U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke on campus Monday morning as part of the McConnell Center’s Distinguished Speaker Series. Pompeo told the University Club crowd he is familiar with this part of Kentucky, having been stationed at Fort Knox twice during his service in the Army.
Pompeo, a graduate of West Point, served as a cavalry officer patrolling the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After leaving active duty, Pompeo graduated from Harvard Law School.
He was confirmed as secretary of state on April 26, 2018, after serving as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and, prior, as a congressional representative from Kansas.
During his McConnell Center speech, Pompeo discussed the three central ideas to President Donald Trump’s foreign policy approach:
The “realism” principle, he said, means looking at problems “as they are, not as what we want them to be.” Pompeo provided an overview of work done specifically in Latin America as an example of this.
“In just the last few years, we’ve seen some remarkable things. Many nations have made a sharp turn towards democracy, capitalism, good government and away from dictatorship, socialism and corruption that has been endemic in some of those countries,” he said.
He pointed to Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua as examples.
“No one in the region any longer believes that authoritarianism is the way forward,” he said, adding that “there is more democratic cooperation in our hemisphere today than in any other part in history.”
Pompeo also touched upon the importance of helping the Venezuelan people move toward achieving freedom, including religious freedom, something he said this administration has taken to heart. Venezuela is currently under the rule of socialist leader Nicolas Maduro.
“We do [support the Venezuelan people] for a couple of reasons. We support it because people should be able to express their unalienable right to self-government. We support it because political freedom goes hand in hand with economic freedom,” he said. “And we support it because it’s simply the right thing to do.”
Pompeo added that, despite this progress, authoritarian regimes “don’t go away easily,” pointing to Maduro as an example. However, Pompeo noted this presents the administration with an opportunity to approach foreign policy realistically.
“We’ve tried to drive with moral and strategic clarity the recognition that authoritarianism in our hemisphere is a threat. … We’ve done so in a way that’s been realistic – within the capacity of the American power to achieve the ends that we’re seeking,” he said.
That means, for example, rolling back the Obama administration’s Cuban policy and adding new sanctions on the country.
“We recognized engagement hasn’t improved Cuba’s regime; in fact, the human rights record was worse,” Pompeo said. “We see these tyrants for what they are and we craft policies to confront them, not to appease them.”
For the “restraint” piece, Pompeo said calls for regime change through violent means isn’t always the answer, again pointing to Venezuela as an example.
“What we’ve learned from history, is that the risks for using military force are significant, so we’ve instead worked to deprive Maduro of oil revenue … we’ve been ruthless in attacking the drug cartels and we built a coalition of 57 other allies to maximize the economic and political pressure that we’ve put on the regime,” Pompeo said. “If we do it right and do it well and represent American values, Maduro will fall.”
Pompeo said the Trump Administration will continue to be relentless with restraint, calling “unending pressure and sensible restraint” the right combination.
Finally, Pompeo noted that our foreign policy is built on respect, meaning respect “for our principles as enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and respect for our neighbors and allies and how they run their affairs.”
Pompeo pointed to border security as one example of striking this respect chord.
“A poorly secured border violates Americans’ enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It undermines the rule of law, compromises security, enables human trafficking, and the president has taken on these problems – that’s the basic respect for American ideals,” he said.
Pompeo added that one of his proudest diplomatic successes is working with Mexico to “do more inside of their own country to stop the flow of illegal immigration into the United States.”
“We didn’t tell them how to run their country; we just insisted they be good neighbors,” he said.
Pompeo said this same approach has yielded an 80-percent drop in intentions to illegally enter the U.S. from Ecuador and therefore a stronger relationship with El Salvador.
Ultimately what the respect tenet comes down to, Pompeo said, is ensuring people’s “yearning to be free” and that includes their religious freedom and economic rights.
“We’ve seen protests in a number of nations. Those protests reflect the character of legitimate democratic governments,” he said. “We are so blessed here. America remains the greatest example of democracy in the history of the world … I am proud of what we’ve done in the region. Whatever the day brings, we’ll approach it with realism, restraint and support.”
A brief Q&A with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell followed Pompeo’s remarks. During that time, Pompeo touted the Trump Administration’s reversal of the Obama Administration’s Iranian Nuclear Agreement, noting that the sanctions put into place instead have worked without affecting the Iranian people.
He also reiterated that the U.S. stands behind protesters in Hong Kong, calling on China to honor its 1997 commitment to offer autonomy and freedoms.
Finally, he discussed President Trump’s trip to London for the NATO Summit this week. Pompeo, who will be joining the president during the trip, said there are three priorities: to make sure NATO is prepared to fight new challenges, such as cyber threats; to increase NATO’s role in fighting terrorism; and to share the financial burden of a collective defense with other NATO countries.
Pompeo, the 70th secretary of state in U.S. history, is the seventh secretary of state to speak at the University of Louisville, following George Shultz, Madeleine Albright, James Baker, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton.
Here’s video from the event: