambition is required to get to where we want to go, which is to limit warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. I would not sell short COP26. I think the tangible outcomes on methane, on deforestation, on innovation, are real and will make a real impact.

I also believe the fact that two-thirds of the world’s economy has come in with commitments at COP26 to stay below 1.5 degrees and that a big focus of the next year is going to have to be on that remaining third. And, yes, China is a big part of that as the world’s largest emitter. And I think as the months came into COP26 there was a lot of questions about what is the developed world doing, including whether we’re going to follow through on our financing commitments, and President Biden indicated that we would be doubling our international finance commitments in service of that $100 billion pledge and we intend to follow through on that.

In the months coming out of COP26, I think the focus will shift and the pressure will grow on China to come to the table with something fundamentally more ambitious than what they have put on the table so far. And I don’t say that in some kind of competitive way or challenging way or threatening way, just the reality is that the only way to solve this problem for China as well as for the rest of the world is for that country to step up more. There are other countries that will have to as well.

In terms of tools, one of the interesting things heading into COP26 that, I think, will be a tool that becomes increasingly important is the U.S. and the EU reached agreement to negotiate the first ever sector-based—

HAASS: The steel agreement.

SULLIVAN: —agreement on carbon relating to steel, which is 10 percent—accounts for 10 percent of emissions, and the basic idea being that carbon intensity should be a factor in trade agreements, and I think that intersection, that tool, will become increasingly relevant as we go forward and should have an impact on those countries that are still calculating whether they’re prepared to put forward a nationally-determined contribution that meets the needs that the planet faces.

HAASS: OK. Before regime change comes to the Council, I will not ask any more questions. But just want to repeat for the record the subjects I haven’t gotten to like Latin America, Africa, and COVID, it’s not because they’re not important but I simply want to keep my job.

I see—I can’t see that far with red. Right there. And I apologize. With masks on it’s a little bit hard for me to see people’s faces.

Q: Good afternoon.

HAASS: By the way, let us know who you are. Identify yourself, what you do. And this is all on the record.

Q: Macani Toungara. I’m at USAID.

Pleasure to be here this afternoon. You mentioned in your remarks a reengagement with Africa. Senator Blinken made a critical policy speech in Nigeria outlining a partnership approach to the continent. But with AGOA having a smaller impact compared to its early years, how is the administration meaningfully engaging economically with Africa beyond vaccine diplomacy and how is the administration planning to work with the continent to build back better and, in light of COVID to, potentially, grow its digital economy? Thank you.

SULLIVAN: So one of the flagship initiatives that came out of the G-7 earlier this year, which we have spent the rest of the year building and will formally launch in early 2022, is what we call B3W—Build Back Better World. What it is, fundamentally, is the mobilization of a significant amount of government resources—and it will be reflected in our FY ’23 budget—that then leverages, ultimately, hundreds of billions of dollars of investment for three forms of infrastructure: physical infrastructure, health infrastructure, and digital infrastructure.

Think everything from ports and dams and electricity projects and grids to new vaccine manufacturing and distribution facilities to the form of digital infrastructure that we believe actually protects values and provides an effective alternative to what’s currently being offered to countries in Africa.

We have had delegations go out to meet with heads of state in African countries and multiple regions of Africa to talk about their needs in these areas so that we can match up their needs to this investment. And this is not just a U.S. effort. This is an effort across the G-7, leveraging resources from countries beyond the G-7 as well.

So that is one of the major ways in which we want to build an economic relationship with Africa, going forward, and give a high standard, climate-friendly, transparent, partner-based alternative that is effective, ambitious, and real, and we’ll be rolling out not just the vision but specific projects associated with that so people can see the proof of concept next year.

HAASS: Sam, let’s get a virtual question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Michael Gordon.

Q: Thank you. Can you hear me OK?

HAASS: Perfectly.

Q: Jake, it was about a week ago that you pointed out that it was important that Russia deescalate to create a conclusive—a conducive environment for negotiations over Ukraine and European security. And that hasn’t happened. And for some weeks, there have been proposals within the administration and the Congress to strengthen deterrence by sending military support to Ukraine that would go beyond the $450 million package now underway. Some of the specific ideas have included repurposing aid intended for Afghanistan, sending Stinger missiles, helicopters, and the like. Why are you not taking those additional steps? Is it because you’re worried the Russians might deem them provocative? Is it because you don’t think they’ll sufficiently change the military dynamic? Or in light of Russia’s sustained buildup and the demands they issued today, do you think it is now time to go beyond the $450 million package to bolster deterrence and complement the threat of financial sanctions?

SULLIVAN: Thanks for the question. We’re, as we speak, continuing to deliver defensive assistance to Ukraine. Just last week, another package of that assistance arrived. More will be arriving. We have a pipeline. There is an absorptive capacity question. But we are constantly assessing additional needs that Ukraine has, putting together potential packages. And those packages are actively under consideration. And of course, it will ultimately be up to the president to make a determination about the next steps in this regard.

But this is not an issue of saying yes or no to one piece of equipment or one package. We are moving a pipeline. As we do so, we look at more things we can move, and then more, and so forth. And so that is the nature of the way that we are looking at defensive assistance. And we don’t move into our calculus a particular perspective on Russia’s attitude or not. It’s about our assessment of needs and the pipeline and the steps that are being taken to currently deliver assistance. That’s how we’re approaching that question.

And we’re approaching the broader question of diplomacy with Russia from the point of view that, you know, meaningful progress at the negotiating table, of course, will have to take place in a context of de-escalation rather than escalation. That it’s very difficult to see agreements getting consummated if we’re continuing to see an escalatory cycle. But that should not, in my view, stop us from raising our concerns with the Russians, or having the Russians go ahead and raise their concerns with us, as they have been doing. We should fundamentally be pursuing a combination of deterrence and diplomacy in an effort to see if we can produce exactly the de-escalation that we’re all seeking.

HAASS: Trudy.

Q: Thank you. Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Jake, you mentioned in your remarks we continue to try to get SIVs out of Afghanistan. That refers to the Afghans who worked with our military or our civilian officials. And Congress has appropriated 18,000 SIV visas. Most of them did not get out, and many of them are under death threat and being sought by name. And yet, the State Department has made clear that they will not let or help get SIVs out unless they already have visas and has blocked many of them getting out on private charters. Why are we blocking SIVs applicants and only let out those who have the visas, which is almost nil? Thank you.

SULLIVAN: So I dispute that characterization. In fact, since August 31st, we have evacuated Afghans at risk in a range of categories, including those who are SIV-eligible but don’t actually have SIVs, those who helped the U.S. government in other ways, or those who are at unique risk. And we’ve had planes come out by private charter. We have worked closely ourselves with the Qataris and others to have planes of American citizens and Afghans come out. And we’ll continue to do so. So I think the premise of your question was a policy that is not actually what our policy is.

HAASS: Sam, let’s get another virtual question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Bill Weld.

Q: I didn’t have a question, as much as I’d love to put one. You’re off the hook, Jake. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Thank you, Governor. (Laughter.) In that case, Barbara.

Q: Thanks very much. Feel strange with the mask.

Jake, I want to follow up a little bit on Iran.

HAASS: Barbara, why don’t you introduce yourself?

Q: Oh, sorry. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council.

You called the Trump decision to quit the deal catastrophic, as indeed it has proven to be. The Iranians have consistently demanded some kind of sweetener, some kind of acknowledgement from the United States that they have suffered great harm as a result of that decision. South Korea has $7 billion of frozen Iranian assets. It would like to unfreeze those assets and let the Iranians use that money for humanitarian goods—food, medicine, COVID vaccines. You could send it through the Swiss channel, which has already been approved by OFAC. Is the United States willing to do something for the Iranian people as a gesture of goodwill to help get these negotiations moving? Thank you.

SULLIVAN: So we have had exceptions in our sanctions for humanitarian goods, for food and medicine and the like, going back many years. We continue to have them, and that’s a very important feature of our policy. But fundamentally, the choice about access to Iranian government reserves held overseas in the—to the kinds of accounts you’ve just described—fundamentally comes down to Iran coming to the table and preparing to do what they should have done a year ago, which is be prepared to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on a compliance for compliance basis. That is a reasonable, clear posture that we have taken. And we believe that that is the best way to produce a positive diplomatic outcome.

HAASS: Just to be clear, though, is what blocking it why the other side won’t agree to go back into the JCPOA? Or is this just a question of sequencing and pacing, that we know what the end goal is if we were to do that, and the two sides simply can’t agree. That Iran might want sanctions relief upfront, we might want other things upfront? Is it a sequencing issue?

SULLIVAN: There are still disagreements over what compliance for compliance means beyond sequencing, though there is a sequencing issue as well.

HAASS: OK. Sam, we’ll get a virtual question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Nury Turkel. Mr. Turkel, please accept the unmute now prompt. It looks like we’re having some difficulty with that line. We’ll take the next question from Masuda Sultan.

Q: Hi. Thank you. First of all, I want to commend you and President Biden for seeing through the decision to end—

HAASS: Could you identify yourself, please?

Q: Masuda Sultan (sp), Insight Group.

I want to commend you for seeing through President Biden’s decision to end America’s longest war, and for providing humanitarian aid. But many experts are saying it’s not enough to stave off the famine, there’s hundreds of thousands of people that are trying to flee or have fled, and there’s a growing threat of ISIS and instability. Is it your assessment that isolating the Taliban administration is in the U.S. interest, given these developments and given what happened in the years leading up to 9/11? And if not, can you be clear about what specific actions the Taliban need to take and how Afghanistan can get to a recognized government?

SULLIVAN: So in our engagements with the Taliban in Doha, our diplomats who deal with them have been very clear and concrete about our expectations. I don’t want to recite all of them here from the table, because I actually believe that the best way to get them to make progress against what we believe are their fundamental international commitments, as well, as their commitments to the United States, is to do so across the negotiating table with them in Doha. But we have been clear. And they do relate to basic human rights issues, access to education for girls, counterterrorism commitments, and things of the like, without going into the painstaking detail on it.

Fundamentally, I think the question should be put to the Taliban government. What are they prepared to do to show the world that they are going to operate in a fundamentally different way? And if they are not, then the provision of large amounts of money to the Taliban government should give us no confidence or comfort that it is actually going to improve the welfare and livelihood of the Afghan people. So our focus right now is to work across the table with them to see what kind of progress could be made. And in the meantime, to put significant resources, as rapidly and efficiently as possible, through every channel we can outside of the government, including international institutions and nongovernmental organizations.

HAASS: Just to be clear, when the Taliban aren’t doing certain things, is it your judgement they are unwilling to or unable to?

SULLIVAN: Governing is hard. (Laughter.) In any country. And it’s particularly hard for an insurgent group that has come to power in this way. And so I do believe that they are having fundamental practical difficulties. But they also have an ideology. That ideology is at play here as well. So I think it’s a combination of both.

HAASS: OK. Yes, sir, in the back. One, two, three—fifth row. I can’t recognize people with their masks on, I apologize.

Q: That’s all right. Jake, thank you. Mark Jacobson, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

You know, I really appreciate what you said about America trying to reclaim its leadership role. And there’s certainly a lot of challenges. I think the president said the other day at the democracy summit that the U.S. has to champion human rights. And I’m wondering how you’d address the skeptics who might say that, well, in addition to Afghanistan and the plight of women and children, you also have a failure to publicly condemn the Israelis for naming Palestinian human rights groups terrorist organizations, you have a diplomatic boycott but you’re still putting international athletic competition ahead of the human rights for the Uighurs. There’s really been no action taken on the Saudi and Khashoggi. And I’m just curious how you’d address that, both in terms of perception and the reality of where human rights falls in the Biden administration’s agenda.

SULLIVAN: You know, it’s interesting. I’ve thought a lot over the years about a version of this question, which could be posed any year to any American national security advisor going back decades, which is: Somewhere in the world something is happening where the gap between our stated values and outcomes exists. And I guess what I’ve kind of come around to, and I wrote about this a few years ago, is—

HAASS: I hope it was Foreign Affairs.

SULLIVAN: It wasn’t. It was the Atlantic. (Laughter.) Not to hawk my own piece. But I have written in Foreign Affairs too, so. (Laughter.) Send my work around to everybody. No.

What I’ve come to, and I said this as a private citizen, I’d say it as national security advisor. America doesn’t make the claim that the only consideration ever in U.S. foreign policy is just human rights. But it does make the claim that human rights matters. It is a factor in our foreign policy. And that is different from any other significant power in most of human history. And that, in my view, is something that sets us apart.

So you sit at the table and you take a given circumstance—the issue with the Olympics is a good one—and you weigh the question of the reprehensible treatment of the Uighurs and how to respond to that, and you weigh the fact that athletes have trained for years to compete as part of Team USA. And you try to come up with a good approach. And the approach that this administration has adopted is that we will not be sending an official delegation to Beijing. But we will not tell our athletes that they can’t compete. We have to do that in circumstances around the world.

And one the one hand you could say, well, you haven’t sufficiently taken human rights into account. That is a perfectly debatable point. On the other hand, what you can’t say is that human rights were not a real, live, legitimate factor at the decision-making table, that were not just there for lip service or to be waved away, but that actually factored into the decision. That is what we can stand behind in all circumstances, because otherwise through administrations, through the Cold War, the post-Cold War, Democratic and Republican alike, no one would ever be able to sit up here and say with a straight face we’re going to have a 100 percent scorecard on this. And I’m not going to claim that we could.

What I will say is that Joe Biden had made human rights a central feature of our foreign policy. And we are carrying that out in many different circumstances with many different countries, taking actions that have not been taken before, including with the withholding of aid to certain countries on human rights grounds. But that’s, I guess, how I would—unfortunately, you’re getting me in meditative mode in answer to your question rather than directly answering it. (Laughter.) But that’s how I would respond to what is something that anyone who serves in the U.S. government has to grapple with.

HAASS: We’re going to try to squeeze in two last questions, one virtual, one in person.

Sam, over to you.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Danny Russel.

Q: Hey, Jake. Danny Russel from Asia Society Policy Institute.

HAASS: Hey, Danny.

Q: On Taiwan, hey, I was really glad to hear you affirm the administration’s priority as maintaining the status quo and ensuring that we don’t wind up facing a military contingency across the strait. But could you clarify that you’re not making the case, right, that, in light of the growing strategic rivalry with Beijing, that U.S. policy now is to block unification under any circumstances?

I realize peaceful resolution is pretty improbable today. But I’d like you to make clear that the U.S. government isn’t closing the door on the possibility of unification inasmuch as you’d expect the Chinese in no circumstances to take a pretty hard look at the alternative.

SULLIVAN: Correct, Danny. You’re absolutely right. Actually, thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify that point, which is when I talk about the status quo, I mean no unilateral changes to the status quo or changes to the status quo by force. But, no, we have not moved off of the position as you just articulated it.

And that’s the fundamental point I was making before. We are not departing from decades of bipartisan policy that has served the United States well in respect to the issue of cross-strait relations, rooted in the one-China policy, in the Taiwan Relations Act, in the three joint communiques. And I’m not signaling or suggesting any meaningful or material adjustment to that, certainly not of the kind that lies at the heart of the question you just posed.

HAASS: Yes, ma’am. I apologize in advance for the seventeen people I haven’t gotten to.

Q: Thank you so much. Kayla Tausche, CNBC. Thank you all for doing this event.

My question is about Ukraine, Jake. The administration said last week that there was no concrete view on whether Vladimir Putin had made a decision to invade Ukraine. Has that assessment become any clearer in the last couple of weeks? And what level of confidence do you have in U.S. intelligence after how flawed the information was about the fall of Kabul? Thank you.

SULLIVAN: So the current assessment of the U.S. government is that he has not yet made a decision, so no change from last week to this week in that regard. I have high confidence in our capacity to see what has been a significant Russian military buildup in the vicinity of Ukraine and in Ukraine itself, in Crimea and other places.

And I also think that the analysis that the intelligence community has laid out to indicate that the Russian government is giving serious consideration and operational planning to such an exercise is well validated. It’s something that we have shared with allies and partners. And it has motivated them to join us in a very strong chorus of clear messaging around the massive consequences, as the European Union put it today, that would befall Russia should it choose to further invade Ukraine.

So that’s where things stand today. Of course, we can’t inhabit the mind of any world leader. So there are always limitations on what we can know and not know. And we can simply make our best assessments. That’s what we’ve done and that’s where the assessment stands as of today.

HAASS: So I need to end. We try to end—begin and end on time. I want to note that you violated both of those today. (Laughter.) Despite that, I do want to thank you for being with us. And I want to thank you for this latest round of public service. For those of you who haven’t served in government, it is hard. And it has gotten harder, I would argue, over the years. So I want to thank you for that.

I want to say that the video and transcript of this meeting will be posted on And just to prove that we are nonpartisan, next week we will have a former national security adviser, a gentleman named Henry A. Kissinger, appear at the Council on Foreign Relations virtually with Eric Schmidt, talking about their new book on artificial intelligence and its implications for foreign policy and world order.

Jake, again, thank you for coming here. And thank you again for the long hours and days you put in.

SULLIVAN: Thank you. (Applause.)



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