Security, Nationalism, and the Four Freedoms – Jeffrey Prescott | The Open Mind

Security, Nationalism, and the Four Freedoms – Jeffrey Prescott | The Open Mind


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner,
your host on The Open Mind. You may recall our
conversation this year with General Stephen
Cheney on our immediate homeland security
challenges: nuclear, cyber, and environmental. Today we’ll probe
those challenges further. What are our gravest
geopolitical risks, namely the proliferation
of weapons and the potential for war. My guest is
Jeffrey Prescott, the executive director of
National Security Action and senior fellow at
the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and
Global Dngagement. He served as special
assistant to President Obama and was Senior
Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the
Gulf States on the National Security Council. I’m interested in his
assessment of the strong man here at home, the
revolt of the populists around the globe,
the Iran retreat, and the ongoing
North Korea diplomacy, and it’s vast implications
for world safety. Jeffrey, thank you for
making the voyage from DC to be
here with me. PRESCOTT: Thanks
for having me. HEFFNER: I wanted to start
with North Korea because it really can’t be
examined in isolation, can it, you have to
look at the implications, geopolitically,
China, Russia. What is a deal with North
Korea mean more broadly? Don’t we have to think
about those questions too? PRESCOTT: Well, I think
you’re absolutely right. Obviously, China has a
enormous interest in the Korean Peninsula. Russia has been
involved historically in negotiations around North
Korea’s nuclear program and of course
our allies, Japan, South Korea and others
in the region have an interest in this as well. So you can’t look
at it in isolation. While the North Koreans
are very interested in us, North Korea diplomacy and
direct discussions between the two of us, you
really can’t separate it from the larger context
in the region. And that’s one of
the reasons that we’ve traditionally looked at
our allies in Japan and South Korea and try to be
in lockstep with them as we’ve worked on this a
very difficult issue. We’ve also tried to make
sure that we had clear lines of communication and
expectations with China, with Russia and others
to make sure that we understand where others
are coming from as we look at this, a very difficult
national security challenge. HEFFNER: How do you assess
the situation right now with North Korea and the
potential for any kind of believable verified
denuclearization from North Korea? PRESCOTT: Well, I’m very
worried about where we are right now in North Korea. We had a process of
building a pressure, a economic and political
pressure on North Korea began even before the
Obama Administration, but continued during the
Obama Administration and Trump turned that into his
maximum pressure campaign, essentially a continuation
of those sanctions over the first part of his
administration and turned that into what could be a very
promising diplomatic
opportunity. But at this point there
seems to be a dramatic gap between the rhetoric from
President Trump that this threat has been resolved
or that this problem has been solved and what we’re
actually seeing on the ground in North Korea,
the most recent reports of course, are that
their nuclear program seems to be expanding. There may be additional
parts or additional facilities that we
don’t know about. There hasn’t really been
a declaration of what North Korea has in
their arsenal. We know there’s about
60 nuclear weapons. We know they have a
number of types of
ballistic missiles, including some that may
threaten the United States. So there’s an enormous
challenge here and in some ways by going to a
Presidential Summit, a meeting with the North
Korean leader as a first step, we’ve put ourselves
in a very difficult position because the
President has said that was a great
achievement, we’ve, we’ve actually
achieved something there. But as we just saw
from Secretary Pompeo, his most recent trip to
North Korea it’s not clear that the North Koreans are
on the same page as the United States in terms of
what the next steps are. And we haven’t seen
any concrete steps, suggesting that a process
of denuclearization is beginning to take place. HEFFNER: What would
verification look like based on the Iran model? PRESCOTT: Well, I think it’s a
useful comparison to make. I’m not least because of
the irony that the Trump Administration
has been, you know, obviously vociferously
opposed to the Iran nuclear arrangement
and pulled out of that agreement, just a
couple of months ago. The, the Iran agreement
is interesting to consider for a couple of reasons. One is that of course,
Iran had not achieved a nuclear weapon at the
time of the agreement. They had a nuclear program
and they had enough fissile material to make a
number of nuclear weapons if they chose to go down
a path but had not yet reached that capability. So in that sense, it’s a
little bit different than North Korea where there’s
a pretty well stocked arsenal and you’re
actually talking about rolling back from a capability
that they didn’t have. But what we did with
Iran was a instructive. First of all, we work
closely with our allies, our European
allies in this case, but also China and Russia
to reach an international agreement with
the Iranians. Iran had to take a
number of steps, some interim steps
involving freezing their program completely. And then under
the final deal, they had to take a number
of irreversible steps to be able to roll
back their program. That included shipping
out 97 percent of their enriched uranium. That included shutting
down a plutonium reactor by filling the core of
it with concrete so it couldn’t be used to make
a plutonium product that might be turned into a
weapon in the future. And it required
allowing in international inspectors that would have
access not just to one site or a few sites, but
the entire supply chain from uranium mines all
the way to buildings where centrifuges
are spending in, and nuclear material
is being created. And at the end
of that process, Iran got some fairly
modest sanctions relief from the international
sanctions regime that had been put on Iran. That was a pretty good
deal for the United States because it took them
from the capability having the raw material
at hand to create a number of nuclear weapons
down to less than would be needed for even one and it
locked that material down with international inspections
for a number of years, dozens of years
into the future. And so you’re talking
about a situation where you no longer had
to worry about this, the Iranian regime
potentially getting a nuclear weapon. Now that doesn’t mean we solved
all problems with Iran. Obviously there are a lot
of other concerns about Iran’s behavior
in the region, a number of other issues
that we’d need to be concerned about. Now, when you translate
that over to North Korea, obviously as I mentioned,
you’ve got a different scenario in that North
Korea already has nuclear capability, but it is.
useful to think about what a path
might look like. First, you have to understand
what North Korea has. They have a very
complicated arsenal that is hidden in many sites,
many of them underground. Many of them our
intelligence community despite all of its
capabilities probably doesn’t know about, and so
there’s a certain amount of understanding
what the problem is, what their
actual capability is, and then there’s thinking
about what kinds of restrictions over time
would begin to unravel this and what kind of
incentives would be required for North
Korea to take that path. At the end of the
Singapore Summit, president Trump declared
that there was no longer a threat from North Korea. That’s obviously not the
case because that entire arsenal is still there and
we haven’t seen any steps in a concrete way to
begin to roll that back. HEFFNER: Right. It’s, that was a “wag the
dog” act in the attempt at revealing to the
American public that there was a solution
when in fact it was a charade when there were
some videos released to the press showing that they
were nuking their own
facilities, and in fact the latest
intelligence report is that they are building up. From that perspective I
just wanted to ask a very direct factual question”
When was the last time international inspectors
had access to the North Korea facility? PRESCOTT: Well, there’ve
been a number of prior agreements, including the
Agreed Framework in the 90s that did provide
access for a period of time of international
inspectors into North Korea. And so there have been
moments where we’ve had access to parts of the program
but not the entire program. HEFFNER: But the last time
there were boots on the ground inspecting the
program was probably not since the late 90s
or are early 2000s. PRESCOTT: In a
formal sense, yes. Obviously there had been
visitors that have seen parts of it and
as you mentioned, journalists were
invited to see, you know launches and
destructions of facilities at different
times in the past, but we haven’t had a
formal inspection regime where the international
community would have access to or understand
in detail what the North Koreans are doing. HEFFNER: Just to give our
viewers perspective that’s 18 years potentially
of nuclear growth. And to be so haphazard
about declaring victory when there’s no victory
in sight as of yet seems to be troubling. PRESCOTT: I find
it very troubling. And, I mean it was telling
to me that one of the first things that
President Trump did after coming back from the
summit in Singapore was hold a political rally to
essentially declare success. And so I think that’s a
sort of sense of the lens through which this
administration has been, at least the President has been
viewing these negotiations. And I think over the last
few weeks we’ve seen the evidence that you
mentioned and other signs on the ground, including
the most recent trip by Secretary Pompeo that
suggests we’re actually pretty, a pretty
long way away. And this to me is
what’s most troubling, which is that there is
not a military solution to the North Korea
nuclear program. There, there,
there is not a, the diplomatic path is
actually the only real path that we have
to begin to put a, get a handle on this. And the fact that
an opportunity, a very good
opportunity at diplomacy, may be a slipping through our
fingers is a real troubling. HEFFNER: I do want to
shift to your project overall in a moment, but
just to wrap up the North Korea discussion, isn’t it
possible that the eventual outcome, if not nuclear
war is a nuclear North Korea, and what we may
get is that North Korea enters into the nations of real
civilization, human rights. It’s been troubling that
human rights were not on the agenda
whatsoever in Singapore, but, you know, we’re at
this juncture where we’re going to get nothing if
we, if we keep along this path. So the viable strategy
might be that the leader of North Korea
democratizes, or at least changes the
abuse of human rights that have plagued that country,
and in return is allowed to keep some of
his security, which is not a palatable
path for most people, in your world that
would seem unacceptable. But if you’re not
going to denuclearize, don’t we need to insist
on human rights for the North Korean people? PRESCOTT: Well, you’re
absolutely right. The North Korean human rights
record is appalling. And the way that the Kim
regime has treated their own people, of course, is
the subject of UN crimes against humanity, war
crimes investigation. There, there is a serious
and very long record of abuse that does need to
be addressed and it’s troubling that this would
barely be on the agenda when giving the North
Korean leader the platform of a summit with the
American President. And I think part of
the reason that prior presidents did not take
that step a is that they did not feel like they
were getting enough on the nuclear file
to make it worth the additional prestige
and the platform that that kind of
meeting would generate. So I think we were all
looking for something substantial in terms of
steps to contain or deter North Korea from expanding
its nuclear program as part of giving all of that
face to the North Korean leader in the
summit in Singapore. We haven’t
seen that so far. You know, it is a good reminder
that there’s a broader. Obviously the nuclear
agenda is probably the number one security
issue that we face when it comes
to North Korea. That’s what we really
have to worry about, the threat that
North Korea poses to our allies and to us. But there are other issues.
There’s counterfeiting issues, there’s drug
smuggling issues, there’s money laundering
and other international trends,
transnational crime, and of course there’s
this human rights issue as well, which
is appalling. So we need to think about all of
those issues going forward. But, even judged by the
lens of a laser focus on the nuclear program, it
doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten very far so far. HEFFNER: How would you
and your colleagues at National Security
Action characterize this administration’s
foreign policy? And how would you attempt
to rectify what you perceive as the damage
it’s doing to this country and the world? PRESCOTT: Well,
this, in fact, what’s motivated us to
start National Security Action was deep concern
about the direction that the Trump administration
was taking our country on the international stage. We have seen a decline
in respect for the United States in respect for our
leadership in respect for the American president, a
very precipitous decline in a very short
period of time. And it’s very troubling
because it has an impact on the way that we
operate in the world, has an impact on our security
and our interests. And we need to
stay focused on that. You know, this earlier
this year an international poll showed for the first
time that China’s leaders were more respected
in the United States. And I think that’s a
warning sign that we’re on the wrong track here. I’m, the President has been
erratic. He’s tweeted threats of
war, on occasion has shown a
disdain for our allies and for some of our closest
friends in the world. And as you
mentioned earlier, has, has been turning
away from what has been a hallmark of
American foreign policy, which is working with
our allies and with other partners to try to
tackle global challenges, recognizing that if we do
that on the global stage in renounced her own
benefit at home and keeps us safe, and those basic
principles of American foreign policy, this
President seems to have taken in a
different direction. And because of that,
we felt like we need to organize in a different way than
we have in the past. And so we’ve spent the
last six months running this operation, but, quite
a few months before that, during the course of
this Trump Administration watching what
we were seeing, being worried about it
and recruiting some of the best and the brightest
minds on foreign policy and national security to
come together and say, we’ve been using our
voices individually now we need to be organized about
how we take on what Trump is doing, how we let the
American people know the ways in which we
have gone off-course and how we design an
affirmative agenda for Progressives and
Democrats to run on to take this country in a
different direction over the next couple of
election cycles. We’ve got to win that
public policy debate. And that’s something
we’re organizing to do. HEFFNER: It’s a
public policy debate, but it’s also one about
moral fiber and machismo and whether you’re serving
our patriotic interests. In the way that the
Republicans were able to criticized the Iran deal
as being soft or weak, when you saw the receding
of ISIS and al Qaeda and the murder of bin Laden
under the watch of Trump’s predecessor, how do you
make the message comport with the identity of
your movement as being, you know, equally
formidable and persuasive that you are serving the
American patriotic interests? PRESCOTT: There has
been a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Now, obviously we don’t
agree on every issue. Take the Iran, the Iran deal
would be one good example. The Iraq war obviously
would be another, but there are some basic
principles and you really put your finger on it when
you said America’s values and the way that we promote
our interests in the world. We have traditionally
stood for something. We’ve stood for equality
and opportunity and justice and dignity. And we have not just done
that for our own people, but we’ve done that, we’ve
promoted those values for people around the world
and we’ve seen it in our own interest to be the
leader of the free world. And this is a President
that has in some ways turned his back
on that tradition, sees our traditional
alliance relationships as a, making us the sucker,
making pay more than we should in some
transactional way when we get tangible and
intangible benefits from our relationships around
the world that are not only quantifiable but
bring a huge amount of benefits to us in terms of our
leadership position in the world, in terms
of our ability to stop problems before they
come to our shores, in terms our ability
to keep ourselves safe. And we have to do that. There’s a second piece
of this that is worth mentioning as well. We have traditionally
led with our diplomats, again, bipartisan
professionals who go out around the world and
try to prevent war and try to end wars and try
to keep us safe at home. This administration
has turned away from the State Department,
from those diplomats, and has turned to a
military tool as a first resort rather than
as a last resort. And I think that’s something
we have to get back to as well. So it’s about our values. It’s about the way we
use our toolkit and it’s about our
national interests. This is an administration
again where we’ve seen a number of troubling signs
where it’s very hard to tell whether the
President and his family, their personal interests
are involved or whether it’s the national
interest… HEFFNER: Well, I want
you to talk about that because there is
rightly the concern that this president is vested in
his own self-aggrandizement and the value of,
for instance, his properties being in
the countries that were not subject to the Muslim
ban. That’s one example. Tariffs could be another
example of what you could describe not just as erratic or
reckless but selfish. And I think that your
message would be enhanced if there is messaging
that suggests that on the tariffs, on
the Muslim ban, on any number of issues
this president is penny wise and dollar foolish. And I think when it
comes to North Korea or any of these issues
the long-term health of this country is at stake.
You could think of tariffs, actually being a grave
impediment to our nation’s security if there is a
medical epidemic and we need to access care and
support and antibiotics that aren’t
being produced here. That’s just one example
of the way that these nationalistic or
nativist policies, how can you, Jeffrey and
your colleagues write a new nationalism because
anything that’s less than nationalism in the arena against
Trump is not going to work. PRESCOTT: Well, I think you’re
putting into your finger on a number of issues. One, when it comes to
the family interest in the personal interest
of the President, it’s an unprecedented
situation we haven’t seen a president before
who hasn’t divested from their financial
interests, has not tried to, not only not have
conflicts of interest, but avoid the appearance of
those conflicts whatsoever. And that does raise some
serious questions about the President’s actions
on foreign affairs. We saw just recently
with this Chinese company, ZTE, where there’s some
profound national security questions that are
involved and we saw a kind of back and forth
position on that, that happened to be at the
same time where the Trump organization was getting
some loans from Chinese entities and some trademarks
from Chinese entities. So there’s a, there’s at
least the appearance and, and certainly some serious
questions that need to be raised on how the
decision-making process relates to the personal
financial interests of the
President. That’s something we
haven’t really had to grapple with, which you’re
also pointing to a larger set of issues, which
is how do we have, how do we bring our, how
do we get our country back onto an affirmative
position where we’re leading in the world? And in some ways, whether you
look at the trade issue, whether you look
at the pulling out of international
agreements like Iran, like the climate accord,
like our protection, our support for refugee
protections around the world. These are issues where
the United States has traditionally
been at the table, usually at the
head of the table, setting the agenda and
trying to either develop agreements or
international cooperation that can help solve
some of these challenges. This is an administration
that’s turned away from that, either pulled out,
broken our word on some of these agreements and
not willing to work with others… So it sort of turns
our foreign policy on its head. And you see that even in
the optics of the meetings that the President is interested
in and those that he’s not. We saw the G-7 were the
body language couldn’t be worse with our closest
allies around the world, the ones we need to work
with to make sure that the global economy
is working in everybody’s interests but most
importantly in our interest. We saw that, we
will see that, in the coming days as
you have a summit with our NATO allies that, that
looks like it will be quite contentious
and then a fawning, potentially fawning summit
with President Putin. So, there has been an
embrace of dictators and strong men in a way
that really goes against American values. There are countries all
over the world that we have to work with. Sometimes we have to
hold our nose to do it, but we also have to
remember what we stand for and that example that
we set in the world. HEFFNER: Trump
is masterful. If nothing else at
sloganeering and slogans. And I think your outfit
really has to concern itself with not just the
nuances of an alternative approach, but
really the nomenclature, the vocabulary,
the diction, the slogan of what
comes after Trump. Any insight into that? PRESCOTT: Well you’re
absolutely right. There’s a few different
things I would say in this, in this respect. First of all, a part of
what we’re trying to do is get Progressive and
Democratic candidates ready to have these
arguments in the first place. We traditionally don’t
think about our foreign policy and national
security issues unless there’s something that’s
right in front of us. It’s traditionally not
what we’re looking at, for example, in a
midterm election, and I don’t think we’re
going to make our role in the world a more important
issue than healthcare or access to jobs or some
of the other issues that many candidates
going running on. But people are worried
about North Korea. They’re worried about the
decline in our position in the
world. They’re worried about the
erratic decision making style of this President. You see that reflected not
just in the polling but what you hear in
focus groups and you hear concern from Americans
across the country. And so we’re trying to
find a way to help people make feel comfortable to
make these arguments and in some ways to take
some ground where I think Republicans have
traditionally convinced Americans that they have
American security first and foremost
in their minds. In some ways, Trump
and the Republicans have turned away from
that traditional role. I happen to think the
Obama Administration kept America pretty safe. We have to do a good
job of selling that, so you’re absolutely
absolutely right about that, but this is a
platform where we need to make people on our side of
the political debate more comfortable making
these arguments, pointing out some of the
very troubling things that we’re seeing from this
administration and getting ready to have an
affirmative message to talk to the American
people over the next few years about how we would
take this country in a different direction. HEFFNER: Very quickly,
seconds remaining, Jeffrey, I urge our
viewers to checkout a roaming exhibit on FDR’s
Four Freedoms and the Rockwell paintings that
define and portray those Four Freedoms. In that exhibit, there’s a
text citing Roosevelt and Churchill on how those Four
Freedoms did not endure. They did not fully resonate with
the American public. You can say life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness, but you can identify the Four
Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship,
Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, and it
would be like, what’s that? What’s your answer…
is your answer, channeling a
new Roosevelt, FDR nationalism. We just have seconds. But who is your democratic
forefather here that’s inspiring the foreign policy
that you seek to achieve? PRESCOTT: Well, that’s
not a bad place to start. I think we do have work
to do both in terms of our values, in terms of
making sure that the international rules are
working to us economically and making sure that we
retain our ability in our leading position in the
world and we need to go out and essentially restore that
American leadership. That’s part of what we’re
trying to do with this effort, but as part of
what we’re going to have to do as a country because
we’ve never seen the kind of worrying trends that we’re
seeing from this administration. We’re going to have to
take that back and we’re going to have to move it forward
over the coming few years. HEFFNER: Restore
our greatness. Jeffrey Prescott. Thank you for
joining me today. PRESCOTT: Thank you HEFFNER: And thanks to
you in the audience. I hope you join us again
next time for thoughtful excursion into
the world of ideas. Until then,
keep an open mind. Please visit The
Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to
view this program online or to access over 1,500
other interviews and do check us out on Twitter
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