National Security

National security adviser: US needs to get ‘own house in order’ to strengthen position abroad

National security adviser Jake Sullivan on Friday warned that the U.S will need to address problems at home in order to compete on the global stage with China and Russia.

Speaking at an event with the United States Institute of Peace alongside his predecessor Robert O’Brien, Sullivan expressed support for some Trump-era policies while stressing a long list of challenges facing the U.S.

“The most profound national security challenge facing the United States is getting our own house in order,” Sullivan said.

“We are facing a COVID-19 pandemic that continues to ravage our population. We are facing an economic crisis that has devastated main street small businesses and working families, we’re obviously facing the effects in every part of our country of the climate crisis,” he said. “And of course, there have been the acute threats to our basic constitutional republic. … We have to put ourselves in a position of strength to be able to deal with the challenges we face around the world.”

Those problems faced by the U.S. — and the struggle in responding to them — are hurting U.S. credibility on the world stage as China is more explicitly seeking to contrast itself with the U.S.

“China is essentially making the case that the Chinese model is better than the American model. And they’re pointing to dysfunction and division in the United States and saying, ‘Take a look at that. Their system doesn’t work. Our system does,’ ” Sullivan said. 

“This is not any longer some kind of implied contrast. It is an explicit statement that there is an alternative model to the democratic market economy model that the United States has been advancing over the course of decades. So step one is, to go back to this point about domestic renewal, is to refurbish the fundamental foundations of our democracy,” he said.

Sullivan agreed with O’Brien on the range of issues presented by China, from human rights abuses against Uighurs to intellectual property disputes, while O’Brien offered praise for Sullivan and the Biden administration in their early identification of China as the U.S.’s primary national security threat. During the campaign, former President Trump repeatedly said a Biden administration would be a “gift” to China. 

“I think Jake and his team and President Biden are off to a great start on China,” O’Brien said.

Sullivan described Russia in a similar fashion as China, noting the SolarWinds cyberattack, the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reports of bounties on the heads of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and interference in the U.S. election.

“President Biden takes a clear eyed, hard headed, practical approach to this relationship. It is going to be challenging and difficult because Russia poses threats across multiple dimensions,” he said. “We’ll review those issues, we’ll look to get to the bottom of the scope and scale of each of them, and then we’ll make determinations for how we respond at a time and manner of our choosing.”

Sullivan pointed to areas of agreement with the previous administration, not just on China, but with several areas in the Middle East. 

He praised the Trump administration’s work in securing the Abraham Accords, which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. 

“Then-candidate Biden made no bones about coming out and saying, ‘I think this is a good thing. I think this is a positive thing.’ And he’s said consistently over the course of the last several months, that he would like to carry forward this initiative,” Sullivan said.

He also called the approach to Iraq an area of continuity for the three recent administrations.  

But in Afghanistan, Sullivan stressed the need to ensure the Taliban would meet the terms of an agreement set to expire in May that would lead to a withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. forces.

The deal requires the Taliban to work to reduce violence, cut ties with terrorist groups and participate in good faith negotiations with the Afghan government.

“What we’re doing right now is taking a hard look at the extent to which the Taliban are in fact, complying with those three conditions. And in that context, we’ll make decisions about our force posture, and our diplomatic strategy going forward,” he said.

Laura Kelly contributed.

Tags Donald Trump Jake Sullivan Jake Sullivan Robert O'Brien United States Institute of Peace

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