Last week, DPR’s Andrew Kragie sat down with visiting American Grand Strategy speaker Jake Sullivan the day before he flew to Geneva to continue nuclear negotiations with Iran. Sullivan served as National Security Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Deputy Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State. He was also named one of TIME’s “40 Under 40” civic leaders.
DPR: You’ve spent significant time working in various departments of the United States government. What did you learn from your time in government that you didn’t know until you were in the room?
Sullivan: There were two things I didn’t fully appreciate. The first is that policymaking is fundamentally a study in imperfection. You show up for a meeting in the Situation Room, and you don’t have a full picture of what’s going on, and you don’t have particularly good choices, and there are clashes—personality clashes between people, cultural clashes between institutions like Defense and State. The policymaking process is nothing more than the sum of the human beings who comprise it.
The second thing is that before I came into government, the other party was in power. I was pretty quick to judge and to criticize. If the Republicans ever end up back in the White House running U.S. foreign policy, I will be much slower to conclude, ‘Man, that was a massive screw-up.’ I now have a better appreciation of the limitations on policymakers—limitations imposed by imperfect choices, by choosing between the lesser of two evils, by the fact that some of these problems are deeply intractable and the application of American power to them doesn’t necessarily produce positive outcomes.
I have found that the policymakers who are really effective reject the attitude that policymaking is like arithmetic, with an absolutely right and an absolutely wrong answer. I’ve become much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve gotten to see the decision-making process with all of its warts, up close and personal. [You] need to reject certitude and recognize that any position you advocate is going to have weaknesses, and that the people on the other side are going to have some decent arguments. You’ve got to acknowledge both of those things or you’re not going to be truly effective in Washington. There’s too little of that in the public discourse. I’d say there’s more of it behind closed doors—more of a willingness to acknowledge the weakness on your side.
DPR: When you mention cooperation behind closed doors, can you give us an example of this process?
Sullivan: The Iran process is an example of this. There’s a lot of public debate between Congress and the Administration. But it’s more starkly drawn in public than when you sit down—especially in a classified session—and really talk through the issues in detail. Republican and Democrat, House and Senate members, chairs of committees have been absolutely willing to engage in the substance of the argument, to set all posturing aside, and to delve into what truly is in the U.S. national interest.
DPR: Speaking of Iran, after the transition from President Ahmadinejad to President Rouhani, was there a noticeable shift in tone or receptiveness in the Iranian negotiations?
Sullivan: The process was joined in earnest only after Rouhani was elected. The opportunity to sit down in a serious way and negotiate a first-step agreement was a serious proposition only in the months after Rouhani was elected. Before then, we weren’t engaged in productive or credible diplomacy with the Iranians. In that sense, his election marked the opening of this possibility that we could resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge—but whether we actually [resolve it] depends on hard decisions in Tehran.
DPR: Beyond the leadership change, sanctions played an integral part in advancing negotiations. What has the United States learned about sanctions over the past years?
Sullivan: I think we have learned how to make them more effective, more targeted, and more impactful. We have also learned that sanctions alone aren’t a strategy; they have to be accompanied by other tools. We’ve learned that sanctions work better when we have a coalition of partners that join us. In the case of Russia, having the European Union and the G-7 on board is a crucial part of our strategy, and the President has been very effective at generating that, even when it looked like there was no way Europe was going to come together. We’ve learned there are times when the targets are not necessarily the very top leaders but people around the leaders who would have a vested interest in pushing for policy change. And we’ve learned that one size definitely does not fit all—what’s appropriate for Venezuela is different for Russia and for Iran.
As a technical matter, our Treasury people are getting so much more sophisticated. There’s a constant learning process on the enforcement and compliance side. They are getting better at learning what evasion looks like and how to stop it. That matters because over the long term [spotting and stopping] evasion, and over the long term that will increase the efficacy of our sanctions. But like I said, it’s an incomplete answer. Sanctions are one of the first go-to’s because of the power of the U.S. dollar and the power of the U.S. financial system, and they’re an important tool, but we always have to build them into a broader, integrated strategy.
DPR: Are there any criticisms of the Obama Administration that you thought were patently unfair?
Sullivan: Let me use a different Iran example—the response to the Green Revolution in the summer of 2009. In hindsight, I believe that we probably should have been more vocal in our support for the advocates of change and democratic reform in Iran. I say probably; we absolutely should have [been more vocal].
So it’s not that the underlying point that critics made—that maybe you should have done it a different way—is invalid; it’s the source of their argument, which was that we were trying to cut a deal with the mullahs on the nuclear program. That is just not accurate. The reason the administration chose to take a more muted approach was because there was a judgment—a judgment that was shared by some in the Green Movement itself—that the United States being too vocal in support of these activists would actually undermine their cause. In hindsight, being more vocal had some merit. But those people who stand up and say, “You sold out the democracy activists for some other interest”—that’s a classic misread of what the administration was actually trying to accomplish.
Another case where criticism was overdrawn is Syria. It is well documented that different senior people in the administration had different views, but all of them would concede that any policy had only a modest chance of success. Those people who get out and say, ‘If only you had done X, we’d have solved Syria by now’—I think they’re fundamentally incorrect. Some of our critics on Capitol Hill and in the think tank community have not grappled sufficiently with the sheer difficulty and magnitude of the challenge that we were dealing with.
DPR: How accurate are political TV shows like House of Cards and West Wing?
Sullivan: I stopped watching House of Cards because it got kind of ridiculous. But I find West Wing more credible. Obviously it’s stylized and it removes a lot of the drudgery and the small compromises that are required to govern—it puts things in this bigger, more beautiful terms. But it’s not far off!
Secretary Clinton tells an interesting story about when we were in Burma on her first visit. She met with senior members of Parliament, [and] in the course of her meetings, one of them said, “We’ve learned everything about American constitutional democracy from West Wing.”
If you were going to take a model to learn from, West Wing isn’t the worst possible model. It is a show that tries to call the better angels of our nature. It’s not off its rocker by any stretch. They do make an effort to simulate crises in the Situation Room, candid conversations in the Oval Office, interplay among the staff, the way the staff interacts with the President, and how the staff interacts with the press… How often would you really say, “Walk with me?” Is that as absurd as it seems, or is every conversation really in the hallway? The chief of staff, Denis McDonough, conducts much of his business while walking. That is a true story. And the president himself will often go on walks with people. I’m not sure it’s as frequently as in West Wing though. Much of the business of the United States is actually conducted from chairs.
DPR: What will be the top 2016 foreign policy issue?
Sullivan: Terrorism stands apart. It occupies a different space in the American political consciousness than any other foreign policy or national security issue—absent some intervening event that we have yet to see. That will be very much on people’s minds, whether it’s ISIS or these attacks we’ve seen in Paris and Ottawa and Australia. The American people are going to want to hear candidates’ answers to this evolving threat that is adapting very rapidly and in very challenging ways —“How are you going to keep the American people safe?”
Aside from that, I think different constituencies will have different issues. There will be a group that will want to hear candidates’… long-term answer to climate change. And the end of this year will bring the Paris deadline—President Obama will be pursuing a global climate agreement—and all of the candidates will be pushed on how they will handle this problem, if they even acknowledge it exists.
China will matter to different constituencies—people worried about their economic security, people concerned about whether the world can remain this peaceful, prosperous place that the United States helped shape over the last fifty years in the face of this rise of a new power. Connected to that, we’re going to have a big debate on this Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s going to have political salience with your average American because it impacts their pocketbooks and their livelihoods in a way that some of these other foreign policy issues won’t.
And I can almost guarantee there will be one issue that neither you nor I are thinking of today that comes up between now and 2016, that tests the mettle of the candidates and their ability to develop a response that convinces people they would make a good president.
DPR: Have you considered running for elected office?
Sullivan: I have. I thought about it more when I was younger than I do today. I’m actually getting married this summer. It’s interesting how when you’re single, running for office seems so uncomplicated. When you enter a partnership and you’re making choices about where you’re going to live, it becomes more complicated. I had always thought about going home to Minnesota and building a career in law and public service. My fiancée is not from Minnesota, so we’ll have to see what happens. But it’s not something that I’ve completely set aside. If there were ever an opportunity to serve in elected office and I thought I could do a good job, I would definitely consider it.
This interview has been edited for brevity.