Monday, February 27, 2023
9:00 AM - 10:00 AM (UTC-05:00) Eastern Time (US & Canada)
Please Note: Transcript as provided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A recording of the program may be watched here (link), and the Chamber’s program summary is posted here (link).
This U.S. Chamber of Commerce InSTEP program featured senior diplomats in critical posts at home and abroad who are helping to shape America’s leadership posture at a time of economic and geopolitical uncertainty. The discussion was moderated by Myron Brfilliant, Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs, with insights from Nicholas Burns, U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China; Thomas Nides, U.S. Ambassador to Israel; and Victoria Nuland, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.
For my final instep session, I am delighted to have three distinguished diplomats join me for my final public act at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So let me say a special thanks to Ambassador Nides, Ambassador Burns, and Ambassador Nuland for joining me for this special session.
I know there is a global audience here today. I thank my American chamber friends from around the world, ambassadors and embassies represented here today. Of course, my corporate friends and think tank and media joining us, and the C-SPAN audience.
I want to begin by saying that I am not going to review the 29 years that I’ve put in at the U.S. chamber. I will simply say it’s been an incredible journey for me, and I could not have done it without the outstanding team at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Tom Donohue was here when he suggested I run the international program at the U.S. Chamber over a decade ago, told me to run hard and run fast and build, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade as we expanded around the world. I’ve been traveling for millions of miles on behalf of the U.S. Chamber and on behalf of American business.
And of course, over those years, I’ve witnessed history, had a front-row seat to many historical events, including in the U.S.-China relationship. Charlene Barshefsky is here today, but I was there to witness her signing the bilateral agreement that sent China into the WTO. Ambassador Burns may have some reflections about that.
I’ve also had the chance to do some adventurous things over my course of years. I won’t talk about them all, but I think about the sandstorm in western China or the jellyfish off the coast of Mexico, or I think about the donkey rides up.
Ventures really don’t matter to me as much as the people that I’ve worked with, both inside the chamber and outside the chamber. I want to thank the entire leadership of the U.S. Chamber, Suzanne Clark and the team. I want to acknowledge members of my own team: Nisha Biswal, Scott Eisner, Gary Litman, John Murphy, Khush Choksy, Neil Harrington, Marjorie Chorlins, Anita Patel, Josh Kram, Jeremy Waterman, and so many more at the chamber that have made this journey so wonderful, so incredible, and so memorable. A special thanks also to the AV team at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that had to put up with me, particularly during the COVID period and post-COVID period as we continue to do these virtual forums.
Much has happened since we started instep over a decade ago, and I would note that some of the founding members of instep, the International Strategic Trade and Economic Platform, are here on this call today. Pramod Bhasin from Genpact, Bruce Stokes at the German Marshall Fund, John Bussey from The Wall Street Journal, and many others who helped me launch instep as a conversation about American leadership.
And if I think about 10 years ago or 12 years ago when we started this program, the world is quite changed. Of course, we saw a rise in China then, but today we see a much more muscular China. In fact, we see more tensions not just with the United States, but with Europe and others. We see now war in Europe, unprovoked aggression from Russia, and how we manage that. And how do we exit from this war? We see climate change taking even more prominence in the world. Today we see a pandemic that’s hit us and changed the world forever. We see increasing energy around food and security issues
America’s role in the world has never been more important. But we also know that the world cannot be divided into blue and red teams. So how does America work with Europe and other allies in restoring our place in bringing world order and stability at a time where there is quite a bit of conflict around the world? We’re going to get into that in today’s conversation. But I would just be remiss if I didn’t thank all the members of the chamber, all the government officials who have participated in programs with me over the years, the hundreds of heads of state that I’ve probably hosted, many ministers, ambassadors, and others. And I just want to thank everyone for having faith in the U.S Chamber and the role we play, supporting government and supporting America’s role in the world today.
With that, let me transition to today’s program, and let me begin by saying that this event today with three of America’s most respected diplomats seems an appropriate way to end my tenure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I want to start with a friend and reflect on the role of Secretary Albright, who we lost last year, and who said last year, ‘We have to use force. It is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see the world for what it is.’ We’re going to pose the question today: Is America still the indispensable nation? Do we have the tools we need to project our leadership in a time of economic and geopolitical uncertainty?
In fact, former Secretary Kissinger called that into question recently when he raised the issue of whether or not there is a global leadership vacuum. There is a common refrain that America is pulling back from the world, that American strength and impact overseas are diminishing, and that other powers, including China and Russia, are stepping into that. I’m not sure I agree with that, but I’m sure our guests will have a very different perspective as well about the role of American leadership in this world today in the face of challenges from climate change to food security to global health system resiliency and beyond. US leadership can help galvanize partners and allies to make a difference, to have a profound impact and shape the world’s effects.
Today’s discussion will look at ways America is extending its leadership in the areas where leadership is most necessary and what is driving and leading American diplomats to be a part of the solution. Let me begin with very brief introductions of three very distinguished diplomats.
Ambassador Nick Burns is one of the nation’s most distinguished diplomats. We’re fortunate that he has helped navigate one of America’s most complex challenges. And if you think about his nearly three decades of government service, he has served six presidents and nine secretaries of state. And I have to say, as undersecretary of political affairs, he led negotiations on the US-India civil nuclear agreement and the long-term military assistance agreement with Israel. He also was a point person in the Iranian nuclear diplomacy, serving as a point person in the second Bush administration. So he has served both Democratic and Republican presidents, and he has many other achievements, also having served as US ambassador to NATO.
Next up is Ambassador Tom Nides. He was confirmed as US ambassador to Israel. Since taking up his post in Jerusalem, he has been a very active ambassador, very active on social media, and he’s been at the forefront of some important developments, including dealing with the Abraham Accords, and as well as dealing with recent tensions in Israel and its surrounding areas. Prior to his current role, Tom was managing director and vice chairman of Morgan Stanley. He served as US State Department deputy secretary of state for then Secretary Clinton, and he’s had other important roles in government and in the private sector.
And finally, we have Victoria Nuland. Ambassador Nuland was confirmed in April 21 as undersecretary of state for political affairs, making her the State Department’s highest ranking career diplomat. She has incredible experience over three decades serving in various posts, including US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs from September 2013 until January 2017 and State Department spokesman as well. She was the first female US ambassador to NATO during President George Bush’s second term and chief negotiator on important treaties as well, and she has served in overseas posts in Russia, China, and Mongolia.
Let me begin with each of you and thank you again for being with us here today with some personal reflections. Each of you has served in government and at times left government and have come back. First of all, what inspired you each to be in government service, and how is today’s time different than, say, previous times you’ve been in government? Toria, let me start with you.
Thank you, and I want to join Toria in just congratulating you on your terrific three decades at the U.S. Chamber. There’s been nothing like it, and we’re all gonna miss you. But we know you’ve got a great future ahead, so congratulations on that.
I also just wanted to say what a pleasure it is to serve with people like Toria Nuland, who’s one of my closest friends and closest partners in the U.S. Foreign service. Both of us are career foreign service officers, and to think that we can attract people like Tom Nides, who’s had this career between business and public service, really is a strength of America. You asked me why I came back to the government. I was a foreign-service officer, left in 2008, taught at Harvard for 13 years. I came back, I suspect, for the same reasons that Toria and Tom did. I’m sure when the President called Tom Nides and said, ‘I want you to be ambassador to Israel,’ it probably didn’t take him a long time to reflect and answer, ‘Yes.’ I know that when the president called Toria to be under-secretary of state for political affairs, I mean, of course, Toria was going to serve. And when the president called me, I had the same reaction. Of course, I accepted. Because if you can’t get excited about public service in these three jobs, you’re in the wrong business.
In my case, I’ve been going back and forth to China for 34 years, but I knew it was a critical time for our relationship with China. I believe in the president’s vision. I knew that we had bipartisan support in the Congress between Republicans and Democrats for a really robust American policy to defend our interests out here in the Indo-Pacific, to compete with the Chinese, where we absolutely have to compete, and to try to engage them on issues like climate change, global health, and agriculture. And so, as a job, obviously, that I accepted with a great deal of humility but a great deal of purpose, that China is going to be one of the great challenges for Americans going forward, for my wife and I, for our three daughters, for our kids, for our grandchildren. I’m just concluding my first year here, Myron, and it is a tough job with a lot of challenges, but we have a wonderful, high-performing U.S. mission staff across China. So, happy to be here.
Well, Tom, that’s a great lead into the topic around Ukraine, but I’m gonna take one second and ask each of you. How does the political polarization in our country impact America’s standing in the world and our work around these important geopolitical challenges?
Well, Myron, in my case, as I said before, I think that one of the great advantages we have right now in dealing with a very difficult government here in the People’s Republic of China in a competitive relationship is that we have large scale bipartisan agreement that we ought to be competing with China for military power in the Indo-Pacific, competing in the economic and trade sphere for a much more level playing field for American business, because it’s not level right now. We’re certainly competing in technology. And of course, we defend our values. We defend human rights. We take issue with the great issues that the Chinese have done in Xinjiang and Tibet and Hong Kong. The lack of religious freedom here, and I think there is large scale agreement, frankly, in our country and also between Republicans and Democrats in Congress that we’ve got to be competing in those four areas. I also think most Americans would say, as we largely have a difficult, challenging, competitive relationship with China. We are the two largest economies. We’re the two most powerful countries in the world.
We’ve got to be able to work with each other. And um, while there may be some disagreements, I think most Americans would say the two largest carbon emitters ought to be working together on climate change. If we’re going to do something to strengthen the World Health Organization and we’re gonna have to push China to be more active in it. And, of course, be more honest about what happened three years ago in Wuhan with the origin of the Covid 19 crisis, we’re going to have to work together on food security. And Toria, of course, has been working on the problem of the lack of grain exports from Ukraine, especially from Ukraine to the rest of the world, which has produced a food crisis in parts of Africa and other parts of the world. So I think most Americans would say we’ve got to be present in their relationship with China, and I feel the bipartisan support, Myron, from both parties in Congress from the House and the Senate. It’s very important that we maintain that because China will do to try to divide us at home as they have tried to do in the past and we’ve got to have the discipline and I think self-awareness and strategic clarity to stick together.
I consider this one of the great advantages that we have that our mission has, that I have as ambassador out on point here for the United States as we try to deal with this difficult relationship.
Nick, in the fall, the president’s meeting with Xi Jinping was important. It was said as a positive change to steady the relationship, to create a floor perhaps, and to find ways as you suggested earlier to really work together with China, where we have comments, interest, pandemic-health, climate, etcetera, but also to address significant differences in the relationship. Since that visit, though, we’ve had the balloon incident, we’ve had concerns about Chinese behavior with Russia, and we’ve had other issues that have popped up. You’ve been tough in your messaging in China about these issues, and Secretary Blinken certainly has had some tense exchanges. Where are we right now in the US-China relationship, and where can we go to sort of stabilize the relationship at a time where we have so much difference in how to manage some of these geopolitical conflicts?
Myron, this is obviously a very difficult moment in the U.S.-China relationship. You’re right. I was with President Biden in the meeting in Bali in mid-November in Indonesia, and we put forward our position that we had to have some stability and floor in this relationship. The two leaders know each other very, very well. They had 3.5 hours of conversation. A lot of that conversation was focused, frankly, on the differences between us and our interests, both of us in trying to manage those differences effectively so that we don’t end up in a conflict. God forbid between our two countries, and I think we came out of the Bali meeting thinking that we had a chance in 2023 for greater stability. Secretary Blinken was scheduled to visit, as you know, Beijing to see President Xi Jinping and Wang Yi and Qin Gang on the fifth and sixth of February, but that became impossible.
After the balloon incident, which was an outright violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the United States, President Biden was absolutely correct in ordering the shoot down of that balloon, and we are now collecting, salvaging the superstructure and examining it, and the FBI is doing and holding China to account. The message that we have transmitted to the government here is that this must never happen again. We sanctioned six companies here in China that have been involved in the surveillance balloon activities, and frankly, we’ve received a lot of support from our allies and partners from every part of the world for our position that we had to stand up to the Chinese on this issue. We’re now in this surreal moment where the Chinese, who I think you know, lost the debate over the balloon globally, lost influence and credibility around the world because of what they have done. They’re now blaming this on us. It’s a little bit Orwellian and a little bit frustrating because I think everybody knows the truth here.
So you combine that, Myron, with the warning we’ve also given to the government over the last week or two that we fear they may be contemplating providing lethal assistance to the Russian government for its unjust and brutal war in Ukraine, and that’s a direct warning that our president, our secretary of state have made, that I have made on their behalf to the government here, and we hope that the government in Beijing will take that warning seriously. Yes, there are issues where we do want to work with China if we can, but frankly, this is a moment where we’ve got to manage these differences, hold China to account, and build up our alliance system out here in the Indo-Pacific, which has been so effective. The strengthening of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the renewed vigor in our alliance with the Philippines. Of course, the development of AUKUS, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States and the Quad, where India and Japan and Australia the United States are working together. Frankly, I think the Chinese may have been surprised by the strength of all of our democracies. I remember when I testified at my confirmation hearing, I told the members of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate that the Chinese believe the Chinese leadership at the East is rising and that the West, particularly the United States, was declining. I think two years into this administration and on a bipartisan basis, I can say the United States is in a strengthened position in the Indo-Pacific, and now the United States and NATO and the United States and the European Union are beginning to see the threat from China and the competition from China in the same way. I think that’s surprised the Chinese. It’s strengthened our ability to make sure that we’re defending our interests out here.
There’s a lot more we can say, Myron. There are 1,000 issues that we’re dealing with. But I’d like to focus on the balloon incident and China’s position on the Ukraine war as two of the most important issues that we’re dealing with right now. I think those are the most important short-term issues, but Taiwan looms large as an issue as well in the U.S.-China relationship. And, of course, we’ve seen more muscular rhetoric coming out of Beijing on that issue. We’ve seen signs of increasing expansionist thinking coming out of Beijing. And I know this is an area that is core and sensitive to this relationship.
How do we manage this dynamic in the context of everything else we’re dealing with, and obviously Ukraine and that conflict is seen in this prism as well, but how do we manage that, Nick? Because we’re going to have an election in this country next year, we’re going to have representatives, perhaps the speaker, visiting Taipei. We’re going to see, I think, an escalation potentially on both sides if we don’t manage it very carefully, and that has huge risk, short term and long term. Or the business community that have huge supply chain issues as well coming out of Taiwan. You want to reflect on that quickly?
Well, obviously, the United States has a unique responsibility here through the Taiwan Relations Act passed in 1979. It is our obligation, obviously, to maintain our own military strength in and around Taiwan in this part of the world to make sure that the Taiwan authorities have the ability to deter any kind of Chinese offensive action now or in the future. It’s also, I think, our responsibility to galvanize the rest of the world to make sure that the Chinese cannot get away with coercion or intimidation against Taiwan itself. You saw that after Speaker Pelosi’s visit, and I was right here in Beijing dealing with the government with the Chinese government here.
This extraordinary use of power, military power to try to intimidate Taiwan, the firing of ballistic missiles over the territory, the offensive action in the Taiwan Strait violating the status quo of the last 70 years. And now I think you’ve seen a reaction not just from the United States, but also from Japan and some of the other countries in this region. They understand that 50% of the container traffic in the world flows every day through the Taiwan Strait and that any kind of disruption caused by China, the People’s Republic of China, in the Taiwan Strait would have an inevitable very negative consequence for the global economy. And of course, we want to live in a world where big countries can’t push small countries around or in this case, not a country, but the Taiwan authorities, and so very important that the United States is stepping up. Showing support as we do under our congressional authorization for defensive articles supplied to the Taiwan authorities, showing political support, obviously working on trade issues as we are, and I think the United States has stood up in very strong support for the Taiwan authorities and will continue to do that. And hopefully, the message to Beijing, which will sink in, is that the United States and our allies want to see the government here respect the status quo, stand down from some of their more aggressive activities and respect the fact that we need a peaceful solution to the cross-strait differences. That’s a message that Beijing needs to hear, not just from us, and it’s hearing it from us, but from countries in Europe, and they’re beginning to hear it from Europe as well as this part of the world.
Nick, I want to turn to you because so much of the attention, even in your comments today, has been around security and defense-related judgments. But we have a big economic relationship with China. Let’s not forget that we do a trillion dollars’ worth of business. It’s not perfect. We have real concerns about China’s record. We have concerns about its emphasis on state-owned enterprises and the regulatory behavior of the government. But we want to continue to work on this relationship in areas where we can do business. There has to be sort of a traffic light approach, right? Areas which are red, areas that are yellow that need to be defined, and areas that are green. Where is the economic relationship heading at a time of great turmoil?
And Tom, in your response, please also comment on where economic relations fit into the narrative on the US-Israel relationship, which gets so much attention for all the obvious reasons.
Well, Myron, as you know, one of the ironies of the present relationship between us and China, which has been so difficult across the board, is that our two-way trade is increasing. The figures just released by the Department of Commerce for 2020 show a $690 billion trade relationship between the US and China. That’s a major increase over just a couple of years ago, and there are areas where Americans are doing well and should continue to do well. I’ll just give you one example – agriculture. American farmers and ranchers sold nearly $41 billion of American products to China last year. That’s one-fifth of all of our agricultural exports. The United States goes to China, and it’s our largest single export market, so that’s a relationship that’s going quite well and working for our farm and ranch community.
On the other hand, I think technology is going to be at the heart of the battle, Myron, as we think about the future of our economic relationship. In fact, I’d say the future of our relationship overall. Technology will be one of the most challenging and compelling issues, and you’ve seen our administration, the United States, with a lot of congressional support, take some very tough actions against China. Our October action taken through the Department of Commerce to deny Chinese companies sophisticated chips for semiconductors, and supercomputers, for example, was a major action that we had to take so that, as the White House put it in describing this action, we don’t give the national security community here in China, the PLA, the Chinese intelligence authorities, technology to overtake us, and we protect what’s important in our own economy and national security establishment.
I think technology is going to remain a contested area, and of course, there are real limits in U.S. law. Chinese companies are not allowed to invest in companies in the United States in technology areas that we deem to be important for our national security. And of course, Congress is now talking about and the administration contemplating what we need to do to encourage American companies not to invest in the civil-military fusion in the national security complex here in China. That’s very important for our future. I think it’s going to be front and center in our relationship as we go forward.
I just came from an American Chamber event tonight in Beijing. We are encouraging American companies in certain areas to trade, we’re defending their right to have a more level playing field because the Chinese are denying that to our companies. But there are also some areas where, frankly, we don’t want to see American investment in trade because it’s too important to our national security, which, of course, has to trump everything else in a relationship like this.
Nick – your final thoughts. Give us something to grasp to end this program with.
You know, I would very much mirror what Tom just said. From my perspective sitting here in China looking at the Indo-Pacific, our American position is stronger than it was five or ten years ago. It’s the strength of our alliances, it’s the strength of our private sector, it’s our innovative capacity and our R&D capacity, which comes from our research institutes and our big tech companies. And I do think that the Chinese now understand that the United States is staying in this region, we’re the leader in this region in many ways, and that we want a future of peace with China. We don’t want, as President Biden makes clear every time he talks about this, we don’t want conflict, but we’re going to hold our own out here and I feel optimistic, just concluding my first year as ambassador, about the American position in the country and in this region. And I thank the President for the opportunity to do this job. I have to thank the Congress for speaking with one voice between Republicans and Democrats on these issues. It’s a great strength of our country.
And Myron, congratulations on three decades at the chamber. Tom and I and Toria are going to be sorry to see you go, but looking forward to seeing your many accomplishments in the future.
Well, this has been a terrific way to close out my public chapter at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to have Ambassador Burns, Ambassador Nides, and of course, Ambassador Nuland with us today, talking about America’s role in the world. It is clear that we are an indispensable nation. It’s clear that America’s leadership is needed at a time of geopolitical conflicts around the world. It’s important that we don’t go alone, that we stand with our allies, that we build alliances even in areas of the world that we didn’t talk about today. The challenges are before us, but the reality is that today the rest of the world is watching as America confronts Russia’s aggressive behavior as it deals with the challenges of managing China’s rise, and as it deals with so many other issues that require US leadership.
So, I am grateful for the incredible diplomats that serve our country. We heard from three of them today. I think the private sector role in this has never been more important in working with our government, and we continue to do that. I am not retiring from my commitment to be engaged on world events. I’m not retiring from my commitment to work with the private sector and ensure that we continue to see that close cooperation between the public and private sectors.
But I thank you all for tuning in today. I thank my many friends and colleagues, and my former and current staff, for their contributions to my 29 years. Without them, this would not have been possible. It’s been an incredible journey.
So, thank you all for joining us here today. Signing off, for the last time, as the Executive Vice President and Head of International Affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.