Transcript: A conversation with Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Robert C. O’Brien

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Amb. Robert C. O’Brien
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs

Amb. Paula J. Dobriansky
Senior Fellow, Harvard University Belfer Center; Former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs at the US Department of State; and Vice Chair of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Welcome. I’m Paula Dobriansky. I’m vice chair of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. And welcome to the sixth edition of the Council’s Front Page, our premier ideas platform for global leaders.

Today, the Front Page will feature special edition of the Council’s series Elections 2020: America’s Role in the World, which seeks to address the future of US national security policy as it navigates the geopolitical landscape that Washington will face over the next four years and beyond. It will examine the policy and actions needed to protect and promote America’s interests at home and abroad. This is not a political event and a partisan debate, but a series of exchanges that take into account the full spectrum of views that will shape and define US national security policy and America’s role in the world.

The Atlantic Council’s nonpartisan virtual stage brings to our viewers the most prominent voices and decision-makers shaping the national conversation over key issues of our affairs—including the rise of China and the reemergence of great-power competition, energy security, cyber warfare, the global economy, and the collision between democracy and autocracy, just to name a few. Viewers can find the latest lineup of speakers and sign up for each event on the Atlantic Council’s website. Follow us on Twitter at @AtlanticCouncil and engage in this important conversation.

So today we are truly delighted to have Ambassador Robert O’Brien, who is national security adviser to United States President Donald Trump. He has served in this capacity since September of 2019. And prior to this important position, he served on the frontlines of US diplomacy as President Trump’s special envoy for hostage affairs.

Ambassador O’Brien, thank you for joining us. We’re truly delighted to have you here today. And if I may, I’m going to dive right into the question of the day.

According to news reports, China has protested an alleged incursion of a US U-2 spy plane into a no-fly zone imposed during a military exercise. And then it was also, in fact, reported by Beijing that there were two missiles that were fired as a warning to US military. Could you please comment on this? And welcome to you.

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: Well, Paula, first—thank you, Paula. First, thank you for having me and thank you to the Atlantic Council for hosting me again. It’s always great to be back with such a distinguished group of policymakers and academics and public intellectuals. So it’s nice to be here with you, and especially to be with you, a former colleague.

Look, the—what we’ve seen with China over many years now—and it’s something I’ve been writing about for well over a decade—is an increasing assertiveness and aggressiveness in the world, and it’s—some of it is very malign. So for example, you talked about the South China Sea. China has basically taken the decision with a Nine-Dash Line or sometimes called the “cow’s tongue” to annex a vast swath of the Western Pacific Ocean and claim it as Chinese territorial waters, almost like it was talking about Lake Tahoe being somewhere close to Beijing as internal waterways or something. It’s ridiculous. It’s been rejected by all major countries, all seafaring countries. It’s been rejected by the Tribunal of the Law of The Sea. And now China’s engaged in military exercises in these waters that are—that they consider domestic, which are by no stretch of the imagination domestic.

The United States always reserves its right to have freedom of navigation and freedom of aviation. In all cases we do it in a safe manner. We do it in a professional manner. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines always participate in their—in their drills in a manner that ensures their safety and the safety of others. So I certainly reject any Chinese claims that flights over the South China Sea and their manufactured claims constitute some sort of breach of a norm or a rule.

And this is typical of Chinese behavior that we’ve seen recently. You saw the recent brutal attack on the Indian patrol on the LAC, the Line of Actual Control, where the Chinese brutally killed almost two dozen Indian soldiers. We see the crackdown in Hong Kong. We see—there’s been the long-term efforts to bully Taiwan and undermine its democracy. So we’re seeing a very assertive, a very aggressive China.

And the United States is not going to back down from its long-held principles that the world’s ocean ways and international waters should be free for navigation, and the same with space and with air rights in international airspace. So we’re not going to back down from that, and we’re—it’s too bad the Chinese have decided to engage in further assertiveness or aggressiveness in this circumstance.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Ambassador, let me ask you a related question. The Trump administration has identified great-power competition as a defining challenge of our day and China as the number-one challenge in this realm. What will it take for the United States to prevail in this competition with China? Could you articulate some of the core policy paths that the administration has pursued and will continue to pursue?

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: That’s a great question, Paula. And we are in a new era of great-power competition. One of the impressive things that the Trump administration did in its—in its initial years was put out a National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, and it’s very clear that we have near-peer competitors of Russia, with China, that are trying to reshape the global commons, that are trying to change the global norms and the rules of the road, so to speak, that we’ve all operated under for the past seventy-some years since the end of the Second World War.

Look, with China we’ve got unique challenges. You have a Communist Party of China that is an heir to Stalin’s China—or Stalin’s Russian Communist Party. They’ve never disavowed it. They’re a Marxist/Leninist party. They have total control over their people and it’s getting—the control is becoming something that Orwell wouldn’t even have imagined when he wrote “1984” with social credit scores and mass surveillance. They’re now exporting that control to places like Hong Kong, where they tore up the Sino-British Declaration and imposed the new national security law on Hong Kong and are ending democracy in Hong Kong. They’re bullying China—or they’re bullying the Republic of China, Taiwan. They’re bullying—attempting to bully India. That’s going to be tougher for them because the Indians aren’t going to take it; they’re going to stand up for their own sovereign rights.

So, number one, we have to embrace what Ronald Reagan talked about, which is peace through strength, and that’s what President Trump did. He’s rebuilt our military. He’s ended defense sequestration. We’ve spent over $2.5 trillion during the initial years of the administration to rebuild the American military.

We have to stand up to China’s unfair trade practices. We were running a $500 billion a year deficit to China, trade deficit. Much of that was because of dumping and currency manipulation and intellectual property theft. Intellectual property theft on its own is a major factor that we have to address.

FBI Director Chris Wray recently spoke about the theft of American intellectual property and trade secrets by the PRC has been the biggest wealth transfer in human history, which is—it’s an amazing, astounding fact. Director Wray said that they’re opening a new case on espionage, both Chinese espionage with respect to our national security secrets but also industrial espionage, every ten hours. The FBI is almost being overwhelmed by the number of Chinese espionage cases. And so we’ve got to cut off the theft of intellectual property.

And then, third, we’ve got to be very concerned about Chinese access to our capital markets, where they participate in our capital markets but are not required to have audited financials the same way US companies are and that sort of thing. And Secretary Mnuchin and the SEC, with the new rules in the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, have taken steps there.

So, look, we have to confront the Chinese across all spectrums. They’re a very dedicated competitor or adversary. They work in every spectrum, from diplomacy to the military to their economic efforts. And many of them—many of the things they do across the board just don’t—to make it simple, they just don’t follow the rules.

But I’m convinced the United States is—as it always has been, is up to the challenge. And President Trump has certainly shown the way, and whether he has a successor in a few months or a few years we’re leading the way so that America can stand up to China, maintain our way of life, and defend against these pernicious attacks.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Ambassador, let’s take this a little broader. What are some of the other primary challenges that you believe are confronting the United States over the next four years and beyond, and how should we be preparing for it? And maybe at the same time, what about the opportunity that you see that we also can seize?

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: Well, another great question, Paula. Thank you.

Look, I’m optimistic about the future. We’ve had a tough 2020, and I think there are a lot of people that are ready for 2020 to be over and to move on.

We’ve faced this COVID virus that came out of China, the economic harm that’s come along with that.

We’ve got, obviously, hotspots around the world, a lot of malign activity from Iran.

The poor people of Lebanon, who have been under the thumb of Hezbollah, just recently had this terrible explosion in Beirut.

We’ve got renewed tension between Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean.

We have all the challenges that we have with China.

Look, we haven’t even talked about Russia and we’ve got what looks like the poisoning of the leading dissident in Russia. We’ve had other—we’ve got the Russians involved in Syria. We’ve got them involved in Libya. They remain in Ukraine. So there are a number of challenges around the world.

Afghanistan is a war that we’ve been fighting for almost twenty years now. And I think we’ve got a pathway to get our troops home from Afghanistan and hopefully to have inter-Afghan peace, and ultimately it’s up to the Afghan people to come together and come to an accord so that they can govern themselves.

We’ve got some difficulties in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua. So there are plenty of challenges around the world.

But what I’m heartened by, number one, are the American people and our continued ingenuity, creativity, innovation. We’ve been having a very tough time in space over the past eight years prior to the president taking office because of cuts to NASA and a lack of commitment to space. And what happened during that time period? You know, you got all these great American private-sector companies, whether it was Bezos’ company or Musk’s company or Sierra Nevada together with ULM—or ULA and our traditional defense contractors, and our private sector has really led the way in space. And we just recently celebrated the first launch of a space capsule from American soil with American astronauts and its recovery by—after a visit to the International Space Station, its recovery here and bringing those astronauts back to the United States. So that’s exciting.

I just returned from a trip to Latin America. We have a tremendous renaissance going on in the Western Hemisphere. The countries of the Western Hemisphere are struggling with COVID, but with the exception of the three countries I mentioned—Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba—we have a hemisphere full of democracies committed to the rule of law. And those countries have challenges, but they also have tremendous talent, populations that want to work hard, that are—that are innovative.

So I think when you look at space, when you look at what the American people are doing with respect to innovation here, when you look at what’s happening in our hemisphere, I think there are tremendous opportunities, notwithstanding the challenges that we have to manage around the world.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Ambassador, that’s terrific. It’s good to hear you describe not only the challenges and the kinds of approaches for us, but also at the same time the opportunities.

Let me also, with that backdrop, ask you a question that many in the think-tank community do preoccupy themselves with and follow very closely, and that’s the question of America’s role in the world, what it should be. Could you comment on what you see as the policy objectives that are guiding our US engagement in the rest of the world today? What matters here?

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: Well, I think the first thing that matters is that America leads. President Trump talks about America first, but he also makes it very clear—and said this at the U.N.—that doesn’t mean America alone.

One of the great strategic advantages we have as we look out across the world, as we look at a rising China, as we look at a more assertive Russia, especially in Eastern Europe, a lot—China and Russia have allies that they rent or that they buy. They have very few true allies. We have likeminded countries that share our values, that share our way of life all around the world, and we have a very strong system of alliances. And that doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect between us all the time, but we’ve got great partners and that puts us in a very unique position to lead.

I grew up, as you did, thinking of the president of the United States as the leader of the free world, thinking of America as the last, best hope, the shining city on the hill, all those things that we believe in. President Trump believes the same thing.

But at the same time, we want to make sure that our allies bear the burden and pay their fair share when it comes to defending the global commons, when it comes to defending the alliance. It can’t just be the United States anymore. We have to have a buy-in from our allies.

One of the things that the president’s been criticized for, I think very unfairly, is our NATO alliance. NATO has been the most successful alliance in history, maybe since going all the way back to Rome and its Latian allies. But we’ve got a great alliance with NATO. The president was tough on NATO coming into office because NATO—the non-US NATO members had—for the most part, with a few exceptions, had let their defense spending fall to record-low levels. They had no readiness. They weren’t maintaining their platforms. They didn’t have enough troops. And the president said, this just doesn’t work. We can’t continue to be the only party that’s seriously committed to defense. You’ve got to raise your game.

And we went to the NATO summit last December. I was privileged to be with the president. We had a lot of cooperation from Secretary General Stoltenberg. And we obtained commitments that through 2024 there would be $400 billion in additional NATO spending by non-US NATO countries on defense. That’s fantastic for the United States, it’s fantastic for the Western alliance, and it’s great for NATO.

So every president that I can remember since President Nixon—the first time I started (attending to ?) the campaigns—has been asking our European allies to pay their fair share and to increase their spending to protect themselves against Russia, now China and other threats, Iran, and it’s always fallen on deaf ears with the idea that, well, America will come through in the end. President Trump actually got something done. And a lot of folks didn’t like the rhetoric that he used, but he got the deal done in a way that no one else at least in my lifetime has.

So I look at our role as a leader of our—of likeminded countries, of our allies not just in Europe but around the world. But I also look at our role as being the one indispensable country, still, that can bring peace to the world or bring peace to regions.

And you take a look at what we just did recently, what the president did in bringing together Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and achieving for the first time in twenty-six years and only the third time since the founding of Israel a peace agreement between an Arab country and Israel. And I’ll be heading off to the region on Saturday. I’m going to have the privilege of flying on the first direct flight from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to the airport in Abu Dhabi, probably on El Al equipment. And what a great thing now to have the UAE, which is a finance center in the Middle East, and a great partner of the United States and the startup nation, the center of innovation in the Middle East, Israel, our great democratic ally there, come together.

So, those are the sorts of things that the United States can do to bring our friends and allies together.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Let me pick up on this theme because it’s an important one, and thank you for your articulation of the importance of allies and alliances. Let’s go to the Indo-Pacific, because the Trump administration has, certainly, emphasized the importance—economically, militarily, politically—of the Indo-Pacific.

We have the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which involves Japan, Australia, India, and the United States, and could you speak a bit about how you see alliances and allies playing an important role in that arena? We were discussing China earlier. So could you share with us what the importance of this issue has been to the administration.

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: Well, Paula, as you know, I grew up in California, so I always considered the United States a Pacific—notwithstanding this is—no knock on the Atlantic Council, but I always considered the United States a Pacific power. And a lot of our glorious military history and naval history took place in the Pacific going—predating World War II by far, and so I think we’ve got a window on the Pacific that provides us with tremendous opportunities.

Let me just give you—let me start on the economic front. I went to—I represented the president at the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN-US Summit, last fall, and there was a lot of talk about, how much investment China was making in the region and how little investment there was by the United States.

So I asked our team to put together some numbers, and the United States, through our private sector, through our great companies, whether they’re oil companies or tech companies or auto companies or pharmaceutical companies, we’ve put together investment in the Indo-Pacific of over one trillion dollars. That’s private sector investment among our partners in the Indo-Pacific. It’s twice as much as China and Japan combined. So we play a major role in the Pacific on an economic front. But some of that is ignored because it’s through the IBMs and the Microsofts and the airlines and the car companies and the oil companies, the extraction companies, all these great American—or the investors, the financial services companies, the law firms. So it’s an amazing amount of stake that we have in the Indo-Pacific. It’s really the engine of the world economy, going forward, and America is going to play a big role there.

One of the ways that we can do that is providing for a safe and secure Indo-Pacific through our defense partnerships and our diplomatic partnerships with our allies. I think the Quad, which is really coming into its own, which is the relationship between Japan, India, Australia, and the United States, is one of the most exciting diplomatic initiatives and one of the most—one of the area’s most likely to succeed and pay huge dividends in the future.

So I’ll be meeting with my Quad partners and likely in Hawaii in October with the NSAs of those countries. I think Secretary Pompeo will be meeting with the foreign ministers of those countries also in September and October. We’re very committed to those alliances.

But there are many other like-minded countries there. We’ve got great relationships with Singapore. We’ve got a great—a terrific relationship with our long-time friends in Taiwan. Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam are coming into their own. Thailand is a treaty partner.

So in just country after country, we have tremendous opportunities. New Zealand has reemerged. They’ve always been a Five Eyes partner but we had some difficulties, as you remember, from your work back in the Reagan and Bush administrations with nuclear-powered warship visits. I think we’ve gotten over most of those issues with New Zealand and we have American destroyers and cruisers visiting the great ports in New Zealand.

So we have tremendous partnerships, tremendous opportunities. We’ve got great partnerships with our friends in the island—the second island chain. We delivered ventilators to Samoa, to Tonga, to Tuvalu, to Nauru, to Kiribati. So Papua New Guinea, East Timor—Timor-Leste.

So we’re doing a lot in the Indo-Pacific. We’re doing it on a defense basis and a security basis. We’re doing it on a diplomatic basis. We’re doing it on a humanitarian basis. But I think, perhaps most importantly, we’re doing it through investment, through US investment and US trade in the region and I think it’s going to be one of the places—you know, the old saying of “Go West, young woman” or “Go West, young man,” I think that’s still going to remain true for many Americans that are going to have a great future in the Pacific region.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Thank you for sharing the scale and the scope of the administration’s policies and involvement, and the importance of the Indo-Pacific. It truly is vast…and I wanted to ask you about General Scowcroft. Sadly, this month we lost General Scowcroft, a giant in national security. You have, certainly, been hands on on the National Security Council in terms of remodeling, shaping, and General Scowcroft is constantly cited as the gold standard.


PAULA DOBRIANSKY: The gold standard. So, please, share with us what your goals, what your objectives are with the National Security Council staff.

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: Well, listen, the first thing I want to say is with respect to General Scowcroft, and I put out a statement on his passing, what a giant, and I think every national security advisor since General Scowcroft who’s taken this role has said, I want to be like Brent Scowcroft. I want to put the Scowcroft model in place. He had a tremendous impact on our government.

But as a man, he was a great patriot, a great Air Force officer. He hailed from Utah, where I’ve got some connections, and he brought a dignity and graciousness and professionalism to Washington, and I think sometimes that comes from folks that came from the inter-mountain West or from the Plains and outside of our coast. And I think he brought a level of sophistication to his work as the national security advisor that it’s been hard for any of us to live up to.

When I took office the first thing I said is I want to reinstitute the Scowcroft model, and I viewed that as a couple of things. Number one, the NSC had just gotten too big. It was—the NSC policy staff had become bloated. It was unaccountable, and I wanted to make sure that we got back to a level of staffing where I knew the staffers, where they were top-notch folks, and where we didn’t have—where we can streamline what had become a very bloated situation.

That’s what Brent had done when he was here. He operated, I think—under the Ford administration I think he had thirty policy staffers, and it grew a little bit by the time he came back with George H.W. Bush—President George H.W. Bush. But he ran a very lean operation. I wanted to do that.

Number two, he made process his ally and you know, you’ve been ambassador at the State Department. I have been, and when you’re outside of it sometimes you get a little frustrated by the NSC process, by the PCCs and the DCs and the PCs. But at the end of the day, it’s that process that allows us to get the best advice, the best options vetted and in front of the president, and oftentimes by running the full process and find out where the pitfalls are, the traps are in a potential policy or a reaction to some world event that takes place, we keep America safer, and I think General Scowcroft understood that better than many national security advisors and many people in foreign policy.

So I’ve run, I think, or our team has run over two hundred DCs and PCs in the last year since I’ve been in office. I think we may have had a record on that front, and what that allows us to do is get a consensus up to the president, or where there’s not a consensus it comes to General Scowcroft’s kind of—the third thing that I distilled from the Scowcroft model and that is being the honest broker.

And we try not to take a policy position as NSC staff or myself as national security advisor. It doesn’t mean I don’t have positions and I certainly had well-developed positions on a variety of issues before coming here.

But it’s really for the president to hear from his Cabinet secretaries and his heads of departments and agencies. Especially when there’s a dispute among them it’s good for him to hear that, for them to have their day in court, to be able to make their argument to the president, and then at the right time the president can turn to me if he’s so inclined and say, hey, what do you think of this issue, what do you think of these arguments, and I can weigh in.

But what I’ve tried not to do—and I think General Scowcroft was a great model of this—is I’ve tried to bring some integrity where we’re not putting into the process, where we’re not putting our thumb on the scale as the NSC staff for a particular policy or advice to the president, but being available to the president after he’s heard from his National Security Council itself, then being able to, when the president asks, to give him my thoughts on an issue.

So in those three areas, with lean staff, with a heavy reliance on process, and with—trying to maintain integrity and the judicious use of advice for the president after letting the Cabinet secretaries be heard, I’ve tried to emulate that. And I’ll tell you, I was impressed. I’ve been a long-time admirer of General Scowcroft. But sitting in the chair that he once occupied I’ve got even more respect for the dignity and the professionalism that he brought to the office.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Well, thank you for that, Ambassador.

I have one final question, Ambassador, and it’s a big one. But I’d like to ask you what do you consider the major foreign policy achievements—you’ve referred to some—during the Trump administration thus far and what would you like to accomplish in a potential second Trump term?

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: It’s a great question. I think it’s a bit of an overlooked question because I think the president has had just a terrific run of policy successes, and just in the time that I have been here the president was able to negotiate a cease fire between Kurds and Turks that saved thousands of lives.

The president, as we discussed earlier, was able to encourage NATO countries to spend $400 billion more on their own defense and our collective defense. The president came into office with the Middle East aflame and with a caliphate the size of Great Britain stretching across Syria and Iraq.

He destroyed the physical caliphate, and late last year he was able to bring justice to Bakr al-Baghdadi and—a guy who had been a real monster and killed a number of Americans including Kayla Mueller and Sotloff and Kassig and Foley, American journalists and aid workers who were brutally killed, not to mention the thousands of Yazidis and Christians and Muslims that he killed in his caliphate.

We ended the caliphate. We brought justice to Baghdadi. We restored—the president restored deterrence with Iran. He got out of the disastrous JCPOA, which, in my view—and I wrote about this at the time that it was entered into, I thought it was the worst diplomatic deal that the West had been engaged in—or had been involved in since 1938 in Munich, and it was just a terrible deal that put Iran on the path to a nuclear weapon, as the Israelis have now demonstrated when they obtained the documents from the warehouse outside of Tehran.

It put them on the path to achieving the ability to buy and sell advanced conventional arms that would have taken place this year under JCPOA. So we got out of JCPOA. We put maximum pressure on Iran, and that maximum pressure on Iran in turn set the stage for the recent peace agreement that you saw between the UAE and Israel. And, again, just by achieving that agreement alone that puts the president in the same league as Jimmy Carter with the Camp David Accords or President Clinton with the deal between Israel and Jordan. It puts—and it certainly puts Bibi Netanyahu in the category of Menachem Begin or Perez or Rabin, or the Crown Prince MBZ in the same league as Sadat or King Hussein.

So a major achievement. I think standing up for our allies, moving our embassy to Jerusalem, really sent a message to the world that we stand by our allies. Every president in the past five or six elections has gone to their convention as a candidate and said, I’m going to move the embassy to Jerusalem, and then they didn’t do it and were talked out of it by the foreign policy establishment.

The president had the courage to do it. He recognized Golan. So we’ve done a lot in the Middle East. But all of that, I think—those are all impressive accomplishments, but I think the thing he may be most noted for in history is standing up for the first time in forty years to communist China. And the COVID virus, obviously, coalesced a lot of people around that message, but we’ve stepped back and we’ve watched what they’ve done through unfair trade practices to our industry, hollowed out the American manufacturing center in the middle of our country.

We’ve watched what they’ve done to our great companies through the theft of intellectual property, how we’ve seen great American tech companies and hardware companies go out of business because the Chinese stole their IP and then sold it back to us cheaper. He’s standing up to them on that front.

We’re standing up to them on the capital markets front and, most importantly, we’re rebuilding our defenses and taking a peace through strength posture, not just to the Chinese but to the Russians and all of our adversaries.

So I think the president has a record of accomplishment over the past four years that’s really astounding. There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed the other day that commented on this and talked about the president’s terrific foreign policy record that many in the establishment, many of your friends and my friends, don’t want to acknowledge but it’s been pretty spectacular.

PAULA DOBRIANSKY: Ambassador, a terrific session. Very insightful, very comprehensive, and we truly are most appreciative, knowing how pressed you are with your time, that you took time today to be part of the sixteenth edition of Front Page at the Atlantic Council. So thank you for that, and it’s a real delight seeing you. Thank you.

ROBERT C. O’BRIEN: Wonderful to be here and wonderful to be with the Council. Thank you so much, Paula.

Related Experts: Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky

Image: File photos show President Donald Trump's national security adviser Robert O'Brien. (REUTERS)