Jeffrey Prescott

Security, Nationalism, and the Four Freedoms

Air Date: October 1, 2018

Jeffrey Prescott of the Penn Biden Center and National Security Action talks about American foreign policy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. You may recall our conversation this year with General Stephen Cheney on our immediate homeland security challenges: nuclear, cyber, and environmental. Today we’ll probe those challenges further. What are our gravest geopolitical risks, namely the proliferation of weapons and the potential for war. My guest is Jeffrey Prescott, the executive director of National Security Action and senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Dngagement. He served as special assistant to President Obama and was Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States on the National Security Council. I’m interested in his assessment of the strong man here at home, the revolt of the populists around the globe, the Iran retreat, and the ongoing North Korea diplomacy, and it’s vast implications for world safety. Jeffrey, thank you for making the voyage from DC to be here with me.

PRESCOTT: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: I wanted to start with North Korea because it really can’t be examined in isolation, can it, you have to look at the implications, geopolitically, China, Russia. What is a deal with North Korea mean more broadly? Don’t we have to think about those questions too?

PRESCOTT: Well, I think you’re absolutely right. Obviously, China has a enormous interest in the Korean Peninsula. Russia has been involved historically in negotiations around North Korea’s nuclear program and of course our allies, Japan, South Korea and others in the region have an interest in this as well. So you can’t look at it in isolation. While the North Koreans are very interested in us, North Korea diplomacy and direct discussions between the two of us, you really can’t separate it from the larger context in the region. And that’s one of the reasons that we’ve traditionally looked at our allies in Japan and South Korea and try to be in lockstep with them as we’ve worked on this a very difficult issue. We’ve also tried to make sure that we had clear lines of communication and expectations with China, with Russia and others to make sure that we understand where others are coming from as we look at this, a very difficult national security challenge.

HEFFNER: How do you assess the situation right now with North Korea and the potential for any kind of believable verified denuclearization from North Korea?

PRESCOTT: Well, I’m very worried about where we are right now in North Korea. We had a process of building a pressure, a economic and political pressure on North Korea began even before the Obama Administration, but continued during the Obama Administration and Trump turned that into his maximum pressure campaign, essentially a continuation of those sanctions over the first part of his administration and turned that into what could be a very promising diplomatic opportunity. But at this point there seems to be a dramatic gap between the rhetoric from President Trump that this threat has been resolved or that this problem has been solved and what we’re actually seeing on the ground in North Korea, the most recent reports of course, are that their nuclear program seems to be expanding.

There may be additional parts or additional facilities that we don’t know about. There hasn’t really been a declaration of what North Korea has in their arsenal. We know there’s about 60 nuclear weapons. We know they have a number of types of ballistic missiles, including some that may threaten the United States. So there’s an enormous challenge here and in some ways by going to a Presidential Summit, a meeting with the North Korean leader as a first step, we’ve put ourselves in a very difficult position because the President has said that was a great achievement, we’ve, we’ve actually achieved something there. But as we just saw from Secretary Pompeo, his most recent trip to North Korea it’s not clear that the North Koreans are on the same page as the United States in terms of what the next steps are. And we haven’t seen any concrete steps, suggesting that a process of denuclearization is beginning to take place.

HEFFNER: What would verification look like based on the Iran model?

PRESCOTT: Well, I think it’s a useful comparison to make. I’m not least because of the irony that the Trump Administration has been, you know, obviously vociferously opposed to the Iran nuclear arrangement and pulled out of that agreement, just a couple of months ago. The, the Iran agreement is interesting to consider for a couple of reasons. One is that of course, Iran had not achieved a nuclear weapon at the time of the agreement. They had a nuclear program and they had enough fissile material to make a number of nuclear weapons if they chose to go down a path but had not yet reached that capability. So in that sense, it’s a little bit different than North Korea where there’s a pretty well stocked arsenal and you’re actually talking about rolling back from a capability that they didn’t have.

But what we did with Iran was a instructive. First of all, we work closely with our allies, our European allies in this case, but also China and Russia to reach an international agreement with the Iranians. Iran had to take a number of steps, some interim steps involving freezing their program completely. And then under the final deal, they had to take a number of irreversible steps to be able to roll back their program. That included shipping out 97 percent of their enriched uranium. That included shutting down a plutonium reactor by filling the core of it with concrete so it couldn’t be used to make a plutonium product that might be turned into a weapon in the future. And it required allowing in international inspectors that would have access not just to one site or a few sites, but the entire supply chain from uranium mines all the way to buildings where centrifuges are spending in, and nuclear material is being created.

And at the end of that process, Iran got some fairly modest sanctions relief from the international sanctions regime that had been put on Iran. That was a pretty good deal for the United States because it took them from the capability having the raw material at hand to create a number of nuclear weapons down to less than would be needed for even one and it locked that material down with international inspections for a number of years, dozens of years into the future. And so you’re talking about a situation where you no longer had to worry about this, the Iranian regime potentially getting a nuclear weapon. Now that doesn’t mean we solved all problems with Iran. Obviously there are a lot of other concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region, a number of other issues that we’d need to be concerned about. Now, when you translate that over to North Korea, obviously as I mentioned, you’ve got a different scenario in that North Korea already has nuclear capability, but it is useful to think about what a path might look like.

First, you have to understand what North Korea has. They have a very complicated arsenal that is hidden in many sites, many of them underground. Many of them our intelligence community despite all of its capabilities probably doesn’t know about, and so there’s a certain amount of understanding what the problem is, what their actual capability is, and then there’s thinking about what kinds of restrictions over time would begin to unravel this and what kind of incentives would be required for North Korea to take that path. At the end of the Singapore Summit, president Trump declared that there was no longer a threat from North Korea. That’s obviously not the case because that entire arsenal is still there and we haven’t seen any steps in a concrete way to begin to roll that back.

HEFFNER: Right. It’s, that was a “wag the dog” act in the attempt at revealing to the American public that there was a solution when in fact it was a charade when there were some videos released to the press showing that they were nuking their own facilities, and in fact the latest intelligence report is that they are building up. From that perspective I just wanted to ask a very direct factual question” When was the last time international inspectors had access to the North Korea facility?

PRESCOTT: Well, there’ve been a number of prior agreements, including the Agreed Framework in the 90s that did provide access for a period of time of international inspectors into North Korea. And so there have been moments where we’ve had access to parts of the program but not the entire program.

HEFFNER: But the last time there were boots on the ground inspecting the program was probably not since the late 90s or

are early 2000s.

PRESCOTT: In a formal sense, yes. Obviously there had been visitors that have seen parts of it and as you mentioned, journalists were invited to see, you know launches and destructions of facilities at different times in the past, but we haven’t had a formal inspection regime where the international community would have access to or understand in detail what the North Koreans are doing.

HEFFNER: Just to give our viewers perspective that’s 18 years potentially of nuclear growth. And to be so haphazard about declaring victory when there’s no victory in sight as of yet seems to be troubling.

PRESCOTT: I find it very troubling. And, I mean it was telling to me that one of the first things that President Trump did after coming back from the summit in Singapore was hold a political rally to essentially declare success. And so I think that’s a sort of sense of the lens through which this administration has been, at least the President has been viewing these negotiations. And I think over the last few weeks we’ve seen the evidence that you mentioned and other signs on the ground, including the most recent trip by Secretary Pompeo that suggests we’re actually pretty, a pretty long way away. And this to me is what’s most troubling, which is that there is not a military solution to the North Korea nuclear program. There, there, there is not a, the diplomatic path is actually the only real path that we have to begin to put a, get a handle on this. And the fact that an opportunity, a very good opportunity at diplomacy, may be a slipping through our fingers is a real troubling.

HEFFNER: I do want to shift to your project overall in a moment, but just to wrap up the North Korea discussion, isn’t it possible that the eventual outcome, if not nuclear war is a nuclear North Korea, and what we may get is that North Korea enters into the nations of real civilization, human rights. It’s been troubling that human rights were not on the agenda whatsoever in Singapore, but, you know, we’re at this juncture where we’re going to get nothing if we, if we keep along this path. So the viable strategy might be that the leader of North Korea democratizes, or at least changes the abuse of human rights that have plagued that country, and in return is allowed to keep some of his security, which is not a palatable path for most people, in your world that would seem unacceptable. But if you’re not going to denuclearize, don’t we need to insist on human rights for the North Korean people?

PRESCOTT: Well, you’re absolutely right. The North Korean human rights record is appalling. And the way that the Kim regime has treated their own people, of course, is the subject of UN crimes against humanity, war crimes investigation. There, there is a serious and very long record of abuse that does need to be addressed and it’s troubling that this would barely be on the agenda when giving the North Korean leader the platform of a summit with the American President. And I think part of the reason that prior presidents did not take that step a is that they did not feel like they were getting enough on the nuclear file to make it worth the additional prestige and the platform that that kind of meeting would generate. So I think we were all looking for something substantial in terms of steps to contain or deter North Korea from expanding its nuclear program as part of giving all of that face to the North Korean leader in the summit in Singapore.

We haven’t seen that so far. You know, it is a good reminder that there’s a broader. Obviously the nuclear agenda is probably the number one security issue that we face when it comes to North Korea. That’s what we really have to worry about, the threat that North Korea poses to our allies and to us. But there are other issues. There’s counterfeiting issues, there’s drug smuggling issues, there’s money laundering and other international trends, transnational crime, and of course there’s this human rights issue as well, which is appalling. So we need to think about all of those issues going forward. But, even judged by the lens of a laser focus on the nuclear program, it doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten very far so far.

HEFFNER: How would you and your colleagues at National Security Action characterize this administration’s foreign policy? And how would you attempt to rectify what you perceive as the damage it’s doing to this country and the world?

PRESCOTT: Well, this, in fact, what’s motivated us to start National Security Action was deep concern about the direction that the Trump administration was taking our country on the international stage. We have seen a decline in respect for the United States in respect for our leadership in respect for the American president, a very precipitous decline in a very short period of time. And it’s very troubling because it has an impact on the way that we operate in the world, has an impact on our security and our interests. And we need to stay focused on that. You know, this earlier this year an international poll showed for the first time that China’s leaders were more respected in the United States. And I think that’s a warning sign that we’re on the wrong track here. I’m, the President has been erratic. He’s tweeted threats of war, on occasion has shown a disdain for our allies and for some of our closest friends in the world. And as you mentioned earlier, has, has been turning away from what has been a hallmark of American foreign policy, which is working with our allies and with other partners to try to tackle global challenges, recognizing that if we do that on the global stage in renounced her own benefit at home and keeps us safe, and those basic principles of American foreign policy, this President seems to have taken in a different direction. And because of that, we felt like we need to organize in a different way than we have in the past. And so we’ve spent the last six months running this operation, but, quite a few months before that, during the course of this Trump Administration watching what we were seeing, being worried about it and recruiting some of the best and the brightest minds on foreign policy and national security to come together and say, we’ve been using our voices individually now we need to be organized about how we take on what Trump is doing, how we let the American people know the ways in which we have gone off-course and how we design an affirmative agenda for Progressives and Democrats to run on to take this country in a different direction over the next couple of election cycles. We’ve got to win that public policy debate. And that’s something we’re organizing to do.

HEFFNER: It’s a public policy debate, but it’s also one about moral fiber and machismo and whether you’re serving our patriotic interests. In the way that the Republicans were able to criticized the Iran deal as being soft or weak, when you saw the receding of ISIS and al Qaeda and the murder of bin Laden under the watch of Trump’s predecessor, how do you make the message comport with the identity of your movement as being, you know, equally formidable and persuasive that you are serving the American patriotic interests?

PRESCOTT: There has been a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Now, obviously we don’t agree on every issue. Take the Iran, the Iran deal would be one good example. The Iraq war obviously would be another, but there are some basic principles and you really put your finger on it when you said America’s values and the way that we promote our interests in the world. We have traditionally stood for something. We’ve stood for equality and opportunity and justice and dignity. And we have not just done that for our own people, but we’ve done that, we’ve promoted those values for people around the world and we’ve seen it in our own interest to be the leader of the free world. And this is a President that has in some ways turned his back on that tradition, sees our traditional alliance relationships as a, making us the sucker, making pay more than we should in some transactional way when we get tangible and intangible benefits from our relationships around the world that are not only quantifiable but bring a huge amount of benefits to us in terms of our leadership position in the world, in terms of our ability to stop problems before they come to our shores, in terms our ability to keep ourselves safe.

And we have to do that. There’s a second piece of this that is worth mentioning as well. We have traditionally led with our diplomats, again, bipartisan professionals who go out around the world and try to prevent war and try to end wars and try to keep us safe at home. This administration has turned away from the State Department, from those diplomats, and has turned to a military tool as a first resort rather than as a last resort. And I think that’s something we have to get back to as well. So it’s about our values. It’s about the way we use our toolkit and it’s about our national interests. This is an administration again where we’ve seen a number of troubling signs where it’s very hard to tell whether the President and his family, their personal interests are involved or whether it’s the national interest…

HEFFNER: Well, I want you to talk about that because there is rightly the concern that this president is vested in his own self-aggrandizement and the value of, for instance, his properties being in the countries that were not subject to the Muslim ban. That’s one example. Tariffs could be another example of what you could describe not just as erratic or reckless but selfish. And I think that your message would be enhanced if there is messaging that suggests that on the tariffs, on the Muslim ban, on any number of issues this president is penny wise and dollar foolish. And I think when it comes to North Korea or any of these issues the long-term health of this country is at stake. You could think of tariffs, actually being a grave impediment to our nation’s security if there is a medical epidemic and we need to access care and support and antibiotics that aren’t being produced here. That’s just one example of the way that these nationalistic or nativist policies, how can you, Jeffrey and your colleagues write a new nationalism because anything that’s less than nationalism in the arena against Trump is not going to work.

PRESCOTT: Well. I think you’re putting into your finger on a number of issues. One, when it comes to the family interest in the personal interest of the President, it’s an unprecedented situation we haven’t seen a president before who hasn’t divested from their financial interests, has not tried to, not only not have conflicts of interest, but avoid the appearance of those conflicts whatsoever. And that does raise some serious questions about the President’s actions on foreign affairs. We saw just recently with this Chinese company, ZTE, where there’s some profound national security questions that are involved and we saw a kind of back and forth position on that, that happened to be at the same time where the Trump organization was getting some loans from Chinese entities and some trademarks from Chinese entities. So there’s a, there’s at least the appearance and, and certainly some serious questions that need to be raised on how the decision-making process relates to the personal financial interests of the President. That’s something we haven’t really had to grapple with, which you’re also pointing to a larger set of issues, which is how do we have, how do we bring our, how do we get our country back onto an affirmative position where we’re leading in the world? And in some ways, whether you look at the trade issue, whether you look at the pulling out of international agreements like Iran, like the climate accord, like our protection, our support for refugee protections around the world. These are issues where the United States has traditionally been at the table, usually at the head of the table, setting the agenda and trying to either develop agreements or international cooperation that can help solve some of these challenges. This is an administration that’s turned away from that, either pulled out, broken our word on some of these agreements and not willing to work with others…

So it sort of turns our foreign policy on its head. And you see that even in the optics of the meetings that the President is interested in and those that he’s not. We saw the G-7 were the body language couldn’t be worse with our closest allies around the world, the ones we need to work with to make sure that the global economy is working in everybody’s interests but most importantly in our interest. We saw that, we will see that, in the coming days as you have a summit with our NATO allies that, that looks like it will be quite contentious and then a fawning, potentially fawning summit with President Putin. So, there has been an embrace of dictators and strong men in a way that really goes against American values. There are countries all over the world that we have to work with. Sometimes we have to hold our nose to do it, but we also have to remember what we stand for and that example that we set in the world.

HEFFNER: Trump is masterful. If nothing else at sloganeering and slogans. And I think your outfit really has to concern itself with not just the nuances of an alternative approach, but really the nomenclature, the vocabulary, the diction, the slogan of what comes after Trump. Any insight into that?

PRESCOTT: Well you’re absolutely right. There’s a few different things I would say in this, in this respect. First of all, a part of what we’re trying to do is get Progressive and Democratic candidates ready to have these arguments in the first place. We traditionally don’t think about our foreign policy and national security issues unless there’s something that’s right in front of us. It’s traditionally not what we’re looking at, for example, in a midterm election, and I don’t think we’re going to make our role in the world a more important issue than healthcare or access to jobs or some of the other issues that many candidates going running on. But people are worried about North Korea. They’re worried about the decline in our position in the world. They’re worried about the erratic decision making style of this President. You see that reflected not just in the polling but what you hear in focus groups and you hear concern from Americans across the country.

And so we’re trying to find a way to help people make feel comfortable to make these arguments and in some ways to take some ground where I think Republicans have traditionally convinced Americans that they have American security first and foremost in their minds. In some ways, Trump and the Republicans have turned away from that traditional role. I happen to think the Obama Administration kept America pretty safe. We have to do a good job of selling that, so you’re absolutely absolutely right about that, but this is a platform where we need to make people on our side of the political debate more comfortable making these arguments, pointing out some of the very troubling things that we’re seeing from this administration and getting ready to have an affirmative message to talk to the American people over the next few years about how we would take this country in a different direction.

HEFFNER: Very quickly, seconds remaining, Jeffrey, I urge our viewers to checkout a roaming exhibit on FDR’s Four Freedoms and the Rockwell paintings that define and portray those Four Freedoms. In that exhibit, there’s a text citing Roosevelt and Churchill on how those Four Freedoms did not endure. They did not fully resonate with the American public. You can say life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but you can identify the Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, and it would be like, what’s that? What’s your answer… is your answer, channeling a new Roosevelt, FDR nationalism. We just have seconds. But who is your democratic forefather here that’s inspiring the foreign policy that you seek to achieve?

PRESCOTT: Well, that’s not a bad place to start. I think we do have work to do both in terms of our values, in terms of making sure that the international rules are working to us economically and making sure that we retain our ability in our leading position in the world and we need to go out and essentially restore that American leadership. That’s part of what we’re trying to do with this effort, but as part of what we’re going to have to do as a country because we’ve never seen the kind of worrying trends that we’re seeing from this administration. We’re going to have to take that back and we’re going to have to move it forward over the coming few years.

HEFFNER: Restore our greatness. Jeffrey Prescott. Thank you for joining me today.

PRESCOTT: Thank you

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.