On-the-Record Press Call by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan Previewing the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Security Strategy
9:34 A.M. EDT
MS. SHARMA: Great. Thank you. And thanks, everyone, for joining.
So, as a reminder, this press call is on the record. Our speaker on the call is National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. And the contents of the call are embargoed until today, 12:00 p.m. Eastern.
You should have the factsheet and that strategy in your inboxes — also embargoed. If you didn’t get it, just let me know.
With that, I’ll turn it over to Jake to get us started. And then we’ll take as many questions as we can.
MR. SULLIVAN: Thanks, Saloni. Thanks, everybody. I’ll try to be brief because I’m giving remarks on this later today, and we’ll go into more detail on the strategy and the elements of the strategy.
But just to make a few points here at the top: As Saloni said, today we are releasing the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy. And as the President has said from the earliest days of his administration, the world is at an inflection point and the choices we make today will set the terms on how we are set up to deal with the significant challenges and the significant opportunities we face in the years ahead. That’s really what this National Security Strategy is all about.
The fundamental premise of the strategy is that we have entered a decisive decade with respect to two fundamental strategic challenges. The first is the competition between the major powers to shape the future of the international order. And the second is that while this competition is underway, we need to deal with a set of transnational challenges that are affecting people everywhere, including here in the United States — from climate change to food insecurity, to communicable diseases, to terrorism, to the energy transition, to inflation.
And this strategy makes clear that these shared challenges are not marginal issues, they are not secondary to geopolitics, but they operate on a plane alongside the competition — the geopolitical competition with major powers.
Now, of course, there are tensions between trying to rally cooperation to solve these shared challenges and trying to position ourselves effectively to prevail in strategic competition. But there are also ways in which these are reinforcing. And we believe fundamentally that the core elements of what the United States must do in the years ahead is — are the same for both sets of challenges.
Specifically, we need to invest in the underlying sources and tools of American power and influence, especially our strength here at home, both for the purpose of effective competition and for the purpose of being set up to rally the world to solve shared challenges.
Second, we need to build the strongest possible coalition of nations to enhance our collective influence, both to shape the global strategic environment and to address these transnational threats that require cooperation to succeed. And finally, we need to set the rules of the road for the 21st century in critical areas — from emerging technologies in cyberspace, to trade, economics, investment, and more — both so that the international order continues to reflect our values and our interests and so that the international order is better designed to be able to take on the challenges ahead.
So this decisive decade is critical both for defining the terms of competition, particularly with the PRC, and for getting ahead of massive challenges that if we lose the time in this decade, we will not be able to keep pace with most notably the climate crisis, but other challenges as well.
The strategy is not a detailed accounting of every single challenge and opportunity America faces. It touches on our plans in every region of the world, but it tries to take a broader brush at how we intend to seize this decisive decade to advance America’s vital interests and to put ourselves in a position of strength vis-à-vis these two strategic challenges that I’ve just laid out.
Just a few more points I would set out at the outset, which really are kind of hallmarks of the strategy and hallmarks of the way that President Biden has pursued his foreign policy and national security from the beginning of this administration.
One, we’ve broken down the dividing line between foreign policy and domestic policy to make far-reaching investments here at home in our industrial and innovation base that will increase our competitiveness and better position us to deal with everything from climate to global health, to food security, to energy.
Second, we have put alliances at the core of this strategy, and, in particular, our alliances in Europe with NATO, in the Indo-Pacific with our treaty allies. And then the G7, having been revitalized as an organization that had lost some of its clarity of purpose in recent years, has now been restored as a sort of steering committee for the free world on critical issues.
The President speaks often about the contest in the world between democracy and autocracy. And our democratic allies in Europe, in Asia, and other parts of the world are core to the vision behind the strategy. But as the President said at the U.N. General Assembly, we are prepared to work with any nation that will stand behind the principles and the terms of the U.N. Charter, including principles relative to sovereignty and territorial integrity, to freedom of navigation and overflight. And we will work with non-democracies in service of defending these principles, as well as working with countries of every stripe when it comes to challenges like climate change that affect us all.
Next, we recognize that in the geopolitical space, the PRC represents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge. And while that will play out in the Indo-Pacific to a significant extent, there are global dimensions to the challenge as well.
But the strategy also makes clear that we avoid seeing the world solely through the prism of strategic competition. And we will not try to divide the world into rigid blocks. We are not seeking to have competition tip over into confrontation or a new Cold War. And we are not engaging each country as simply a proxy battleground. We’re going to engage countries on their own terms and pursue an affirmative agenda to advance common interests and to promote stability and prosperity.
Next, the strategy indicates that we have to turn the page on the traditional formula for trade and adopt a new model of economics, investment, and trade that is fit for purpose for the coming decades of the 21st century on everything that has been laid bare in the last few years — supply chains, the energy transition, new standards for labor, the environment, as well as the increasing role of technology and digitization in the global economy.
And then, finally, I would just say that this notion of trying to preserve and increase international cooperation in an age of competition requires a dual track approach.
On one track, we’ll cooperate with any country, including our geopolitical rivals, that is willing to work constructively on shared challenges. And then on the other track, we’re going to deepen and sharpen our cooperation with likeminded democracies. And we believe that we can accomplish both of these as we move forward.
So those are some of the key elements and highlights from the document, which you can read in full. The document identifies key priority areas, it walks through the various lines of effort I’ve just talked about, and then it applies to strategy region by region in the final chapter so that you can see how this plays out in every part of the world.
And with that, I’ll stop and would be happy to take questions.
Q: Jake, thanks very much. Obviously, we were supposed to have this conversation months ago. So could I just ask a broad question: how the war in Ukraine has changed your worldview and the team’s worldview, if at all, and this document in specific, including the nuclear threat.
And I know we’re keeping this broad, but I do obviously want to ask about Saudi and the Middle East. You know, how fundamental are you considering a strategic (inaudible) with an alliance, obviously, that’s lasted more than 75 years? Thanks.
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, the President was clear yesterday that we are reevaluating the relationship with Saudi, and this is a relationship, as you just said, that has existed over decades. And it’s been built on a basis of bipartisan understanding. And the President wants to make sure that he is consulting closely with the Congress on a bipartisan basis as he reevaluates.
And so, he looks forward to engaging the Congress when they return. He will make his decisions about how we proceed with respect to the relationship on his timetable, having had the level of consultation and reflection that he is keen to have, because these are, of course, consequential decisions. And he was clear yesterday that he has embarked on that process, and he’s doing so with purpose of looking out for U.S. interests and values as we think about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
With respect to the war in Ukraine, one of the reasons that we did not move out with the National Security Strategy in the spring is because we thought it would be imprudent in such a fast-moving and consequential moment where it was really unclear exactly what direction that war would take to go out with the strategy.
And, frankly, in February, there were a whole lot of people who thought the war would be over rapidly and Russia would be in a much better position than it is in today. And so, we think what has actually unfolded over the last six months, which has defied many of the expectations and conventional wisdom, is a vindication of taking our time and being methodical in putting forward the strategy.
I don’t believe that the war in Ukraine has fundamentally altered Joe Biden’s approach to foreign policy, which long predates his presidency and has only been reinforced and amplified over the course of his time in office. But I do believe that it presents in living color the key elements of our approach: the emphasis on allies, the importance of strengthening the hand of the democratic world and standing up for our fellow democracies and for democratic values.
The fact that we need to bring to bear all of the tools of national power at our disposal — support to Ukraine in terms of military equipment; economic assistance; sanctions and export controls on Russia to squeeze their capabilities; the diplomatic weight of trying to get strong votes in the U.N. General Assembly, first on the invasion and now this week on the purported annexation that is a complete violation of the U.N. Charter.
So I think what you see in the strategy is the broad-based themes that are applied in practice in the very specific case of Ukraine.
I think what the nuclear threats and saber rattling we’ve seen from Russia remind us of is just what a significant and seriously dangerous adversary Russia is — not just to the United States but to a world that is seeking peace and stability, and now has seen that flagrantly disrupted by this invasion and now by all of the saber rattling.
So, being able to watch how Ukraine unfolded, have the terms of geopolitical competition sharpened up over the course of the past few months, and also being able to put on display how our strategy works in practice — I think all of those serve a good purpose in terms of giving life to the document that we’re releasing today.
Q: Thank you very much. Thank you, Jake, for doing this. Let me follow up and ask: When you look at the National Security Strategy and your emphasis on (inaudible) democracies, does that propel you, in addition to oil, toward perhaps reverting to the President’s campaign rhetoric about Saudi Arabia?
But how do you balance that against an increasingly aggressive Iran and other shared security interests with the Saudis and any hope you might have of fostering whatever progress the current Iranian protests might have towards moving towards a change in their leadership? What’s your evaluations there, if you could speak to it?
MR. SULLIVAN: Well, first, on Iran, it has been remarkable to see the fearlessness, the bravery, the principle, and the principled courage of women and girls and their allies on the streets in Iran — workers striking, students marching, and people demanding their basic rights and dignity.
And the President spoke from the well of the General Assembly about this. He has put out very strong statements on this. His administration — the Secretary of State, myself, others have spoken very clearly and emphatically about our strong support for the basic vision and principles that these protesters are putting forward.
And we’re also trying to take action that shows where we stand on this: imposing costs on Iran’s morality police and others involved in the repression and brutality in attempting to silence the voices of these brave Iranians; steps that the Treasury Department took to try to facilitate access to communication so that Iranians could talk to one another and to the world about what they are doing and what they are seeing.
So, we will continue to do that. And we can’t make any predictions about where this goes. All we can do is stand on principle and try to be very clear about who side we’re on and that is what we will continue to do.
With respect to Saudi Arabia, obviously, as the President has said from when he came into office, there is a range of interests and values that are implicated in our relationship with that country and countries across that region and around the world. And, you know, the President will examine all of that. But one question he’s going to ask is: Is the nature of the relationships serving the interests and values of the United States? And what changes would make it better serve those interests and values?
And the step that OPEC+ took last week with respect to energy that helped Russia raises real questions. And you’ve heard not just from the President, but from members of Congress of both parties on this.
And so, I’m not going to get ahead of where he will end up on this because, as he said yesterday, he wants to be able to engage and consult with Congress when they return. He wants to be able to reevaluate in a methodical, strategic, effective way. And then he will, at a time and place of his choosing, lay out how he intends to proceed with respect to the relationship.
This is responsible, it’s prudent, it’s rooted in his fundamental interest in making sure that the relationship the United States has with Saudi Arabia serves the American people effectively. That’s what he’s intending to work through.
And I know that, you know, the questions will keep coming fast and furious — what exactly what that look like, when, how, et cetera. The President will act and operate according to, you know, what he sees as the necessary period to consult and engage, and then he will lay out the course ahead.
Q: Hi. Thanks, Jake, for doing this. I appreciate it. I had two questions. One is: Earlier on trade, you had
discussed the need to turn the page on a new formula for trade. I think many of us were expecting some sort of announcement on China tariffs earlier this summer, and I just wondered if you could fill us in specifically on where we are on that.
And then, secondly, I wanted to get some clarity from you all on — again, on Saudi Arabia. I know you mentioned that the President wants to wait until Congress returns, and then he’ll begin speaking with them. And I’m just curious, you know: Can he not start talking to them now? They’re just — I feel like there’s this sense of urgency among some members of Congress to do things more immediately, and would the President support things like pausing arm sales in the interim until he actually makes a permanent review decision?
MR. SULLIVAN: Look, again, the President isn’t going to wait to engage. He is going to look to engage, you know, with a range of stakeholders in this relationship and has already begun to do so. He said yesterday he is in the process of reevaluating. But some of these steps require a more full-throated engagement with the Congress and to be able to sit down with members of both parties in person to go through that.
So, this will be — this isn’t a process where we’ve hit the pause button and then we pick it up again in a month. This is a process that has begun. It’s underway. It will involve some engagement with members even now, before voi — you know, voices who have spoken out loudly and clearly. And then, it will continue when Congress returns.
You know, I can’t put a date or a time on when the President will announce any given step, it’s — some could happen sooner, some could happen over a more extended time period.
All I will say right now is that the President is in the process of reevaluation. He is going to proceed strategically, methodically. He’s going to look at every aspect of this. He’s going to consult widely. And then, when he is prepared to do so, he will lay out how he intends to proceed.
That may happen, as I said, in a range of different ways through a number of different vehicles. I’m not suggesting this is all going to be tied up in some neat package in a bow. But I am going to give the President space and the flexibility to make his own determinations for how he wants to lay things out as we go forward.
When it comes to arm sales, I would just point out that nothing is moving imminently, so there is not an imminent decision that has to be made on the question of arm sales. But that is something that he will be looking at, along with everything else in the relationship.
MS. SHARMA: Oh, sorry. I think Asma had also asked about trade.
MR. SULLIVAN: Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah. On China trade, the U.S. Trade Representative has actually initiated a review of the 301 tariffs — the formal review that’s called the “four-year review,” looking at it through the particular prism of, you know, what ultimately is going to strengthen the hand of the U.S. industrial innovation base and our workforce here in the United States.
They’re in the process of working through that, looking at the lines of tariffs, looking at what their impact has been, and then looking at ways that the U.S. can more effectively approach our trade policy with China to ensure that we are achieving the strategic priorities the President has laid out, which is
the strongest possible American industrial and innovation base and a level playing field for American workers.
So, that’s the process that was launched a few weeks ago. It will continue over the coming months, and it will produce outcomes and recommendations to the President about a way forward.
Q: Thanks, Jake, for doing this fascinating document. I want to ask you about two military-related things that you have in the document. The first is, you have a line that I recall from the Obama-era national security strategies and that Obama frequently used about reducing the role of nuclear weapons in American strategy, but then you’ve also got indications that the Nuclear Posture Review, excerpts of which we’ve already seen, basically holds on to the Triad. And there’s not a whole lot that I have seen in the doctrine here that would move you to a reduction at a moment that, of course, we’re newly focused on this.
And I also wonder if you could describe in a little more detail the President’s vision about modernizing the military, because I have — there seems to be a little bit of dissonance between what was in the document and what’s in the budget.
MR. SULLIVAN: So we don’t see dissonance between what’s in the document and what’s in the budget. And I think what I would say more generally about both of your questions is that putting out the National Security Strategy will be the foundation upon which you’ll see the public release of the National Defense Strategy that includes the Nuclear Posture Review and the Missile Defense Review.
And you’ll see, with respect to the Nuclear Posture Review, that, in fact, it does depart from some of the Trump-era formulas, and in doing so, we believe displays a step forward towards the reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in American strategy.
But I will — you know, I think your question can be more fully answered once we have laid out the public-facing elements of the Nuclear Posture Review, which is integrated into the National Defense Strategy.
I mean, among other things, you’ve seen us step back from certain nuclear systems and platforms, but there are other. And the declaratory policy in the Nuclear Posture Review, as it comes out, is different from the declaratory policy — you know, it’s — it is something that is closer to the Obama-era laydown.
On the budget and on modernizing the military, I would suggest that in a range of different areas, the Defense budget put forward by the administration is very consistent with both the NSS and the NDS in its emphasis on how to both modernize the fighting force itself — the men and women who make up this military — and how to modernize the systems, platforms, and technologies that they rely upon in every domain — in space, in cyberspace, land, sea, air, undersea.
So I think when you see all of these documents come together in their totality, the — you’ll see kind of where the overall issue of nuclear posture and the role of nuclear weapons fits in. And you will see the ways in which we have tried to fit together the broad National Security Strategy with a National Defense Strategy built on the notion of integrated deterrence and on this notion of modernizing.
The last thing I would say is: Reducing the role of nuclear weapons was also in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance from earlier this year. So this is not a new proposition. It has guided our work from the beginning of the Biden administration when we put out that interim guidance, you know, within the first weeks of the administration.
Q: Hey, thanks a lot. Jake, is foreign policy for the middle class still a major aspect of the President’s foreign policy? And if so, how is the administration factoring in the war in Ukraine? It’s obviously a challenge that has broad sympathies in the West but, practically speaking, has increased energy prices and inflation in ways that have hurt the middle class. So I’m just curious about the — how you guys think about that and communicate that.
MR. SULLIVAN: So it is still an important feature of how the President approaches the whole question of foreign policy and national security. You know, how do we make sure that what we are doing, in terms of our investments and our policies in the world, makes life better for middle-class working people in America. And you see that across a range of dimensions of the strategy, including the intersection I talked about between foreign policy and domestic policy.
The President is very focused on securing supply chains, on making the investments in our industrial and innovation base that will create good-paying jobs for the long-term future; on an energy transition that does sustain stability in the energy markets while also moving us to a clean energy future that will bring down energy costs and also ensure more security and reliability over time while it also helps us deal with the climate crisis.
On pandemics that — you know, one of the biggest threats facing families in America today are these communicable diseases that, in this case, would wi- — you know, and COVID-19 wiped out more than — you know, caused — took the lives of more than a million people in the United States. So — so, yes, he is still very much focused on this.
With respect to the war in Ukraine, the President has made clear from the beginning that the cause of the ripple effects to the global economy and to the American economy from the war is not our response. It is Russia’s invasion in the first instance.
And even in the way that we’ve designed our sanctions, we have done so with particular attention to trying to maintain energy supply on the market. And that important proposition is really about making sure that we’re looking out for families in the United States.
We have worked hard, as we have pushed back against Russian aggression in Ukraine, to also pay — be very attentive to the steps necessary to bring down energy costs — release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and other steps the President has taken over the last six months — and to build more resilient supply chains so that the supply chain side of the inflation problem is abated and alleviated over time.
And then, finally, the President doesn’t think that foreign policy for the middle class just is strictly about pocketbook issues. It’s also about how American families, working people in this country feel safe, secure, respected, and are able to live out their values. And that means that when there is a brutal aggressor marauding across borders in Europe, history has told us that the United States stepping up to help push back against that will serve the long-term health and vitality of the United States of America across the board economically, socially, just in terms of basic security.
So he doesn’t see this as kind of a strict divide between what are our economic interests and then what are our national security interests. He sees the two things as very much linked and tied to one another.
And the case he’s made to the American people from the beginning is: Standing up to Putin in Ukraine is fundamentally important to sustaining the health and vitality of the free world and the way of life of the United States, in addition to these other steps that he’s taken to try and moderate, manage, and mitigate the impacts of the war on the economic livelihoods of the American people.
MS. SHARMA: All right, I think that’s all the time we have. So thanks, Jake. And thanks, everyone, for joining us today.
As a reminder, this call is embargoed until 12:00 p.m., Eastern today. And then Jake will be speaking at Georgetown later, and I can send everyone more information on that if you haven’t gotten that already. Thanks, everyone.
10:06 A.M. EDT