Graduate students in the Tsinghua-SAIS Dual Degree Program met with Jake Sullivan, former U.S. National Security Adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, on December 6th.
Mr. Sullivan spent time working on various democratic presidential campaigns: in 2008, he served as Deputy Policy Director for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential primary bid, and then as member of Barack Obama’s general election debate preparation team; in 2016, Sullivan was Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Between races, he held the position of Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sullivan has also been a senior policy adviser and chief counsel to Senator Amy Klobuchar from his home state of Minnesota, worked as an associate for Faegre & Benson LLP, and taught at the University of St. Thomas Law School. He clerked for Judge Stephen Breyer of the Supreme Court of the United States and Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Sullivan holds undergraduate and law degrees from Yale and a master’s degree from Oxford. Sullivan is now a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Geoeconomics and Strategy Program and a Martin R. Flug Visiting lecturer in law at Yale Law School.
Sullivan began the session with some opening thoughts on his think tank experience in the United States. He highlighted the increasingly central role of think tanks in filling the gap between the academic sphere and the practice of actual policy. In this regard, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, founded in 1910, is very special because it is the first think tank in the United States created specifically for foreign policy purposes.
Sullivan then identified four functions of think tanks for his audience:
The second part of the meeting was dedicated to a question-and-answer segment. Questions mainly focused on two topics: the Iranian nuclear deal, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Sullivan started by reviewing the negotiation process of the Iranian deal initiated by the Obama administration. The broader objectives of the deal were threefold: first, it aimed to limit the armament of Iran; second, it attempted to create opportunity for greater economic integration for Iran; and third, in case of successful implementation of the deal, it hoped to open up the possibility for discussion on future strategies. However, President Obama and John Kerry worried about the possibility that Iran would walk away from the deal. Sullivan developed his critique of the administration’s approach within the broader perspective of the region. He argued that the fundamental challenge in the Middle East is Iranian overconfidence contrasted by Sunni under confidence. Sullivan suggested that the United States should work to this dynamic by raising the confidence of the U.S.’ Sunni partners. This different mindset on each side is contributing to a toxic atmosphere. He expanded this to say in the Middle East, three main factors contribute to the instability of the region:
Upon request, Sullivan compared and put into perspective the North Korean issue and the Iran issue. He pointed out two essential differences.
First, China’s mindset is fundamentally different. Regarding the Iranian deal, all the great powers, represented by the P5+2 (Germany and the EU), are seated on the same side of the table, both metaphorically and physically. The dynamic with North Korea is, in this aspect, very different. Indeed, China sees itself as seated between the United States and North Korea. China plays the role of balancer by trying to facilitate the dialogue between the two countries, not the role of enforcer of international law. However, Sullivan argued it is time for China to “join the US on the same side of the table,” to say as a responsible great power, “this [behavior] is not acceptable.” It is not enough to ask China to pressure Pyongyang to set up a U.S.-North Korea dialogue. China has to be a central part of negotiations. China, rather than the United States, should be paying for North Korea to halt and roll back its nuclear and missile programs.1
The second difference concerns the sanctions. Sullivan argued that sanctions only work if the country is deeply exposed to the international economy and is responsive to its people. Iran is both, and North Korea is neither.
Sullivan concluded by suggesting that the biggest challenge for the Sino-US relations is to design an effective dialogue between the two countries. His experience in government provided a comprehensive view on the Iranian deal and on the North Korea nuclear issue.