Glasser: Well, I’m Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. Our guest again this week is Strobe Talbott, the president of Brookings, a Russianist of the first order, a Russophile, an author, former deputy secretary of state, and really as close of a thing as I can say I know to a Washington version of a Renaissance man.
Strobe, I was just saying to you, it’s almost selfish of me to have you as this week’s guest on The Global POLITICO, but I feel like if there was ever a moment where I would want to consult you about this Russia obsession that has overtaken our national politics, it would be now. So yes, of course, we’ve got to start with Russia, Russia, Russia. You know, there’s two aspects to that; there’s this sort of unfolding Russiagate story, which is about American politics in some ways, and then there’s also what’s going on with our man in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, and inside Russia itself. But, let’s start with that. What do you think? I mean, are we headed into Watergate territory here?
Talbott: The Watergate analogy, we should probably put aside for a number of reasons. The miscreance of President Nixon was largely while he was a sitting president. The known knowns and the unknown knowns, and the known unknowns are largely back at the time of the campaign, and to some degree, in the transition but before President Trump was actually in the White House. And there are a lot of other differences, too.
Glasser: So, as someone who’s been inside government, who’s understood what it is to work with classified material, who has seen the long arc of our entire post-Cold War relationship with Russia, and how we do and don’t deal with them: A couple of the revelations in recent weeks have struck me as something really different, and I’m wondering if that’s your view, as well? Like, this report about Jared Kushner, wanting to use secure communications, potentially inside the Russian embassy, to avoid our own government. Is that something that fits in with any of your understanding of a legitimate conversation to have with the Russians?
Talbott: I’ve not only never heard or learned about such activity, I couldn’t even imagine it happening, including, by the way, back in a time when there was a sound basis for the United States and the Russian Federation, which is to say post-Soviet Russia, when we were on fairly good terms. I’m talking about the ‘90s, when I was in the State Department, and when Yeltsin was in the Kremlin, and his best pal in the world was Bill Clinton.
And he—Yeltsin was building on the partnership that Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to have with the West, which was the basis of the end of the Cold War. And that seems like another galaxy far, far away and a long time ago.
Glasser: Right, you forget we were really, in some ways, on better terms with the Soviet Union in its later days than we have been with Russia today in the last few years.
Talbott: Yes, well, and I think we should come back to that at some point.
Talbott: Because in some ways, or maybe let’s just put it in as a parenthesis here, the Cold War was really scary. Certainly, everybody of my age remembers duck and cover drills in elementary school, and I can remember in prep school, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, being called into the school chapel, and getting down on our knees and praying to God that we weren’t going to see Armageddon in the course of those 13 days.
But during those—what Kennedy called the long twilight struggle, there was a compact between the two superpowers that was basically—had two important and connected features to it. One was M.A.D.—mutual assured destruction. However fierce and sometimes in other parts of the world bloody the Cold War was, it never came to a hot war between the two superpowers. That’s because they had an understanding on what the stakes would be.
And second, there was a decades-long negotiations over our military and particularly our nuclear arsenals. And that is pretty much eroded, and there’s not much sign that we’re going to get on track. So, in some ways, this post-post-Cold War is more dangerous than the Cold War.
Glasser: Well, and you know, so that I think does take us right back to the present day, and a feeling, you know, you’ve never heard so many people sort of beating their chest and bemoaning the breakup of the liberal international order, right. And this week we had President Trump withdrawing from the Paris agreement; we had last week, before that, his visit to Europe and a sense that, you know, he really was not committed to the core principles of the NATO alliance in a way that all of his predecessors have been. Do you hold to the view that Trump is about breaking up this post-post-Cold War order?
Talbott: Whether he is thinking in terms of destroying it because he thinks that will create sort of a creative destruction, that he can build a new international order, no, I don’t think that’s—I don’t think that’s what’s really driving it. I think it’s his view of himself as a dealmaker, somebody who is very transactional, who can make up his own rules as they go along. And by the way, I don’t want to lose an attempt at an answer to your question about Jared Kushner’s apparent effort to have a secret channel with the Russians, so that our own government and intelligence services wouldn’t know about it. That would be impossible to imagine, even back in those days when we were on pretty good terms, or the United States government as a whole was on pretty good terms with the Russian government.
Glasser: So, you know, you obviously have talked with a lot of people. I don’t think you probably have talked with Trump himself, but you know a lot of people who have engaged with the president, with his White House, tried to understand what is going on with this apparent Trump/Putin bromance. What have you concluded about the president? What do your sources tell you that we’re getting or not getting about why he’s refused to disavow Putin, and why he seems interested in pursuing this Russia reset?
Talbott: Well, anything I say in answer to that, Susan, is not going to be new. And certainly not going to be authoritative, because as you say, I don’t have much of a sense. In fact, the more I see of this president, the more puzzled I am. But I guess there are two points that are important here. First of all, having reached the pinnacle of political power, and geopolitical power, at a late age, and I’m virtually his contemporary so I say that knowing what it means, he is convinced, I think, that there is a deal to be done.
And it is particularly appealing to him that he will have a counterpart, namely Vladimir Putin, who is strong, and who is not tied down by democracy, by laws, who—somebody who represents pure power, and I think our president has a high regard for people of that kind. In his first trip as president, he sure got along well with a monarchy in the Middle East, an authoritarian president of Egypt, and he did not get along well with our fellow democracies in western Europe.
So, I think that’s part of it. I read a piece in the—I think it was in New York Magazine a while back that caught my eye, not least because a book I wrote in the last century, he apparently had claimed to have read. It was a book about Soviet-American arms control agreements, and you know, there is this kind of meme—I don’t know whether it’s true or not that he doesn’t read books, but anyway, he apparently, at some point, had a fascination with—
Glasser: With arms control, that’s right.
Talbott: With doing deals with Russia over arms control.
Glasser: Right, there’s a report that he raised his hand in the 1980s, and said, “Make me your arms control negotiator,” with the Soviets, right?
Talbott: Yes. He never got far enough to be in the index of any of my arms control books, but it’s—you know, I think that’s part of it. Let’s do a deal.
Glasser: Well, that’s very interesting insight, and I agree that that seems to motivate a lot of his foreign policy, not just with Russia, right. If you look at his interests on Israel and the Palestinians, that seems to be a motivating factor. “Wow, that would be the ultimate deal, and I would show that I’m a great president, because the other presidents were not able to deliver on Middle East peace.” He seems—it’s almost tactical, right, like, okay, where is the deal to be gotten? Or where is the deal bad?
Talbott: Yes, and I don’t know to what degree he knows that there is a historical legacy and diplomacy about leveraging issues in one area where you’re trying to improve relations with another country, to another area. But he did that or at least he is trying to do that with regard to China. He’s basically saying or has said—I don’t know what his position is now—that we, the United States will cut you some slack on trade policy if you will lean harder on North Korea. That’s what Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon called linkage.
Glasser: Well, it’s interesting. A lot of people suggest that Trumpism actually is sort of a crude form of Kissinger realpolitik. Do you buy that view?
Talbott: Well, you and I have spent decades studying Henry Kissinger, and his extraordinarily cerebral but at the same time, very practical and pragmatic, and history-driven, to, I would say, not compare at least in a favorable way Mr. Trump’s notion of realism and Henry Kissinger’s. The fact that Henry Kissinger—whatever you think about him—can walk you back decades and in some cases, centuries, to explain the context of current diplomacy, I wouldn’t expect that Mr. Trump would be able to do that. He—it’s—he has this overweening confidence in his own gut. I remember, I think it was, I can’t remember if it was in the campaign or in the transition, when somebody said, “Who is—who do you most take your advice from?” And he said, “Myself. My gut.”
Glasser: Well, let’s take that Kissingerian lesson and talk about history for a second, because I do think that whether Trump engages with it or not, we don’t live in an ahistorical world; we have a history both with Russia and with the American engagement with Russia, and you’ve been thinking about that ever since you were in prep school, you mentioned. That’s when you started studying Russian, and you know, I think you have this incredible arc people might not even know about: your amazing early career as translating Khrushchev’s memoirs, and of course, you know, you met Bill Clinton when you were a Rhodes scholar, and were already deeply engaged in the problems of the Soviet Union, and how the United States should think about the Soviet Union.
So, it must be really something every day for you to wake up and realize, once again, Russia is at the center of an American political not only conversation, but a real debate that’s happening in this country. Did we get Russia wrong? Was there anything we could have done to have things work out better in this post-Cold War era? Did we misread Putin? Well, you have things to say, I think, about all of those. Tell us about that first encounter with Vladimir Putin, and how we understood him when he came to power? You were in the State Department then, and you were a very close adviser to President Clinton, as he fought through this problem of the KGB man in the Kremlin.
Talbott: Well, I had a couple of encounters, meetings with Vladimir Putin as he ascended—meteorically, from somebody that very few people knew about as a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg, to the presidency of Russia. And what I found in each of the intervening steps that he took when he was—I met with him when he was the national security advisor, and also when he was back in the intelligence—his alma mater, if we can put it that way.
Glasser: Or do you ever really graduate? That’s a good question.
Talbott: And then prime minister, and then an acting president, and then finally, the president. He is, I would say, extraordinarily different personality from our president. I don’t think he ever just goes with his gut. My impression and I don’t know if it was my first or second or third—it was during the Kosovo war, the very end of the Kosovo war, when we had a crisis when it looked as though Russia, which had been so helpful in getting Milosevic to throw in the towel on the Kosovo war.
Then all of a sudden, we had a—basically a mutiny in the Russian military that could have brought the Russians to blows with NATO. That would have been bad. And I did see Putin on that occasion, and rather than starting on the issue at hand, he made a point of noting that he knew the two dissertations that I had written about Russian poets. This was not exactly germane to the issue at hand.
Glasser: To say the least.
Talbott: It was basically a trained intelligence officer debriefing a source, or testing a source. And he was, to put it mildly, very well prepared. And very, very cautious on any commitment that he was prepared to give to us as we tried to settle this crisis.
Glasser: You wrote—actually I was looking back at your terrific book, which I highly recommend to people trying to understand how we got where we are, called The Russia Hand. You wrote an account of one of your early dealings with Putin in that, and you said, “What really struck my colleagues and me was the aplomb, smugness, and brazenness with which Putin lied.” So, in that sense, perhaps there might be some overlap, but yes, I also have the impression of Putin as very controlled—a man who knows his brief, who really even in his political office of president has seemed like a case officer sort of graduated up.
Talbott: Well, maybe, Susan, this would be a part of the conversation when we could bring in other historical figures in this drama. I’m reading, in galleys a new biography of Gorbachev. It is just stupendous.
Glasser: It is. It’s terrific.
Talbott: Be sure to—
Glasser: This will come out in September, I believe.
Talbott: Yes, indeed. And get Bill Taubman in front of the microphones for your podcast. It’s terrific. The two most important things, and maybe the list will go on to three or four, that happened in the late ‘80s, when Gorbachev came to power, is that he was convinced that the iron fist, the use of hard and brutal power, was counterproductive. That’s a—in Washington, that’s a word that’s sort of a euphemism for stupid.
And he didn’t do away with Soviet power, either internally or externally, but he moderated it to a significant degree, and used a more sort of proto-democratic means to decide on what policy would be. That is a legacy that Yeltsin brought into the Russian government after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., even though Gorbachev and Yeltsin became bitter enemies, Yeltsin went to his grave hating Gorbachev, but there was actually—they were like a pair of wrestlers, a tag team of wrestlers.
Glasser: Right, they were locked in each other’s mutual embrace.
Talbott: That took the Soviet Union down. Gorbachev did not mean to destroy the Soviet Union; he was trying to save it. Yeltsin, having been kicked out, as it were, from the leadership, was bent on destroying the Soviet Union, largely so he would have an independent Russia to be the president of.
But the concept of what the governance of Russia should be, and the behavior of Russia abroad should be, was reformist, and very welcome, not just to the west, but it was welcome to a lot of Russians. And now comes the issue of the truth. Glasnost is a Russian word that, once upon a time, entered into our vocabulary here. And it basically meant deal with the truth. Putin has gone back to the Big Lie.
For example, just one that both of us knew and covered, he never misses a chance to accuse the West—and that means particularly the United States—from trying to tear the Soviet Union apart. The facts are that it was exactly the opposite. George H.W. Bush did everything he could, not only to buck up Gorbachev as the president of Russia, but also, to persuade the leaders of the other Soviet republics to give Gorbachev more time.
And in Ukraine, for example, they basically booed him. This was the—
Glasser: The famous chicken George speech.
Talbott: The chicken Kiev.
Glasser: Chicken Kiev, yes. George and Kiev chicken.
Talbott: And I think it actually hurt him in the election. That is, President Bush.
Glasser: And they think that it did. I mean, certainly that’s their view of it, is in 1992 election that Bill Clinton won, and that brought you and Bill Clinton into the White House, and into making the decisions about how the United States would handle a post-Soviet Russia. So, there’s two key things I wanted to ask you about in that period of time. One is, of course, NATO enlargement and the expansion of NATO, because that is another element of Vladimir Putin’s argument right now about his grievance with the West.
It comes very much to NATO enlargement, and I was struck by the fact that it was controversial here, too. And in your book, you write that “it seemed like virtually everyone I knew from academia, journalism, think tanks, was against NATO enlargement at that time,” here in Washington, as well as the Russians. But we made that decision. In hindsight, was that the right decision, or does Putin have a point?
Talbott: It was the right decision and Putin does not have a point, but he thinks he does, and a lot of people think he does.
Glasser: Well, he’s really spun it into a very compelling narrative for his people.
Talbott: I suspect that you revere George Kennan as much as I did, and do. I think among other things, he was prophetic; I can’t remember if it was the Long Telegram, or the X article, but they were both essentially the same document. He basically said that containment would allow the Soviet Union, over time, to mellow. And that, in a way, is what actually happened. One of the more uncomfortable days of my time in government was to pick up The New York Times and see on the op-ed page, a column by George Kennan, saying something close to the expansion of NATO is the greatest catastrophe—geopolitical catastrophe—
Glasser: He was against it when it was created, though.
Talbott: Yeah, exactly. Good for you. Thank you, thank you. Yes, he was never a fan of NATO. I was—what was I? I was one year old, so I was present at the creation, but I wasn’t aware of it.
Glasser: Involved in it.
Talbott: But let’s go back to—so, there were a lot of my friends and people I admired hugely, and also, and you know some of the Russian friends that I’m not going to name, who I thought were the hope of the future, who bolstered first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, and were friends of the United States. And said, “Why are you doing this to us?” Expanding NATO. The answer was—there’s a historical answer, and then there was a present tense answer and a future answer.
This historical answer was, why should these central European countries that were overrun by the Nazis, and had much of their populations destroyed and their countries destroyed, and then had decades of the jackboot of the Soviet Union on their neck, and then to be told that no, we don’t think that we can extend the protection of NATO to your countries because it will hurt the Russians’ feelings.
That just didn’t fly. And it was also important for them, the countries in the former Warsaw Pact, and of course, the three Baltic republics of the Soviet Union to have NATO protections so that they wouldn’t have to remilitarize. We could have had wars in, say, between Hungary and Romania, like the wars that we had in Yugoslavia, had it not been for the expansion of NATO.
The last point is that Bill Perry, who is somebody I was honored to work with in government when he was the defense secretary, he was very, very chary about expanding NATO, but the president decided to do it, and on a couple of occasions, not only did Bill Perry make the points that I have just made, but said, another reason we should have a robust and expanded NATO. is because we don’t know if Russia will go bad again—will break bad.
Glasser: Well, and that, I think, is a key point.
Talbott: He called it the hedge argument.
Glasser: And a lot of people would say, in fact, that’s being vindicated right now, which comes to the question of Vladimir Putin. And did we misread him when he first came to power; that he was going to be the architect of the shift back to something more revisionist, more aggressive?
Talbott: Well, if you talk to people like Toomas Ilves—
Glasser: The former president of Estonia.
Talbott: Yes, very recently, you know, he thinks that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries, including those not actually in NATO, like Finland and Sweden, are very glad that NATO did expand, and that it is more or less—and we’ll come to the less in a minute, if you want to get back to our president—more or less still there to protect the—not just the political and security interests of the West, but the values of the West. But let—can we jump to President Trump?
Glasser: Let’s do it. Hey, you know, that’s our obsession these days.
Talbott: I’m still reeling over what I should have expected, and that is pulling out of the Paris climate accord. But I also am still reeling from President Trump’s refusal to personally validate Article V, which is mutual defense for our NATO allies. That, as a—how to put it—as a lacuna, a failure to say something, I think has had a very dangerous and damaging effect on the most successful military alliance in history.
And by the way, you can—when he went to the summit, and everybody expected he would say something about Article V, because Tillerson had said it, Kelly had said it—
Talbott: McMaster had said it, and Mattis had said it. So, all we needed was for the commander in chief to say it, and he didn’t say it, and the—I think from that day forward, unless he finds a way of remediating this, the Atlantic community was less safe, and less together.
Talbott: Oh, and sorry. And the shampanskoye—Russian champagne bottles were popping their corks.
Glasser: Of course, they were.
Talbott: In the Kremlin.
Glasser: And actually, Putin just gave an interview yesterday, in which he underscored this, and they said, “Well, the uncertainty inside NATO, does that benefit Russia?” And Putin said, “Absolutely. Absolutely. No question.”
Talbott: So, he doesn’t always lie.
Glasser: Well, okay, but so, you pointed out that, you know, Trump’s own advisers have all endorsed this. They even, you know, a source in the White House even told The New York Times that he was going to say that Article V was a pillar. You know, clearly it was in the speech; it’s been taken out. And so, it reflects Trump’s own views. What does that do to the adults in the room theory? When you and I sat in this room in January, and we tried to puzzle through, you know, what is this going to be like, right, there was still a sense of, well, maybe it will be okay, because he’s appointed grownups, I think was the phrase that you and others have used. What do you think of the grownup theory of Trump management now?
Talbott: Well, I don’t want to—I don’t want to characterize or cartoonize the president of the United States as a child. He’s a septuagenarian who thinks he can both deal and bully his way through life. It’s worked for him in a number of ways before his political career, his extraordinary political career. And he seems to think that it still works.
But it is certainly shaking up the world more than I suspect—I hope he doesn’t realize how much it has shaken up the world. I had a very high placed Asian official from a major ally in Asia not long ago, where you’re sitting, who shook his head with sorrow, and said, “Washington, D.C. is now the epicenter of instability in the world.” Which doesn’t mean that there’s violence going on here.
What it means is something that our friends and allies around the world have taken for granted for 70 years is no longer something that they can take for granted.
Glasser: Kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it? So, what about these advisers? The secretary of state has been disregarded even when it came to climate as well as potentially on NATO. The secretary of defense—I know that you personally advised some people that they should go to work with Trump, if their consciences allowed them to do so. Do you think, in hindsight, that that was a mistake, that they shouldn’t have gone to work for him?
Talbott: No, and it’s a matter of record that one of my great friends, somebody who has been a mentor of mine, even though she is considerably younger—Fiona Hill, who has been at Brookings for about—longer than I have, about 15, 16 years; a world-class expert, not just on Russia, but she and Cliff Gaddy and other of our colleagues have produced what pretty much everybody thinks is the most insightful biography of Putin.
And to the great credit of somebody in the White House—I don’t want to get anybody in trouble—she is now the the senior director for Russia and Europe, and we at Brookings are very proud that she is there, and I think over time, I hope she will have lots of opportunities to get the policy—to help get the policy right.
Glasser: But she already seems to be under attack by other factions.
Talbott: I saw that. I saw that. It was disgusting.
Glasser: Yes, well, she’s—you know, this is sort of this kind of alt-right propaganda saying that she was an instrument—
Talbott: The Roger Stone stuff?
Glasser: Right, and saying she’s an instrument of George Soros, right, or something. But you know, it suggests this is the way they fight inside the White House, and we know that certainly not everyone, including potentially the president himself, shares Fiona’s views of Russia. So, I guess my question is, well, what—you know, what good can someone like that do if he doesn’t listen to his advisors?
Talbott: Well, let’s hope that he listens to his advisers. I mean, there have been, whether it’s the—moving the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—there is flexibility, depending on who’s in the room, and I guess we’re at a stage—what are we? 130, 140 days in? Something like that.
Glasser: Every day feels like multiple days.
Talbott: Yes, that it’s taken a whole lot longer than we hoped; there’s no guarantee—in fact, there are—there’s reason to worry that it won’t happen, but let’s just hope that the combination of good people—we should come to the State Department, maybe, for just a moment—that good people and the rationality of somebody who nobody has ever, I think—I’m talking about the president–said is a stupid person. He is just basically—his engine is working on the fuel that has got him this far, and he’s going to have to put different fuel in, and make some changes in the engine.
Glasser: Okay, so let’s talk about the State Department.
Talbott: And the course that he wants to take us on.
Glasser: Let’s talk about the State Department. Trump has proposed massive cuts of up to 30 percent. It’s unlikely that Congress will go along with it, but clearly, there is a sense that diplomacy is not the engine driving the foreign policy right now, of the Trump administration. It’s unclear how much Rex Tillerson is listened to. You navigated the upper reaches of the State Department for a long time; you’re very familiar with what the State Department can and can’t do. You were the head of an advisory board to Secretaries Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Does that still exist? Have you met with Rex Tillerson?
Talbott: At a minimum, it’s gone to sleep. It’s suspended. There’s been no—and by the way, I would think that an incoming administration would want other people for the foreign affairs policy board. That would be perfectly natural, but there’s not a whole lot of people around there that they would be advising, and what I hear about Secretary Tillerson is that he doesn’t get around the building that much. And even if he did get around the building, there are a lot of empty offices.
Glasser: Right, they haven’t appointed people, even for these key roles and assistant secretaries for Europe or the Middle East. You know, do you think—
Talbott: But at least they have a deputy secretary of state.
Glasser: Well, there was quite a drama surrounding that, really, but neither the—
Talbott: Well, but the—I think the outcome—I’ve met with only once with John Sullivan, and I was very impressed by him.
Glasser: Interesting. And do you think you—I know you know Rex Tillerson slightly. Do you think that he is a marginal figure? Do you think he will have influence on Trump?
Talbott: I don’t know. While he has no public policy background, and certainly no traditional diplomacy background, he has run a company that is larger, and certainly richer than a lot of countries in the world, and he has been all around the world. And energy is a huge part of our economic future. And he has moved in the direction of advocating regulations that will mitigate climate change.
So, I was certain—not just in comparison to some other names that were floated at the time, but I thought it might be a good appointment, and I still hope it will be.
Glasser: Well, that brings us back to the other subject we want to make sure to finish on, which is Vladimir Putin. If Trump has always expressed a sort of admiration for Putin as a strongman, he—Putin has been, in some ways, as unpredictable as Trump is proving to be on the world’s stage. And back in 2000, when he came to power, certainly it was a very unlikely rise. Some people in the U.S. government at the time thought perhaps he would be sort of a modernizer, but certainly not somebody who would kind of shut down democracy inside Russia.
Some people early on were warning about it. You started a long article that you wrote for us in POLITICO Magazine, with a late January 2000 column from William Safire that more or less accurately predicted Putinism as he called it, and talked about a Kremlin leader bent on developing a cult of personality, suppressing the truth, but of course, both Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, at various times, thought he was a guy we could do business with, thought he—there was a more benign version possible. Did we misread Putin and what do you think he’s up to now?
Talbott: I think he’s on the same course. And I was always skeptical of the sunnier side of Putinology. And I think that’s been born out. He is who he was, and you know, he’s often described as a spy or an ex-spy. That’s actually not the right profession. He is an expert on counterespionage. And people in that line of work regard it as a virtue to be paranoid. And I think that is very much a part of this.
But you know, just staying with both the Putin issue, and the Trump issue, and we’re coming to the end of our conversation, which I’ve much appreciated, let’s turn to a more positive trend in Europe. I think that in just a matter of months ago, and certainly after Brexit, many of us thought that the political West, the transatlantic community, was going to fall apart and it was going to fall apart on the European continent.
The bad news is that it could fall apart because of what’s going on, on this side of the Atlantic, and I’m not referring to Canada. But I think what we have seen in the last couple of months are—is some resilience on good policies and good values, and smart politics, and good leadership in Europe. And I think that the—I’m obviously talking about the Dutch, and now the French, and it’s—one wants to be careful about making predictions about Germany, but things seem to be going in a good direction there.
Most of the credit goes to those countries and their citizens and their leaders, but I think the positive direction in which Europe now is going is also a consequence of an anti-Trump phenomenon—a backlash.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. He’s so unpopular across the political spectrum there.
Talbott: And the Russians—namely Putin—doing what Russians have tended to do for centuries, which is overplay their hand.
Glasser: So, you think intervening in these elections was an example of that?
Talbott: Well, I’m sure you’ve been talking to French friends who are absolutely committed, or are absolutely convinced of it. And a couple of my Dutch friends said that one reason that that rather ugly ethnonationalistic movement didn’t become the government was because they—the Dutch saw what was happening in this country.
Glasser: Okay, so let’s—we’ve got to finish. I know we could talk all day, and this is really a master class, I think, in the twin subjects of our time: Putinology and Trumpology. But let’s bring it back here to Washington for the end of this conversation. Do you have any projections as to what we could expect as Washington digests this enormous Russiagate scandal? And do you feel that we’re headed towards, you know, years of inward-looking turmoil, and you know, obstruction of justice investigations?
Talbott: Well, we should end on a dramatic note, but in all honesty, I can’t give you a dramatic note. There’s—
Glasser: The firing of James Comey was a pretty dramatic moment, in Washington terms.
Talbott: Yes, I know. And there have been others since that you have referred to in this conversation. There has got to be fire behind this smoke. Whether it is lethal fire for the judgments that will be made on our Constitution, I do not know. There are theories that it has more to do with conflict of interest issues, which are also very important.
But—and of course, the other issue is the partisan context of Washington politics. The Republican Party is clearly and properly shaken by this. But it hasn’t shaken itself into a set of decisions or a strategy for doing what I would hope the Republican Party would do in combination with the Democratic Party, and that is to, when possible, help the administration when they are getting us back on a responsible track, and criticizing and checking the administration when it’s on an irresponsible track.
The most dramatic example of which, of course, is—does not directly relate to Russia; it’s the climate change decision of the last day.
Glasser: Which was actually cheered by the Republicans in Congress, for the most part, so.
Talbott: Well, that’s by no means a happy ending note.
Glasser: Well, I’m happy because we’ve all got to spend this time with you, and I think we all need a lot of history and a lot of navigation as we try to understand, you know, this surprising and weird convergence of Russia, once again, into the center of our American political conversation.
But Strobe, you’ve had a great run here at Brookings, that’s the other thing. We want to congratulate you. You’re leaving this place as a pillar of Washington. Do you think—
Talbott: Wait, wait, wait. We’re in the office of the president of Brookings now. In November, I’m going to jaywalk across Massachusetts Avenue, and join my colleagues who are scholars.
Glasser: Well, it’s a great thing to be able to do that, right? But do you think think tanks are going to survive? I mean—
Talbott: Oh, yes.
Glasser: They’re sort of under assault, too.
Talbott: I think more than ever—more than ever we and our peer institutions and you know them all, are committed to some basic goals and values that our democracy simply cannot do without. One of them is civility of discourse, rational thinking, real expertise, respect for the facts, and nonpartisanship. And none of those are doing great elsewhere in this town, but on think tank row, I think they’re doing fine.
Glasser: All right, there you go. Strobe Talbott, thank you so much for joining us on The Global POLITICO, and thank you, of course, to all of you listeners. We are delighted to have you with us, and you can listen to The Global POLITICO on iTunes, on POLITICO’s website, and whatever is your favorite podcast platform. And of course, you can email me any time with ideas, thoughts, feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again, and thank you, especially, Strobe.
Talbott: My pleasure, Susan.