Thank you for that kind introduction, President Cornwell. As President Cornwell mentioned, he was my boss when I taught finance at Rollins. And technically, as one of my constituents now, he’s still my boss. He’s also someone I greatly admire and the leader of an educational institution dedicated to preparing students to become global citizens and responsible leaders. It’s a worthy goal—and one that aligns with the mission of those in the room today.
I want to thank the USGLC for inviting me to speak. I’m honored to be here. I’m looking forward to answering your questions about my experience in Congress, about the totally, completely, absolutely normal political situation in Washington, DC right now, and about the need for U.S. foreign policy to be more strategic, predictable, and rooted in our core values.
Before that, I will offer some brief remarks to frame our discussion and to share my personal outlook, which stems from my own life experiences.
I’m someone who believes that the United States can protect its interests and promote its values most effectively when we exercise strong and smart leadership around the world, using all of the tools in our geopolitical tool box, from defense, to economic statecraft, to diplomacy, to development assistance. I think that’s the best way to strengthen America and to strengthen Florida specifically.
So, I was born in Vietnam in 1978, three years after the Vietnam War ended. Because my parents had worked alongside American and South Vietnamese forces during the conflict, they faced persecution once the communist government consolidated power in the country.
In 1979, when I was a baby, my family fled Vietnam by boat. We were part of a large wave of migrants in that era who would collectively become known as the Vietnamese boat people. Unfortunately, our boat ran out of fuel in the middle of the South China Sea. Fortunately, a U.S. Navy ship that was in the area responded to our S-O-S call. The American sailors gave us the fuel and supplies we needed to safely reach a Malaysian refugee camp.
These servicemembers were on patrol thousands of miles from America’s shores—maintaining forward presence, deterring conflict, and ensuring the safe passage of ships involved in international commerce. On the fateful day our paths crossed, their mission changed and they extended grace to desperate strangers.
After several months at the Malaysian refugee camp, my family again became the beneficiary of American kindness. A Lutheran church in Virginia sponsored our passage to the United States, and we eventually became proud American citizens.
We were only afforded this opportunity because of deliberate policy choices in Washington, DC. When Saigon fell to communist forces in 1975, President Ford allowed about 130,000 South Vietnamese into the United States. But, after that, America’s gates were effectively closed to refugees from Southeast Asia, even though the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate.
When President Carter took office, tens of thousands of families in Vietnam, including mine, were boarding boats and taking their chances on the high seas. As a result, there was a renewed debate at the highest levels of the U.S. government about what, if anything, to do. Some policymakers thought America had done enough, while others believed this country could and should do more.
President Carter ultimately sided with the advocates for additional action.
One official who argued for rescuing and admitting more refugees from Vietnam was the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, then the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He said in testimony before Congress: “The motivation is simple: the deep humanitarian concern which for so long has been a descriptive part of our national character.”
Vice President Walter Mondale also became a convert to the cause. In part, this was because he didn’t want to repeat the moral and policy failures of the late 1930s, when the United States and other nations didn’t do nearly enough to assist and absorb European Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany. In that case, the consequences of inaction were catastrophic.
Some senior Navy officials were reluctant to use American ships to save Vietnamese refugees, saying this wasn’t a military mission, but Mondale overruled them. And the Navy soon came to cherish their humanitarian role. As one ship commander involved in a rescue operation told Mondale.
“I thought it would demoralize my sailors, [but] I was dead wrong. It’s going to make a difference to the way those people think about America. Because when their life was at risk, they saw this ship with an American flag come up and these young guys go down and pick them up. They felt safe for the first time in months. The world looked better to them. It’s hard to stay mad at a policy like that.”
Thank God for those brave sailors. And thank God for those courageous and committed policymakers in Washington who argued for action and who waged the bureaucratic battles necessary for their position to prevail. We are a better and stronger nation because of them.
I am alive today because of America’s unique combination of leadership, power, and generosity. As a result, I have always felt a tremendous debt of gratitude to this country. I believe that public service is one way to chisel away at this debt, even though I know I can never fully repay it.
It was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that I first heard the call to serve. I wanted to help defend the nation that have saved my family’s life and given me a chance to achieve the American dream.
So I left my job in the private sector and went to work in national security at the Pentagon. It was the honor of my life to serve alongside men and women in uniform, like the ones who had rescued my family years earlier.
During my tenure, I helped lead the U.S. military’s response to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. In a deeply satisfying turn of fate, three decades after the U.S. military saved my own life, I had the opportunity to spearhead the U.S. military’s effort to save lives and rebuild communities in another Asian nation. In doing so, we helped create a deep reservoir of goodwill for the United States in what happens to be the most populous Muslim country in the world, at a time when we were waging two wars in the Middle East.
As you can imagine, in light of my experiences, I’m skeptical of arguments made by American politicians, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, that the United States should step back from its leadership role on the global stage. I believe that a retreat toward isolationism, however tempting it might appear at first blush, will ultimately make America and our allies less prosperous, and make the world less stable and safe.
I also believe that, with great power, comes great responsibility. If America fails to rise to the occasion, the world’s suffering will become worse and eventually the problems of people in other nations will become our own problems.
Finally, I believe that every nation has an ethos—a national soul, so to speak—and that giving a damn about our fellow human beings in other countries and trying our best to empower them is a fundamental part of America’s soul. We lose a little piece of ourselves every time we are capable of assisting others and decline to act. Of course, America can’t do everything everywhere, and nobody is suggesting we should try. But we can do quite a bit, and we ought to—for both moral and practical reasons.
What, then, should American global leadership look like? What form should it take?
I would summarize it like this.
I believe America needs a skilled and well-funded military to deter conflict, to prevail in conflict if deterrence fails, and to train and support the armed forces of our allies so that—together—we can address mutual challenges before they metastasize into threats.
At the same time, I also believe America needs a well-resourced corps of capable, clear-eyed diplomats and aid workers to pursue peace and reconciliation, seek justice, protect our planet, and combat poverty, hunger, and disease.
On the one hand, I would argue that too many Republican policymakers venerate hard power, but do not sufficiently value the ability of soft power to advance our nation’s security and prosperity.
On the other hand, I believe some of my fellow Democrats are right to recognize the benefits of soft power, but are too quick to express skepticism or even suspicion at the prospect of America projecting hard power vis-à-vis another country.
I don’t fall into either of these camps. I think hard power and soft power are each essential, and often complementary, elements of U.S. foreign policy.
Now, most people associate the Defense Department with troops, weapons, and destructive force—and there’s plenty of truth to that. But as I know from the perspective of someone who has been both the recipient and provider of DOD humanitarian aid, the Department has effectively used congressionally-approved funds to wield soft power as well as hard power.
Furthermore, history is clear. While not every problem has a military solution, certain problems do demand an armed response. For example, American military force was required to repel German and Japanese aggression during World War II, and to root out al-Qaeda from its safe haven in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Other geopolitical tools would not have been sufficient on these occasions, just as they weren’t enough to stop the mass killings in Rwanda when the U.S. opted not to intervene militarily, a decision many policymakers from that period have come to regret.
In addition, sometimes the use—or simply the threatened use—of military force may be necessary to create the conditions for a diplomatic initiative to succeed, as it was for Ambassador Holbrooke in the Balkans in the 1990s.
All of this underscores the point that there is a critical role for the armed forces in U.S. foreign policy, whether they are exercising hard power or soft power. Policymakers—and Democratic policymakers in particular—shouldn’t shy away from this fact.
But it is an absolute mistake for U.S. officials to provide the military with all the funding it needs, or even more than it is requesting, while starving our diplomats at the State Department and our aid professionals at USAID of the resources they require. President Trump’s budget requests have sought to do precisely that, but—to its credit—Congress has rejected those requests on a bipartisan basis, and I expect we will continue to do so.
The truth is that diplomats and aid workers are our nation’s first line of defense. They can prevent challenges in other countries from becoming crises, and prevent crises from exploding into conflict or bleeding over into our borders.
Showing respect for these men and women, giving them clear strategic direction, and properly funding their work is of the utmost importance for our nation’s security and prosperity, particularly here in Florida.
That’s because Florida is one of the country’s most internationally-oriented states. Our economy is highly dependent on international trade, with foreign imports and exports supporting nearly 1 in 5 jobs in the state. Nearly 22 percent of Florida’s 21 million residents are foreign-born. Of those 4.4 million people, 75 percent were born in Latin America, 10 percent were born in Asia, and another 10 percent were born in Europe. Many of them came to America—and to Florida—because of difficult economic or security conditions in their native countries, the very sorts of challenges that U.S. diplomacy and aid are intended to address.
To state the obvious, what happens inside other nations often has implications for Florida—whether we are talking about Cuba, or Haiti, or Colombia, or—most recently—Venezuela. In the past decade alone, the Venezuelan population in Florida has increased by 150 percent, from 85,000 to 220,000—due to the failings of the Chávez and Maduro regimes. So what takes place in Venezuela matters directly to us.
That’s why I recently authored a successful amendment to the State-Foreign Operations appropriations bill that would increase funding for State Department and USAID programs to strengthen democracy, independent media, and the rule of law in Venezuela. My view is simple. We need to help Venezuelan nationals already living in the United States, by granting them Temporary Protected Status or something like it. But we also need to address the factors inside Venezuela that are causing Venezuelans to flee their country by the millions. Otherwise, we are simply treating the symptom of a disease, rather than trying to cure the disease itself.
In closing, I will say this. One lesson I’ve learned and re-learned over the years, both at DOD and now in Congress, is that there is no neat distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy. And we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the former to focus on the latter.
To take perhaps the most pressing contemporary example: violence and grinding poverty in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are driving many citizens of those nations to seek refuge in the United States, which is testing the capacity of our domestic immigration system and causing significant upheaval in our domestic politics.
This should lead U.S. policymakers—again, for both moral and practical reasons—to redouble our efforts to help these Central American nations address the underlying factors that are spurring migration. Proposals to cut off aid to these countries, like we have seen from the Trump administration, are terribly wrong-headed. They are inconsistent with our interests and they violate our values. As I said, America has a soul, and we ought to protect and preserve it through our actions.
Thank you again for inviting me, and I look forward to your questions.