The national security advisors to Presidents Biden and Trump discussed the main security threats and challenges to the United States, including China, Russia and Iran. In the shadow of a turbulent transition, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his predecessor, Ambassador Robert O’Brien, spoke together in a rare policy dialogue between officials of the Biden and Trump administrations.

USIP President and CEO Lise Grande welcomed the online participants at Passing the Baton: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (left), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (center rear) and former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (right).
USIP President and CEO Lise Grande welcomed the online participants at Passing the Baton: National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (left), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (center rear) and former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien (right).

A Dialogue Amid Turmoil

Sullivan and O’Brien were hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace for Passing the Baton, a signature event USIP has convened to mark every change of administrations since 2001. In his introductory comments, former national security advisor and chair of USIP’s board, Stephen J. Hadley, said the violent attack on the Capitol on January 6 was “one of the greatest tests of American democracy in recent memory. But as lawmakers gathered that same night to fulfill their constitutional duty, it was also the greatest measure of our resilience.” Several of the more than 10 speakers emphasized the importance of thoughtful dialogue on security and foreign policy amid a transition marked by political polarization.

“I think there is no more important message delivered by this setting” than an affirmation “that American foreign policy—in fact America—is at its best when it can find bipartisan consensus on our values,” said former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who moderated the forum. O’Brien said that he and Sullivan had been in contact “even before the election,” shaping a transition with suggestions from Hadley, who handed off the national security advisor’s role from the George W. Bush administration to that of Barack Obama in 2009.

“What made it very effective was that Jake came in with a very professional team,” said O’Brien. “He’s a great American, he’s got a terrific background. There are probably very few people that are as well prepared to serve in the role as Jake.”

Domestic Renewal to Face Crises Abroad

Asked by Rice to name America’s most critical security challenge, Sullivan said that “foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy. And at the end of the day, right now, the most profound national security challenge facing the United States is getting our own house in order—is domestic renewal.” He cited the COVID pandemic, the economic and climate crises, and “the acute threats to our basic, constitutional republic.” Strengthening America against these risks is a first step “to put ourselves in a position to be able to deal with the challenges we face around the world,” he said.

Sullivan went on to say that “investment in allies” to reinvigorate and “modernize those alliances to deal with the threats of the future” is a second step. He stressed that this will include “re-establishing our place in critical international institutions, from the Paris Climate Accord to the World Health Organization and beyond,” as well as promoting and “living out our values at home.”

When asked about areas where bipartisan cooperation is key, Sullivan said that consensus needs to be built around “making aggressive, ambitious public investment here in the United States, so that we stay on the cutting edge” and maintain a leading role in “the key emerging technologies of the future—artificial intelligence, quantum computing, bio-technology, clean energy and so much else.”

In a recent survey of 800 U.S. officials and analysts, foreign policy emerged as an area where America’s new Congress and administration are likely to be able to pursue bipartisan consensus. The survey, backed by the University of Texas at Austin and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, highlighted China, COVID protection, cyber security and trade as areas where cooperation is key.

China is a Top Challenge

Both Sullivan and O’Brien talked about the challenge from China. Sullivan worried that China is “pointing to dysfunction and division in the United States and saying … [the U.S.] system doesn’t work.” America needs to “refurbish the … foundations of our democracy” at home, he said.

O’Brien and Sullivan agreed on the need to denounce and oppose the violations of human rights and democracy committed by Chinese authorities. Sullivan said the United States must be ready to “impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang” and Hong Kong, and “for the bellicosity of threats that it is projecting towards Taiwan.”

The two agreed that Washington should address China through “the Quad”—an alignment of Australia, India, Japan and the United States. O’Brien noted that the Quad was reinvigorated during the Trump administration and said, “I think Jake and his team and President Biden are off to a great start on China.”

A Changed Middle East

In addition to the Quad, Sullivan confirmed that “I think you will see continuity” from the Biden team “and an effort to reinforce and carry forward steps that have been taken by the previous administration” on the Abraham Accords to normalize relations between Israel and several Arab states. Sullivan emphasized that when the Abraham Accords were first signed last year, then-candidate Biden “made no bones about saying, ‘I think this is a good thing.’” O’Brien acknowledged that “we still have to deal with the Palestinian issue. We need peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”  

On Iran, Sullivan stressed that recent U.S. policies have seen the Iranian government “advance … dramatically” in their nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. He stressed the need to get “back to diplomacy and put Iran’s nuclear program in a box.” He said that the Biden administration aims “to build a global effort, including partners and allies in the region and in Europe and elsewhere, to take on the other significant threats Iran poses.”

On Russia, both Sullivan and O’Brien focused on the need to establish strategic stability between two significant nuclear powers, first by agreeing a five-year extension of the New START arms treaty, which is set to expire on February 5. Sullivan warned that a complex set of arms negotiations and other conflicts will continue to trouble Russian-U.S. relations.

Putting Policy Ahead of Politics

USIP convened this year’s Passing the Baton in partnership with six U.S. foreign policy think tanks: the American Enterprise Institute, the Atlantic Council, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for American Progress, the Heritage Foundation and the Hudson Institute.

In his comments, Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, said the violence at the Capitol on January 6 must be used as a catalyst for American renewal at a dangerous time. “We see the … authoritarian resurgence in places like China and Russia, through the rise of angry nationalism and weakening democracies around the world,” he said. “It‘s in that context that we gather today to celebrate the resilience of democracy, the passing of the baton” between U.S. administrations.

Kenneth Weinstein, fellow and former president at the Hudson Institute, urged Americans to “build bridges to one another and restore the broad civic trust essential to a healthy and functioning democracy.” On foreign policy, he urged the Biden administration to “draw on strategic frameworks that the Trump administration put in place,” notably a “cross-domain focus on China as a strategic competitor.”

Thomas Carothers, senior vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that U.S. policy needs to be based on the principle that advancing democracy worldwide improves U.S. safety and prosperity at home. American notions that treat democracy as a kind of export product are “outdated,” Carothers said, arguing that America must instead treat democratization as “a mutual learning exercise” with other nations that face polarization, extremism and domestic battles over elections. America’s global message now must start “with a strong dose of humility and realism,” in the wake of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he said.

Gordon Gray, chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress, said the United States needs to restore “a robust policy process based on facts and expert judgment,” and must rebuild relationships abroad. Gray recalled serving as the U.S. ambassador when the people of Tunisia massed in a democratic movement that nonviolently removed a dictatorship. Bipartisan support from congressional leaders for Tunisian democratization strengthened America’s role, Gray said. “I hope that we will see our approach to foreign policy mirror theirs, and we can return to what Senator Arthur Vandenberg liked to call ‘unpartisanship,’ where national interests, rather than party politics, drive the agenda.”

Kori Schake, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that one key task in restoring bipartisan cooperation will be “identifying areas in the Trump administration’s foreign policy where, even if some of the means by which they were trying to achieve objectives need course correction, we ought to be careful not to throw out the advances that they nonetheless made for protecting American interests.”

James Carafano, vice president at The Heritage Foundation described a critical need for America to re-focus on great power competition. “If we don’t adapt our policies to deal with the challenges that it presents, then we’re missing the really great generational challenge that we face.” The way to address those and other challenges with the effectiveness of bipartisanship, he said, is to adhere to “the rule that you always put policy ahead of politics.”

Read the full event transcript

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