National Security

Aspen Security Forum 2020

August 5, 2020  • Aspen Strategy Group

Day 1: August 4, 2020


The Aspen Security Forum, in its first-ever all digital format, welcomed thousands of attendees to its new virtual platform on August 4, 2020. Presented by the Aspen Strategy Group in partnership with NBC News and MSNBC for the fourth consecutive year, the Forum opened with its co-chair, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in discussion with The New York Times’ Chief White House Correspondent Peter Baker about key challenges facing the United States, including Washington’s international leadership role and systemic racism in the United States.

Subsequent discussions included an interview between NBC News Correspondent Carol Lee and former National Security Advisor John Bolton about his latest memoir, The Room Where it Happened. When asked about Washington’s ability to project its power abroad, Ambassador Bolton warned that “Trump might take the U.S. out of NATO,” America’s most vital security alliance.

Ambassador Bolton was followed by a reflection on the growth and direction of the United Nations on its 75th anniversary between U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft and Bloomberg Opinion Columnist Eli Lake, and forward-looking conversation between Aspen Strategy Group Executive Director Nicholas Burns and New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof about hope for the future. When asked if we were on the precipice of a new progressive movement, Kristof commented that, “you look at polling on some of these progressive economic issues: health care, child care, bandwidth for all, raising the federal minimum wage, and there is enormous support for these measures.”

The first day of the Aspen Security Forum concluded with a timely interview between NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Andrea Mitchell and Ambassador of China to the U.S. Tiankai Cui, in which the Ambassador strongly denied the existence of heavily reported Uighur prison camps in Xinjiang province and reports of espionage by the Chinese consulate in Houston. The Ambassador also said that China was “forced” to implement the Hong Kong security law, asserting that “Hong Kong should have enacted its own law for national security.” When asked whether he recognized growing bipartisan anger in the U.S. toward China by Nicholas Burns, Ambassador Cui suggested that China’s actions were merely misunderstood, and that Beijing seeks only to build mutually beneficial relations with all willing nations.

The first day of the Forum concluded with CBS’ News Margaret Brennan in conversation with Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison, who outlined his country’s evolving relationship with China. When asked whether he was open to speaking with China’s President, Xi Xinping, Prime Minister Morrison suggested that there was always a possibility for cooperation. “The welcome and the invitation for such discussion is there…the phone’s there, and it works,” he told Brennan.


Day 2: August 5, 2020


The Aspen Security Forum followed its first day of digital programming with a second full day of digital discussions featuring senior international and U.S. government officials. After concluding on August 4 with the Australian Prime Minister, Anja Manuel, Director of the Aspen Strategy Group, this morning welcomed Vivian Balakrishnan, Foreign Minister of Singapore, continuing the Forum’s focus on the geopolitically important Asia-Pacific Region.

Foreign Minister Balakrishnan was joined by The Financial Times’ Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist Gideon Rachman for an interview covering topics from Singapore’s effective COVID-19 response, to U.S. – Chinese relations, and America’s leadership role in the world.  “We are moving from a unipolar world to a multipolar world,” said the Foreign Minister. “If you wistfully think about the so-called good old days & hope that America somehow will go back to the good old days where America singlehandedly carried the sword, that’s not realistic.”

The Foreign Minister was followed by Aspen Strategy Group Co-Chair Joseph Nye, who discussed his latest book, Do Morals Matter? and American international leadership. The Forum then welcomed Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who joined Aspen Strategy Group Executive Director Nicholas Burns to discuss his country’s contact-tracing program and the EU’s recent, historic economic recovery agreement.

Nicholas Burns and the Prime Minister also surveyed relations between Greece and Turkey in the face of President Erdogan’s accumulation of power, migration crises, and the recent decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. “I don’t want to isolate Turkey. I want to engage the Turks when it comes to migration…but we cannot work under the constant threat that they will open the flood gates on us,” concluded Prime Minister Mitsotakis.

Wes Moore, CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, joined former Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell McCormick to address poverty and systemic racism in America. Moore concluded with a powerful statement to viewers: “Justice is not simply about eliminating no-knock warrants. Justice is economic justice. It’s environmental justice. It’s health justice.”

The Forum was then joined by a back-to-back discussion of U.S. policies abroad, beginning with Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook and PBS NewsHour Foreign Affairs and Defense Correspondent Nick Schifrin. Hook defended the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy by telling the audience to follow the money. “We have gone after Iran’s energy sector, its mineral sector, it’s petro-chemical sector. And Rouhani is right – we have cost this regime a lot of money.” Wendy Sherman, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, rebutted the administration’s policies toward Iran and North Korea by offering an alternative plan. “I wouldn’t argue over whether South Korea is paying for American troops…I would rebuild that relationship and look at how we can move together with North Korea because this is a tough problem.”

Nicholas Burns then welcomed Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to the Aspen Security Forum. Secretary Esper was interviewed by Aspen Strategy Group member and Bridgewater CEO David McCormick on topics ranging from innovation in military tech to great power competition and diversity and inclusion in the DOD. “The murder of George Floyd was a wake-up call…we must do better.”

Tom Donilon and Stephen Hadley, two former national security advisors for administrations on opposite sides of the aisle, then sat together to give recommendations for whomever occupies the Oval Office beginning on January 20, 2021. Hadley and Donilon agreed that the threat presented by Russia and China would not dissipate and that the U.S. must vigorously rebut both nations attempts to interfere in our democracy. “We need a whole-of-society approach” to resisting China’s attempts to disrupt politics, said Stephen Hadley.

Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State and Chief Foreign Policy Advisor for presidential candidate Vice President Joe Biden then offered his own vision for a foreign policy fit for the challenging landscape ahead. He emphasized the strengths offered by America’s many alliances and treaties and urged America to give more focus to its partners in Africa. “Among the 1.3 billion people across the continent, the median age is 19 years old. There’s an incredible resource in the continent’s young people, an extraordinary talent pool of minds.”

Anja Manuel then welcomed Audrey Tang, Digital Minister of Taiwan, to discuss her efforts to combat COVID-19 and Chinese misinformation using innovative social and digital techniques. When asked about Taiwan’s relationship to social media companies, Tang noted that Taiwan had “negotiated with Facebook and other multinational social media companies to make sure they conform with our norms with advertising,” and that all political ads required full transparency for the Taiwanese public. Tang cheerfully closed the final day of the program with a note on international cooperation: “a lot of really good ideas come from countries working together.”

Day 3: August 6, 2020


The final day of the digital 2020 Aspen Security Forum began as it started the previous day with a focus on events in Asia. In the first session on August 6th, former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of India Shivshankar Menon and Director of Brookings’ India Project Tanvi Madan engaged in discussion about the recent clashes between Indian and Chinese troops along contested border lines. When asked about the potential for a “hot” war between Delhi and Beijing, Menon commented that he “would prefer Delhi sit down with the Chinese and try to figure this thing out. But so far, this conversation hasn’t happened.”

The Forum then welcomed Harvard President Emeritus Lawrence H. Summers, who was interviewed by The Financial Times’ Gillian Tett about the prospects for U.S. economic recovery, after the Commerce Department reported a 32.9% drop in GDP the previous week. “The U.S. economic recovery looks more like a “K-shape,” while also warning listeners that there was still much the world doesn’t understand about the long-term effects of COVID-19.

U.S. Senator for Virginia Mark Warner, also Ranking Member on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, then joined The New York Times’ David Sanger to investigate the impact of technologies on American democracy. Senator Warner, known for his technological expertise, suggested the administration focus on issues larger than TikTok. “In the hierarchy of problems, we’re talking about an app that allows you to make funny videos…while Huawei, for example, is an issue of much greater concern for national security.”

Aspen Strategy Group Executive Director Nicholas Burns then welcomed Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and his senior leadership team of Drs. Mike Ryan and Maria Van Kerkhove, for the WHO’s first co-produced COVID-19 press conference, which was followed by a special interview with NBC Nightly News Host Lester Holt. In an in-depth interview about the global health organization’s efforts to coordinate a response to the coronavirus, Dr. Tedros lamented of Washington’s decision to withdraw its support of the organization. “The biggest problem is not the money, but the relationship,” Dr. Tedros said, “We cannot defeat this virus in a divided world. We need solidarity and we hope the U.S. will reconsider. Now is the time to work together.”

This discussion on global health was followed by a panel of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, and former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, which discussed the impact of the pandemic on their communities, issues of racial equity, and the recession with NBC’s Kristen Welker. Bottoms, who asked WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros about the impact of the coronavirus on vulnerable communities of color, recounted her own experience with the virus, and that even as a mayor, “it took eight days to get my test results back.” Landrieu urged the U.S. to collect the simple tools needed to combat the virus – command and control, coordination, communication, collaboration, and cooperation – but noted “none of these things are working particularly well, least of which has to do with the federal government’s cooperation with local governments.” Suarez, who also tested positive for COVID-19, called for parties to put aside their differences during these challenging times. “It’s critical to be nonpartisan when you are dealing with crises” such as the pandemic and hurricane season.

Former Governor of California Jerry Brown then joined CEO & President of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Rachel Bronson to reflect on the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and the Bulletin’s decision to set the Doomsday Clock at its most dire timing: 100 seconds to midnight. “We continue to blind ourselves to the horrors of nuclear weapons because thinking about the apocalypse is not congenial,” said Brown.

Ambassador Nicholas Burns then joined Mira Rapp-Hooper and Julie Smith to discuss America’s vital network of alliances, which have ensured peace and prosperity worldwide for decades. Rapp-Hooper noted the growing importance of alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, stating “not only do we have a China that is continuing to rise…we have a North Korea that is more dangerous than ever, now having perfected a intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States.” Smith followed up by cautioning viewing alliances in terms of dollars, pointing to the Trump administration’s recent decision to withdraw troops from Germany. “This was a decision taken without regard to what serves our interests. Instead, this was a punitive, very petty measure for a country that in the mind of the President deserved some action for failing to spend enough on defense,” said Smith, further noting the decision would make the U.S. weaker in the long-run.

Susan Glasser, author of the New Yorker weekly column, “Letters from Trump’s Washington,” then interviewed The Coming Plague Author Laurie Garrett and The New York Times’ David Leonhardt about the long-term effects of the coronavirus on society. Leonhardt noted that COVID-19 was exacerbating pre-existing conditions in the United States, commenting that “inequality did not cause the coronavirus, but it is making its impacts much worse. We would be fairing much better in this crisis if we had better systems for protecting people.”

Michèle Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and founder of CNAS, then joined NBC Military Correspondent Courtney Kube to discuss modernization efforts and the Pentagon and U.S. military strategy. Flournoy expressed deep concern for America’s ability going forward to act as a trusted partner in Europe, following troop drawdowns in Germany. “The drawdown completely surprised our allies. It was punishing, and it underscores the narrative in Europe that the U.S. cannot be relied upon.”

Aspen Strategy Group Director Anja Manuel then dug deep into American innovation with Defense Innovation Unit Director Mike Brown, CSIS Senior Vice President Kathleen Hicks, Shield AI CEO and Co-Founder Ryan Tseng, and McKinsey & Company’s Eric Chewning. Brown called on Washington to increase its emphasis on research and development in order to maintain its competitive edge over near-peer competitors. “If we wanted to get back to the same amount of federal spending as a percentage of GDP as it was during the space race, it would be an additional $200 billion dollars for R&D. We really want to recognize the competition we are up against with China, it’s on that scale that we need to think about our investments for the future,” explained Manuel.

Anja Manuel and Nicholas Burns then concluded the Forum, with Burns noting the many obstacles ahead for America. “We learned that we are living through uniquely challenging times. We are facing a pandemic, a recession, a racial crisis, and a leadership crisis in Washington. The solutions to these crises will require an innovative spirit in our citizens and good leadership.” Manuel reminded Forum-goers that the event coincided with the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima, noting that “we host the Aspen Security Forum and are in the business of foreign policy to allow people to live save, prosperous lives free from war. We are in this for peace.”