Pompeo highlights ‘hunger for human freedom’ in remarks at Baker Institute

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joked Friday that his appearance at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy was the fulfillment of a “quid pro quo” with James A. Baker III, a reference to a phrase prominently discussed in the impeachment inquiry focusing in part on the department Pompeo oversees.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Video and photos by Brandon Martin

Though he didn’t address the impeachment proceedings directly, Pompeo’s timely jest opened his remarks in Baker Hall’s stately Doré Commons. He told the audience he invited Baker, a former secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, to visit him and offer advice when Pompeo was appointed to the job in April 2018. In exchange, Pompeo said, he agreed to come to Houston to speak at the Baker Institute.

“I’m now upholding my end of the quid pro quo,” Pompeo remarked, prompting laughter. “You gotta have fun along the way.”

Baker, the honorary chair of the Baker Institute, had introduced Pompeo to the crowd of nearly 300, including Rice students.

“The United States finds itself in world of quite dramatic transition,” Baker said. “As someone honored to have served as secretary of state, I fully understand the sometimes agonizing difficulty of prioritizing U.S. interests and values in a geopolitical setting where the United States possesses immense but still limited power.”

Pompeo, who was in Germany last week to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, directly thanked Baker, who was secretary of state when the wall came down in 1989. Though he left a month before the wall fell, Pompeo was an Army lieutenant on a tank unit during that time, he said, patrolling part of the border between East and West Germany.

“No one should ever underestimate Secretary Baker’s individual contribution to taking down that wall,” Pompeo said.

After the wall opened, Pompeo said, the traffic moved in only one direction: west, toward freedom.

He recalled the story of a guide he met at Stasi Museum in East Germany, who served as a prisoner there before the wall fell. He told Pompeo he was in total isolation, and the guards would let him outside — in a cage — a few times a week. During those periods, he would often glance up and see a Pan Am plane in the sky.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, right, introduced Pompeo.

“He said it was his dream to get on one of those planes,” Pompeo said. “What remarkable courage. We should all be proud of what he did, and what those seeking freedom did, and what the world did, and what America did to allow him to have that opportunity.”

Pompeo focused his 15-minute remarks on “the natural hunger for human freedom and why we should never underestimate its great and awesome power.” He said America is “a force for good” that has a responsibility to help people across the world who are seeking that same freedom, specifically mentioning Iran, Venezuela and Hong Kong.

“What day their freedom will come, we do not know,” Pompeo said. “But we know that if we work and collect friends and build out a mission set and support those seeking freedom that that moment will come.”

In a post-speech Q&A session with Warren Tichenor, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, Pompeo also signaled that the Trump administration is leaning yet again toward taking a harder line on trade with China.

Pompeo took China to task on a range of issues, from theft of intellectual property to subsidization of state-owned enterprises.

“And I’m happy to take some responsibility for this, too,” Pompeo said. “America’s not done enough. And President Trump has now said we’re going to do this. We’re going to be candid and honest and transparent. We’re going to work with China where we can, but we’re going to make sure that America addresses each of those challenges in a way that is appropriate.”

Pompeo also said he was concerned about China’s handling of protests in Hong Kong and its militarization of the South China Sea. The secretary will deliver a series of speeches on China in the coming weeks.

Pompeo is the third high-level dignitary to visit the Baker Institute in the past year. In November 2018, former President Barack Obama spoke at the institute’s 25th anniversary gala, and in April, Vice President Mike Pence visited the institute to give a speech on U.S. policy toward Venezuela.

The Baker Institute has been visited by every living former president since the institute was established 26 years ago, as well as by every vice president who has held office since then.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.