The Importance of Diplomacy: Jake Sullivan on his Career in Foreign Policy
Jake Sullivan is a Martin R. Flug Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School and a senior fellow in Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Geoeconomics and Strategy Program. Sullivan served in many positions under the Obama administration, including as national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, the director of policy planning at the U.S. Department of State, and as Deputy Chief of Staff to Hillary Clinton during her time as Secretary of State. Sullivan worked on both of Clinton’s campaigns, as deputy policy director in 2008 and as senior policy advisor in 2016. He served on the debate preparation teams for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Previously, Sullivan worked for Senator Amy Klobuchar as a senior policy advisor and chief counsel, and practiced and taught law. He received his undergraduate and law degrees from Yale, and a master’s at Oxford. Sullivan spoke to The Gate co-Editor-in-Chief Dylan Wells about his career, the Iran deal, and the importance of foreign policy and diplomacy.
The Gate: If Hillary Clinton were to have won the 2016 election, you would have had a major role in deciding our nation's foreign policy. What are the most important foreign policy issues that you think should be getting more attention today?
Jake Sullivan: I think we have to deal with the immediate crisis in North Korea and deal with the continuing campaign against ISIS, but we also can't lose sight of the fact that the most consequential geopolitical fact of our time is the rise of China. And managing that, and having not just an effective China policy, but an effective Asia policy, is critical to success. Success means producing an outcome that works for us, works for China, and works for everybody else. That is not easy to do. And that is not just the work of one administration but several administrations, and I worry that this president is not sufficiently focused on that challenge.
Gate: You traveled to over one hundred countries with Secretary Clinton while working as her Deputy Chief of Staff. Do you have any favorite memories from your travels?
Sullivan: You know, probably my favorite memory was when she was meeting with the Bulgarian prime minister. And he came into the room with his staff, and he was totally bald, and he was very nervous. He looked at her and said, "welcome." But he said so kind of a shaky and uncertain way. And she said, "Why are you nervous? You seem very nervous, why are you nervous?" And he said, "Well, my chief of staff tells me that when your hair is pulled back it means you're in a bad mood. And when we saw you get off the plane this morning on television your hair was pulled back." And Hillary, without missing a beat, says, "Look, you know it takes me longer to do my hair in the morning than it takes you to do yours." Of course, this guy was completely bald. It just disarmed him, and it was a moment that is an important memory for me first because it reflected the difficulty still of being a woman in foreign policy and politics and national security. because no one would ever say that to a man. But also because Hillary had the right mix of good humor and steel in pushing back and saying, "Hey man get on topic, let's get down to business here."
Gate: Trump has expressed that he's not sure if Rex Tillerson will last the entirety of his term as secretary of state. From your perspective, what is the importance of like the relationship between the president and the secretary of state?
Sullivan: If the rest of the world does not believe that the secretary of state speaks for the president, and has the president's full confidence, they cannot be effective at their job. Full stop. They simply will not get the access or be able to bring about the results that they would be able to if the president fully had their back and if they were seen as the tip of the spear for the president.
Gate: How would you characterize that working relationship between Obama and Clinton?
Sullivan: Obama and Clinton worked hand in hand on every significant issue we faced from a foreign policy perspective. It was remarkable to watch. Whether it was on climate change, or the Copenhagen conference where the two of them maneuvered to get the Chinese and the Indians and others to sign up to commitments, whether it was on Iran sanctions where they would tag team to bring countries onboard to the global campaign of sanctions against Iran. You could see a seamless connection between the two of them, and that worked to Hillary's advantage in dealing with the rest of the world. I think the rest of the world looks at Trump undermining Tillerson publicly while he's on the road and thinks, “Why should I listen to what Tillerson has to say because Trump apparently has a different point of view?”
Gate: There are hundreds of open positions in the State Department that have not been filled, and there is talk of buyouts to get people to retire from these career positions. Given your time at the State Department, what does this mean for the country and our foreign policy?
Sullivan: The idea that we would downsize diplomacy is the equivalent in my view of actively seeking to downsize our influence, downsize our security, downsize our prosperity. It is, in a word—insane. It is self-defeating. I hope that Congress will hold the secretary accountable and ensure he actually follows through on filling the major positions for which resources have been allocated.
Gate: Looking back at your career thus far, what are you most proud of?
Sullivan: I have to say of course my participation on the team that helped produce the Iran deal is probably my proudest diplomatic accomplishment. My participation on the team that prepared Hillary for those three debates against Donald Trump where I think she equated herself well and exposed a lot of what makes Donald Trump so objectionable is something I'm very proud of. But probably the thing I'm most proud of is that I've built a huge number of relationships and trust and friendship and confidence with people who I respect so much. Figures like Bill Burns, who is the greatest diplomat of his generation. People across the aisle who work for folks like Senator McCain or Senator Corker. That's really been the measure for me of success in my jobs: can I secure the respect of my peers? The respect of my bosses? The respect of my counterparts?
Gate: You just touched on your participation in the Iran deal. You coauthored an op-ed last month in the New York Times, in which you argued that going back on the Iran deal or withdrawing would be a “gift beyond Vladimir Putin's wildest dreams.” Could you talk a bit more about that?
Sullivan: Vladimir Putin's goal is to undermine American leadership in the world and to weaken relationships between the United States and our friends and partners. Walking away from the Iran deal would help him accomplish that goal. It would isolate us, and it would damage our relationships with the very countries that Vladimir Putin is seeking to create disruption with between the United States and these countries. That's why we thought, and still believe walking away from the deal would be a gift beyond his wildest dreams.
Gate: What would you say was your biggest professional failure or challenge in your career thus far?
Sullivan: I was a senior staffer on Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. I take personal responsibility. Obviously it's not all my fault, but I take personal responsibility for the part I played in her defeat. Her losing that election, and perhaps equally importantly Donald Trump winning that election is something that, you know, I have to grapple with, learn from, and take my share of responsibility for.
Gate: Retrospectively, are there things you would have done differently during that campaign?
Sullivan: Well, of course, the answer to that has to be yes because we lost. There is a lot I think about both at the tactical level in terms of how we articulated the campaign message, in terms of what different contexts we put Hillary in to make her case, where we allocated our resources. There's a lot of things I think about, I think maybe if we had adjusted this, or that, or that other thing. The difficulty with losing by such a narrow margin is that everything and nothing in a way makes all the difference. And so you have to look at every single decision and say if we had done it this way instead of that way, would it have changed things? So I try not to do too much of that at this point, I try to learn, rather than just focus on tactical decisions on the campaign, I try to learn larger lessons from 2016 so that I can do better next time.
Gate: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in foreign policy or national security?
Sullivan: Do it. You will not regret it, I promise you. You will feel that, if you're American and you pursue a career in foreign policy, representing the United States will be the greatest honor of your life. And you will learn a ton, and you will have a lot of fun along the way, and make a lot of friends. And yes, you may lose years off your life from lack of sleep and stress, but it is worth it.
The image used in this piece is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Dylan Wells is a fourth-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at CBS News in the Political Unit. Previously, she interned at ABC News' Washington, DC bureau as a Political Unit Fellow, twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. Last year she served as The Gate's Editor-in-Chief, and before that she served as the Elections Editor. Dylan was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.