Transcript: A conversation with US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on China, the Middle East, and the Trump administration’s foreign policy

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The Hon. Michael R. Pompeo
Secretary of State, United States of America

Frederick Kempe
President and CEO, Atlantic Council

FREDERICK KEMPE: Welcome, everyone across myriad platforms and around the world, and live on C-SPAN2 to Atlantic Council Front Page, or #ACFrontPage to the Twitterati among you. It’s our premier live ideas platform for global leaders.

It’s our honor today to host the 70th secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, former member of Congress, former US Army officer, finished first in his class at West Point, Harvard Law School graduate, and of course much more. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council.

And Mr. Secretary, this is a historic day. Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain are scheduled to sign the Abraham Accord, the first such agreement between Arab countries and Israel in more than a quarter century. President Trump will attend, and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will sign with the UAE and Bahraini foreign ministers.

Secretary Pompeo, we have a lot to discuss in this tight half-hour, China and the Indo-Pacific, your recent trips to Europe and their connection to China issues. But let’s start with the Middle East, though I know you also have a few prepared comments. But my first question would be, looking at the long-term implications for the US in the region of this accord. How does the US alliance structure look longer term? What does this shift strategically? So whatever opening comments you have, and then let’s dig into the Middle East.

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Well, first of all, Fred, thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you all today. It is a big day. I will literally—as soon as we wrap up here, I will head over to the White House for this historic opportunity for these three nations to sign documents that will recognize the reality. And maybe, Fred, that’s what I’d begin with, with respect to the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East. I have prepared remarks. I’m going to—I’ll skip them, for the sake of having a good conversation.

The strategy began with the reality, for decades this town’s foreign policy with respect to the Middle East gave the Palestinians a veto right, said that they could act in a way that prevented any Arab nation from engaging with the most important democracy in the Middle East, whether that’s commercial, security relationships, all the ways that nations interact. We took a different view. We laid out a vision for peace that had another element, which was the deep recognition that the primary destabilizing force in the Middle East was not the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians but was rather the threat posed by the extraterritorial ambitions of the clerical regime in Iran.

So we flipped what the previous administration was doing on its head. We identified Iran as the strategic threat to the United States of America and began to lay out a set of policies that would deliver security to the American people related to that. So whether—I was in Doha this weekend. It’s not disconnected either. For the first time now in twenty years, Afghans sat down together to begin to pound out what a reconciled, peaceful Afghanistan might look like; under no illusions about who we’re negotiating with, who these parties are, how difficult that process will be.

But it’s—again, it’s a recognition of the reality, the things that America has accomplished. There’s fewer than two hundred al-Qaida left in Afghanistan today. We’re now delivering a set of outcomes that will reduce the cost in blood from our American servicemen and women, in treasure from the American taxpayer, and risk to the United States of America.

So what we’ll see today at the White House is a set of countries who came to the same conclusion that we did, what was in their best sovereign national interest, to recognize the state of Israel, to normalize relationships with them, and build out security relationships around that, a coalition that has been in the works for three-plus years.

Now, I heard someone the other day say, boy, this happened overnight. I can assure you this has taken all the efforts, under President Trump’s leadership, for three years now to get us to this place today.

FREDERICK KEMPE: And the question of what kind of impact this could have on the US alliance structure—could there be tectonic shifts that go way beyond what we’ve seen thus far? What is your view there? What are the longer-term implications for the region and for the United States in the region?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: I think this recognizes the reality that the Gulf states have all recognized. It shouldn’t go without notice; not only have these nations chosen to recognize Israel, but when the Gulf states all got together and the Palestinians demanded that there be a statement denouncing what took place, that did not occur. Frankly, the only two countries that have vehemently denounced this were Iran and Turkey.

And so, yes, there is a big shift in how these alliances are set. The previous administration took an Iran-centric focus, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the Islamic Republic of Iran to enable them to underwrite Hezbollah, the Shia militias in Iraq, to undermine Lebanese and Iraqi sovereignty and stability, created chaos inside of Syria. This administration has taken a fundamentally different approach to creating an opportunity for increased stability in the Middle East and less risk to America.

FREDERICK KEMPE: You mentioned Iran. What are the implications for Iran, do you believe? This week reported to be weighing an assassination attempt of the US ambassador to South Africa. As you know, Mr. Secretary, I was in the Middle East at the time that we hit Qassem Soleimani, the [Iranian] general, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi commander.

That assassination attempt was ostensibly to be in revenge for that hit. So I think the specific question is the implications of this agreement to Iran, but also a little bit of context of where you think we are right now in that struggle.

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Well, we should take the Iranians’ word for what they think about these set of agreements. They think this fundamentally is a detriment to their security. They have made accusations about their Muslim brothers that are outrageous, about—and it has frankly shown the true anti-Semitic nature of the regime in Iran as well.

Look, I don’t want to comment on the intelligence, but the Iranians didn’t need an action by the United States to conduct assassination campaigns around the world. This has been their model for forty years. You know this too, Fred. There’s some—their model of conducting political assassinations in Europe and other places and building out networks and capabilities, proxy forces all around the world, this is the Iranian model.

What we have done is strive to build out a set of understandings that denies the regime the capabilities. And you can see it. You can see a weakened capacity from Hezbollah. You can see them scratching and clawing and turning to narcotics activities to generate revenue. You can see what’s happening in Iraq—a greater space for Shia militias now to join and put the monopoly on arms back in the hands of the Iraqi leadership.

All of these things came because of President Trump’s fundamental understanding that the way we had been conducting our business in the Middle East for decades hadn’t delivered on American security. And we’re now getting us to a place where we’ll be able to do that.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you for that.

Let’s shift to China. As I talk to people observing the Trump administration’s foreign policy, they point to the Middle East and China as the areas where there’s probably, at this point, the most lasting legacy. Some believe your speech on China at the Nixon Library and Museum was one of historic significance in July, following the speeches of the national security adviser, the FBI director, and the attorney general. There’s direct comparisons being made to Ronald Reagan and his trust and verify. You’ve said distrust and verify. You called China for its, quote, “desire for global hegemony.” How would you view this comparison to Reagan toward the Soviet Union and Pompeo/Trump toward China? And do you want the same outcome that Reagan eventually got with Moscow, which was the collapse of Soviet communism?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Well, the outcome, of course, that we’re seeking is to ensure that the rules-based system that has benefited not only the United States of America but freedom-loving peoples all around the world is the dominant force for the next century, for the century that we’re in as well. That’s the objective set. That is—in fact, when I talked about Chinese desire for hegemony, that’s what I’m speaking to. That’s what it is they’re trying to undermine. It’s what the Chinese Communist Party says. We should—we should take them at their word.

When Xi Jinping talks about national rejuvenation, he’s not talking about a party. He’s not talking about having a really good day and a celebration. He’s talking about the Middle Kingdom. He’s talking about the central ideas of nationalism, Chinese nationalism, and the Marxist-Leninist underpinnings of his regime. He’s dedicated to that. He is committed to it. He’s put resources against it. They have a model that is highly developed of state-sponsored enterprises and their civil-military fusion program. These are things—these are things Xi Jinping knows.

And for an awfully long time the West sat on its hands. We turned the other cheek. What I spoke about at the Nixon Library most clearly was a need to reorient and recognize that whatever the policies that were chosen back in the 1970s, whether they may well have made sense at the time, they no longer make sense for the security of the American people. This isn’t just a security issue, this is a fundamental understanding about how economies grow and how we preserve jobs and wealth creation and prosperity here in the United States of America.

This is central to Trump—the Trump administration’s foreign policy. I believe it’s going to be central to every administration’s foreign policy for years to come.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Trump administration critics say it would be easier to counter China as you said for years to come into future administrations if we had done more to rally allies. I know you’ve been in Asia and Europe doing exactly that. Where do you feel you’ve succeeded? Where do you have worries? Whether you look at Germany, South Korea, Japan, even the UAE, they all have China as their number-one trading partner at the moment.

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Yeah, Fred, that’s an important question and I’ve seen this critique. Let me give you two thoughts.

First, the most important ally to have on this is the American people. The American people need to fundamentally understand the threat that is posed on them. And you’ve seen I have traveled the United States. I’m going to travel to a state capital next week, talk about the threat from the United Front here inside the United States. You’ve seen what we did to the den of spies that was in Houston. We closed it. That’s been going on a long time and we’ve just said, well, it’s just too bad, goodness gracious, we have an open country, they’re just going to spy and steal our stuff. President Trump has said, enough, we’re not going to do that. And so the most important group that we need to make the case for is to convince the American people of this threat and this challenge, and I think we’ve gone a long ways into communicating transparently about why it is the case that allowing tens of millions of jobs to have been stolen through the Chinese Communist predatory economic activity here in the United States cannot continue.

That connects deeply to the second piece of this, which is to your point, international allies. I’ve spent my year and a half as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now, goodness gracious, coming on two and a half years here as the secretary of state all around the world talking to them—not coercively, not threateningly, just data, just facts about what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to their people and to their country and to the threats that it poses to their sovereignty. And I must say it’s been rewarding over the last six or eight months to watch the shift. The world has awakened. My view is that the tide has turned. I think whether it’s their recognition of the coverup that took place with respect to the Chinese virus, whether it’s the predatory activity now failing—falling flat all across Africa, whether it’s the ASEAN countries who I spoke with in multiple meetings last week coming to understand that these attacks on their economic activities inside their own resource zones are things that they have the capacity to stand up to so long as America is prepared to do it alongside them, I think these are powerful shifts in the world’s view of the threat from the Chinese Communist Party.

And I think commercial activity, that engagement with China, will reflect those risks. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it from American business leaders. They understand now much more clearly the political risks associated with operating inside a country dominated and controlled by a single party, the Chinese Communist Party.

FREDERICK KEMPE: General Jim Jones, executive chairman emeritus of the Atlantic Council, former national security advisor, supreme allied commander Europe, sends in a question along those lines, or digging a little bit deeper. I seems to many of us that China has made Europe an epicenter, almost a target of its global efforts. You’ve been to Europe recently. You’ve talked to people. Specifically you’ve signed securified GMOUs, Slovenia, elsewhere. His question is, how will you effectuate those MOUs? And do we have an alternative to Huawei to offer our friends and allies?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: So Jim asks, as he always does, a good question. What we can do at the United States is we have the capacity to control information that, for example, comes into our embassies. I’ll give this as a micro example: We’ve now told the world that information coming to our embassies must only come from trusted vendors. That means it can’t come across the system that has the capacity to flow information back to the Chinese Communist Party, or the MSS, or their national security apparatus. So there’s a micro example. But we’re building these systems out with our allies and friends, with the Australians, with the Japanese, with the South Koreans, with the Indians—each of whom has come to have a shared understanding of the threat.

As for alternatives, I was very distressed to find the gap between Huawei and American technology with respect to 5G, or for that matter Western technology. But over what’s really now the last two years I’ve watched—I’ve watched Ericsson and Nokia take up the mantle. I’ve watched American companies too begin to build up their systems and processes. I am confident that there will be cost effective deliverables from Western trusted vendors that can deliver the same services, or better services, at comparative costs that—they’ll never match them. We have state-owned enterprises. You literally have subsidies.

It’s funny, we always joke about the battle between Airbus and Boeing being state subsidized. That is child’s play compared to what the Chinese Communist Party does. These are—these are companies that were built on stealing American technology, bringing it back to the homeland, and then turning around and dumping it in the United States of American and around the world, and then bullying companies into accepting this technology. I think nations come to understand that when the Chinese show up and say that it’s free, nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve now come to recognize the real costs connected with putting untrusted vendors in their systems. And over time, I think the world will come to recognize that’s not the right path, and you will see Western technologies that are verifiable, trustworthy, and transparent come to dominate the telecommunications markets.

FREDERICK KEMPE: And then—what’s your vision then for an end state? Decoupling seems unlikely with a peer competitor as integrated in the world economy as China is. So where do we land? Where’s a safe and good place to land with this strategy?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Yeah. It’s a good question. I’ve gone back and read histories about where we thought we’d land when we began to challenge the Soviet Union. No one really had a sense of how that would unfold. I would tell you that there’s still much to unfold here as well. But we know what it would ultimately look like. And we know that the Chinese Communist Party will make decisions along the way too that we’ll have to respond to. But what it looks like, it looks like a world that is controlled and operated in a way that freedom-loving nations, the rules-loving nations, the law-abiding nations can live—and not by authoritarian regimes, not by those who want to have vassal states under their economic thumb. This is what the end state will look like.

What the—what it will look like inside of China I think the Chinese people will get a heavy say in. And the Chinese Communist Party will ultimately have to make some very difficult decisions for themselves. They are not ten feet tall. There are many challenges—we could talk about this for hours—challenges that are faced inside of China as they attempt this play for global hegemony. The United States—what I hope everyone on this call will take away is the theory that so many have been talking about for the past ten years, that it’s predicated on conflict between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, because the United States is a declining nation, is fundamentally false.

It misunderstands American tradition. It misunderstands who we are as America. We are not a declining nation. And the Chinese Communist Party is now seeing for the first time that America is going to stand up for itself. It’s going to respond in ways that are fair and reciprocal. And we’re going to defend American interests wherever we find them.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Most Americans, most people in the world, have not heard of something the Three Seas Initiative. You’ve been advancing this in your trips to Europe, and your trip—most recent trip to Europe. We have a soft spot for this, because the concept was originally born at the Atlantic Council. It is—for listeners—it’s a north-south corridor of transport, transportation, energy, that doesn’t really replace East-West, but more deeply integrates particularly Central and Eastern European countries of the European Union and beyond.

What importance do you see for that? And obviously, our ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, has been a big and very important advocate for this. Adam Boehler, running the International Development Finance Corporation has put some potential funding on the table that I think has motivated this go further. There’s going to be a summit in Estonia—a virtual summit in Estonia soon. What does this achieve, and why have you gotten behind this idea?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Yeah. It’s a really fine idea, and important idea about thinking about a different part of European infrastructure. You’d asked a question a little bit earlier about Europe. I always tried not to respond to questions generically with respect to Europe because you’re talking about dozens of nations with deeply different views. This is another example where you have Baltic states that have come to recognize that their security situation is separate and different from what you might find in other places in Europe, and so taking on the mantel of their own security.

So we’ve offered up to a billion dollars for support for the Three Seas Initiative. We’ve provided defense support too, through our extended readiness efforts, through rotational forces operating in those regions as well. And we’ve put a real diplomatic push into connecting these countries, to your point, on that North-South Axis. And in light of what we’re seeing taking place in Belarus today, this becomes even more important.

FREDERICK KEMPE: And is this also to a certain extent a Russia play or a China play? Or how do you view it strategically?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: It’s both. We’ve certainly been working as part of the Three Seas Initiative to recognize the threat that the Chinese Communist Party can pose to the nations around these three seas. We’ve done the same thing in NATO. We’ve asked NATO to relook their strategy to make sure they incorporate the threats that the Chinese Communist Party imposes to NATO nations as well—whether those are cyber threats, or threats from space, or communication threats, to telecommunications infrastructure that could deny NATO the operational capabilities that it will need in time of conflict. So it is certainly the case that there is an effort to make sure that we are respecting the threats that are posed not only by the Chinese Communist Party, but certainly by the NATO historic adversarial relationship with Russia as well.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Thank you for that answer.

Mr. Secretary, one of your great attributes is you don’t like talking about yourself much, but I’m still going to ask you a question in that direction. President Trump made clear through his own comments in the last year that you considered a run for the Senate in Kansas. Yet, you decided to stay at State. And you’ve spoken of staying as well, should there be a second Trump term. What motivated that decision? And what do you hope to accomplish in secretary of state this year? And if into a second term, what would you add onto that?

FREDERICK KEMPE: Yeah, Fred, look, I love Kansas. My wife and I miss it dearly. That was the attractive piece of considering the race. But we never, frankly, considered running very actively. We always knew that we had this incredible privilege to lead the United States Department of State, to work in the Trump administration, to try to lay out what I’ve been talking about this morning, these—a central underpinning, sort of a Reaganesque model which says: We’re going to be reality based. We’re going to do things that deliver good outcomes for the people of the United States of America. Where we’ll respect all of our allies and friends. We’ll build out coalitions of the likeminded to deliver these outcomes that matter to the American people.

And so if President Trump is reelected there’ll, I’m sure, be a conversation. We’ll see what comes after that. There’s still a lot of work to do. The challenge that’s presented by the Chinese Communist Party remains. We’re partway into achieving the objectives that we have laid out. So there’s a lot of work to do, and I’ve love to find a way to be a part of that.

FREDERICK KEMPE: And if you’re reflecting as your time so far as secretary of state, what do you see as disappointments? Would Venezuela be on that? Would North Korea be on that? I know nothing is done until it’s done, but where do you wish we might have been able to do better?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: You know, Fred, it’s a little early to start the reflection process.


MICHAEL R. POMPEO: We’re still so focused—so focused every day.

But to your point, we still have Americans held hostage in too many places around the world. We’ve had a good number of successes. We’ve brought a lot of people home. We’re proud of all that work. But anytime there’s one American held unlawfully somewhere, it’s something I think about and work on every day.

You know, as for North Korea, which you mentioned, we did have hopes that we could make further progress, that Chairman Kim would go in a different direction. But I’m still optimistic. It’s gone quiet publicly, but there’s still lots of work going on—work going on between ourselves, our allies in the region—the Japanese, the South Koreans—and even efforts with the North Koreans to come to understand where there may be opportunity as time goes on.

FREDERICK KEMPE: The other thing that you don’t get asked about much but I think is quite interesting is this Commission on Unalienable Rights and also your whole mantra on the founding principles of the United States. One quote from something you recently said: “We can’t confront Beijing or other gross HR violators in the world without understanding the roots of our foreign policy through the lens of our founders’ intent.” How important is that to you in your core? And what do you mean by that?

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Fred, I’ve had—this is something I’ve cared about my entire adult life since I was a young soldier, the idea that America is a deeply moral nation and it has a set of founding principles upon which that morality is based. So I’ve had this opportunity to watch, both as a member of Congress and now in the executive branch, what I consider to be an enormous crisis in human rights in the 21st century—watch nations like Iran and China use human rights language to cover up for the most unbelievable human rights violations. What’s taking place in western China is unrivaled in this century. I’ve called it the stain of the century.

And so I undertook a project. I commissioned a former professor of mine, Mary Ann Glendon, to lead a commission of people from every Abrahamic religion, a broad political swath, to talk about how America’s foreign policy ought to be based on its traditions and our human rights policy around the world ought to be grounded in the American founding. And so they went to work. They wrapped up their report. I hope everyone here will go online and go grab it. It’s in seven languages. Pick which one you want to read it in.

But it comes back to this fundamental understanding between our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights from 1948, and sets a moral foundation for how the principles on which American foreign policy ought to base its human rights activity. And so I hope this sets a foundation for my organization, the United States Department of State, for years to come how we think about human rights in the world, and the central foundations upon which it ought to be based if we’re going to do it well and preserve the human dignity that each of us deserve because we are simply made in the image of God.

FREDERICK KEMPE: And then a final question, again going back to the Nixon Library/Nixon Museum. Clearly, in those days the Nixon-Kissinger relationship was at the core of these efforts to lead China in the right direction, and you quote some interesting comments from that period of time that recognized that things may have to be altered if it didn’t go in the right direction. How would you characterize, if it was Nixon-Kissinger then, Trump-Pompeo now? What are the dynamics of that relationship, particularly toward mapping out the relationship to China, where an earlier Trump was very focused on getting a trade deal and this is a very different place we’re in right now? And I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the dynamics of that relationship.

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Yeah. Fred, I appreciate that.

When I was the CIA director nominated to come to State, I called Secretary of State Jim Baker and he came to visit me in Langley. And the very first thing he said—and it may be the only thing that he said for the three hours we were together—he said a secretary of state who doesn’t have the capacity to speak on behalf of the president is just some guy out on a trip. So I have made every effort to make sure that President Trump and I were speaking the same language, his language—he was elected; he got the electoral votes, I didn’t get any—that we were talking about these things in ways that when I represented something that the United States was doing wherever I was traveling, I was speaking on behalf of the president of the United States of America. And so I’ve worked hard in making sure that relationship was good and sound and that we had a set of common understandings.

We haven’t always—we don’t always agree. I make recommendations to him. He takes some of them. Some of them he has a different view. I then go execute them as vigorously as I can, and I drive my team to go do that.

You know, you mentioned something, Fred—and I know this is the last question. I really appreciate this opportunity today. You mentioned the president began talking about economic issues, trade issues, with China. And we’ve now moved past that. I don’t see these as disconnected.

The central threat that the Chinese Communist Party, the central tool that the Chinese Communist Party has used to build out its hegemonic capacity, is its economic might, its power, the power of a market of 1.4 billion people, where it can suck in American businesses to do the most outrageous things and just tell the Chinese, that’s OK, you can get away with human-rights violations in your country. We’re going to take a pass. That is, we may oppose things here. We may support groups here in the United States, but we’re not going to do a thing to protect human rights inside of China, even though we take lots of money from them.

These economic tools that the Chinese Communist Party uses are the central pillar of its power. And the United States needs to respond in a way that reflects that. So I see all of the activity we’re taking is driven by a comprehensive response to the challenges presented by Xi Jinping’s CCP.

FREDERICK KEMPE: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for this rich conversation. We understand what a busy day this is. We want to send our congratulations from the Atlantic Council to the administration, to the people of the UAE, the people of Bahrain, the people of Israel. May this be a long-lasting peace on which the whole region can build.

Thank you for taking the time, sir.

MICHAEL R. POMPEO: Amen. Thank you, Fred. Have a good day.


Image: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Kosovo's Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti (not pictured) at the State Department in Washington, D.C., U.S., September 4, 2020. Patrick Semansky/Pool via REUTERS