WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s cellphone service begins to cut out about 20 miles south of his family farm in Yuma, a small town of about 3,500 residents on the far eastern plains of Colorado. Once inside his home, the cell service gets worse.
For many Americans living in rural areas, poor cell reception is a fact of life. But with Gardner now finding himself on the receiving end of calls from Air Force One or the secretary of state, adequate service is necessary.
“If I’m inside the house, my phone does not come in,” Gardner said a in sit-down interview with The Durango Herald in his Senate office. “I’ve spent more time in the backyard wandering around in circles talking with the president or secretary of state. My neighbors probably think I’m absolutely bonkers because they just see me walking around on the phone talking to Air Force One because it won’t come in anywhere else.”
Combine the poor cell coverage at the farm with the day-to-day tasks of fatherhood, and Gardner’s new role as a foreign policy leader in the Senate becomes more difficult.
“The other hard thing (is) when you’ve got the kids in the car,” Gardner said. “(We’ve) gone to the grocery store, they’re screaming in the background and the State Department switchboard comes through and says ‘Senator Gardner, the secretary of state is on the phone for you.’ You take it, and it’s on Bluetooth.”
Gardner, a Republican who is four years into his first term, has positioned himself center stage in the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions during a consequential era of American diplomacy. As chairman of the subcommittee on East Asia, Gardner oversees a range of issues from military to trade, all during a nuclear security crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the proliferation of Chinese economic and military power.
On North Korea, Gardner serves as the Senate’s point man on one of the most pressing security threats of the last decade and has laid out a “maximum pressure campaign” of severe economic sanctions for a president who has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.”
Gardner’s oversight also includes trade with Asian nations – a pro-trade Republican senator himself representing a pro-trade state and operating with a president deeply skeptical of foreign trade deals.
“I talk to the president regularly about Asia,” Gardner said. “I’ve had engagements not only with the president but also (former National Security Adviser) H.R. McMaster and now (new National Security Adviser) John Bolton, the secretary of state (then Rex Tillerson), his national security council and team. So we have worked closely with them on my concerns and how we approach North Korea.”
Growing up on the farm in Yuma, Gardner first learned lessons in foreign affairs from overhearing area farmers discuss overseas markets. Yuma is a farming community in a county that abuts Nebraska.
“As a kid, I’d hear farmers talk about the Russia wheat embargo,” Gardner said, referring to the U.S. sanctions in 1980 in response to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan. “I’d hear them talk about what conditions were like in China or Ukraine and what it meant to corn prices or wheat prices or soybean prices. So trade was sort of a natural fit (and) that became the embedding of foreign policy that I had growing up.”
Gardner served on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce when he first came to Washington in 2011 and had a minimal focus on foreign relations. But the committee’s work extended beyond U.S. borders, quickly transforming the hearing room into a classroom for Gardner’s more formal lessons in foreign policy.
“(I) got more and more involved in trade issues from an energy perspective,” Gardner said. “And diplomacy actually, from an energy perspective, because we were approached more and more by particularly Asian and Eastern European nations about the soft diplomacy tool that energy represented.”
He distinctly remembers listening to testimony from U.S. officials in Eastern Europe about the difficulties European countries faced in relying on Russia for energy imports like natural gas. This experience stuck with him as he moved to the Senate.
“It was sort of an entrée into diplomacy,” Gardner said. “What it taught me, of course, was if you look at the hard power Russia was using – of cutting off energy – it made a significant impact on those countries.”
After defeating Sen. Mark Udall in 2014, Gardner was appointed to the Senate foreign relations committee and landed the chairmanship on the Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy shortly thereafter. Gardner said he spent his first few months meeting with Asia experts, numerous ambassadors and heads of state from the region. Gardner said he quickly learned one outstanding diplomatic maxim in operating in Asia.
“They all talked about how (they) need to know that the United States is there,” Gardner said. “In Asia, face matters a lot. What I’ve come to understand about what that means is: It’s presence. It’s face. It’s you’re there.”
Gardner has gone to Asia every year since his election to the Senate, always stopping in South Korea. He has also traveled to Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Myanmar and the Philippines.
In December 2015, discontent with the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, Gardner sounded the alarm in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal and argued that the U.S. needed to recalibrate its international priorities on the Korean Peninsula.
“Everybody was talking about Middle East,” Gardner said in his interview with the Herald. “While we’re paying attention every day to the Middle East, and rightfully so, the real future challenge is Asia.”
Not even one year into his first term, Gardner called for a complete overhaul of the U.S. approach on the Korean Peninsula. He urged for a switch from “strategic patience” under Obama to a “maximum pressure campaign,” a combination of tougher sanctions and better enforcement. Gardner’s maximum pressure campaign seeks to facilitate a “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” of North Korea, a goal that has eluded the U.S. for years.
A few months after the op-ed was published, Gardner introduced mandatory sanctions that passed unanimously through the Senate and was signed by Obama in 2016. The sanctions package moved North Korea up to the fourth-most sanctioned country by the U.S.
“We have started to hear significant problems in North Korea as a result of our sanctions,” Gardner said. “It’s been in open source reports that our sanctions – my sanctions – are effective.”
His sanctions made it mandatory that the Treasury Department sanction entities that engaged in activities that aided North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs and ultimately doubled the number of companies sanctioned by the U.S.
“(His sanction bill) was trying to push the U.S. executive branch to do more, and it was also a way of trying to close loopholes, increase authority, pushing on the U.S. to do more,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and current fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “We’ve seen Senator Gardner as being one of the major proponents of that.”
Many of these businesses engaging with North Korea are Chinese. Gardner recognizes that China must be pressured to aid the U.S. more in its attempts to denuclearize the North Korean regime.
“We have to make China recognize that there’s a penalty for dealing with a bad actor. North Korea’s economy is several billion dollars,” Gardner said. “Our economy is several trillion dollars. I think the choice of doing business with the largest economy in the world versus North Korea will be pretty clear to them.”
Coercing China to cooperate economically with the U.S. during a security crisis on the Korean Peninsula provides just one area of the expansive economic battles the U.S. fights with China, ranging from intellectual property theft to investment in developing countries. The U.S., Gardner said, is missing a long-term plan in Asia as China invests hundreds of billions of dollars across the globe through its “one-belt, one road” economic initiative.
“What Senator Gardner has rightly pointed out is we have a tendency to focus on today’s crisis,” said Greg Poling, a Southeast Asia Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “When there are crises burning in the Ukraine or the Middle East, it’s hard to convince people to spend the attention that’s needed for a long-term but slow-moving challenge in Asia, and China’s rise has been a slow moving challenge.”
To address the challenges, the U.S. needs a “generational” Asia policy, Gardner said. When asked if the U.S. currently had a strategy for addressing Asia, Gardner replied, “I don’t believe we do.”
“This is the most consequential region for America’s future,” Gardner said during Mike Pompeo’s confirmation hearing. “(This is) the region where two superpowers will compete to determine which world order will prevail.”
And Gardner wants to helm the formulation of a long-term policy in a region that by 2050 will make up over 50 percent of the global population and gross domestic product, according to an Asian Development Bank report.
Three weeks ago, he introduced the “Asia Reassurance Initiative Act” with three other senators to facilitate the creation of a U.S. plan in a region with gaping policy holes.
The act provides three components of a potential long-term strategy in Asia. The bill, which Gardner has discussed publicly since last summer, carves out money for security interests, economic engagement and the promotion of democratic values in the region.
“We need to have something that is actually a long-term vision for a region that will mean so much to the future of the world,” Gardner said in an interview before the bill was released. “ARIA will create that long-term generational Asia policy.”
Poling said that ARIA is a good starting point, but the bill has a heavy military focus and doesn’t offer enough “concrete action on economics.” However, the administration’s outlook on trade hampers the robust economic initiatives Gardner would like to see in Asia. The administration prefers bilateral trade deals to multilateral deals. Bilateral trade deals are between two countries, while multilateral would be three or more. Poling said bilateral deals are “dead on arrival” in Asia.
“There’s not a ton that the Hill can do right now unless the administration decides they really want to engage in economic rulemaking in Asia,” Poling said.
But Asian markets are crucial for the Colorado economy. According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Colorado exported $7.6 billion of goods to foreign markets in 2016. Canada and Mexico are the top two trade partners, but China, Japan and South Korea round out the top five, combining to account for more than $1.4 billion in Colorado exports.
The rate of economic expansion in the emerging Asian market will have great economic benefits for Colorado, which Gardner said encouraged him to address Asia policy.
“It really was an opportunity to focus on trade,” Gardner said. “We can focus on expanding markets for Colorado. Asia became a particular interest ... because we’re a Western state so our markets tend to be more Pacific than they are Atlantic.”
Convincing President Donald Trump to engage with these emerging markets can be a tough task for a pro-trade politician like Gardner. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in his presidency, a multilateral trade deal meant to strengthen U.S. economic standing in the region and counter the rapidly growing Chinese market.
The Trump administration also has the current U.S. trade representative renegotiating NAFTA, a cardinal trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. that serves as the bedrock of $2.5 billion in exports for Colorado and more than 202,500 jobs, according to a 2016 Business Roundtable report. Gardner has spoken with the president about the necessities of these trade deals.
“I’ve been leading groups of members to the White House for months talking about the importance of trade and the importance of NAFTA, encouraging him to join TPP,” Gardner said.
The administration’s positions on foreign agreements – from trade deals to NATO – foster concerns about the U.S. receding from the world stage and ceding power to China.
“Certainly, that has been something that we’ve talked about a lot,” Gardner said. “As it relates to trade, I am concerned about the trade position the administration has taken.”
As Gardner engages on both a long-term Asia strategy and addresses the North Korean nuclear threat, he has attempted to balance the multiple long- and short-term challenges the U.S. faces in Asia in pursuing a long-term Asia strategy. The administration struggles with this balance, Poling said.
“I appreciate the administration’s willingness to confront China in ways maybe that other administrations wouldn’t,” Poling said. “But that has come at the cost of a big vision, a long-term view of U.S. interests.”
With a summit between the North Korean leader and President Trump scheduled for June 12, Gardner has an opportunity to play a role in achieving a goal that has evaded administrations for decades: denuclearizing the North Korean peninsula.
Gardner’s economic sanctions have certainly played a role in pushing North Korea to the table. He recognizes the pressure is working and has repeatedly told Trump that the only acceptable outcome is “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
“We can’t have a ‘hey, we had a nice talk, we had a nice hamburger’ and that was it,” Gardner said.
No American president has met directly with the North Korean leader to negotiate an end to the country’s nuclear program, raising the stakes of a face-to-face negotiation in a region looking for strong U.S. leadership as Chinese influence dawns.
More uncertainty shrouds the conversations after a statement by a North Korean government official saying it isn’t interested in discussions “if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment.”
“My worry is this: We have no greater diplomatic tool than the president of the United States. That is our chief diplomat,” Gardner said. “Where do we go should this fail?”
Andrew Eversden is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.