At a Jonathan Edwards Master’s Tea on Monday afternoon, Jake Sullivan ’98 LAW ’03, senior policy advisor on Hillary Clinton’s LAW ’73 presidential campaign, spoke about the importance of human interactions in policymaking and discussed the goals of the Clinton campaign for the upcoming presidential election.
While working for Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sullivan was recruited to be deputy policy director and take the lead in debate preparations for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Sullivan then spent four years serving under Clinton at the State Department, first as deputy chief of staff and then as the youngest director of policy planning in State Department history. Sullivan later served as national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden for roughly a year and a half, after which he became a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School while remaining involved in Iranian nuclear negotiations.
Prompted by questions from both JE Master Penelope Laurans and students in attendance, Sullivan discussed the importance of realizing the humanity in foreign policy, America’s role as a world leader and Clinton’s plans for increased four-year college access.
Drawing on his personal experiences from a 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen and a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, Sullivan emphasized that policymaking is a deeply human exercise. Sullivan said there are never easy problems in high-level foreign policy, adding that all choices have downsides in an “incredibly imperfect world.” Sullivan said that every answer in foreign relations involves risks and costs — the question becomes how policymakers elect strategies that carry fewer risks and more benefits.
“I know most Yale students want the right option and the one that is just right, but most policy decisions are B’s at best and are usually C’s. If a C is better than an F, then it is your responsibility to go with C,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan spoke about a meeting in Copenhagen where he realized that every significant issue in foreign policy — from poverty to climate change — involves diverse actors and diverse wants. Speaking of his experience with the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, Sullivan urged the audience to think about the fact that foreign policy “is a study in imperfections and it should be no surprise that we get imperfect results.”
Sullivan also addressed the principal goals of the United States’ foreign policy. He said the number one priority should be the safety of the American people, but that this could not be the only goal of the nation. Sullivan said that attempting to advance America’s economic prosperity in a way that lifts prosperity for all should be the second priority, adding the United States has a core responsibility to lead the world in solving global problems — poverty and pandemics included — that no country can solve on its own.
“What is interesting about America is that we have this desire and instinct to solve problems, and even though we overreach, make mistakes and sometimes, more than sometimes, need to self-correct, we have values related to human dignity,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan added that current foreign policy strategies are not as much a battle between powerful, larger countries but more about dynamics happening within countries, which contributes to the gap of knowledge policymakers face. As far as the wants of the American people, Sullivan said policymakers have to be transparent in the nature of the problems they are dealing with and the nature of the solutions they choose to create.
“Every major newspaper and news media has massively cut foreign correspondents and this is a disservice because the more people [receive explanations] as to what is happening, the better,” Sullivan said.
Attendants interviewed said Sullivan’s point that foreign policy is a human exercise at its core was especially poignant.
Deborah Monti ’19 said she learned that many of the foreign policymakers are not as “omnipotent and all-knowing” as she thought they were.
“When you view politics as a citizen, I feel that there is a level of detachment where it is easy to make criticisms and judgments, but the fact that [Sullivan] could share these amazing anecdotes about what it really means to start a cease-fire shed light on how these decisions are made for me,” Monti said.
James Post ’19 said Sullivan’s talk made him view foreign policy decisions in a more forgiving way, adding that it is both interesting and worrisome that the decision makers are normal people who make human errors.
Sullivan also discussed Clinton’s plan to make higher education more affordable, slated to cost $350 billion.