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Cotton Discusses Renewing American Strength Abroad at AEI

February 6, 2017

Thank you all very much for that kind welcome. Thank you, Fred, and thank you to the American Enterprise Institute for once again hosting me, especially in the new digs - very nice. I'm looking forward to our discussion later today, first with Fred and me and then with all of you. But, at the outset, I want to offer some opening remarks about where we are, how we got here, and how we can begin to renew America's strength.

Some people, especially those in the media and the Democratic Party, are astonished that we're 18 days into the Trump administration, yet the federal government is still functioning. World War III has not yet broken out. America is still standing. Perhaps our Constitution is more resilient than some believe, our people built of sturdier stuff than sugar candy, to borrow from Churchill. So resilient and sturdy, in fact, that our system can withstand the shock of a Republican presidency-even if the media can't.

Now, I will grant you, not all is well with the world or America's role in it. Some lay the blame with President Trump's statements during the campaign, the transition, and now in his first two weeks in office. Before President Trump was sworn in, for instance, the Obama White House called his comments about the world "unsettling." One senator said his tweeting is "going to lead to chaos in our international relations." I hate to break this to you: The world already is in chaos. The world already is unsettled. And I have more bad news: Barack Obama was the president for the last eight years, and it's his actions that unsettled the world and spread chaos, not Donald Trump's words.

Barack Obama quit Iraq, sacrificing the gains we'd fought so hard for and leaving that country to fend for itself against Iran and the Islamic State.

Barack Obama conciliated with Iran from the first days of his presidency, ignoring the Green Movement and tolerating Iran's imperial aggressions across the Middle East, all in pursuit of a fatally flawed nuclear deal.

Barack Obama reset relations with Russia and promised more flexibility after his reelection. In return, Russia invaded Ukraine, destroyed Aleppo, harbored Edward Snowden, teamed up with Iran in the Middle East, and shot a civilian airliner out of the sky.

Barack Obama said al Qaeda was on the run, handcuffed our military and intelligence officers, and refused to call the jihadist threat by its name, resulting in more and more complex terror threats than anything our nation has ever faced.

Even when he used force, he did so half-heartedly. He surged troops into Afghanistan-but not as many as his commanders requested and only with an explicit withdrawal date. He toppled the Qaddaffi regime in Libya with neither a plan nor any interest to stabilize the country.

I would challenge you to name one country where America enjoys a stronger position than we did eight years ago-or one country that's better off because of American policy. Barack Obama's legacy is a legacy of ashes from the smoking ruins of a world ablaze.

But I don't want to dwell on him more than I must. He's retired now and will no longer influence our foreign policy. What will, though, is the ideology he championed. It's not going away. The world we're living in today is partly a product of that ideology. The Obama worldview will persist, even though it's as flawed and dangerous as ever.

And if I had to describe it, I'd say it has three distinct features. First, it lacks the courage of its convictions. It lays out vast goals, but refuses to employ the necessary means to achieve them. All of us can remember, for instance, when Barack Obama said his election would mark the moment when "the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." A vast Wilsonian promise, rivaled by an equally lofty vow a century ago by President Wilson himself, who promised to make the world safe for democracy. Of course, these goals are praiseworthy. Who among us doesn't want a healthy environment or want to see the spread of constitutional self-government?

But what are the tools they'll employ to achieve these goals? It's all talk, just talk, just words. A speech in Cairo will heal the rift with Iran and herald democratic reform across the Islamic world. The Fourteen Points will end the Great War, the League of Nations will prevent the next war, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact will forever outlaw war. Talk for this crowd is always preferable to leverage and pressure. If they must have pressure, sanctions are always preferable to military force. And if they absolutely must have force, air power is always better than the First Marines or the 101st Airborne. They never push their chips in the middle, so it's not surprising they never seem to win the pot.

This history of half-measures results in part from the second feature of this worldview: discomfort with strong, confident American leadership. When it gets hold of power, you see an America that's uncomfortable with its own strength-a giant afraid of its own shadow. It wants to lead from behind. As King Abdullah of Jordan put it, "I think I believe in American power more than Obama does." Who are we, after all, to impose our leadership on other countries? Who are we to assume our way of life is better than anyone else's? Who are we to overlook our own flaws and errors? It's the Sermon on the Mount come to the councils of state: How can we judge the mote in their eye with the beam in ours?

It's this very guilt complex that led President Obama to hold our allies to a higher standard than our adversaries. It's also what led to one-sided deals with Iran and Cuba, violating Abraham Lincoln's rule: "Never sell old friends to buy old enemies." It's why he said he believed in American exceptionalism-but only in the everybody-gets-a-trophy kind of way, the same way the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. And it's why he apologized for the 1,000-year-old Christian crusades when it's Islamic terrorists who are chopping off the heads of Christians right now. It all goes back to a deep sense of moral doubt and equivalency about American leadership.

Fortunately, not many Americans share these doubts, which brings me to the third feature of this worldview: a concerted effort to banish the Jacksonian spirit from American life. Much has been written lately about the Jacksonian tradition; here's the short-hand version. Jacksonians are proud, confident, muscular patriots. They have no doubt our way of life is the best there is. In politics, Jacksonians are democratic and populist. They're skeptical of elites and do-gooders.

In foreign policy, they see the world as it is-a dangerous anarchy-not as we might wish it to be. For that reason, they speak the language of strength, respect, fear, and interests. They don't think our job is to make the world safe for democracy, but rather to make the world safe for American democracy.

They therefore don't care much for international law or organizations. When Donald Trump says he's the most "militaristic" guy out there, they nod with approval. Gordian knots exist to be cut. Jacksonians make commitments and draw red lines with caution, but uphold and enforce them absolutely and ruthlessly. They aren't looking for war, but woe unto those who provoke the Jacksonian spirit latent in the American soul. "Limited war" for them is an oxymoron. Jacksonians have a simple war doctrine: hit them as hard as you can, as fast as you can, with as much as you can, until they surrender unconditionally.

It's therefore not hard to see why Barack Obama and his followers would deplore the Jacksonian spirit. It revolts their European friends. It constrains a statecraft of nuance and complexity-bad words to the Jacksonian mind. It overreacts at what they consider minor terrorist attacks and drags us into needless conflicts. It underestimates genuine threats like climate change. It's particular and nationalist-not cosmopolitan and enlightened.

Not to mention that, when provoked, the Jacksonian sentiment is hazardous to the electoral health of politicians. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Be that as it may, as someone who was raised among and fought alongside Jacksonians, let me tell you this: Our country wouldn't survive without them. The Jacksonian spirit is the fuel in the tank of our foreign policy. Jacksonians cash the checks that politicians write. Neither a statesman nor a strategy can succeed without the Jacksonian spirit, as President Obama learned the hard way. It would be nice if we could all just get along, but as it is for a boy named Sue, so it is for nations: This world is rough and if a man's gonna make it, he's gotta be tough.

But if ever there were an antidote to this ideology, surely it's Donald Trump. While the Democrats are busy disinviting Andrew Jackson from their annual fundraising dinners and removing him from the $20 dollar bill, President Trump brought him back to the Oval Office. In his inaugural address, he spoke of "America first." Now, I know this is considered a thought crime by the globe-trotting Party of Davos. But to most Americans it's just plain common sense. When they hear those words, they don't think of World War II and Charles Lindbergh. You can marvel at that, but it's still a fact of life.

Not necessarily a bad fact, either. The plain-spoken meaning of those words contains a healthy nationalism. You can be sure other nations, especially our adversaries, put their interests first. Why shouldn't America? The nation-state, after all, is the political community through which we defend our lives, protect our interests, and gain a sense of belonging. A nation is akin to the family, something into which we are born and to which we owe allegiance. We are more than economic producers and consumers; we are citizens and we're bound together in a common project.

And what nation deserves a healthy nationalism more than America? American nationalism has never been about blood and soil, even as it's about more than the abstract ideals of the Declaration of Independence. These high-minded ideals are translated into an everyday code of honor, self-reliance, individualism, courage, and equality. That's a pretty sensible basis for our national identity.

And "America first" doesn't mean "America only." We've always needed allies and partners to protect our interests; we always will. We don't have them because it's in their interest, though it is; we have them because it's in our interest.

A healthy American nationalism, strength and confidence in American leadership, the common wisdom of middle America - all of these things are apt to be the basis of a sound foreign policy and one that commands popular support. Certainly, more so than one built on castles in the sky, leading from behind, and the power of pretty words. Where would such a policy start and what would it look like? I'll leave specific bilateral or regional policies to the president for now and to our Q&A session. But I will touch on a few foundational matters.

First, we've got to rebuild our military. To put briefly what I've said elsewhere at greater length, we need more ships, more soldiers, more marines, and more aircraft of virtually every kind. We need more of just about everything, and we also need better capabilities, too. And more broadly, we need to invest in the men and women of our Armed Forces. We need to give them the training and equipment they need to do their jobs. We need these things urgently, which is why I've recommended a $26 billion supplemental spending bill for this year. And we need them for the long run, which is why we ought to increase our defense budget by at least $54 billion, or 15%, by next year.

Second, and on a related point, we need to modernize our nuclear arsenal and missile defenses. President Trump has wisely ordered a nuclear-posture review, which we haven't had since 2010. Since then, Russia has developed extended-range cruise missiles, violating its treaty agreements, and faced no consequences. And this is while Russia reportedly has a 10-to-1 advantage over us and our NATO allies in tactical nuclear warheads. Moreover, nuclear strategy can no longer be solely bilateral, since China is rapidly expanding its arsenal, as is North Korea. Given these provocations and threats, we must at a minimum study new nuclear capabilities, while we fully fund current modernization plans. Our nuclear forces are our ultimate deterrent; we use them every single day.

Third, we've got to get our economy moving again-and at full speed, not just a trot. We cannot accept the slow growth of the last decade as the new normal. A key driver of that growth will clearly be the oil-and-gas sector, specifically the shale revolution, which has made America the world's largest producer of hydrocarbons. The men and women in the oil patch are not only remaking our economy and creating new jobs and vast wealth; they're also giving us greater freedom of action in the world and applying steady pressure to petrostate rivals. We can still help them do more. Streamline liquefied-natural-gas permitting. Expedite LNG export terminals. Cut the red tape that's stopping fracking on federal lands. Sell more leases on federal lands and the Outer Continental Shelf. All this and more will not only be good for our economy but have far-reaching strategic effects.

Fourth, we need to reassure our allies, not only with words-though that is important after the last eight years-but with reciprocal commitments. No alliance should be a one-way street. For example, our European NATO allies need to finally get their defense spending to 2% of GDP, and they need to do that by investing in capability-not pensions and health care. By the same token, we ought to commit more armor, artillery, and combat aviation to the eastern flank. Other allies around the world also need to hear this message: America is back, but it's hard to help you if you don't help yourself and help us.

Finally, it's high time we recognized our adversaries are engaged in global geopolitical competition and we started competing ourselves. No more something for nothing. No more compartmentalizing issues. We don't have to respond in kind to every provocation, but we do have to respond. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea might produce a response on the Korean Peninsula or South Asia. Russian provocations in the Middle East could bring pain for Russia in Europe. But no more free lunches, anywhere, any time.

No matter what we face in the coming years, these basic policies will strengthen our hand, allowing us to seize opportunities and overcome challenges. We will be able to protect our interests and honor our commitments-and yes, most important of all, we will keep our country safe. Thank you all very much.