In the Council Special Report Containing Russia: How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge, Robert D. Blackwill and Philip H. Gordon argue that the U.S. response to Russia’s continued attacks on U.S. democracy and attempts to undermine U.S. power worldwide has been insufficient to deter future attacks. The coauthors propose policy prescriptions to strengthen U.S. defenses and increase the costs of further Russian interference.
For further reading, please see the Council Special Report page.
GLASSER: All right. Good afternoon. Can everybody hear me? Am I all right? All right, excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming out this afternoon and joining us for this conversation around this very provocative and certainly timely new report on countering Russia.
I promised Bob a very fulsome introduction. Although you have their extensive biographies, I do want to say that this is a report that is not only provocative, it’s something that’s a real rarity in Washington today. It’s an extremely bipartisan document. And, you know, Bob, as you know, is not only the Kissinger senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, but served in senior positions in both the George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush administrations. Phil Gordon, who is now—has the impressive title of the Boies senior fellow in foreign policy here at the Council, of course served in a variety of senior positions throughout basically all eight years—not quite all eight years of the Obama administration.
And both of them, of course, have had extensive dealings with the subject of Russia and what exactly is our post-Cold War policy toward Russia—you know, something they’ve both been involved in actually shaping, as well as thinking about where we’ve landed today. So I’m just very much, on some level, looking forward to hearing what they both have to say. What are the things that we can all agree on when it comes to what they call in this report a new Cold War, very definitively? And where are the points of contention? And, more importantly, I think, this is a long and thoughtful report that actually includes a lot of very specific recommendations. So we’re going to try to bore into those recommendations and also talk about what’s practical in an environment in which more than a year after this Russian intervention in our elections. Even the secretary of state said the other day, more or less, well, we haven’t done anything about it, and I’m not quite sure that we can.
So with that introduction, I want to jump right into both of them. We can—we can go back to the framing of the report around it being a new Cold War, but let’s start with your recommendations and, you know, what it is that we should do that we haven’t done yet? By both of your accounts, this has been an ineffective or even nonexistent response. So, OK, you know, you move over to the Oval Office, what do you do? What’s the first plan of attack? Phil?
GORDON: Well, I think you have to start, Susan—first of all, thank you for doing this, and thanks to everyone for being here—with understanding and acknowledging and recognizing the nature of the threat that we face. You mention interference in the election. We talked about interference in the election. I think it’s in the title of the report. But it is not only interference in an election that took place more than a year ago now. It’s that, it’s an ongoing effort to destabilize our society and pit Americans against each other, which we argue in the report is as serious a threat as we face even compared to traditional national security threats. And far be it from us to diminish the importance of those but dividing Americans is just as important. And then there’s a geopolitical piece also flagged in the report and in the title that challenges American security and stability around the world.
So we will get to—and the report, I hope, you know, has dozens of specific recommendations. And we’ll bore you to death with those. But I think point one, to answer your question, is acknowledging that there is an ongoing national security threat to this country that requires a very robust response—far more than we’ve done so far.
BLACKWILL: And if I can just chime in and reinforce that. One question that we struggled with and that you all have thought about too is, well, is this penetration—covert penetration of the American political process just another bump in the road of relations between Washington and Moscow? Because they’re—I see many people in the room who’ve been over these bumps in government and so are familiar with them. And what we came to believe is that it’s not just another bump. It is something new, that is to say the attack on our institutions and our society. And it has to be considered in the context.
And you might say, well, what is the geopolitical have to do with that. And just to conclude, it has two things to do with it. One, of course, is that the measures that we recommend, largely related to European security and the Russian challenge to European security, are, in our view, valid on their own merits. But also if you ask yourself, and this is perhaps a follow up to Secretary Tillerson, said: Well, if they want to do it, they’ll do it. And there’s not much we can do about. Well, we disagree with that. And the first, it seems to me, objective ought to be, through a variety of ways that are outlined in the report, to get the attention of the Russian national security elite.
And you don’t get their attention, I think, through only a tit-for-tat response to their domestic interference. But just to give you one of the prescriptions, the permanent deployment of an American armored brigade in Poland would get their attention. Now, we have a variety of measures which are in that category—as I say, valid on their own merit, but also meant to demonstrate to the Kremlin and the national security apparatus there’s a penalty to be paid for doing this. Otherwise, they’ll continue to do it.
GLASSER: Can I ask—I want to challenge both of you a little bit on this point, though. How are they ever at this point going to get the message that there’s a penalty to be paid for doing this when we’ve already gone so long without responding, number one? Number two, while certainly there are clearly individual members of the Trump administration who probably agree with everything that you’ve written in this report, and may well even be inclined to implement some of the specific proposals, but, you know, how will that actually send a message to the Kremlin if the president himself is quite clearly not on board with the worldview that you suggest?
GORDON: So I don’t think it’s too late. It’s a fair question. But it’s not too late. And we should get to the piece that you also mention about the gap—which we also mention in the report—between top advisors to the president and the president himself. It’s obviously an issue. We don’t pretend that it’s not. But it’s also not too late to send this message that that sort of resigned view that we alluded to in Secretary Tillerson’s comment—oh, we haven’t done anything for a year so we might as well just shrug our shoulders and move on—that is an unacceptable response, because it invites continued intervention. As I stressed, this is not only about what took place, you know, 13 or 14, 15 months ago. It’s about what continues to take place on a daily basis in a way that can undermine the institutions and pillars of our society.
So we’re just not prepared to say, well, you know, we missed our chance, so let’s move on. If we started doing things now—this requires a bit of a leap of faith or imagination—but if that issue you mentioned was addressed and the senior advisors, by all appearances, had their way, and we started to respond—or, say, Congress. And we’ll get to what Congress has done and what it could do. And the people in Moscow started to understand that continuing down this road actually led to a price that they would pay, whether it’s further sanctions on individuals or on pieces of their economy, or a more robust response in European security, and better defenses, which we have still fallen short on a year after. By the way, there’s another election coming up, I think you know, right?
So this is not over, and it would just, it seems to me, be negligent to say, oh, we missed our chance, and it’s a new year; let’s move on to some other issue.
GLASSER: Bob, what about—
BLACKWILL: And on the second question, it is bewildering—I pick my word carefully—that there’s such a gap between the president’s three most important advisors—his secretary of State, secretary of Defense, and the national security advisor—and what they’ve said in public about this issue, and what the president says in public.
And just to remind, all three of those gentlemen have written in various reports—for example, the National Security Strategy, the Defense policy strategy, even the nuclear policy strategy just came out, as you know, and Secretary Tillerson has addressed this at length—all of them right that the Russians sought to penetrate our election process to affect the outcome—so they’ve always said that. By the way, we’ll never know whether they did or not. And second, that they are a principal global challenger—the Russians, Russia—to our national interests. And they’ve all said both those explicitly, so you might think therefore that the kind of policy prescriptions which are in our report might naturally flow, after proper interagency consideration and debate, but they don’t.
GORDON: And just to add, Bob mentioned the secretary of State, Defense and national security advisor. As recently as a week ago, let’s add the CIA director to that list, who said the Russian activities are continuing, and he fully expects them to intervene in the next election. So, you know, there seems to be a consensus, at least in that group, that a response is required and the threat still exists.
GLASSER: Right. So you mentioned Congress, Phil, and you know, the example that we have so far suggests that Congress, in particular on Russia, would be willing to act, and that in one of the most bipartisan votes of 2017, was the decision by Congress—I think it was 98 to 2—in the Senate to impose further sanctions as a response to the election hacking. But yet you have this sort of postscript to it, the—in recent weeks where the deadline came up to actually impose those sanctions. The administration released a public list of sanctioned individuals that appeared to have been cut and pasted from the Forbes list of Russian billionaires, and also announced that there was no need at this time for further sanctions because they believe—against the military-industrial complex in Russia because they believe that their efforts at deterrence and changing behavior had succeeded. And so that would appear to have undercut the overwhelming vote of Congress that that was not the case.
So how much hope do you say, well, I’ll send my report up to Congress, and they’re going to take action on these steps?
GORDON: Right, so there a couple of things going on here. You know, there’s always a healthy tension between the executive branch and Congress in terms of sanctions and who leads on foreign policy issues, and normally—I can speak for myself, Bob will speak for himself; we both worked in the executive branch and tend to—
GLASSER: You had a strong view about who should lead. (Laughs.)
GORDON: Right. But I have to say, under these circumstances, what we have here is an executive branch that doesn’t seem willing to do what we believe is necessary, and Congress is filling that gap as best it can.
The last real steps by the executive branch on this front were at the end of the Obama administration in December 2016, which we argue were belated and insufficient, right? We think the Obama administration was late in responding sufficiently to this.
But then after the election, which Obama didn’t want to be perceived as influencing—he came out—remember the two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland, and some specific sanctions on intelligence operatives, and expulsions. So there was a set of executive branch measures then. But since then, there hasn’t been follow up, and that’s why Congress felt, as you say, Susan, overwhelmingly necessary last summer to step in take some steps, which mostly consisted, however, of giving the executive branch the tools, if it chose to use them, of punishing Russia further, and so far the executive branch has largely chosen not to use those tools.
So I think, as we sit here today, there is new legislation, which is kind of ironic because the new legislation—Senator Menendez and Cardin, and I think a couple of others, are putting forward legislation that requires the administration to implement the previous legislation that had mandatory sanctions that, in the ways you described, the administration chose simply not to implement.
GLASSER: So, Bob, do you hold out much hope that Congress could drive some of your recommendations forward?
BLACKWILL: Well, not as long as a waiver is possible, and we end the report by saying we’re not optimistic about the president changing his view, but one has to continue to try to stimulate a public debate about that. I can’t explain, obviously, why he is acting in the way he is, but there is an inconsistency, which I’m sure you all just recognize, between Secretary Tillerson saying that they can’t be deterred and the White House saying we don’t need sanctions because they’ve been deterred—this all in the same week.
So they are not being deterred; it’s self-evident. And the CIA director testified a week ago that they are not being deterred, so all we’ve done and will continue to try to do is stimulate the public debate on this, and of course, we’re not in government, we can’t do more than that, and the Congress will have to decide whether—having had it’s overwhelming legislative conviction ignored by the White House whether it wants to do more. I hope so. I hope so because I think there is little reason for optimism that the president is going to do more, but hope springs eternal, especially in this town.
GORDON: Yeah. And just to add, Susan, it comes back to your point about whether it’s too late. I mean, let’s just imagine that the administration was willing follow up with the congressionally mandated sanctions in the way that they were proposed, if we then had a serious list, based on real information, of people around Putin who would be clearly subject to sanctions if this went on, and new sectors of the Russian economy were hit in quite a severe way as a result of the congressional sanctions. I think you could reasonably conclude that the Russian government might think about this issue in a different way in the coming 12 months than it will or would if there’s no action on the congressional sanctions and if the secretary of State is basically saying, you know, life’s tough; there’s not a lot we can do about it. So, you know, it’s not too late if people are willing to make the right policies.
GLASSER: Speaking of timing, another factor we haven’t mentioned but it seems worth noting is that there’s a Russian presidential election—you know, quotes around it—but it’s a Russian political season coming up in March. And President Putin has already become, as of last fall, the longest serving leader of Russia since Stalin. He surpassed Brezhnev’s record. He appears to be on track not only for another six-year term but, you know, who knows what’s possible after that.
Both of you are very experienced at watching the kind of rhetoric that comes out of the Kremlin. What do you make of what Putin’s positioning is on this after a year? If we’re ultimately talking about deterrence, that means that it’s relevant—the question of, well, what is the message that the Kremlin is receiving, what messages is Putin sending to us whether we receive them or not?
BLACKWILL: I think he’s—and again, there are some very close Moscow watchers in the audience—I think he’s utterly confident in being able to continue to do what he’s been doing—by the way, as you know, not just in the United States, but in Germany, in France, in Holland, and so forth. So he’s busy—they’re busy, very intensively, in Eastern Europe and so forth.
I think he’s confident that he’s on a wave, and empirically, why shouldn’t he be confident? And that’s again to the point of getting his attention.
There are two other things I want to say just in a one-liner. You’ll see it a length in the report.
One is we stress the need to discuss and consult with our allies in all of these measures except the domestic American ones, because obviously the Russians tried to affect the French election, they are intervening—you know, they intervened in the last German election, and so forth. So the allies are a crucial piece of this.
And the other is, we stress the need not to cut off channels of communication with the Russians, because if we get Putin and the Kremlin’s attention, that’s just the beginning of an effort to try to negotiate agreements elsewhere if they think that there’s a penalty for their behavior. So, as you know, during the Cold War we had a kind of rotation in which one side would cut off talks with the other and then they’d be resumed, and then the other side would cut off talks with the other. We’re strong proponents on—in opening a serious dialogue in a context of our recommendations with Putin, and it has to be with Putin, as we know, and seeing if that will get anywhere. And that, too, should be done in the context of the policy prescriptions in the report.
GORDON: Little to add, but just to reinforce that last point, lest it be misunderstood, we are not saying cut off Russia entirely, don’t talk to them. We compare it and say this is a new Cold War, which I think is accurate. But during the Cold War we had relations with Russia and we tried to do things in our interests, sometimes the mutual interests, and we should now. So to accuse Russia of these things and call for a robust response doesn’t mean that if it’s in our interest to work with them somehow in Syria, or try to get a resolution in Ukraine, or arms control, that we shouldn’t do that. In fact, we should do more than we are currently doing.
GLASSER: So I want to ask you—I’m glad you brought up the new Cold War. This has obviously been a subject of some debate, you know, among Russia specialists at least for the last few years. How much was that an issue that you were united on, that this was the right framework? What do you think are some of the perils of putting it in basically a backward-looking frame? Do you think that containment minus at least the perceived grand ideological struggle that was at the heart of the Cold War—is that really realistic at this point in time. Both the U.S. claim to leadership is somewhat less than it was at the end of World War II, and also Putin’s grand strategy, to the extent he has one, seems to be much more rooted in really a kind of a 19th century great power realpolitik view of the world more so than it is that he’s looking for converts or adherents here in the United States. So, you know, I’m not saying I disagree with it outright, but it’s an interesting question about how much putting that label on this will then affect what we end up doing.
GORDON: So I’ll start. Bob teaches diplomatic history. I’m sure he’ll weigh in, too. But I would say, first of all, we talked a lot about that: Is Cold War the right term and is containment the right term?
By the way, and you wrote a good article about this not too long ago, which I recommend to people. And we concluded that it was. I mean, obviously, it’s different and analogies are always perilous because people think, you know, it’s exactly the same. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s a cold war in the sense that the other one was a cold war, which is that you have a real rivalry and two competing powers across the board, but going to war in a traditional sense is not an option because they’re both too powerful and the costs would be too great. So the struggle takes place in different ways.
And just in terms of the adversarial nature of the relationship, and viewed from an American perspective, them trying to weaken us and seeing us as a geopolitical rival and a political rival and an ideological rival and doing everything they can to weaken us and compete, that does seem pretty analogous, and therefore the remedy—containment—seems pretty analogous, too, where you do what you can. You can’t—you’d like to snap your fingers or have some policy to change their approach in the short term, but you don’t have that mechanism, so you need a long-term, patient approach that protects your interests and doesn’t exclude—indeed, hopes for and works for—an evolution such that afterwards, since you’re not a smoldering ruin after a hot war, you can have a more constructive relationship.
GLASSER: I’m knocking wood on the not being a smoldering ruin part.
GORDON: We’re for that.
BLACKWILL: You know, we go out on a limb and argue for that.
I’d just say that in my judgment—and some of you experts might not agree with this—the ideological dimension of U.S.-Soviet competition lasted about 30 years, from the late ’40s to the late ’70s. But by the ’80s, in my judgment, it was a great power rivalry, and I think that’s what we have now. Some historians call this the second phase of the Cold War after the—when the Soviets themselves, most of them stopped believing in their ideology, and the East German economists had done their worst in Tanzania and so forth, and it wasn’t very attractive for the world. It was great power competition, and what was the dominating theme of that great power competition on the Soviet side, which was to undermine the United States and its power and prestige in every way it could. We think that’s what Putin’s doing. So it does seem with the dangers of historical analogy that Phil mentioned, an appropriate way to convey both what we think is the problem—which is the new Cold War—the remedy conceptually—which is containment—and then the argument that we need to get—we need to think of it in that way and notice how little we’re doing to respond to it.
GORDON: Can I add one thing, Susan, as Bob mentioned this national interest competing power element as opposed to ideology? Which brings up something weird going on, which is—that still begs an explanation. This administration describes its worldview in just that way and it describes America First in just that way. You have these competing countries that have different national interests, and that’s OK and it’s—you know, that’s the way the world works.
GORDON: And forget this liberal internationalism and multilateralism and institutions. That’s healthy and the way the world works. OK, you can debate that, but that is their own definition of how the world works. And yet when it comes to Russia, that somehow, like, gets put aside. And we’re no longer in here. They write op-eds about it and put it in the national security strategy and the president talks about it, and that’s how they approach Mexico and China and Iran and everybody else.
BLACKWILL: And Germany and France and Britain. (Laughter.)
GORDON: Yeah. And then when it comes to Russia, it gets put aside and then the president says, well, no, we shouldn’t do sanctions because I want to work with them on Syria and Iran and other stuff. It’s like, wait, I thought this was a dog-eat-dog world, each country for itself, and just something at the heart of this issue, which we might as well, you know, underscore for some reason—which we don’t have an explanation for—the president treats the approach to Russia differently than he treats the approach to every other country in the world, or every other individual in the world for that matter, with criticism and I’m getting a raw deal and it should be different, and yet with Russia it’s—
GLASSER: Due process. (Laughter.)
Oh, I know the audience has a lot of questions. But, Bob, I want to just close with a question. You’ve both brought up the national security strategy, and one of the interesting things about it, regardless of how much Trump is or isn’t subscribed to it, right, is that it does describe and place a kind of great power competition with Russia and China back in the center of this strategy, while lumping them together. One critique I think that could be made of this report and of others like it, right, is are we once again focusing on Russia at the expense of focusing on China and what is potentially a bigger, longer-term strategic challenge to the United States and, you know, is this a distraction of some sort? Even somebody like Steve Bannon inside the White House would have said that that was one of the problems with a worldview that’s still looking backwards to the Cold War rather than forwards to whatever’s going to come with China. And did that factor into your discussions around this?
BLACKWILL: Well, I would say we’re not focusing on Russia at the expense of not focusing on China—(laughter)—if I may put it like that. It isn’t as if the administration is so preoccupied with Russia and dealing with these Russian challenges that we’ve been talking about that they don’t have time to deal with the rise of Chinese power, which of course, as we all know, is the long-term greatest challenge to American foreign policy. They’re inconsistent—and as I think we know, inconsistent and bewildering on China, too. So I don’t think that because we emphasize the need to respond to Russia doesn’t, at least for me, suggest that we don’t also have a need to respond to the application of Chinese power in Asia and beyond.
GORDON: Right. And it’s not that because China is a big deal, let’s put the Russia thing aside and just focus on China. It’s the other way around. Do we even need—we not only need to deal with and be concerned about what Russia is doing in interference, but think about China in those terms as well, because it’s not just Russia. And there needs to be a China piece also to how we think about deterring and protecting against foreign powers interfering. And, again, we would argue that giving Russia a pass basically sends a message to any country that might want to interfere: Go right ahead because, you know, we’re just not that bothered about it.
GLASSER: Well, I thought from the beginning of this whole conversation, you know, around Russia in 2016, like, they’re not the only ones who have the internet there, you know? (Laughs.) It’s hard to imagine that, seeing the success that they’ve had in inserting themselves into our political conversation—
GORDON: Weakening us, exactly.
GLASSER: All right. So I want to get to audience questions. Just quickly, though, you have a lot of specific proposals. And you mentioned something concrete, moving troops permanently into Poland, for example. How much would you say you are turning to hard power, that it’s the remilitarization, in some way, of American policy toward Russia, because what are the other alternatives? You know, sanctions have been imposed with limited success at this point.
BLACKWILL: Well, it is hard power. And we think that the president of Russia understands hard power. And if we had an emissary who could speak with him politely but forthrightly I would have that emissary say: If you continue to do what you’ve been doing with respect to interference in American democracy, we won’t stop at one brigade. We have the resources and the will to change the dynamic of European security. And we do not regard what you’re doing in our domestic affairs as just another disagreement. That’s how you create deterrence to the behavior of an adversary. And since, as we know, the offense always has an advantage over the defense, if we deal with it only in those terms, he’ll continue to do it.
GORDON: And just to be clear, while we argue that robust measures in European security need to be, and are entirely appropriate as a response to this, that’s not the entirety of the response. We also have just as many specific things that we think we need to do in terms of the penalties for interference. And we’ve talked about some of the sanctions both on individuals and the Russian economy, so that you’re deterring the adversary that way. And the defensive part of it, strengthening our cybersecurity, and our electoral security, and our treatment of social media, so it’s harder for these foreign adversaries to manipulate disinformation and divide Americans. All of that is just as important. The European security is a component, but the more direct responses to this interference have to do with punishment, and deterrence, and better protections. And we’ve been negligent, frankly, in all three.
BLACKWILL: Could I just ask, when you have a chance to digest the report, if you have comments on it, we’d be grateful. So you can find us on the CFR net. And so we’d be grateful if you’d say we like this one, we don’t like this one, and so forth, and why. And we’ll respond.
GLASSER: All right. A lot of questions. So I want to get in as many as I can. So do try to make it a question and tell us who you are as well. Yeah, right there.
Q: Thank you. I’m Paula Stern. I have my own consulting group. And I appreciate the offer to comment.
And one of the questions I wanted to ask you deals with that period, détente, when Congress asserted itself with Henry Jackson’s Jackson-Vanik Amendment. It is such a different period. Even though you discussed the need for congressional assertiveness and the fact that they did pass this legislation, will it take someone like Henry Jackson running for president, who has strong views about, at that time, the Soviet Union, for Congress really to assert itself, as it did in that time? I really believe this is about domestic politics, as you touched on just a moment ago. Moreover, we don’t have the China card to play anymore, like Nixon did.
BLACKWILL: I would say that, first of all, it’s an interesting analogy because Jackson-Vanik Amendment was used by Kissinger to open the floodgates of Jewish immigration to Israel. But as for the other part of your question, domestic politics, that’s not my line of work. So I think I’ll—it will obviously take congressional leadership. Whether it takes someone running for president I don’t know.
GORDON: It’s not mine either, but I’ll make one comment about it, which is—I mean, Susan mentioned the bipartisan nature of this report. We hope this can be a bipartisan response on this issue. Unfortunately, and we’ve seen the partisan struggles on the Hill even though Congress overwhelmingly voted for this legislation. And it’s sometimes hard on this issue now to get traction because there is some resistance to almost anything that is bipartisan.
But there is also—there are some measures being debated in Congress right now that have some bipartisan support. Some reluctance, for political reasons. But the thrust of our message is: If there’s any issue that shouldn’t be partisan today, it’s preventing a foreign country from undermining our society and our democracy. So we think it’s possible. We did it. And Congress—let’s not wait for the next presidential election for a different candidate to implement this policy. It has to be Congress. And it should be Congress now on a bipartisan basis.
Q: Yeah, Jim Slattery from Wiley Rein.
When I listen to these comments about Russian interference with our election, there’s a part of it that sounds like we’re sort of whining to the Russians. And, you know, the facts are that Russians have been meddling in our elections since Nikolai Lenin. The Nazis tried to muss around with our elections. It seems to me we really need to be focused on protecting ourselves. And this means that we have to really dig into the cybersecurity side of this, get into the social media platforms that the Russians have been able to so effectively activate against us and to disrupt us. And whatever has to be done to achieve that, we as Americans have to step up and do that, it seems to me. And I’m just curious, in your analysis, you know, where all did you go in with really looking at the cybersecurity and social media dimension of this that we, as Americans, can do to protect ourselves, instead of going to Putin whining about his interference in our election? Let’s protect ourselves, is what I’m saying.
BLACKWILL: All right, I think we couldn’t agree more with what you’ve said. And when you have a chance to look at it, there are more than a dozen specific recommendations along exactly the lines you expressed. And I also agree that if we don’t act in a concrete way in the manner that is recommended in this report, it is whining to Putin. We—our foreign policy over decades has often had that characteristic, of not being willing to act in ways that punish. And so I agree both we stop whining and we should begin, as you just did, with how do we protect ourselves, and have a look at those prescription. Be interested in your response.
GORDON: The only think I’d add, on the social media piece—while completely agreeing how important it is—look, it’s hard. If there was an easy way to prevent foreign interference in that, you know, it would have been done. But it’s also, we are trying to say, necessary. We can no longer—this is too important an issue to continue to say, well, these groups—you know, Google, Facebook, Twitter—they just—you know, they’re not publishers. They’re just platforms, and people can put whatever they want. And if there’s bad information, that’s just too bad. We’ve let them get away with that, which is in their interest as firms. But we’re trying to say that that is a threat to our society.
Again, so there’s not a magic bullet or one quick piece of legislation that fixes this problem, but there are things you can do to make it much harder, maybe impossible or at least much harder, for foreigners to be involved in putting out information, at least have transparency if there’s a foreign entity involved in identifying disinformation and where it’s coming from, in blocking political advertising, which is blocked on TV but it’s not blocked on social media. We have a member of Congress here and may want to address some of the ideas that are in Congress now, which we think are absolutely essential. So, agreed, that’s an important piece of it, and we’re way behind.
There’s also—on the disinformation piece, we don’t want to—just to be clear, we’re not saying that these organizations should be deciding what’s true and what’s not true. But they can do more to identify likely sources of disinformation, or at least identify—you know, there are some telltale signs when something is in a small circle, the news report and then it just bounces around among a small circle of people. There are things that you can identify that make it more likely than not that this is disinformation, and that would go a long way to minimizing outside efforts to do what they’re doing now, which is divide Americans deliberately and essentially have foreign entities seeking to affect our political outcomes.
GLASSER: OK, lots of hands up here. I’m going to go to you and then you. OK. She’s first.
Q: Thanks. Courtney Radsch. I’m with the Committee to Protect Journalists and as a nonresident fellow at the Central European University.
Two questions. First, you mentioned defensive and offensive power. But during the Cold War, you had an ideological power, and I think that we don’t have that anymore. So now you’re just talking, you know, in these very basic terms. But how do you regain that ideological power when you don’t have the U.S. out there as a beacon for democracy or human rights?
And second of all, you know, when you talk about, you know, the media, and one of your recommendations being to label these journalists—these RT and Sputnik and others as FARA, as lobbyists, you know, it’s not that easy. You have RT journalists who have been killed in Syria while covering that. We have—the FARA legislation as it stands is very unspecific how it applies to media, which leaves it open for retribution, puts journalists in danger overseas. So how would you address that? And how would you recommend reorganizing and revising FARA, so that if you want to apply it to media it doesn’t inadvertently capture real journalists and it doesn’t put journalists in danger?
BLACKWILL: Well, and I think our answers have to be briefer so that you have a chance to comment or question.
But I’d just say, first, as I tried to say earlier, the last 30 years of the Cold—well, it depends on how you define it. Maybe some define it from the Cuban Missile Crisis forward. But at the end of the Cold War there was not an ideological dimension. And I don’t believe that ideology, no matter how powerful it is that we express and live every day, is going to affect Vladimir Putin. So I don’t think that’s a(n) instrument that is appropriate to try to affect him. And that’s what we’re trying to do, is to affect him.
GORDON: On FARA, you’re right, we can’t adjudicate here exactly how the legislation might be rewritten. But I would say, you’re right, it’s hard and you got to get it right. But there’s almost something positive about what you described as the ambiguity there. Just like with FARA we’re talking about, you know, registering as a foreign agent in this country, which has been in the news a lot lately. There is a degree to which you better be careful if it might look like you are acting on behalf of a foreign power. That’s not such a bad thing if it applies for acting on a foreign power as part of a media organization is right. Well, you don’t want to entrap legitimate journalists in that. But if you’re an American and you’re being paid by—directly or indirectly—an organization that appears to be operating on behalf of a foreign government and doing political things, then that is some—I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you might want to take that into account as you go about your business.
And then RT, that’s not to say that every journalist who’s ever worked for RT should be somehow banned from speaking out. Again, we don’t want to repress free speech or let these companies decide what’s true or not true, but to let people be aware that the organization someone is working for is entirely or largely funded by a foreign government that is seen to be interfering is not a bad thing either. Transparency can go a long way in this area.
Q: Andrew Pierre, Global Insights.
Glancing quickly at the report and the recommendations, it appears that a lot of the analysis deals with Europe. And you both have mentioned the fact that Europe is being undermine, put it that way, in cybersecurity by the Russians as well. Is there something that the Europeans can do to persuade the president of the United States to take this more seriously? And to what extent are the Europeans coordinating amongst themselves to move ahead towards containing Russia?
BLACKWILL: OK. Well, one hopes. And the chancellor of Germany has been very forthright on Russian behavior, and so has the president of France—(chuckles)—not least because they tried to get him defeated in the election. So I think they’re in conversation with the administration. I don’t know how—obviously, not on the inside; I don’t know how much they do with the president himself. And if that were a means to influence him, boy, hail to that.
As for the Europeans themselves, there is a cybersecurity initiative within the EU. And one can only applaud that, and hope that we’re talking to them about that and trying to seek mutual ways to collaborate.
GLASSER: Congressman, did you want to weigh in? You have to give us the answer to what’s going to happen up there on Capitol Hill.
Q: Oh yeah. (Laughs.) I came here for the answers. David Cicilline, congressman from Rhode Island.
My question really is: Is it possible to actually resolve this question and develop an effective policy for containing Russia in this way without a president of the United States who is committed to doing that? We have a political context in which we’ve seen many members of his own party unwilling to challenge him in any way, particularly in the area of Russian interference or Russian aggressive behavior, because it is perceived to be a challenge to the legitimacy of the president. And so when you have a president who’s describing this as a fake story to explain a loss that shouldn’t have happened to Democrats—and, frankly, particularly in the House a complete unwillingness to challenge the president in any meaningful way—is there actually a strategy in which we can enact something magically that’s going to force an unwilling president and all of the bureaucracy that he controls from actually implementing a policy? So it seems to me—and add to that sort of American public opinion, which is sort of indifferent at best on this issue. How do we actually change the behavior of the president, who can demonstrate real leadership and make this a national priority that we respond to this and understand the danger it presents? Without that, it seems to me—and I’ll read the report carefully—very hard to imagine a successful strategy.
BLACKWILL: I agree. (Laughter.)
GLASSER: Yeah, that’s my question, too.
BLACKWILL: But no, I mean—
Q: I just wanted to be sure if Congress wasn’t—didn’t have the solution here, but—(laughter).
BLACKWILL: No, Congress, of course, has a big role, and it’s undertaken it in some ways on a bipartisan basis. But Congress can’t lead American foreign policy, and we know that. So if the question is can this be done without a president who supports the proposition, the answer is no.
GORDON: And we can only do what we can do, which is what we’re trying to do, which is engage the public, and have a national discussion, and get people’s attention, and get Congress’ attention because Congress can do what it can do. This would be so different if you had a president at a minimum that acknowledged the issue, let alone exercised by it. But even some of the things we’re talking about like getting social media organizations to do certain things, national leadership would give some direction. And some of this stuff, like at the electoral level, are done by states. But there’s nothing that substitutes for leadership from the top, and that’s just a reality we’re dealing with.
GLASSER: I want to get in—I promised you, and then Toby, and then you.
Q: Edward Luttwak.
I’ve not heard an explicit rebuttal of the original Trump position articulated during the election. The Europeans are totally unwilling to send an army to Ukraine. Geopolitics 101 if you can’t do Russia and China at the same time. Since the Europeans are not willing to engage, we make a deal with Russia and we confront China. By making a deal, made it clear that he was willing to make large concessions in regard to Crimea and all kinds of other stuff. And in regard to this type of hostile behavior, the presumption was that once you make a very nice deal for him, he was drop the hostile behavior anyway. He has no reason to pursue it. That was his argument. His argument started with Ukraine.
Europeans talk and are not willing to do anything. Therefore, we Americans can’t go all the way there to do anything. Therefore, geopolitics 110, that was his phrase, you will have to make a deal with Russia on whatever terms you can get, and confront China. That has been his position. And of course, along the way, he has been bullied, as he would put it, into sending troops to Afghanistan, sending troops to Niger, sending troops to Chad, looking for possible offshoots in Mozambique, and Madagascar, maybe, you know, Rhodesia, or whatever it’s called. So that is his position. I’ve not heard the explicit rebuttal to his starting point, that is the Europeans were not willing to engage with Ukraine, because that was the issue during the election.
GLASSER: Any response?
BLACKWILL: Well, I don’t know whether you think that that—and I’ll look up the quotes; thanks for reminding us—that you think that that’s the kernel—that strategic proposition is the kernel of this president’s unwillingness to confront Russia. I am—I am skeptical that there is a strategic kernel at the center of this reluctance.
GORDON: I agree with my co-author. (Laughter.)
GLASSER: OK. So.
Q: Thank you. Toby Gati, consultant.
Yeah, I think your report has started an important dialogue, and particularly in one sense, that you’re proposing that the U.S. lead, which is a nice thing to hear after what we’ve heard from the last year or so. But I also think your report sounds like the sound of one hand clapping because all of your recommendations are military, cyber, only U.S. competition. You quote Hariman, who is talking about a country that doesn’t even exist in 1945. And unless you’re assuming that Putin is Stalin, I think there are a lot of differences. You could have quoted Kennan. And just right now there’s a conference going on Kennan, and a very different approach, which might have led you to a different conclusion.
My concern is what’s not there, nothing about Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries would like nothing better than to have U.S. troops and to repress their own people—being very blunt. And you know which countries I mean. How Russian elections are held, you don’t seem to care about that, or civil society, or any of the institutions which are crucial if Russia is to make any kind of a transition. You don’t have any comments about closing U.S. loopholes, which make it so easy for Russia to launder money in those countries. And you also don’t have anything about Russian reappearance in Latin America and in other places.
So my question to you, why is there nothing like we had in the Cold War on education, on training the next generation of experts? I mean, look around the room—sorry—we are not the next generation of experts. (Laughter.) My likely scenario for the Russians is they will let up in 2018 because we got all our guns in order, and so we’re going to be fighting the last war. And it’s going to be all quiet on the Western front. And then what are you going to do? What’s going to happen to every one of your recommendations that seems so vital now? I look at the cover of your report and I’m wondering, maybe Putin is clinking his glass for a reason, because we think we have unlimited resources—or, you seem to think we do. And you know we don’t.
And nobody’s going to support all the things you said. Not everyone’s going to welcome U.S. military presence around the world. We already have troops in, what, 110 countries. And the U.S. internal dynamics are very different. Our next generation, frankly, doesn’t give such a damn about troops in Poland. Maybe they care a little bit more about Asia, Latin America. And they’re going to be voting for people who say: Why don’t we take care of the problems that are closer to us or more important to us? So I just think you have a real challenge in convincing people that NATO is the answer to all our problems. It isn’t. Actually, it was the start of many of our—the enlargement of NATO was the start of some of our problems.
BLACKWILL: Well, Toby, I’d just say two things. We did write a report and not a multivolume exercise in trying to understand American foreign policy and domestic policy writ large. And I think many of the issues you raise are worth discussing and deliberating about. We tried to be very focused here, partly just because of constraints on space and partly because we wanted people to read it, which we know is a real challenge today. The only one I would say—and you haven’t had a chance to look through them in as detail as you will, with scrutiny that you will—is there is a recommendation that we speak out about Russian behavior suppressing democracy and human rights and so forth, which, of course, we’re mostly not doing now. So there is that—at least that policy prescription.
GLASSER: OK, Governor, I think this will probably be the last question.
Q: Well, I’m Jim Gilmore. I’m running a nonprofit, American Opportunity/Free Congress Foundation. We look at a lot of foreign policy issues.
Let me give a quick statement, and then I want to ask a question. Quick statement is: I think the people in this room and on the stage ought to be paying more attention to what the president and the secretary of state are actually saying. I would recommend that people read the Warsaw speech. It’s one of the great speeches, I think, that we’ve seen in a long time, and the United Nations speech. And Secretary Tillerson has made it very clear that there’s not going to be a restoration of decent relations between the United States and Russia so long as they occupy Crimea—not Ukraine, Crimea. So I think they’re taking a pretty hard line if you really look and see what they’re saying and what they’re doing.
But my question that I want to ask is—I want to go to the question of what do you think the Russians’ motivation is? What are they thinking? What I’m trying to understand is what the Russians are thinking if they are—are they defensive or offensive? Are they imperialists, or are they defensive against NATO? I’ve listened to, in other forums, a lot of the Russians very closely trying to explain what they’re thinking. And, you know, one sounds like they want to actually reassemble at least the old near-abroad. And one explicitly said to me: This is a family matter. The United States needs to stay out of the Ukraine totally. We want a free hand in the near-abroad. And I told him that I had seen the near abroad. It was 200 miles west of Berlin. I’d seen it myself. And the guy looked at me like I had two heads.
And then, you know, with respect to their defensive posture, at one point they said: Well, if you’re going to put a battalion—or armored battalion into Poland, and you’ve got the Baltic States and, you know, you’re trying to put Ukraine into the east European Union, and that you’re trying to create regime change in Russia. And when he said that, I looked at him like he had two heads. So I’d like to know what you think they are. Are they trying to be imperialistic, or are they trying to defend against NATO?
BLACKWILL: Just briefly on each one. Thank you for raising those questions, Governor. The first is that I agree with you that the rhetoric of the administration, especially more recently, has been very strong on the issue of Russia. But they fail on action, in my judgement. And we know what the price of rhetoric without action does to the credibility of a country’s foreign policy. On the second, which is, I think, the grand question which we can’t know, what are Putin—and I really prefer to say rather than what are Russia’s objectives, what are Putin’s objectives, because he so dominates that system. But I think there are hints. And the speech he gave, I guess, a decade ago which said that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, he wasn’t talking about Marxism and Soviet command economy. He was talking about the Soviet Union as a great power, as it had been for a couple of centuries.
And I think that his mission is to restore what he thinks is—are the characteristics of Russian great power. And that begins, as your interlocutor said, with controlling the boundaries and beyond of the Russian state. But then, in order to do that, of course, weakening America furthers that objective. And so does the expression of Russian power, for example, in Syria. So I think it’s classic great power behavior from a pretty weak economic base, but one that is resolute and consistent. And the United States is in the best position to make him think again, at least to some degree, but only through action.
GORDON: And I’ll be super brief, because we need to end. I’ll also agree, important points. On the first, I would even be prepared to grant that what they’re doing is more than it sometimes seems in terms of a tough line on Ukraine and even some reassurance in European security. Yet, that doesn’t negate our fundamental point on our specific issue of the president denying the premise that there was an interference in the election and an ongoing campaign, and everything that should flow from that in terms of whatever you’re doing on Ukraine, punishing for the interference, better protecting against future interference, and more robust on European security.
And on the latter, Bob was eloquent. So I would just add in one sentence that I think Putin sees the relationship with the United States entirely as a zero-sum game. Maybe that’s our tie back into the Cold War. That’s his view then, and that part of it hasn’t changed. Not because he’s a Marxist, but he sees if we’re up then he’s down, and he’s going to do everything in his power to prevent that.
GLASSER: All right. On that note, I want to thank what terrific questions from the audience, our terrific report authors, and all of you for sharing your lunchtime with us. Thank you.
GORDON: Thank you.
BLACKWILL: Thank you, Susan. (Applause.)