Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on National Security and Foreign Policy in President Biden's First 100 Days
April 27, 2021
2:48 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us. Today's call is going to be attributed to a "senior administration official," and contents will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
Our speaker today is [senior administration official]. I'll turn it over to [senior administration official] for some opening comments, and then we're happy to take a few of your questions. Thanks.
[Senior administration official], over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. And thanks, everybody, for doing this. I'm going to make some, sort of, strategic framing comments, and then I'll go a bit more into the details of how we see the first 100 days.
So the past two administrations chose to focus on what they saw as the predominant national security challenges facing the country: transnational threats in one instance, and great power competition in the other.
Our view is that we don't have that luxury to choose between those challenges. It was clear from the first 100 days that we faced an increasingly assertive China and disruptive Russia. At the same time, we face challenges that don't respect borders, including climate change, COVID-19, and a technological revolution that's reshaping nearly every aspect of our lives.
Yet, the United States also has a tremendous opportunity to shape this world and to lead collective action to address these challenges.
In everything he does, President Biden is committed to ensuring the security and prosperity of the American people today and in the future. That means orienting our foreign policy to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
And with this in mind, the President's strategy calls for investing in America's enduring advantages. That starts with a phrase we say probably more often than you all like: "building back better here at home." This means taking steps to recover from COVID and the economic crisis in a way that is truly equitable. It means making investments in priority areas like clean energy and science and technology, and recommitting ourselves to American ideals and values.
A few examples of this: on COVID-19, our — the passage of the $1.7 trillion American Rescue Plan and the surge in vaccination that has proceeded across the country. It includes priority investments such as elevating cybersecurity as a priority across the federal government, such as our supply chains executive order, and our work on semiconductors and rare earth minerals. It also means recommitting to our ideals, which we've done in a number of ways globally, including by revoking the Muslim ban; reversing the ban on transgender military service; and restoring professionalism, integrity, and transparency to the federal bureaucracy and the government writ large.
It also means building back better abroad, and this is reinvigorating our partnerships and alliances, and forging a common agenda among like-minded democracies; earning back our position of global leadership to help rally the world to address shared challenges; elevating diplomacy as our foreign policy tool of first resort; and making smart and disciplined choices about our national priorities and where we choose to invest our resources.
On partnerships and alliances: As you all know, we held the first-ever leader-level Quad summit. We had the first in-person bilateral visit with Prime Minister Suga of Japan. We ended the previous administration's withdrawal of U.S. forces from Germany. And we have eased trade tensions with Europe.
When it comes to global leadership, we have rejoined, reengaged with the WHO; rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement. And we have hosted, just recently, the Climate Leaders Summit.
It also means elevating diplomacy. That means things like the New START extension, which we did in the very early days of this administration, and steps to end U.S. support for what has been a disastrous conflict in Yemen.
This also means disciplined choices about our priorities, and that starts with ending the U.S. war in Afghanistan and drawing down our forces there, which will take place over the coming months; and conducting a broader global force posture review, which is still playing out.
As always, the President approaches these issues with a focus squarely on what will make life better, safer, and easier for working families. That is our primary metric.
Now, the other key factor in the President's mind is that authoritarian regimes argue that their system of governance is better equipped to take on the challenges of the 21st century than our democracy. In the first 100 days, we are proving that view wrong and demonstrating that democracies can still deliver. We're delivering for the American people, and we believe so — that we are doing so while reaffirming and strengthening our values broadly.
Beyond the first 100 days — I would add that President Biden has taken these steps to fulfill pledges he's made on the campaign trail and chart a new course. These actions will strengthen our position at home and help restore U.S. leadership abroad today and in the future.
We have a few upcoming milestones that are worth noting. We have the visit — the next bilateral, in-person visit with the Republic of Korea. We have the President's first overseas trip to the UK for the G7. We have new commitments that was announced just yesterday to provide 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine. And we'll have more to say about that in the coming days and weeks.
And building on last week's Climate Summit, we will be pursuing bold and meaningful targets at COP26 and trying to raise global ambition among our partners, our allies, and other nations. And also intend to hold the Summit for Democracy the President has spoken about since the campaign later this year.
I want to make one last point, which may be less splashy than some of the other steps that we've taken but that we consider no less important. We've put a ton of work into making sure our national security decision-making process is rigorous, inclusive, and informed. We had a year-total breakdown of process in the last administration. Expertise was pushed aside. Decisions were made on an ad hoc basis without being set up by broad information and process.
And I think there are a few examples that show that we are handling things differently in this administration. First of all, on some of these longer-term policy decisions that have been made — Afghanistan and Russia are two key examples — we did not prize instant gratification, but getting to the right answer with buy in from key officials across our government so that these policies could be implemented in the best possible way.
There was a real hunger for this that we found upon arriving in the administration right from the beginning. And a need to build back the muscle memory that had atrophied over the past few years. And we've made it a very high priority for the National Security Council and for the entire administration to do that work.
So with that, [senior administration official], happy to take questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thank you. Operators, you can open the lines.
Q Hi. Hey, it's Olivier. Thanks for taking the question. Since his confirmation hearing, Secretary Blinken has repeatedly said the United States wants to make sure that imports from Xinjiang are not coming to U.S. stores. What concrete steps have you taken in the last 100 days or will you take in the next 100 days to make good on those comments?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry, I really had a hard time hearing that question. There was some static on the line. I don't know if, [senior administration official], you can repeat it or, Olivier, you can say it again. I'm sorry about that.
Q Yeah, of course. Of course. Happy to. I just said that, since at least his confirmation hearing, Tony Blinken has talked about keeping imports from Xinjiang away from U.S. stores. So my question was: What concrete steps have you taken in the first 100 days and will you take in the next 100 days to make good on Blinken's comments?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I'd say a few things on this, Olivier. For one thing, Secretary Blinken and others in our administration have been very clear about how we view what has been happening in Xinjiang. And that goes as well for the President of the United States.
We've not just said that in private policy meetings, and we've not just said that in public speeches and other statements; we've said that directly to Chinese officials, our National Security Advisor and Secretary of State said that quite directly during our first in-person engagement with Chinese officials in Anchorage, and the President of the United States said so directly to his Chinese counterpart when they spoke in their first conversation by telephone.
We are not going to shy away from hard topics and addressing them directly with China — nor, by the way, are we going to shy away from taking meaningful action, including in the sanctions space and other steps, when it comes to gross violations of human rights, such as those that are occurring in Xinjiang, which we've obviously said amounts to genocide.
I would say that one other key distinguishing factor in our approach is that we've been able to bring partners and allies along with us. I would refer you to the steps that were taken by the European Union and other key partners in the immediate aftermath of our meetings with the Chinese in Anchorage.
We believe that if China is what Secretary Austin has called the "pacing threat" for the United States, then that means our core advantage vis-à-vis China in the world is our ability to leverage our network of partnerships and alliances. We think that was a key tool that the United States has at its disposal that the previous administration left on the sidelines, and we have reactivated and are using to the greatest extent possible.
Q Great. Thank you so much for doing this, [senior administration officials]. I really appreciate it. I wanted to ask: To what extent there is concern within the administration about retaliation from Putin and Russia to the sanctions that were announced just a couple of weeks ago? Obviously, there's been some discussion from Putin about actions he plans to take. To what extent did that sort of calculus, you know, weigh into the announcement? And how realistic are your concerns about steps that Russia might take?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. So, look, we've seen announcements that have been put out by the government of Russia. I think we're trying still, at this point, to understand exactly what they intend. And we will be having very direct conversations with Russian counterparts in the coming days, and have already — have already done so.
What I will say, just taking a step back, is: From our very first conversation with President Putin and from the very first moment that we came to office, our approach has remained consistent, which is that we are not going to shy away from imposing costs on Russia for actions that we believe are beyond the pale — are just unacceptable for responsible nations to take in the world. And that's why you have seen a series of steps. It — again, in the aftermath of a rigorous policy review and intelligence review — that have been rolled out by this administration in recent weeks.
We have also been clear that our desire is not to escalate with Russia. Our desire is to make clear, to underscore to Russia exactly what sorts of activities we will not tolerate.
Where this goes from here, to some extent, is going to be determined by direct conversations that we have with the government of Russia, including — as I think you've seen — potential conversation at the head-of-state level — in-person, between the two Presidents — the details for which are still going to be worked out.
But it also is going to require Russia to take steps to deescalate the situation. We have seen and expressed great concern about the buildup of Russian forces on the border with Ukraine. We have seen in recent days, at least some indications, that they are looking to move some of those forces away from the border.
We're not going to prejudge where all that is headed. And we are going to be as clear and direct, as we always are with the Russians, about steps they take that we consider to be the counter to our interests and counter to global stability.
Q Yeah. So, there was a new North Korea approach ever since the Biden (inaudible) 100 days. So, I want to know when we will know the result of the new North Korea policy. And then, is there any issue with making (inaudible) country like South Korea?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, I guess, what I can say about that is we are — we have talked about the fact that we are undertaking a broad review of our North Korea policy. We don't have anything to announce about that at this point. We are much closer to the end of that review than we are to the beginning. But when we have more to say publicly about it, we will — we will do that, but that's not going to be for this call.
Q Hi. Some administration officials have spoken about putting the fight against kleptocracy, money laundering, and tax havens at the center of the U.S. pushback against authoritarianism. Can you talk about any concrete plans in that direction? Is this a topic for the Democracy Summit later this year? And if you can say anything about that summit, I'd
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. Yes, I think this issue will be one of the core topics of our Summit for Democracy because we see this as one way in which democracies can and should distin- — distinguish democracies from autocracies in exactly the ways that President Biden thinks it is critical for us to do.
And I want to go back to something I said earlier. He sees this contest, essentially, between competing models — between competing political systems — as essential to the moment that we're in. And it is not — it is going to be judged, in part, on questions of, kind of, basic values and differences of values of — between autocratic systems and democratic systems.
But much more so, or at least as much, (inaudible) how each system can deliver for its own people. And if countries are, essentially, stealing, cannibalizing the wealth of their citizens and appropriating them for personal use by government officials or other cross purposes, that goes to a core of weakness of a certain model of governance.
And it doesn't mean that democracies are immune from that sort of thing; in fact, far from it. But — but part of our agenda — a democratic agenda in the world and for that summit is to build the resiliency of democracies and hold up this model as one that delivers bettter for people. And so, delivering on that score, autocracy, kleptocracy, on the one hand, and a democratic model that should be better on the other is going to be a high priority.
Q Hey, thanks guys for holding this call. Two questions. I was wondering what you do in cases — because, obviously, you said working with allies is one big difference from your administration to the last administration. What do you do in cases where your desire to work with allies runs up against those times when allies disagree with you, like on China or Nord Stream 2?
And then, separately, on China, I know this administration is still undergoing its broad policy review. I wonder if you have any updates for us on timing for when we might see an outcome of that, or if it will come in, you know, sort of, portions where we see where you guys are headed on your China policy.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you. Look, I — I — we don't tout alliances because having an alliance or a close partnership with another country means you agree on every issue. But it doesn't mean that you are, in most cases, broadly, strategically aligned about the key challenges that you face.
We've been quite clear, for example, with the German government that we think Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal. They have a different view of it, and we have taken steps, including some concrete steps, to underscore the degree to which we are committed to trying to get them to change their view of that pipeline. But — but fundamentally, our relationship with Germany, our relationship with our other key European and transatlantic partners, is in a cornerstone of our approach to the rest of the world, including to Russia.
And a strategic alignment I think that — again, that atrophied over the four years of the Trump administration was a tool that it had — a card that it had to play — that it shows instead of to cultivate and to use to its advantage, to undermine ways that are, sort of, inexplicable to us.
So, again, it's the cornerstone of our approach to this area of our policy to how we will deal with a great (inaudible) power competition with China, and — and to some of the malign activities that Russia undertakes in the world is going to be in close conjunction and coordination with these allies, even if we don't see eye to eye on every single tactical elements of that, as is the case with — with North Korea too.
And on China, look, I would say that the previous administration's approach, again, was quite different. Alienating our allies, in some cases, pushed them closer to some of our competitors, not to (inaudible) pull them further away. And so we're taking a different approach, and we think that approach has borne fruit.
And again, there are many examples of why this is the case, but I will — I will give you two data points. One is this investment agreement that the Europeans made with the Chinese government in the late stages of the Trump administration, after four years in which our alliances were allowed to fray. And then, the state of that agreement and some of the other steps that our European partners have taken in the early days of the Biden administration, which we see as quite different.
Again, this doesn't mean that every European partner and ally sees the China challenge exactly as we do. But they are much more close — much closer to being strategically aligned with our view of this challenge than they were before, and we think that's profoundly in America's interest.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks all for joining us today. That concludes our call. A friendly reminder that we were on background attributed to a "senior administration official." And with the conclusion of the call, the embargo is lifted.
3:08 P.M. EDT
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