Editor’s note: “Bringing It Home” runs weekends in The Aspen Times and focuses on state, national or international issues that have ties to or impacts on the Roaring Fork Valley.
Three former top-level U.S. officials agreed Friday that recent action by Russia has created the most acute East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright, speaking at the Aspen Institute as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series, addressed foreign relations with Russia and how the U.S. should proceed.
Weighing the possibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could remain in power until 2024, Gates said he has always defined diplomacy as “saying ‘nice doggy’ until you can find a rock.”
What the U.S. faces, Rice said, is a perfect storm between a leader who is unreconciled to the post-Cold War order in Europe — who is willing to use economic pressure, military force, intimidation and surrogates to undo that order — and an international community uncertain on how to respond.
“When great powers begin behaving badly, it gets really dangerous,” Rice said, noting the sophistication of the weapons that brought down a Malaysia Airlines commercial jet over Ukraine on July 17.
Gates said Putin is trying to upend two points of international order set at the Cold War’s conclusion. First he spoke of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, saying Putin is disregarding the agreement that border changes are resolved through peaceful negotiation. Second, Putin is ignoring the fact that sovereign nations have the freedom to choose their allies, he said.
“A matter settled at the end of the Cold War is now very much back on the table,” Gates said.
Gates said that in his view, Putin seems to be on a historical mission to protect the Russians left behind by the Soviet Union’s collapse. Through the creation of banded states on the periphery of Russia that lean toward Moscow economically and politically, Putin wants to create a buffer, Gates said. And Ukraine is the linchpin.
“He doesn’t want to re-create the Soviet Union, I don’t think,” Gates said. “He doesn’t want responsibility for all those economic basket cases.”
Albright argued that the Ukrainians want to follow Poland’s example; they want the same quality of life. They also want a rational economic relationship with Russia, she said, but the question is whether Putin can see past his zero-sum game. She said President Barack Obama is using limited foreign-policy tools in the best way possible, but she thinks Ukraine needs more assistance.
“I’d personally give them some lethal weapons, and I’d definitely strengthen (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization),” she said, adding that ultimately, it’s Ukraine’s next move.
Rice agreed, making the point that historically, operating over the heads of smaller nations never works out well. She said the U.S. also has to remember that Russia has coincident interests with the U.S. — in North Korea and Iran, for example. She argued that it’s important to maintain a relationship with Russia but not at the cost of making it seem more important than it is.
“It’s important to recognize that they have their own interests, and very often our interests will come together,” she said.
While posing the final question, moderator and former U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns pointed out that popular opinion in the U.S. tells us that the American public doesn’t want troops committed to another long-term conflict after Iraq and Afghanistan.
Albright said that worries her, as did Gates, who said cutting the defense budget sends a signal to the rest of the world.
“If you look at history, the times that America has turned inward, terrible things happen in the world,” Albright said.
Rice said it has been the hope that developing nations like India and Brazil would step up to the plate, but that’s not the case. Gates blamed America’s leaders for not persuading the public of the need for U.S. involvement, noting that wars have never been popular.
“What is missing, it seems to me, is the kind of persuasive leadership, not just from the president, but the leaders of both parties, particularly in Congress, that our leadership is still needed in the world,” he said. “Without that leadership, we are going to face far worse circumstances one day in the future.”