The Grand Strategy Summit: American Leadership in the 21st Century
Cold War 2.0? Russia, Ukraine and the Western World
Niall Ferguson, Garry Kasparov, Mary Kissell, James Hohmann (moderator)
The Ritz Carlton, Washington, D.C.
November 11, 2022
Full Transcript Below
Jim Byron: President Nixon’s strategic approach to foreign policy was based on linking national interests between countries where it was possible, enabling a unique equilibrium between countries based on these mutual interests to create a generation of peace. Keeping that in mind, let’s move from our discussion of China to the discussion of Russia and the Western world. We do so during a period of great contention realizing, of course, that our country’s relationships with both China and Russia are inextricably linked together.
For discussion of the long view of Russia’s future relationship with the Western world, please welcome Mary Kissel, executive vice president of Stephens Incorporated, and former senior advisor to Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. She’s had a distinguished career with “The Wall Street Journal” as a member of its editorial board, as well as being its chief foreign policy writer in New York, and opinion editor based in Hong Kong.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He’s the author of 16 books, including “Kissinger,” “The Idealist,” and his work on “Kissinger, Volume II”.
Garry Kasparov is a Russian pro-democracy leader, global human rights activist, business speaker, author, and former world chess champion.
And this morning’s discussion, I should say, this afternoon’s discussion will be moderated by James Hohmann, who writes an opinion column for “The Washington Post” in his lecture at Stanford University. Would you please welcome our panel?
James: Thank you so much. Thank you everyone for being here. Thank you, Mary. Garry, good to see you. And I guess…
Garry: Good afternoon.
James: Naill will join us in a couple minutes. I will just jump right in. Obviously, Russia and China are inextricably linked, so I imagine we’ll talk some about China too, but let’s start with Russia. Garry, news today with Kherson and Ukrainian troops moving in. What is your read of the current situation in Ukraine?
Garry: There could be no second opinion. Ukraine is winning the war. Russia is in retreat. I think Putin has realized that there would be no other choice but to leave Kherson because otherwise, the most capable parts of Russian army, what’s left after the beginning of the invasion of February 24th, would be encircled. Though, they’re still heavy losses as I can see from the reports on the ground. And this defeat will have not only military, but also political consequences because, clearly, Putin is not capable of keeping his territorial gains. And after liberating Kherson area and removing Russian troops from the Western side of Dnipro, Ukrainians may start thinking about attacking Crimea because the corridor connecting Donbas and Russia with Crimea will be very vulnerable. It’s just a step. It’s a very flat territory, which is not easy to defend. And I think Ukrainians now are highly motivated. They have not enough weapons to win the war outright, but enough weapons to push Russians further.
James: Mary, let’s bring you into the conversation. You know, it wasn’t that long ago that Russia annexed Kherson as part of the territories, and there was a lot of concern that, potentially, they would be using that as a potential pretext or justification for using nuclear weapons if it was taken. What’s your read on where things stand? And I’m interested if you think, in response to Garry, there’s room for some kind of negotiated settlement or some solution short of total victory.
Mary: Well, thank you, James. And before I answer your question, I just wanna say thank you to the Nixon Foundation and to everyone in the audience and the supporters. It’s just really a great honor to be here, and it’s an honor to be with Garry. Hi, Garry.
Garry: Hi, Mary.
Mary: It’s been several years. I think to answer your question, and Garry probably wouldn’t tell you this himself because he is too humble. But just stepping back from this, Garry was actually one of the first people who really understood the essential nature of Vladimir Putin, many, many, many years ago. And he’s been warning the world of just this type of conflagration. And that’s an important thing to say because we are not living in an era where we can pretend that we can have things like a status quo, or a negotiated settlement with Xi’s of the world, or the Putin’s of the world. We have to recognize the essential nature, not just of the men, but of the regimes and the structures that they’ve built around them.
So, let me address your question on Ukraine, and I don’t wanna talk for too long. But there has been talk of a negotiated settlement with Vladimir Putin, but what does history tell us about the nature of a man like this and the imperialist ambitions that Nixon talked about as he understood Russian history? The nature of this man is constant geographical expansionism for the glory of Russia. And we’ve seen it in the tsar’s periods. We’ve seen it in the Soviet periods, we’ve seen it in Putinism. So, the last three out of four presidential administrations, we’ve seen Putin take territory, and he takes territory in times of weakness. And we’re once again demonstrating weakness because if we were truly honest, we have every capability to give Ukraine not just the intelligence but the weaponry to win. Europe doesn’t matter, Britain doesn’t matter, Eastern Europe doesn’t matter, it’s only the United States that matters. And I think that this is something that Nixon understood of how essential, not just the kind of realism to recognize who we were dealing with, but the absolute essence that we have to have American power and we have to exert it at critical hinge points of history. And I think that this is one of those points.
James: Couldn’t agree more that it’s a hinge point of history. Garry, what do you see as the stakes for winning this war and projecting the strength that Mary is talking about?
Garry: I couldn’t agree more with Mary that it’s a real turning point in history. We know from Filmhouse reports and from many other reports that democracy was on retreat for nearly two decades. And I think the outcome of the Ukraine war will decide which way we go. God forbid, Putin succeeds, it’s not going to happen, we know, but still, God forbid, it will embolden other dictators. It’ll put Taiwan in danger, and many other hotspots on the map will become targets for dictators. Ukraine wins, and all dictators will tremble, from North Korea to Nicaragua, from Belarus to Zimbabwe. I expect to see the rise in the freedom movements. I’m sure what’s happening in Iran now, it’s a direct result of Ukrainian’s victories. Even temporarily now, let’s say, but they still send the messages like the wind of freedom that is blowing in every direction.
And also I think it’s very important now not to hear those who are still arguing for negotiated settlement or negotiated outcome. There’s only one way to end this war is for Ukraine to be liberated, 100% liberated, Russia to be forced to pay reparations, and war criminals brought to justice.
Where I do not agree with Mary, it’s about the role of European nations. Of course, America can and must play a decisive role in arming Ukraine and guaranteeing its military superiority. Without full support from Poland and Baltic nations, and without decisive steps made by Boris Johnson at the very beginning of this conflict when America wasn’t sure how to act, Ukraine might be facing very dire consequences.
So that’s why I think it’s probably worth talking about new strategic configuration in Europe that transcends NATO and European Union borders. It already, you know, was a new potential structure that actually forced Germany and France and even Italy to reconsider their position because you could see the bridge between Britain and Poland and then Baltic nations, and then America gradually, gradually was coming in. So, we could see that NATO could become irrelevant. And then Germans and French, and even now Italians, they got a message. And now Europe, contrary to what Putin expected, it’s quite united. With the exception of Hungary and couple other countries, Europe demonstrated unity way beyond my expectations.
Mary: Can I just jump in there…
James: Yeah, please.
Mary: …because I think Garry raises such an interesting idea which is this whole World War II, you know, post-war international order where we created all of these institutions with the best of intentions, whether it was the Breton Woods institutions, whether it was NATO, whether it was the United Nations, they’re just not fit for purpose. And I think, you know, you have to ask, are they fulfilling their mission, and are they serving the interests of the nation states that created them? Can we fix them? And if we can’t fix them, then we must create something new because our times demand it. Because this is a post 9/11 era. And as Garry says, right, there are these new alliances, new forms of cooperation emerging. I mean, when we talk of Europe, what do we mean when we talk about Europe? There is no Europe. There is Eastern Europe, there’s a Western Europe, they’re the Scandinavian countries, they’re the Baltic nations, they all have very different national interests. And I’ll tell you, from working at the state department, our friends are not always very friendly, and they’re not always that helpful. I have to say also, it’s nice to be in Washington, and not actually have to work in a bureaucracy. This is just such a nice way to visit this city.
James: And would you say NATO isn’t working right now? It feels like NATO actually has sort of risen to the moment.
Mary: The bulk of the assistance is not actually NATO assistance. What’s actually helping the Ukrainians on the ground? It’s U.S. intelligence. How do the Ukrainians know where to target? They know because of us, because no one comes anywhere near us when it comes to intelligence. Not the Brits, not the Australians, none of the Five Eyes partners. We are up here, they are down there. So that’s number one. But number two, in terms of the weaponry, the material, yes, Europe helps, but again, the magnitude of the differential is just enormous. Not just in terms of money, but in terms of capabilities provided.
Garry’s right, of course, we need Europe, but we need Europe to do an enormous amount more, and they won’t do so unless we commit to help Ukraine win. And we clearly explain to the American people, this is why it’s in the U.S. national interest to win, not because of some fantasy, but we need to make the argument of what has happened over time where we began this discussion to explain, this is why we need to confront them now, and we need to win quickly. You’re a fiscal hawk, fine, let’s win the war quickly. You’re a democrat who cares about human rights, win the war quickly. We have to make arguments to all sides.
James: Yeah. I mean, you think about kind of the animating spirit of this whole Grand Strategy Summit, and you ask, what would Nixon do? And it does feel like he was very good at bringing the American people along, explaining the stakes, explaining why we had to do what we were doing. Garry, thoughts on what Mary just said?
Garry: Absolutely. NATO was built back in 1949 to defend Europe against Soviet Russian aggression. That’s exactly what Ukraine has been doing right now. And for those who are still arguing whether Ukraine should or should not become member of NATO, it’s already a member of NATO. It’s probably, most likely the strongest army in Europe, and by the end of this war, it’ll be the second strongest army in the world. I’m not so sure about Chinese army. They look very strong on paper, but , you know, if they test it, we may find the same kind of corruption weaknesses as we found with Putin’s army in Ukraine.
And again, I agree with Mary that it’s time to rethink the alliances because we have to start thinking, yeah, beyond this war. I think Ukraine’s going to win, what will happen in Russia? But Ukraine’s victory is in American national interest. It’s about security. Because again, God forbid Putin had won the war, succeeded, taken over Kyiv in three days, how much time would it take for China to decide that America was so weak and to have a shot on Taiwan? I believe that Ukrainian heroism and Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership protected Taiwan for years to come.
So that’s why it’s time to actually demonstrate that dictators they are no longer calling the shots. And I think that Putin’s alliances that he built around the world will crumble because he looks weak. China now is sitting on a fence, not offering Putin any real assistance because Putin is losing the war.
James: I want to ask.
Garry: That’s why…
James: Yeah. I mean, these middle countries, it’s been frustrating, disappointing to watch the India’s, those countries that are taking Russian oil that aren’t really supporting the Ukrainians. How do we deal with that in this sort of Cold War 2.0 that we’re talking about?
Mary: I just get the small questions. Well, I think it’s clear not just that we’re in the post-9/11 era, but as you say, we have a free world alliance that share our values. And nations that aren’t free do also belong to that block, nations like Vietnam and others. Nations that don’t share our values and want to destroy us, Chinas, the Irans, the North Koreas of the world. And then you’re right, we have these neutral nations in the middle, so-called neutral nations. But we’ve seen this before in the non-aligned movement, in the ’60s. It’s nothing new.
I think the question becomes, how do we incent those nations to come to our side? Because we don’t want to play the same kind of game that our enemies play. That’s not the source of our strength. The source of our strength is not state-led investment in a kind of Belt and Road Initiative. The source of our strength is the fact that nations around the world want American companies to come to invest, to build their infrastructure, to send their kids to be educated here, etc. And I think it starts with being very clear that, morally, our way of life is superior. We cannot be afraid to say that. Our way of life is superior. Our system is superior. We’ve lifted more people out of poverty than any other nation in the history of the world. So, we have to start thereby acknowledging that fundamental differential that we are good, we are a force for good.
And then we need to devise, as Garry says, a new way of thinking about alliances, who is actually our friend? And then those that sit in the middle, what are the tools that we could use? Is it linkage like what Nixon did? Could we play a similar game and say, if you want to invest in the United States and this rich market with all these consumers who like to max out their credit cards, then, you know, we’ll welcome you in, a new kind of trade effort that we really haven’t seen out of any prior administration, really, in the last 8, 12 years. I think there are two presidents that haven’t had trade promotion authority, but maybe we don’t need those kinds of deals anymore. I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is, but, you know, the resources that we have, the attractiveness of us to every other nation in the world is absolutely unparalleled. And you know it very simply because this is where the capital comes, and this is where the people want to come.
James: You’re talking about carrots. Let’s also talk about sticks. How effective do you think the costs that we’ve imposed on Putin have been? Garry, we’ll turn to you, we’ll bring you in. Obviously, we’ve imposed the very strong sanctions, but Russia has evaded them to some degree. Do you think that they’ve been enough? Do you think that the Western consensus can hold?
Garry: As for sanctions, it’s the same as weapons. So, it’s less than Ukraine needs, less than I wanted, but much more than Putin expected. Sanctions are working, no doubt about it. Russian economy is in…I wouldn’t say in free fall, but you may say it’s not capable of supporting Russian military efforts. Many believe that by the end of next spring, Russian economy will not provide enough ammunition for Russian army to fight. So, they might be just a military default, simply because Russian economy will not be up the task.
And while the sanctions are being evaded, I think the loopholes have been gradually closed. In the beginning, was Kazakhstan, now Kazakhstan is no longer doing it. Obviously, you have Turkey and Erdoğan just is a great salesman. And he has his Turkish bazaar playing, you know, just on every table that he can find. I don’t think there’s much we can do about it. So, he’s indispensable as an ally, and he also helps Ukraine. But, you know, these channels do exist.
I would point out that the Republic of Georgia, the defacto ruler of this country, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a former Russian oligarch, and he still has very close ties with his buddies in Moscow. So, that’s probably one of the countries that is supporting Russian war efforts. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough. And I think there’s more to be done. And the number one priority, in my view, is to actually, to find a way to not just to freeze Russian funds, but to confiscate them. I think it’s time to say openly that while we all respect private ownership of land and means of production, private property, but when we talk about war crimes and genocide, and while people are talking about international tribunal alongside the [inaudible 00:19:50] Tribunal, we have to make sure that the bills to rebuild Ukraine will not be covered by American-European taxpayers.
There’s so much Russian money available. So, the huge funds being frozen, the state funds, and also there are many targeted oligarchs that are still walking around without being really hurt. So, we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars, and I think it’s time for the free world to actually show political will and just to go after this money.
Mary: You know, when I was working with the secretary, we were thinking about strategy. Carrots and sticks are very important, but we very rarely think creatively about sticks. And the fundamental question I would always ask is, do we really understand what Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin value? So, I would talk throughout government and I’d read as much as I could about them internally with the access that we had, which was extraordinary. And it’s actually very simple, and it’s very common among these types of guys. They want power, obviously, and they value money, and they value the security of their family. And we have lost our ability to be ruthless about these things. But these are ruthless men, and to some extent, we have to regain that sense.
So, let’s take the power aspect of it. We should be flooding Russia right now with information and photographs and videos about all of his properties around the world, and the lavish lifestyle. We should be saying and posting, this is where the kids are, this is where the mistresses are, here’s where the boats are. And if you used a tactical nuclear weapon, not only will we nuke you, we’ll go after all of these other things that you value. And we need to be very clear about that. And that sounds very harsh, and it sounds very mean, but the reality is, is that we live in a mean Machiavellian world. We may not like that, but we do. And I think what we’ve lost sight of is that these guys fight to win, because they know the only way for a sustainable peace and to get the things that they want, is they win, we lose. Well, we need to flip that around, like Reagan wins. We win, they lose.
So, whether it’s flooding Russia with all kinds of fact and truth in the way that we did during the Soviet period, whether it’s figuring out what they value and threatening it, or outright taking it, as Garry says, these are things that we have to start contemplating because this is not a game. This isn’t gonna stop at Ukraine, if the Ukrainians don’t win. Unfortunately, those dominoes that Nixon talked about, I think we’re starting to see the Afghanistan, Iranian attacks in the Middle East. I mean, missiles are being sent into the Gulf toward UAE. We’re lucky that an American or Americans haven’t been killed en mass in Iraq or Saudi Arabia with the attacks in the civilian airports, or Syria for that matter. There have been multiple attacks against our troops in Syria just in these last weeks. So, you know, it’s time for us, I think, to harden our approach, not to abandon carrots, but to realize that we need to just not use old tools like sanctions, but we need to revisit the kinds of tools that worked in the past, in the Soviet era, and in other eras. We have to get tougher.
Garry: Yeah. Oh, just following up what Mary said, is it’s a Grand Strategy Summit, and overall, it’s about strategy. If you have strategy, you can choose your tactical tools, I’ll speak as a chess player. But if you have no strategy, you are poised to be reactive, not proactive. And I think the biggest problem now is that since the end of the Cold War, America lost its strategic vision. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, it was a consistent policy. Yes, some deviations, Democrats, Republicans, but we all knew. I grew up in this world, on the other side of [inaudible 00:24:02], in the Soviet Union. America was there. Love it, hate it, America was there. America was a dominant factor, and the leader, and defender of the free world. Since 1991, 1992, after the end of the Cold War, “The Era of the End of History,” as we all remember the bestselling book of1992 of Francis Fukuyama.
So, America, it’s no longer America as factor, but it’s more like, you know, who runs America? It goes from one president to another. It’s more like a pendulum. And every moment America shows weakness, dictators, they capitalize on it. There’s no vacuum. The idea that we can walk away and no longer be a world policeman, it’s ridiculous. Because if you leave a country, you leave a region, somebody else gets in. And we know exactly who gets in, China, Russia, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Iran. So, all the thugs, terrorists, dictators, they will capitalize on it. And it’s not accidental. Putin’s annexation of Crimea followed Obama’s weakness in Syria, this infamous red line. So, that was a test. And Putin’s aggression this year, I believe was a result of America’s shameful stampede from Afghanistan. So, the moment America shows weakness, look, it’s happens. It’s not, “I say, you say, she says,” it’s about the facts. And it’s amazing that, very often, we are still debating it as if we don’t have enough information to take it as an axiom, you don’t have to prove.
James: Well, that’s why we’ve gotta win in Ukraine, to not project more weakness. The sticks that you’re talking about, how do we push and use those sticks without cutting Russia off entirely, where there’s no engagement and they’re not dependent on us anymore, whether it’s buying their oil or having any engagement at all? Where do you draw that line?
Mary: Well, I think the American foreign policy establishment, or the Blob, or whatever you wanna call it, is prone to something called strategic narcissism where they say, “Well, everything depends on what we do.” But the reality is, Putin also decides what he wants, and what he’s going to do. The Chinese decide what they want, and what we’re going to do. We have to drive and incent the outcomes that we want. And we have to, as Garry says, have a vision for what that is. This administration is not going to use sticks.
I’ll give you one example. It’s not maybe widely discussed or talked about, but it’s a fact, and I think there’s enough publicly available information out there to say it. Cuba is the source of pretty much all of our problems in our own backyard. Maduro would not be in power without his Cuban protective detail. All of the leftist revolutions in South America and Central America have been Cuban-supported. Right at the beginning of the Biden administration, the Cubans got out on the streets. And with just a little bit of help, we could have solved not just the problem that we have in Cuba, by just simply enabling these people to communicate with one another, we could have solved our Venezuela problem, we could have solved our Bolivia problem. You know, you name the problem, and it would be so much more manageable if not solved. Right? And that would’ve been obvious if you had had a strategic vision for a free and open Western hemisphere, which we don’t have. But that was a missed opportunity.
And that told me immediately when I saw that, okay, these guys aren’t thinking longer term. They’re not thinking past the immediate crisis, they’re thinking through a domestic political lens. Is this going to appeal to my base at home? Not, is this right for America? Or in 5, 10, 20 years, how will this help us create a world that makes America safer, and us more prosperous? Look at the Iran nuclear talks, right? They pursued that until it was so embarrassing that even Democrats on Capitol Hill didn’t support it. Look at the constant talk and call for cooperation with communist China. Communist China is a Marxist-Leninist regime that cannot peacefully coexist by its nature with the free world. So, these are ridiculous things to say. We can’t cooperate with China. They don’t want to cooperate with us. They’re at war with us. So, you know.
James: Is this the Blob and staff and the foreign policy establishment, or is this Joe Biden? Where is this coming from?
Mary: I think this is the lack of a real crisis. I fear that it’s going to take a war for the country to wake up. Although I have to say, who would’ve thought five years ago that, on Capitol Hill, we would’ve had bipartisan consensus that Iran, China, and Russia, and their interests are all opposed to the United States? It would’ve been totally unthinkable. So, the reality of the world is starting to change the political dynamics in Washington, and that’s a good thing. It’s also changing in the country. That’s a very good thing. It just, unfortunately, hasn’t changed fully in this executive branch, and specifically in the office of the President because it doesn’t matter if you have hawks or, you know, realist, so-called realist, Maxonian realists in the administration. And there are some, there are some guys and girls right now on the National Security Council who are deeply concerned, and unfortunately, they don’t set the direction of national policy, that’s the president.
So, it’s either going to take a true crisis or it’s going to take just time for this national grassroots consensus that we saw from the American people, that’s starting to consolidate in Congress, for us to really pursue that at the highest level where it matters, which is at the White House.
James: You’re more optimistic about the consensus than I am. You know, I think there were exit polls this week that showed that like a third think we’re doing too much to support Ukraine, a third think we’re not doing enough, and a third think it’s just the right amount. So, it would be nice if that sunk in with more of the American people.
Mary: I’m not usually called an optimist, so that’s a good thing.
Garry: By the way, exactly. You said one-third, one-third, one-third, which means two-thirds now, they’re willing to support Ukraine, nearly 70%.
James: That’s a glass two-third full perspective.
Garry: Exactly. Unless my math is wrong. And I think it’s what’s important. I think that the only issue where you have bipartisan support in America today, giving Ukraine what it needs to win the war. Yeah, it’s not 80, 90%, but still, I don’t think about anything else that has bipartisan support today. And while we talk about, you know, just the big crisis, look, we have war in our hands, a real war. That’s why I’m not sure that the title of this conversation, Cold War, is probably correct. It’s a hot war now, people being killed as we speak.
And America, while it’s indispensable, in its military supply to Ukraine, it’s doing much less than it can. And every time when Ukraine has asked for more weapons, we hear, “Oh, if we do this or that, it will lead to escalation with Russia.” I mean, what kind of escalation now are you talking about? Iran now already announced it would supply Russia with ballistic missiles, 800 kilometers range. And America is still contemplating whether we can supply Ukraine with 200 to 300 kilometers range missiles that could destroy Russian fleet in Sevastopol, and hit the bridge. Again, because of the escalation. And drones, just two days ago, “The Wall Street Journal” reported that United States government decided against giving Ukraine Gray Eagles that could cover the skies of big Ukraine cities, and also to hit Russian targets in Crimea.
Mary: You know, Garry, again, this raises such an important and interesting and essential theme, which is that, we do have to also very deeply understand the relationships between our enemies. And we’re constantly talking about our foreign policy issues as if they’re purely bilateral issues, what is the U.S.-China relationship? What’s the U.S.-Russia relationship? What’s the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia? Okay, that matters. But equally, it matters how they’re interacting with one another and how those relationships are changing. What does it mean that Xi Jinping went to Uzbekistan and effectively asserted dominance over wide swaths of Central Asia that is, you know, historically a Russian dominion. You know, what does it mean that you have African nations voting against us all the time in the United Nations. Terrible institution, we should probably get rid of it. That didn’t get a laugh line in the audience. That’s amazing. Thank you. Thank you.
James: One cheer.
Mary: But, you know, this is important. And we need to start speaking in these terms that, you know, the Russia-China relationship, you know, is this a new block that’s beginning to form? China has a policy called the Dual Circulation policy, it was probably discussed earlier today, where effectively they want to create a new separate market dominated by them, largely in China, but maybe that’s what the Belt and Road is about. They’re anticipating the day that all U.S. investment pulls out of China or is kicked out of China, and then they’ll have Russia to sell to, and the Middle East, and the Belt and Road countries around the world, right? These kinds of relationships just as equally as our positive relationships with our allies and our positive, you know, institutional arrangements. These are all things that, you know, we need to be thinking about and discussing, debating now.
James: And obviously, this was the great insight behind Nixon opening China. Have you been surprised by the extent to which China has helped Russia, or has not helped Russia in its war on Ukraine?
Mary: Oh, I’m not surprised at all. I mean, you saw cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, that’s many years back. People kind of laughed at it. They said, “Ah, they can’t really build NATO. They’ve never really historically liked each other, they’ve fought border wars, etc. You know, clearly, they can’t be friends.” But again, we have to understand how they think. The United States, having a friend like Australia in that kind of a close relationship is, in many ways, different than a friendship that China would seek. China would say, “Well, is it benefiting the Chinese Communist Party?” Because that’s their only goal. “Yes. Okay, we’ll do it. We don’t have to have the trivialities of human rights and of value discussions, and all of that. If it serves our national interest, we’ll do it.” And perhaps that’s the key, is coming back and asking that core question more honestly and more often, is it in the U.S. national interest? And what is the U.S. national interest? You know, Jake Sullivan does talk about this a lot. I think he has the right answer. He just doesn’t have the right instincts of how to get there, which is to protect and defend the United States, make the world safe for us and our way of life.
Garry: You know, I’m not sure I agree about China. Buying Russian oil at great discount, it’s not helping, it’s business. As for help, I don’t think China is doing anything that could tilt the balance in Russia’s favor. Moreover, I think Xi Jinping demonstrated his true feelings about Putin, it’s probably a political verdict. When Putin turned 70, on October 7th, he has not sent a telegram. Ignore Putin. But to make it worse, to add insult to injury, three or four days later, he sent the telegram to Tajikistan’s president, Rahmon, who turned 70. So, by the oriental standards, that’s a clear demonstration that he viewed Putin as a politically dead man.
Mary: But Garry, he benefits either way.
Garry: Oh, exactly.
Mary: If Putin wins, I mean, then you have…or keeps us wrapped up, then, you know, it reduces our focus on what China is doing. And if he loses, then he has a new, very large geography to dominate. So, I focus less on what they say, and more on what they do. And they are purchasing an enormous amount of energy. They haven’t said a word against what Russia’s doing at the UN. And in terms of, you know, sanctionable activity, well, they’re all in on helping Iran, helping sanctioned Russian entities, etc. We’re not doing very much about that. But that goes back to the stick conversation, right? We need to be clear about who’s helping whom, and we need to not be afraid to use sticks.
James: So if you’re Joe Biden meeting with Xi Jinping, you mentioned Jake has an understanding of what is in the core national interest, but not necessarily the instincts. What should our posture be toward China right now, vis-a-vis, what’s going on in Ukraine?
Mary: I have no problem with talking. I sat in the room with the Chinese foreign minister in Bangkok at one of the Asian summits. It was four sides and four sides, all men. And I sat in front of, you know, one of the junior guys, and he wouldn’t look at me for the entire, like, hour and a half that we were in the room. He just kept his head down. And they sat and they read talking points. So, there was no conversation. It was like you were back in the Soviet era, right?
So, I’m not against talking, but you have to have leverage in order to have a successful negotiation. And there does come a point where, if you’re continually being humiliated, or punched in the face, and you keep walking up and saying, “Please, I want you to punch me again. Will you please?” That becomes something that’s really damaging to you. So, I don’t see the point in sitting down between those two leaders and having a discussion. And we don’t know, by the way, what they’re gonna talk about. Maybe they’re talking about, you know, China’s nuclear activity that we don’t like, but, you know, I haven’t seen the utility of talking to a Chinese side, which is only going to recite talking points, and then during the day work to undermine our interests here at home and abroad.
James: And it looks like we have Naill Ferguson who’s joined us. Can you hear me? I see you.
Niall: I can. Under some difficult circumstances. I’m doing my best here.
James: Well, we’re glad to have you.
Niall: In Austin Airport, American Airlines Lounge.
James: There are worse places in the world, but…
Niall: No, there aren’t. Because the Wi-Fi doesn’t work. I had to pay to get in because I didn’t have the right status, and now I’m having to tether with my phone. And so, everything sucks.
James: Well, we were just talking about China and the president’s posture and his meeting, and I think you were with us for what Mary was saying. You’ve talked about the need for a…you’ve written recently about the need for sort of detente with China to focus on preparing and dealing with our other threats. Can you talk about that?
Niall: Well, at the risk of annoying Mary and Garry, and perhaps everybody in the audience, let me try to pick up where I think they left off. I heard little fragments as I was running around the airport. The way I think about our situation today is that we’re in Cold War II, and this time China is the principal antagonist. It’s taken the place of the Soviet Union. It’s an ideological cold war. It’s technological, it’s geopolitical, it’s all that we remember from the Cold War, but with the difference that the Chinese economy is much bigger than the Soviet economy ever was, and in many ways, we are in a relatively weaker state. Think only of the enormous debt that we’ve accumulated relative to the Cold War era.
And my view is that we would be in considerable difficulty if we found ourselves simultaneously in crises in Europe. We already are engaged in a proxy war there against Russia, which is in itself a proxy for China, and in the Middle East, where I think Iran’s digression is likely to spill over into attacks on Saudi Arabia in the near future and in the far East. And my view is that, our collision course that we’ve embarked on, with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan, is ill-timed. This is not a good time for us to engage in brinkmanship and rerun the Cuban Missile crisis over Taiwan, call it the Taiwan Semiconductor Crisis.
This is not to say that we should appease China. Detente was not really about appeasing the Soviet Union, though it was sometimes presented as such. It’s more a matter of buying time. Because time is not on China’s side, and it is ultimately, on the side of the West. The thing to avoid is a simultaneous showdown in three theaters, which it’s clear that the U.S. military is not equipped to handle.
I’ll make one final point. We have, I think, meaningfully changed our stance of Taiwan in recent years. This is true of both the Trump and Biden administrations. One can’t claim that it’s entirely the Chinese that have deviated from the status quo, I don’t know that’s credible. And we don’t have, as far as I understand it, a credible war plan in the event that China risks an invasion of Taiwan. We have a plan that’s been repeatedly tried and has failed the test in war games, that doesn’t seem like the right situation to be in to engage in brinkmanship.
So, my argument is for a detente in the spirit of Richard Nixon who never trusted the Soviets, but understood that, in 1969, the United States should buy time and not engage in brinkmanship because its position was relatively weak.
James: Garry, do you want to respond to that?
Garry: I’m trying to digest what Niall said. Because I’m trying to translate it from strategic geopolitical talk into something practical. Practically, it’s a message to China to take over Taiwan. That’s what I heard. Yeah, maybe I missed something, but I think that’s exactly the message. If I understood correctly, that’s exactly the message that will undermine all our efforts.
Also, I disagree about three conflicts. America is not part of the conflict in Ukraine directly. Sending limited, very limited number of weapons to Ukraine does not mean that you have to send American soldiers. There are very limited American resources being allocated there. And if we are concerned about three different areas, again, the Middle East is another point. There’s Israel there and the coalition with American allies, the Arab countries. I don’t think Iranians threat is that serious. But Iran sends most of weapons now to Russia, by the way. So, win the war quickly, make sure the war is over, and then we don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Niall: Well, no, that’s not what I’m saying, Garry. And with your perfect command of English, you know, that’s not what I said. What we in fact are doing is increasing the likelihood that China risks an invasion of Taiwan, in two respects. First, it’s pretty clear that we no longer believe in strategic ambiguity and no longer even pay lip service to the idea of one China. So, the 50-year agreement to disagree on Taiwan, that goes back to 1972, seems largely at an end. That’s certainly how the Chinese see it. We treat Taiwan as an independent country de facto. Certainly, that was how Nancy Pelosi appeared to treat it on her recent visit. And we’ve also, I think, increased the incentive for China to act by cutting off or proposing to cut China off from the most sophisticated semiconductors and the machinery needed to make them, which is the effect of the recent commerce department orders. If you can’t access the most sophisticated semiconductors, 92% which are made in Taiwan, then your incentive to uphold the status quo is actually reduced. So, I think our present course, Garry, actually increases the probability of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. And that’s very…
James: Mary. Let’s bring Mary in.
Niall: …dangerous road to go down. I knew I’d annoy you by saying that.
James: Is strategic ambiguity.
Garry: Sure. So, Naill, it’s great to see you. I think it’s…again, I go back to that idea of strategic narcissism, which I think really infects the foreign policy establishment, especially those who haven’t kind of served in government and really seeing or read the intelligence, or seen the military maneuvers, or what they’re doing here within the United States.
And it’s important that we not implicitly excuse unprovoked aggression. The United States did not implement a commerce department ban on exports to Huawei in the last administration or the new order in this administration, which was quite expanded, just because we felt like provoking a conflict. We did that because we recognized that the Communist Party was engaging in widespread data collection to build a military and military capabilities to effectively not just subjugate their own population through crimes against humanity, genocide in rebellion states, surveillance state, the likes of which we’ve never seen, which by the way they sell to our allies and other democracies, not just to other repressive regimes, but that they were actively developing capabilities including a nuclear program, which we have no visibility into, that is only aimed at us.
And so when you hear someone say, “Well, Pelosi’s trip was provocative,” that’s actually United Front CCP propaganda. There have been multiple delegations that went to Taiwan, where Xi Jinping’s regime said absolutely nothing. So, we are not the ones that provoke and we have to recognize, I just go back to where we started, the nature of this Marxist-Leninist regime, what they do, not what they say. And we also have to recognize that the information that we get about China comes from propaganda. And it is not represented that way, when you read about China. The U.S. media has very close partnerships and takes money from that regime. I saw this when I was in the administration. We started to declare foreign missions of Chinese propaganda outlets here in the United States, and the big U.S. media outlets flipped out. They said, “You’re gonna get us kicked out of China.” And in fact, some of them were kicked out of China. We didn’t do that, the Chinese did that.
But why were they mad? Because they wanted those partnerships, they wanted that money, they wanted access to that market, they wanted money. But we don’t talk about the information out of China like we did with Pravda. Why don’t we treat it like Pravda? That’s what it is. And you always have to think about that when you’re hearing these kinds of arguments and when you’re reading that news in the newspaper.
Niall: Mary, can I just be clear? This is the Richard Nixon Foundation Grand Strategy Summit, because I think I may have dialed into the William F. Buckley Grand Strategy Summit by mistake. The kind of arguments that you are making would, I think, have sounded strange or at least would’ve struck Richard Nixon as naive. It’s not that I have any illusions about the CCP, nor am I anywhere aligned with “The New York Times.” On the contrary, I understand precisely how dangerous the CCP is.
The point is that what we can’t risk is a confrontation over Taiwan that we are not militarily prepared to win. And I think, Mary, you know, as well as anybody better than me, as I haven’t had the privilege to serve in government, that we don’t have a credible plan to respond if China risks an amphibious planning, I don’t think we even have a credible plan to respond if there’s a blockade.
Richard Nixon had no illusions about communism, not Soviet communism, not Chinese communism. But he did understand when the United States was in a relatively weak position, which it was when he became president in 1969. Whoever becomes president in 2025 is gonna inherit quite a strategically weak position from the Biden Administration, for reasons I think you and I would agree with. And that’s why it’s important not to get into the situation, where we are suddenly fighting fires on two or three fronts. I want the war on Ukraine to be over soon with a Ukrainian victory.
If I was cleverer enough to do Zoom backgrounds, I could do one that would be as yellow and blue as yours, Garry. On the other hand, we have to recognize that it might not be as easy as all that to end this war. President Zelensky said the other day, he would negotiate, but not with Putin, and only if there was an agreement on reparations to Ukraine, and war crimes trials of Russians. That doesn’t look like a starting point for meaningful negotiations with the Russian government. So, let’s just be clear, the likelihood that this war is over soon is relatively low. Historically, wars that have lasted six months, tend not to be over within the next six months.
As I mentioned, the Middle East is in an unstable state, not least because of the mistakes the Biden administration has made. But the thing I keep coming back to is that the U.S. is not ready for a war with China, it is not ready for a war over Taiwan. And therefore, we should, I think, dial back the strategic unambiguity which Richard Haass recommended back in 2020, and Joe Biden appears to now have adopted. This is not a great time for brinkmanship. Perhaps in 10 years we’ll be ready for it just as by 1980 the United States was in a different situation from the United States in 1969. But I’m trying to think like Nixon because this is a strategy which bears his name.
Garry: What I learned from the game of chess is that, you know, before you decided a strategy, you evaluate the position. And I think it’s simply, you know, using Nixon’s experience and his decisions back in 1969, during his presidency, without taking account the current situation and other similar situations in the past is probably…you know, it could lead us to the wrong conclusions.
We already talked with Mary that it’s about political will, and there were many moments that were much more parallel than today. In January, 1943, correct me if I’m wrong, you are a historian, FDR and followed by Winston Churchill declared that the war will end not with negotiation, but with unconditional surrender. And what I know is that in January, 1943, Vermont and Nazi Germany was far more formidable upon than many others in history, and definitely more than Putin’s Russia today. You can say, okay, it’s nuclear weapons, but that’s a separate conversation. In 1948, Harry Truman, against the advice of the Pentagon and many of his administration, said, “We, shall stay. Period.” And he faced not Vladimir Putin, but Joseph Stalin. I’m not even talking about 1962. 1968 America was, here I agree with you, in a very weak position, Vietnam War and America was divided so badly. 1968 elections, you know, it’s a country split in the middle. And America’s political stock in the world was very, very low. But in 1980, oh, imagine Jimmy Carter in the office. I don’t think America was in a very good position. inflation was very high. It took political will of Ronald Reagan, who was harshly criticized for saying such outrageous things like evil empire. People laughed at him when he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” You remember that? I do remember that. I was 24 when he said it. So, he was damn right. It’s about political will.
And now I strongly disagree that America’s in the weak position. The free world was never in such a comfortable position having overwhelming military, political, and more important, psychological advantage. We won the Cold War, and that’s very different. In 1969, nobody knew the outcome of this battle. Many people looked at the Soviet Union not just as a formidable enemy of the United States but a potential winner by historical standards. Now we know it’s over, Soviet Union and communist ideology lost badly. And now, while, you know, China looks formidable, but it’s inherently weak. At the end of the day, China gave us virus, America came up with a vaccine, and everybody knows that. So, I disagree that we should play for the position of weakness. It’s very much…you know, it’s our decisions, it’s political will. It’s whether we have our resolve to fight back because we are strong now.
Mary: Just to follow up on Garry’s point about the state of communist China today. I think we tend to overestimate the strength of these regimes. I mean, you can’t imagine how corrupt communist China is from top to bottom. I mean, every Chinese person, if they were honest with you, would agree. There’s a fabulous book, by the way, that just came out titled “Red Roulette” by Desmond Shum, who worked and profited from this regime. And it’s actually the first account in English from someone who operated at the highest levels of the regime, doing business there, explaining just how corrupt it is. And these guys screw up all the time. I mean, Garry, you know, of course, mentioned the virus and the manhandled lockdowns. But, you know, we also don’t talk about the infrastructure that they build that crumbles, the fact that their property market is in free fall, that they constantly have bank defaults.
In fact, I remember when I was, you know, living and working in Hong Kong, they had massive bank defaults. They set up a company to clean up the bad debt and then that company went out and turned itself into a conglomerate, and they went bankrupt. And then they had to be cleaned up.
So, you know, they are in many respects, yes, they’re wealthier than they were, but the Communist Party has held China back, it hasn’t lifted it up. China today should look like Taiwan. It’s not what China’s created, it’s the fact that they’ve held it back so much. And, you know, whether it’s IT, the innovation is in the United States, they have to steal it from us to get it. That’s why they’re so upset about the chips. Whether it’s, as I said, the financial markets and the weakness there, or the fact that they don’t have any corrective mechanisms, they don’t have any feedback loops. There aren’t any independent boards of directors, or NGOs, or activists, or shareholder groups, you know, telling their companies what they’re doing wrong, it’s inherently weak.
Now, Niall may be right. Niall may be absolutely right. If a war started tomorrow, we’d all be dead. Goodbye. Sayonara. I don’t believe it. I think I land down where Garry lands. They haven’t fought a war in hundreds of years, a real war. And I think they are inherently weak all of the Soviet Union, and that’s why I fall down on being tougher, not weaker, right now.
James: I couldn’t agree more about the weakness… Niall, go ahead.
Niall: These are the arguments that were made against…sorry, I hope I’m audible. These are just the arguments that were made by Richard Nixon’s critics on the right, particularly in 1972, when he went to Beijing and also did the SALT agreement with the Soviets. So, it’s quite ironic that at Richard Nixon Foundation, these arguments should be deployed.
The thing is that, while it’s clear that China has many structural weaknesses, and I’ve written about them extensively, it’s still a vastly larger economy with much higher levels of technological sophistication than the Soviet Union ever was. At best, the Soviet economy at peak was about 40, 41% of U.S. GDP. On a PPP basis, China overtook the U.S. in 2014, and even at its slower growth rate, it stands some chance of catching up with the U.S. on a current dollar basis in the next 10 or 20 years.
Now, I don’t think it will because I think the problems that we are all talking about and agree about, will ultimately drag the Chinese system down. And time is on the side of the West, as it was in the Cold War. But are you telling me that Joe Biden is Ronald Reagan? Because I must be suffering from historical analogy of derangement syndrome because this administration doesn’t seem, to me, at all the administration that’s going to carry out the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan. If it’s anything, it’s the Carter administration with dementia and Yale Law School providing the grand strategy.
So, you’re encouraging a quite weak administration, which has completely bungled its Middle Eastern policy, failed to deter Putin last year, made a complete mess of the abandonment of Afghanistan. And yet, you talk as if Reagan’s in power, and we should play hardball with all our adversaries. It seems, to me, that it’s a much riskier strategy that you are implying than the one I’m implying, which is avoid a showdown at this point of weakness and wait till President DeSantis is in a position to address this problem in his second term.
James: Mary, do you wanna respond to that? Garry?
Garry: I’m not sure if there was any direct comparison between Reagan administration and Biden administration. I think it’s more likely to be talking about Carter administration that was followed by Reagan administration. And that’s why we have to look at that in 2024 elections and 2025 new presidency expecting that it will be someone like Reagan, and we have to prepare the strategy.
I think the overarching agreement in this conversation is that there was, and there is no strategy yet. And we are now to decide how we going to move into the future. And Mary and I, I believe, agree that it’s time to actually show strengths. And while Biden administration is no comparison to Reagan and many other administrations during the Cold War, it’s still doing something good in Ukraine. And the fact is that they have so many opportunities that weren’t available back in 1969, 1970. It’s not just about GDP that we had to add, probably other countries, smaller countries. And the fact is that Soviet Union, though the GDP was relatively small, compared to America, if you look at China, U.S. today. But it was not just formidable foe, it was a competitor that could oppose America and nobody knew the outcome of this historical dual between two systems.
I remember though, being a kid that, you know, it was an open question, who was going to be on top in this ideological battle. I think now very few people have any doubts. And even China is trying to implement some kind of crony capitalism recognizing that the same ideological dual is over. So, we have a different kind of battle. It’s less ideological, but it’s more of Chinese imperialism, that will be our main opponent.
Mary: I also think it’s important to understand the steps Nixon took in the context of the time. I think reaching out to China, at the time, made perfect strategic sense, whether it was the backdrop of the Vietnam War or, you know, the threat that he perceived from the Soviet Union. And I’m not sure that you can look at that time period today and say, “Well, you know, we should come to the same conclusions,” because we’re facing just a fundamentally different type of enemy.
You know, I referenced earlier, just to give you one example, the influence operations in the United States. They’re larger than any of you realize. You have people going to PTA meetings to identify the next generation of political leadership in the United States so that they can start cultivating them now. I can’t express to you where they are. They’re in our universities, in our corporate suites, crawling all over our political offices. Look at what just happened in Canada, where you had a revelation that…what is it? Eleven MPs’ offices were effectively infested with spies. I mean, if it’s happening to Canada, it’s happening to us. That was a joke.
James: A good one.
Mary: But we have to recognize that the nature of what we face today is very, very different from what President Nixon faced. And I would never deign to project what Nixon would say today, but I am confident in one thing, which is that he would recognize not just the reality of the nature of the regime but their vulnerabilities and think about, how do we position ourselves to move in a direction where they get weaker, we get stronger, and we’re safer in the long run? And look, it’s no coincidence that you’ve seen Iran acting out, Putin invading another country, North Korea is starting to test again. That’s because America showed weakness. That’s why I think Garry and I are falling down on the side of showing strength today rather than weakness. Because this isn’t just a given, it’s something that we can influence. And it’s unfortunate that this White House doesn’t want to do that, but maybe the next one will.
Niall: Well, yes, Amen to the next administration having a more coherent national security strategy. Look, historical analogies are a little messier than chess, a game at which I was never any good. With historical analogies, you have to be prepared to go down to a level of detail because the size of the chessboard is vastly greater and the number of pieces is almost infinite.
Let’s just think about where we are. The U.S. lost the neo-conservative wars. Failed completely in Afghanistan, pretty badly in Iraq. Let’s not forget that’s the starting point. So, not as bad a failure as Vietnam in terms of loss of life on the American side, but there were some very striking resemblances along the way when you thought about what was going wrong. What else is like the 1970s?
Division at home. People always tell me we’ve never been so polarized as we are today. And I refer them back to the period from the late ’60s through the early ’70s when we were just as divided. And actually, there was even more strife in our cities and on campuses than we’ve seen in recent times. So, that feels like another 1970s analogy.
Inflation’s back. It’s been running at around 8% since March. And it’s pretty clear, to me, that the Federal Reserve is gonna be the Arthur Burns Fed, and not the Paul Volcker Fed because at some point, they’ll blink. They’re already telling markets they’re gonna blink. So, check that one up as another 1970s analogy.
At the moment though, there’s an important difference, which is that the Chinese and Russian governments are far closer together than they were in the 70s. The United States and Richard Nixon’s presidency was able to exploit a sign of Soviet split that had nothing to do with us. Henry Kissinger’s point that we should try to be closer to Russia and China than they are to one another has been turned on its head in our time. They’re closer than ever together. In fact, Russia has become a kind of proxy for the CCP. Xi Jinping gave the green light for the war and China now reaps the benefit in the form of discounted Russian oil that the Russians can’t sell to the West.
So, when one does the kind of applied history carefully, it becomes clear that we are in a situation much more like the ’70s than the situation of Ronald Reagan’s second term, and George H. W. Bush’s only term, when the U.S. was in a strong enough position to win the Cold War. And this, I think is the best defense of Nixon’s detente against the critiques that people like Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan made. In 1969, you couldn’t be Ronald Reagan. And I don’t think you can be Ronald Reagan now. In fact, I think telling Joe Biden, “Be Reagan,” is in fact inviting the United States into a strategically very dangerous situation.
I come back to a point I made earlier. The United States has no credible plan to fight a war to defend Taiwan today. The recent war games are a consistent story of a China winning and the U.S. losing. My great fear is that the United States gets itself into a war that it actually can’t win, or can only win at great cost. And this is why detente rose, it was Nixon’s realization that World War III would be absolutely catastrophic, that propelled him towards SALT. It was his realization that you had to somehow strengthen America’s position that led him to Beijing.
So, I would strongly urge everybody debating U.S. foreign policy today to realize what the real lessons of Richard Nixon’s presidency were. And I think lesson number one is recognize when you’re not in a strong position, and don’t pretend that you are in a stronger position than you are in. And secondly, once you recognize that your position’s relatively weak, that it’s more the 1970s than the late ’80s, take appropriate strategic action and don’t rush into a showdown, which apart from anything else, probably legitimates the regime of Xi Jinping more than anything else. Now, change the subject, go back to strategic ambiguity, I don’t understand why we gave it up, and focus on the war that we’re fighting or the war that Ukraine is fighting on our behalf. And to go back to Garry’s point, make sure that war gets won.
I’ll say one final thing, which I caught Garry saying, the Russian economy was in terrible trouble. Yeah, it’s down three-point-something percent in 2022. The Ukrainian economy is contracted by 30%, and that was before the attacks on critical infrastructure in the past month. We should not ignore the fact that while Ukraine is winning the war in the battlefield, its economic situation is really quite dire. And that’s why this war can’t be prolonged far into next year. It seems, to me, important to focus on getting the war to a successful conclusion in a timeframe measurable in months. Focus on that, get that victory, because before we know it, there’s gonna be trouble in the Middle East and we should certainly avoid a confrontation in the Far East, while all this is going on. And that’s the argument I’m making.
The CCP is a dreadful organization. I agree with what Mary said about influence operations. They’re better at espionage than Soviets because they do it on a larger scale. None of that is an argument against detente today, because detente today buys time for the United States to get a stronger president, to get a better administration, and to get into a stronger strategic position.
Mary: I think there’s absolutely zero evidence that the Chinese want a detente with the United States, zero. And as for strategic, they matter.
Niall: I disagree with that, Mary. I disagree with that.
Mary: Well, there’s no evidence at all, not a single bit of cooperation. And in fact, if anything, they’re more aggressive on every front. Secondly, on the point of strategic ambiguity, only foreign professional foreign policy guys think that the Chinese ever believed in strategic ambiguity. They have always prepared and assumed that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense. That’s the whole point of the military buildup. So, did Joe Biden change strategic ambiguity in rhetoric? Yes. In practice, no. Will the Chinese side take a different lesson because of what Joe Biden said? I very much doubt it.
James: Garry, I saw you had your hand up.
Garry: Yeah, I don’t think it’s fair to appeal to Richard Nixon because he was a realist, we all agree. Now, our disagreement today is based on our difference in evaluating the situation. And I strongly disagree that America is in a weak position now. We don’t have time to debate the outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, the disaster in Afghanistan is different from Vietnam for a simple reason. The war in Vietnam was unwinnable. Afghanistan was a stalemate, and staying there with 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 soldiers could preserve the same status quo for many years. So, there was no threat of Taliban taking over.
But now, let me talk about something I know better, it’s Russia and Ukraine. I’m here just to tell you that next year, and it’s…I don’t know, 50-50, 30-70, 70-30, Putin’s regime will collapse. Ukrainian victory will mean the end of not just Putin’s regime but probably the whole history of Russian Empire.
Again, we have a few minutes left and I would like us to have more detailed conversation, but you know, as well as I do, dictators, they always, you know, base their power on myth. Crimea is the staple of Putin’s regime. The loss of Crimea means the end of Putin. And we should probably spend more time thinking what will happen in this new Russia and whether we can make this new Russia an ally against China. Because I couldn’t agree more, China is the target, is the main antagonist in a new Cold War, but I don’t think that we should now talk about China, Russia getting closer. Nixon couldn’t imagine the situation where Russia was on the verge of the most decisive military defeat. And that’s where we’re now. Just today, Ukraine is celebrating taking over Kherson, and I don’t think the war will go beyond next summer for a simple reason, Ukraine will win. And after this win, the Russian economy will collapse. And it’s not just about numbers. Numbers are irrelevant. In February, 1917, Russian economy was in much better shape than in 1950 or 1916. It’s about the mood in the country, and the mood is really, really dark. And that’s why I think we are just one step away from the greatest triumph of the free world, and it will be probably an unforgivable mistake not to capitalize on.
James: Do we agree that Putin’s on the verge of collapse? And if so, what does that leave us? What comes next?
Niall: Well, it would be nice, but I wouldn’t want to base our strategy on the expectation of regime change in Russia, any more than I would want to base our Middle Eastern strategy on the expectation of regime change in Iran. We have a problem, which is we predict, you know, five out of the last one regime changes because we have a curious American bias in favor of revolution. It probably goes back to 1776. But the reality is that it’s quite unlikely that Putin will be overthrown. The opposition has been eviscerated or allowed to leave. The security forces, as in Iran, show no sign of splitting, and it’s extremely difficult for anybody to get physically close to Putin, if assassination is the plan. So, I don’t think we can base our strategy on the hope that the bad guys will fall.
And that, of course, applies just as much to China. I’ve read books which predict Xi Jinping’s overthrow. There was one called the “China Coup” that was published two years ago. I’d love that. Nothing would make me happier. And such things have happened. We had the analyst, annus mirabilis in 1989 after all, but I don’t think we’re in the 1980s. As I’ve said, I think we’re in the 1970s. And in the 1970s, that kind of helpful regime change was extremely hard to find. So, we can’t base our strategy on hope. We have to be realists, that much I have taken from studying Nixon and Kissinger
Mary: Oh, sorry, I thought Garry was gonna jump in there.
Garry: Bob, very simple. I don’t want us to take a bet, but I’m very happy to. So, Putin’s regime will not survive loss of Crimea. That’s my prediction for 2023. So, I’m sure that’s next year. And next year we’ll see whether I was over-optimistic, expecting more from the situation, or I was as realistic as Richard Nixon, where he had to play from a position of weakness, while now, we can play from a position of strength.
James: Mary Kissel, final thought?
Niall: I’d be very amazed if in any peace that Jake Sullivan tries to negotiate next year, Crimea is returned to Ukraine. So, you’re making an assumption there about the outcome of this war, but it seems to me quite low probability in itself.
Garry: Excuse me, Crimea will return to Ukraine no matter what Jake Sullivan thinks about it. Ukraine will take it by military force. And it’s a Ukrainian issue, and I don’t think that any American politician can stand in the way of victorious Ukrainian army.
Niall: Well, we better have a bet on that. It’s the kind of bet I love to lose. But what are we betting? One of your chessboards signed.
Garry: Dinner in New York, and I give you a chessboard.
Niall: I think I prefer the chessboard.
Garry: In any case, I give you my chessboard signed.
Niall: It’s a deal.
Garry: If I lose the bet, you know, I will confess that I was wrong. But if I win, you know, I will have many nice words to write on it.
Niall: If you win, I’ll buy you dinner in Yalta.
James: Hard to top that. Well, thank you so much, Garry Kasparov, Naill Ferguson, Mary Kissel. This was a really great conversation, and look forward to dinner in Yalta next year.
Niall: I’ll drink to that.
Watch the panel:
About the Grand Strategy Summit:
Fifty years after President Nixon’s historic diplomatic trips to China and the Soviet Union, great power competition has returned. To address America’s challenges on the world stage —only days after the hotly anticipated Midterm Election results— the Richard Nixon Foundation convened its inaugural Grand Strategy Summit: American Leadership in the 21st Century on November 10 and 11, 2022 at The Ritz Carlton, Washington D.C.
The Grand Strategy Summit is dedicated to establishing a consistent approach to a national (as opposed to a partisan) foreign policy, a long-term strategic direction for American statecraft —what President Nixon called “the long view.”
Considering the election results and the balance of power in Washington, summit participants discussed the pursuit of policies in America’s national interest, including how to manage the relationship with China as a major power in the 21st century, weigh the impact of ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine, and project Western influence in the Middle East.