Michael Vadon

'Even a Shining City on a Hill Needs Walls': Senator Tom Cotton

A Republican hawk acclimates to the Trump presidency—and threatens to reconsider the One China policy.

Tom Cotton, the junior senator from Arkansas, and the future Republican candidate for president (mark my words), has accommodated himself handsomely to the reality of the Trump presidency. On the one hand, this is unsurprising—his political base accommodated itself to Trump (Arkansas gave its adopted daughter, Hillary Clinton, only 34 percent of its vote, to Trump’s 60). Meanwhile Cotton—Harvard Law School graduate, Army Ranger captain, Iraq War veteran, congressman and senator, and still a few months shy of his 40th birthday—subsumes much in his life to ambition. On the other hand, though, Cotton is a foe of Russia, a believer in overseas engagement (and not only armed engagement), a dispositionally hardline, clever foreign policy analyst in a Senate mostly devoid of interesting global thinkers, and a proponent of the NATO alliance. Trump and Cotton had not struck me as a natural fit.

And yet, when I went to visit Cotton in his Senate office a few days ago, I found a senator ready to defend Trump’s approach to almost every issue, including the president’s evident desire to reopen discussion about America’s One China policy, which has held through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike. Cotton’s aggressiveness on this was particularly noteworthy. When I asked him why he would reconsider the U.S. relationship with Taiwan, given the red-line quality of this issue, he said, “Beijing doesn’t get to dictate to us how we make policy. We don’t make policy based on what offends them or what causes them to lose face.” Then, just to underscore the reality of the New Pugnacity, he added, “They need to remember that we are the world's superpower and they are not.” The One China policy was good enough for one Reagan and two Bushes, I said, so why not him? “Times and circumstances change, and policies change along with them.”

I visit Cotton periodically to talk foreign policy, and I’ve come to think of him as a heavily-armed Wilsonian—a believer in the force of arms, but also an idealist about the American message to the world, and in the belief that democracy is a universal natural right. He’s edited his beliefs, though, because when I mentioned Reagan’s vision of America as a beacon of hope to the people of the world, Cotton said, “Even a shining city on a hill—especially a shining city on a hill—needs walls to defend itself from its adversaries.”

Jeffrey Goldberg: Is Russia an active adversary of the United States?

Tom Cotton: There is no doubt that Russia is an adversary of the United States.

Goldberg: Trump hasn’t said a bad word about Putin yet.

Cotton: President Obama—most Democrats—just recently rediscovered their inner cold warrior. But Russia has been an active adversary for eight years and they’ve been emboldened repeatedly by Obama’s actions. It wasn’t just that Mitt Romney was right about Russia in 2012 and Obama was wrong. He was sneeringly, mockingly wrong, just like when he was when he tried to reset relations with Russia in 2009.

Goldberg: What’s wrong with resetting relations?

Cotton: Obama reset from a position of conciliation and weakness. It’s fine if we had a better relationship with Russia. But we need a better relationship on our terms.

Goldberg: Why do you think Trump would be tough on them?

Cotton: I think Donald Trump, as a seasoned businessman and negotiator, whatever he may think about Russia and Vladimir Putin, is not the kind of man who will make one-sided concessions or give things away for nothing.

Goldberg: No sign of toughness so far from him.

Cotton: If you’re seated in Moscow and you’re looking at two candidates and one favors more defense spending, accelerated nuclear modernization, expanded missile defense, and greater domestic oil and gas production, all those things are detrimental.  

Goldberg: You can’t tell me that the rhetorical signals, the Twitter signals, that Trump has been sending to Russia, made them feel badly about his victory.

Cotton: I think it’s mixed. Even what Trump has said himself is mixed. In the interview with Bild, in the space of the same paragraph, he said that NATO is obsolete and NATO is very important. So that’s mixed.

Goldberg: What do these contradictions mean?

Related: Sen. Cotton: Trump Will Likely Take a Tougher Line on Russia

Cotton: I would look to what he’s campaigned on and promised, like more defense spending, more oil and gas production, or at some of his nominees. We’ll know soon enough though.

Goldberg: Didn’t you ever scratch your head and say, “Wait a second, this is not an articulation of classic Republican Party foreign policy beliefs, this is the coddling of a dictator”?

Cotton: Well, he has said some things that I would not have said.

Goldberg: Well, I know you. That’s an understatement coming from you.

Cotton: He’s also identified some problems that people in both parties talked about for a long time and haven’t done much about. Over the last 25 years, we’ve both expanded NATO up to Russia’s borders but also let our European partners get away with cutting their defense budgets and, more importantly, cutting away some key capabilities.

Goldberg: So you think he’s just trying to scare NATO straight?

Cotton: I would give more weight on what Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal than what he tweets on any given day.

Goldberg: How is that related to this conversation?

Cotton: I would put more weight on his approach to transactions and negotiations expressed in his book than I would on the occasional tweet. But, again, we’ll see. There’s a saying in the Army: “When the ramp drops, the bullshit stops.”

Goldberg: You’re telling me that Trump has not signaled to Russia that he recognizes its sphere of influence, that he doesn’t want to molest Russia within that sphere.

Cotton: I don’t think he’s said that.

Goldberg:  By the way, I’ll grant you that Barack Obama didn’t do a stellar job of signaling on Ukraine—

Cotton: Barack Obama did it through his actions, not through his words or the occasional tweet.

Goldberg: Why don’t you take Trump’s tweeting seriously? If he issues a red line in a tweet, you’re not going to demand that he enforces the red line, because it was on Twitter?

Cotton: I didn’t say I don’t take it seriously. And yes, any president who draws a red line ought to enforce that red line. You always have to take seriously the words of the president, whatever the medium, but I think that Donald Trump will be more aggressive and firmer in defending our interests against all of our adversaries than was President Obama.

Goldberg: Okay, so imagine you’re the president of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia. You hear that NATO is obsolete. You hear praise from the new American president for the president of Russia who just recently dismembered a nation on its border. Seriously, how would you feel about the role of the United States?

Cotton: Unsettled, but no more unsettled than I would have been than after President Obama stood idly by while Vladimir Putin dismembered Ukraine.

Goldberg: So Trump is a continuum in some ways of Obama, in the way he questions the underlying assumptions of U.S. foreign policy?

Cotton: You may be the first person to suggest that Donald Trump is the continuum of Barack Obama.

Goldberg: Maybe, but there’s a case. Obama says, in reference to allies, “Free riders aggravate me.” Trump comes in and it’s much more dramatic, he asks why we have a NATO, what are all these commitments we have? Different ends of the same continuum.

Cotton: I don’t see the continuum because Donald Trump is someone who truly believes in American greatness. That was his entire slogan.

Goldberg: Do the Baltic states have reason to be fearful about America having their back?

Cotton: Well the Baltic states always have reason to be fearful, given their relationship with Moscow historically. Again I would put a lot less thought in what Donald Trump has said or tweeted in the last few months than what Barack Obama has done for the last eight years. But if I were sitting in Estonia or Latvia or Lithuania, I would be reaching out to the Trump administration, and that’s what I’ve counseled them to do. Every one of Trump’s counterparts should be reaching out to congratulate him, to identify our key shared interests and what your country is doing to try to advance those interests.

Goldberg: What do you think might be the first big crisis in the national-security realm in the first months?

Cotton: Hard to predict, but the most immediate possible crisis is a major terrorist attack.

Goldberg: Do you credit Obama with preventing a major foreign-directed terror attack against the United States homeland over the past eight years?

Cotton: Well we’ve had a lot of terrorist attacks over the last eight years here. He defines it in a very narrow way.

Goldberg: I mean a 9/11-style, foreign-directed attack, rather than an ISIS-inspired attack.

Cotton: Well, the people dead in Orlando and San Bernardino are just as dead, whether it was inspired or directed.

Goldberg: You know the difference. There’s the massive, Brussels-style, Paris-style, attack, one directed from Syria or somewhere, and on the other hand a lunatic with a rifle and a grievance and access to Anwar al-Awlaki videos.

Donald Trump will conduct the war against ISIS in a different and more aggressive manner, most of which I cannot talk about because it’s classified.

Cotton: But we need to ask ourselves why were these individuals not being inspired four or five years ago? Because there was no Islamic State risen to power to inspire them. And the rise of the Islamic State very much rests on the shoulders of Barack Obama.

Goldberg: Obama and Trump are wildly different when it comes to talking about American Muslims and Islam more generally. Obama consistently has tried to, in his mind, not allow this fight to transmute into a civilizational struggle. Donald Trump has introduced elements of that struggle. You’re obviously critical of Obama’s approach. What are the downsides of the Trump approach?

Cotton: Donald Trump will conduct the war against ISIS in a different and more aggressive manner, most of which I cannot talk about because it’s classified.

Goldberg: Do you think he actually has a plan?

Cotton: I think there is a fairly clear path forward on how to increase the intensity of the fight against ISIS. What I am surprised about are the limitations and constraints that Barack Obama has imposed on U.S. policy. That said, we ought not speak ill of a religion as a whole. We ought to recognize that the vast majority of American Muslims are patriots. That does not change the fact that there are a small number of very violent, very committed Islamic jihadists around the world who are trying to destroy the United States. And we have to face up to that problem and frankly the world of Islam needs to face up to that problem as well for us to solve that problem.

Goldberg: Do you think that the entrance of Donald Trump onto the world stage will force that kind of reckoning in the Muslim world? Or do you think it will reinforce the process of radicalization?

Cotton: I think it will elevate it once again in a way that Barack Obama tried to suppress it, by refusing to call Islamic terror by its name.

Goldberg: What is the utility of calling it Islamic terror?

Cotton: The campaign to “counter violent extremism” is wrong on just about every point.  We don’t want to counter it, we want to prevent it—we want to stop it before it becomes violent. It’s not mere extremism, it’s Islamic terror. And you have leaders like President al-Sisi in Egypt, Mohammed bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates, who are ready to take the lead on behalf of a moderate, peaceful Islam. They’re the ones who have to solve those problems. A bunch of American bureaucrats sitting in Foggy Bottom on Twitter are not going to convince a Bangladeshi teenager without many opportunities that jihad isn’t the path to salvation, but Muslim leaders with credibility in their own world can help do so.

Goldberg: If there were, God forbid, more ISIS-inspired attacks in the United States, could you  imagine supporting the idea of a Muslim registry?

One advantage Donald Trump has coming into office is that our adversaries are scared of him.

Cotton: There’s never been a Muslim registry. It’s a misnomer in the media. I do support the concepts of applying differential vetting standards from different countries. I mean we don't need to apply the same standards to Norway as we apply to Syria. And I do support the idea of tracking everyone in this country on a visa.

Goldberg: But Nidal Hasan [the Fort Hood killer] was not only a citizen but actually in the Army. What you’re talking about wouldn't prevent an American citizen from doing what these guys have done.

Cotton: That raises the question of how many guys we give green cards to every year, how many we welcome to our country. I would limit immigration from most countries around the world because as a broader matter we’ve been admitting too many people for our economy, for our country, for many years. I would say that to get a green card, become a citizen, you have to uphold certain ideals. We refused to admit anarchists and communists in the early 20th century. If you believe in sharia law, that’s not compatible with American citizenship.

Goldberg: But sharia is just a religious behavior code—

Cotton: If you believe that sharia law preempts other law, I don’t think that that is consistent with American citizenship. This is common in many quarters of the Muslim world. So I think that this should be a simple test.

Goldberg: How do you test someone to find out if they believe in this preemptive sharia?

Cotton: That is relatively easy and within the skills of the State Department. It’s like testing religious minorities. You ask basic doctrine questions.

Goldberg: Let’s move to China. The hardest thing for any American president to do in the coming years is to manage the inexorable rise of China. Defending American interests while avoiding actual conflict, armed conflict. Do you think Trump has thought this through?

Cotton: He appears to have a well-developed China policy, one that's going to be much firmer than any president has been since the end of the Cold War. For instance, by accepting he congratulatory phone call of [Taiwanese President] Tsai Ing-wen—

Goldberg: A mistake?

Cotton: No, absolutely the correct decision.

Goldberg: Do you want to open up discussion about the One China policy?

Cotton: I think its something that’s worth considering. We’re been locked into a policy that’s 40 years old now. This goes back to a point I was making about Russia as well. I think Barack Obama has been very poor at seeing strategic linkages. You hear Obama and John Kerry saying we can compartmentalize Ukraine and Syria and counterterrorism and counterproliferation. I don't doubt they can do that. I know that Vladimir Putin does not do that. Same thing is true with Xi Jinping and China’s leaders.

Goldberg: Why would you open up the One China question? Why introduce a new level of tension into the bilateral relationship with Beijing?

Cotton: Beijing doesn’t get to dictate to us how we make policy. We don’t make policy based on what offends them or what causes them to lose face. They need to remember that we are the world's superpower and they are not.

Goldberg: This is a policy initiated by Richard Nixon, adhered to by Ronald Reagan and two Bushes, and so I find it interesting that you’re opening up this question. I wonder if you would be doing that at all if Trump hadn’t won.

Cotton: Times and circumstances change, and policies change along with them. Underlying principles never change. The heart of Whig, Hamiltonian, early Republican thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries was the tariff. And the children of Alexander Hamilton are now the strongest voice for free trade in the Republican Party. Changing times and circumstances caused their policies to change.

Goldberg: How big a threat is conflict with China?

Cotton: There’s a worry about some kind of aggressive Chinese action, most likely in the East China, or more likely, the South China Sea. The potential for continued Russian aggression of the kind that we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years. All that said, one advantage Donald Trump has coming into office is that our adversaries are scared of him.

Goldberg: Scared of his unpredictability? Scared of his bellicosity?

Cotton: Yes. In the same way that our adversaries were scared of Ronald Reagan when he came into office. For eight years Barack Obama had an approach to foreign policy in which he would conciliate, he would be tougher on our allies than he is on our adversaries, he attributed many of the disagreements we had with our adversaries to historic misunderstandings or poor American leadership. And our adversaries took advantage of that.

Goldberg: Are you confident that the Trump people have systems in place to manage these conflicts without escalating accidentally?

Cotton: I believe so, yes. First off, there is our permanent national security apparatus, right? The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the intelligence community, career diplomats, and so forth.

Even a shining city on a hill—especially a shining city on a hill—needs walls to defend itself from its adversaries.

Goldberg: Talk more broadly about the foreign policy trends in the Republican Party. My impression is that just like the Democrats, a lot of Republicans, including Donald Trump, no longer adhere to an idealistic understanding of what American exceptionalism means, that America is a shining city on a hill and an exporter of democratic ideals.

Cotton:  Even a shining city on a hill—especially a shining city on a hill—needs walls to defend itself from its adversaries. And these people are going to build walls as their first responsibility. I’m less Wilsonian. I tend to have a more Jacksonian rhetoric, which is we need to make the world safe for American democracy and—

Goldberg: American democracy as an idea or the actual American democracy?

Cotton: Our first responsibility as leaders of this country is to this country itself, to make the world safe for us.

Goldberg: I don’t remember you having a limited, Jacksonian understanding of America’s role in the world. I used to think of you as a heavily armed Wilsonian.

Cotton: In my way, I’m a native Jacksonian of Arkansas stock. The Jacksonian spirit has been a lot of the engine of Republican power for a long time. It is true that we are safer and more prosperous in the long run if democracy and market-based economics are growing in the world. But we have to recognize that our ability to impose that in places as varied as Iraq and Egypt is limited.

It’s hard to think of a place where the U.S. is in in a better position than we were eight years ago.

Goldberg: When you got off the plane for the first time in Iraq, I think you had a more idealistic vision of the possibilities.

Cotton: The war in Iraq was a war about our security and our interests. Over time the rationale for war became more focused about the spread democracy than it was about the core interests over which we went to war. Ultimately that war started because Saddam Hussein was a unique confluence of threats to our interests. All that said, this is a point of disagreement I have with Donald Trump, and we’ve discussed it.

Goldberg: A semi-related question. How would you organize the West Bank in such a way as to give the Palestinians something of what they want without endangering Israel?

Cotton: Ultimately, that would be a question for Israelis and Palestinians, if the Palestinians  can get non-terror supporting leaders. The United States over the last eight years has made that harder. For instance, in 2009, demanding a freeze on construction in Judea and Samaria, something that Mahmoud Abbas had never even demanded. As soon as Barack Obama demanded it, Abbas had to demand it because if you’re the Palestinian leader you can’t allow the American President to be more Palestinian than you are.

Goldberg: Do you always refer to them as a Judea and Samaria?

Cotton: I do.

Goldberg:  Why?

Cotton: That’s why the Jews are called Jews, because they’re from Judea.

Goldberg: I’m not unaware of this fact. I’m asking because the nomenclature signals a political intent.

Cotton: These are the traditional names going back to biblical times. I think this is a reminder that it’s not just some kind of abstract administrative division there. It is a homeland to which the Jews have been attached for many millennia.

Goldberg: You objected strenuously to the decision to abstain in the Security Council vote about settlements.

Cotton: When was the last time a president, after the election, made a major shift in foreign policy, contrary to the wishes of the incoming president?

Goldberg: The opposition to settlement growth has been a bipartisan concern of presidents for a long time.

Cotton: Why did Obama veto a resolution in 2011 that was milder than this resolution?

Goldberg: They suggested, in so many words, that they did this because they feel that their friend Israel is driving drunk and they wanted to take the keys away.

Cotton: If you were to compare the foreign policy record of the last eight years of President Obama, on the one hand, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the other, I think I would strongly favor Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has gone from one success to the next, not only in his own neighborhood but in Africa and South Asia, East Asia. It’s hard to think of a time in which Israel was in a stronger position relative to its neighbors in the world then it is after Netanyahu’s tenure. It’s hard to think of a place where the U.S. is in in a better position than we were eight years ago.