Sutphen, center, with President Obama and David Axelrod in the Oval Office.
Mona Sutphen was the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011. Prior to that, she served on President Clinton’s National Security Council. In 2007, she coauthored the book The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise. She has also served as managing director of UBS AG and is currently a Partner at Macro Advisory Partners LLP in New York, providing insight to investors, corporations, and governments on the trends of geopolitics, global markets, and government policy. Sutphen spoke with The Politic about current global events and her time at the White House.
The Politic: In your book The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise, you address extensively the growing influence of China. In light of the recent events that have occurred in Hong Kong, how do you think China’s political and economic influence may change?
Obviously the situation in Hong Kong is still very much in flux and I think it is still too early to tell how it will evolve and whether or not it will prove to be a major challenge to the PRC [People’s Republic of China], or something less than that. I think it is a little too early to judge that question, but obviously it is very much on the minds of the political leaders in Beijing as there is a move to consolidate political support.
The Politic: Do you think there is anything that China should do right now in regard to these events?
The Chinese are interested very much in their reform program, and the situation in Hong Kong, in a way, represents a distraction from that overarching goal. They have a lot of stress in their financial system; they are obviously trying to undertake a pretty massive and comprehensive set of reforms, and certainly from our perspective, from a U.S. perspective, we hope the situation in Hong Kong gets resolved in such a way that is consistent with the original intent of the agreement between the PRC and Hong Kong. From a U.S. perspective, those economic reforms in China are essential to China’s longer term stability, growth, and integration in the economic system.
The Politic: How do you think it will affect the United States?
I think it is way too early to tell how Hong Kong might evolve over the next several weeks, what the Chinese reaction is likely to be, and therefore the impact on U.S.-China relations. It is something to watch closely and it could certainly have an impact on our bilateral relationship, I just do not know if we are at that point yet.
The Politic: Your coauthor said that while writing the book, both of you learned that if the United States wanted to strengthen its position in the world, it would have to do a lot a home. Could you describe the changes that would have to happen in order for the United States to maintain its position as a global leader?
To be clear, the U.S. is a global leader and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. The question is whether or not we are shoring that position up further, or whether we are undermining it in ways conscious and unconscious. Our central argument is that in order to project power globally, we have to be strong at home, and by strong at home we mean educating our population so that we have the best workforce on the planet. That means investing in high quality infrastructure; facilitating and enabling the ability of companies, nonprofits, and communities to be their best and not have to pay extra to deal with infrastructure shortfalls. It means investing in our innovation culture, which has been the source of U.S. economic growth since the end of World War II.
The Politic: What role do you think universities like Yale and its students will play in this process?
One of the best things the U.S. has going for it, quite frankly, is our interlocking and interwoven system of higher education which allows for merit based movement through the economic ranks, and I think one of the biggest challenges we have as a country at this point is making sure that that ladder of opportunity is equal for everybody regardless of their financial situation going in. Education institutions like Yale and others, I think, have an obligation to make sure that they remain meritocratic institutions, taking advantage of all the talent in the United States that is out there, and doing what we can to try to make sure that the people who are struggling to get the skills for the 21st century…that we are enabling some of that for everybody else.
The Politic: Switching subjects a little bit, currently two Yale students are being quarantined after studying Ebola in Liberia. As a former member of the National Security Council, what role do you think the United States should play in the global Ebola outbreak while also maintaining the safety of its own citizens?
I think actually the U.S. has done a lot more than a lot of other countries. I frankly have been quite stunned at the lack of engagement of other partners who have been spending a lot of time and money investing in sub-Saharan Africa and are basically nowhere to be found on this crisis. So the U.S., relative to everybody else, has done a whole lot. Does that mean we [should] be doing more? Yes, absolutely, but it would be nice to not be the only ones. This is a virus you have to contain in theater. Obviously, we have to do what we need to do to protect Americans, too, but part of the way we do that is by trying to make sure that it doesn’t take even greater hold in the region, and therefore the risk of filler effects only increases.
The Politic: Recently it was on the news that the Ebola outbreak had reached Texas and so that is on the mind of a lot of citizens. What is your opinion on the subject?
The more you have a larger population of people with the virus the more likely it is that you will have isolated cases pop up outside of West Africa. I agree with the public health officials: we have a great tracing system. It’s something to be taken really seriously, but it is not like Liberia or Sierra Leone and so one of the biggest risks we have is that we end up panicking over something that there is not a reason necessarily to panic about, and that it really also distracts us from the bigger question, which is how to make sure that we contain this virus to the extent that we can at its source.
The Politic: Throughout your career so far, what has been your biggest challenge and what has been your greatest success?
My biggest challenge has been work-family balance, because I have two young kids and my whole career by definition has required me to travel quite extensively [and] work at all hours of the day and night. So, that has been an ongoing challenge. In terms of greatest accomplishment, it’s pretty easy and it was really early in my career, which was when I was in Balkans. I worked in Sarajevo on implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords and one of the issues that I worked on was negotiating the release of POW’s from the competing forces and we were successful in getting hundreds of people released. It was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done: to be able to reunite people with their families after being captured for no real reason.
The Politic: Going back to what you said about balance, as a student at Yale we all have issues with balancing our own schedules. Do you have any advice?
[Laughing] I wish I did, right? My only thing is — this is what I think is the most important thing for people — is that you have to understand what trade-offs you’re actually making, because you can’t drive 100 miles an hour and take your eyes off the road and do other things in the back seat of the car at the same time. I think where people get themselves into trouble is where they don’t understand that they are actually making a conscious trade-off between other parts of their life and their career. The more you’re able to understand actually what you’re risking, it makes you able to value each of those pieces fairly, so you understand what really makes you happy, you understand what really makes you satisfied. It also helps you figure out if you’ve done something that is inconsistent with that, easier before you burn yourself out or before you find yourself not with a family like you wanted, in the wrong career, anything like that. I wish there was a simple answer, but for the most part people who get into serious trouble on this [do so] because they didn’t fully understand how much cost they were incurring in other parts of their lives in exchange for career success.
The Politic: You previously served during both the Clinton administration and the Obama administration. Could you describe some of the differences between each and also the similarities?
Certainly my stage of career was very different in both, and my jobs in both were very different, so it’s very hard to compare and contrast. When I was in the Clinton administration, I was a mid-level at the time. I was a career State Department employee working at the White House. This time I was a senior official, which is just a different level of responsibility [and] stress. I also was working mainly on domestic policy, not just foreign policy, so it makes it hard to compare it that way, but I would say there are some similarities. By the way, the two Commanders in Chief are very different and my theory is that White Houses and the way they operate and how decisions get made, how things get discussed and teed up, really reflects the personality of the person sitting in the Oval Office. That was definitely true for the two presidents that I was lucky enough to be able to work for. The similarities are that public policy at that level is not for the faint of heart. You are making incredibly consequential decisions on very limited information typically and in very high stakes and often time pressured environments. It’s not for everybody because you really are taking a leap every single day of making decisions about Do I think this is the right thing to be doing? andrecognizing that by the next day, there may be information that proves that everything you’ve thought, all of the assumptions you had in making the decision, were wrong. The trick is to make sure that you understand what you don’t know and try to account for that as you’re making decisions, and that has not changed at all. You’re always flying a little bit blind and you’re always trying to make decisions that keep your core options open rather than foreclosing them and sometimes you’re good at that and sometimes you’re bad at it.
The Politic: You mentioned that the Oval Office in the way it’s run is largely dependent on the personality of the President. Could you elaborate a little bit more about that?
It’s just my theory having observed two up close. Presidents absorb information in very different ways and they make decisions in really different ways. Some people like to read a lot, some people want to talk verbally, some people want a mix: how much detail you want to have in something that’s written versus how much you want to talk about it. Also the style, just the personality; how intense people are, is it a culture where its okay to yell at people and that kind of thing. There’s just a different pace and personality and I think a lot of it is driven by what the president himself wants in their daily life: how much do they want to read, how much do they want to engage with their staff, how much time do they allot for various things. I think its very personality driven and it also goes deeply to what kind of people they end up with in senior staff and that in turn has an impact on the culture of the place.
The Politic: Are there any things that can be taken from these past administrations to improve President Obama’s current administration?
I actually think that a lot has changed so fundamentally that it’s really hard to – and we’re obviously in a world of challenges like Ebola that nobody would have ever anticipated 10 years ago, or maybe anticipated but not in an active kind of a way. The biggest issue that I see is the change of having a 24/7 tech-enabled instant news cycle. The impact that that has had on decision making and public policy formation is going to last a long time. I’m not sure that there’s as much that can be learned from past administrations because the way governing unfolds is just different than it used to be. More is happening in real time, it’s more transparent, there’s less time to really understand what the decisions are, less time to work through all the issues with colleagues before somebody is asking people for a comment that is on the record.
The Politic: So with the growth of media and technology, how do you deal with issues that can change so fast?
Sutphen: It’s really tough. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges for anybody in the public policy realm, which is that there’s really no time to catch your breath and really understand what is actually unfolding before your people are asking you to comment on it. From a media perspective, if there’s a vacuum, if you don’t fill it, somebody else will, so it’s incumbent upon you to figure out an answer and do it quickly. I think sometimes that comes at the quality of the way the debate is framed, and once you lose that thread it is very difficult to get it back on track. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to get around it, at least for the time being.
The Politic: As a final question, what do you think is the United States’ role in the international economy?
The U.S. is still the major, global, economic engine. People are counting on the U.S. You see it in the reaction of the treasury market. When there’s a risk in the world, people still naturally beeline to the United States as a source of stability and safety in the global economy. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. We are slowly getting our sea legs and climbing our way out of this deep, deep recession and hopefully planting some seeds for the future so that the economy that you guys inherit is as innovative and robust as it has been in the past. But we obviously have a lot of challenges ahead of ourselves so there’s no guarantee at all that we’re set the way we all hope. Still, when I travel the world all the time, I still think the U.S. has the best baseline foundation to support prosperity for the next multiple decades than any other place I’ve ever been.