For years, the Chinese Communist Party has aggressively sought to modernize its military, with a focus on anti-satellite weapons, hypersonic missiles, and cyberspace. “What China has been doing, really since the 90s, is invest heavily in the kinds of weapons systems specifically to target where the United States is weakest,” says nuclear deterrence and missile defense specialist Rebeccah Heinrichs.
The goal is to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region and eventually supplant America.
In this episode, we sit down with Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and adjunct professor at the Institute of World Politics, to discuss how the U.S. should tackle the national security threats posed by China and also by Russia.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Mr. Jekielek: Rebeccah Heinrichs, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Rebecca Heinrichs: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Rebeccah, we’re going to talk about all sorts of things about national security today. Let’s start with this though, what in your mind is the biggest national security threat facing America today?
Mrs. Heinrichs: There are many threats facing the United States, but the one that poses the greatest threat and can do the most harm to the United States and the way the American way of life comes from the Chinese Communist Party. Really, recognizing that is the biggest threat to the United States, has the potential of posing an existential threat to the United States, that the Trump administration has reoriented our national defense strategy to recognize that.
Russia is the second major power, major nuclear power that poses a threat to the United States. And then lesser powers, non-state actors, those very serious [ones], they can pose a threat to the United States but not in the way nation-states [do], mainly those two major powers, that those are no longer the focus of the United States national defense strategy.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned the nuclear question, of course. That comes into play with China and Russia and others. Of course, missile defense is your big area. Tell me about how the changes in the U.S. nuclear strategy are affecting the situation globally now.
Mrs. Heinrichs: American nuclear weapons are the bedrock of our defenses, and so they’re the weapons that kind of underwrite all the other conventional defensive systems that we have. That is what has been credited to [our peace]. It’s one of these things. When you have an absence of war and you have relative peace, there’s lots of things that contribute to that. But since the end of the Second World War, and of course during the Cold War when it really didn’t go hot in terms of a major war, we’ve credited American nuclear weapons for that.
And so the idea here at the Trump administration is that our nuclear weapons are older, aging, and we need to recapitalize them so that they are modern, just like our other competitors are doing. The Chinese Communist Party in China and the Russian Federation have both been focused on and investing in their nuclear weapons, and emphasizing them in their military strategies.
For years, the United States has made a great effort to, especially during the Obama administration, move away from nuclear weapons as a centerpiece of our military strategies. But the Trump administration has now kind of taken a clear-eyed, realistic approach to this, where we don’t have any dewy-eyed notions of the Russian Federation and the Chinese Communist Party.
And so we are now investing very seriously in our nuclear weapons, and not just recapitalizing them but also looking at our doctrine, our strategies, and adapting the force, so that we never have to fight a major war with these major nuclear powers. The idea is we’re deterring major war.
And that has been another thing that has been different about this administration, which is really a big difference between President Trump’s approach to the issue and Vice President Biden, of course, the Democratic candidate, who has a very different idea about American nuclear weapons, and so it’ll be interesting to see the two of them discuss those in the debates if the question arises.
Mr. Jekielek: In a few sentences, how is this different?
Mrs. Heinrichs: Biden has come out in favor of a very controversial idea of embracing a No First Use doctrine. The idea behind the No First Use doctrine is that the United States declare that we would never be the first power in a conflict to employ nuclear weapons. Now, we as a country have never embraced a No First Use doctrine and the reason is, as soon as you make that declaration, that you can unintentionally invite very serious aggression that doesn’t reach the nuclear threshold.
The enemy would think that as long as it’s not nuclear, then we’re not going to be on the receiving end of nuclear retaliation. Conventional weapons, massive conventional weapons, can still do strategic harm to the United States in our interests, chemical weapons, biological weapons.
And so the United States’ policy has been to maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity so that we are constantly keeping our enemies guessing about what the United States may or may not do. We want to create increased complexities, as our adversaries are constantly thinking about how the United States might respond in any particular scenario.
President Obama, remember, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in large part because of his aspirations about moving the world down to global zero nuclear weapons. And so he was very ideologically committed to the nuclear idealist kind of view, and even he examined the possibility of embracing a No First Use policy when Biden was his vice president, recognized it as far too risky and eschewed doing that.
So very curious to me that Vice President Biden, when he was there when this was discussed and knows the harm, has now embraced the No First Use policy. And remember, he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so these issues are not foreign to him and still, when we have so many nuclear threats facing the United States, that he would embrace that, is very concerning to me.
Mr. Jekielek: What about the U.S. withdrawal from the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty? What does that actually mean for us in the world?
Mrs. Heinrichs: President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty may be one of his most brilliant decisions that he made. That can enable the United States’ defenses to kind of right the course in the Indo-Pacific theater. What I mean by that is the INF Treaty abolished a certain category of ground launched missiles of a particular range.
It was a Ronald Reagan’s treaty at the close of the Cold War, and the idea was because ground launch missiles are thought of to be much more provocative, and potentially destabilizing because you can roll them out quicker and surprise the adversary. They’re cheaper—you can have many more of them. Ground launch is cheaper than air launch or sea launch.
The United States and Russia were the two parties to that treaty. The Russians had been cheating on that treaty for years. The Obama administration admitted as such and at least purported to try to pressure the Russians to comply with that treaty. It didn’t work. So President Trump is inaugurated, Secretary Mattis is the secretary of defense, and he, the Secretary of State, President Trump, and their diplomat tried to pressure the Russians to comply with the INF Treaty. They did not.
We pulled out, because not only were the Russians cheating on it, but China, not party to the INF Treaty, has a massive missile force, the most diverse missile force on the planet, and upwards of 90 percent or more of their missiles would have violated the INF Treaty had they been party to it. In other words, that treaty was restricting the United States, and only the United States, relative to the rest of the planet.
Now, there’s this huge missile gap in that region. China can hold at risk American allies in that region, American ships in that region, and has the ability and is trying to coerce and compel the United States in the region with their massive missile force. So now that the United States is out of the INF Treaty, we no longer have our hands tied behind our back.
We can deploy ground launch missiles that were previously prohibited by that treaty, that the Marines are already asking for ground launched Tomahawk missiles that we already have, and so if we start producing those and getting them fielded, and putting them in throughout the islands in the region, that would further complicate the Chinese calculations about what they could and couldn’t do to get away with.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to talk about all different aspects of how China influences the national security question for the U.S. But since we’re talking about military force right now, how does Chinese military force look compared to the U.S. How big of a threat is it?
Mrs. Heinrichs: It’s a significant threat depending on who you ask. It’s not clear if China and the United States were to have a conflict, a military conflict, that it would be a victory for the United States. It would depend on what the Chinese were trying to do. In the past, we’ve thought the United States has the most preeminent military in the world and so no other power would dare try to really, in a serious way, threaten the United States or our primary interests.
But what China has been doing, really since the 90s, is invest heavily in the kinds of weapon systems specifically to target where the United States is weakest. So they’ve really been using the space domain as a military domain. For the longest time, the United States has tried very hard to keep space as a non-military domain, but the Chinese have been testing anti-satellite weapons and using space for military purposes.
Again, they’ve been investing heavily in missiles, and they’ve been investing in hypersonic capabilities. The name sounds like it’s faster than ballistic missiles. It’s actually not that it’s faster than ballistic missiles, it’s that these are maneuvering missiles that are traveling at hypersonic speeds. That’s what makes them incredibly difficult to contend with.
We don’t currently have any defenses against hypersonic cruise missiles or hypersonic glide vehicles, and that’s what the Chinese have been investing in, in order to push the United States out of the region.
The other thing that’s concerning, and we’ve heard this from our Strategic Command commander who has repeatedly made the point that the Chinese has a supposed No First Use policy, we discussed this, declaring that they would never be the first to use a nuclear weapon in a conflict. However, the kinds of weapon systems that they’ve been developing and our concern about how opaque they are with their nuclear program, non-transparent, will not let the United States and other countries know what they’re doing—we’re very concerned about the direction they’re going with their nuclear weapons.
Because China insists that certain territories are China’s, and they have a very wrong idea about what is Japan’s territory. We could be concerned that they might test a nuclear weapon on territory that they insist is theirs when we believe that it is not. That creates a situation, a big gray area, that challenges the United States because we of course, extend a nuclear umbrella, nuclear assurances, to the Japanese.
If China will decide to take Taiwan, how would they do that, and would the United States come to the defense of Taiwan and get entangled in that conflict? Again, another thing that the Trump administration has been doing very intentionally is to make sure that Taiwan is not isolated internationally and it has all kinds of diplomatic support, especially because of how great the Taiwanese government has performed during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the United States has sold F-16 torpedoes to the Taiwanese and all of that makes Taiwan a very prickly target, which is great because again, we’re trying to raise the cost of Chinese misbehavior militarily in order to deter the Chinese from thinking that an act of aggression would be worth the cost.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m kind of thinking to myself, the Chinese Communist Party isn’t known for keeping its word on just about anything. So saying that they will not first strike doesn’t fill me with much confidence. How serious are the militarized islands that they have built in the South China Sea? How does that change the equation really, for the U.S. and frankly, for the allies in the region?
Mrs. Heinrichs: It’s a great question. They’re constructing these islands, and then they’re militarizing them, and so that just extends the reach, the military reach, that the Chinese have. Again, it’s forcing the United States to think about that it’s a very tight region for the United States to have to operate. So we have to think completely differently about what our strategy would be, getting back to this idea of presenting many dilemmas, complicated calculations, for the Chinese. They don’t know where the United States is.
Another strategy is we want to deter the Chinese from acting aggressively. We don’t want to have just giant juicy targets in the region that would be obvious, that the Chinese would just simply attack those, and then we would just be unable to respond. Again, we’re thinking of this Expeditionary Forces with the Marines and putting them across the region in places perhaps where the Chinese don’t necessarily know where they are, giving them the ability to launch Tomahawk weapons, perhaps having empty canisters in some places so there’s not Tomahawk weapons, so you don’t know where the missiles actually are.
We want to confuse them, we want to create multiple targets, and we want to constantly be forcing the Chinese to think, again, that it would be a mistake to try to do something aggressively in the region.
Just for your viewers, the reason that the United States cares so much about this region: huge amounts of global maritime trade travels through the Indo-Pacific here and so it does affect the American economy. But more importantly than that, if the United States is to maintain the global leadership mantle, meaning we’re the ones that have the most influence with our allies and partners, so we have trade with, travel with, good relations and relative peace, then it means that the United States has to be able to make good on our security commitments to our allies.
If the Chinese are able to push the United States out of that region, perhaps raising the cost for us to engage without even a conflict, if they’re able to push us out, they have effectively taken that global leadership mantle from us, because if we can’t make good on our security commitments to our allies in that region, it puts cracks in all of the credibility of the other security commitments we have in the rest of the world. Certainly Eastern, Central, and Western Europe as well.
Mr. Jekielek: This actually makes me think of “The Hundred-year Marathon.” It’s a book. You can’t see it in the frame, but it’s on the wall here. The question is, there’s been this idea among many American policymakers that we’re managing a decline of America and that China is ascendant, presumably under the Chinese Communist Party, and there’s just basically nothing we can do about it. We just need to manage it, and I guess we’ll end up in a type of situation like you just described. What’s the problem with that in your mind?
Mrs. Heinrichs: You can be defeated as a country through conflict or by acquiescence, which is why I have doubted and wasn’t quite sure about how President Trump would view the world, or who would be a commander-in-chief, or who would carry out and direct American foreign policy, but I have been very pleasantly surprised [with] his answer to the question you just posed, “Is that okay? Do we just accept American decline as inevitable with China’s rise?” His answer to that has been a resounding, “No, we’re not going to accept that.”
We take the threat seriously, and we compete with China across multiple domains. Military is always the bedrock here but you have many other areas in which you have to compete with the Chinese, and this administration is doing that. We can look at the trade deals. Trade is a part of it. You have to have a robust economy in order to produce the kinds of weapon systems, invest in advanced technologies, modernize our nuclear forces, carry out the space force, and actually make it a real incredible force for the United States. All of these things are not cheap.
We’re still hovering around only about roughly 4 percent of GDP, our entire defense budget. I have long argued it should be more, because we really are fighting for, again, that global leadership mantle and so we should do what is necessary to not only replenish our military, recapitalize it, but do it quickly. We’re going to have to front load this and do it quickly because we’re trying to deter the conflict. We don’t want the Chinese to try to take advantage of the opportunity that we’re just now getting started in earnest on this.
But also competing with them economically. We’re doing things now like restricting visas of students that are coming into the United States, who are directly tied to the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], the Chinese army, which amazingly, the United States has not begun restricting these visas at the rate that we are now until the Trump administration.
Looking at big tech, we see how that is so bad for American national security. Look at how it was the Clinton administration that welcomed China’s rise, that essentially welcomed them into the WTO [World Trade Organization]. The idea was, it was a bipartisan national security consensus and business consensus that China would rise peacefully, and as they would become rich economically, they would liberalize politically—that has not happened.
So we have essentially helped and enabled and enriched the Chinese Communist Party. With that, we’ve got our critical medicines, antibiotics, that are made in China. Medical equipment and gear that we painfully had to learn the hard way because of the coronavirus, are made in China. Rare earth minerals that the Department of Defense relies on are in China.
Now, again, with this administration, we’re working very hard with our allies, the Australians, the Japanese, and the Indians, to create greater economic resilience and to make sure that at least those things that are critical to the United States are not going to be exploited by the Chinese to coerce and compel because we’re so dependent on things that are made in their country.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking about the Clinton administration, one of the things that accompany that approach to foreign policy with respect to China was this decoupling of the human rights question and the trade question, and originally that these things were tied together. Can you speak to that?
Mrs. Heinrichs: You have to look at the assumptions that go into that kind of policy. The idea is that human beings mostly just care about getting rich. So if you pave the way for economic prosperity, over time, that economic prosperity would translate into the things that the United States and our Western, not exclusively Western, but our democratic allies and partners care about.
This idea that human beings should be treated with dignity, that the individual is worth protecting, that we don’t just view everything as just a collective in service of the state, that the individual person has unique value that we want to protect. These ideas are not ideas that are just reflexively shared by the entire planet. This idea that economic prosperity would turn into, again, this political liberalization that we value was proven wrong.
There was never really any indication that the Chinese Communist Party was liberalizing. In fact, with Xi Jinping, you have new breath breathed into Chinese nationalism tied to this Stalinist-Lenin ideology that motivates Xi Jinping and the Party, and what they really want more than anything is loyalty, devotion, and control—devotion to the Chinese Communist Party.
So during coronavirus, when you had doctors that were trying to sound the alarm about what they were seeing with patients, the Chinese Communist Party shut them up in prison, some of them were forced to even recant some of their observations because it would make the Party look bad. So rather than caring about the health and well-being as paramount and also sounding the alarm to the rest of the world about what was going on, they kept everything opaque, hidden and lied and obfuscated what was really going on, which is a hallmark of authoritarian countries.
So it’s impossible. Even the staunchest realist claims that the United States just has to move back into realpolitik in this great power competition and not look at ideology. It’s impossible because ideologies are what make countries either friends or foes, and how they are internally will manifest itself abroad.
Mr. Jekielek: How do you see the current U.S. policy around human rights vis-à-vis China and the world?
Mrs. Heinrichs: One of the biggest kind of accusations against President Trump and his administration from his political opponents is that because he has elevated a transactional approach towards major powers, constantly talking about trade and things that aren’t fair, [i.e.] lack of transparency, they’re stealing intellectual property, and he doesn’t use the bully pulpit to the extent that I think his critics are claiming that he should on issues of human rights, constantly.
Anytime a country does something that violates human rights, [the observation that] that you’re not hearing it from President Trump and hearing that rhetoric. To their mind [that rhetoric] is what is necessary to prove that he cares about human rights. I reject that idea.
You can see that the Hongkongers— Jimmy Lai is a very well-known democracy advocate in Hong Kong, anti-Chinese Communist Party, [and he’s against] using the national security law to take away the rights and the autonomy of the Hongkongers. His newspaper that he founded, Apple Daily, came out with a very strong opinion piece embracing President Trump’s approach on foreign policy.
The reason is, rhetoric or not of how often the president talks about human rights in China, this is the first time that the United States has in earnest taken China to the mat on military issues, economic issues, [and] has sanctioned China because of their abuses with the mass of the concentration camp in Xinjiang and has sanctioned entities and individuals who are enabling and involved in that.
None of these countries or entities, these people, who want freedom and prosperity have any hope at all if the United States is under the thumb of China, and the rest of the world has had a preview of what things would look like if China was the leader of globalism, which is what Xi Jinping claimed that he would be at Davos, this big international conference that all these global powers [attend], and he claimed that he would be the leader of globalism.
We’ve had a little foretaste of what that would be like during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s abuse of people; it’s mercantilism. It is buying up critical health supplies from the Australians before the Australians knew what was coming, buying it all up and then turning around and increasing the price to sell it back to the Australians. It’s doing the same thing to the Italians.
It’s not alerting the rest of the world that this virus is coming. It is sanitizing and cleaning the wet markets before international inspectors can go in there and actually see where the virus originated from. It is threatening “economic pain” punishment against countries like the Australians simply for asking the question about the origins of the virus.
This is what it would look like—it’s abusive. The Chinese Communist Party is abusive to the people who are reliant upon it. Again, this lack of honesty, we would all be beholden to the nature and the power of China if so many of us were under its thumb, and that’s the difference.
If you compare it to the United States, and the kind of partner and ally we are, the United States has contributed enormous amounts of aid and help to try to ensure that our allies and partners have all the medical supplies. They need ventilators, we’re now exporting because President Trump was assured that the United States was able to produce enough ventilators for those of us Americans who were struggling, recovering from the coronavirus, and then turning around and making sure that our allies and partners were well resourced in that regard too.
So you have a clear distinction about what the world would be like, open and transparent leadership that cares about people, and versus the atheist Chinese Communist Party that motivates the Chinese government.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned how the U.S. is playing catch up with respect to ground missile defense around missile deployment at all. Cyber warfare is another area where the U.S. is playing major catch up. Everyone that’s been on this show to talk about it has said that. How important is the cyber war element? It’s just not something that we traditionally think of as “war.”
Mrs. Heinrichs: That’s why it’s so hard because cyber war doesn’t have the visual impact of kinetic conflict. You can do great damage to another country’s military through cyber attack, their economy through cyber attack. The Russians have threatened to cyber attack parts of the American economy, financial sector, and it’s very challenging.
It poses dilemmas for the country that has been attacked because you want to punish them, you want to retaliate for doing that, but there has been an intellectual freezing and indecisiveness about whether or not kinetic attack and response would be proportional, or would it make sense, or would it be deemed as excessive.
So we need to have the ability, to the extent that we can so as not to escalate a conflict, to have cyber defenses so that we’re protecting those things that we value so much that are part of our financial sector, our economy, and also our military, so that we are not in a position of needing to be rehabilitated based on the damage of the initial attack, and then have the ability to respond in using cyber attack as well. So it’s critical.
It presents new problems for modern warfare in how we engage so that we’re not escalating into more violent kinds of attack. You can do great, great damage, strategic damage to countries based on cyber attack.
The other thing I wanted to point out about China, and how you can’t simply look at it without taking into account its ideology or what’s going on domestically inside China, is because the censorship is a hallmark of how they treat not only their own people but those abroad. So China doesn’t care only that the Chinese Communist Party is respected and that Tibet isn’t discussed or Tiananmen Square isn’t discussed [internally], these things that China doesn’t want to have in the forefront of their reputation, they care about all of that abroad, which is why you’re seeing the censorship in the United States—Hollywood, sports teams, the NBA.
We should all take notice of that because again, that will only get worse if the United States acquiesce to that and just says, “Yes, we’re willing to put aside our First Amendment rights [and] what we think is right and good for the sake of just more money and getting along with the Chinese government.”
They do it with academic censorship as well. There have been Americans who have opposed the Trump administration trying to put greater scrutiny on the students who are coming in from China and how they’re studying in the United States. But the Chinese Communist Party has long tentacles, and they are censoring and they are watching the students that come here who are part of the Chinese Communist Party.
Not only are they stealing information, but they’re also being censored. You have all the funding that goes into these organizations as well that are funded by China, and they censor and they kill speech, of course, which is anathema to the American mores and the American way of life.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that The Epoch Times has covered extensively is this reality that the universities, the military, and everything—there’s this whole complex. They have, as it’s been described, “the whole of country approach” to this aggression. I think we can fairly stick to that. And that’s just something the U.S. is beginning to figure out. Not to mention that the U.S. also has all these private entities that are playing major roles that make their own decisions and won’t be compelled by the government as they are in the case of the Chinese Communist Party.
Mrs. Heinrichs: That’s why it’s so interesting whenever you see Secretary Pompeo making the point, and Attorney General Barr, FBI Director Wray, Matt Pottinger who’s the Deputy National Security Adviser, and the National Security Adviser—they all made big speeches, laying out the different aspects of the threat from China. One of the points that has been repeatedly made is that American companies should see themselves as Americans first.
These are not companies that can simply ride atop the globe and enrich themselves at the expense of American security. It is the American economy and the American system of government that has enabled them to prosper, and they owe the American people their allegiance and their patriotism, and that means that they’re going to have to make some changes about the way they do business so that they are not jeopardizing American security for the sake of a buck.
Again, we’re going to be in this competition for many, many years. Even if President Trump were to be reelected again a second term, the competition will not be over. This is going to be a decades long fight for American preeminence and for the protection of the American way of life.
Mr. Jekielek: Based on what we know now, based on what’s been declared and, in the case of the Trump administration, enacted, how would Biden versus Trump foreign policy vis-à-vis China look like?
Mrs. Heinrichs: It’s a great question, and I want to be fair to the Biden people because I think there are some Biden people advising him who want to carry on what the Trump administration has done and continue the competition. But even from what his advisors have said, I’ve even had some debates with some of them publicly, and how Vice President Biden has talked about this issue, it was not a central theme in his acceptance speech when he received the Democratic nomination for the Democratic candidacy for president.
Again, he’s been in government for more than four decades and even up until a year ago, Vice President Biden was downplaying the threat that China poses to the United States. I think that some of the changes that we’ve made with great power competition militarily would continue under a Biden administration, perhaps not at the same tempo.
They would certainly try to rejoin some of these international agreements or adapt them in some way that the Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from. I contend that it’s good that the United States has withdrawn from several of the treaties that the Trump administration has because the other countries were cheating and it enables the United States to have free hands to be able to compete more effectively.
But the Biden administration seems to want to take a more mild approach to the problem of China. I would argue that simply won’t do, that we need to do what we can on the front end to reestablish, especially militarily, the balance in the region, and also take very seriously the threat of individuals who are coming to the United States to exploit America’s generosity and open system academically. You don’t want to see the Biden administration pull back on prosecuting the espionage and the spying that is threatening the United States.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s clearly been a shift in the last four or five years of the U.S. approach to China. It’s unmistakable. And frankly, it has been, to some extent, bipartisan from everything we’ve seen, different levels at different times. How entrenched is this shift, do you feel, ultimately?
Mrs. Heinrichs: I think President Trump’s administration has finally made a seismic shift in the way the United States very seriously sees the China threat and is taking it on. At the end of the Obama administration, again, you had some people inside the administration who were talking about the fact that it’s no longer the case that the United States has the advantage in every single military domain.
There were some people trying to sound the alarm bells about that—how we must invest in advanced technologies, we cannot take this for granted, we cannot stay focused on the Middle East as our primary theater that poses a threat, that it’s really going on over here. We need to reorient our basing and how we think about warfare.
You had some people saying that but the cost is so high economically to the United States that you did not have the political will to finally say the things, and do the things, and make the shifts that are necessary. So with President Trump’s inauguration, you have an individual who doesn’t care about breaking glass, so to speak, to making big changes that upset the, again, bipartisan business class and national security political class, and understands himself as wearing Team USA jersey.
He wants to make sure that he looks at the whole spectrum of threats facing the United States and when he leaves office, he wants the United States, his team, to be in a better position, wealthier and militarily stronger, and that means there might be some pain. There is going to be some pain—pain on consumers for these trade wars and a variety of other ways in which the United States is going to have to deal with this hornet’s nest that necessarily had to be kicked and stirred up, to reorient our alliances and partnerships, and make sure that we’re focusing on the right things.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the Middle East, you just mentioned right now. Obviously, just very recently, the Abraham Accords were signed. Again, representing a departure from past foreign policy—significant departure. The administration, of course, is celebrating this like a massive shift. Critics are saying maybe it’s not as big a shift as the administration would like it to be. What’s the reality in your mind?
Mrs. Heinrichs: It’s a major accomplishment that the Trump administration was able to broker the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel. Really, it’s the fruit of labor of the idea that rather than trying to solve the Palestinian-Israeli problem first and trying to take a both-sides approach to those two countries, or territories, the United States is going to unabashedly take the side of one of our greatest allies, Israel.
We’re going to take the side of Israel. We’re going to defend Israel. We’re going to make sure that they are empowered and have the diplomatic cover that they need in a very problematic part of the world that’s always embroiled in conflict and wars. We’re going to take on the primary source of malign activity and turmoil in the region, which is Iran, rather than trying to seek engagement with Iran which was part of what the Obama administration’s approach was through the Iran nuclear deal.
Also, the Obama administration tried to broker, or try to help broker, an Israeli-Palestinian deal. The Trump administration put forward a deal for Israel and Palestine. But it was clear it didn’t try to do this both-sides, it was very clear about what was expected, and the Palestinians didn’t take that deal, but that was fine for the Trump administration because they were already taking the side of Israel.
We moved our embassy, of course, famously, to Jerusalem, the rightful capital of Israel, even though for years, presidents have used their waiver to not do that, to not do what American law says, to move the embassy there. Again, this sort of bipartisan class was told the sky would fall if the United States did that—it didn’t.
Bolstering Israel and pushing back on Iran, the common threat to these Gulf states, has created an environment in which these leaders of these Gulf states felt comfortable then, pursuing peace and normalizing relations with Israel. President Trump said during the signing of the [Abraham] Accords that there could be as many as nine more Arab countries that would follow suit.
The big one, the one that I’m most interested in, is of course the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina, and so it’d be very significant if MBS [Mohammad Bin Salman], the young prince there, was able to win the day for the future of Saudi Arabia and move forward with normalization of Israel.
The reason that’s so important is because the Trump administration has identified China as the preeminent major power threat and Russia as the secondary major power threat—you deal with those. That doesn’t mean we can ignore or we have the luxury of ignoring North Korea and Iran, but you look to handle those particular regions differently in a way that we’re not constantly fighting the global war on terror endlessly.
Instead, the Trump administration is looking at nation states rather than transnational organizations, terrorist organizations, and not international bodies, as the ultimate effectors of what’s happening in the world. That really is nation states and you have to contend with them, and that has created, I think, an opportunity for these major diplomatic breakthroughs that we’ve seen in the Abraham Accords.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that the U.S. is tough on Russia at some level. That’s that’s contrary to one of the major narratives I’m hearing in the media today.
Mrs. Heinrichs: That is a false narrative for years because I deal in nuclear deterrence and missile defense, but the country that I have primarily been keeping an eye on over the course of my career is the Russian Federation. The Russians are not like China in that they don’t have a grand kind of strategic vision of replacing the United States.
Their economy is weaker, they have a very corrupt economy that prevents them from being able to flourish economically, which prevents them from having the kind of military that would be necessary to push the United States totally out of the region, and they don’t have the ideological engine to push and make that happen. That’s what contrasts them with the Chinese Communist Party—makes the CCP the much more serious threat.
But the Russians have a massive nuclear force; they use their nuclear weapons in the center of their military strategies; they threatened to use nuclear weapons explicitly against purely defensive systems that the United States has deployed in Eastern Europe. The Russians just like to give us a hard time in whatever thing that we’re trying to do, trying to undermine the United States regionally in East-Central Europe, even in the Middle East, and so we have to contend with the Russians.
We also have to find ways to make sure that we’re driving a wedge between the Russians and the Chinese because the last thing that we want is to have to take on an alliance between the two, and we have begun to see a budding military cooperation between those two countries that we have to keep an eye on to make sure that we’re not unintentionally pushing them together.
But the Trump administration—again, this goes back to when people look at the rhetoric coming from President Trump and they put all of their eggs in that basket and say, “Look, President Trump will not constantly denounce Vladimir Putin, therefore he’s soft on Russia.”
If you just make a chart of everything the Obama administration did with Russia Reset. Getting caught on that hot mic was one of the big red flags with President Medvedev, president of Russia at the time, and President Obama saying that after the election, he could give the Russians what they wanted on missile defense. You look at all of these concessions that the Obama administration made, looked the other way when Russia was misbehaving, did not do the kinds of military investments and adaptations that are necessary to deter Russia, and you look at the Trump administration.
The Trump administration has demonstrated great solidarity with the Romanians, the Poles, and other East-Central Europeans and has supported the Three Seas Initiative which would enable these countries to not be under the thumb of the Russians when it comes to energy and gas, so they’re not going to be victims of exploitation from the Russians. The Trump administration has opposed the German’s deal with Nord Stream 2 which would enrich, help, and strengthen Russia’s hand geopolitically.
We have opposed and conducted military operations to deter some of the militarization going on with the Russians in the Black Sea. President Trump authorized the annihilation of the 100 Russians that were advancing on American and coalition forces in Syria when the Russians would not stand down. We have imposed sanctions against the Russians for using chemical weapons to try to assassinate their political opponents in the UK.
We’ve kicked out Russians from consulates in response to their behavior in violation of those standards that we have. So this administration on policy—you look at the policy of which President Trump is deeply involved in and has signed off on, the United States has pushed back on and exacted penalties, punishments and raised the costs for Russian malign behavior.
But President Trump appears to be trying to keep an opportunity for a diplomatic progress or partnership in other areas in which the United States and Russia could cooperate by not forcefully denouncing some of Russia’s behavior, again, using the bully pulpit. But that does not mean that the United States has been weak towards Russia. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s credible information that both China, Chinese Communist Party, and Russia, Russian Federation, are seeking to interfere in the U.S. elections. Now how big of a threat, respectively, is this?
Mrs. Heinrichs: I think it’s a very serious threat. All Americans, all Americans, as politically divisive as things are right now, and as heated as we are in this season getting closer and closer to an election, where you have two presidential candidates that are presenting two very different visions for the United States domestically, and also abroad, in pretty serious ways, it’s going to be very contentious, but we need to keep it in the family. We don’t want outside interference in the election.
Now, the kinds of things that the intelligence community has talked about as a threat are just influence operations inside the United States. China is a major threat to that. China would love to see the United States continue to be divided on down racial lines, down economic lines, political lines.
So we need to be very careful that the things that we’re reading in social media and in the news, and of course reporters need to be very careful whenever they’re taking quotes from and taking information from Chinese sources, Chinese nationalist sources, that we are not being suckered in by Chinese propaganda, and by things that would just make the problem worse and throw gas on the fire.
And it’s the same way with the Russians but this is not new. Adversary countries, for years, have tried to create more turmoil. So I think Americans should be careful whenever they hear reports coming out of the intelligence community that a particular adversary nation supports or prefers one candidate over the other because some of that’s going to be just information operations.
Different countries might prefer—adversary nations [that] I’m talking about—might try to do things to harm, as we near the end of the election, whichever candidate they think is likely to be the next president because they want a weakened American president at home that has a loose hold on American support, because that would be to their great advantage.
But Americans are smart. Just be wary of the news that you’re consuming, the information you’re reading, and the kinds of trolls that are online to try to stir up a greater conflict. I think that this presidential election is really a contest of very different ideas and visions for the United States. That’s really what’s going to win the day going into the election—who do the American people think has a better vision and a better plan for the United States?
Mr. Jekielek: Any final words before we finish up?
Mrs. Heinrichs: I would just say that this administration, the Trump administration, has had some phenomenal foreign policy achievements, and the constant narrative that I think that Americans should push back on, and do their own research, and really see what this administration has done.
It really has surprised many of us in the national security field who were concerned about the kind of president that President Trump would be as an outsider, a populist president, somebody who wasn’t going to take just what was presented to him as what presidents just do. President Trump has been willing to say, “That’s not persuasive to me and simply because we haven’t done it, that’s not a good enough reason for me not to do it.” That kind of attitude, it has come at some cost.
I do hope that should President Trump win a second term, that we would take a different approach towards allies and partners, especially in the Indo-Pacific Theater and in Europe because even though we have economic differences, there’s going to be trade disagreements, those conversations where we have major disagreements would be better had privately, because there are higher stakes when it comes to our shared threats and what we see as good and in our shared interests for many of these democratic countries. So it would be good to present a united front to our shared adversaries, and I hope that that would be an approach that President Trump would take in a second term.
Mr. Jekielek: Rebeccah Heinrichs, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mrs. Heinrichs: Thank you so much for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.