In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with State Department Counselor Derek Chollet about the top foreign policy challenges facing the United States, and how the State Department sees the way forward with regard to Russia, Iran, Afghanistan and China. Chollet outlines the U.S. strategy for deescalating tensions with Moscow amid its continued military buildup at Ukraine’s border, discusses the prospects for brokering a nuclear deal with Iran, and offers thoughts on how the U.S. will approach challenges stemming from China’s rise. He also describes ongoing efforts to bolster U.S. alliances and reinvigorate U.S. diplomacy.
- Possible sanctions on Russia: “We’ve levied many sanctions against Russia over the last decade or so. And there’s potentially more to come if they choose this course of escalation. But one of the messages we’ve had, not just to our European partners, but also to partners and allies around the world, as we’ve been discussing this brewing crisis over the last several months, has been that, if Russia chooses this course of escalation, it is going to be not just an issue for Ukraine. It’s not just a European security issue. It’s not just a U.S.-Russia issue. It’s going to be a global issue because it’s going to have global impacts.”
- Nuclear talks with Iran: “I could say progress is fitful. The talks are still ongoing, which is a good thing, I guess, given some of the concerns we had about the makeup of the new Iranian government. But the problem is, the clock is ticking on Iran’s capabilities and they’re not standing in place and the runway that we have to have some kind of diplomatic outcome that would be something that would serve our interests is running short. So that’s the worry.”
- Confronting a rising China: “There’s nothing inherent about China’s rise that means that it has to be a confrontational relationship with the United States. China is, as you know better than I, is choosing to define their rise in ways that are confrontational, increasingly confrontational with the United States and our partners. And as many of the rules of the 21st century are being written, particularly in the new technology space, global economy, China is playing in a way where it wants to write the rules in its favor and not ours. And that matters.”
“Intelligence Matters” transcript: Derek Chollet
Producer: Olivia Gazis
MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Counselor, welcome, it is great to have you on the show. I know our listeners are going to be very interested in your insights. And I think this is a terrific time to have a conversation with you because the president is just finishing up his first year in office.
And there is, as you know, better than anybody, there’s a large number of really critical national security issues at play at the moment. So welcome to the show and I’m really looking forward to the conversation.
DEREK CHOLLET: Thanks, Michael. As always, it’s great to be with you. Great to hear your voice and really looking forward to talking today.
MICHAEL MORELL: I do need to let everyone know that before you joined the Biden administration that you and I worked together at the same consulting firm, Beacon Global Strategies. I just needed to get that out of the way.
DEREK CHOLLET: And then before that, in the Obama administration.
MICHAEL MORELL: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I’m going to need to be tougher on you, Derek, because that’s right – I’m just kidding.
So, Derek, before we get into kind of the issues that we both want to talk about, I want to start by asking what is the Counselor at the State Department and what does the Counselor do?
DEREK CHOLLET: It’s a great question, Michael. And again, it’s great to be with you.
And yes, the Counselor job, it sounds it’s one of those jobs – and there’s many of these kinds of jobs in Washington – it sounds entirely made-up, but it’s actually got a long history here in the Department. That position has existed for over a century. And you know, I am humbled by some of my predecessors in this job going back many, many decades from George Kennan to Walt Rostow to Bob Zoellick to Eliot Cohen during the Bush administration.
And so the job obviously is a bit of what one makes of it and what the Secretary of State wants it to be. And in this job – I had the good fortune of working with Secretary Blinken, as you did as well during the Obama administration. And of course, I went back with him to the Hill Days, Capitol Hill, when we both worked in the Senate together 20 years ago. So I’ve known him quite some time, and I was part of the State Department transition team a year ago, in November, December, January last year.
And so in many ways, my job here on day one, January 20th of 2021 was sort of a continuation of what I’d been doing on the transition. And the first year of any administration, Michael, as you know well, is quite hectic and dramatic in some ways because so many positions are unfilled early on.
And this year, of course, we had a particular case of that with so many of our senior folks who took a while for them to get Senate confirmation. I was not confirmed by the Senate. I didn’t have to go through that process, so I was here on day one. So the first few months I was doing, I felt like, about five or six different jobs, all at the same time.
But what I do now as we’re in that steady state, I would say a third to half of my time is spent really just dealing with the inbox that the Secretary’s dealing with. So part of my role is literally as a counselor, kind of alter ego, someone who’s just helping him and other senior officials here in the department, help navigate the department, help think through the issues, just blocking and tackling every day.
So whether it’s Russia/Ukraine or Iran or what’s happening in Libya and Bosnia to China, you name it, whatever is kind of in the inbox, I’m helping to deal with. But then also there is, since I have the benefit of not having, as I say, line authority, I’m not someone who has hundreds or thousands of people reporting up to me, so I’m not burdened by a lot of administrative tasks, I have the bandwidth to, either by design or by default, dive into certain issues.
And so what I mean by that is there are certain issues that will come up and someone’s got to deal with them and I can be available to do that. So that’s more the default school. Then there’s the design; things that we decide, I decide, talking to the secretary, is a priority for the United States. It’s a situation where having someone close to the Secretary here on the seventh floor of the State Department working the issue would be helpful.
And so over the last year, whether it’s Libya or Bosnia or the situation right now in Myanmar, those are things where I’ve tried to put a little extra energy and effort here behind those issues because they’re priorities for Secretary Blinken, but they’re also priorities for the U.S. government. So it’s a great job, it’s one that every day is a little different and I have to be, in some case, sometimes, a mile wide and an inch deep on issues.
And I know you’re really familiar with that yourself, Michael, although you’re always a mile wide and a mile deep in my experience. But you know, and I think, you know, over time, I expect there’ll be some issues that over the course of this coming year will continue on into, picking up from where I was working in last year. But I fully expect that over the next few weeks there’ll be things popping on my plate that I wasn’t expecting and that’s part of the nature of the job.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, that’s great, Derek. So, here’s what I’d like to do for the rest of the interview, is, I’d like to focus part of the interview on key substantive issues. And then the back half of the interview, I’d like to focus on those things that really determine the health of American diplomacy.
So break it into those two pieces. And I think the place to start, obviously, is Russia and Ukraine. And I think all our listeners understand kind of where we are. Putin’s demands regarding NATO expansion, particularly with regard to Ukraine. His threat to invade Ukraine if he doesn’t get what he wants, our tough response that we’ll never walk away from the concept that countries in Europe get to choose their own security path. Our threats regarding tough sanctions, if he should invade, the current talks underway in Europe, etc. So people know all that, I think, and with that as background, let me ask a couple of questions. Why do you think Putin chose now to play this game?
DEREK CHOLLET: You know, it’s a great question, and I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I mean, this is something — I think it’s really important to note that this is an entirely unprovoked crisis. I mean, there’s no NATO threat to Russia. There’s no Ukrainian threat to Russia. That’s all preposterous.
So why he chose this moment is sort of anyone’s guess. The Russian foreign minister recently gave a press conference where he said, “Well, Russian officials have just run out of patience on these issues,” because, as you said, these issues are not new issues, right? The NATO enlargement process is one that has basically been one of a policy that’s been 25 years in process here. And so I don’t know why. I mean, whether it’s for his own domestic politics, whether it’s because he perceives potential weakness on the side of the West, whether he’s just fed up. I don’t know. In some ways, it doesn’t matter in the sense of, “Why now.” But what matters the most is what we’re doing about it.
MICHAEL MORELL: And so how do we think about de-escalating? What’s kind of the strategy here?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, it’s a multi-pronged strategy, for one. And you’ve seen that play out over the last few weeks. Clearly the foundation of the strategy is showing that we are at one with our allies and partners in the region. And that’s why it was very important for us, when the Russians unveiled, in this most unusual negotiating tactic of laying out their bottom lines publicly at the beginning, several weeks ago, we made clear to them that, whereas there are certainly some issues that are relevant for a bilateral discussion – we’ve been having bilateral talks on security issues with the Russians throughout the past year through the Strategic Stability Dialogue, the dialogue that Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman leads – that there are a lot of issues that the Russians raised, particularly when it comes to the future of NATO, the future of Ukraine, that are not going to be discussed in a bilateral US-Russia context. They are going to be discussed alongside our NATO partners at NATO, or it’s for a broader European discussion, which we said should occur through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
So that’s why, the over the course of a week, the United States, working with our allies and partners, had these engagements with the Russian side, bilateral engagements talking about issues, security issues relevant between just the two of us -mainly the weapons of strategic stability issues – and then the NATO discussion at the NATO-Russia Council. So we’re at 30 with 30 allies and the Russians and the OSCE bringing the 57 member countries of the OSCE together. So that’s thing one, is to show that we are in lockstep with our partners.
Second is to be very clear to the Russians that there’s an alternative path here: there’s the path of confrontation and escalation, and that’s the path that they’ve been on now for some time. But there’s also a diplomatic path where we are willing to engage in talks with them alongside our allies and partners on issues and in good faith, talk to them about some of the concerns they have. We’ve made very clear that there are issues that are, from our perspective, totally off the table. As you said, on NATO’s enlargement and closing NATO’s open door, on trying to essentially roll back what has happened over the last quarter century in terms of European security, which the Russians are seeking; that’s non-negotiable for us.
But there are other areas, for example, on transparency on military exercises or deployment of offensive missiles, things of that nature that we’d be willing to talk to them about. But it would need to happen on a reciprocal basis and have an honest dialogue on this. And what we’ve been doing is testing whether the Russians are willing to have that dialogue. We put a lot on the table, us and our allies and partners in the past few weeks. They’re digesting that and now we’ve got to see what the way forward is.
But we are then preparing – and this would then be the third track – preparing for the worst and making clear to the Russians that if they were to choose the course of escalation and further intervention inside Ukraine, there will be, Secretary Blinken has said often, serious consequences and that they will regret those actions. And so, that’s what we’re doing for now.
From where I sit here in the State Department, we can’t control what’s in Putin’s head. We can’t control what he’s going to decide. And our best assessment as of now is he hasn’t made up his mind yet. What we can control is how we are engaging with our allies and partners, we can control how we’re preparing for the worst and how we’re engaging in in this diplomacy.
MICHAEL MORELL: So my reading of the media and – I don’t know whether it’s right or wrong – but my reading of the media is that the talks so far have not gone well. Is that accurate?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, they’ve not really been negotiations. It’s been more of an airing of positions. So that’s going to be very not unexpected in sort of contentious circumstances like this. So we had low expectations for this first round of diplomacy, and I can say those expectations were met.
But now we have to test and see what the way forward is. And we were not thinking that this was going to be solved over the course of one meeting or three meetings in one week; that it’s an opening bid here, and now we’ll see where this takes us.
MICHAEL MORELL: I will ask one more question on Russia/Ukraine, and that’s if we have to impose sanctions because the Russians do something stupid here, Russia’s not Iran or North Korea, right? When we imposed massive sanctions on those countries, there were not a lot of U.S. companies doing business in either North Korea or Iran.
But as you know, there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. companies doing business in Russia. So how should they be thinking about sanctions? And if you’re forced by Putin’s actions to impose sanctions, will you give them time to unwind their business operations? How should they think about this at this point?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, we’re doing the work within our own government, but then also with our allies and partners. Because obviously, as you remember well from eight years ago in 2014, the U.S. can do quite a bit on its own, but it’s far more effective, in terms of the overall message, but also just the impact, if you’re doing it in conjunction with, in particular, our European partners in the case of Russia.
So as we’re working through these issues, we are very mindful of the broader impact. And you’re right, Russia, it’s a completely different economy than in these other circumstances where we placed pretty significant sanctions against countries. And so we’re looking at how we can best mitigate the worst from blowing back on us, but then also, obviously, we want to do things that don’t do undue harm to innocent people.
And so, this a very, very delicate set of decisions around taking those actions. It’s really going to produce a lot of pain. And there are – and the Russians are well aware of things that we have not done up to now in response to Russia’s behavior – whether it was what they did in Ukraine eight years ago or what they did interfere in our election in 2016 or the poisoning and attempted assassination of its political enemies at home.
We’ve levied many sanctions against Russia over the last decade or so. And there’s potentially more to come if they choose this course of escalation. But one of the messages we’ve had, not just to our European partners, but also to partners and allies around the world, as we’ve been discussing this brewing crisis over the last several months, has been that, if Russia chooses this course of escalation, it is going to be not just an issue for Ukraine. It’s not just a European security issue. It’s not just a U.S.-Russia issue. It’s going to be a global issue because it’s going to have global impacts.
And so it’s an all of our interests, and we hope that all of our partners are sending the same message to Moscow, which is: Choose the path of diplomacy here. Because if they take the steps we’re worried that they’re going to take it’s going to have a huge impact on the global agenda over the next year.
MICHAEL MORELL: So second issue is Iran. Again, I think my listeners kind of know the state of play here. A nuclear deal in 2015; the U.S. pulls out of that deal in 2018 and reimposes bilateral sanctions on Iran. The Iranians, after some time, eventually respond by taking more and more aggressive steps on the nuclear front.
We see aggressive covert action by the Israelis to undermine the Iranian program. We see calls in Israel for military action, right? All of this is not good.
So, a couple of questions. How are the how are the negotiations going with the Iranians? Path to the to a deal seems pretty narrow to me. What’s your sense?
DEREK CHOLLET: Yeah. And just to just to add to the list of troubling developments, the real spike in attacks through Iranian proxies on U.S. diplomats, U.S. military forces, allies as well. Coming back into government this year after having been out for a few years, that’s something that’s noticeably different and more concerning.
MICHAEL MORELL: It’s worse than it’s been in a long time.
DEREK CHOLLET: Yeah, it’s worse. And you can see the trend line really spikes after the withdrawal out of the JCPOA three years ago.
Well, look, we have been the last year working it through with our European partners through these negotiations in Vienna. We’ve been willing to negotiate directly with the Iranians. The Iranians have not taken us up on that. So it’s been indirect negotiations, so-called proximity talks, really.
Rob Malley, our special envoy, and his team are in Vienna at the same time, the Europeans and Iranians are and they’re all kind of working through one another to have these negotiations.
We had a long pause in those talks when the new Iranian government came into office, and so they’ve restarted just right around after Thanksgiving and continued on, here, now, into the early new year.
I could say progress is fitful. The talks are still ongoing, which is a good thing, I guess, given some of the concerns we had about the makeup of the new Iranian government. But the problem is, the clock is ticking on Iran’s capabilities and they’re not standing in place and the runway that we have to have some kind of diplomatic outcome that would be something that would serve our interests is running short. So that’s the worry.
Now, we’re going to still push hard at these talks and, you know, they’re continuing on as we speak. But we’re well aware that time is running out and we’ve made very clear to the Iranians and, very importantly, the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese, who are also part of these talks, are also making clear to the Iranians that we expect to see something from them on this.
And this is one area where, despite all of the turbulence in the US-Russia relationship over the last year, particularly in the last couple of months, the Russians are still cooperating with us quite impressively at these talks, have been being relatively helpful. So, we’ll see.
But this has been really tough. I have to say it’s one of the more regretful things that we’ve inherited, is the situation with Iran and the withdrawal from the JCPOA, which – it’s very hard to conjure up how in any way that served our interests, given where Iran’s nuclear program currently stands and the fact that we’re left with some pretty bad options right now in terms of the way forward.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. What’s so stark here for me, Derek, is that no deal seems to mean either war – you know, we haven’t taken that option off the table. The president has made that clear, and you always have the possibility of the Israelis going it alone.
So, no deal means either war or, it seems to me, acquiescence to Iran achieving its objective of getting to the threshold capability for a nuclear weapon. So is there another option in a no-deal situation or are we stuck with one of those?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, you know, I think that there can be another option. Clearly, there is – even though Iran is under tremendous economic pressure, you can still dial that up further. And the Iranians are keen to get some economic relief. There unquestionably is leverage. It’s important to note that the Biden administration has not lifted a single sanction on Iran that was in place a year ago before we took office. So the Iranians want economic relief. I think it’s one of the reasons they’re at the table and they’re willing to talk.
So we could go the other direction and dial that up further. But this is definitely a universe of bad choices. And they were never good, but they were made sort of worse by, I think, the decision to pull out of the JCPOA.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. The third issue I wanted to ask about is Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists. I was struck by General McKenzie’s public comments a couple of weeks ago about at least him seeing the beginnings of a reconstruction of al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan. And I’m wondering how it’s going, putting together a plan – which I assume involves some diplomacy with frontline states – in bringing together a plan to collect intelligence and then being able to action targets if we have to do that.
DEREK CHOLLET: It’s obviously an issue we’ve been really focused on. And as you know well, the ISIS-K issue, really got worse with the release of – when the Taliban started to take back territory and released a lot of prisoners, including prisoners that didn’t serve their own interests, ISIS-K folks who were going after the Taliban. So that is what I would say is the most acute threat right now, terrorism-wise, coming out of Afghanistan — although we are watching really closely the AQ threat.
We, prior to the withdrawal in August, but after the president’s decision to execute the withdrawal of U.S. forces, were focusing on the so-called over-the-horizon effort to ensure that we can preserve our CT goals there, and something we’re really focused on talking obviously with with the border states and other states where we can, you know, basically continue to ensure that our interests are served in terms of placing capabilities there.
I can say that, we’ve had reasonably good cooperation along those lines. And this is one area where, when it comes to ISIS-K, oddly this is an area where where we and the Taliban actually have an alignment of interests because ISIS-K is no friend of the Taliban, either. Now, the Taliban’s not exactly a partner; nothing close to it. But this is one area where they’re also taking action and being attacked by ISIS-K.
So this is going to be one of the enduring challenges we face in the coming years as we watch what’s happening in Afghanistan. We’re obviously very focused, continue to be very focused, on getting anyone out of Afghanistan, the very few remaining Americans, but also those Afghans who’ve served with Americans who are still in Afghanistan, who want to get out. We are working hard to get them out. And then also, of course, thinking and trying to take some action to address the acute humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which is only going to be getting worse as the winter sets in.
MICHAEL MORELL: Right. And only at the end of the day, feeds potential extremism.
DEREK CHOLLET: Right, exactly.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, Derek, while we’re on Afghanistan, I just want to ask about the chaotic nature of our withdrawal. To me, it did not seem to need to be so chaotic. The administration promised a kind of lessons-learned study at some point. We haven’t seen that yet. I’m just wondering how you think about how we left and what we might have been able to do better?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, you know, you’re right, it was a very, very difficult situation. I mean, in some ways, the nature of any evacuation, as I’ve sort of thought thought back through history, whether it’s Cambodia, Vietnam 1975, or it’s Libya 2011, Yemen 2015, there’s sort of an element of chaos kind of inherent in any of these situations.
Obviously, in Afghanistan, no one saw the collapse of the government as rapidly as it came. General Milley was quoted as saying, several months back, that there was no piece of intelligence he saw, and I can share the sentiment, that said the government was going to collapse in a matter of a couple of weeks. And so there are a lot of lessons to be learned here.
We in the State Department have launched an after-action review and lessons learned review that’s in process now. It’s going to be completed in a couple months or so, and I believe the IC is doing something similar. I think DOD’s doing something similar.
So, you know, because the Secretary committed, when this was happening, that we want to take a close look, not just at what happened during the evacuation itself in that two-week period, but also take a look back from, starting in February 2020, when the agreement was struck with the Taliban by the previous administration to pull out all U.S. forces by May 1st; I mean, that was the policy of record when the Biden administration took office. That, just in a matter of a few months in May of 2021, all U.S. forces were expected to be out of Afghanistan. So, what sort of preparations were made in that year, essentially, prior to the Biden administration taking office for a full U.S. withdrawal?
But I do think it’s also just really important to stress here, Michael, that, as chaotic as that moment was, 120,000 people got out of Afghanistan, and that was something that was only possible because U.S. military forces, U.S. diplomats ran to the fire and worked around the clock in what was, I think, an unprecedented, extraordinary humanitarian operation; something that had never been done before. Just the degree of difficulty, it’s kind of hard to get your head around it, because here was a country we essentially had withdrawn from everywhere but the airport, and we didn’t control anything outside the wire, and we were still able to get 120,000 people out.
You know, in Vietnam, when we left, when we were wheels up out of the embassy compound, we left that country. We didn’t stay at the airport for several weeks trying to get people out. And so, there’s also a lot of really heroic stories as part that effort by folks down range who were able to get a lot of people back to safety and get as many of them as possible – obviously, many here in the United States, but elsewhere around the world – where they can build better lives.
MICHAEL MORELL: OK, maybe the the biggest long-term issue here: China. And I could ask a thousand questions, right? We could talk for days about this. But I really want to boil it down to two.
And the first one is what does the President, what does the Secretary see as the threat or the challenge in China’s rise? In other words, why should the average American citizen care about this? How does this impact them?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, I mean, you’ve seen it, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s supply chains, whether it’s our changing climate, whether it’s our security interests, that China’s rise is impacting all of those and many, many more areas and not necessarily in positive ways.
And so, China – there’s nothing inherent about China’s rise that means that it has to be a confrontational relationship with the United States. China is, as you know better than I, is choosing to define their rise in ways that are confrontational, increasingly confrontational with the United States and our partners. And as many of the rules of the 21st century are being written, particularly in the new technology space, global economy, China is playing in a way where it wants to write the rules in its favor and not ours. And that matters.
Now there are going to be issues where we want to work with China, whether it’s changing climate, whether, obviously, global health – it would be great if we could work with China on global health; they’ve been less willing to do so than we have – which kind of illustrates that the US-China relationship is really complex.
I mean, it’s hard to put it on a bumper sticker. If you tried, you’d really need a really long bumper, because there are elements of the relationship that are confrontational, no question about it. There are elements that are competitive and we are more than happy and willing and look forward to the competition with China as long as we’re all playing by the same rules. And then there’s going to be elements of the relationship that are confrontational.
MICHAEL MORELL: So the second question is, do you guys have a strategy for dealing with China or are you still working on the strategy? Do you have a set of objectives for what you want the US-China relationship to look like in the long term? Do you have a plan for achieving that? And the reason I ask is because I haven’t seen the president give a speech or the secretary give a speech and say, “Here’s our strategy.” So where are we on that?
DEREK CHOLLET: Yeah. So there’s been a lot of discussion of this over the last year. Obviously, a lot of thought went into this during the president’s campaign and then before he took office. But now that we’ve been in office and sort of dealing with the inbox and thinking through what the possibilities are, a lot of thought going into strategy. Very much the intent is, the understanding is — because it’s important, we’re going to be talking about this more publicly in the coming months.
Clearly, it’s very important for the American people, for the rest of the world, for our allies, for the Chinese to understand what our perspective is and what guardrails we want to put on the relationship and what our hopes are and what our concerns are.
So we have worked very hard, and as you know, Michael, well, it’s hard to do this often in a government where the urgent pushes out the important to have a lot of strategic discussions internally at the highest levels at all about what we are trying to achieve, what’s realistic, what tools we have, what could we do differently? What have we inherited that actually works and we shouldn’t try to fix it because it’s working fine?
So I expect that – we’re well aware we’re at one of those moments in history where it’s very important – obviously the president, secretary, all of us – to be articulating this strategy publicly. And that’s going to be something that folks will be seeing in the coming year.
MICHAEL MORELL: Derek, let me shift to those enablers that I talked about of U.S. power and U.S. diplomacy, and maybe the first one is allies.
Obviously, you guys inherited a situation where our allies were not particularly happy with the United States. Where do we stand with those relationships?
DEREK CHOLLET: If I was going to be flip: in some cases, there was nowhere to go but up. So look, I think this is, and obviously here at the State Department and for Secretary Blinken, this has been perhaps the most important project of the year, the first year, which is, rebuilding that foundation of allies and partners.
And for many reasons, we inherited a situation where some of those most important partnerships were under a great degree of stress. And so we tried to both shore up and revitalize and energize those existing partnerships, whether it’s NATO or with the E.U. or with our Asian treaty allies, but also try to breathe new life and create new mechanisms like in the Indo-Pacific, for example, with the so-called Asian Quad – India, the United States and Australia and Japan -where it had been in existence before, but we elevated it up to leaders level. And now it’s something where it’s, sort of, perhaps some of our partners were a little tentative about it early on; now it’s a thing. I mean, we’re having another summit this year and it’s a very useful mechanism and others want in, right?
Similarly, trying to re-energize our engagements with ASEAN – this is something I’ve been involved with a bit where, for a lot of reasons, there was a sense that the US had been absent from Southeast Asia for the previous few years, and that I think was a huge missed opportunity. It’s also a place where China is playing, obviously, pretty seriously. And so trying to elevate our game there and the president in the coming months will hopefully be able to host ASEAN leaders here in Washington. I say “hopefully” host because of COVID, some of our events and interactions have been limited.
But I mean, it seems to us that’s our edge. Our allies and partners is what makes American leadership so unique. When you think of Russia and China, for example, they don’t have a lot of friends, right? They have countries that maybe work with them because obviously, in China’s case, the economy is, you know, they can coerce a lot of folks. They can’t be ignored in some cases. But who are their allies? Who are the countries that have signed up to come to their defense if they were to come under attack?
And so that’s something that we can’t take for granted. It’s not a protection racket, it’s not something where it’s just purely transactional. These alliances are really what make the United States unique and also when it comes to solving any problems out there, whether it’s dealing with threats, whether it’s seizing opportunities, we’re never able to do all this in the 21st century without strong allies and partners, so that’s the foundation.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, I agree with you 100 percent. And I think, a couple of missteps here and there, you know, the Australian submarine deal, etc, but you guys have done a really good job, right?
Here’s the question I get from the former officials I used to work with in our allied countries. What they say to me is, you know, “The Biden administration is back. We feel we’re in a much better situation. But Michael, can you guarantee me that we won’t be back in the same mess in 2024 or 2028?”
And I don’t have an answer to that question. What would you say to them?
DEREK CHOLLET: So, you know, look, I think in some ways we to deal with what we have in the here and the now in the present moment. And I can’t, you know, sort of like the serenity prayer – like, I can’t think too far. I can’t think of things that are beyond my control, like three or four years from now, eight years from now. What we can do is control what we’re doing today and what I can say, the positive thing out there, despite all of the turmoil that the United States has been through, and all the drama of some of your alliance relationships over the last few years, there’s still a tremendous demand signal for U.S. leadership. And a respect for U.S. leadership. And I have to confess, I have been a little surprised over the last year, expecting that we’d hear more of, as I’ve gone around the world talking to allies and partners of, you know, “Well, you guys – we’re done with you. We’re moving on.”
No, it’s, “Thank goodness you’re back,” – meaning that the U.S. is back and trying to be a problem solver. Not that we agree on everything all the time or that we’re going to make everyone happy all the time, but that we’re trying to be constructive and trying to lead. And there’s a demand for that. And we go through this with the faith that if we do that day to day, day in, day out, that that’s the best proof point we can make that these things have value for the future and we can avoid a return to the turmoil that these alliance relationships suffered through. That’s the best we can do. And there’s really no alternative.
I mean, the only alternative is not to try. And so you don’t kind of do diplomacy if you don’t have hope that things can work, if you don’t think anything’s going to work —
MICHAEL MORELL: — go to the intelligence community. [Laughter]
DEREK CHOLLET: Exactly. Right. So that’s kind of the way we approach it. And as I said, the fact that people want us to be at the table, want us not just to be at the table, but to be driving an agenda, looking to the U.S. for answers — I tell my friends from Nebraska, where I grew up, saying, that’s a unique thing. Not a lot of countries have that kind of stature where people are caring about, you know, they want us there.
MICHAEL MORELL: So the other kind of piece of diplomacy here is the health of the Department, right? This is my view, you don’t have to say this, but it’s my view that the State Department has been underfunded for a very, very long time. And, post-9/11, the Defense Department, the intelligence community get tons of new money and the State Department gets nothing.
And then during during the last four years, you had probably, more than any other agency in the national security community, you had an outflow of people. So where are you guys today on sort of rebuilding the department?
Sure. Well, I’m glad you asked that because this has been a big priority for for Secretary Blinken and all of us. And you’re right, I mean, the Department, going back 30 years, the State Department has often gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to funding relative to DOD or to the intelligence community. It’s gotten worse over the last decade or so, in particular the last four or five years.
And then for, again, a variety of reasons, under the previous previous administration, this Department was under a lot of stress and the workforce was beleaguered. And layer in on top of that COVID, which we all suffered through in or out of government.
But doing, as you know well from the intel community side, DOD, doing national security work remotely is very, very hard. And obviously at the State Department, where there’s a lot of travel and in-person interaction is so important, you either can’t do that or you’re taking risks doing that, it adds another layer of stress to what was already a stressful situation.
So one of the things that Secretary Blinken has said is the biggest priority is to return the health of the Department – first of all, ensure that we’ve got people in the seats. There had been a tremendous amount of vacancies at senior levels. Many, many ambassadors still today are now at post and they had been held vacant by the previous team, so we’ve obviously worked hard to amend that.
We’ve embarked on a pretty bold modernization agenda here at the Department. Now that’s not a new thing, for a secretary to come in and say they want to modernize the Department. And so we’re not looking to kind of brand it as some big new initiative, but there is a lot of work going into making sure that we can recruit and retain the best possible workforce to have a workforce that is agile, that’s stronger, that’s effective and of course, more diverse and really reflects the best of America.
So this work, like so much of the work we do around here is it’s like turning an aircraft carrier. You’re not going to be able to do it all at once, right? So this year was about setting the agenda and putting some quick wins on the board and also kind of getting the course, the navigation put in. And then now we’ve got a lot of work to do in the coming years to deliver on some of that.
And as a first matter, leave this place in better shape than you found it, but then also, hopefully, put some put some reforms in motion here that over the coming decade will really play out.
I can say despite a lot of the departures and the trauma that that the State Department went through in previous years, there’s a lot of talent here. I mean, the folks who were here that I got to know during the transition are just fantastic. And so, yes, a lot of talent left, but a lot of really, really first-rate folks who are here working hard every day under what have been difficult conditions.
MICHAEL MORELL: Derek, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it. I think the the main thing that people will walk away with is it’s fantastic to know that at the most senior levels of our government, there’s somebody as thoughtful as you are and as caring about this country as you are. So, thanks very much for joining us.
DEREK CHOLLET: It means a lot coming from you. Thanks so much. Take care.