NSAs Jake Sullivan + HR McMaster on China

"There's a reason why people have their hearts broken by the US when they don't by Russia or China. It's because they expect more of us."

First up on the feed right now is a rerun of an interview I did late last year with Jake Sullivan, tapped yesterday as the incoming administration’s NSA. One episode below is a show I recorded last week with HR McMaster, Trump’s NSA from 2017-2018.

Both guests were thoughtful and open in grappling with the legacies of their past government service. I asked them a few similar questions, including around how to conceptualize America’s role in the world, how much weight to give China relative to other geographies, and where to draw the limits of American power. Contrasting the two gives a real sense of the disjunctions and continuities on how Biden and Trump approach China.

They also both made for really entertaining interviews! Sullivan shouted out the movie Independence Day and talked about his dream to go into screenwriting after politics (deferred for god knows how many more years now…though maybe he’s just taking the NSA gig to get some more material). HR McMaster edges him out, however, with his riffs on Seinfeld (“I guess I modeled myself after George Costanza because I feel like I did leave on a high note”) and George Clinton (“One Nation Under a Groove, that’s what we really need at this stage”). Not quite what you expect from a guy who brags in his book about getting military training ideas from 1920’s vintage George Marshall and Erwin Rommel, but I was very pleasantly surprised!

Jake Sullivan

Jordan: You said in a talk that ‘The US had a story about America's role in the world throughout the Cold War. That was based on a defined enemy and a defined mission. Since the end of the Cold War, that tank has run out of gas. We need a new story for people of the world, what it is that we're all about. And I don't think we've done that yet.’

Is it possible to have a strategy that gets people to care about foreign policy but isn't alarmist, idealistic to a fault, or the sort of red blooded Jacksonian nationalism that could actually end up making situations around the world worse?

Sullivan: I don't know. We don't actually have a successful example of this in US history. The two moments where the United States really rallied to internationalism were first in the era of Teddy Roosevelt, which was basically about, well, problematic jingoism, imperialism, and so forth. Then in the Cold War, when we had a great enemy. So it's either calling forth manifest destiny and a kind of crudely, racialized view of American superiority and American destiny, or it's an all encompassing conflict against an ideological foe.

Another exchange provides some insight into how he will approach his job as NSA.

Jordan: You write that ‘it is incumbent on us to care and think about foreign policy on a daily basis and go back to first principles and explain once again anew what it is we want to do.’ Later you write, and this was with respect to Syria, but I think is reflective of your thinking more generally, that ‘the US should try to do more to achieve less.’

Could you take these two thoughts and apply them to this discussion we're having vis-a-vis China?

Sullivan: The way US policy has tended to work towards China is that we state these totally maximalist principles, and then we aren't entirely prepared to back them up, so there's a gap between what we say we want to accomplish and what we do accomplish.

I think that that costs us. It costs us in the eyes of Beijing and it costs us in the eyes of the world. To give a concrete example, the building of these artificial islands or the reclamation of island features and turning them essentially into runways and military installations in the South China Sea, we claimed, starting early in the Obama administration, ‘This was unacceptable. It cannot stand. They should not do it.’ And then they did it!

If we had sat around the table and said, ‘well, what are we going to do about it if they do?’ I think we would have quickly arrived at the answer—which didn't really happen in the way that it should have—we would have arrived at the answer. Well, the only way to stop the Chinese from reclaiming this land is to physically coerce them.

Jordan: Let’s pause here. So why does that discussion not happen?

Sullivan: It happens in a loose sense, but I think one of the things that stands in the way of effective US policy is that we've had so many resources and such a preponderance of power for decades, that conversations around how precisely you tie means and ends together, it's not that they don't happen, it's that they don't happen with the level of precision that is required. That’s because there's an underlying sense that we can make stuff happen in the world.

And look, I fought myself in this. I mean, I think I kind of instinctively have the view that if we want to see something done, by God, it will be done. Or, or by hook or by crook, we can at least get close to it. We can push things in the right direction.

I've seen lots of examples where that's worked, where we've stopped ebola epidemics, we've saved millions of lives through HIV AIDS treatment. We've negotiated peace. We've stopped Iran's nuclear program without firing a shot. [These are] huge successes that involve the marshaling of American power and then the exercise of American diplomacy, in concert with many other actors. So when you take something like this, you sort of think we can lay down a marker and then find a way to make this happen without really fully thinking through what's the downside if we don't make it happen.

And in this case, the downside was, the rest of the countries of the region basically looked at the US and China in this context and said with respect to the South China Sea, China won and the U.S. lost, at least as far as this issue is concerned now. What I mean by doing more to accomplish less in the South China Sea context is, the most important thing for US policy is the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. I think that we should be devoting more assets and resources to ensuring and reinforcing, and holding up alongside our partners, the freedom of navigation in the South China sea. That puts the shoe on the other foot, China then has to stop us, which they will not do.

Then you're accomplishing what your core objective is without trying to accomplish something above and beyond that. And you're in the driver's seat. And if I had to go back, that's the way that I would have tried to structure that approach.

Sullivan’s vision for America’s proper role in the world

Jordan: George Packer recently wrote a book on Holbrooke, but this is actually an excerpt from the Atlantic piece accompanying it. He wrote that:

There’s something else that would trouble Holbrooke’s ghost. Not the end of our global leadership—it was never sustainable, and 1995 was unique—but the withering-away of our example. We overestimate ourselves in almost every way, from jingoism to self-hatred, and all the while we ignore nameless people in obscure places like Sarajevo and Banja Luka who still think we stand for something that they want for themselves. To adapt with grace to a cut in power is wisdom. It’s folly to throw away the pearl of our real greatness.

With respect to this conversation, are you worried that the direction US foreign policy is taking is going to throw away that pearl?

Sullivan: I'm struggling in debates with colleagues of mine around this core question of whether we in fact only do well after we've beaten ourselves up a lot and basically said we failed.

‘We're behind the Chinese are kicking our butts!’ ‘The missile gap, the Soviets, the Sputnik moment!’ [We] need to kind of go through this period of insecurity and recrimination and a sense that somebody else out there has the drop on us to actually create the motivation and the energy to get our own house in order, and to pursue a better foreign policy.

This is the argument a lot of people make. And they've got history on their side. I worry though that we are headed down a road right now of insecurity and self doubt that may not lead to the resurgence of confidence, but instead is a one-way ratchet.

I actually think confidence is a commodity in international relations and it's in short supply in the foreign policy community in the United States and the United States more generally.

When I read Packer's book, he got to the end and sort of said that Holbrooke's career marks the arc of kind of America's role in the world, and, in a way, his death is the death of a certain role for the United States in the world.

I thought, no, damnit, no! The United States continues to have a unique capacity to be a force for good in the world.

Even saying that to a lot of people, make them roll their eyes, make them think what are you smoking? But you know what? It's true. It's true.

There's a reason why people are disappointed in the United States, have their hearts broken by the United States, when they don't by Russia or China, because they expect more of us.

There's a reason why I think countries in the world, and people around the world, fear American retreat in decline more than they fear American domination. Not everywhere, I mean, we've really screwed up, particularly in places in the Eiddle East, but in many, many countries around the world. And so our talents, our capacities and our ethos, I believe, I passionately believe, if marshaled properly and directed effectively and, and our ambitions trimmed appropriately….God, we have a lot to still give. And I sort of wish there were more voices unabashedly making that case than there are right now.

We also did a deep dive into Obama-era China policy, including the origins and execution of the ‘Pivot to Asia’, how Sunnylands looks in retrospect, his reflections on the TPP and Hillary’s decision not to embrace it in the 2016 election. It’s revealing thinking back on our conversation about how much has and hasn’t changed thanks to COVID.

HR McMaster

McMaster took on how America’s lack of strategic empathy cost us decade after decade in our approach to Asia, what he tried to do as NSA to change that state of affairs, as well as the role of history in policymaking.

His comments at one level do seem to echo much of what Sullivan said.

Jordan: What is strategic narcicissm and how does it apply to how the US has related to Asia?

McMaster: This has been a lodestar around our neck, defining the world in relation to us, and then assuming therefore that what we decide to do or not do will be decisive in achieving a favorable outcome. This is problematic because it’s self-referential and doesn’t acknowledge the degree to which the other, especially competitors, have over the future course of events.

Especially since the Cold War, our policies and strategies have been undercut by an underappreciation [of this fact]. Therefore, we’ve been prone to an optimism bias and a confirmation bias. We’ve developed strategies based largely on what we, the purveyor, prefers, rather than what the situation demands.

He also agrees with the Biden campaign critique that Trump criminally devalued the importance of allies.

McMaster: I still don't see how steel and aluminum tariffs on our allies help us get to the China problem. I'm with you on the fact that [our international outreach] strategy and policy was imperfectly implemented. There is plenty of room for improvement. I'm fairly confident actually that a Biden administration will exhibit more elements of continuity than change in connection with the policy. I do hope they make improvements in the area of international cooperation in particular. If we don't work hand in hand with EU, Japan and the rest of the world’s largest economies, China will just take a divide and conquer approach.

McMaster in the interview walked through the process of drafting the 2017 National Security Strategy, a document that recentered USG on responding to China’s rise. His approach as NSA doesn’t seem all that far off from how Sullivan seems to want to think through problems in the role.

Jordan: I'd like you to talk about how you personally, as well as the government at large, in the early years of the Trump administration came to the conclusion that China was priority number one. To what extent did that come from Trump as opposed to bubbling up from the agencies themselves?

McMaster: That's the biggest adjustment I think we made to US foreign policy was the shift toward China up from the strategy of, you know, these labels really are only limited in their utility, but the strategy of cooperation and engagement to a strategy of competition.

When I came into the West Wing of the White House, I walked in an office that I thought it was McGeorge Bundy's office. I'd written a book about decisions that led to the American war in Vietnam. One of the deficiencies that I identified from a historical perspective was that we didn't frame the problem of the Vietnam War and we rushed into action before trying to fully understand what was at stake for us and what the nature of the challenge was associated with that war.

So, we put into place very early, as soon as we put into the national security decision-making policy-making process into place, a new meeting, as part of that process, called ‘Principles’, a small group framing session, and, not to get into too much detail, but it was basically, ‘Hey, let's understand the problem first before we rush to solutions.’

What we did in each of these sessions—the China session was the second of these after a North Korea session—is that we tried to identify what are the assumptions on which previous policy was based. Many of these turn out to be implicit and therefore they go unchallenged. Then we would subject these assumptions to scrutiny and, if invalidated, come up with a new set of assumptions.

This was all part of trying to understand these challenges on their own terms, trying to understand what US vital interests were at stake and then to craft objectives based on that overall assessment. So for China, we identified the main assumption as that China, having been welcomed in to the international order, would play by the rules and liberalize its economy alongside its form of governance.

Of course, by early 2017, that was demonstrably not the case. President Trump was already predisposed toward shifting our approach to China. And of course he had made statements to that effect during presidential campaign. But this framing of our approach to China really, I think, helped us establish a new set of assumptions.

The CCP was driven mainly by a combination of fear and ambition, a fear of losing control. And so the Party would act in a way that would allow it to extend and tighten its exclusive grip on power internally and to pursue the overall objective of national rejuvenation, internationally.

If China were to succeed in what was an increasingly aggressive approach to exporting its authoritarian mercantilist model, then the world would be less free, less prosperous and less safe. So we. We identified the stakes as being very high, and the need for a fundamental shift in our approach towards China as being long overdue.

Jordan: One of the things that happens very rarely is presidents and American bureaucracies changing their minds on central foreign policy issues. You played a part in one of those moments during the Surge and you've studied another one in regards to Vietnam. Could you walk me through how those moments do and don’t compare to what we saw in 2017 with regards to China?

McMaster: The approach is really important. The approach of first understanding problems on their own terms, then inventorying our vital interests, viewing whatever the challenges that you're facing through the lens of your vital interests and crafting an overarching goal and more specific objectives.

One of the problems in the lead up to the American war in Vietnam is McGeorge Bundy, who was the national security advisor during those decisions. He actually argued, ‘Hey, not having a goal and objective in Vietnam. That's an advantage to us, right?’ Because then if we're disappointed, we can always say, ‘Oh no, that wasn't our objective.’

I think that, especially with involving these important issues that involve our prosperity and security, that involve building a better future for generations to come, we must be clear-eyed about the nature of the challenge. We have to establish objectives because if you don't have objectives, you don't have any real basis for galvanizing efforts, not just across the US government, but the competition with the CCP cuts across not only the US private sector, but also across the free world.

It was very important for us to establish a goal and objectives to identify really also know what are the obstacles towards progressing toward those objectives. What are the opportunities we can exploit? How do we work together?

Interestingly, Michele Flournoy also touched on McGeorge Bundy in her master’s thesis on ‘The ethics of nuclear deterrence: the Catholic debate in the United States, 1979-1983’. Bundy penned an influential response to the American Catholic Bishop’s famous pastoral letter, ‘The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”

Sullivan in late 2017 wrote a critique with Salman Ahmed on HR McMaster’s National Security Strategy, focusing in particular on how it unwisely lumped together the threats from Russia and China (a point that really feels like it came from another epoch…)

The rhetoric Trump’s strategy employs gives the impression of a much more pronounced shift from the previous administration than actually may be the case. It risks pushing Russia and China closer together, which prior Democratic and Republican administrations sought consciously to avoid. This could end up unnecessarily complicating efforts to cooperate with China, in particular, when it’s in U.S. interests to do so. 

Not to be outdone, McMaster, apparently a ChinaTalk podcast superfan, took issue with Sullivan’s comments on his past appearance on the show!

McMaster: I listened to your episode with Jake Sullivan last year, and what struck me the most about that is his assumption that it was our behavior that would determine the nature of the relationship. A fundamental misunderstanding of the China problem set is thinking that this is a US-China problem.

Over the course of our interview, also he referenced past episodes with former senior State Department official David Gordon (published as a transcript in the newsletter last week) and The Rhodium Group.

If you haven’t subscribed to the ChinaTalk podcast yet, click this link to give it a listen in your favorite podcast app.

One last bit that paralleled the final quote from Sullivan.

Jordan: What should we accept about the limits of US power?

McMaster: They also understand the limits, but also understand that we do, when we work with like-minded partners especially, have agency over the future. We can be, and have been, I think, a profoundly positive influence on the world.

I think it should be an understanding that it is in our interest to promote representative government and rule of law and universal rights as enshrined in the UN Charter, as well as in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. But also to recognize that we cannot determine the nature of governance and the actions that others take.

It’s also important for us to understand that we have a lot of work to do internally. These divisions in our society that have been magnified by a quadruple crisis in 2020 of a pandemic, a recession, social and racial divisions laid bare by George Floyd's murder and concerns over unequal treatment under the law and inequality of opportunity associated with that, and this vitriolic partisan season and a presidential election that we've just gone through. We have a lot of work to do internally, but what I hope Americans realize is that we don't want to become introspective to the point that we disengaged from the world.

I think if we learn anything from the pandemic, it should be that the challenges and problems that develop overseas can only be dealt with at an exorbitant price once they reach our shores. So I think that it's important for us to have an internationalist approach to security and to remain engaged with our friends and partners around the world.