Durbin Discusses The Importance Of Continued U.S. Global Engagement At Council On Foreign Relations
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today discussed the United States’ role in the world, countering historic and current strains of American isolationism, and the importance and benefit of continued global engagement in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Multicultural democracy isn’t easy. And yet, we have done it better and on a larger scale than any nation in history. That’s part of the American idea,” Durbin said. “Siding with democracy over tyranny, that, too is part of the American idea. When democracy protesters stand up in Moscow, Hong Kong, or elsewhere, they’re counting on Americans for support.”
Durbin continued, “Sadly, President Trump does not understand these truths – these basic truths – about America. He has undermined America’s role in the world because he fundamentally does not grasp the nature of America’s character, nor the strength of alliances. We cannot know the future. But we know from our past that America – and the world – are more secure and prosperous when we work with our allies to defend our shared values and interests, and solve our shared problems.”
In his speech, Durbin presented five ways the U.S. can – and must – work with other nations to solve common problems:
- The U.S. should re-affirm the Paris Agreement. And we should lead the search for solutions to climate change.
- The U.S. should work with the global community to combat proliferation – and we should start by rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement in order to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
- China is a bad actor on trade. But instead of going it alone, we need to work with our allies, and through the World Trade Organization – and force China to follow fair rules. The President’s go-it-alone tariff war actually strengthens China’s standing among nations by allowing it to posture as a champion of global trade agreements.
- With our NATO allies, America needs to stand up to Vladimir Putin and demand that Russia stop interfering with democratic elections, and respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors.
- The U.S. should resume accepting refugees – and adequately funding our foreign aid budget.
Photos of Durbin at the Council on Foreign Relations are available here.
Durbin gave opening remarks and then took questions from Doyle McManus, Washington Columnist at the Los Angeles Times and Director of the Journalism Program at Georgetown University. Durbin then took questions from the audience.
Durbin’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Senator Richard Durbin
Council on Foreign Relations
September 10, 2019
I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for the chance to discuss America’s role in the world and the value of international engagement and partnerships. I’d like to say just a few words before I try to answer questions from Doyle (McManus), and from you all.
I want to start by remembering a good and wise man who thought long and hard about America’s role in the world: Les Gelb – president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, diplomat, truth-teller, connector of dots, patriot. He was the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants who worked 14 hours a day in their corner deli. Worked his way through college parking cars and washing dishes. He served under two Presidents – at the Pentagon and the State Department – before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times. And he inspired and mentored a generation of American statesmen and women. His passing a week and a half ago is a great loss. America – and the world – need more Les Gelbs.
These are anxious, uncertain times for America and the world. The U.S.-China tariff-trade war is rattling global markets. Russia continues to attack the world’s democracies – aided by a U.S. President who cannot or will not acknowledge plain facts. Strongmen and nationalism are on the rise. Old hatreds are re-emerging, too often stoked by opportunistic leaders. North Korea continues to test-fire dangerous missiles that Kim Jung Un undoubtedly hopes can deliver a nuclear weapon. Brexit is convulsing Great Britain. Climate change is accelerating at an alarming rate. The Amazon rainforest – the world’s lungs – are burning. And the President of the United States is not playing a fiddle – but close. He is rage-tweeting in the middle of the night, browbeating our closest allies and flattering autocrats and dictators. His only guiding principle – if one can call it that – seem to be driven by his ego and uninformed reaction.
For me, one of the most unsettling moments of this Presidency occurred at the G20 meeting of world leaders in Osaka, Japan, in late June. You may recall it. Just before the gathering, Vladimir Putin had given an interview to the Financial Times in which he charged that liberal democracy “has become obsolete.” Ever the KGB agitprop troll, he maliciously defined “the liberal idea” as letting “migrants kill, plunder, and rape with impunity.”
Any other American President might have responded as EU President Donald Tusk did when he was asked about Putin’s comments. President Tusk said that Putin’s remarks suggest – quote – “that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete, and human rights are obsolete.” He added: “What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, [and] the rule of oligarchs – even if they sometime seem effective.”’
President Trump, on the other hand, clearly didn’t understand the question. He thought “western liberalism” meant California. He said that San Francisco and Los Angeles are “sad to look at” because they are “run by liberal people.” And he defended Putin for just “say[ing] what’s going on.”
This is alarming, but hardly surprising. At a time when American democracy and democracies around the world are struggling and under attack, we have a President who does not understand the most basic terms of democracy and is contemptuous of the norms of democracy. He believes mistakenly that the strengths of democracy – principles such as inalienable rights of individuals … and equal justice under the law – are weaknesses. He embraces actions that betray our character as a people and diminish our moral standing and our ability to lead in the world.
To make matters worse, this President also does not understand the critical importance – to America, and the world – of alliances, especially alliances with nations that share our democratic values. In his maiden speech two years ago to the UN General Assembly – an institution dedicated to finding collective solutions to global problems – he declared that every country is on its own; that alliances are held together by self-interest, not shared values.
With Russia on the prowl and far-right, anti-democratic movements on the rise, NATO is facing its greatest challenge since the breakup of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago. Yet the man in the Oval Office speaks of our NATO allies as freeloaders rather than partners in the most successful military and security alliance in the history of the world.
This is not only dangerous, it is reckless. We need to defend our democratic allies, not disparage them. In his new book, General Jim Mattis states a simple but powerful truth: “Nations with allies thrive, nations without allies wither.”
To be clear, President Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the frustration many feel with democracy today in America and other nations. That frustration is understandable. It’s fueled by factors such as the global financial crisis, rapid, often disruptive technological change, and the war in Iraq, a disastrously misguided response to the terrible attack on our nation.
What follows is not a comprehensive prescription for curing all of what ails American democracy, or democracies worldwide. It is, instead, a list of five ways the U.S. can – and must – work with other nations to solve common problems. By acting together, successfully, we can bolster faith in democracies.
First: The U.S. should re-affirm the Paris Agreement – and we should lead the search for solutions to climate change. Today’s global refugee crisis is nothing compared to the refugee crisis that awaits if we ignore this existential threat.
Second: The U.S. should work with the global community to combat proliferation – and we should start by rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement in order to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That Iran nuclear agreement, worked out with the U.S. and the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council – can be amended, if necessary. But to simply walk away from it makes the Middle East – and the world – far more dangerous.
To head off a new and dangerous arms race with Russia, the U.S. should also ensure that the New Start Treaty is extended beyond its upcoming expiration date.
Third: China is a bad actor on trade. Practices such as forced transfers of technology and outright theft of intellectual property are serious problems. But a tariff war that hurts American farmers and businesses, that will cost every American family $1,000 this year, and could tip the world into a recession is the wrong response. We waged a global tariff war before and we ended up with the Great Depression.
Our allies want to end China’s trade abuses as much as we do. Instead of going it alone, we need to work with our allies, and through the World Trade Organization – and force China to follow fair rules. A united front. The President’s go-it-alone tariff war actually strengthens China’s standing among nations by allowing it to posture as a champion of global trade agreements.
Fourth: With our NATO allies, America needs to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Demand that Russia stop interfering with democratic elections. No more killing journalists and political opponents on Western soil. And Russia must respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors, vacate Ukraine and stay out of the Baltics and Poland and every other sovereign nation.
Fifth: The U.S. should resume accepting refugees – and adequately funding our foreign aid budget. In 1939, hundreds of desperate Jewish families fleeing Nazi Germany aboard the S.S. St. Louis were denied permission to enter the U.S. The S.S. St. Louis returned to Germany -- and about one-third of the passengers later died in the Holocaust. In the years following the war, America learned from that lesson. We welcomed more refugees than any nation on Earth.
Since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, the United States had resettled an average of 80,000 refugees per year – under both Democratic and Republican Administrations alike. These are among the most vulnerable people on Earth.
Sadly, the current Administration is closing America’s doors to refugees. In the midst of the greatest global refugee crisis in history, this Administration has slashed – and then slashed again – the number of refugees our nation will admit. Last year, the Trump Administration set a ceiling of 45,000 refugees and ultimately allowed just 22,491 refugees to enter the U.S. This year, they slashed the refugee-admissions target to just 30,000 -- and will likely accept even fewer. The Administration reportedly is considering even more drastic cuts for next year.
This Administration is also doing everything in its power to block families and children fleeing horrific gang and sexual violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. And its policies – like shutting down legal avenues vulnerable families and children fleeing persecution, and terminating humanitarian and security assistance to the Northern Triangle, have further destabilized the region, leading more migrants to flee to our border. These policies should be reversed.
We must also adequately fund our nation’s foreign assistance programs – including development aid, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance – to reduce the crises that drive people from their homelands.
I mentioned the Administration’s counterproductive decision to cut $500 million in U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle. His proposed cuts and refusal to spend appropriated funds in other areas are also deeply troubling. For example: The Trump Administration has terminated hundreds of millions of dollars in development aid and humanitarian assistance for those living in the Palestinian Territories. The cuts include all U.S. funding for the US Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, $200 million in economic support funds for projects in Gaza and the West Bank; and $25 million for Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.
This Administration’s has slashed support for U.N. peacekeeping operations by 40 percent – and proposed even deeper cuts for U.N. humanitarian assistance programs. Its budget proposal for the current year included a 30 percent across-the-board cut to foreign operations, and a 24 percent reduction in anti-poverty programs.
As the Council on Foreign Relations has noted, it’s true that the U.S. is the world’s single-largest foreign donor in total dollars spent. When you look at foreign aid as a percentage of a country’s gross domestic product – we rank near the bottom among developed countries. We are 22nd out of the 28 O.E.C.D. nations. The Trump cuts in foreign assistance represent only a tiny fraction of U.S. spending, but they inflict real, needless harm on vulnerable people worldwide – and on America’s role as a moral leader.
John McCain and Dick Lugar – both conservative Republicans and patriots – used to speak often of the power of the American idea. They understood that America’s strength comes not only from our military or economic might, but from the power of our principles.
When you fly into an America airport from any other nation and look at the incredible mix of people – all Americans – waiting in the customs and immigration line to show their passports, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride in what we have achieved. Multicultural democracy is hard. And yet, we have done it better and on a larger scale than any nation in history. That’s part of the American idea.
Siding with democracy over tyranny, that, too, is part of the American idea. When democracy protesters stand up in Moscow, Hong Kong, or elsewhere, they’re counting on America for moral support. John McCain understood this. That is why he stood with democracy protesters in the bitter cold on the Maidan Square in Kiev.
Sadly, President Trump does not understand these truths about America. He has undermined America’s role on the world because he does not grasp the nature of America’s character, nor the strength of alliances.
A final thought before I close: Tomorrow marks the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America. As we prepare to commemorate this solemn day, we know that America is still threatened by terrorism – home-grown and foreign. We also face other, urgent threats, including nuclear proliferation and, if we continue to ignore it, a climate catastrophe. No nation can solve these problems alone. They demand global alliances and concerted, global cooperation and action.
The scene that is burned in our memories from 9/11 is the terrible image of the Twin Towers falling and crumbling into ash. But there are other images from that time that we need to remember as well. At American embassies and consulates around the world, crowds turned out spontaneously to mourn with us.
The front page of Paris Match newspaper on September 12 read: “We are all Americans.” That same day, for the first and still the only time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter – the mutual defense pledge originally intended to protect vulnerable European nations from Soviet invasion during the Cold War. NATO also sent five fighter jets to help defend American airspace.
We cannot know the future. But we know from our past that America – and the world – are more secure and prosperous when we work with allies to defend our shared values and interests, and solve our shared problems. Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Now, Mr. McManus, I am ready for your questions.
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