The New York Times Nicholas Kristof opened the show today. The audio and transcript are below:
HH: As the effort by the United States to broker the first face to face meeting between Russia and Ukraine failed today, I’m joined by one of my favorite columnists, though I very often disagree with Nicholas Kristof. He’s always thoughtful, and he’s always trying to put things into perspective. Nicholas, welcome back, it’s good to have you on the program.
NK: My pleasure.
HH: First of all, context, how serious is this situation, in your view?
NK: Well, I think it’s getting a little less serious, if you will. I mean, the big risk has been that Russia would move from seizing just Crimea to seizing Eastern Ukraine, and that for right now, that seems a little less likely right now. And so my guess is that this will fade to some degree, that Russia will probably hold onto the Crimea, probably isn’t going to give it up, probably is not going to actually grab Eastern Ukraine. And ultimate, Putin is pushing Ukraine into the European orbit as much as the Soviet Union did turn Czechoslovakia into the Western orbit when it invaded in 1968.
HH: Now Nicholas, I’ve got a pit in my stomach feeling. This is so bad when we just casually say Crimea is being swallowed by Putinland. And it’s an awful thing. It’s truly an awful thing. Do you think the West is reacting with the appropriate amount of concern for the people of Crimea?
NK: Well, I mean, as I look around at international crises around the world, then I do, I mean, I think that there are others that worry me a lot more. Crimea, most of the people probably would prefer to be in Russia. Now there’s no excuse for Russia breaking its 1994 international obligations for violating the sovereignty of another country. But meanwhile, you know, we do have in Syria something like 150,000 people who have been slaughtered in the last few years, and the international community has been paralyzed. We have Congo, where perhaps seven million people have been killed. We have Sudan, Darfur, and so this is much more of a strategic competition between the U.S. and Russia, but in terms of lives, in terms of brutality, in terms of humanitarian catastrophe, I don’t think that Crimea compares to those.
HH: Now I’ve had a recurring guest expert, Frank Dowse, who was our military attaché in Kiev for a few years, speaks Ukrainian and Russian. He keeps reminding me there are a quarter million Tatars in Crimea who will react as the Chechens have reacted to the Russian boot, and that the second order impact of this may well be the sort of Islamist explosion of wrath…
HH: …that will rack that region as it historically has racked that region. That’s sort of a second order effect that no one’s talking about. Doesn’t that factor…
NK: I think that’s right. Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think it’s one reason why I think that Putin has grabbed a poisoned chalice here. I mean, I think he probably is, you know, smiling on the corner at having grabbed Crimea. I think it is going to be a huge long term headache for him. The Russian economy is already strained. He’s going to have to have huge subsidies to Crimea. Crimea gets its electricity and its water from the rest of Ukraine, so you know, he may have to figure out a way of supplying those. And if the Crimeans do declare independence, or annexed by Russia, then they’re not going to be voting. They’re not going to be voting in Ukrainian elections. And they are a solidly pro-Russian bloc. The upshot would be that in Ukrainian elections, the population skews even more pro-West. So in general, I think the same thing has been true of Russia stealing little bits of Moldova and Georgia, that those places have just not been economically viable. He’s had to pour in resources to keep them alive, and it undermines Russia itself.
HH: Now yesterday, former Secretary of State Clinton compared the Russian aggression to actions taken by Hitler in the run up to World War II. What do you think of her assessment?
NK: In the narrow sense, I mean, there is some analogy to the seizure of Sudetenland in 1938 in the sense that, you know, it was with the excuse of protecting the Germans in the case of Sudetenland and Russians in the case of Crimea. So that parallel in terms of the excuse holds. I don’t think the parallel holds in terms of where this is going to go. I mean, I don’t think that the seizure of Crimea is the first step toward Russia waltzing into Western Europe, for example. But it is, you know, absolutely a violation of Russia’s international obligations. And it also bodes ill for Russian-American cooperation in all kinds of things. I mean, it’s going to make it harder to, Russia is going to be less cooperative, even though it hasn’t been very cooperative, on Syria, on Iran. It may work a little more closely with China. And ultimately, I think this is going to be bad for Putin, because he doesn’t want a pro-Western success on his borders, and I think ultimately this is going to mean that Ukraine is going to be more of an anti-Russian force on his borders, and ultimately, it may take a while, but it is going to be a success, and that is going to undermine the Putins or the Putin successors in Russia.
HH: Well now there are two lines, then, that follow. One is geopolitical, and one’s political in the United States. Let me take the latter first. For former Secretary of State Clinton to use that language, she’s the one that presented the reset button.
HH: It’s sort of like Samuel Hoare condemning the Hoare-Laval Pact five years after he signed it. Isn’t that odd for her to be doing this?
NK: Well, I mean, I think the Russian reset may have been, I don’t know that there was a huge downside in trying to reset things. We do need to work with Russia. I do think it’s important even now to continue to talk to Russia about Iran, about Syria, about North Korea. It kind of depends on how much faith she had that it was going to work or that she could trust Putin. And I just don’t have a sense of that.
HH: When she made that declaration five years ago and gave the reset button, your colleague, Peter Baker, told me yesterday, Nicholas, that the Russians simply do not have much respect for President Obama and his team. Do you agree with that assessment?
NK: You know, I just don’t know. It’s hard to know. I do, I mean, the only time I met Putin I was just struck by the fact that he really seemed to be kind of in his own world, and living in his very kind of strong ideological world. Very, very smart guy, but getting information from his advisors, and with a very kind of skewed view of the world, so I think it probably is fair to say, though, that Russia and China and in the Middle East, there is a sense that Obama has focused inward and focused on American domestic problems, and I think that there is some feeling there. I don’t think that would have changed Putin’s judgments about whether to grab Crimea. I mean, after all, he grabbed parts of Georgia on George W. Bush’s watch, and Bush was very engaged worldwide. But there may be something to that.
HH: Now when you look at it, though, at the former Secretary of State, she’s clearly running for president, but we’ve got Putin unleashed, Libya in shambles, Syria using gas, Egypt is alienated from us, the PRC is cresting, the Norks are nuking up, the mullahs are on the brink, did she get anything done as secretary of State that was good?
NK: You know, the gains were, in many ways, fairly modest. You had the success in Burma, which as you say, sort of pales next to some of the difficulties. On the other hand, we did deescalate, we did move down from a mess in Iraq, and for now, it’s a somewhat better mess than it was. That may also be true of Afghanistan. And the crisis in the Middle East was, I don’t know that it was handled brilliantly, but it was a mess for anybody who would have been dealing with it. Likewise, China, North Korea, you know, I don’t think that those are shining successes. I don’t think they’re shining failures. In the case of North Korea, I would, and maybe China, I would say that they were perhaps marginally more successfully by Hillary than in the Bush administration, although it kind of depends on the moment.
HH: Yeah, because what I’m getting at is the five years that we’ve had of the President Obama-Clinton-Kerry approach, I think the world is much worse off than we were post-financial crisis. The financial crisis is a standalone event that we can debate endlessly, but geopolitically, isn’t America screwed around the world right now?
NK: I don’t know about that. I mean, I think that al Qaeda is less of a threat now than it was before, although, I mean, it’s all complicated. And in North Africa and West Africa, you have more localized al Qaeda-related affiliated threats. You have the Middle East in greater instability than it had been. On the other hand, in the case of Iran, you have a process that may lead to resolving that crisis, and Iran is no longer kind of rushing on a trajectory toward a nuclear weapon, which it had been for years. And in the case of North Korea, you have a regime that for a long time had, and North Korea is one of the things that really worries me the most. I think now we have a really unstable leader with Kim Jong Un, and he’s one of the people I would really lose sleep over. And we’ll see where that goes.
HH: It just sort of leaves me feeling like it’s a shambles, and the Hagel Defense budget, which was next on my list for you, we have to rethink that, don’t we? We can’t cut back the American presence in the world right now, can we?
NK: Well, I mean, I don’t think that the American presence worldwide has always accomplished all that much for American interests. In Iraq, we, our presence there largely helped Iranians. In Afghanistan, we managed to antagonize, we didn’t accomplish all that much in Afghanistan, and we did certainly create more instability in Pakistan. So I don’t think there’s always a strong correlation between more military deployments or military spending and advancement of American interests. And I do think that there is an awful lot of nation building to do here at home. But all that said, you’re right that there are threats around the world. North Korea, as I said, is one that I think we’re going to, it’s probably going to be in the news more in the next few years than it has in the last few years. And that’s, there’s a huge army there that is confronting South Korea’s and our forces, too.
HH: So do you think the Hagel Defense budget is realistic?
NK: In a world of scarce resources, yeah, I do.
HH: Wow. We disagree on this one.
NK: It’s not the only thing, Hugh.
HH: I know it’s not, but I mean, I’m actually beginning to look for people on the center-left like you to sort of speak up and say this was an interesting experiment – no status of forces agreement in Iraq, the scampering out of Afghanistan, acceding to the reset button, but it doesn’t work, that if American power recedes, the world falls into chaos. And I really do think people, I’ve been saying that for years, but it’s people on the center-left who are going to have to sound the alarm in many respects, and folks like you. And to the extent that you don’t, you know, the left lives, not, I’m not putting you on the left.
HH: I’m saying the people on the isolationist left and the isolationist right are empowered when people on the center-right and center-left don’t speak clearly about what happens when America withdraws.
NK: Yeah, I mean, I guess where I would disagree with you there is that it’s not clear to me that there is that much of a correlation between military spending and the kind of outcomes that we want. We already spend about half of global military spending is by the U.S. We, our military spending is equal to approximately the next 20 countries combined.
HH: But that’s a false metric, isn’t it? Everyone uses that metric to me, but if you’re the world’s policeman, you know, L.A. police have to have a lot more than the police in Warren, Ohio, because they’ve got a lot more to do.
NK: You know, but of course, there are tradeoffs. Do we spend that money at home where we have tremendous needs, infrastructure, education and so on or wherever, in Afghanistan or wherever it may be? I would argue that our long term strength may be determined more by our investments in education in particular than by military spending.
HH: You know, China announced today a 12.2% increase in their military budget. Can we just not notice that?
NK: Well, I mean, I think that our engagement with China is, I mean, I think we need to be concerned about the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and China’s navy in particular is destabilizing the area. On the other hand, you know, China is not in a position right now to fight with Japan, for example, in the East China Sea. And again, I’m not sure what we would gain by, or what exactly we would do militarily to address that challenge in China.
HH: Well, you keep 11 carrier groups, maybe 12 out there. You don’t retire the cruisers. You add the F-35 in larger numbers. You do all sorts of things. Let me, look, I’ve got like three minutes left, so let me ask you the other geopolitical question.
NK: Sure, sure.
HH: Syria, Iran, Russia now through Crimea, are putting pincers around our traditional ally, Turkey, which is in shambles itself.
HH: I don’t know that this administration thinks that way. I honestly, the Bush administration had hawks and neo-hawks. They didn’t have any doves, but they were serious about the world. Do you think this group is serious about the world?
NK: Well, I think that there are all kinds of different people within the administration. Where I would fault them is that I think that Obama foreign policy has been too much driven out of the White House, and too much driven by politicos. I mean, in the case of Hillary Clinton, for example, I think she had much less room to maneuver. I think that with Kerry, they’ve given him more room. I think, though, that there are some smart people there, and in the case of Turkey, the example you give there, I think there’s sometimes a risk that we focus on the weaknesses of our own position and of our allies. And Iran is a mess. Russia, as I said, is, I think they’ve taken a poisoned chalice here. Syria, you know, Assad is even more of a mess. So Turkey has its problems, but those pincers are pretty weak, too.
HH: Last question. The Secretary of State has to make a decision soon whether she’s going to run for president. Do you think she has a credible case to make that on the basis of her record she ought to be the leader of the free world?
NK: Yeah, I think that she was solid in foreign policy. I don’t think there were any great achievements, but I think she, I think she was, I think it was kind of a solid management, I think her team is perhaps a little bit worried that Kerry is going to achieve something in the Middle East which will make her seem a little less triumphant. But I was impressed by her knowledge of foreign affairs, by her diligence, and by her management of kind of ordinary little crises.
HH: Well, okay, we’ll continue the conversation.
NK: We disagree on a lot of things, Hugh, but it’s always good to talk to you.
HH: Yeah, but I appreciate you coming on to talk about it, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times.
End of interview.