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Admiral James Stavridis on the North Korean Summit

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The transcript:

HH: As the North Korean summit looms, I put out the call for Admiral James Stavridis. And in fact, we found him. And we also found he’s in the middle of a transition, and he’s arriving just in time to talk about the G-7 as well. Admiral, welcome, good morning.

JS: Great to be back with you, Hugh.

HH: Would you tell our audience about your transition before we dive into the issues? I hope it means more time for you inside the Beltway.

JS: It does. I am finishing five wonderful years as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And Hugh, as you know, I’ve always been fascinated by international finance. So I’m going to go to work with the Carlisle Group, which is one of the largest global private equity firms headquartered in Washington, D.C.

HH: Well, welcome to the Beltway. I look forward to having lunch with you as soon as you get down here. And Admiral, let’s start a bunch of issues. I have let my inner Palmerston out this morning, because I’m upset with the G-7 or the G-6’s comments about the President. This is a trade dispute. It doesn’t need to spread. And what I perceive as arrogance towards the President is spreading, and at the same time in Europe, there’s a lot of distaste with the EU and elites. And in fact, Boris Johnson got caught on tape last night. I’ll play it for you, and then we’ll talk about Europe, and then go to North Korea. Here’s Boris Johnson last night.

BJ: Where we come out, we’ll be able to do things in the impressive, of the U.K…And Trump’s going to negotiate Brexit. What a fantastic idea. I would say that I think, how would he approach it? It’s worth thinking about. How would Donald Trump have approached our Brexit negotiations? Actually, he’s bloody good. If I was still editor of the Spectator, I would commission him, and I would commission a couple, on exactly that field. Imagine Trump doing Brexit. What would he do? He’d go in bloody hard. You know, there’d be all sorts of breakdowns. But there’s also chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually, he might get some…

HH: So Admiral Stavridis, the British Foreign Secretary says if Donald Trump was running Brexit, he’d be bloody good. He’d go bloody hard. There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos, everyone would think he’d gone mad, but he might actually get something done. What is Johnson articulating there? And what’s going on in your beloved G-7 from which, I mean, you were the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. This must distress you.

JS: Well, you are quoting Lord Palmerston, or at least referring to him. The famous quote, of course, is we have no eternal allies. We have no perpetual enemies. Only our interests are permanent.

HH: Yeah.

JS: And I think there is a lot of wisdom in that. Nations have to decide what they want and move toward it. And there are going to be disputes. And there are going to be differences between allies. And I agree with you that we shouldn’t overstate the family dispute aspect of this. But I am most concerned about an issue you really didn’t mention, and that’s our divergence of view on Iran. That’s a significant gap in the alliance. We’re going to have to work hard to close that gap. I think the trade issues are quite manageable, and that’s Boris Johnson’s point, that in the end, Donald Trump is a tough negotiator, and no one likes to go up against a tough negotiator.

HH: You know, I have been reading Lord Black’s book, Donald J. Trump. Past is prologue with this president. I didn’t know much about how he did negotiations on his debt, on his casinos. It was negotiate, leave, negotiate, leave, negotiate, leave, negotiate, win. And I think we’re doing the same thing. I don’t know if it works with the European elites, and I really want to know if you think it’s going to work with Kim Jong Un and with the mullahs.

JS: I think two different cases. I think the chances of it working with Kim Jong Un are higher than with the mullahs. Let’s start with the mullahs first. They have a deeply-felt, highly-religious component to their views. That’s very hard to overcome. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, is a, you know, recognizable type in our world. He’s kind of, he’s a gangster in a lot of ways with all that connotes. I said the other day when Vladimir Putin announced he was going to go meet with Kim Jong Un, it would be like Victor Corleone going to meet with Tony Soprano in the Bada Bing Bar. That’s, and so that’s to our advantage in that negotiation. We understand what he wants. We understand how we can get him there. And I think, I’d give us a 70% chance of landing a negotiation with North Korea. But I don’t think it’ll be fast, Hugh. I think it’s going to be a year of talks. Eventually, I think we can cut a deal. Mullahs, much harder.

HH: And you can flip Tony Soprano, right, against Corleone.

JS: Exactly.

HH: You can do that if the deal is right.

JS: Exactly. That’s exactly right, and that might be, to stretch the analogy slightly, we ought to perhaps think of China in this part of the package. China has enormous economic benefit derived from a divided peninsula and Kim Jong Un in power. That’s a rheostat that Donald Trump can turn up, increase sanctions, turn down, and that may be how in the end we flip Kim Jong Un.

HH: You know, Admiral, you’re going to the world of finance now, and you will be welcomed there, I think, with open arms. I have talked on this air with Deputy Minister for Diplomacy in Israel, Michael Oren…

JS: Of course.

HH: …who said imagine if Saudi capital allied with Israeli technology, how much the region would benefit. And the same sort of thing applies if you can get old gangster nation-state actors who don’t really know how to do anything allied with modern capital and innovation, you can actually turn North Korea around. You might even be able to save Russia from its sort of slow demographic collapse.

JS: Indeed. Hugh, let’s go back 20 years ago. What was the gangster nation that flipped? It was known as East Germany.

HH: Right.

JS: And you look at the juggernaut that was created in Central Europe by the unification, and so that could happen again on the Korean Peninsula. Again, we need to be careful here, because the Chinese red line, and believe me, they will enforce their red lines, China’s red line is reunification. They’re not going to let that happen. But could we bring North Korea into the fold of nations and create an enormous economic output machine there? I think we could. And by the way, to your other point about what Crown Prince Mohammad is doing in Saudi Arabia with the Israelis, that’s real, and I think that, in the end, let’s go back to the mullahs, that’s the bulwark against Iranian advancement. So those are powerful analogies in both parts of the world.

HH: So Admiral, talk to us a little bit about what success looks like in Singapore, Secretary of State Pompeo going with the President and with John Bolton.

JS: Sure.

HH: I don’t know if the Secretary of Defense is there. I hope that General Mattis is going to be there. I’m not sure. What does success look like to James Stavridis?

JS: I would like to see positive atmospherics. I’d like to see an announcement that we are going to go to four party talks with China very quickly. I would like to see an announcement that we will end the Korean War formally. And I would like to see on the Korean side a statement that our goal is complete verifiable elimination of our nuclear weapons program. I think it’s a bridge too far to put a date certain on that, but we’ve got to hear those words, frankly, come out of Kim Jong Un’s mouth.

HH: Now I had former director of DNI Clapper on yesterday. And he downplayed the demands for immediate success. It was actually a very effective statement, in my view, of what we want, which is an agreement on an agreement going forward. I want to see some Americans on the ground looking for different things, to begin verification. He said what we need is an intersection and somebody’s embassy, and that’s what we did in Cuba for so long.

JS: Yeah.

HH: That’s what we did in China. What kind of initial steps, they released the hostages, but that’s just step one. I think they’ve got to do a lot more before we get into the game. Do you agree? Or do you have a different approach?

JS: I’m going to split the difference between you and my good friend, General Jim Clapper. I’m going to say that we need more than just an intersection in the Swedish embassy in Bahrain. What I think we do need boots on the ground, but I think it’s a bridge too far immediately to have American boots on the ground. So how about an international team with actors, some chosen by China, some by the United States, all approved by North Korea and South Korea, who go and do a survey of the nuclear weapons program. You could also bring in the International Atomic Energy Agency, but that might be tough for the North Koreans. So I think we need something creative. I think we do need boots on the ground. And that’s when we can start thinking about easing sanctions, which is the side of the coin that Kim Jong Un will be looking at in his conversation with the Korean Hugh Hewitt this morning somewhere.

HH: Somewhere. I don’t know that they exist. But I’ve now talked to Secretary Albright, Secretary Pompeo, James Clapper, the three serious Americans who have been to North Korea, and their accounts are all the same. It’s just a strange place. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. It’s just a very odd place. I don’t know how we succeed unless the President and Secretary Pompeo designate a very senior person to do nothing but follow through on this. Do you agree with me on that?

JS: I totally agree with you on that, and we’ve had a couple of people fill that role. The best, I think, was actually my predecessor as the dean at the Fletcher School, a longtime ambassador, Stephen Bosworth. Unfortunately, he passed away two years ago. He was brilliant on Korea. A book I recommend highly for your readers and your listeners, Hugh, on understanding this dystopian country, it’s a novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. It’s like Charles Dickens goes to Pyongyang and sketches that capital. It’ll tell you your point exactly how strange and dystopian it is.

HH: The Orphan Master’s Son. Okay, done. Let me turn, if I can, quickly in three or four minutes. The other interview I did this week which created a lot of headlines was with the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who’s a friend of mine. But we have a deep disagreement about our border policy of separating families. I think that sends the wrong message about America. We can get tough on the border, build the fences, build the barriers, do the detentions and the apprehensions. But Admiral Stavridis, do you agree with me or the President and Jeff Sessions about separating families at borders?

JS: 100% I agree with you, and I’m not saying that because I’m talking to you. It, this is all about how we are perceived in this world to the south of the United States. And we’re digging a hole just by talking about building a wall. And I do believe we should control our border. We should use a variety of things from fences to unmanned vehicles. We’ve got to control our border. But we also need to demonstrate compassion, concern, address problems south, because that’s how you solve the problems, is working with this under-developed part of the Americas. And we can do that. We have the capacity to do that. It would not be expensive, and it would be a very, very good way to control out border.

HH: And Guatemala with a volcano is going to set loose a new wave of refugees, and they’re going to come in one direction, Admiral, right, unless we land en masse with lots of aids immediately.

JS: Exactly. That’s a very good example of what I’m talking about. For every dollar you spend on aid in Guatemala, you will save ten dollars in costs to push people away from that border, to incarcerate them, to separate their children from them. It’s a win-win proposition to perform that kind of humanitarian operation which I did as commander of U.S. Southern Command before I was commander of NATO.

HH: Admiral Stavridis, welcome to D.C. I look forward to seeing you here soon, and congratulations on five great years at Fletcher. I’m sure they will do well in your absence, but welcome back to the Beltway.

JS: I’m looking forward. I’ll buy you lunch. Thanks, Hugh.

HH: Thank you, Admiral.

End of interview.


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