Feb. 12, 2019 - Moulton Unveils Strong, Progressive Foreign Policy Vision for A New Era and the Next Generation at Brookings

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton

February 12, 2019

Matt Corridoni

Moulton Unveils Strong, Progressive Foreign Policy Vision for A New Era and the Next Generation at Brookings 

Washington, DC —This morning, Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) will deliver a keynote at the Brookings Institution on his vision for the future of U.S. foreign policy. A live stream of the event can be found on Moulton’s Facebook page. His remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

Before I take your questions, I want to tell you a little bit about who I am, why I signed up for one of the most unpopular jobs in America today, U.S. Congressman, and why I am here to speak with you.

The reason I got into politics goes back to my time in the Marines.

I decided to serve the country while I was in college, and I picked the Marines a few months after graduation in June 2001. I didn’t know that 9/11 would happen a few months later, or that I’d be in the first company of Marines into Baghdad, or that I’d end up serving four tours there.

But while I was over there, I learned a lot and became the person I am today.

I came to much more deeply appreciate what we have here in America. A free press, law and order, and individual rights became far more meaningful for me because I saw people who lived every day without them.

I also realized that I loved serving—having a job with a purpose much bigger than myself—and I enjoyed going to work every day to serve our country. Even in the midst of a war I disagreed with, I was able to impact the lives of other people every single day.

Fundamentally, that’s what motivated me to get back into public service and run for Congress.
But there’s one other thing I learned in Iraq, a lesson that was much harder to come to terms with: I learned what it’s like to be let down, even betrayed, by people in Washington.

Playing politics with war and foreign policy takes on a whole new meaning when you know some of the people who die as a result.

We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening again. That is why I care so much about our foreign policy—and about moral leadership. And I’ve never been more concerned about both.

Two years ago, in the early days of this administration, I gave a foreign policy speech called “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” centering on 3 themes: We need to be a stronger ally to our key partners, like NATO; we need to be a stronger adversary to our key foes, like Russia; and to do so effectively, we need to embrace next generation defense technologies.

Now it’s very difficult as a young Democrat in Washington today to get the Trump Administration to pay attention to any of your ideas. Even as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress, I’ve never been invited to the White House for a single meeting in the past two years. But the administration must have read my speech quite carefully because they have succeeded, in two short years, in doing the precise opposite of everything I prescribed.

The administration has alienated our allies, cowered to our key adversaries, and abandoned our alliances. In so doing, it has torn down the foreign policy values that two generations of American leadership had built.

In that earlier speech, I called for reassuring our allies and confronting our enemies more forcefully. Basically, I wanted to rebuild the foreign policy that we had before this administration. But now I realize that’s not possible. And inherent in this disaster is an opportunity.

When your old house gets damaged by a bad renter, or--in this case--a terrible President, you don’t just restore it to look like it was built in 1950; you renovate.

You don’t just rebuild--you build something new. Something more relevant. Something better. That’s what’s required of our foreign policy today.

To do so requires a re-examination of our assumptions, and a re-grounding in our principles.

In with the new and—more difficult but as important—out with the old.

This means recognizing the new arms and new alliances we need, and the old weapons and old wars we don’t. I’ll focus on three areas where we need next-generation thinking—where we need newer, smarter, stronger: Arms, Alliances, and Arms Control.

First, our arms.

There were times when I was fighting on the ground in Iraq, at the “pointy tip of the spear,” and our insurgent or terrorist enemies were beating us on the internet. That was unacceptable then, and it’s worse now. We have to stop fighting today’s battles on yesterday’s battlefields.

Today, we face great power competition from two adversaries like we haven’t seen since the lead-up to World War II, and we run the serious risk of being entirely leapfrogged by China and Russia with new technologies. China is not trying to compete with our 11-carrier Navy by building 12, 13, or 14 of their own.

1,238; that’s the number we should have top of mind. That is our best estimate for how many Chinese anti-carrier missiles you can buy for the price of one U.S. carrier.

Here’s another way to look at our colossal surface Navy: I asked the CNO in a hearing a couple years ago: how many times have the Chinese attacked a U.S. carrier? “Never, Sir.” How many times have the Chinese attacked us through the internet? “In the last twenty-four hours, Sir?” The punchline is this: we’re investing 16 times more in carriers than in cyber. We need to re-examine that balance. And I’ll also point out, with regards to the South China Sea, that it’s a lot harder to sink an island than an aircraft carrier.

We need to ask the same questions of our massive financial commitment to the F-35; I’m more worried about how soon we can field the F-45, or the PCA, which may not be manned. And so on with the other services as well.

I think China and Russia actually have an inherent advantage over us by being more budget-constrained (and less politically-constrained by the military-industrial complex): They don’t have the luxury of trying to compete with our big, expensive, legacy weapons system, so they have to develop the smaller, cheaper, next-generation weapons to defeat them.
Having no real response to China’s plan to be the world-leader in artificial intelligence (or AI) by 2030 is unacceptable. We need to dramatically up our investment in autonomous, hypersonic, and cyber weapons to compete and win.

We also need to ensure that we maintain the fundamental investments in our country that are critical to our national security: basic scientific research, education, and immigration. These policies have driven our defense dominance for a century, but today I’m worried.

Paying for these investments will require us to make some hard choices about legacy weapons systems we can no longer afford.

Arms Control
Second, I’d like to talk about arms control. While I feel we are woefully behind in making the commitment we need to next-generation arms, at least we are starting to discuss it. I haven’t heard anyone discussing next-generation arms control at all.

And here’s why it’s so important: Most people think of arms control as purely a way of making us safer by decreasing the number of weapons owned by everyone. But done well, arms control also makes us stronger by giving us a strategic advantage.

For example, if the U.S and Russia agree to comparable reductions in ICBMs, but our missiles are more accurate and more reliable, then we have the advantage.

That is why I was such a strong advocate four years ago for a worldwide convention to limit the proliferation of drones: Back then, we were still far ahead of the rest of the world in that technology--and limiting them may have solidified that advantage. This particular idea may not have worked, but the principle is one we need to pursue.

Simply put, we need to start thinking of arms control not just with traditional weapons but with new ones as well.

Authoritarian regimes have an inherent advantage in developing AI weapons systems because (1) surveillance gives them access to much bigger data sets and (2) they are not necessarily beholden to the same moral principles controlling their employment. Much sooner than later, we’d be wise to consider what kinds of arms control over autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence will make us safer.

Third, alliances.

This is where the analogy of the destructive house renter is most apropos, and where an entire renovation is required.

In the wake of Trump’s handling of NATO, many will call for re-strengthening the alliance, and I am among them. But NATO was established under 1949 rationale. Just as we’re not going to counter Russia’s amazingly successful work at undermining democratic elections by simply refurbishing our nuclear arsenal, we need to re-think the strategic role and purpose of NATO. Now is the opportunity, presented to us ironically by this Administration, to renovate and strengthen it for a new world.

Likewise, we should be re-examining our troop commitments to places like Germany and Japan. And we should be asking whether it would make sense to establish a “Pacific NATO” to counter China.

In the Middle East, as the “War on Terror” approaches the two-decade mark, America’s continued presence in Afghanistan and Iraq makes them the longest wars in American history, and the entire region is more disrupted and disruptive than when we began. We attacked a grease fire with a pale of water--and now the entire kitchen is ablaze. There are nearly four times as many Sunni extremists in the world today as there were in 2001, and although the administration celebrates how little territory ISIS now controls (which is a near-meaningless measure of an insurgency’s strength), Sunni extremists worldwide control more territory now than they did then. These facts compel serious questions about our continued strategy in the War on Terror.

We can’t simply abandon places like Syria without any plan because, as our experience in Iraq fatefully demonstrated, we’ll just have to come back, and it will take more American lives to do so. But for all our wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the many small wars beyond—we need clear and achievable missions, approved by Congress and transparent to the American people, so that our troops can fight for peace, and know what they must achieve to come home for good.

Just as we admire President Roosevelt’s courage for leading the country into World War II, we should also admire President Eisenhower’s courage for leading us out of Korea.

Finally, climate change must be part of our thinking about alliances as well. Syria presents a particularly compelling example of how a conflict with origins in social upheaval combined with the pressures of climate change (as mounting evidence focuses blame on the region’s historic drought) can quickly become a multi-dimensional war.

Climate change won’t wait, and neither should we. It’s a threat to our national security. We obviously need to get back into the Paris Accord, but that alone isn’t enough. The time to act is now, and new alliances to prevent it are a good place to start.

In summary, it’s time to completely re-imagine our arms, our alliances, and our arms control for this new and rapidly changing world.

All three are indispensable to meet the challenges of the new world order, which emphasizes the importance of an all-hands-on-deck approach to national security. Russia and China have embraced this; terrorist groups embody it. But here in America, we have regressed.

To meet the challenge of Sputnik, Congress made massive investments in education and basic scientific research; today, this “non-defense discretionary spending” is politically divorced from our national defense and, ironically, a prime target for cuts by so-called Congressional hawks. Yes, aircraft carriers fall under defense, but “non-defense” spending includes diplomats that help us avoid the next wars, USAID workers that tackle global health crises like ebola, and FBI and DHS professionals who keep us safe–all critical to our national security.

Too many times in Iraq, I was asked to fulfill diplomatic roles essential to our military mission for which I was ill-equipped, and never trained, because our State Department was under-resourced.
Last, I want to have one final word about the leadership that will be required to make these hard choices and new investments.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, a general officer came to visit my office, and I asked him whether he agreed with me that Russia is a great and present threat to our national security. This was at a time when there was even more widespread denial of Russia’s involvement in our election than there is today, and given his particular background, I thought his answer would be that terrorism is still a greater threat.

This salty old Marine looked at me carefully, and then replied, “No, Congressman. I don’t think it’s Russia. I think the greatest threat to our national security is the attacks on our democratic principles here at home.”

His answer caught me off guard, but he was right. And it brings new meaning to that same oath I swore as a Member of Congress that I swore as a United States Marine: “…to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic….”

I’m heartened by the new leadership emerging in this country to meet this challenge, including more veterans in Congress than we’ve seen in a generation, but the mountain we have to climb is steep, the choices are hard, and the political fight will be severe.

Just down the road in Quantico, Virginia, the Marine Corps taught me in 2002 about the two kinds of courage good leaders need: physical courage and moral courage. In warfare we usually think of physical courage, but many of the most difficult challenges I faced in Iraq required both. We count on our troops to be courageous in every respect. The only form of courage we need to find here in Washington is moral.

Moral courage is often in short supply around here, but we need it to make these tough changes. Our troops deserve it, and our national security demands it.