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The World Through the Eyes of a National Security Reporter – BPR Interviews: John Hudson

John Hudson is a national security reporter at The Washington Post, focusing on the State Department and diplomacy. He previously worked for Foreign Policy, BuzzFeed, and The Atlantic. He has reported from places as varied as Afghanistan, China, and Colombia. In 2019, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service with the staff of the Washington Post.

Miles Munkacy: Can you speak about why you chose to become a reporter, as opposed to working as a foreign service officer, for example?

John Hudson: I was always interested in journalism; I did my high school newspaper and my college newspaper. I like writing and I still think that journalism is an incredible prospect, that you actually get paid to observe things, talk to people, and get your name in the paper. It’s an absolute privilege and I still feel lucky everyday doing it. The ability to hold people to account is especially attractive. It’s an easy way to wake up in the morning. We have a sprawling national security state in this country, and it is a national security bureaucracy whose failures and track record are fairly widely known now, but are still uncovered in many ways. So there is so much public interest journalism to do that is related to what is happening at the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council, and that gives you a reason to wake up in the morning.

Covering diplomacy is also a really terrific profession because you’re constantly learning about new parts of the world and facets of humanity. Diplomatic reporting is often about having discreet discussions, breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with people who have knowledge about secrets between nations and secrets between multinational organizations. Being able to spend your time trying to extract that knowledge and bring it into the light of day is an absolutely enthralling exercise.

MM: How have you gone about developing relationships with government officials, especially in Washington D.C.?

JH: When you start out, it’s very difficult. I wasn’t from Washington D.C., so I didn’t really know anybody at the beginning. The only way that you can start is by starting at the absolute bottom. Oftentimes that means starting on Capitol Hill and meeting young congressional aides who sort of have oversight responsibilities when it comes to national security and foreign affairs. It’s valuable to talk to those people and get an understanding of how this system works. I was so intimidated when I started covering national security in Washington. Even though I came from an undergraduate degree that studied international relations, I felt totally ignorant of all of the acronyms and various offices and bureaus. Even just within the State Department, I felt totally out of my depths. But, as I started interacting with people who were fairly junior in government, by taking them out for drinks and or having breakfast with them, they helped me understand the system a little bit better. The longer that you stay in Washington, the greater access you have to those conversations. Then those people that you talk to get better jobs and have even better perspective on what is going on in our corridors of power.

MM: What happens in America in the absence of a Cronkite-like figure in the media that everyone can trust and who everyone agrees is telling the truth?

JH: There is definitely widespread concern when there isn’t a common set of facts in the country. How does that influence our politics? I do think it’s fair to say that having a common set of facts is important for our democracy. We have a political system that relies on an informed electorate. I’m not someone who is overwhelmingly critical of the surplus of choice that the internet has given us when it comes to our information and media diet. When I started working in journalism, I did work for a number of outlets that were trying new things and trying to embrace the internet. I started at The Atlantic magazine, which was doing a lot of different experiments in blogging and in reaching new audiences. But it is true that a lot of the experiments in new media that happened weren’t providing as substantive, fact-checked, and authoritative information as we would have hoped they’d provide an informed electorate. This situation is a real challenge and nobody has figured out how to fix it. The only hope is that there’s going to be increased efforts at media literacy, and we’ll see if that happens.

MM: Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan recently met with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage. Why were they so eager to engage in inflammatory rhetoric, considering that cooperation with China is so crucial to U.S. foreign policy? 

JH: It seems to be the case that both National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Tony Blinken understand that the political environment towards US-China relations has changed very much. When Blinken was Deputy Secretary of State during the Obama era, which was not that long ago, US-China relations remained largely an elite exercise that the general public was not particularly interested in. However, because of the spread of the coronavirus and because of Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian power grabs, China is more of a political issue in American domestic politics than it has been before.

Typically, foreign service officers would have dictated that in a meeting between the US and the Chinese, you try to keep public theatrics to a minimum. Then you try to make the closed-door aspect of the meeting as productive as possible. What was extraordinary about the summit in Anchorage was the use of those very public theatrics in the opening remarks. Blinken directly hit at the Chinese, and that resulted in Blinken’s counterpart, Yang Jiechi, making a series of broadsides against the United States.

I think from Blinken and Sullivan’s perspective, they wanted to appear very tough in the face of China for their opening meeting. I think that they believe that they can have a cooperative relationship in the years and months to come, and also make a strong stand on issues they care about. Sullivan and Blinken, are mindful of  Democrats’ being portrayed as “soft”, and they don’t want to be viewed this way in regards to their stances on China or on terrorism, for example. Making these announcements, even though they infuriated their Chinese counterparts, did inoculate them to some extent from some of those criticisms, at least in their view.

MM: How do you think Biden’s going to approach human rights in his foreign policy? I’m specifically thinking of the stark contrast between his response to the Khashoggi report and Putin’s antics in Russia.

JH: Biden has said, and so has his secretary of state, that human rights is going to be at the center of their foreign policy. What’s difficult about that is there are trade-offs between human rights and national interests. There is the view, and Blinken has tried to put this through, that those trade-offs don’t actually exist, that defending human rights is always in America’s and the world’s interest.But there are a lot of moments when push comes to shove. 

I just published a story about the Biden administration’s approach to Egypt. Around the same time when the Egyptian government began arresting the relatives of American citizen Muhammad Soltan in February, the Biden administration announced that it had approved a sale of hundreds of millions of dollars in missiles to Egypt. When I asked the administration, “How do you justify these missile sales when you said that human rights is going to be at the center of your foreign policy?”, their response was that those are defensive missiles that help the Egyptians patrol the Suez, and an open and safe Suez is in the interests of global commerce and American interests. The goal of the administration, I think, is to recalibrate issues like human rights that they believe were taken way off course in the Trump era. But that’s obviously going to be a struggle and it’s going to be a struggle across almost every relationship from China to Saudi Arabia to Egypt.

MM: How do you think Secretary of State Blinken and the Biden administration are going to rebuild the State Department, especially after four years of erratic foreing policy moves made by the Trump administration?

JH: Blinken and the Biden Administration laid out a few things as opening salvos in rebuilding the State Department. One of these was appointing career diplomats to more senior positions, ambassadorships, and assistant secretary jobs. There were a few such appointments and nominations announced last week, and those were well-received among career foreign service officers who I’ve spoken to. Blinken and Biden are still pressing for many more nominations, especially when it comes to nominating career diplomats to ambassadorial roles.

From a communications perspective, they have reinstated the daily press briefings, which were halted in the Trump era. Blinken and his team have also said that they’re going to work towards better press access. I will say a big part of press access is getting seats on the secretary’s plane when he travels. They fell far short of that promise on the secretary’s last trip to Brussels to meet NATO allies. They brought one reporter, which is actually worse than the Trump era track record.

As you remember, as soon as Trump took office, there was a dissent memo at the State Department lambasting the travel ban. The response from the White House at the time was either get with the program or get out. There was no room for dissent. Blinken has tried to foster an environment where he is very open to dissent and wants to hear from the foreign service. I think that messaging is welcome. I can tell you a lot of foreign service officers felt that there was a chill between them and the political appointees that come in with every new administration.

MM: A couple months ago, California representative Karen Bass published a piece in Foreign Policy arguing that the Biden administration needs to fix the problem with the State Department being “pale, male and Yale.” Do you think that the Biden administration will make diversity an important part of the State Department??

JH: I do think that that’s a real priority. They’ve already made moves on that front by appointing a diversity officer. I also think the nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an African-American diplomat who has very strong credentials from her long career, as the US Ambassador to the UN is another indication of their interest in having a diverse workforce. Obviously the real test is going to be in the numbers. They do track these things, and it is true that “pale, male, and Yale” has been an overriding quality of many of the people that inhabit the State Department. There’s a lot of improvement that can be made, but I do think that they have made a really sincere effort to turn things around.

MM: Biden has talked about rejoining the JCPOA, also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, but as you wrote in your article about Wendy Sherman, that isn’t necessarily politically popular or easy. Has the Biden administration made any concrete moves to make joining the JCPOA more political feasible, or is the issue going to be something they’re going to address later into their first term?

JH: It’s a real test. There’s certainly a lot of progressives who have looked at the Biden administration’s opening months when it comes to the Iran deal and have been frustrated by the very slow pace. There’s certainly some concern that, at some point, when you leave the Trump era sanctions in place, that you basically take ownership of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Democrats derided the sanctions as something that did not work and only resulted in an Iran that had a more advanced nuclear weapons program and a more aggressive posture towards the US in the Middle East. The fact that we’re still two months in and all of those policies remain in place is definitely a disappointment for progressives.

What the administration has said is to give them some time, that they’re working on it. They view the sanctions as leverage for being able to ensure that Iran comes back into compliance. The real question is whether they can pull this idea off, or whether they’ve boxed themselves in by saying they’re not going to lift any sanctions until Iran comes into compliance.

The difficult thing about that is obviously a huge amount of trust has been eroded between our country and the Iranians during the Trump era. The Trump administration is the one that reneged on the Iran deal and also assassinated their top military general. There’s just a profound degree of mistrust in the system between the two countries. Whether the Biden administration can succeed in its opening gambit of ‘you-go-first’ is a big question. I think they’re starting to modify that posture now and trying to find new diplomatic configurations with which they can do a compliance-for-compliance deal, but it’s been a slow start. The real worry is the longer that they wait, the faster that they will unravel a signature Obama-era achievement.

MM: It’s only been a few months since he’s been gone, but in your estimation, what do you think Trump’s most lasting legacy in foreign policy will be?

JH: That’s a big question. I think it’s so hard to say, and I think that so many of the things that happened may take a long time to unfurl and understand. I think that one thing that resulted from the Trump era is that for a number of Democrats, they viewed the things that the US government was doing in the Trump era as very either hypocritical or arrogant. I think a lot of Democrats thought that that was a really novel dynamic that was playing out. I think that there is some truth to the fact that many parts of the world already had those views about the United States and how it conducted itself on the world stage. So I think one of the more lasting impacts of the Trump administration was an increased awareness on the part of some Americans of how the US is looked at in the world and that it isn’t always seen as a force for stability.

I’m just thinking out loud right now, but I think that one thing that has taken a significant shift in the Trump era is this outlook towards China. Certainly Trump was at the forefront of endorsing a more aggressive posture towards China. Whereas so many aspects of his policies were condemned, and promises were made by the current administration to reverse them, China is an outlier. There is an acknowledgement by the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment that they, too, would like to take a more hawkish approach to China. So to the extent that there are things that are living beyond the Trump era, I think that’s definitely one of them.

MM: In one of your recent articles you commented that the Biden administration’s foreign policy ideology is a gentler version of “America First”. Can you explain that?

JH: As the Biden administration has laid out it’s foreign policy doctrine, it has repeatedly said that we need a foreign policy that serves the American working class. That is part of their mantra that is repeated again and again. That does share a lot of similarities to the “America First” agenda that basically means that America’s foreign policy should not just principally be in service to large multinational corporations, arms contractors, the aerospace industry, etc. It needs to actually help working class Americans in a concrete way that they can understand.

It’s also important to know the reason that their foreign policy is kinder and gentler is that some aspects of “America First” have been repudiated by this administration. For example, they’ve tried to address the problem of unaccompanied minors showing up at the border, rather than just turning them away. But the Biden administration’s foreign policy hasn’t been a wholesale reversal. How President Biden charts that course in the coming years is definitely going to be very interesting.

MM: If you could go back to your younger self as you were entering your career as a journalist, what is one piece of advice you would tell yourself?

JH: I think that knowing a second or third language is a great thing to have. Maybe more broadly, a big part about being a good journalist is critical thinking skills and just an awareness of what’s happening in the world. Reading is so important, and being a voracious reader and a curious person is a very important aspect of being a good journalist. Also, keeping a sort of curious outlook and hunger for what’s happening in the world that you’re living in are also important tools that anyone needs to excel at this career.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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