“America is not in Decline” National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien’s Wide-Ranging Meridian Interview

National Security Advisor Ambassador Robert O’Brien at an Insights @ Meridian event on February 5, 2020. Photo by Jess Latos.

In the midst of the impeachment trial and with the presidential elections just around the corner, it is no surprise that the eyes of the international community are placed once again on the U.S. With multiple critical events occurring worldwide, there was no better time for Meridian to bring together U.S. National Security Advisor Ambassador Robert O’Brien and foreign ambassadors to discuss threats faced by both the U.S and the global community. Moderated by Ambassador Stuart Holliday, President and CEO of Meridian, this comprehensive conversation touched on nearly every headline-grabbing issue in national security and foreign affairs. The 60 ambassadors and senior diplomats explored how the U.S. balances everyday challenges, while keeping eye on the big picture, the President’s National Security Strategy. Part of the Insights @ Meridian series, the conversation was held at Meridian on the morning following the President’s State of the Union Address, February 5, 2020.

O’Brien began his remarks by discussing the size and scope of the National Security Council. His major efforts towards restructuring the NSC have including whittling down the size of the staff through attrition and requiring for principals’ and deputies’ meetings “the folks who are making policy are the ones sitting around the table talking about policy. That’s how you get good processes.” O’Brien seeks to act as an “honest broker” and give the President “the very best advice that the cabinet secretaries have to offer him.”

China’s ascension, which has been greatly discussed by the current administration could not be left out of the conversation. “The challenge of our generation is the rise of China and the continued role in the world stage that Russia plays,” declared O’Brien. He continued, “China has engaged in debt-trap diplomacy across the Pacific” and “we have been the victims of massive theft from China… in intellectual property.” O’Brien advised attendees to “keep a wary eye on China” and its actions, while also assuring attendees the U.S. will remain economically and militarily engaged in the region. Despite being competitors, O’Brien feels hopeful about U.S. – China relations especially in terms of the “phase-one trade deal” which he believes perfectly reflects the U.S. desire to “have a great relationship with China” based on the recognition of China as a nation with a promising future.

Defense was also heavily addressed, as Ambassador O’Brien applauded President’s Trump achievement of getting non-American NATO members to contribute more financially, highlighting the importance of strong collective security because “weakness is provocative, it encourages bad actors to take actions that damage the United States and damage our friends and allies.” To exemplify his point, O’Brien brought up the INF treaty which he deems as ineffective and unfair to the U.S. O’Brien made it clear that he is a strong believer in the “peace through strength posture” as he sees it as the only viable approach to national security.

O’Brien then moved on to Venezuela, which was particularly timely since President Trump had just introduced opposition leader Juan Guaido as the “legitimate president” during his State of the Union Address. O’Brien condemned the constant and historic intervention of Cuba, China, and Russia in Venezuela and called on them to stop meddling in Venezuela and propping up its “socialist dictator.” This swiftly transitioned into a discussion on Russia, which Ambassador O’Brien warns has been working on strengthening its national security program, a concern which brings him to believe that arms control negotiations are fundamental. The objective is to have an excellent relationship with Russia, but at the same time being able to confront it when needed, especially when it comes to supporting U.S. allies in the region.

When discussing the Middle East peace process, Ambassador O’Brien expressed his support and admiration for the President’s “Peace to Prosperity” peace plan. O’Brien believes this “detailed and realistic” plan, which aims to improve the lives of the Israeli and Palestinian people, represents an important opportunity for Palestinians to come to the negotiating table. He also believes this peace plan could be the last opportunity for a two-state solution, and would provide access to economic development, an opportunity O’Brien considers golden since he believes “Palestine could become the Singapore of the Middle East.”

O’Brien highlighted the significance of economic success and economic stability as a fundamental piece of national security, and as a priority of this administration. Not only has the renegotiation of trade deals “give[n] us the ability to…stand with our friends and allies to make the world a better place,” but it has also resulted in falling unemployment and increased domestic standard of living.

The event ended with an animated Q&A in which attendees inquired more about issues of interest to them. Foreign ambassadors asked about their concerns, including foreign involvement in Venezuela, China and North Korea, Africa as a U.S. trading partner, and Russia and its relationship with its neighbors. A particularly salient moment came when His Excellency Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ambassador of Ukraine, asked Ambassador O’Brien whether he believed there was a need for more active U.S. involvement into the existing negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. In response, O’Brien expressed profound support for the Normandy Process because “an independent Ukraine, and a Ukraine that controls its own sovereignty is important, and not just for the U.S. but also the world, especially Europe.” Meanwhile, journalists asked O’Brien about diverse domestic issues, including the impeachment process, the Mueller report, and former National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton’s new book.

O’Brien served as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Department of State prior to becoming National Security Advisor.

Insights@Meridian and other Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement programs serve to provide the international diplomatic corps with a better understanding of U.S. domestic policies from multiple perspectives. For more information, please visit meridian.org/diplomacy.

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