Stephen Rosen Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi. I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to have as my guest today, Steve Rosen, Professor of Government at Harvard University, formally Master of Winthrop House.
ROSEN: Can’t say that anymore, but –
KRISTOL: Yeah, as we speak in December of 2015, I think that term is about to be retired. Did people object to that term when you were Master of Winthrop House a few years ago?
ROSEN: No. People would kind of giggle about how old-fashioned Harvard was, but there was never any discussion of racial or slavery echoes of it, so it was kind of odd. Masters have people who live in the residence to help them with their social obligations. Those are called elves. So I don’t know when they’re going to get around to renaming those.
KRISTOL: I’m sure there’ll be a big anti-elf movement here at Harvard soon. You know?
So, international relations, American foreign policy, that’s what you’ve studied and taught and written about with great distinction for many, many years. Let’s begin with the world. I mean, it’s a striking moment when we’re 25 years after the end of the Cold War. Where do we stand? Is it sort of what you would have expected? You got into this when the Cold War was still going. And then we’ll look ahead and say, what’s going to happen?
ROSEN: Well, the nature of the world that we live in now, and where we’re going is, is changing and – but it’s more the kind of changes that take place gradually over time so that you get caught by surprise when you step back and say, “How did we get here?” or “Where are we now?”
I mean, it’s – everybody knows that Asia is growing economically more rapidly than the United States, but when you actually look at it, the United States has been the predominant economic power since – in the world since 1880, and for the first time the United States is not going to be the largest economic power in the world. And it’s not just China. China’s a big part of it. I mean, India is growing more rapidly than China now.
So the United States, relative to the rest of the world, is not going to have the same kind of economic weight. Its allies are growing more slowly. Europe and Japan are stagnating relative to the rapid growth in other parts of the world. So in terms of just the basic fundamentals of power – economic strength – the United States is going to wind up being not able to deal with a lot of problems on the basis of superior strength. I mean, we have a lot of other virtues and stuff.
KRISTOL: You think that’s kind of built in? I mean, that’s not – it’s not just if we had, you know, stronger Presidents or better policies that we could sort of be the way we were in 1920 or 1960 or 1990?
ROSEN: If you take Jeb Bush’s promise – “I’m going to raise the growth rate to 4 percent per year” – even if you do that, unless there’s some kind of cataclysm in China and in India and places like that, yeah it’s kind of – not locked in, but it’s a foreseeable part of the future. And the big part is that it’s just so different from the world that we have lived in for a century. So –
KRISTOL: Let’s talk about that since that I think people our age probably think – I don’t know, you always expect it to kind of be the way it was or to go back to the way it was. So why is it really that different? I mean, what are the core things you tell your students that are not like the world of 1950 or even 1990, I suppose?
ROSEN: Well, I mean, two obvious things. One is nuclear weapons. Now, people talked about – in the 1960s, President Kennedy said, “Well, in the next 10 years, there may be 15 nuclear powers,” and that didn’t happen, and people said, “Okay, so we really exaggerated the degree to which other countries want nuclear weapons.” But it has happened. I mean, North Korea does have nuclear weapons. Pakistan does have nuclear weapons. India does have nuclear weapons. Israel is thought to have nuclear weapons.
And we’re on the cusp of a change in the world where people are looking at the world and saying, “The agreement you signed with Iran – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – basically says it’s okay for Iran to get nuclear weapons after 10 or 15 years.” And friends all over the world, the Japanese and elsewhere, are saying, “We’re not being alarmist, but we have to think about what we would do.” And a world in which people have nuclear weapons in that new way is a world in which the United States is constrained.
If you look at what actually has happened in places in the world where people do have nuclear weapons, they get much more cautious about what they do to intervene, coerce, put pressure. The Chinese-Soviet relationship, the India-Pakistani relationship, the Arab-Israeli relationship shifted, and what the United States did almost reflexively in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 90s and the oughts is going to be not impossible to do, but people are going to have to think much more carefully about it.
So, there’s going – there’s a shift of economic power, which gives other countries more power. There’s a shift in nuclear power, which may spread quite rapidly if the North Koreans do some of the things, which they now appear to be doing. The North Koreans, by the way, are – have restarted their whole nuclear weapons complex. They are capable of producing something on the order of 10 to 15 nuclear weapons with programs that are now being activated. And we know something about the character of the North Koreans, which is they – they’re in the business of making money by selling things to people who are willing to pay for them. So there’s this kind of additional danger of the more rapid spread of nuclear weapons as a result of that.
The third thing that’s happened – economics, nuclear stuff – is what the United States could do in 1990 or even in 2000 militarily with non-nuclear capabilities is now a fairly widely distributed capability. We had drones in 2000. Very few people – Israelis maybe had drones. Nobody else did. We had very precise long-range weapons, which could reach out 100 miles and kill targets, and that was great. We could do all kinds of things. And that – a lot of countries from around the world are buying them from the Russians or buying them from the Chinese and so forth.
I’m in favor of an American military role abroad, but we are going to have to take into account the fact that there’s a combination of factors, which is going to make it much more difficult for us to do it, especially the ways we have done it. The other thing, which is a result of this change, which is we had a fairly impressive cyber capability in 1990. We actually did a lot of interesting things in the Cold War that are now being declassified. Now, everybody’s in the cyber business, and people think, “Well, you can kind of steal my data.” That’s just a trivial part of it.
People ask, “How do the Israelis get into Syria to bomb the Al Kibar reactor?” They flew through all kinds of – well, you put false data into someone’s air defense system, and you can make things disappear. You can make people think you were places that you’re not. Other countries do that now – not just the United States.
So the role of the United States in the world should be, in my view, more active militarily than it is, but it would be a mistake to assume that we will be able to use the conventional elements of power, which we have had overwhelming superiority in for at least the 50 years between 1950 and 2000, and Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, activists, recidivists, or revisionists all have to kind of come to terms with that.
And the part that makes it even more interesting and difficult is that other countries around the world have learned how to counter American military power because they’ve had to confront American military power. You know, we bombed countries in the Vietnam War, we intervened in the Middle East, and other people are hostile and intelligent, and they figured it out. You dig tunnels. You hide yourself in civilian populations. You engage in other kinds of forms of concealment.
We never had to do that because we were always stronger. So at the game of neutralizing the kinds of capabilities that the United States is strongest in, other countries have basically a 30-year head start. We’re going to have – and now we’re in the game of learning how to deal with other people who have the kind of capabilities, which until recently we had exclusively.
So we’re kind of playing catch-up. And we’re doing some very interesting things, and I’m not pessimistic about it, but it’s – we have grown up and become accustomed to a world in which we can exercise force majeure and we just can’t do that. And this is not a matter of ideology. This is not a matter of ethics. This is a matter of a change in the character of power and the distribution of power.
KRISTOL: People have sort of worried about this or even predicted this for a long time and I’d say maybe people like me have therefore discounted it because it didn’t quite happen as much as people said. You know, whether it was in the – I mean, the – you know, the end of bipolarity was written about – I don’t know – when we were in grad school, it seems to me. And then, you know, the French were talking about it, and then after 1989, of course, that was going – the whole world was going to change, and we turned out to be stronger than ever and didn’t retreat really.
I guess the nuclear thing strikes me as very interesting. So, I mean, you know, as you say, for decades the fear of nuclear proliferation didn’t quite happen. It happened a little, step by step in India, Pakistan, and North Korea, but sort of manageable. It does seem like that is something that hits the tipping point though, right? I mean, you could keep going one country every 10 years, I suppose, or 15 years, but one sort of has the feel that if Iran is sort of legitimized in its nuclear program and North Korea gets away with doing what you described, why won’t five or 10 other countries in the next decade just decide it’s crazy for us to sit around without nuclear weapons? I mean –
ROSEN: The United States and the other great powers have proven by demonstration that you can operate a full-scale nuclear weapons production cycle in North Korea and nothing happens.
KRISTOL: Yeah. We’ve proven by not doing anything.
ROSEN: Right. We’ve proven by demonstration that it is not sufficiently injurious to our interests that we’ll actually take any kind of military action. And there are all kinds of interesting, good reasons why – the consequences for South Korea would be serious. They would have to get involved. But other countries said, “Okay, we’re not going to pay attention only to your nominal policies. What have you actually done? Nothing.”
In 10 – 10 to 15 years, we will see what happens with Iran, but already we have the statements of senior figures in the Saudi administration – Saudi Arabians saying, “We’re telling you right now if the Iranians go ahead, we’re going to want everything that they have.”
KRISTOL: And Egypt and Turkey –
ROSEN: Egypt and Turkey, and there were statements made by senior German Ministry of Defense officials saying that the Turks have built a nuclear civilian power production cycle where the Turks have gotten foreign systems but they retained exclusive control of where the uranium comes from to go into the system and what happens to the fuel that comes out of the system. The two crucial parts that can be used for making weapons or could be turned off if you don’t want them to make weapons. Those – they made sure that they have national programs, which on the key elements of what you would want to make sure you controlled if you’re making nuclear weapons. I don’t think it’s an accident. I think it’s an indication of, okay, they’re buying hatches.
We are at a tipping point. If it is in fact possible to demonstrate that neither North Korea nor Iran is capable of moving beyond where they are now, it’s conceivable that you can say, no, it hasn’t gone further. The United States has taken action, and therefore, the world doesn’t – it’s not a self-help world where we’re left to our own devices to build whatever we need to build to counter it.
And a debate about should we actually do that is something that ought to be part of the current debate at this most – at the highest levels of discourse about American foreign policy. It’s not the most – it’s not salient now. You don’t really see people addressing that. So – and if it were to happen, you would have to create a basis of public and elite support for it. People would have to say, “Okay, we understand why this is – ”
KRISTOL: The it being pretty strong action to prevent nuclear –
ROSEN: Which carries with it some risk.
ROSEN: Because you are dealing with countries, which may already have nuclear weapons though you don’t know about it, and you go to do something about their other capabilities and all the sudden you’re facing something, which is a lot more worrisome than you expected.
KRISTOL: And they certainly have conventional capabilities and terror capabilities, which could be unleashed, I suppose, in response to –
ROSEN: Yeah, especially in the case of the Iranians although I think people have taken the measure of that and know how to deal with it. But I mean, the question that you originally put us at, which is people have cried wolf through the 70s and 80s. The United States has to kind of pull back. Stanley Hoffman and other people would write about the United States has to get used to a more modest role in the world. And then Ronald Reagan came and all the sudden the United States – and the Soviet Union collapsed. And – so why isn’t this environment like that environment?
KRISTOL: And then in the 90s really, it was the unipolar world and actually the problem was America was too strong. So – but you’re really painting a picture of a real big change. I mean, the economic, the dispersion of economic power, nuclear proliferation, cyber even, the kind of relatively greater or equal distribution or wide distribution of power around the world.
ROSEN: Right. That plus the fact that our traditional allies are receding in their relative capabilities. Partly for economic reasons, but partly in the case of West Europe at least, a really fundamental shift in their understanding of what their national identity is and what their national self-interest is. You know, Great Britain, which was our most reliable ally, is now thinking very differently about what kind of military role and so forth.
KRISTOL: I saw Henry Kissinger recently – and gave a brief talk at a sort of private dinner though – and he – he said – I mean, he’s, of course, from Europe and very much a traditionalist in this way – really lamenting. I think he couldn’t quite internalize the notion, as he put it, that Europe would not be the center of world history in the 21st century. That seems to be pretty obviously true as an analytical statement, as much as predictions could be true or false. I mean, it’s a very likely prediction – likely to be a true prediction – but he just sort of was lamenting it. I mean, I’m not – he’s extremely smart and he was – he was willing to acknowledge it might be the case, but he sort of thought it was very important to try to resist that. I don’t know, but it strikes me as maybe that horse might have left the barn already, you know. I mean –
ROSEN: Yes. In some ways, it’s sad, and I regret it, and America –
KRISTOL: It is a big deal. I mean, Europe has been the center of world history for how long, I don’t even know.
ROSEN: Well, at least since this 18th century, maybe 17th century. And there was this explosion of a European military power, which enabled Europe to conquer South Asia, North America, large parts of East Asia, and in some ways that was a historical anomaly. The distribution of global power today is going to look more like what it was in 1500 or 1600 than what it looked like in 1900.
KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s interesting.
ROSEN: And – now, this is not – I’m not – I’m not a determinist. A global power doesn’t follow simply from GDP. But it does mean we have to think about developing and projecting power in ways that are different, in some ways that we’re very good at doing. I mean, the United States has instruments, which we did develop and deploy during the Cold War to wage ideological warfare – to wage a war of ideas.
We’re less adept at it now than we were then, but the – our ability to engage in discourse in Poland in the 1970s was more important than American nuclear weapons capabilities for the outcome of the battle in Poland. Solzhenitsyn had more of an impact and the American role in help working with him and supporting people like him. We’re naturally good at this. American labor unions were part of the force, which helped liberate Poland. We – American labor unions helped teach Solidarity how to do this. We know how to do that.
KRISTOL: Right, but communism maybe was easier for us to expose than to do deal with it. Sort of a, you know, a deviant Western system. And so if you’re an American liberal, you can sort of understand how to make the – or conservative – make the arguments against communism. I wonder if this new world that’s a little more mystifying to us how to deal with Islam or with just, you know –
ROSEN: Yes and no. First of all, the Chinese Communist party still governs China and people say, “Well, they’re not really communist,” but if you look at the way the country is run, it’s run as a Leninist dictatorship of – run by the Communist Party. The instruments of control, the – this is – the Chinese are reviving the study of Marxism because they, they believe that they have to have an ideological foundation. Economic growth is not going to give a legitimacy to the Party so they have to go back to their roots.
So in some ways there is an echo back to the Cold War. And the Christian churches are growing very rapidly, and they are seen as being at the forefront of the human rights movement. The Catholic Church was active in Poland. The Catholic Church is playing a very careful, but very serious role in China and the Protestant churches are growing even more rapidly. All of these are things that we’re not encountering for the first time. We understand it.
And then you look at the efforts of Chinese money to buy influence abroad, they’re very serious and in some ways very influential, but the war of ideas is something that Americans have to engage in as part of their normal life. We always are debating, so we’re not bad at it.
KRISTOL: We have an advantage, maybe.
ROSEN: With the Islamic world, we have a very difficult – different kind of problem, which is we have this notion about separation of church and state and the American elites regard religion as sort of old-fashioned and – and so therefore to have a serious theological battle with Islam in which you engage in discussion of texts and interpretations, that is different. But there are people in the American religious communities who can do that.
As I was saying, it’s not – the fact that we’re engaged in war of ideas should not make us despair. We were born as a result of the war of ideas.
KRISTOL: Yeah, I mean I think the thing that makes one – if you’re like from my generation, at least – worry about that future that you’ve painted, which seems plausible to me, I mean, as an analytical matter. I mean, why isn’t this just a world of chaos and war and extremism, not being checked as effectively as perhaps we were able to do it in the Cold War or as effectively as powerful European nations were able to do it in the 19th century? And with nuclear weapons, are we talking about actual nuclear exchanges? I mean, what is this going to look like for the next 25 years?
ROSEN: A world which is simply more chaotic – not a world in which we’re challenged by other strong powers – but a world in which they resist, kind of a replay of the Thirty Years’ War in the Middle East or worse, is sort of the road that we’re on now because the United States is under President Obama, but even the fact earlier on was a world in which, “Gee, we’re suffering from war weariness.” It’s not clear who the we is that’s suffering from the war weariness, but “We just can’t solve the problems of the rest of the world. And it’s too bad that people are dying there, but it’s their problem.”
For better or for worse, we’re seeing what the consequences of that stance towards the rest of the world is, which is, even less than in the 1930s, can the United States say, “Look, the world’s a mess. We’d rather it was not in a mess, but it’s not our problem, and if we – our best policy is just to stand back,” because what happens is in the areas within which there is chaos, people become brutalized.
They do horrible things to each other, and things they’d never would have dreamt of doing all of the sudden seem – we never – we thought poison gas was a thing of the past, right? Even the Nazis didn’t use poison gas in battle. They used it against Jews in concentration, but even the Nazis renounced and even the Soviets didn’t use. Well, now we have the repeated use of poison gas.
I think it’s not long before we will see that use again. If you’re killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians in Syria, why will you blink an eye about killing other people? And the internalized mentality, which is these people are vermin, these people are less than human, is the rhetoric that we saw in other places in which mass murder was conducted, and is the rhetoric that we’re seeing now. And in a world in which the Internet, international air travel, mass migration, really makes state borders somewhat less relevant under current conditions.
Now, so what do you do about this? Well, there’s two things. One, “build walls.” You know, the world is chaotic. It could spread to our part of the world, so build big walls and a lot of them. Build a wall right at the edge of the Middle East. Build a wall in the middle of the Atlantic. Build a wall at the coast of the United States. And build walls inside the United States to stop people from moving around more easily, just like we say, you Europeans, you should stop the easy movement to people within Europe. Build lots of walls.
KRISTOL: Are you recommending that or saying that that’s a natural human reaction?
ROSEN: That’s a – that is reaction which his observable – the Israelis to some extent, they have to live there. They have to some extent mitigate the extent to which people can come into their country and hurt them. They’ve built walls. We have built walls that are not so visible for helping to reduce the chance that nuclear weapons get into the United States, which is a pretty serious issue, which I, I think we should worry about. But it may come to, you know, walls that anybody can recognize.
Plus everybody knows that if you just sit behind a wall, people dig under walls or they figure out ways to get around. So you launch raids into the territories of other people to keep them off-balance. This is what the former Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, Mike Vickers has said. You have to kind of step up the pace of raiding into ISIS territory and into Al-Qaeda territory. Make them run and fear you so they don’t have the time and freedom to organize to come and figure out ways of getting around or over your walls. So it’s a combination of the two. That’s one.
KRISTOL: And is that doable you think? Is it general proposition? I mean, how daunting is that task?
ROSEN: It won’t be cheap. It will require a garrison mentality. People say you shouldn’t do this because it turns the United States into an illiberal country –
KRISTOL: National security state.
ROSEN: In which – in which the natural free movement of people and ideas is actively obstructed. We’re no longer open to the world. You know, it’s not – giving that up is a lot, and I’m not personally in favor of it. I mean, it may be necessary, but there may be alternatives. What is the alternative? The alternative is create in the environments abroad, which are otherwise moving towards chaos, worlds in which ordinary people can live decent lives.
I mean, this is what Ben Carson said, while you’re worried about Syrian refugees, you really ought to think about doing something to make life livable in the Middle East. Well, the problem with that is that that is a non-trivial task and in some ways it looks like an imperial task in which you go in because – because order is not naturally emerging in these areas, you have to either impose order or work with local people to help them create, but you’re creating order where there wasn’t one before. And that we know – we know full-stop – that that is a mission that lasts about 50 years. Because we’ve done it. We’ve gone places – Europe, Korea, you know – we can do it, but it just takes two generations.
KRISTOL: And you have to really internalize sort of a Roman almost attitude that we, you know, because we want to be able to defend ourselves, we need to be active abroad. And because we start being active abroad, you have to really sort of start shaping institutions abroad. And suddenly you’re running maybe a liberal empire instead of a Roman empire, but you are running something that looks sort of like an imperial structure.
ROSEN: And President Obama at one point, about four years, gave a speech that ours is not the way of empire. We just don’t – that’s not who we are. That’s not – we don’t. And there obviously is a large element in American political identity, which says, we were born as an anti-imperial nation, and therefore, it’s just not what we can do. And when we try to do it, we do it very badly because we’re ambivalent about it. You know, we feel guilty about being an imperial power because that’s who we are.
It – the third way, which people are looking for, which I don’t believe is viable, is to find somebody else to do that for us. I think at bottom President Obama is hoping that Iran will play some sort of stabilizing role in the Middle East. I think it’s a mistaken view. I think the reaction to Iran will make conditions there worse, but really it’s a coherent view, and Israel might be one of the partners that we work with.
But I think that unless the United States is really willing to reconsider the fundamental character of its role in the world, we are going to world – move to a world – a world of walls.
KRISTOL: And now I suppose, could you argue that the U.S. on the continent of America has in effect, I mean, in effect went through the process you described. I guess it was never really an instinct to build walls, it was always expansionist from the beginning. But basically it wasn’t – it’s not like the United States of America was always the whole continent or the whole Atlantic to Pacific continent, short of Canada, between Canada and Mexico. And in a way there was a sort of, not just a logic, but I mean, an actual ideology that said, “No, we have to keep – we should kick the French and Spanish out. We need to deal with the Indians pretty brutally, and this is kind of ultimately safer and better for us and really for the world.” I mean –
ROSEN: Yes, I mean it’s a debate that we sort of lost sight of historically, but the real debate between the Hamiltonians and the Jeffersonians were that the Hamiltonians said, “In order to preserve the Republic, we have to create the conditions in our hemisphere, which will allow us to maintain republican liberties.” The Jeffersonians said, “If we get too strong, we will suffer the temptations of all great powers, to go and play a role in other people – fight other peoples’ wars.”
Albert Gallatin, who is Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, said what we should aim for in North America is a multi-national North America in which there’s a Spanish component, there’s a French component, there’s a British component, there’s an independent state of Texas that is – you know. And he said, the reason we should do this is that that’s healthy for American republican institutions because otherwise we will be an empire – we’ll be a continental empire. And that is antithetical to liberties because all empires seek expansion. All empires tax and oppress their own populations so they can expand outwards.
It turned out that that argument was wrong. The creation of a continental empire was healthy for American republican institutions. It – say – it gave us this liberty or this freedom from threat, which we sort of say is a fact of nature, is a fact of the geography of North America – it’s not.
KRISTOL: Yeah, if you read The Federalist Papers, they’re very worried about the threats from next door. I mean –
ROSEN: There was a Spanish empire on the West Coast and down in Mexico. There was a British empire in the North. There were independent – there were fructiferous tendencies – you know, Texas starts as an independent republic, Oregon – so the list is long and obvious. It was an act of political creation, which gave the United States the freedom from external threats, which helped American political liberties thrive and develop.
KRISTOL: But presumably, we’re not going to bring in all these other countries in the chaotic parts of the world as states the way we were able to do in the U.S. We’re not going to treat other people, properly so, as the way we treated the Native Americans. So I guess the question is, is there a form of this kind of liberal empire or commonwealth that’s sort of a something between creating the United States of America and just – let’s just say, building walls? And it doesn’t feel like the old-fashioned NATO and alliances with, you know, like-minded partners quite works anymore.
ROSEN: No, but there are visible some of the elements of this process in embryo – I guess is the word I’m looking for. What is the United – what is the relationship of the United States with the Kurds?
ROSEN: What we’re trying to do is be an imperial partner of the Kurds, which is, you’re not strong enough now to kind of create a state, but we will work with you. We did this with, obviously, the South Koreans back in the 1950s. There – in places like Azerbaijan, which, again, are trying to develop some sort of pathway towards – again, what we would regard as a minimally decent form of domestic society. And they’re not ordinary nation-states. They’re not traditional allies. They’re fragments of states very often. Given the conditions in the Middle East, the people you’re going to be working with are fragments of states.
So it requires some adaptation and a willingness to tolerate messiness and a willingness to say, “We really would have rather kept Iraq intact.” There are all kinds of good reasons why you’d want to do that. It’s not working so what are the ways in which we can provide this imperial umbrella within which other states can develop and preserve – develop and preserve their own autonomy and liberalism?
And we should I hope learn the lessons that – of our mistakes from the past, which is in our earlier efforts to safeguard Europe. We did tend to be too much of a heavy-handed big brother, which was to say, “You don’t worry about this. The United States will take care of it.” Which deprives those countries of the ability to go through the experiences where they learn what they need to do to take care of themselves and develop the institutions that they need to take care of.
So in some ways – and I use this word carefully and not pejoratively – we infantilized some of our allies so that now that we want to turn more of the role of protection over to them, they’re like teenagers who have never been given responsibilities. They just have – they have a long learning path in front of them. So I hope we learned a lesson from some of our mistakes. We have other countries that will be able not to take over from us, but play – India wants to be more involved in the areas on its periphery. That’s not unreasonable. Japan wants to be more active. Well there’s all kinds of problems and issues, but – sorry.
KRISTOL: No, but – I mean, do you regard – so that’s sort of the chaos side of the equation. I guess I’ll come back and ask you, ultimately do you think – how successful could we be, will we be? That’s maybe a discussion about America a little bit more also.
But what about the China side of the – I mean, are we dealing with sort of a chaos problem or an alternate great power problem or challenge or both at once? And I guess that’s – maybe that’s a little daunting, too, because usually it’s one or the other, you might say.
ROSEN: There are two problems that they obviously interact with each other. They do make the whole task as a whole more difficult. The kind of national security capabilities that we build to deal with the Middle East is not going to help deal with the problem of China, which is much more of a traditional great power, areas of influence, stabilizing regional balances of power. In some ways, I’m more optimistic about that actually because it’s a problem that we’re comfortable with.
It’s hard. China’s going to be very wealthy so it’s not going to be cheap, but if you want to stop China from exercising maritime dominance in East China Sea to South China Sea, you send fleets out. Well, we know how to do that.
KRISTOL: We have allies.
ROSEN: We have allies that once we’re willing to kind of accept different roles from them – this is the Japanese – are actually saying, “We’d like to help you. You know, we’d like to do more please.” And our instinct has been if you’re going to do more that means you have to have more independent capability. We’re more comfortable with the United States holding all the trump cards so that you have to ask us for permission.
For the most obvious example, it would be very interesting if the Japanese had a fleet of modern nuclear submarines. The United States government says, “We kind of like it that we’re the ones that have the sophisticated submarines and no one else does.” So it’s – but we have to – we’re thinking about them, and we’re considering different ways.
But the China problem is a real problem, but the China – look, again thinking structurally, what’s the problem that China poses? Chinese economic reform got started in 1979. Indian economic reform really didn’t get started until the mid-1990s. So the Chinese are benefiting from a 15-, maybe 20-year head start. Now the Chinese – the Indians are growing about as rapidly as the Chinese – sometimes more rapidly – but they’re locked into this position which is, they didn’t get started.
So, what the United States has to do is play enough of a role in Asia to constrain China while other countries catch up. Japan is not economically backward, but militarily we kept it backward and you can’t snap your fingers and turn a dependency – a military dependency into an independent military actor overnight. They have to develop the institutions, learn – our job is to keep the Chinese from exploiting this momentary decade-long period of opportunity for them.
KRISTOL: And how hopeful are you that – getting back to the war of ideas you mentioned – it seems to me China is the most obvious analogy to the Soviet Union in that respect – I mean, it is communist, as you say, authoritarian regime, which like the Soviet in some ways has lost its true belief, maybe, in the communist future and is now more of a kind of a classic authoritarian oligarchy, sort of elements of state capitalism and so forth.
I mean, shouldn’t that be susceptible – I mean, is it crazy to say that we should really think about having a democratic China in 30 years? Wouldn’t that make life a lot better for everyone or some form of liberal democratic China, trying I suppose to –
ROSEN: It’s not only not crazy, it was the implicit – in some ways the explicit – goal of America’s strategy in the 1990s and – the idea was, “We will trade with China. We will give – we will engage China as an economic partner so that China becomes a middle-class country because when China becomes a middle-class country, it will become a democratic country,” and President Clinton would, more or less, say things like that.
In the beginning of the 21st century, the Chinese would say, “Yeah, give us some time. We can’t be democratic now. We have too many poor people to – but, you know, 10 years,” but then in the oughts, the line of the Communist Party would change which is, “No, our system is better than your system. Our system can solve problems that your system can’t.” And to our shame, many people in the West say, “Yeah, you guys make the trains run, you guys can implement economic reform, which doesn’t require developing difficult domestic political constituencies. You just tell people what to do and it happens.”
Now, we’re seeing what the consequences of that are. If you push economic growth without regard to the interest of local people, you wind up with policies, which make people rich but which pollute and poison the landscape, which create massive deprivations. But look, the question is what should our vision of the future of China be? That depends on what China is. I made the suggestion that China, at the leadership level, is still at sort of a Marxist-Leninist state, and I think there’s some element to that.
There’s another way in which the model that helps us understand China is more alarming, which is just a highly nationalist state in which the state owns the capitalist sector. It’s – in other words, it’s nationalist socialism and that has very uncomfortable echoes, which are way worse when you read the elite discourse about the character of Chinese identity. What do they teach in the patriotic education classes? That we are the victim of Western oppression. That we are the victim of imperialism. That what we have lost is the true Chinese way –
KRISTOL: That is a little German-sounding, you know.
ROSEN: And then you, you push a little bit deeper. Okay, well, nationalism. Well, what is nationalism? And what nationalism is actually Western invention. Imperial China had no nationalism. Where do they get their ideas of nationalism? Well, they got their ideas of nationalism from the Japanese, which emerged as a national state in the 19 – well, where did the Japanese get their ideas about nationalism, which were then translated into Chinese? They got it from the Germans.
So what they imported was a 19th-century version of social Darwinism in which races of the fundamental basis of nationality and there are very – when you hear Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders talking about cultural pollution, when you talk about the natural affinity of all Chinese people wherever they are, you begin to worry that there is this submerged, and sometimes not even so, some racialist component.
KRISTOL: And what about – so that’s itself a challenge, and I guess you’ve argued, I think Gary Schmitt and others also, that if you ever got – I mean, the regime now depends, it seems, partly for its legitimacy and for popular support, on the just 6%, 8%, 10% economic growth. And you could have a sort of French – France in the 1780s-type situation, presumably, which was only where if you had a recession and at some point everyone has to have one or they’ve overbuilt and it’s a bubble and it bursts and you get a really nasty reaction, the regime is sort of delegitimized.
Maybe it then plays a nationalist card or a xenophobic card or a “let’s invade Taiwan and invade our neighbor” card to keep popular discontent under control. The French didn’t succeed in – the French monarchy didn’t do that, and as a result got toppled in 1789, but you still ended up with Napoleon so maybe they skipped the toppling and just go right to Napoleon, you know. Is that – it’s not a crazy scenario it seems to me.
ROSEN: No, and you know, it’s what Napoleon the Third did in the 1870 wars. He deliberately sought a crisis with Prussia and got one and it worked out very badly, but his idea was “I’m a Napoleon. Why does Napoleon get to rule? Because he wins battles.” Well, so you have to win a battle, and he went out on a horse to lead the French force, even though he had kidney stones and was, you know, a remarkably painful exercise – he had to pull back.
There – I don’t think it’s an accident that we see the Chinese leadership making these kind of respectful remarks about Putin. Putin is doing this.
KRISTOL: Yeah, so let’s talk about Putin because he’s the other big character. What about Russia? So how do you understand that? Is that a serious big-power problem? Is it just a kind of thuggish, you know, regime that’s – with a decadent – kind of decaying country underneath it? Or I guess maybe these aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.
ROSEN: Yes, it is thuggish, and yes, the country is decaying, and the country – the society and the economy is decaying more rapidly as the result of the predatory policies adopted but – which leads to sanctions, which lead to wealth flowing into the hands of kleptocrats rather than into productive investments. So, it’s moving – it’s riding for a fall.
On the other hand, it’s also both inherited and invocated a large and powerful xenophobic popular movement. It’s literally the case that Western liberalism is being blamed for the problems of Russia, and right behind the Western liberalism are the Jews. And so it’s – this is fostered by Putin, exploited by Putin, but also draws on some very powerful latent tendencies within Russia.
So the idea that, “Okay. Putin and his crowd are arrested and put in jail, and then we’ll have a happy ending,” is probably not adequate. It’s – we’re going to be – we are afflicted with a Russian society, which as a result of 100 years of tyranny and which as we saw in Iraq, societies are mortally wounded at the level of their souls by this kind of tyranny.
On the other hand, the physical capacity of Russia to make life difficult is – has peaked.
KRISTOL: Yeah, they do have a lot of nuclear weapons, to get back to our earlier conversation.
ROSEN: And that is – that I – people don’t talk about it but, you know, Putin made a lot of nuclear threats associated with his movement to Crimea. The director within the Ministry of Defense that is responsible for nuclear weapons is active in Crimea. They are said to be building nuclear weapon storage sites in Crimea. Because they’re going to use nuclear weapons? No, because if they put nuclear weapons there, they think nobody will dare challenge them there because it would – it risks escalating to a nuclear war.
I’m worried more about just the statistical odds of something going wrong. When you – when you – as more countries have nuclear weapons and deploy them in positions, which they think are useful for the purposes of deterring and intimidating the neighbors, the more you have local commanders with nuclear weapons and things can go wrong.
KRISTOL: I mean, it seems like we take so much for granted. What, 70 years since the use of – since we used two nuclear weapons against Japan and it just – you sort of want to vaguely assume, well, I guess, the next 70 years will be like that, but I don’t know.
ROSEN: We’re profiting and suffering from that phenomenon, which because the United States, in fact, has been very active in preventing states from getting to the point where nuclear weapons might get used, we haven’t seen their use. And we sort of, “Well, nuclear weapons haven’t gotten used, and therefore we don’t have to worry about it.” We forget just how vigorously the United States got involved in the South – in South Asia in 1987 and then again in 1999 when we saw countries moving towards the brink of nuclear weapons use.
In 1999, there was a real danger of this, and we put a lot of pressure on other people, and we reassured people like our – like the Israelis that they didn’t have to do things. And now we say, “Well, people like you, Steve, are just kind of always screaming about nuclear weapons that they don’t get used,” but they didn’t get used because the Israelis bombed the Osirak reactor. But we did go – because the Israelis bombed the Al Kibar reactor, which was a carbon copy of the North Korean nuclear reactor in North Korea, which – being built in a place, which had no use for electrical power or which had no electrical power lines. It was obviously a weapons factory. Again, we occupied Iraq after the 1991 war. And the reason why we took Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program so seriously, we found more nuclear weapons-related activity in Iraq when we went in than we expected. So we said, “Well, we better err on the side of caution the next time.”
So we stop a lot of activity, which could have led to a more dangerous world, but now we say it’s, it’s a law of nature, and therefore we shouldn’t engage. The same thing also is true by the way for non-nuclear interstate war people say, “Ah, interstate is a 20th century thing, it just doesn’t happen anymore.” You have civil wars, you have insurgencies, you have terrorism. Well, that’s because the United States has been in the business of providing security against interstate attacks.
What’s the one thing that everybody in the world is pretty sure the United States will intervene to stop? If you take a tank column and go across somebody’s border and obey –
KRISTOL: And even Kuwait in 1990, a country we had no treaty obligation to.
ROSEN: We said, “The borders within the Arab world are a matter for the Arab states to settle themselves. We have no dog in that fight.” But there is something visceral in the American political psyche. If you send an army to invade another country, that’s wrong. You know?
KRISTOL: And also dangerous because of what it’s lock-on effects would be, invitation effects, whatever they call them.
ROSEN: So we are credible on that –
KRISTOL: But now Putin has done it, that’s pretty striking, don’t you think? Sort of.
ROSEN: But he did it in ways, which, okay little green men, people not in uniform –
KRISTOL: Only a little bit of a country.
ROSEN: Plausible deniability. These are not Russians, these are – So that, that is the legacy that we have passed onto the world, which is countries can’t invade overtly, and therefore they look at other ways. Which is not good, but in some ways somewhat more manageable. Russians are withdrawing from the Ukraine now because you sent a small ambiguous force in, it’s easier for the locals to kind of fight them. You don’t need a big expansive tank army. So, Putin is a problem. As I said, part of the earlier discussion of China, you want to stop China from taking advantage of the current situation in which it has no strong powers around it.
One of those powers that might kind of come back is a Russia, which is less pathologically governed than the current Russian regime. Which pays more attention to fairly simpleminded understanding of Russian national interests, like we don’t want to lose Russian territory in the far east of China. And the Chinese are demographically kind of moving into these far eastern areas.
So again, what you could see is the emergence of a fairly stable, more natural array of countries – India, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, which together are quite impressive. But it won’t emerge automatically. My brief against the realists who say countries balance, countries don’t expand is that it doesn’t happen by itself. The role of a balancer has often been important, and the recent military powers has often been necessary.
So I think, again, the message, the fundamental message, these problems, I think, are amenable to American policy responses. It’s not like – look, we’ve lost. This in some ways was the Kissinger response. America is in decline. Nothing really we can do about it. The best I can do is cut the best deal we can. And live out our retirement quietly. I don’t think that’s true.
We can’t play the same kind of dominant role, but we can and should play a role in creating this new world order in which people in those regions take more responsibility for defending themselves, but where we play a crucial role. And if we don’t do that we are more at risk of losing our republican liberties than if we undertake the tasks that are associated with this more forward posturing.
You will not want to live in America. You will not want your grandchildren to live in an America where you have all the internal national security controls that you will need to deal with this world of walls. Because in a world of cyber warfare, in a world of infiltration, in a world in which immigrants can be used to mask the movement of terrorists, you are going to have something that looks more like a police state than we’ve ever had before. And you don’t want that. I don’t want that.
I am willing, and I think Americans should be willing to pay the price to create a livable world. Not a liberal world, not a copy of our systems, but a world in which people don’t run away by the millions to avoid horrible death.
ROSEN: And this is something that people on the Left and on the Right in the United States, I think, can find some way of agreeing on – for different reasons they’ll come to it, but the humanitarian impulse which is so admirably on display in Samantha Powers’ speeches about Syria in the United Nations is a reflection of this, which is the occasional outbursts which quickly get suppressed from Secretary Kerry, which is, you know, “This is horrible. Mass murder in the Middle East is horrible. As human beings we should do something about that.” And we say, but as Americans does that mean we have to take them all into America? Well, the alternative to that is no, we can help them live decent lives in their own countries.
KRISTOL: So it remains up to America, but in a different way than 50 years ago, yeah.
ROSEN: Yes, we have to use different tools of statecraft, different sets of our obligations, and one hopes an end to this partisan acrimony in which the object is not to figure out what we do next, but to make sure we keep blaming the other side for what they did in the past.
KRISTOL: Right, right.
ROSEN: “You Bushies, you gave us this world, it’s your fault.” “Obama, you pulled out of Iraq, it’s your fault.” As if that’s what counts. What counts is, what do we do to avoid a world in which either millions of people die while we stand-by and sort of hope we’re okay or a world in which we have this kind of endless chaos?
[Log in to read more.]
Sign Up to receive free access to subscriber-only content, including additional footage, podcasts, transcripts & more.
Not a Member? Register Now!
Already a Conversations member? Login