Dr. Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, joined me from the U.K. this morning to discuss the aftermath of the Helsinki Summit:
HH: I am so pleased to welcome back Dr. Kori Schake, deputy director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, one of our go to experts on the world. Dr. Schake, thank you for joining me. Do we find you in London or D.C. today?
KS: You find me in London, Hugh.
HH: I appreciate you taking the time. Let’s start with an open-ended, your assessment of how disastrous yesterday’s summit was.
KS: (laughing) I love it that that’s the framing, that we are measuring degree of disastrous rather than…
HH: Well, we are, right? We are.
KS: I do, I, to be honest, I’m actually still really internalizing it. It was so genuinely shocking to see a president of the United States equivocate between the conclusion of 17 American intelligence agencies and the promise by the murderous leader of an enemy country, that he had nothing to do with it, I really, I really think the President went beyond disgraceful. What he did yesterday was dangerous to our country.
HH: It is very dangerous, because Putin will take his measure. And I think Putin is now 3-0 against American president. He played George W. Bush, he played Barack Obama, and he played Donald Trump worse than he played those two. And in my way of thinking, I was very optimistic, by the way. I’m very disappointed, because I thought he could handle Putin, and I was wrong. After Vienna in ’61, a few months later we get the Cuban Missile Crisis. After Seoul in ’12, a few months later and the Sochi Olympics, we get Crimea. What do we get after this, Kori Schake?
KS: Wow, I had not thought as far down the path as you have thought, Hugh. You’re right. This is encouraging Russia to test our commitments in other places. I mean, given the wide variance between President Trump’s behavior at the NATO summit and the very solid, sensible NATO communique that came out of that meeting, Putin may try and test for whether the President will really support what his government agreed to. So I think we could see challenges to NATO’s territorial integrity, or to the ability of countries like Macedonia to be able to chart their independent course. I think all around Russia’s physical periphery, countries should be very nervous about their behavior. And you know, today is the 4th anniversary of the shootdown of the flight by Russian GRU agents from Ukrainian territory. And that the President would make a series of statements yesterday like that will only encourage further behavior like Russia shooting down that aircraft.
HH: That is my concern. I am also concerned that the President will withdraw our troops from Syria, that there was a weird part at the end of the, it’s part of it is garbled in all the transcripts including NPR’s, where Vladimir Putin said he told the President about something involving Turkey, Iran and Syria. I don’t know what that is, but if the President agreed to withdraw from Syria, that is a disaster. Do you think he will understand that now?
KS: No, I think in general, the President is impatient with the long, slow, difficult to see progress work, of consolidating the gains that military force has achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq and in Syria. And I agree with your judgment that withdrawing from Syria will not only cement Iranian influence in that country, but also will reward Russia’s intervention on the side of the Assad government. And yes, I do think we are at risk of the President handing that over just because he doesn’t to be involved.
HH: Now using the great Ronald Reagan’s approach, there’s a pony in there somewhere, right? There’s a pony in that press conference. There are two ponies.
KS: Okay, I’d love to hear them.
HH: Putin criticizing the President for withdrawing from the JCPOA, and Putin criticizing the President for threatening Nord Stream 2. Now those were overwhelmed by the negative, but let’s focus on the pony for a second. Does the President, do you think he gave anything back on the JCPOA, because Putin clearly wants him back in the JCPOA.
KS: Yeah, I agree with you that the upside of the President’s obduracy about the things he believes is that even Putin is unlikely to move him. You know, I’ve been watching how America’s friends and adversaries try and, you know, their strategies for dealing with such an erratic American president. And you know, Angela Merkel has chosen to condescend from the commanding heights of Western values, and that’s ineffective. Prime Minister May and President Macron and Prime Minister Abe and Xi Jinping have all tried to establish personal relationships and hope that they carry over into policy compromise. And that has been ineffective. And it does not look like President Putin’s strategy has had effect on the JCPOA or also on Nord Stream, either, which is a relief, I agree.
HH: Okay, so hopefully there is also one other consequence, which often follows upon the President feeling acute embarrassment, which I think he has to be feeling today, because you can’t lose everybody that you lost. Basically, every Republican condemned yesterday. And he doesn’t care what John Brennan says. He really doesn’t care what the Democrats say. But he does care about his base, that he will become obdurate, to use your very well-selected word, with regards to defense spending, with regards to the two carrier being built at once, with regards to troops in Syria, with regards, that he will, he will feel inclined to strike at Putin when he can to pay him back for the embarrassment when it sinks in. What do you think of my theory?
KS: I hope you’re right. I don’t think I’ve seen evidence in the President’s behavior that he will strike back at Putin. I think he seems to think there’s a great breakthrough possible on relations with the Russians, and I think to the extent that I can discern a strategy on the part of the President, it is that he wants to be a 19th Century great power, you know, a sort of concert at Vienna approach where none of us care about what goes on internal to anybody else’s countries, hard power is the only metric by which influence gets adjudicated, and you know, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must. But that actually hasn’t been the trajectory of American power since 1945. And I think the President dramatically underestimates how much taking that approach will increase the cost of everything the United States is trying to do in the world. He seems to be fixated on if only we had a good relationship with the Russians…, but I’m not sure what the dot dot dot includes.
HH: Dr. Schake, you know the “Thucydides Trap.” I think there’s something that I call the “Nixon Trap,”that presidents arrive in office wanting to pull a Nixon, wanting to have a 1972 style…
HH: And President Obama wanted Iran to be his China, and President Trump wanted Russia to be his China. But there just aren’t any other situations like that. They don’t recur in world affairs. You can’t flip the script with Russia. I think he’s been trying to. I brought it up with Secretary Pompeo three weeks ago when I interviewed him, because I think that’s what he desperately wanted to do what you just articulated, which is to flip the script and bring Russia to our team. It isn’t happening. When does everyone realize that?
KS: I think that is a fabulous frame of reference, Hugh, and I promise I will cite you the 7,000 times I use it.
KS: The “Nixon Trap” is fabulous. It’s the equivalent of swinging for the centerfield fence instead of doing the diligent advance the runner around the basepath and put runs on the board kind of small ball that tends to win championships.
HH: That is, well, I’ll steal that from you and we can both jointly cite each other. Now the key question, I don’t want anyone to resign. I don’t want Dan Coats to resign, who is said to be on the ledge. I do not want General Mattis to resign, because we need the steady hand at Defense. I don’t want Mike Pompeo, who has strategic vision, I do not want John Bolton, who hates the Russians, I don’t want anyone to, I don’t want Fiona Hill to go anywhere. What’s your advice to people who are seriously thinking that their reputations are impaired by the President’s lack of understanding of Russia and Putin?
KS: I wholeheartedly agree with your judgment. The only area in which I differ with what you just said is that as somebody who cares about civil military relations, I would say Secretary Mattis shouldn’t resign, because respecting the niceties of the fact that he’s a civilian, not a serving general officer…
KS: …matters for American perceptions. But I passionately am appealing to all of my friends in the Trump administration not to resign, because especially given the President’s performance yesterday, it matters to have people who have taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, keeping their shoulder to the wheel doing that hard work. It matters to stand sentinel. It matters to hold the line. It matters to have people of principle and conscience saying he can go this far in support of the President’s policies, but beyond that, we cannot go. But that really matters, because the President deserves to have people willing to carry out his policies consistent with the law and the Constitution, and the country deserves civil servants and political appointees who understand where that line lies. And I think it’s really important in a difficult time to have people of sense and judgment navigating those rocky shoals.
HH: 100% agree. Last question. If you had two minutes on the phone with the President today, what would you advise him to do?
KS: I would advise him to recant the press conference, to say that you know, I was diplomatically trying to build a different kind of relationship with a major American adversary, but by no means did I mean to equate the rule of law in the United States with the behavior of a government that kills political dissidents in the street.
HH: Well said, Dr. Kori Schake from London. Thank you, I appreciate the time, and I echo all of your sentiments, and I look forward to having you back. And hopefully in a couple of weeks, that will have in fact occurred by that point. Thank you, Dr. Schake.
KS: My pleasure. Bye bye.
End of interview.