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Progressive Dem explains how to navigate a multipolar world

Rep. Sara Jacobs talks with RS about Congress's role in policymaking, US-China relations, centering the Global South, and more.

Reporting | Asia-Pacific

In her first few years in Congress, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) has become a prominent voice on U.S. foreign policy. She sits on both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Armed Services Committee, and is the youngest member on both committees. 

Last week, Rep. Jacobs — who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — spoke to Responsible Statecraft about how her place as a millennial lawmaker gives her a different worldview from many of her older colleagues. “The generation of foreign policymakers before me, were really influenced by Rwanda and by the Balkans and by the idea that there was a lot of suffering and pain that could have been prevented by U.S. action,” she said. “Whereas my generation grew up under the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw that there was a lot of pain and suffering that American action actually contributed to.”

Growing up during the “War on Terror,” Jacobs experienced not only the pain that U.S. decisions could inflict on other populations, but also how the body she now serves in could abdicate its responsibility to make decisions on questions of war and peace. Earlier this year, she argued during a hearing on Capitol Hill that Congress was partly to blame for the 20-year long war in Afghanistan and the messy withdrawal. 

“Congress didn't take a vote on Afghanistan since I was in middle school,” she told RS. “And we are asking these young people and their families to sacrifice so much. The least we can do is make sure that we are doing our job.” 

When it comes to foreign affairs, Congress’s job is increasingly focused on great power competition with Russia and China. But Rep. Jacobs,  who served in the State Department during the Obama administration where she focused on conflict prevention and U.S. foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa, offers words of caution about viewing U.S. relations with the Global South through this lens. 

“I think we need to focus on what's in the best interest of the United States, rather than trying to match the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or Russia one for one,” she says. “When I think about what our objectives actually are and what areas we need to work on, I think first of all, we should make sure it's not a race to the bottom. What we need to be doing is figuring out how we actually create an open international system and what we need to do to preserve that.” 

Adopting this approach will require meaningful changes in the way many in Washington understand the world, says Jacobs, arguing that the first step is to acknowledge that we are now in a multipolar world and that maintaining U.S. hegemony is not possible. If we focus instead on creating a multipolar world that is advantageous to Americans, she says, “then it creates much more space for us to be able to work with the Chinese in the areas that we can, and stand up to them in the areas that we have to, without it necessarily becoming this all encompassing conflict.” 

The full conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Responsible Statecraft: I want to start with a question about something that's been in the news a lot recently, which is congressional war powers. I know you've spoken a lot about the importance of Congress reclaiming its war powers during your time in Congress, and these questions have been brought up recently with the Syria war powers vote, the introduction of a similar bill for Somalia, and then the recent repeal of the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs. I was wondering, could you talk a little bit about the importance of congressional war powers. What next steps do you think Congress should take in reclaiming these powers and your thoughts on any efforts to repeal the 2001 AUMF?

Rep. Sara Jacobs: I think the Constitution is very clear: Congress is who has the responsibility to declare war. And I think that that's important for a couple of reasons. Mostly because we shouldn't be in conflicts that the American people don't support. General  [Mark] Milley actually said this during his testimony this week in front of the Armed Services Committee. And Congress, as the people's representatives, are who are there to make that determination. 

The other reason that Congress's war powers are important is because of the need to strategically think about and constantly gut check what our strategy, policy, and goals are and whether what we're doing is actually going to achieve them. We saw for a long time with Iraq and Afghanistan, where Congress really abdicated that responsibility, and multiple administrations went without that important check of making sure we're actually doing the right thing and that our means were meeting our ends. 

As one of the youngest members of Congress and someone who represents the very proud military community of San Diego, it also is very personal. Congress didn't take a vote on Afghanistan since I was in middle school. And we are asking these young people and their families to sacrifice so much. The least we can do is make sure that we are doing our job.

RS: That Afghanistan AUMF is still active. Do you have any views on potential repeal or replacement of that AUMF? 

Jacobs: I support repealing the 2002 AUMF, and I think we should repeal and replace the 2001 AUMF.

RS: During the first House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month, you made an important point, which is “we talk a lot about competing with China, but we have to be clear about what we're competing for and what the end goal is of the competition so that we're not just competing for the sake of competing.” What do you think are the most important areas of healthy competition with China and what should be our goal for that relationship?

Jacobs:  I think the key is that a lot of American policy is still about maintaining U.S. hegemony. And I think that is just not a realistic or desirable outcome. We are already in a multipolar world. So the question is, what kind of multipolarity do we want? And how do we work to achieve that? So I don't think we should just be competing for competing sake. I think we need to focus on what's in the best interest of the United States, rather than trying to match the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or Russia one for one, wherever they are. There are a lot of important lessons on that from the Cold War where we were partnering with autocratic regimes in pursuit of short term interests that actually have led to long term resentment of the U.S. all over the Global South. And so when I think about what our objectives actually are and what areas we need to work on, I think first of all, we should make sure it's not a race to the bottom. What we need to be doing is figuring out how we actually create an open international system and what we need to do to preserve that. 

To me, that means focusing on some of the threats that can't be addressed by any individual country, like climate change, like some of these new technologies, and on figuring out what are the key areas that matter for an open international system, so shipping lanes and free and open internet and communication, and not just competing on every single thing just for the sake of it.

RS: You mentioned the importance of not trying to match China and or Russia in every area throughout the world. I know you've written about Africa and you're the ranking member of the subcommittee on Africa. How can we push for centering Africa and the rest of the Global South in our policymaking without falling into that trap of viewing it always through a lens of competing with China or combating Russia?

Jacobs: First of all, I think the Biden-Harris administration has been great at renewing engagement on the African continent. We're seeing that with the First Lady's visit, with the Vice President's visit right now, and with the African leaders summit. I think it is a real mistake to only view Africa and other parts of the world through the lens of competition with Russia or the PRC. Africa has the world's youngest population. And so, as we think about our engagement there, we have a responsibility to play a positive role in furthering progress on the continent, like addressing conflict, upholding human rights, strengthening good governance, and tackling global challenges together. 

We have a responsibility to do that in a way where we're not just perpetuating the old cycles, but actually following the lead of local communities and centering local voices and reforming the global governance system so that states in the Global South, particularly African states, have a representative seat at the table, where they're directly impacted by the decisions being made.

RS: Moving back a little bit towards China. Are you concerned that our strategic competition with China is in danger of tipping over into outright conflict, for example through a "new Cold War" or even a hot war over Taiwan? If so, what do you think we can do to avoid this outcome while still defending our own interests and values?

Jacobs: Absolutely, I share that concern and I think the goal of U.S. policy should be about how we prevent that from happening.  How do we maintain U.S. national security while preventing conflict or war with the PRC or anyone else? The way I think about it is what do we need to be doing to preserve our national security? A lot of that is our ability to build coalitions with other countries, which are really strengthened by upholding our values because that's what so much of what coalitions are based on. I think it's also important that we are mindful about escalation and our role in it. I think some people view the escalatory ladder as sort of static. But in actuality, it is a complex dynamic of countries and people reacting to what they see other entities doing. 

So we always need to be mindful of our role in that. So, for instance, on Taiwan, I am very focused on how we can do deterrence without escalation, meaning how we make sure that President Xi Jinping wakes up every day and says, "today's not the day I'm going to invade Taiwan." When you actually look at deterrence theory, a lot of that is not about the military necessarily. It's about if someone believes that eventually they'll be able to get the outcome they want not militarily, then they will not engage in the military action. 

Part of what I'm concerned about is that many colleagues of mine in Congress are focused on almost the opposite of that. They want to do symbolism over substance. So you know, the old adage: "You should speak softly and carry a big stick." Well, for a lot of my colleagues, it seems like they want to speak very loudly and carry no stick. And so the question is: how do we do things that will actually help Taiwan's security without unnecessarily escalating or antagonizing the PRC?  I think we've seen those things that work: more investment, training, all of those kinds of things. Not the silly things like renaming an embassy or, just saying all this stuff rhetorically, that doesn't actually help Taiwan, but does escalate the conflict with China.

RS: That leads nicely into my next question, which is about rhetoric around China. It feels like many people in DC are treating conflict with China as intractable or unavoidable at this point. Are you concerned about the way that the relationship between the PRC and the U.S. is talked about in DC today?

Jacobs: Absolutely, I think it's always important for us to remember that conflict is not inevitable and that we have a role to play in that escalatory dynamic. We need to be mindful of how we're engaging. And part of that is going back to the idea that  this isn't actually about maintaining American hegemony. This is about how we create the multipolar world that we are okay with. I think if we can focus on that latter idea, then it creates much more space for us to be able to work with the Chinese in the areas that we can, and stand up to them in the areas that we have to, without it necessarily becoming this all encompassing conflict.

RS: On this idea of multipolarity, I know you've written about and we spoke a little bit about the Global South and the importance of centering the Global South in our policymaking. You wrote a foreign policy piece during the African leaders summit about promoting good governance in Africa. Can you elaborate a little bit on the policies that you advocate for to promote good governance?

Jacobs: I think for a long time, the way we've engaged with countries, particularly in Africa, has been really centered on counterterrorism and counterterrorism partnerships, and we've really used our security cooperation as the tool. And I think that, as we've seen, that has not been terribly effective. We've seen that extremism in Africa has only grown over the past 20 years, despite billions of dollars in investments and American equipment and training. 

When we really look at what will actually prevent violent extremism in the future, what we see is that the answer is actually preventing state sponsored violence against people or communities, making sure we're building in good governance and areas for human rights and civil liberties to be protected. Especially with the spate of coups we've seen, I think it's more important than ever that we get that approach right. So I do think we have opportunities here, with the Global Fragility Act and the new ten-year strategy to prevent conflict that the Biden administration released. And I think that that can be a real model for how we do things differently, and how we make sure that everything we're doing, including our security cooperation, is under the same strategy and is all pulling in the same direction into where we're trying to get a country to go.

RS: One thing that you mentioned earlier is that you are one of the youngest members of Congress. How do you think that that affects your worldview? 

Jacobs: I think a lot of these things are generational. I was born in 1989. I don't remember the heyday of the Cold War and everything around that. I also think that the generation of foreign policymakers before me, were really influenced by Rwanda and by the Balkans and by the idea that there was a lot of suffering and pain that could have been prevented by U.S. action. Whereas my generation grew up under the shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan, and saw that there was a lot of pain and suffering that American action actually contributed to. So I think, for a lot of policymakers in the generation above mine, the first idea is always "what can what can the U.S. do?” and  “What should the U.S. do?" Whereas I think for us, our generation, the idea is often "will the U.S. be doing something, make the situation better or worse, and what can we do that will actually make the situation better?" 

That's sort of how I think about things, especially representing a military community where I have to talk to so many of these families, and I feel like in every decision I make, I need to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that I thought deeply about the things I'm asking their loved ones to do and that I truly believe it will be better than if we hadn't and so I just think it's it's a generational shift in worldview.

RS: My last question is on arm sales. I heard you speak at a Stimson Center event yesterday, about the myth that if we don't sell arms, somebody else is going to fill that void. I was wondering, if you could talk to me a little bit about  what principles you think should guide or arm sales policies?

Jacobs: I think when it comes to security assistance and arm sales, we need to be doing what's actually in our interest, not just trying to prevent Russia or China from gaining influence. And I think we have a lot of partners and allies around the world where it makes a lot of sense to be working with on this, our partners, NATO, etc. There was just a big AUKUS announcement in San Diego, the Australians and the Brits about how we're going to increase our defense industrial base together for submarines. Those kinds of things make a lot of sense. 

Where I get concerned is when we are so focused on matching Russia and China one for one. We're so focused on trying to prevent them from gaining a foothold, that we actually are doing things that aren't actually in our interest, like working with autocratic regimes, empowering people or entities that are committing human rights abuses that we know were the very things that are fueling the challenge that we're trying to solve. I think we should have a more skeptical eye and we should have a tougher approach to how we are engaging with our partners around the human rights issues when it comes to these arms sales. 

I also think there's a way we can do things just fundamentally differently. I'm really interested in some sort of MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation]-like  model where instead of it just being black and white, yes or no— if you did something bad so we're going to take something away—we would have  a graduated model where we can give people clear benchmarks of what kinds of governance we need their country to have, and graduate them as they reach those governance goals. The Stimson report and event made clear it's not so simple as "if we just don't sell someone something they'll buy from someone else." There's a lot of complicated reasons why governments switch arms partners, and it's not necessarily a given that a partner would switch just because we decide it's not in our interest to sell them something.

Image: By https://www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyafrica/
Reporting | Asia-Pacific
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