An Interview with Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution
Nelson Strobridge “Strobe” Talbott III is a renowned foreign policy analyst and the president of the Brookings Institution. In his 21 years with Time magazine, he covered Eastern Europe, the State Department, and the White House as a foreign affairs columnist, Washington Bureau Chief, and Editor-at-Large. He then served as Ambassador-at-Large and Special Advisor to the Secretary of State on the New Independent States of the former Soviet Union, and eventually appointed to Deputy Secretary of State. Prior to joining the Brookings Institution, Talbott founded the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
The Politic: This question is purposefully vague: How have the rules of the global balance of power changed and what is the role of the US in that global arena?
That’s actually not a vague question; it’s a very important question. It depends a lot on what time frame you’re talking about, so let me use the time frame since I was an undergraduate at Yale in the mid-1960s. It was a very different world. There were some things about American power that people are now nostalgic about, and there are also things about the state of the world back then that nobody should be nostalgic about.
Let’s start with the latter: it was the depths of the Cold War, a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Cold War almost became a hot war, and the United States was overwhelmingly preoccupied with the threats of the Soviet Union, a preoccupation which was massively expensive. There was a tendency on the part of the United States to look at almost all other problems as an extension of the Cold War, which is how we got into pretty bad trouble in Vietnam. Vietnam of course blew back to the home front on campuses like Yale. It disrupted the years we were supposed to be devoting to study, split the country in multiple ways that were not healthy, led some of my classmates to go off to war—some of whom died—and caused other students to go off to Canada and become ex-patriots there. There were a lot of things about that period that were tragic. On the other hand, the United States had uncontested power in many parts of the world, mainly those parts of the world that were part of the so-called free world, which is to say the United States and its allies.
Now, there is not one single great big geopolitical threat of the sort that the Soviet Union was back in the 1960s, but there are a lot of very complicated situations, some of which are dangerous, not just because of the policies of government, but also because of what we call non-state actors. The perfect example of a non-state actor is, of course, Al-Qaeda. When 9/11 happened, my wife and I were actually living in New Haven and working at the Center for the Study of Globalization. As an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, ISIS is not really a state, but it’s a non-state actor that is so powerful that it can threaten the very existence of states. This is a new development.
We also have some bad habits of international behavior over the distant past, by which I mean the early part of the 20th century and the 19th century. The best example of that, or maybe I should say the worst, is what Putin is doing in Ukraine.
The Politic: Could you talk more about what you think is coming next in the Ukraine?
Winter is coming. That is a serious issue, because with the cold weather will come the need for heat, and with the need for heat, Russia will undoubtedly use its control over the flow of highly monopolized energy sources, particularly gas, to put pressure on Ukraine.
The Politic: In your article in Politico, “The Making of Vladimir Putin,” you wrote of Putin’s goal to roll back a lot of Gorbachev’s reforms. Where do you see Russian priorities in the next 10 years?
I don’t think they’ll stay on the trajectory they’re on now. There is evidence the sanctions are having a real effect. My guess is there will be a milder version of this aggressive foreign policy. When I came to Yale in 1964, it was right after Khrushchev had been overthrown. There was no reason to think the Soviet Union would ever collapse in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime. But the virtues of Russian culture and the consistent policies of containment brought about a miraculous change in the late 1980s that lasted for twenty-five years. What Putin is doing, in a nutshell, is going back and trying again the same dictatorial and aggressive policies that characterized the Soviet Union. It didn’t work for the Soviet Union and won’t work for Putin’s Russia, and in due course I do think that Russia will get back on track. It is almost a law of nature that while the authoritarian regime can hang on for a longer time than a democratic one, when it falls it tends to fall hard.