Carnegie Mellon University
October 29, 2020

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien Joins CMU Community to Discuss Foreign Policy Priorities


CMU’s Director of the Institute of Politics and Strategy Dr. Kiron Skinner and IPS Senior Fellow Richard Grenell were honored to host a webinar seven days before the presidential election entitled “Foreign Policy Priorities from National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien,” an on-the-record, virtual presentation and Q&A session that took place Tuesday, October 27, 2020.

O’Brien opened his remarks with warm wishes from President Trump to all of the CMU community and expressed the president’s special recognition of the good work by IPS Director Skinner and Senior Fellow Grenell, both of whom worked with O’Brien at the State Department.

Seated in the situation room in the lower level of the White House, O’Brien offered the 100-plus members of CMU community in attendance his overview of the Trump administration’s foreign policy goals and achievements. But the gathering was more personal and more intimate than that description suggests given both the personal relationship that O’Brien, Skinner, and Grenell share, as well as the fact that when asked to describe where he was sitting, O’Brien told Skinner that he was sitting “in the president’s chair.” He then clarified that the Kennedy Conference Room, named for President Kennedy, serves multiple uses so that when it is employed for NSA business it is his chair as the most senior official, but that when it is employed as a meeting room to advise the president, POTUS is the most senior official in the room and so the seat at the head of the table becomes the “president’s chair.” Participants then got a little more behind-the-scenes view when O’Brien turned his head and realized that he was sitting in front of the wrong seal, the President’s seal and had an NSA staff member quickly replace it with the much smaller NSA seal.

Topics covered during the hour-long event included relations with foes like China and friends like our NATO allies. O’Brien described President Trump’s vision for America First as well as referencing the administration’s affinity for President Reagan’s formulation of peace through strength. He also reviewed how well some of the President’s foreign policy goals have been achieved over the four years of this administration. “The president deals with the world as it is,” O’Brien explained, “not as we hope it will be.” Perhaps one less well-known accomplishment of this administration’s efforts overseas and one that O’Brien himself, Grenell was quick to point out, had a lot to do with was bringing home 50 American hostages and detainees from overseas.

Aden Halpern, class of 2021, was pleased to hear O’Brien explain the goal for US entanglements overseas. “I found myself in agreement with [O’Brien] that it is time for us to take our troops home from Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan. I hope that he and the President follow through on their promise to pull out of these military entanglements as soon as possible,” Halpern said.

When asked in the Q&A about whether China’s Belt and Road initiative had moved some countries strategically closer to China, O’Brien agreed but qualified his answer. He explained how the problem with China’s efforts to expand its influence to areas of Asia, Africa and even Europe, is that all the money “tends to stay in Beijing” rather than helping the country that got the loan from China. And now, especially post-Covid, countries “are coming to us begging us to please pay off their loans to China,” O’Brien explained.  “I don’t think President Trump is going to make the Chinese whole on those loans, ever,” O’Brien continued. Instead, O’Brien highlighted the State Department’s plan called the blue dot initiative supported by Japan and Singapore among others to help countries with infrastructure projects that will not result in massive unaffordable debt to the CCP.