Rob Portman On National Security, Human Rights, and Supporting Ukraine

Rob Portman On National Security, Human Rights, and Supporting Ukraine

. 8 min read

Rob Portman is a United States Senator from Ohio. Senator Portman is a member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and is the Co-Chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. In the interview, Portman discusses legislation including the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, and the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

You have advocated for the Safeguarding American Innovation Act, intended to prevent China from illegally acquiring intellectual property through American universities. What is the need for this legislation, and how would you respond to research institutions that claim the bill is unnecessarily restrictive for international students and unnecessarily burdensome for educational institutions?

Our bipartisan investigation at the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations carefully documented the threat that China’s talent recruitment programs posed to the US research enterprise, including the important research conducted on university campuses. The troubling and surprising information we were able to obtain made it clear that China has used these programs, like the Thousand Talents Plan, to take US taxpayer-funded research and to fuel its own military and economic rise over the last 20 years—all while the federal government did little to stop it. Our research is a major reason the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and US attorneys around the country are now conducting their own investigations into Thousand Talents Plan researchers, including one that led to the arrest of Harvard professor Charles Lieber. Although the allegations against Lieber were shocking to the Harvard community and others, they were consistent with what we had learned in our investigation.

Because of the seriousness of this issue to academic integrity and national security, many major research universities support our legislation, the Safeguarding American Innovation Act. Our bipartisan bill simply allows the State Department to deny visas to certain foreign nationals who we know are coming to the United States to steal our research and intellectual property. This narrow new authority is designed to have no effect on undergraduate students, nor will it have any impact on the vast majority of foreign students and researchers. In fact, the legislation will allow campuses and research to remain open and operate their business as usual. We want to continue to attract and welcome the best and the brightest when it comes to foreign researchers and scientists, but we have to be smart about who we allow to access our open and collaborative research enterprise. Given its experience with the Thousand Talents Plan, I would hope for Harvard to support this legislation to help keep its campus both open and secure.

You’ve led several major pieces of legislation to combat human trafficking. Can you detail the extent of the problem in the United States and the world? What further legislation is needed to combat human trafficking?

No man, woman, or child should suffer from the evil crime of human trafficking. I’ve been proud to lead the way on six major pieces of legislation, now law, to combat the scourge and protect survivors. My bipartisan Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) established that it is illegal to knowingly facilitate online sex trafficking, as well as ensured that sex trafficking victims could seek justice through civil suits and that states could prosecute websites that violate federal sex trafficking laws. This law has paved the way for criminal indictments of traffickers, including the recent indictment of CityXGuide.

I will continue to build upon my SESTA law to ensure that no one else falls victim to this terrible crime. One key area we need to examine more closely is in the trafficking of children across the US border with Mexico. I have issued two bipartisan reports about failures of the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) that allowed traffickers to bring unaccompanied children into the United States and then, after DHS and HHS processed them, to become sponsors of those children. The traffickers placed the children in forced labor on an egg farm in Marion, Ohio. I have introduced legislation with Senator Richard Blumenthal to clarify that HHS is required to keep track of unaccompanied children until their immigration proceedings are resolved and ensure their safety.

Over the past decade we have made progress but there is much more to do both in the United States and in other countries to help end this scourge once and for all.

Turning to Hong Kong, civil liberties are clearly under siege, as evidenced by the passage of China’s national security law and the arrest of media executive Jimmy Lai. Are there any actions that the United States should take that could slow down the deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong?

In contrast to our allies in Europe and the Pacific, the United States has taken swift action to impose sanctions and remove the preferential treatment given to an autonomous Hong Kong. While additional actions along these lines can and should be done, the effect will be limited if we are not joined by the international community.

One of the most concerning aspects of this national security law is that anyone is subject to its jurisdiction even beyond China’s borders. In the past five years, China has exported its "safe city" technology packages to over 80 countries, which collects data on a country's citizens while integrating facial recognition with artificial intelligence. Additionally, China has established numerous joint police patrol programs with foreign countries, enabling Chinese officers to monitor its citizens while traveling abroad. In our own country, universities are being coerced into self-censorship in an attempt to protect Chinese students from this law. China's prospect of global enforcement and coercive power over people, not just Chinese citizens in China's territory, is a growing concern, which requires a response from US lawmakers and our allies.

On many occasions throughout your time in the Senate, you’ve supported various sanctions on Russia and President Vladmir Putin’s circle. How effective are sanctions on Russia as a means of deterrence when it appears that Putin’s foreign policy has only become more adventurous in the face of them? How might future sanctions be crafted to be more effective?

Sanctions on Russia have not been imposed solely as a deterrent and should not be judged by their deterrent value alone. These targeted efforts are designed to impose significant costs on the actors within Putin’s inner circle, as well as key economic sectors such as defense, which facilitate Russia’s malign behavior.

I have worked in the Senate to shed light on the efficacy of US sanctions on Russia. For example, as Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, I recently led a bipartisan investigation into the effectiveness of sanctions imposed on members of President Putin’s inner circle. Our findings raised serious concerns. We found that through anonymous shell companies, intermediaries, and lawyers, wealthy Russians subject to sanctions were able to continue to access the US financial system. Specifically, we determined that anonymous shell companies linked to sanctioned Russian oligarchs continued to move millions of dollars through the US financial system after they were sanctioned. This included over US$18 million in high-value art purchased through New York auction houses and private dealers by two sanctioned Russian oligarchs from May 2014 to November 2014. To ensure that sanctions are truly effective, we must know more about the beneficial owners of companies doing business in the United States.

In the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, you announced significant financial support for Ukraine’s military as well as steps that would bring Ukraine closer to full NATO membership. Why is this military aid in the United States’ national interest, and how might Ukraine’s ascension to NATO reshape the European security landscape?

Since 2014, Congress has provided assistance to Ukraine to be able to defend itself against Russian aggression. I have worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to increase the amount of military equipment, training, and support to the Ukrainian military. Small arms, Javelin missiles, ships, and training have all been provided to Ukrainians to make their military more effective against Russian aggression. All of these actions are in the United States’ national interest because Ukraine is a staunch ally strategically located in Eastern Europe that is pushing back against armed foreign interference. It is in the United States’ and Europe’s strategic interests to have a stable, free, and economically viable Ukraine that can serve as an example to others, showing that the United States rejects the anachronistic notion of a Russian “sphere of influence” and stands with those who choose to align with the West.

Ukraine’s recent acceptance as a NATO Enhanced Opportunity Partner is a testament to its commitment to structural reform, elimination of corruption, and integration with the West. In the past, Ukraine has contributed soldiers and military capabilities in Afghanistan during the war on terror, and regularly participates in NATO exercises. Ukrainian NATO membership would provide access to key logistics sites, forward airfields and training areas. Ukrainian troops are battle-tested and would provide capable combat forces to NATO, as well as bolster the European security landscape.

You’ve described the World Trade Organization (WTO) as important but also broken. In your opinion, how should the WTO be reformed? Is the Administration’s decision to stop appointments to the Appellate Body (effectively crippling the WTO’s dispute resolution mechanism), consistent with that view?

The WTO is an important institution—American exporters rely on WTO rules to reach foreign consumers every day. Yet, the WTO is in need of reform. WTO rules are often insufficient to address many non-market and techno-nationalistic economic practices. And where rules exist, they have frequently been interpreted in ways divorced from text and intent. This has contributed to the demise of the WTO’s negotiating function.

Part of this shift from negotiation to litigation is embodied in judicial activism by the appellate body. Judicial activism weakens the multilateral system by making it more difficult for members to negotiate new rules, while also neutering important tools that market economies can use to check non-market ones. This is why there has been a long-standing bipartisan critique of such judicial activism by the United States.

Blocking appointments to the appellate body is a tactic to catalyze a conversation about the problems at the WTO and their solutions. That’s why I recently introduced, with Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), a resolution laying out a thoughtful, bipartisan critique of the WTO and proposing specific solutions that can help reform and restore the WTO’s negotiating function.

Finally, the Harvard International Review prides itself on covering underappreciated topics in international relations. Throughout your time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, what areas of American foreign policy do you believe deserve more attention?

The fight against state-sponsored disinformation is a strategic threat to democracy and is an area that must receive more attention by foreign policy experts. I have taken steps to combat disinformation both here in the United States, as well as abroad. For example, through the bipartisan efforts of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, we exposed the threat to academic freedom that China’s Confucius Institutes pose on our university campuses. Since the Subcommittee issued its findings in February 2019, over 30 schools have announced they have closed or plan to close their Confucius Institute.

To combat disinformation by countries like Russia to destabilize democracies overseas, I worked with Senator Chris Murphy to pass legislation establishing the Global Engagement Center at the State Department. Since its creation, we have seen a rapid increase in its effectiveness as we have worked to get the organization fully funded and manned with the experts it requires to do its job.

Many agencies have a role to play in the domestic response to disinformation and as a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I feel it is critical that Congress strengthen coordination throughout the federal government when it comes to combatting disinformation. Congress must ensure that there is a coherent, synchronized response, both domestically and abroad.