The national security advisors to President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a stage at the U.S. Institute of Peace yesterday and shook hands to a standing ovation at a two-day conference on foreign and national security policy. In speeches, National Security Advisor Susan Rice and her designated successor, retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, struck a tone of cooperation on the transition between administrations. The conference, called “Passing the Baton,” included Secretary of State John Kerry, Senator Lindsey Graham and hundreds of incoming, outgoing and former officials as well as independent experts. 

Senator Lindsey Graham

Discussions at the conference focused on laying foundations for a bipartisan foreign policy after an extraordinarily divisive election campaign. Rice and Flynn outlined what they said has been intensive work to ensure a smooth transition of national security functions with the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Trump. Rice said her office “has produced more than 100 memos” for Flynn’s incoming team. Flynn voiced gratitude for what he said was Rice’s effort “to help us be as well-prepared as we can be before inauguration day.”

Flynn praised Rice, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and others for what he said was their under-recognized sacrifice and their work across party lines to protect U.S. security. Rice made what effectively was a farewell address in her role coordinating national security and declared her commitment to Flynn’s success as essential for continued U.S. security. Turning toward her successor, she said, “General Flynn, I am rooting hard for you.”

“To lead doesn’t mean you have to lead alone.” – USIP Board Chairman and former National Security advisor Stephen J. Hadley.

Kerry, speaking earlier, described a different pace in the transition at the State Department, saying it is “going pretty smoothly because there’s not an enormous amount of it.” Speaking a day before President-elect Trump’s nominee to replace him, longtime Exxon Mobile Chief Executive Rex Tillerson, was to begin his confirmation hearings, Kerry said he hoped to meet Tillerson “in the near term.”

“There are some people [from the Trump transition team] who’ve been in the building for a period of time, but quite candidly I think there has not been a lot of high-level exchange” so far, Kerry said.

Kerry expressed concern about the negative tenor of U.S. politics and defended the Obama administration’s accomplishments on foreign policy.

“The United States is more engaged in more places, simultaneously dealing with more conflicts, than at any time in American history, and I believe with consequence, with greater outcomes,” Kerry said. He cited “changing the policy to Cuba, helping Colombia be able to get to a peace after 50 years of war, working with Argentina and other countries to come in from the cold, dealing with North Korea, with China, working on the South China Sea, asserting freedom of navigation rights in the region, and standing up simultaneously to bring Korea, Japan together to change the relationship.” He also cited the 186-nation climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement.

Seven weeks after an election that raised discussion of a potential rise in U.S. isolationism, officials past, present and future said during conference sessions that their focus is on how U.S. engagement abroad can be reinforced and reshaped to handle new or rising threats. The risks outlined ranged from the violent upheavals of failed and ‘fragile’ states, to cyber-attacks, to nuclear proliferation, to an erosion in the global security system of the past 70 years.

Flynn, who was among several aides to President-elect Trump to attend the conference, said the discussions underscored “the global leadership that the United States must demonstrate, and global engagement around the world that, whether we like it or not, the world demands.”

A Theme: U.S. ‘Shared Leadership’

In private meetings the evening before the public event, about 80 former or current national security officials and independent experts discussed the coming U.S. role in the world with Flynn and other incoming Trump aides. There and in yesterday’s public conference, “one constant theme was ‘America needs to lead in the world,’” said former National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley.

While the 2016 election included analysts’ assertions that “the American people are tired of bearing the burden of leadership,” Hadley noted a just-published study of U.S. public attitudes by the University of Maryland’s public policy school that showed eight in 10 Americans “should play a shared leadership role” in “cooperative efforts” with other nations.

“To lead doesn’t mean you have to lead alone,” said Hadley, who is chairman of USIP’s board of directors. “Americans, I think from this, want America to lead with others, and they want others to do their fair share.”  Debate during and after the election has included the question whether America is “doing too much to pursue global interests and not enough to pursue America’s more narrowly defined interests,” he said.

In the University of Maryland study, “most Americans looked at that distinction and saw it as a false choice,” said Hadley. “Seven in 10 agreed with the argument that the United States should look beyond its own self-interests and do what’s best for the world as a whole, because in the long run this will probably help make the kind of world that is best for the United States. And you know, I’ve always thought the American people have great common sense.”

'Strengthening the Platform'

Another thread running throughout the conference, raised by speakers from across the U.S. domestic political spectrum, was America’s need to strengthen the internal foundations from which it exercises its role abroad. Discussion on “strengthening the domestic platform” had three parts, said Hadley: “strengthening our economy, getting our politics to work, restoring our military. … That’s what the American people want us to do at home, and it also gives us a platform for being influential overseas.”

Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, reflected some of those points, urging a rebuilding of U.S. military capacity and more U.S. gas production from shale rock to boost the economy. Cotton and Admiral James Stavridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO who is now a dean at Tufts University, urged reviews of the U.S. nuclear weapons system and stockpile.

Still, Hadley said, “it’s not just the military, and I hope we won’t strengthen our military at the expense of the non-military instruments of power, which was a thematic today. This is our diplomats, this is our development officials… and the various NGO partners that help us.”

Albright emphasized the imbalance between America’s spending on military defense and its investment in the “soft power” tools to prevent or stabilize crises abroad: diplomacy, the United Nations and other international institutions, foreign assistance and development work. Such spending on diplomacy and foreign aid (known as the “150 account” in the federal budget) comes to $51 billion per year, compared with a military budget of between $600 billion and $700 billion. Albright, a Democrat, was echoed by Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “The 150 account is 1 percent of the budget” and yields great returns in advancing stability and U.S. interests abroad, said Graham. “If ‘defense’ doesn’t mean the 150 account, you made a huge mistake.”

Challenges: Systemic and Strategic

In several panel discussions, officials and analysts discussed the challenges, whether obvious or too-little noticed, that are likely to require U.S. attention in the coming years of the Trump administration. For many, this includes the implications of a weakening in the seven-decade-old international system that the United States led in creating amid the rubble of World War II. And speakers underscored the need for a bipartisan foreign policy.

Foreign policy challenges don’t present themselves “in four- or eight-year segments,” said Albright, who served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

“Our national-security toolbox is set up to deal with states,” said Albright. But now “we are living in a completely changed world.”

That international system, she said, is being challenged both by states—notably an assertive Russia and China and a Europe whose cohesion has weakened—and by small groups or individuals who can wield outsized influence through technologies of computers and weapons.

“The world won’t get more orderly without U.S. leadership,” said Frederick Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council. “Can we save, can we adjust, can we reinvigorate” the international system, he asked. He compared the inauguration of President-elect Trump to that in 1961 of President John Kennedy, noting the men’s shared lack of foreign policy experience. To strengthen America’s hand, Kempe advocated strong resistance to efforts by Russia to divide and weaken the European Union. There can be “no strong America with a weak Europe,” he said.

“It used to be strong states that threatened us, now it’s fragile states that threaten us,” said Hadley. “Fragile” states—where illegitimate or ineffective governance has left populations’ needs unmet and opened room for extremist groups and violent conflicts—were a recurring theme in the conference. Hadley, Graham and others voiced support for focused investment in strengthening fragile states’ abilities to govern well. To eventually end violent extremism, these states must “offer a hope to their people to achieve their aspirations in life so they are not susceptible to a call to achieve their aspirations in death,” Hadley said.

Stavridis, who is dean of Tuft’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, cited the threats from cyber-attacks, whether by Russia or others. Vast and basic functions of the U.S. economy and security system are vulnerable, from banking networks to the power grid to the global positioning system (GPS) used for navigation and by the military, he and other speakers said. Stavridis repeated a call he has made for a cabinet-level position to coordinate U.S. cybersecurity.

Jacob Sullivan, who helped lead Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and was national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, said the biggest strategic threat is “that terrorists get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and cause a catastrophic event in the United States.” He said the danger must be confronted both through counter-terrorism and through continued work to prevent the proliferation of nuclear risks.

“The only other challenge that comes close to that level of potential absolute catastrophe, and over the long term even exceeds it, is the threat of climate change,” Sullivan said. Policy advocates who focus on the accumulating threat of global warming are often derided by others “as somehow you’re soft and fuzzy-headed.”

As the conference wound down, Hadley ticked off the themes of strengthening U.S. domestic foundations for policy, and of responding to the range of security challenges discussed during the day.

“This is a huge agenda,” he said. “But if we really are going to have the full toolset the president should have, we need to be thinking about all those elements.” 

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