Jessica Lee is a Senior Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington, DC think tank laying the foundation for a new US foreign policy centered on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. Previously, Jessica led the Council of Korean Americans, a national nonprofit organization of Korean American leaders, working with a national board, membership and staff to advance the voice and influence of the Korean American community through collaboration and leadership development.
How did you get involved in this work?
I first became interested in think tanks when I was a policy advisor in the House of Representatives. I saw firsthand the myriad competing priorities facing policymakers and the importance of deep analyses in breaking down complex issues. I also felt that Washington was quite insular and in need of more outside-the-Beltway perspectives. As Ambassador Susan Rice described, Washington is dominated by folks who are “pale, male, and Yale.” So when I heard that a transpartisan think tank was forming to democratize US foreign policy and move away from expansionist policies of the past, I was intrigued. I see the need for honest, real conversations about the state of US foreign policy and where it is headed. Quincy Institute’s pursuit of a less militarized, more peaceful foreign policy seems particularly relevant now given the domestic challenges facing our nation. I feel privileged to be able to provide my perspectives at this pivotal moment.
What do you appreciate most about the challenge of your work?
The biggest challenge in my work is finding common ground between conservatives and liberals who may not agree on a lot of issues but can see that endless wars harm US interests and prefer a more modest foreign policy that emphasizes cooperation over zero-sum competition. I do think there is a desire among most American policymakers to get things done, rather than be paralyzed by partisanship and brinkmanship. For example, I’ve worked with conservatives who advocate for the restoration of war powers authority to Congress and anti-interventionist progressives who agree that the US should formally end the Korean War as part of a broader strategy on North Korea. The question is how to channel these perspectives toward tangible policy change. That requires a combination of rigorous analysis, grassroots support, and policymakers who are willing to take a stance that transcends party politics.
How do you know you’re making a difference?
It’s hard to know when I am making a difference since my work is tied to a long-term vision that will take years, if not decades, to fulfill. That said, I’ve heard from various people in and outside of Washington who have encouraged me to continue the work. I have also made a point to speak to as many people outside the Beltway and get their feedback on my analysis. People seem to appreciate such exchange, and the sense that we don’t know everything in Washington. The more our work is grounded in the lived experience of American people, the easier they will be to pitch to elected representatives.
Regarding the US-North Korea issue, what needs to happen in the next four years?
I would like to see the next US president declare the 70-year long Korean War over and pursue a peace treaty as part of a comprehensive peace regime on the Korean Peninsula. Doing so will provide a clearer window into the North’s motives and its threat calculus, which will advance US interests in the Asia-Pacific region far more effectively than pursuing military deterrence alone.