Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, told me at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday that he worries China may be learning the wrong lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Many people assume that China, observing Russia’s inability to conquer Ukraine, might be newly hesitant to invade Taiwan: “Hey, maybe we should completely rethink this” is the thought that Sullivan hopes enters Chinese minds. “But the thinking could also be How do we do it better than [Russia] if we had to do it?” Sullivan said.
It is both Sullivan’s job and his natural inclination to worry, but in our conversation, he did note that Russia’s inability to have its way in Ukraine has been enormously consequential for the West. “Russia was not able to achieve the basic strategic objectives that President [Vladimir] Putin set out, which were to seize the capital city of Kyiv and to end Ukraine as a going concern,” he said. “And instead the Ukrainians won the battle of Kyiv. They beat Russia back from Kharkiv. They stopped Russia from being able to make a bum’s rush to Odesa. And they essentially stymied the Russian effort to get beyond a swath of territory in the south and east of the country. And now we’re in a circumstance in which Russia is facing significant difficulties constituting the kind of force necessary for them to achieve their objectives.”
Our conversation at the security forum, a three-and-a-half-day Burning Man for the national-security set, sponsored by the Aspen Security Group, was held before an audience that included three former national security advisers—Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, and Tom Donilon. Sullivan could not have found this particularly relaxing, but he provided thought-provoking answers about subjects as varied as strategic ambiguity and American exceptionalism, and parried questions about the hardest subjects he confronts, including the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. On Afghanistan, he said, in advance of the first anniversary next month of the American withdrawal, “It had to come to an end.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited by me for concision and clarity:
Jeffrey Goldberg: Let’s talk about the Middle East trip, specifically about the most controversial aspect of this trip, the meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President Biden called him a pariah earlier, and now he went to meet him. Was it a mistake to call him a pariah?
Jake Sullivan: I think what’s interesting about the way that this has been covered is that time seemed to stop between this debate comment made in October of 2019, and the president traveling to Saudi Arabia in July of 2022. A lot happened in between.
When President Biden came into office, he made a fundamental strategic judgment that we were going to recalibrate, but not rupture, our relationship with Saudi Arabia. And so this wasn’t a decision that he made in the weeks leading up to this trip. This is a decision he made by taking a sober look at the world as we saw it coming into office. And yes, that means reversing the prior administration’s blank-check policy. It did mean cutting off offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and really pushing hard to help get what is now a fragile but extended truce, the longest period of peace that we’ve seen in Yemen in seven years. A year ago, we were talking about Yemen as the worst humanitarian catastrophe on the planet, with thousands of civilians dying from violence and starvation. And now we have had three, going on four, months of fragile, but real, cessation of hostilities. And he also said all along that he was going to ensure that human rights would be a critical part of the agenda. And right at the top of the meeting with the crown prince, he raised the issue—both the direct issue of Jamal Khashoggi and his brutal and grisly murder and the broader issue of human rights as well. He let the crown prince know exactly where America stood.
Goldberg: But the Saudis have already been denying what took place in the meeting. Why did they deny what the president said vis-à-vis Khashoggi?
Sullivan: Well, I would characterize it a little bit differently. The Saudi ambassador was quoted saying Joe Biden raised the issue. He raised it up top. He was direct about it. The Saudis made no bones about that fact. Actually, they also put out what the crown prince’s response was with respect to how he raised a series of issues related to U.S. foreign policy over the past few years. So I don’t really accept the premise of the question.
And I think if you look at our major strategic objectives in the Middle East relative to stability and peace—whether it’s to do with Yemen, or Iraq’s integration into the region, or Israel’s integration into the region, whether it’s to do with the free flow of energy and sufficient energy supplies to protect the global economy, whether it’s to do with these countries betting on the United States, and not another outside power, when it comes to the future of technology and 5G—you go down the list, and the actual outcomes of this meeting were not just a bunch of words. There are real commitments for us to work together on these issues, but I’m not going to tell an unalloyed positive story about it, because we do have real and deep concerns that the president expressed to the crown prince directly about actions both past and present.
Goldberg: Are you confident now that MBS won’t do this again? Won’t go after critics, dissidents, the way he went after Khashoggi?
Sullivan: You know, the night that President Biden did his extended meeting with King Salman, first, and then the crown prince, he actually came out and did a press conference … and in the question-and-answer session, he was asked this exact question. He was asked, “Can you promise us that this won’t happen again?” And the president—it’s worth looking at his response. It was very human. It was very direct. It was very Joe Biden. He said, “Of course, I can’t make a promise about what someone else is going to do. I can only make a promise about what the United States is going to do. And I made clear, in no uncertain terms, what would transpire in the event that anything like this happened again.” I can’t characterize my level of confidence about what another country will choose to do in the future.
Goldberg: Because I’m a masochist, I’ll try one more time. You have direct exposure to very fascinating world leaders. We’ll talk about some others as well. I’m asking what you think about MBS. Do you think that he is the unstable, authoritarian, thin-skinned dictator that The Washington Post and others well beyond The Washington Post believe, or do you think he’s capable of growth? We’re trying to understand this because this guy could be running Saudi Arabia for 50 years.
Sullivan: So I will say that I have made it a point to reserve my personal opinions about other world leaders. That is something that shouldn’t factor into U.S. foreign policy in a significant way. And so I’m afraid that I’ll keep my own counsel in terms of answering that question. Sorry.
Goldberg: You’ll write it for The Atlantic eventually.
Goldberg: Let’s talk about Ukraine. Give us your analysis of Russia’s campaign to date, where you’ve been surprised, where you’re not surprised, and maybe you could talk about what you and the president would consider what success looks like? What conditions would have to be obtained for you to feel like the West has gotten the better of this situation?
Sullivan: I have to acknowledge up front that it was the assessment of the American intelligence community—who did just a masterful job of ferreting out, describing, and then disseminating what the Russian plans were—but it was their judgment that Russia would be significantly more capable and significantly more successful on the battlefield taking territory. And in fact, Russia was not able to achieve the basic strategic objectives that President Putin set out, which were to seize the capital city of Kyiv and to end Ukraine as a going concern. And instead the Ukrainians won the battle of Kyiv. They beat Russia back from Kharkiv. They stopped Russia from being able to make a bum’s rush to Odesa. And they essentially stymied the Russian effort to get beyond a swath of territory in the south and east of the country.
And now we’re in a circumstance in which Russia is facing significant difficulties constituting the kind of force necessary for them to achieve their objectives, which have not fundamentally changed. But the gap between their capabilities and Putin’s objectives has grown with each passing month. And this is a credit to the bravery and skill of the Ukrainian military, the resilience of the Ukrainian people, the leadership of Ukraine’s president and those around him who galvanized international support in the early weeks and months. And it’s also a credit to the fact that we have provided an enormous amount of sophisticated weaponry and training on that weaponry to give Ukraine the capability to achieve those military successes against the Russian army.
Now, from the point of view of what we see as success: We want to see a sovereign independent, viable Ukraine that emerges proudly from this and can repel any future Russian aggression. What exactly are the terms of any diplomacy—and President [Volodymyr] Zelensky himself has said that diplomacy is ultimately going to have to be part of the resolution of this—that is for the Ukrainians to determine. For us, our job is to put the Ukrainians on the strongest possible footing on the battlefield so that they are in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.
Beyond that, we have two further objectives. One, to ensure that Putin is stymied in his goal to weaken and divide the West. And I believe that he has so far gotten the exact opposite of what he sought, which is a more purposeful, more united, more determined, and more capable NATO alliance than at any point in modern memory. And I also believe that we have staying power, despite what a lot of people are raising questions about.
They raised those questions six months ago, and we proved them wrong. They raise them today; I believe we will prove them wrong. And second, it is our strategic objective to ensure that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a strategic success for Putin, but that it is a strategic failure for him. That means both that he be denied his objectives in Ukraine, and that Russia pay a longer-term price in terms of the elements of its national power, so that the lesson that goes forth to would-be aggressors elsewhere is that if you try things like this, it comes at a cost that is not worth bearing.
Goldberg: Let’s talk about your efforts to help Ukraine win on the battlefield. Obviously you’re supplying a huge number of weapons. But the Ukrainian criticism is that the U.S. is not supplying enough, and fast enough.
Sullivan: I accept that if I were sitting where my counterpart or President Zelensky were sitting, I’d be doing exactly what they’re doing. I’d be asking for more, faster. Who wouldn’t? That’s their job. Our job is to provide everything we can that is specifically targeted to the military objectives they’re trying to pursue; that is sustainable from the point of view of their capacity to absorb it into their military; that is sustainable from the point of view of us being able to train them up on systems that are highly sophisticated and need to be used and maintained effectively; and that brings along the entire alliance as well.
Do I believe that we have undersupplied the Ukrainian military? I do not. I believe that the speed, scope, and scale of military assistance to Ukraine is an absolute testament to the logistical capacity of the U.S. military and, honestly, to the surprising political capacity of the U.S. Congress to come together on a bipartisan basis and put forward the resources to get this done. We have moved billions of dollars of equipment at what, any kind of reasonable historical analysis would say, is lightning speed. And we will continue to do so.
There are certain capabilities the president has said he is not prepared to provide. One of them is long-range missiles that have a range of 300 kilometers, because he does believe that while a key goal of the United States is to support and defend Ukraine, another key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we are heading down the road towards a third world war. And so for systems like that, the president has said, “I’m prepared to give you sophisticated precision guided munitions for these HIMARS that have been used to great effect, but I’m not going to give the long-range missiles.”
Goldberg: How worried are you about the American people’s staying power on this issue? Granted, there are no American troops involved, but we do have a short attention span. Do you worry about criticism that we’re spending billions and millions of dollars to support Ukraine and not spending it here?
Sullivan: It’s my job to worry. So I worry about literally everything. I worry about my answer to this question. So, yes, I guess I worry, but in a way that’s sort of not saying anything at all. But fundamentally, no, and I think it’s very important for Putin to understand what exactly he’s up against. Congress passed a $40 billion package for Ukraine, of which a substantial amount remains. And we are working on a month-by-month basis to move weapons at a pace, as I said before, that the Ukrainians can actually absorb and get out onto the battlefield with trained personnel to deploy them.
I strongly believe that there will be bipartisan support in the Congress to re-up those resources, should it become necessary. Does that mean that there is the same level of intensity in the American public as there was in the early weeks of the war? Is it on TV 24/7? No. But is the reservoir of support in this country, as translated into the Congress and the executive branch, deep and sustainable from the point of view of doing whatever it takes for, as the president has said, as long as it takes? Yes.
Goldberg: How worried are you about the physical safety of President Zelensky now?
Sullivan: I thought I’d coached you with the previous question, not to start with “How worried are you?” Because my answer is “worried.”
Goldberg: Jake, as you know, I’m uncoachable. But how about when compared with where you guys were on this issue in February?
Sullivan: This is a leader in wartime dealing with an enemy in Russia that is ruthless, brutal, and capable of just about anything. So it is a concern. President Zelensky takes the precautions you would expect to protect himself, to protect continuity of government in Ukraine. And we are trying to help and facilitate that in any way that we can.
Goldberg: A question that comes up, in terms of supplying Ukraine with weapons necessary for its defense, is that you’re also trying to buttress Taiwan with many of the same kinds of weapons. This goes to the issue of the “porcupine strategy.” Is Taiwan ready right now to repel a Chinese attack?
Sullivan: One of the things I’ve learned a lot about in the last 18 months is every form of artillery, munition, coastal defense system, naval mine that is produced on Mother Earth—not just American systems, but European systems and so forth. And there are longer-term questions about ensuring that the American defense industrial base, and the defense industrial base of our allies, can sustain the kind of security assistance that we are going to need in Ukraine, as well as Taiwan, as well as for ourselves, to ensure that we are maintaining a proper level of deterrent. That is going to require increased investment, increased workforce development, increased emphasis on supply chains, to ensure that components are not being cannibalized and that all of the necessary types of systems, especially munitions, are getting created in sufficient numbers.
I believe that particularly under the leadership of Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks, we have a good strategy. There are some overlaps between the systems for Ukraine and the systems for Taiwan. There are also some big differences because the nature of the contingency, or the conflict, would be quite different from land war in Europe and a potential contingency across the Taiwan Strait. So it’s not a one-for-one trade-off between those two, except for with certain types of capabilities. With respect to the porcupine strategy, one of the things that the United States has tried to do over multiple administrations, but that we have accelerated dramatically over the course of the past 18 months, is to try to ensure that in our defense and security relationship with Taiwan, we are focused on those capabilities that are going to be most useful in the kinds of contingencies we can expect, and not just rely on systems that they’ve had around for a very long time.
A lot of people talk about whether China is learning lessons from Ukraine. Of course they are. And some of those lessons are concerning. But not as many people ask, “Is Taiwan learning lessons from Ukraine?” You can bet they are. They’re learning lessons about citizen mobilization and territorial defense. They’re learning lessons about information warfare. And they’re learning lessons about how to prepare for a potential contingency involving China, and they’re working rapidly at that.
Goldberg: Could you just pause on something you said a moment ago? What are the lessons that China is learning from the Russian invasion of Ukraine that most concern you?
Sullivan: Well, I think that you can look at what Russia has done in Ukraine and see that a much bigger military has gone after a much smaller neighbor with a much smaller military, and yet has not achieved its objectives, and say, Hey, maybe we should completely rethink this. But the thinking could also be How do we do it better than [Russia] if we had to do it? I’m not predicting anything.
Goldberg: If the West wins in Ukraine, you think China no longer contemplates invading Taiwan?
Sullivan: It’s never as simple as that, this question of credibility in one part of the world translating absolutely to decisions in another part of the world. But do I think it would have an impact? Yes. And I do think that part of our objective in Ukraine has to be to show strength, resilience, staying power, canniness, capability, because this will have some impact on our ability to effectively deter others elsewhere.
Goldberg: The president is known on occasion for making off-the-cuff statements that then raise the question, do they represent policy? The president has said, I believe three times, that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s defense in the case of an attack. Is that formal U.S. policy?
Sullivan: The president said in Japan that our policy has not changed, that we maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity, and we do. And when it comes to Taiwan generally, every administration’s Taiwan policy, both its declaratory policy and its actual policy, have contained multitudes—many different sentences that you look at collectively and say, how do those all fit together? But somehow that ambiguity, that creative tension within the policy, has allowed us to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait for multiple decades across multiple administrations. So the direct answer to your question is no, as the president himself has said, our policy has not changed, and we maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity.
Goldberg: I’m periodically reminded that you were a debater when you elevate strategic incoherence into a policy.
Sullivan: Well, people often put the word strategic before something as a way of making it sound good. Strategic patience kind of means that we don’t quite know what we’re doing, but we’re going to be strategic about waiting awhile to figure it out. And strategic ambiguity means we don’t want to be super-clear, so strategically we’re going to be ambiguous. But this is not just true in international affairs; it’s true in many different realms of human life. I wouldn’t call it incoherence, but I would say ambiguity has to be a feature of strategy in certain contexts, particularly very complex concepts. And yes, I will defend that idea, conceptually.
Goldberg: Let’s go to Afghanistan for a minute. We’re coming up on the anniversary of the withdrawal. I was rereading a piece you wrote—and I suggest everyone read this, and not for self-interested reasons—a very interesting piece in The Atlantic in the beginning of 2019 on, among other things, the case for an enlightened sort of American exceptionalism. In the course of that piece you wrote that “the purpose of American foreign policy is to defend and protect the American way of life.” I was thinking about that line in light of Afghanistan, the withdrawal, the closing of girls’ schools, the suppression of women, and so on. And I’m wondering if you could talk about any regrets that you may have about what happened and the consequences for some of the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan.
Sullivan: Look, I just gave an answer about strategic ambiguity, very kind of abstract, high-minded stuff. But I think your question about Afghanistan is a good reminder, and it’s something I try to remind myself every day. And I know that Tom and Condi and Steve probably did the same when they were in the job. This is a human job. And the decisions we make have impacts on human beings. And that is something that is never lost on me. And I’m one of those human beings; it has an impact on me. And when I see the closing of girls’ schools, I think that is a horrible thing. And watching the images of the withdrawal was obviously painful, and difficult. But I believe that the president’s fundamental judgment, which was that after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, choosing a course to intensify our engagement, go back to war with the Taliban, lose more American life over more years, could not be justified on the basis of trying to sustain what we had done in Afghanistan. It had to come to an end.
There are human consequences to that, and we have an obligation to try to deal with this through means other than the deployment of large numbers of U.S. forces, the same way we try to alleviate similar kinds of grievous atrocities and repressive policies the world over without going to war. That includes a range of tools that we have, and that doesn’t mean we succeed in every case. And obviously the situation in Afghanistan, particularly when it comes to issues like girls being able to go to school, is not where we want it to be. But at the end of the day, the president’s view was that we cannot stay at war indefinitely, with the United States fighting and dying to try to hold Kabul and other significant cities in that country. And it would mean bearing some human costs to not do that. But those are the tough judgments the president has to make. And one year later, I think the president feels that the decision that he made was the right decision for the American people and the right decision for how we can position ourselves to be the best and most effective contributor to the global public good, across a range of issues involving a range of geographies.
Goldberg: Didn’t the late-stage American involvement in Afghanistan show that small numbers of troops could actually create a kind of backbone for the rest of the country? I mean, you didn’t have that many troops in Kabul, outside of Kabul in the months, even years, leading up to the withdrawal.
Sullivan: That’s absolutely correct. And why was that? Why were we able to draw down to such a small number of forces and why were they able to operate with relative safety? It’s because the previous administration struck an agreement with the Taliban, and that agreement said, “We’ll stop attacking you. You can draw down your forces and you need to leave by May 1, 2021. You need to leave.” That was the policy and the agreement, and whether we would’ve negotiated that same agreement or not is another question. That was the agreement that President Biden inherited when he came into office. So his choice on May 2 was not to keep 2,500 troops in peace in Afghanistan and everything will be just fine. That is a fanciful concept. His choice was to go back to war with the Taliban—where we would’ve had to flow in more forces and increase our level of involvement in the country and increase the exposure of those troops to death and injury—or draw down, follow through on the agreement the previous administration made. This idea that we could just sustainably stay there indefinitely at basically no cost is the kind of counterfactual that people can sit around and talk about, but at the end of the day, it was not the reality that the president confronted when he had to make this very hard decision.
Goldberg: There are many other subjects, regions, we could talk about, Iran among them, but I’d rather ask you in our few remaining minutes to talk about this role: What have you learned about the realities, the difficulties of enacting, to borrow a word, a coherent, idealistic, expansive American foreign policy?
Sullivan: Well, one thing I’ve learned is what a supply chain is. I say that kind of lightly, but it is remarkable how the very notion of supply-chain resilience was simply not a central topic of conversation in the national-security space before COVID. Now it implicates everything, from our capacity to lead on the industries of the future, like EV batteries, to our ability to continue supplying Ukraine with 155 ammunition or GMLRs, to our ability to ensure that China doesn’t actually dominate a massive tract of the global economy through buying up not only rare-earth minerals, but many other types of important minerals from the Americas, Africa, and elsewhere.
This administration has made a major push to try to catch up.
Goldberg: Talk about America’s role in the world post–Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Sullivan: We were just at a NATO summit in which Finland and Sweden were invited to join. Two historically neutral countries that the president began reaching out to last fall. Within 24 hours of them going out and making their historic announcements in their capitals, their request was “Can we come to the United States and stand with Joe Biden, stand with the American president?” We have a lot of challenges here at home and plenty of challenges that keep me up at night abroad, but the basic attributes and capacity of the United States, our value proposition in the world, is profound today, and it will be profound 10 years from now. I truly believe that.
And I think a little bit of what we all collectively need to think about is how confidence is a commodity. It’s something we have to nurture and display. And one of the things that Russia-Ukraine has done for the U.S. and U.S. foreign policy is that it has not just positioned us to lead the Western alliance in the Euro-Atlantic region, but it’s had global reverberations. Countries around the world are looking at what the United States, NATO, the G7, have done in response, and have said, “Wow, that is a group of countries led by the United States with genuine capacity and that should be taken note of.”
Goldberg: Let me just do one last follow-up on this—and again, referring back to some of your writing and your thoughts from previous years. One of your worries has been that there’s no common story in America that young people, especially, perhaps, at the base of the Democratic Party, feel is positive, that America has a positive role to play in the world.
Sullivan: The starting-off point for the piece that I wrote in The Atlantic that Jeff is shamelessly plugging was that I grew up as a child of the 1980s, of Top Gun and Red Dawn and the Miracle on Ice. And before I came into government, I was teaching students whose touchstone for American foreign policy was the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib and Edward Snowden. And they would look at me like, “What are you talking about, man?” as I would wax lyrical. But I think a couple of things about that generation. One is that there actually is a way to energize and galvanize young people around the United States being a leader on solving the food crisis or the climate crisis and so forth. We need to keep at that. And I do agree with you that the invasion of Ukraine has also crystallized this idea that there is an example of a direct attack on freedom and what it means for people to stand up and fight for freedom.
And I think that has reverberated through the United States in ways that have now left the front pages, but is still there in the mix in a real way. And I think it allows us to have a different kind of conversation going forward about what the United States can do to try to be a force for good, because the military conflict people are talking about today is not the U.S.’s wars of the last 20 years. It’s Russia’s war of aggression that the United States is working with the free world to fight against. And I do think it is a platform upon which to build a national conversation, especially with young people, about the question of America’s purpose and power in the world.