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Steinberg on Asia: The Exit Interview

Steinberg on Asia: The Exit Interview

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg leaves office next month after more than two years as the No. 2 official at the State Department and an influential voice inside the administration on Asia policy.

Last week at the Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, he sat down with The Cable to look back at the successes and failures of the administration’s policy in the region, his unique experience inside Hillaryland, and his plans for the future.

Here are some excerpts:

Josh Rogin: Today (June 6) you had a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie. How did it go, what was the takeaway from that meeting?

Jim Steinberg: I think the most important takeaway is the intensification of the dialogue. As you know it’s been a priority for us to try to get the military-to-military dimension to be equal to and balanced with what is obviously a very intensive engagement on the political side. And what we’ve seen over the last six months in particular is sort of a greater willingness on the part of our Chinese counterparts to engage on both the classic mil-to-mil… but also, in these kind of mixed fora, like the [Strategic and Security Dialogue], where we have both Foreign Ministry and military types. And then the fact that General Liang is willing to meet me here is I think a very good sign, because it means we have a variety of ways of engaging with influential important voices on the security side.

JR: Let’s take more of a 30,000-foot view here: two years of U.S.-China relations, some successes, some challenges. Overall, looking back, what do we point to as the top accomplishments of the last two-plus years of the Obama administration’s China policy?

JS: What we point to is that, on most of the big issues of our time, that we’ve come to understand that we have a lot of common interests, and that we are going to be more successful in pursuing them if we do it together, beginning with the earliest engagement, which was on the economic issues, that China and the United States have a critical role to play in dealing with the world financial crisis of 2008 and long-term, sustained economic growth. And while I wouldn’t pretend that we’ve resolved all the bilateral economic differences between us, we have worked well in the G-20 and in a global setting, and we have made some progress on the trade and financial issues.

I think that both on North Korea and Iran, it’s important to recognize how much positive convergence we’ve had. If one would have asked two years ago, for example, on dealing with Iran, how much we would be in sync with China I think they would be amazed how well this has worked, both in terms of the formal stuff in the Security Council, but also in the P5+1. The Chinese have been fully on board, they haven’t undercut it, they’ve been very clear and consistent with the need for Iran to meet their obligations (and they’ve worked as a partner with us on that), and they’ve been very restrained in their political and economic engagement with Iran.

JR: Early on, you put forward publicly and very forthrightly strategic reassurance with China. We don’t really hear that much anymore and there was some confusion in the community about what it meant. What happened there?

JS: I think the current formulation is strategic mutual trust, which I see as responding to the same set of issues that I raised — that the way you get strategic mutual trust is by reassuring each other on issues of concern. So I feel from my own perspective — in terms of what I believe was needed — that the formula that the two presidents have agreed on, which is building strategic mutual trust, is exactly what I was trying to get at: which is how do you look at the sources of mistrust and address them. I believe that concept has been really built in.

JR: Turning to North Korea for a second, there were a lot of signs in 2010 that the State Department was actively looking at a new North Korea formulation and a new policy. There were some meetings, some real discussions that were pretty well reported on, but ultimately we didn’t really see a new North Korea policy. What happened there, how far did those discussions get, and was that a misperception in the community?

JS: I think it was a misperception. One of the things that I’ve learned over the years, especially from when I was in policy planning, is that you have to keep engaging with people outside of government. You shouldn’t just kind of assume that once you’ve developed a policy that it’s the right policy, and the right policy forever. You owe it to yourself to have people come in and challenge you, saying you’re doing it wrong, you’re doing it differently, and I think it’s to the credit of Secretary [Clinton] and others that she regularly brings in people on almost every major policy issue to have a chance to hear different viewpoints and different perspectives. But I think that the basic conviction that we’ve had is a preparedness to engage in negotiations but a desire to avoid the mistakes past is something that’s been very consistent.

JR: A lot of Asia expertise is leaving the administration lately. I’m wondering how you see the shift of responsibility in the Asia portfolio.

JS: Ultimately, policy comes from the president and the secretary. What we do is support them and advise them and I hope to continue to be able to do that from the outside. But I think we have two very experienced leaders who’ve been dealing with these issues for 2.5 years in their current jobs. That’s what gives the continuity, what you’ll see even with the changes at the Pentagon. You have somebody who’s been involved in policy from the beginning so I don’t anticipate this is classic inside-baseball and I don’t think it’s the individuals [that are most important]. The leadership is what makes the difference, that’s where policy comes from.

JR: What’s often said about you is that you had a unique role as deputy secretary because you were often at the White House, you had a seat at the principal’s meetings, and you came from the Obama camp in a Clinton world. Is that an accurate portrayal?

JS: Not really. I have to say that what’s been gratified me is that I felt very close ties everywhere. I’ve worked in three administrations. The level of general cooperation in the interagency is unprecedentedly good in this administration — not that we agree on everything but there’s that it’s a common enterprise. I know there’s a lot of speculation about different camps but I haven’t felt that at all in 2.5 years — and I haven’t felt like you have to sign up for one or the other. I’ve been enormously appreciative of the relationship I have with Secretary Clinton; she’s an amazingly good boss, it’s been an honor to be her deputy, and I felt fully part of her team. But I also felt very engaged and appreciated by the White House.

JR: It’s also been said that you came in and were very clear that you wanted to stay two years — no more, no less. What was the thinking there?

JS: Two children, nine and seven. You should do an interview with them and see how they feel. It’s a privilege to serve your country but you also have a responsibility to your family. My wife’s in the administration too. The kids have been great about it, but I both owe it to them and frankly it’s the most rewarding thing in the world, that opportunity. So I have to say that I’m excited about [becoming the dean of Syracuse University’s] Maxwell School and the professional side [of my relocation] but the part I’m most excited about is spending more time with the kids.

JR: So your whole family’s going to move?

JS: Yes, my wife will be a vice president at Syracuse University. We will be living in a small town about 20 miles outside of Syracuse and living a very good family life.

JR: Any chance at all we might see Jim Steinberg return in the second term of Obama 2.0? Are you going to rule it out?

JS: I have no plans. This is very much family-driven, and from my perspective, it was a very important commitment to now go back and let the kids grow up with two parents at home a lot of the time. I’m looking forward to it.