Stephen Rosen: Taking the Nuclear Threat Seriously

March 31, 2022 (Episode 212)

KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. And I’m very pleased to be joined today, I guess for the third time on CONVERSATIONS,  for many, many, many times through our long friendship, Steve Rosen, professor of International Relations in the Government department at Harvard. Served in the federal government. Served in many advisory roles to other parts of the US government. And also, of course, author of many books and articles. But I won’t belabor the introduction.

But the purpose of today’s conversation: he’s written a couple of excellent articles recently in The Bulwark on the nuclear weapons issue that has now been raised by Putin’s threats and by this moment. So, Steve, thanks for joining me.

ROSEN: My pleasure, Bill. It’s always good to get together with you.

KRISTOL: Yeah. This will be good, I think. And I think our last conversation was in January of 2019, so three years ago.

ROSEN: Right.

KRISTOL: And I think, if I remember correctly, near the end of it, we were both laughing almost. We discussed nuclear weapons briefly. And it’s something you’ve studied and kept an eye on through the years and know the history of very well. And the Cold War and the threats and so forth. And you’re saying, “We have to take those seriously again and think about their relationship to other weapons and the foreign policy.” And we both laughed. It seems so distant, so distant from post-1991 world. There was a little scare in 2002, I guess, with Indian and Pakistan. But since then, who’s really thought about nukes? Apart from trying to stop other countries from getting them, a little bit, I guess. But I guess they’re back in the news, right?

ROSEN: Yeah. This is March 30th and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post both have front-page stories about “What is Putin doing with this tactical nuclear weapon stuff?” And “Nuclear threats? Is this real, or how should we think about it?” And there’s this general era of, to use John Kerry’s phrasing, “Isn’t this kind of old school stuff?

KRISTOL: Yeah. It’s not 21st century really, you know?

ROSEN: Yeah. And the last Conversation we had, we were talking about the changing character of warfare and precision weapons and cyber warfare, all this kind of stuff. And then we noted that a lot of countries around the world take nuclear weapons seriously, so maybe we should too. And then you asked me, “Steve, do you think you can get Americans to take nuclear weapons seriously?” I just remember vividly. We looked at each other. “Nah, it’s never going to happen.” But reality is an ally. It forces us, at least intermittently, to focus on what’s really going on in the world.

And the fact that we’re surprised that Putin is engaging in this kind of nuclear coercion, or saber-rattling, or whatever you want, the fact that we’re surprised, shows you how powerful is our impulse not to think about this. Or to think about it in a way which makes it politically irrelevant. So, if you want to, I mean —

KRISTOL: You could say it’s an understandable impulse; maybe not a healthy one. Maybe a healthy one. You just want to think, “Those weapons will never be used. Let’s just bracket them and put them aside. And maybe we can deter each other from using them. And we have to keep them. Some people want to get rid of them, but — And we don’t need to think about them in a strategic or foreign policy way.” That’s the impulse, I guess. And [crosstalk] Putin has given us a wake up call, right?

ROSEN: It’s Putin. And once you begin looking at what you prefer not to look at, you see it’s not only Putin. It’s the Chinese. It’s probably the Iranians. It’s North Koreans. In other words, we’ve deliberately blinded ourselves to a major element of reality, which is generally not a healthy thing to do; to ignore what’s actually going on in the world, particularly if what’s going on in the world is at the disposal of people who are not well-inclined towards you.

But I think part of the problem is a deliberate educational effort in the academy and the all the respectable centers of foreign policy to teach people a certain version of the nuclear history, which makes nuclear weapons irrelevant. You and I went to school; the basic line was, “Well, the United States got nuclear weapons. We got it because we were worried about Nazi Germany, but we wound up with them. They’re horrible. There killed hundreds of thousands of people, radiation deaths. Maybe we shouldn’t have used it against Japan, or maybe we should. Who knows? But we should never use it again. And then the Russians got it. And then we freaked out. The Russians were scary. We didn’t know what they were doing because it was a [crosstalk].

KRISTOL: So what is this, we discover that they have the weapon in ’49. Is that right?

ROSEN: August of ’49, were running an active intelligence program. They didn’t publicize it. We knew about it. And then, again, this is the standard academic line: “We didn’t know what was going on. We worst-cased it. We just assumed the worst because we didn’t know. And we did all kinds of things, that in retrospect, it wasted a lot of money. Didn’t need to do bomber gaps, missile gaps. And then, the Cuban missile crisis happens. And the Cuban Missile Crisis, shows through the brilliance and leadership of John F. Kennedy, that everybody wants to avoid nuclear war. We just don’t want it. We don’t want it. We have a mutual interest in getting arms control. We have a mutual interest in denuclearizing, pulling back.” And that’s sort of what we are now.

And it culminates in what was the dominant element in the political discourse, in the United States before this war which is to push for nuclear weapons to be used solely — The sole purpose of nuclear weapons should be to deter the use of other nuclear weapons. That was the language that Joe Biden endorsed in his administration, but he was not the only one. Henry Kissinger endorsed these kinds of things.

And now, we see Vladimir Putin using nuclear weapons in ways which are rather different from using them as ‘the sole purpose being to deter other nuclear weapons from attack.’ He’s saying, “Well, if there’s an existential threat, if we’re really under pressure —” And then, we’re surprised because this whole story we’ve told ourselves is that nuclear weapons are horrible, indiscriminate — which all of which is true — and therefore, the only use that they should have is to deter other people using nuclear weapons.

KRISTOL: So, I suppose the counter-argument would be, “Yeah, well, you’re taking Putin’s saber-rattling too seriously. And in the actual history of the Cold War, isn’t that conventional account, right?” Or is it not right?

ROSEN: That’s the whole point.

KRISTOL: Okay, give me the true account, in a few minutes, of the nuclear era. Because that’s important, right? To get the history right, I guess?

ROSEN: I’ll give you an account of the history, both from the United States side and from the Soviet side. By the way, this new history: people do not question the facts, but the history has been done primarily by nonacademic scholars, people working outside of the framework of universities, because there’s an orthodoxy. There is a real orthodoxy about what is the right way to think about this and teach it.

On the Soviet side, they see the United States getting nuclear weapons, and they immediately throw huge amounts of their GDP—they’re poor, they’re destroyed by war, but they put everything they’ve got into building nuclear weapons and defenses against nuclear weapons. For them, the first exercise that teaches them what you can do with nuclear weapons is not the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s the Suez Crisis of 1956. British, French, and Israelis go into Egypt, try to stop Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal.

The American version of this is: Eisenhower tells the British, “Cut it out. We’re going to cut off your loans if you don’t pull out.” And the pull out. The Soviet version, which is in all the Soviet histories, textbooks, memoirs is: Khrushchev threatens the British with nuclear weapons. He says, “We’re turning out nuclear missiles like sausages. We can obliterate you.” And the British and the French pull back. The lesson that they learned: nuclear coercion worked. Gamal Abdel Nasser thanks Khrushchev for using nuclear threats to save Egypt. And we say, “That’s crazy. That’s not what happened.” But history, to some extent, is constructed. And what they learned was, “Nuclear weapons are useful.”

And then in 1969, when they get into a border dispute with the Chinese, again, they mobilized their nuclear weapons. They engaged in all kinds of threats. They put missiles on alert near the border of China. They fly bombers around. They feed stories into the Western press that the Soviet Union is getting ready for a nuclear war. And the Chinese back down. The Chinese agree to negotiations. The Chinese really believe it. They evacuate their major cities. The Communist Party headquarters of 70 Chinese cities are evacuated. So, the lesson that the Russians have taught themselves is that nuclear coercion, done properly, is very useful. “These are terrible, horrible weapons. We can use the fact that they’re terrible and horrible to get other people to back down.”

And in the current situation, Putin is using nuclear weapons, not on the battlefield, at least not yet, but he’s using them in a way to constrain NATO. Everybody in there said, “We can’t do this. We can’t do that.” Why? “It’s World War III?” Well, what do people mean when they say, “It’s World War Three?” We’re not afraid, anymore, of Russian tanks. We’ve seen how ineffective they are. We’re afraid that World War III is going to be a nuclear war.

Putin is using the risk of escalation as a way of getting the NATO powers to behave in ways that he wants them to behave, or not do things he doesn’t want them to do. On the US side, we also took nuclear weapons very seriously because we saw that nuclear weapons might be—this was the Eisenhower adoption—a cheaper way of defending American positions all over the world. Remember, Eisenhower was desperately worried that facing the Soviet threat would make the United States have a militarized economy, a militarized society. He wanted to get more bang for the buck. He adopts this position of massive retaliation, which is what? “If you, the Soviet Union, do things that are short of nuclear war, like invade Europe, we’ll use our nuclear weapons. All of them.”

And we put the tactical nuclear weapons all over Europe because we say—literally, we have thousands of nuclear weapons. And our NATO doctrine, agreed to by the European powers, is that if the Soviet Union invades West Europe and the United States cannot defend West Europe, NATO cannot defend West Europe with non-nuclear means, it will be NATO doctrine to use tactical nuclear weapons to defend Europe.

KRISTOL: And incidentally, that never changes, right?

ROSEN: And that never changed. That was what —

KRISTOL: There were “No first-use protests” here, and serious thinkers said, “Maybe this isn’t wise. It’s better to build up our conventional forces.” But I think it’s been the case, since NATO was founded—that for all the being shocked at Putin, and I’m not making a moral equivalence here, obviously, between Putin and NATO—but that it was also our doctrine that, in certain circumstances, we might have to use tactical nuclear weapons.

ROSEN: It is our doctrine. It’s the Pakistani doctrine. American officers visiting Pakistan, say, “You seem to be recapitulating what we did in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.” But until the war in Ukraine, again, the debate was, should we adopt not nuclear first-use, but get rid of the tactical nuclear weapons? The sole purpose of nuclear weapons is deter the use of nuclear weapons, not to stop a non-nuclear attack. And now the Biden administration has pulled that back. And he says, “The fundamental purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear weapons, but they can be used for other things as well.”

The reason why we’re taking Putin so seriously now is, for decades, since the 1990s, Russian military doctrine has been, “We will deploy nuclear weapons in ways which allow us to defend territories of interest that we cannot defend otherwise.” Nuclear weapons, because they’re so powerful, because they are so frightening, may enable you to do things you can’t do with the resources you have without nuclear weapons.

In other words, it’s not crazy. It may be wrong. It may run risks that people ought not to run. But there’s a logic to it. And Russia, which was impoverished after the Cold War, which went through a period in which its conventional military was pretty much worthless, has thousands of nuclear weapons. So, it’s not crazy to say, “Well, we’ve got nuclear weapons. We don’t have very much else. So we’re going to key our military, our national defense doctrine, to the use of nuclear weapons.”

Putin changed that around, but now we see that his military still is not very good. And that’s the reason why I wanted to write those articles for The Bulwark. The Russian military is failing visibly on the battlefield. The current pullback of Russian forces, north of Kiev, is because the Russian military has to fall back. It’s taken such heavy casualties on the order of 20 to 30%, if US Defense Department estimates are roughly correct. It has to fall back to regroup.

If the Russian position deteriorates further, or if Putin continues to have the kind of objectives which he seems to have, he still may want to do things like stop NATO from supplying the Ukrainians with the advanced weapons that we’ve been supplying.

One of the times war between the United States and the Soviet Union was most likely was in February of 1951. Why? The Chinese had sent volunteers into South Korea to invade and take over. And just like the Russian army now, the Chinese army in Korea was falling apart because the volunteers had been told, “Hey, the South Koreans will welcome you with the open arms. They’re a puppet regime; they’ll collapse.” They were not prepared for a long war, just like the Russian army is not prepared for the war now.

Massive defection started happening in the People’s Liberation Army in China. The army was falling apart. And the Soviet Union began to move enormous forces to the border with North Korea. At that time, an armistice was negotiated, which gave the Russians time to pull back, regroup.

Now, my hunch is that the Russians are seeking these limited pull-back, cease fires, whatever, to give themselves time to regroup. If they face further problems, which they may face anyway, the incentives for them to save their position, by using nuclear weapons, will exist. What they do, we cannot predict.

KRISTOL: I want to come back very much to the current situation and how to think about what Putin’s threatening and what our appropriate response is, and how much are we self-deterring and so forth by [crosstalk]. But just one more thing on the history because it’s so interesting. All this stuff—our colleague, our friend, Andy Zwick reminded me of this last week: Tom Schelling and Herman Kahn, who you and I worked for a little bit, when we were in college, and Henry Kissinger, actually—one of his first books that made his name was about nuclear weapons, Nuclear Weapons And Foreign Policy, I think it was called. Maybe Nuclear Weapons in American Foreign Policy? Just give people a sense of what was the point of all that?

And why were very intelligent people, from really a variety of fields, in some ways, history, political science, but also the natural sciences really, or math, game theory, mathematics got so interested in nuclear stuff. We all tend to look back at that. “That was weird. I guess that was a fifties, sixties thing.” But that kind of thinking continued to have relevance, even when people didn’t want to talk about it too much. And continues to have relevance in your view? Or is that just from a different era?

ROSEN: It continues to have relevance for a number of reasons. It continues to have [crosstalk]

KRISTOL: And give a sense, how would you characterize that thinking? Thinking the Unthinkable, is that the name of Herman’s book?

ROSEN: That was one of the titles of it. And Kissinger’s third book was The Necessity for Choice, which was an argument in favor of American tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, saying it that was the only — The argument is, “We can’t afford to spend enough money to match the Soviet Union in non-nuclear forces. They’re a totalitarian society. They can squeeze their people. We just can’t match them without militarizing.” And therefore, we have to, Kissinger, other people said, “We have to use nuclear weapons threats to redress the balance.”

Okay, that was the 1950s. Maybe we overestimated the Soviet economy, Soviet military threat. But what’s the problem the United States faces now? We’re facing, obviously, a hostile Russia. We’re facing a China which is pretty ambitious. We don’t know if it’s as risk-acceptant as Russia is. But it’s certainly said it’s going to take Taiwan back. It’s done all kinds of things [inaudible].

But the point is, we’re facing the same dilemma that people in the United States faced in the fifties. We’re facing an adversary who may be willing to spend more than we’re able to spend. And therefore, we need to think about ways to deter our adversary without matching them man-for-man, missile-for-missile, tank-for-tank.

The Chinese economy is about as big as the United States economy is now. A little bit smaller on various measures; a little bit bigger on other measures. But China’s not the only problem we face. Obviously, we face Russia; we face North Korea. Iran hasn’t gone away in all this. And people are asking themselves, within the limits of what we’re willing to spend, how do we deal with the threats from North Korea, China, et cetera?

And our allies, who are the ones who are at risk, are the ones asking us to pay more attention to nuclear weapons. The former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, last week says, “The war in Ukraine highlights the importance of American nuclear weapons in Japan because —

KRISTOL: And that’s Abe, the former Prime Minister. Not an insignificant figure.

ROSEN: Incidentally, there’s been a drum beat of retired generals and other people from Japan coming to the United States. “Hey, Americans, we got to do something about the Chinese. They have 10 times as many people as we do. They have an economy that’s bigger than ours. How about you do for Japan what you did for Germany during the Cold War? We’re not crazy. We don’t want to start a nuclear war. But you, Americans, you put nuclear weapons in Germany. And you still have nuclear weapons in Europe, in Turkey, Belgium, and Germany. Why don’t you quietly adopt the practice of rotating American airplanes, through Japanese bases, with nuclear weapons? Why? So that we have the same deterrent benefit that the Europeans do. The Russians won’t attack Germany. Why? Because there’s American nuclear weapons there. It might start off the chain reaction that leads to a nuclear war. The Russians won’t run that risk. We want you to pose that same kind of threat to China, because we can’t afford to build a military the same size as the Chinese. We just can’t. They have 1.3 billion people, we have 120 million people. They have 10 times the people, we just can’t do it.”

The South Koreans have gone off and on about saying, “Hey, you pulled your tactical nuclear weapons out of Korea when the Cold War was over, maybe you should put it back.” In other words, the countries that are on the front line have asserted and are reasserting the importance of the kind of thinking that Tom Schelling, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger engaged in in the 1950s, because they’re at risk. They’re at risk because of the same thing, which is because of an adversary which is richer and maybe more risk-acceptant than we are.

KRISTOL: And even if we beefed up our conventional spending in our forces and we could equalize the population differences and so forth, it’s still a fact that if the opponent has a certain weapon, there’s a certain common sense case for, “Well, you need to have the same weapon to deter too.” So it’s not simply a matter, I think, of spending. It is partly that, specifically in the US case, being 3,000 miles away and not being willing to— We can’t match the Russian army in manpower, obviously. In Europe, even at the height of the Cold War, we were [inaudible] smaller.

But yeah, it’s also just a matter of, unless you have a magic way to get the Chinese and Russians, and for that matter others, North Koreans, to repudiate this, this is an important part of deterrence and of allowing other things to happen. Well, an important part of deterrence, let’s just say generally. I guess that’s what strikes me about the way you put it, which is very helpful for me, at least. It’s you just can’t think through deterrence without including some conversation on nuclear weapons. That maybe the first 80% of the conversation should be about conventional deterrents and making sure you have the right arms and the right anti-air stuff, and the drones and all this kind of stuff, but it can’t just be wished away.

ROSEN: No, it’s the terrible paradox of nuclear weapons, which is they are horrible weapons. They are weapons that are different from other kinds of weapons, but precisely because of that, they have a power which you cannot ignore. Which is you get into a crisis, and you engage in non-nuclear warfare and defense, and one side says, “And we have nuclear weapons and you don’t, and we can do things that you’re just not able to respond to in kind.”

Look, I once asked a biological anthropologist friend of mine, “Why do we pay so much attention to nuclear weapons?” Thomas Sheldon famously said, “You can kill as many people with razor blades as you can with nuclear weapons,” if you’re sufficiently bloodthirsty. And this guy, who was a biological anthropologist, looked at me like I was stupid. He said, “It’s because the human central nervous system is hardwired to respond strongly to bright flashes of light and loud noise.”

When you think of nuclear weapons, what do you think of? You think of that huge mushroom cloud, you think of that huge flash of light. That’s a literal, quite literally, a visceral reaction that people have to nuclear weapons, which makes them psychologically important, which makes them politically important.

So you’re right. It’s not just the, “Well, if we spent enough money, we wouldn’t need them.” Those weapons are terrifying, and they can be used to terrify in war, if you don’t have the ability to respond in kind.

KRISTOL: And I think your point about when people say World War III, they’re really saying the use of nuclear weapons. They don’t quite want to use that term. I was struck, thinking—as you said that—I was thinking when people say “NATO and Article 5 guarantee,” we will come to each other’s defense, they’re partly saying, of course, that we will ship arms in, as we’re doing to Ukraine, which is not NATO. Let’s just say if it were Poland, we would obviously, we would send soldiers, presumably, and pilots and airplanes, but what Article 5 really is, ultimately, really —

ROSEN: It’s nuclear guarantee. Yeah, right.

KRISTOL: It’s a nuclear. Yeah, it opens the door to a nuclear world too, and I guess what you’re saying is that’s not something that can or should be walked away from or wished away, given the world we have. Maybe at some point in the future, if Putin goes away, and Xi goes away, and everyone goes away, and if North Korea goes away, and Iran goes away, we could get to a better world and repudiate the worst weapons. But one of the most dangerous weapons or most deadly weapons, but [inaudible] —

ROSEN: Yes. No, your point about the NATO being a nuclear guarantee is exactly right. Everybody noticed that after the Russians invaded Ukraine the government of Germany did a 180. Said, “Look, we haven’t been spending enough money, we have to make it up, the deficit that we’ve accumulated.” What’s the very first thing that the German government did in defense spending in the wake of the invasion of the Ukraine? Said, “We’re going to buy F-35s.” Why are we buying F-35s? Because F-35s are certified to carry nuclear weapons. You have F-35s —

KRISTOL: Is that right? But so much of the discussion of F-35s is going to, “people are kind of idiotic, they want this super fancy plane because they love gadgets and so forth,” right?

ROSEN: Look, putting a nuclear weapon on an airplane is not a trivial enterprise. You have to make sure that certain things are a hundred percent reliable, that the release mechanisms, the command and control is there. Because you put a nuclear weapon on a plane, you want to make sure it works exactly the way it’s supposed to. So planes get certified as being nuclear capable. The F-35 is certified as nuclear capable. The other planes that were available for sale to Germany were not nuclear certified.

So the Germans are sending very explicitly a signal, “We are reinforcing the nuclear guarantee that the Americans provide on German airplanes, American warheads on German airplanes. So that if Putin invades Germany, he has to worry about a German nuclear response, using American warheads.”

KRISTOL: Or if he invades Poland as a fellow NATO member of Germany.

ROSEN: Well, and Poland is buying F-35s also. And that’s the reason why the Japanese are buying F-35s.

That’s on one side. The other side about the nuclear guarantee business is the other lesson that people look at, is Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and look what happened. All the happy talk in the Budapest Memorandum and all this other kind of stuff, worthless. Nuclear weapons — I say, again, the terrible paradox, nuclear weapons do play a special role, they are the ultimate guarantee of territorial sovereignty.

Countries have been invaded that have nuclear weapons. Israel in ’73 was invaded, there have been border skirmishes between the Soviet Union and China, border skirmishes between Pakistan and India, but no country that has nuclear weapons has faced anything like the kind of invasion of their territory that the Russians are doing versus the Ukraine. Why? It’s too risky.

The Indians staged a limited incursion into Pakistan in 1999, the Kargil War, and they deliberately took heavier casualties so as to avoid deep penetrations into Pakistan, because they were afraid if you go too deep, the Pakistanis might unleash their nuclear weapons.

By the way, the Pakistani doctrine is the same as the American nuclear doctrine: we get invaded, we’re weaker than our adversary, we’re going to use nuclear weapons first in response to the non-nuclear attack.

What’s the Israeli doctrine? Well, they say they don’t have nuclear weapons, but clearly, during the ’73 war, there was this famous period where it looked like the Israeli military was not doing that well, and they took steps to make it clear that, “If this goes on, our nuclear weapons are ready to be launched.”

So it’s not a crazy, it’s not a culturally specific or regime specific response. Nuclear weapons do provide this ultimate guarantee and people know it, and people have actually used it over and over again to make sure that they can control and contain the behavior of their adversaries.

KRISTOL: So how worried are you about two things, I guess, I’ll start with these two. The examples you’ve just cited in general, and of Ukraine in specific, having given up—I don’t know if they really controlled those weapons, but—nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union that were on Ukrainian soil. I think there was always a question of who, maybe they were controlled from Moscow. But having given them up, and in return gotten a sort of a pledge of territorial integrity and sovereignty and so forth—how worried are you that the lesson everyone in the world learns for this is, “You know what? Better to have nuclear weapons.” How worried are you, from a nuclear proliferation or non proliferation point of view, about the lessons of Ukraine?

And B, and maybe do that one first and then B, of course, how worried if Putin’s threats seem to back up a desire for negotiations, which we sort of then pressure the Ukraine, is to let Putin have a face-saving way out, and keep some of what he got, and all this kind of stuff that’s being discussed now, how worried are you there too that the nuclear threat then turns out to be vindicated and successful? And that other countries see that too, and think, “Well, you know what? That’s pretty useful to have them.” Does how we handle this deal, with this threat of rewarding nuclear powers, letting them commit war crimes under the nuclear umbrella, as it were, and not pay a price for it? And also the flip side, poor Ukraine gives them up and look what happens to them?

ROSEN: Quite worried. If it is understood by specific countries around the world that Russia could invade Ukraine, engage in atrocious behavior towards Ukrainian civilians and seize territory and constrain NATO responses because Russia had nuclear threats which kept NATO at bay, other countries may—

Well, not on the [inaudible], China may say, “Huh, how is this relevant to our desire to get Taiwan? If America doesn’t do things to help Ukraine because they’re afraid of the escalations of nuclear weapons, can we engage in similar maneuvers so that the Americans won’t do certain things to help Taiwan in response to a Chinese non-nuclear military coercion of Taiwan?” There were already hints that the Chinese were thinking about this. China [says] Taiwan’s part of China, it’s legitimate for China to use nuclear weapons for the defense of China, or it’s legitimate for China to use nuclear weapons on the territory of China, and Taiwan is the territory of China, and the waters around Taiwan are the Chinese national territory.

So I think, first and foremost, lessons that the Chinese learn from what has already happened is a big problem. Because we may talk about stationing American nuclear weapons in Japan as part of the US-Japan Alliance, [but] nobody’s going to think about putting American nuclear weapons in Taiwan. So China will face a non-nuclear Taiwan, as Russia faced a non-nuclear Ukraine, and may say, “We can limit what the United States does to help Taiwan in response.”

Does that mean we should give Taiwan nuclear weapons? No. Does that mean we should allow Taiwan to get nuclear weapons on its own? It’s very risky, it’s very dangerous. But it means therefore that we have to engage in more vigorous and more politically dramatic actions to convince the Chinese that even if nuclear weapons are not used, the United States is willing to take steps to defend the territory of Taiwan.

Part of it is contingent. Part of the lessons that people will learn are the lessons from what has already happened. Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons or relinquished control of nuclear weapons that were stationed on its soil, and it became vulnerable.

Part of it is contingent. If Putin is perceived or if Putin can convey the message that he’s actually won in Ukraine, he’s actually successfully achieved the objectives that he has set for themselves, then that reinforces the message that nuclear weapons are not only good for keeping other people out of your conflict, nuclear weapons are good for getting things that you want that you can’t get otherwise.

I’m worried about the lessons that Iran will learn from nuclear weapons. If Iran has nuclear weapons, it’s not that they’re going to nuke the Israelis. That’s clearly suicidal on their part, but that’s not the issue. It’s “can we do things in Lebanon? Can we help Hezbollah in Lebanon in ways, and constrain Israeli responses?” Because they say, “Well, the Iranians are protecting Hezbollah. You never know, they might use nuclear weapons to protect Hezbollah”

The government of Turkey is already engaged in an effort, a program to develop a civilian nuclear infrastructure, which will be quite capable of producing nuclear weapons.

Kim Jong-un has announced, or announced last year, that he’s adopting a new strategy of strategic confrontation, and all these missile, all these ICBM launches that are taking place now in conjunction with this nuclear program, are not an accident. They’re not an isolated, vainglorious lunatic doing things because it looks good on videos; he’s doing it because he thinks that this will constrain the United States from taking steps to assist in the defense of South Korea.

So we need to be thinking about how we defeat the political intent of the nuclear assisted campaign in the Ukraine. In The Bulwark, I said if Putin uses tactical nuclear weapons in ways that are demonstrative, or whatever, to assist in his effort to gain Ukraine, the United States has to demonstrate that that use of nuclear weapons will not be successful.

Because if we don’t, the message that other countries will learn is that nuclear weapons work, nuclear weapons help you get what you want that you couldn’t get otherwise. And the world in which that is the lesson that people learn is a very dangerous world. It’s a world in which people that are now pretty much constrained feel that they may be able to escape those constraints.

Would an American non-nuclear military response to a Russian demonstrative use of tactical nuclear weapons, would that be risky? Yes. But what would the purpose of it be? The purpose of it would be to say, “We are not going to let you use nuclear weapons as a coercive threat. We’re going to stop you from doing what you shouldn’t do, even if you threaten us with nuclear weapons, because we are confident that our nuclear deterrent will stop you from going further.”

You made reference earlier to the work that Herman Khan and Thomas Shelling did. One of the things that they did that was very important, which has been forgotten, is that deterrence is not simply a peacetime tool. Deterrence is not simply what you have to stop the war from starting. You have intra-war deterrents to deter the adversary from taking even more dangerous steps in a war that’s going on.

One of the lost intellectual tools that we had that Henry Kissinger, Herman Khan, Thomas Shelling worked on very hard is deterrence needs to be useful even after the shooting starts. Even after the shooting starts there are terrible things that could happen that we don’t want to have happen. And that part has all been kind of… No, the sole purpose of nuclear weapons, all this deterrence stuff, is to stop the war from happening. [crosstalk] But the war has started. We’re in the middle of a war now, and there are bad things, extremely bad things, that we don’t want to see happen, and we want to deter them too.

So concretely, I would like the United States and NATO collectively to take steps that deters Putin from using chemical weapons, engaging in nuclear coercion, rattling and moving, or demonstrative use of nuclear weapons. We should simply not take it for granted that Putin won’t do any of these things. His own doctrine, his own statements have indicated, “Well, I’m thinking about it.” And we should you say, “You’re thinking about it, this is why it’s a very bad idea for you actually to do it.”

Reinforcing capabilities to provide intra-war deterrence, again, is something that used to be second nature for American military planners, second nature for NATO planners. It’s gone away, and we have to kind of get back to that. Richard Nixon, in 1969, did some things to deter a Soviet military attack on China. There’s interesting scholarship on this, [inaudible]. Remember, there’s a border crisis, China and Russia were fighting on the border. The Russians were rattling their nuclear weapons, they were bringing SS-4 medium range missiles to the border, they were flying bombers around. The United States, in October of 1969, goes on a global nuclear alert.

Kissinger, at that time in the White House, is writing memorandum saying, “We have to convince the Russians, and we have to convince the Chinese, that America won’t stand by and do nothing if Russia engages in a nuclear strike against China.” And what was a credible visible way of doing that? You exercise your nuclear forces. You put your nuclear submarines out to sea, you engage in intelligence activities that you wouldn’t ordinarily engage in, you engage in electronic warfare. There’s a whole list of things that were discussed, some were implemented. But what was this? This was the business of intra-war deterrence.

Chinese and the Soviets were already at each other’s throats. We didn’t want the Soviets to go further. The Soviets were coming to the United States. They sent out emissaries to the United States saying, “Hey, you don’t like the Chinese, we don’t like the Chinese. Why don’t we go in together against the Chinese, knock them out?”

And we were afraid that the Chinese would say, “Hmm, the Americans might do it.”  And we were afraid that the Russians might think, “The Americans really won’t do anything. They’ll stand by. And we’ll —” We, Richard Nixon with Henry Kissinger’s support, states this global military alert, which ultimately did have the effect of getting the Russians to stand down.

In other [inaudible] in 1973, the Russians threatened nuclear weapons to help the Egyptians in the war, the last phases of the war against Israel. And again, James Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense, put the United States military worldwide on DEFCON 3. He did that on his own, by the way, because Richard Nixon was going through Watergate and probably was drunk. But what he did was he put American forces on alert to persuade the Russians not to go further in the Middle East.

I interviewed Jim Schlesinger seven years before he died. I said, “Mr. Secretary, what did you have in mind by putting American nuclear forces on DEFCON 3 in October of 1973?” And he said to me, “Steve, I can’t remember. But Steve, as you know, going on DEFCON 3 means putting all American tactical bombers in Europe armed with nuclear weapons on strip alert. They can take off within a matter of a minute. As you know, Steve, those nuclear armed bombers can reach the Soviet Union in 10 minutes. And as you know, Steve, that means that we can knock out critical Soviet facilities before they can disperse them or evacuate them.”

He was saying, he was telling me without telling me, “We were presenting the Soviet Union with a deterrent threat. If you use nuclear weapons in the Middle East, you are at risk. You are vulnerable.” Was that risk free? No. If the Soviets had used nuclear weapons to change the outcome of the 1973 war, would that have involved risks? Oh, absolutely.

If the United States takes steps now to be prepared to deter the Russians from chemical weapons use, other kinds of weapons and nuclear weapons use in Ukraine, does it have risks? Yes. But a world in which the Soviets Russians, sorry, successfully use nuclear threats to win the war in Ukraine, that is a very risky world.

Herman Kahn used to say that if the Allied nations had stood up to Hitler at the time of the Czechoslovakia Crisis, what would’ve been the outcome? It would’ve been a mess. It would’ve been a military coup against Hitler. The economy of Germany would’ve gone to the toilet. European politics would be in an uproar. Everybody would’ve said, “standing up to Hitler, what a stupid thing to do,” because they wouldn’t have seen what was deterred from happening.

Deterrence by its nature, if it succeeds, prevents terrible things from happening, which you don’t see. And therefore you only see the risks that you did run. You don’t see the risks that you avoided.

And what I’m trying to do by means of this kind of long-winded discourse is paint as realistic and clear a picture of the risks that NATO and the world faces if we don’t do the things that are necessary to deter Russian nuclear weapons use in the current crisis. As I said, it fundamentally changes the world.

KRISTOL: It seems the degree to which we are, or maybe, it’s hard to tell, self-deterring from doing certain things short of, considerably short of, I would say, the nuclear threshold because of the threat of World War III—which you say implicitly is, not implicitly, explicitly now is Putin’s threat to consider using nuclear weapons. That kind of self-deterrence is itself dangerous because it—for the reasons you said.

I was so struck and have been critical of Jen Psaki, the White House Press Secretary, said when we decided not to send the  MIG 29s over into Ukraine—which may not have been the weapon they needed, that’s a separate issue—but she said it would be escalatory. But if you start saying that sending conventional arms to the Ukrainians to defend themselves against a Russian attack is escalatory, what are you worried about? You say it’s escalatory, what are you worried about? You’re worried about, I guess, the Russians. Are they going to use more conventional weapons? Well, maybe, but they’re being pretty brutal. Really what you’re doing is being deterred, I think, by Putin’s threats of tactical nuclear weapons to do some things conventionally that might well help the Ukrainians. And that seems like a very bad signal to send.


KRISTOL: And I was also struck by this, so say a word about this, with regard to Kahn’s famous escalation ladder and all this sort of stuff. She said this, I think, it did probably reveal —Jen Psaki didn’t make this up. She was reflecting what had been said to her by the national security advisor or maybe the president or that she heard in very high level meetings. That, well, “we can’t do it because it’s escalatory.”

But that itself is a very revealing statement because that’s not a— Escalatory is not a show stopper. It does not a mean you can’t do it. [crosstalk]  Escalatory means yes, it would be one step up, if you want to use the metaphor of the escalation ladder. You need to think it through. You need to see what the Russians would then do. You need to see what your next step would do. You might think about signaling certain things so they don’t freak out if you do it.

But “escalatory” is not a red light; escalatory is a yellow light, I suppose, of thinking things through before you do things. But it was very striking to me that she thought using that term was it’s sort of like saying, well, it would be impermissible, evil, wrong, out of the question, against the law, but it isn’t any of those things, escalatory.


KRISTOL: Anyway, say a word about escalation.

ROSEN: Escalation is a tool just like deescalation is a tool. Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it’s not. We deliberately and explicitly escalated our economic sanctions, right? We started at low levels, raised them up because we said, okay, either we need to increase the level of economic warfare against Russia. And could it lead to further escalation beyond that? Yes, but it also might lead to deescalation. You’re right. The use of the word escalation has become like racism or genocide. It’s a way of ending the argument. “If it’s escalatory obviously we don’t want to do that.” Whereas escalation historically has been okay. If we operate at a higher level, maybe we have a better chance of achieving our objectives.

The old term was escalation dominance. If we shift the conflict to a higher level, it’s because we can produce a satisfactory outcome at that level. We can win if you want to put it that way.

That was not a concept the Russians invented. We understood it.  And the idea of “escalate to deescalate” is in a way like the concept of going all in a poker game. You force the adversary back, because you are willing to do things she’s not willing to match. Sometimes this is a good thing to do. Sometimes it’s a stupid thing to do. It depends on the situation.

But the point is also that you made, deescalation is also risky. If you reduce your level of activity, maybe that’s good. It will reduce [inaudible] the other side. It may also invite the other side to take advantage of the fact that you’re doing less, which unfortunately is some of the lessons that we learned from the Obama Administration, when we deliberately tried to deescalate conflicts in Syria, not escalate them. And what happened was people went, well, we can use chemical weapons and actually keep [inaudible] in power and use chemical weapons in other contexts.

Escalation is an instrument. It’s a tool. It’s like deescalation. You use it in the circumstances where you think it will induce in your adversary, or has a better likelihood of inducing in your adversary, the responses that you want to see.

The escalation ladder, by the way, was never invented as a kind of a lock step list of things, first I do number one, then I do number two. It’s a way of making visible to yourself the range of things that you could do so that you would choose from that range of things that which is most likely to get you where you want to go.

By the way, just for the record, Herman Kahn’s escalation ladder put full scale economic sanctions just short of general war, because historically that had been the case. If you don’t like escalation, then you don’t like the sanctions regime that we put on the Russians. And the Russians are saying this. The Russians have said your sanctions regime is the equivalent of a declaration of war. They’re trying to get us to back off and self-deter.

I’d like us to get out of the business of using escalation as a conversation ender: “it’s escalatory, therefore, obviously it’s off the table.” It has risks, but so does not escalating have risks and we have to [inaudible]. This is the other.

Again, this used to be kind of second nature, intellectually. People who understood that escalation sometimes could be used and sometimes shouldn’t. But because of the wars that the United States fought in the Middle East, escalation was seen as expanding wars that we didn’t want to expand rather than as ways of winning wars. “Oh, we’re just prolonging the war, making it a lot longer.” As opposed to, “We’re escalating the war to produce an outcome that we want to see happen. “We taught ourselves the wrong way of thinking about escalation as a result of the kinds of conflicts we were fighting in global war terror and elsewhere.

KRISTOL: It needn’t have been. I was thinking, as you spoke, [inaudible] the surge in 2007 in Iraq was explicitly defended, and correctly defended it turned out, as a way of taking short term pain upon ourselves, obviously, in terms of sending more troops and fighting a war, aggressive war. But in order to solve the—to win the war, or stop the Civil War maybe is a better way of putting it, and do counterinsurgency, right? And so we could then draw that—which we did within a year—it’s not as if we have no experience of something like that.

ROSEN: Yeah. And in our last conversation, I refer to the fact that this book, The Unraveling, talks about how we gave up all the gains that we get [inaudible] administration was— This will be seen as partisan in the defense of the Bush Administration, but I think objectively, it’s correct. The surge did produce a reduction in the level of violence [inaudible] because the adversary said, “Our strategy of incrementally ratcheting up violence is met by this massive response and we have to back down.”


ROSEN: It’s not crazy. It’s not even about— It’s just common sense in many anyways.

KRISTOL: Yeah. And also it’s not just what they say. It’s also they suffer real losses so it’s harder for them to keep fighting.

So maybe in conclusion,  I’ve found this very interesting, and the whole restoring a kind of way of thinking. Of course, and just one footnote on that. That way of thinking was attacked mercilessly and mocked at the time: “Dr. Strangelove.” And then “No First Use” was a big movement in America for a long time and had respectable supporters. And in the eighties, if I’m not mistaken, all those huge demonstrations against Reagan, weren’t they demonstrating against our willingness in a sense to deploy weapons to Europe? And to talk about the fact that it was important militarily to deter Russia, to deter the Soviet Union, to deploy these weapons? And that was kind of what the issue was, right? So it’s always been controversial, you might say. And maybe [inaudible] as you suggest sort of something done a little bit out of the spotlight, but important.

ROSEN: Yes. Well, first off, on the nuclear aversion in Germany and Japan, but not only those countries. Look, nuclear weapons are these massively horrible weapons and their use is different. And the nuclear taboo is something that we are all glad exists. And I would not want to advocate that we violate it. Now the question is, can other countries utilize that special status of nuclear weapons against us?

ROSEN: That’s the first point. Second point is that if you don’t want to see nuclear weapons used, if you don’t want to see weapons employed in ways that give advantages to states using nuclear weapons coercively, you have to do the kinds of things that Ronald Reagan did. Which is to say the Soviet Union initiated the escalation in Europe by deploying larger numbers of more effective nuclear weapons targeted on Europe and Japan. The Germans, Helmut Schmidt, asked us to put weapons into Europe.

The Soviet Union, utilizing the legitimate anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany, waged a massive, covert, political warfare campaign, sent money and other kinds of things to the anti-war activists to gin it up, as a part of its arsenal of political instruments against it. But the government of Germany, left wing and right wing, and the United States persevered. And what was the outcome? The Soviet Union pulled out and destroyed the nuclear weapons that were threatening Europe. In response to which the United States pulled its nuclear weapons.

De-nuclearization is not something that I oppose. What I oppose is letting states that have nuclear weapons get benefits from coercively threatening the use of those weapons. How do you get them to not do that? Well, you may have to escalate. The United States put more nuclear weapons into Europe.  If you want. to say that’s escalation, it’s counter escalation. But it had the effect of getting the Soviet Union under Gorbachev to say, okay, fair enough. We give up, we’ll do it.

Finally, on the point of doing it out of the limelight, it was a very important thing. I’m sure 99.9% of the people watching this podcast never heard of the October 1969 nuclear alert. Most people don’t know about what American nuclear forces in Europe did in October of 1973. And that’s good. People talk about giving Putin an off ramp. People talk about not putting him in a corner. Publicly threatening a state, or an out-state leader with nuclear war, and then watching him back down probably is bad for the political survival of that leader. Khrushchev was forced out of office in  August in 1964 after the failure of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is some advantage in doing quietly things that which if done publicly would create political humiliation and political pressures not to give in. The best example is the Israeli strike on the North Korean built, Syrian reactor [inaudible]. The Israelis never said they did it.

KRISTOL: This was in 2007, I guess, right?

ROSEN: 2007, 2008. They did it. They never talked about it. They had never admitted it. The Israelis never talked about it. The intent was to destroy it. It was achieved. The intent was not to put Assad in a situation where politically he has to strike back at Israel because that could lead to the kind of escalations you might not want. The management of the flow of information is very important.

The United States government, in my view, very correctly is doing a fair number of things to help the Ukrainian government and not making a big deal out of it saying, “Hey Russians, your army is falling apart because of what the United States is doing to help Ukraine.” The United States government responds saying,  “The Ukrainian people are very brave, very competent, very courageous. They’re defending their country.” That’s what’s going on. Because you want to achieve your objectives, you should avoid the actions that make it harder for your adversary to make concessions.

Again, being willing to escalate doesn’t mean being triumphal. It doesn’t mean wanting to win propaganda victories. It means understanding your adversary and maneuvering in ways that take into account his nature and his needs and it’s a huge process.

At one point you asked me if I wanted to make a point towards the end, which didn’t come up. The successful use of American deterrence measures during the Cold war all had, at its foundation, a decade’s long, extremely successful intelligence effort. You can’t influence your adversary if you don’t understand your adversary. We went to great lengths to understand exactly how the Russians thought, how the Soviets thought about escalation, how they thought about nuclear weapons, what they saw as their vulnerabilities, what they saw as their strengths. We had — now it can be discussed openly because it’s all been revealed – we had Polish and Russian agents on the Soviet general staff, literally, giving us Soviet war plans. We had ways of listening into Soviet communications, which led us to know what they were thinking as they were thinking it.

You don’t snap your fingers and create that kind of understanding of the adversary, which enables you to take actions, which are not ham-handed, which are not ineffective because they don’t understand the way your adversary responds.

The big problem facing the United States now is not only Russia, its China. If there’s one takeaway, I say the United States, I hope is, and should be engaged in, a long-term effort to radically improve our nature of Chinese national security decision making so that we don’t do by mistake things that create responses that we don’t want. And that we do do things that lead to the outcomes that take into account the nature of our adversary and interacts with our adversary in ways that produce the outcomes we want.

In other words, it’s not just strength. It’s not just overwhelming force. It’s applying that force in a way that takes into account how your adversary responds to your use of force. And as I said, during the Cold War, people thought about all the money we wasted in the Cold War. We spent tens of billions of dollars on very expensive things and took risks so that we could have the information that we needed so that we could do things that were not stupid. And the Cold War was not a total success, but on the whole, it wound up better than almost anybody at the time thought it would.

And if we’re going to be equally successful with Russia now or the Chinese in the future, that kind of informational foundation is as important, maybe more important than hypersonic weapons or fancy missile defenses. Because if you don’t understand how your adversary reacts to what you’re doing, you will make mistakes. You’ll wind up doing things that don’t get you what you want and may produce things that you don’t want.

So again, there’s a tendency to say of people like you and me, oh we’re hawks. We are always advocating use of force. No. We’re advocating an understanding of the adversary as he actually is. Not to have hopeful delusions about the adversary and not to assume that if we’re strong, the adversary will do everything we want. The two extremes that Aristotle advises us to avoid. What is the true nature of your adversary, and what are the actions that you undertake to get your adversary to respond in ways which actually wind up making the world a better place?

KRISTOL: Now that’s terrific. So two, I guess, final related questions taken in whichever order. And one that’s sort of a bigger picture one. How prepared or unprepared is the US government to engage in the kind of thinking and policy making that you talk about? Have we entirely lost this memory? Is it pretty good behind the scenes but we just don’t talk about it much? As Americans, how much work do we have to do leaving aside as this crisis never happened?

ROSEN: Yeah.

KRISTOL: Do we have to do, in terms of repairing our own ability to think and act in an intelligent way in this, in a world in which nuclear weapons not going away in the very near future.

And then secondly, you mentioned, I think quickly, but it’s an important point to maybe just elaborate a bit on, how important the outcome of this actual conflict is for the kinds of topics we’ve been discussing. I mean, everyone has focused and I have too, and I think correctly that this is a democracy versus authoritarianism versus dictatorship. I mean, it’s extremely important. I think in that way, as Zelenskyy versus Putin, it’s sort of a very big signal about which way the world might go in the next decade and that’s why it matters what happens. But it also matters more from the point of view of the nuclear question as well is what you’ve been saying.

ROSEN: Right.

KRISTOL: Anyway, either of those, how the US government capacity, general capability and foreign policy establishment, thoughtfulness about this on the one hand, and then the particular outcome of this conflict on the other, if there is a clear outcome for this.

ROSEN: No, those are excellent questions, both of them. On the first point, kind of the institutional preparation of the United States government, I think most objective observers will agree that the United States government allowed its capacity to deal with this kind of high intensity competition, we allowed it to lapse during the post Cold War euphoria, and then the focus on the Global War on Terror in which, again, honestly, the stakes were much lower and there were priorities that were higher. And that wasn’t wrong. It was just the way it was. But it did constitute a significant atrophy in our institutional capacity.

I’ll give you a specific example. During the Cold War, we said, from time to time, there could be crises involving confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union. We have to practice. We have to imagine the range of things that could happen, and that we have to get the people who are in government and high positions to go through exercises, simulations, so that if a real crisis happens, they’re not dealing with these kinds of questions for the first time. They will have had staff work done, they’ll have option books prepared, they’ll know who they should talk to, they should know who should be in the room that has to be brought in from— Those exercises were conducted every year, sometimes twice a year, and not with low-level staff people, with the senior people. When the Cold War ended, that ended.

I have no idea what goes on in its entirety in the American government now, and what’s in secret should be secret. There’s a Washington Post story that said four days into the war, the White House begins conducting simulations to game out what would happen if alternative American courses of action— That should have been happening months, years beforehand. And maybe it was, right? This is a Washington Post story. Who knows what was really going on?

The fact that the simulations and exercises were being done at that point, great. You get major points for that, but think of the range of scenarios that create intense challenges to the United States. It’s not just the Russians and the Chinese. It’s more difficult now to have that kind of institutional capacity than it was during the Cold War because the range of threats facing us now is larger, and in many ways, the Chinese are a more competent adversary than the Russians were. And we had decades of experience with the Russians. We kind of got to the point where we understood how they worked and we knew what to do. We’re not there yet.

So the good news is the United States government is working on improving its institutional capacity for managing these kinds of issues. Getting the kind of mission, developing, having practices that would allow you intelligently to deal with the kind of things. We probably should be doing more. Okay.

Second point, about the outcome of the war. Because of the Global War on Terror, because of the neocon versus non-neocons, this is all come down to, are you in favor of regime change or not? Are you in favor of the spread of democracy or not? I personally think the world would be at a better place if Western style democracy were extended to additional countries, but fundamentally that’s a difficult process, which is difficult to manage. And we may have made some mistakes in the past and tried to do too much, perfectly happy to conceded that.

But what’s going on in Ukraine now is not simply about whether democracy prevails against autocracy. It’s whether the coercive use of military power against a non-nuclear state is allowed to succeed. Even if the government of Turkey never becomes democratic, even if the government of other countries in Asia never become democratic, you don’t want them to think that they can use nuclear power, nuclear military power, in ways which change the status quo.

People talk about a rules based liberal order, and maybe they oversell it, or they say there’s more than there is. Happy to argue that. The norm that you do not use military power to change territorial boundaries is not a trivial norm. And it is a real accomplishment of the American led postwar order that people say, you just can’t do that. The global response or the near global response to the invasion of Ukraine is you can’t use an army to change borders. It’s just wrong. That is not a trivial accomplishment. If that norm is eroded— Well, if you use nuclear threats, if you kind of isolate your adversary, if you create a sufficiently plausible narrative that the territory at stake really always was part of your territory, if you can engage in that kind of spin successfully, then the post war rule which is norm that you don’t use force to change boundaries, that’s gone.

The nuclear taboo is one norm. It’s a good norm. I like it. The norm that states that violate territorial status quos by military force cannot be allowed to succeed, another very powerful norm. If the Donbas is separated, if large chunks of Ukraine are taken away, if Russia engages in a long term salami slice strategy to, “Okay, we’re going to pull back now. Wait till the world goes back to normal. The Europeans won’t hang on to the sanctions forever and then gradually put political and other kinds of pressure on.” That’s a world in which a powerful norm, which is good for everybody, not just democracies, has been eroded.

So when Zelenskyy is saying he’s fighting his country, his nation is fighting a fight on behalf of Ukraine, but not only on behalf of Ukraine, it’s not propaganda. It’s about whether or not states can be secure within their own borders or whether they’re in a world in which, “Gee, maybe I better attack my neighbor before he attacks me, because if he attacks me, nobody’s going to come to my aid. And if he gets away with it, he gets away with it.”

No, if it’s the realist world in which you just kind of take what you can, that’s a world in which even defensive states, they say “we can’t afford to stand by and wait until the bad guys attack us. We better attack now.” And that’s a world which does more resemble the world of the 18th and 19th century in which wars are engaged in opportunistically, not because fundamental interests of the states [are involved]. Because “I have to go to war because if I don’t, somebody else might.”

KRISTOL: And that’s the 18th and 19th century plus nuclear weapons, which is not good.

ROSEN: Plus nuclear weapons, which is, if you just believe in statistics that the greater number of these weapons that are distributed, the more times they’re deployed, the more chances there are for something to go wrong, even with the best rules of the world. Look, a lot of the crisis management mechanisms that we had so much faith in with us and the Russian [inaudible], we called up the Russian generals. They wouldn’t pick up the phone.

KRISTOL: Recently. I was a little, I mean, this is maybe big having been in government, not that I was intimately involved in dealing with Russian generals, but you know, I was familiar with what was happening when I was the Vice President’s chief of staff sometimes. Yeah, that was startling. I thought that was like, whoa. Even in the Cold War that was kind of thought to be an important thing. People made fun of the hotline, the red line, whatever it was called, the red phones, hotline. But you know, it was actually kind of a symbol of we’re all going to try to not to let this spin out of control because of misunderstandings and miscalculations. And then that’s —

ROSEN: It was. It was particularly striking because the American military had been engaged in reasonably successful efforts of deconfliction with the Russian military in places like Syria, right?


ROSEN: We’re both flying airplanes around, don’t want to do anything stupid by mistake. And the cooperation was pretty good. And on the basis of that, the expectation in the American military is okay, military to military we’re professionals. We share an interest. And all of a sudden the wall goes down and nothing happens. But why? Because the Russians are afraid we may say to Russian generals, “Hey, your boss is kind of getting out of control. Maybe you want to do something about that.”

So Putin says no. And so the idea that we can assume that peace time mechanisms for crisis avoidance will be available when the balloon goes up, when things get serious, that may not be realistic, which means we have to think about other ways of doing it.

Communications in crisis are important. Being able to talk to your adversary to communicate what’s going on is important. But again, we’ve let those mechanisms atrophy. We’ve assumed that the mechanisms that have worked in peace time, in non great power confrontations, will continue to work when things really get unpleasant. Appears not to be justified by our observations in this war.

And we have had unhappy experiences with the Chinese. When the EP-3 went down over Hainan Island, we called up the Chinese. We couldn’t get anybody to pick the phone there either. Okay. What does that mean? It means it’s something that you have to work on. You have to think about.

So the outcome of this crisis, this war, should not simply be, okay, we can’t let Putin win. The outcome or the takeaway from this war is what were the crisis management mechanisms that we thought were going to work, but actually failed to work.

KRISTOL: And the war deterrence mechanisms that seem not to — did not work.

ROSEN: Right. Well. I mean —

KRISTOL: Maybe they couldn’t have worked. I mean, maybe Putin just wanted to do it.

ROSEN: President Biden put the best spin on it by saying, “Well, nobody ever thought economic sanctions would deter.” But people quite obviously did believe that economic sanctions would work. And they didn’t. Before this war, if you went to all the respectable think tanks around town, they said, “Oh, economic sanctions have worked. Look at what it’s done in the Middle East against Iran. Look what it’s doing in —”

Yeah. And the response to that was countries, seeing that economic sanctions have been successful, will work out ways of getting around them, counter measures. The Russians have developed and are developing — a story yesterday, two days ago, they had put in place an entirely new credit card mechanism, clearing mechanism in Russia. So when MasterCard and Visa went down, Russians could still use credit cards—in Russia, not outside Russian. The Chinese are busy putting—I’m not going into it.

The point is we had been too willing to assume that economic sanctions would be the instrument of choice in deterring crises. We kind of pretend now that we didn’t believe that, but we did. And now we have to revisit that. Again, we used to believe that we could avoid the deployment and utilization of old fashioned military power as a way of deterring crisis and making sure the crises don’t proceed in ways that we don’t want them to. Now we see that military power of the old fashioned kind has to be employed along with economic sanctions, along with cyber capabilities.

The Russian military had terrible problems in Ukraine. This is on the statement of the former head of Homeland Security, Richard Clark. The Russian military secure communication system went down on the first day of the war. And Ambassador Clark kind of looked at the camera and said, “Well, we have to assume the Ukrainians did it.” And maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. And maybe we helped. I don’t know.

But when that system went down, the Russian generals had to use cell phones, which means we could find where they were and kill them. It means they couldn’t coordinate their forces. Why weren’t the Russians flying airplanes over the battlefield in Ukraine? Flying your own airplanes over your own forces when they’re shooting at other people is a very dangerous business, unless you have a communications network which deconflicts all that stuff. You just can’t pick up a cell phone and say, “Hey, my Mig-29s are flying over you. Don’t shoot.” It’s a very elaborate procedure.

The other thing the United States did, again, this is on public testimony, is that somehow or another Elon Musk had before the war started gotten Starlink internet discs into Ukraine. So when there was an attack on Ukrainian internet facilities, which there was, the Viasat satellite communication system, the Ukrainians were able to maintain internet connectivity because Elon Musk, probably with some wink and a nod from American government, had put it in place. Just think of what that meant. Volodymyr Zelenskyy was able to engage in Zoom calls with leaders all over the world. He was able to speak to —. Without that, that extraordinarily effective information campaign, public diplomacy campaign, wouldn’t have been possible.

So what’s the lesson? The lesson is you need to be able to combine and integrate all these instruments of power: traditional military power, economic power, cyber power, information political warfare tactics into a suite of activities, which are integrated to deal with what will be very challenging threats facing us.

And you were in government, Bill. You know the people say we have to have a whole of government approach. And usually they say that when what they really want to say is don’t bother my department, tell somebody else to do it.

This really will require the creation of new institutions within the American government, which bring together and prepare and deploy these combined capabilities in a coordinated way. We created new institutions at the beginning of the Cold War: Joint Chiefs of Staff, things like that, Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate different intelligence organizations. Now in the world in which nuclear, cyber, political warfare techniques are being used by our adversaries in a coordinated way, we probably need new institutions for the post Cold War era to formulate, employ, and direct the kinds of capabilities of the kinds we’ve just been talking about. That’s a long term effort. This is a long term problem. My hope is that the war has motivated people to kind of address this more seriously perhaps than has been done in the past.

KRISTOL: We’ll have to get back together in 6 or 12 months when the war is over, or maybe it’s a pause or maybe it’s going on, and see where we stand on that. And also I’d like to discuss that longer term effort in more detail because that’s awfully important. But Steve, thanks, really thank you for joining me on this.

ROSEN: My pleasure.

KRISTOL: I think it’s been for me, a very instructive and enlightening conversation, not sort of the most cheerful or lighthearted one I’ve ever had here on CONVERSATIONS, but really worthwhile and important. So thank you, Steve.

ROSEN: Well, thank you for inviting me, Bill. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

KRISTOL: And thank you for joining us on CONVERSATIONS.