The World’s Hotspots

Saturday, April 29, 2017
Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters


Elliott Abrams: Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Sheila Smith: Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Alina Polyakova: Director of Research, Europe, and Eurasia, Atlantic Council


Tiffany McGriff: International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Experts discuss the most important flashpoints in international affairs for the current administration.

MCGRIFF: Good afternoon, everyone.

AUDIENCE: Good afternoon.

MCGRIFF: Excellent. How’s the program going? Well?


MCGRIFF: Wonderful. Great.

Well, my name is Tiffany McGriff, and I’m the presider for today’s discussion. We have an excellent panel set up for you. We’re going to talk about “The World’s Hotspots.”

On my right immediately, we have Sheila Smith. She is a senior fellow of Japanese studies at CFR. She is an expert on Japanese domestic politics and foreign policy, Northeast Asia regional security and international relations of Asia-Pacific. She is currently working on a project on Northeast Asia nationalism and alliance management and a regular contributor to the CFR blog Asia Unbound.

Immediately to her right we have Alina Polyakova. She’s visiting us from the Atlantic Council, where she serves as director of research for Europe and Eurasia affairs. She’s an expert on the European Union, European far-right parties and European identity with a deeper expertise in Eurasian affairs, Russian and Ukrainian affairs.

And to the—at the end of the panel we have Elliott Abrams. He is a senior CFR fellow for Middle East studies. He’s an expert on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Under the George W. Bush administration, he served as the deputy assistant to the president; the deputy national security adviser for democracy, human rights and international organizations; and senior NSC director of Near East and North Africa.

And I am a visiting fellow here at the Council. I’m a foreign service officer from the U.S. Department of State.

You have more extensive bios for all of our panelists in your brochures, so what I’m going to do is just move on to the discussion. Just to remind you that this discussion will be on the record.

Now, I’m going to actually start with Sheila here, who has just returned from a trip to Seoul and Tokyo, is it?

SMITH: That’s right.

MCGRIFF: OK. Considering the most recent developments that are dominating the media right now, a launch by North Korea, what are your thoughts? What’s your assessment of the situation in Northeast Asia and the Trump administration’s response?

SMITH: Thank you, Tiffany. And first of all it’s a delight to be with you today and hope the traffic didn’t keep you from getting here.

So I am just back from Tokyo and Seoul. And it is in Northeast Asia a moment of deep anxiety, obviously. There’s been up to 30 missile launches already this year by the North Koreans. And Kim Jong-un, the latest Kim, the latest leader of North Korea, has made it very clear that he is intent not only in developing expanded capability, missile capability, but also a nuclear weapon. And so we are here in Washington paying very close attention to what kind of missiles he’s launching, what kind of capabilities those missiles represent in terms of new thresholds for him but also very obviously whether or not he’s going to be able to put a nuclear warhead on a missile that might be able to reach the United States. I think most Americans are focused therefore on the ICBM.

But if you’re sitting in Tokyo and Seoul, of course, you are much, much closer. Seoul has sat underneath an aggressive North Korea for—ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953. For those of you who are not Asia-familiar, we are still in a state of war on the Korean Peninsula. There’s a ceasefire there. There is no peace treaty. So splitting the North and South is a demilitarized zone. And I was up there with the group that I was with, who were congressional representatives. And so you look out at North Korea. They come and take your picture to tell you they try and figure out who you are. But you also look out on gun turrets and mountains where the artillery that is aimed at Seoul is very real. You drive up a highway 30 miles north of Seoul, and you are in the demilitarized zone. So it is a state of war still, and it’s important for us to remember that.

In Seoul there are 25 million South Koreans, right, so if there is any use of force initiated by any of the players, it is the people of South Korea that will suffer the consequences. And that is, again, not always understood here in Washington when we think about all the options on the table and military preemptive strike, or we—there’s a lot of language that comes out in the political debate. But it’s very important to understand, in the region, this is real, and there are millions of lives at stake.

In Tokyo, what’s new is the missile capability that Kim Jong-un has been demonstrating since last January, so beginning of 2016, is now very clearly being demonstrated to show the Japanese and the U.S. military—we have 50,000 men and women in uniform in Japan—that those missiles can reach them too. So even before there are nuclear warheads on top of these missiles, Kim Jong-un has biological and chemical weapons, right? Those missiles will arrive in Japan in 10 minutes.

So today, as Tiffany pointed out, there was a missile launch early this morning. The Japanese are on alert. They have been on alert since last year. They are doing civil defense drills—how are we going to respond should a launch happen? So corporations, municipalities, cities are now in the middle of doing drills.

So this is a region very alert and very on edge about really what Kim Jong-un is going to do next.

MCGRIFF: Thank you very much for that, Sheila.

I’m going to move over to Alina and—my apology; I’m actually—move over to Elliott. I’m going to jump to the Middle East here.

Sir, we responded to a chemical attack on civilians by Assad’s regime. What are your thoughts on our approach to Syria? And, you know, what’s kind of the reality there? And what should we consider when moving forward?

ABRAMS: Well, thanks. I’m glad to be here. And we’re trying—you know, it’s the end of a long day, right, so we’re trying to keep you awake: war, chemical war—(laughter)—rockets, missiles—I mean—

The situation in Syria is terrible. I mean, we should start with that in the sense the humanitarian situation is almost unbelievable—500,000 dead; something like 12 million people, half the population, no longer in their homes. And, you know, we could talk for a long time about the mistakes made over the last let’s say decade, but we’re here now. It’s April 2017.

It’s very hard to put this back together. I don’t think it’s possible to get back to where Syria was a few years ago because, you know, there is a minority government. President Assad is an Alawite, which is a sect related to Shia Islam. It has about 12 percent of the population. It’s a majority Sunni country. And he has killed half a million of his citizens. So the notion that the population is going to accept having him as the long-term ruler I think is—it’s really impossible.

I also think it’s impossible to envision a powerful central government again, which is what they had, ruling every square inch of the country because now you’ve really got kind of—as I said, he’s an Alawite; you’ve got a kind of Alawistan that he governs and includes Damascus. There’s a Kurdish area. There are Sunni areas. And, of course, we’re fighting ISIS, the Islamic State. That part I think is in a certain way the easiest part. Yes, this international coalition that includes everybody will defeat them and throw them out of Raqqa. That’ll happen probably this year. But putting the—putting it back together is what’s going to be so difficult and just stopping the killing.

I think we did make a mistake over the past few years in trying to negotiate in Geneva with the Russians because we thought that we could achieve at the conference table what we hadn’t achieved on the battlefield. You can’t ever achieve that. That’s just a reality of international politics. Nobody’s going to give you freebies at the conference table.

So we appear to be doing more now, frankly, fighting this war. We have about 500 more soldiers. We have more air power there, more activity. We’re talking more with the Turks now. We’re supplying the non-jihadi rebels with more stuff. And I think the effort is not to, quote, win the war, but to create a situation where we could go to the conference table and we could get some kind of deal with the Turks, the Jordanians, the Russians and the Iranians that would satisfy most parties.

But this is a kind of situation that—I mean, sort of classic thing that you would deal with in the State Department where there is no good outcome here. You know, we’re not going to—we’re not going to come to a result here where everyone is going to say, this is wonderful and we’re all happy. The question really is, how do you stop the killing and get a situation that is a little bit better than the current one?

MCGRIFF: OK. And you mentioned the State Department, and many of our attendees here are interested in careers as maybe foreign service officers. And part of our agenda of course is the promotion of democracy and democracy-focused programs. Can you give us a pragmatic assessment of the future of democracy and democracy-building in the Middle East?

ABRAMS: Well, there’s a couple of things to say in answer to that. The first is, you know, you had the Arab Spring starting in 2011, and hopes were very high. And you can look back and Google it; I’ve done this. You know, you had a lot of people saying, this is the corner finally turned; just as it happened in Eastern Europe, it happened in Latin America, it happened in Asia, real expansion of democracy, this is it for the Arab World. And then it failed with the exception of Tunisia.

And I worry a lot about a kind of giving up, that is, of people saying, you know what, the Arabs are not ready, or the Arabs will never be ready—which you also hear—so just forget about it. We have—we have friends who are dictators, but they’re friends. So that’s the best we can do; let’s just forget about this democracy nonsense.

In my view, this is a terrible mistake, and I hope that is not the policy we adopt. And I have worries about it becoming the policy. President Sisi of Egypt was just here, what, this past week. And at least in public—or the week before—in public there was no criticism of him on human rights grounds. Now, it’s quite obvious that he was told by the president and others, you have an American in prison, Aya Hijazi; she needs to get out. And he went home, and within a few days of his return home, the of course wholly independent Egyptian judiciary magically decided, you know what, we’re going to acquit her. Well, I mean, OK, she got out, that’s great. There are other Americans imprisoned in Egypt who have not yet gotten out.

And I hope the administration doesn’t give up on democracy policy because—I mean, I could go on for about two hours, but let me just go on for about 30 seconds: You know what’s going to happen is you’re going to create more jihadis. If you just take Egypt, 60,000 political prisoners, that is to say young men and women who are anti-government but have never committed an act of violence. So what do you do? Beat them up. Throw them into prison; by the way, no trials, just throw them into prison. Torture them. Maltreat them. And who are they imprisoned with? Real jihadis. You know what comes out the other end of that process: more jihadis.

MCGRIFF: OK. Thank you for that perspective very much.

Now I’m going to turn to Alina. French elections are of course all in the news. And Le Pen is a point of discussion and this movement away from the centrists to the far right. Can you kind of provide your assessment of what this means, not just what you see happening in France now but just across Europe, this far-right movement and this populism that’s growing?

POLYAKOVA: Yeah, absolutely. And again, thank you to CFR and to Tiffany for hosting us here today for this interesting conversation.

You know, turning our eyes over to Europe, of course now Europe has become interesting to people once again. (Laughter.) It certainly wasn’t that way, you know, 10 years ago when everybody thought things are going to be stable forever as more of the same and Europe will just churn, kind of muddle through whatever crises might hit it. But it’s certainly not the case today. I don't think any of us observers of the European continent expected Brexit, obviously didn’t expect the massive refugee inflows. The economic crisis and Europe’s recovery has been slower than most expected, although that is improving—projected to improve the next few years; it has been improving over the last six or seven years. But despite I think some of the better indicators on the economic front, at the same time we’ve seen this re-emergence or reassertion of national populism in Europe. It’s particularly coming from the far right, but certainly there is some of that coming from that far left as well.

And again, we just had the French elections. And in some ways what is happening in France now is not unique for the rest of Europe, and it’s not unique for France. I think we have to have a little bit of contextual perspective here. Most of these far-right political parties, of course like Le Pen’s National Front and many others like the Freedom Party in Austria—Austria also just narrowly escaped a far-right populist getting to the presidency just a few months ago—but these parties have been around for decades. The National Front was founded early ’70s. The Freedom Party has been around since 1950s. And many others across Europe, the Netherlands and Denmark, are also relatively seasoned political actors. And even though Le Pen is now in the second round of presidential elections in France, this happened before. In 2002 her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, also got to the second round. So in some ways we have to have a little perspective. What’s happening is not this massive upsurge. We’re certainly paying more attention. But overall these political movements have been on a slow but very steady rise since the 2000s, even a bit earlier in the cases of some others.

I think what’s interesting and worrisome in France and I think what is new, if these parties themselves are not new, is that we do not have an establishment in the second round, meaning the Socialist Party completely failed to have a legitimate and viable candidate; the center-right, Francois Fillon, who was the favorite, has completely imploded due to a corruption scandal. And so we have this outcome now that we have someone like Emmanuel Macron, who is officially not affiliated with any party and started this movement only within the last year, and then we have, again, Le Pen, who is styling herself as this anti-establishment challenger to the center-left and the center-right.

So I think what we’re seeing in Europe is not just about the rise of these fringe political parties on the one hand. That is really in many ways a symptom of a broader political crisis of the center that you were mentioning, and particularly the center-left. And this is happening in France. It happened in the Netherlands, where the center-left party got a little over 5 percent of the vote in the recent elections. And just for comparison, they were one of the major political forces in the Netherlands for decades, since the 1940s when the party was founded. And the Socialist Party in France had its worst outcome since the founding of the Fifth Republic. So they’re just significant shifts in the political spectrum in Europe.

And I think what’s really worrisome is that it seems that we’re seeing the beginning of a demographic shift too. I mean, we’re in a room of very young people. I’m delighted to see all of you here today. And if we look at who voted for Le Pen in the first round of elections, you know, it wasn’t 40 percent of young people, but the most up-to-date result show that almost one in four people under 34, under 35, voted for Le Pen. So that’s not insignificant. That is a change from what we’ve seen in the past. And we’re starting to see a similar trend of this new generation, the millennial generation, moving towards the fringes, much more towards the far left but also towards the far right. And this really is a new and I think very worrisome phenomenon.

But, you know, as all of you can imagine, you know, in some places that I think are very vulnerable to a similar trend like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, these places that have suffered immensely from the economic crisis and also from the refugee inflows, you know, if you’re a graduate who graduated from college at 22 in 2008, 2009, you could have been unemployed for the last 10 years. So if you think about what that really means for Europe’s generation—we have youth unemployment rates, you know, 40 to 50 percent over the last 10 years in places like Greece—this is really significant.

And so I think that we have to see what’s happening in France today. It is a dramatic change, but it’s also not I would say unique when we compare France to the rest of the continent.

MCGRIFF: OK. And on the topic of trends and particularly trends of moving towards the far right, there are reports that the Russians could be influencing some of this activity. And so what’s your thoughts on this? Is there kind of like a growing Russian influence that could help dictate what we’re seeing as these developments?

POLYAKOVA: The Russian influence question I find myself talking about a lot more than I used to I think for obvious reasons.

And, you know, what—one thing that’s interesting is that, you know, when I started following what was happening with the emergence and the rise of these far-right political parties in the mid-2000s, the Russia component was not there at all. Nobody was really talking about this relationship between far-right populist parties and the Kremlin. But certainly since 2012, which of course is when President Putin has—took his current and last—third term in office, we’ve seen acceleration of the networks between the Kremlin and these far-right populist parties. And that has become much more public. It’s become much more explicit. And there are even now confirmed reports of some of these parties receiving financing from Kremlin-backed actors, the National Front being the primary example of that.

So I think the question that many people ask themselves, you know, to what extent are these domestically driven phenomenon, and to what extent is this about foreign influence? And I think the answer to my mind is quite clear: Yes, these are domestically driven phenomenon. They’re not, you know, useful idiots or pawns of the Kremlin. But certainly, Russia has benefited a great deal by forging these relationships. And the reason for that is because what is also interesting to observe is while these parties, the far-right parties, style themselves as being very anti-establishment—this is what they really cohere around across Europe—they’re also all pro-Russian. And this was not the case 10 years ago.

You have many examples. One interesting one is Jobbik, which is the far-right very extremist party in Hungary, that was virulently anti-Kremlin in the mid-2000s. And then something shifted. And there’s been a lot of speculation why we’ve seen this shift in their foreign policy. But certainly, you know, if you look at the kinds of foreign policy platforms these parties have, they’re against the sanctions. They’re generally against any sort of more assertive foreign policy from the EU vis-à-vis Russia. They want to break up the EU by reinstating border controls. Le Pen wants a Frexit, for example. Many other far-right political leaders said the same thing. And of course, a Europe that is not united, that is unstable, that is constantly managing crises will serve the geopolitical agenda of the Kremlin, which can then manipulate these divisions to reach its own agenda.

MCGRIFF: OK. Thank you.

And since I have a few more minutes before I open it up to Q-and-As from the floor, I’m going to ask Sheila a second question about the military approach. What are your perspectives on China’s response to a more militarized approach to North Korea and the U.N. Security Council?

SMITH: So let’s start with the military approach because I think when we talk about North Korea, every time we get a new administration that comes into power here in Washington, there’s a kind of standard phrase that gets used, “all options are on the table,” right, the military option included. And there’s a kind of emphasis that the military option is under consideration. But what military option is not always spelled out? So again, in the media and a lot of commentary, you’ll see on CNN and in other ways—in other places is preemptive strike, that the military option is preemptive strike.

I think what we have to recognize in the case of North Korea, unlike in the Middle East, right, is that the topography there is very different. The nuclear facilities of the North Koreans are under very deep mountainous terrain. They are very hard to get at. And that’s the Chinese assessment as well as our assessment. And military—our military leaders have—it’s not classified information, but they basically say we’ve probably got a thousand to 1,500 targets reasonably that we would have to take out to be sure that we’ve got everything or at least a large portion of the capability, the nuclear capability of the North Koreans. That’s an awful lot in very difficult terrain, right, to be really certain about. So a preemptive strike could do all kinds of things, but we can’t solve the problem of nuclearization in North Korea with a military option.

What I think you’re seeing today, though, is because of the increasing military—I’m sorry, missile capabilities of Pyongyang, because of Kim Jong-un’s willingness to use those missiles—and again, he’s had at least 74, 75 missile launches since he came to power in 2012; it’s far beyond his father or his grandfather, right? So they’ve had missiles for a long time; this is not new, right? But he is quite willing to push that threshold and use these capabilities.

So you have countries like Japan who are now much, much more concerned about their missile defense systems. Can they absorb an attack from Kim Jong-un? And he advertises that, that he would be willing to attack Japan. Will they be able to really deter aggression by the North if there is a larger military conflagration on the peninsula? So you start to see Mr. Abe’s Cabinet is now beginning to think about conventional strike and new options for the Japanese; very, very difficult debate in Japan today.

Bu for us, I think there is a—we are—our military is getting very close to saying, we find an ICBM that could have a nuclear warhead that could hit the United States as an unacceptable threshold. So you hear a lot of discussions about, so what do we do about it? Do we take down missiles? Do we start to use our ballistic missile defense systems with the Japanese? And you’re seeing now a new defense system being emplaced in South Korea as well. But I think there’s a certain sense that we have to get ready for the day in which the North Koreans may in fact attempt to use these weapons and we may need to respond.

So my sense is—again, long-winded answer to your question, but my sense is we’re getting a little closer in the region, not just the United States, to envisioning a North Korean initiation of the use of these missiles in a way that would trigger defenses.

If you listen to Secretary of State Tillerson, if you listen to Vice President Pence when he went to the region a week or so ago, and you ignore the tweets, let’s put it that way—(laughter)—there is a fairly strong message from the United States right now to China that you have leverage, you’re the only country that has leverage. And by this we’re talking about economic sanctions; we’re not talking about the Chinese military force against the North, but oil and gas and other kinds of economic trade with North Korea and investments in North Korea that they could pull up the bridge quite—you know, quite literally on these transfers of capabilities and would squeeze the North Korean regime significantly. We also have other sanctions we could impose as well. And I expect that that’s what coming next after yesterday’s conversation at the U.N. Security Council. But we can talk more about that later.

MCGRIFF: Excellent. Well, thank you for all of your points.

I am now going to open the floor up to, well—(laughter)—a lot of questions here. I ask everyone to keep your questions succinct. And I don’t want to have to cut you off, but I will. (Laughter.) I’m going to start with the front—I’m going to start with the front here on the right. Young lady.

Q: Hi. Lesley Warner, House Foreign Affairs Committee.

So my question actually dovetails nicely with your last response. So putting aside the complications of military options to dealing with North Korea, I’m interested in the legality of U.S. military action against North Korea. So technically, we are in a ceasefire with North Korea, and the Korean War preceded the War Powers Act, which requires the president to get an authorization for the use of military force. So legally speaking, from your perspective, what would the president need to do in order to take military action against North Korea?

SMITH: That’s an excellent question. And I suspect some of the congressional representatives I was in Tokyo and Seoul with were having this conversation.

And, you know, my expertise is not in the U.S. law, so I will put that out there first of all. I do think, however, that under the ceasefire agreement, there’s a very clearly articulated back-and-forth about what is allowed and what’s not allowed, what level of force is allowed in response to what kind of behaviors and how to get back to the ceasefire should something break out. That’s what a ceasefire agreement does, is it sustains the cessation of hostilities and then deals with things like people coming across the border or inadvertent use of force largely on the Korean Peninsula. It’s not been done across the DMZ. It’s been done on that northern limit line, which is a maritime line that was drawn after the—after the ceasefire agreement was actually negotiated in 1953. So you have a lot of activity in the maritime side that was not imagined when the ceasefire agreement was actually written. And there you have—that’s what the Cheonan sinking was in 2010 when the North Koreans sank a South Korean naval vessel. Those actual provocations were not under—covered under the ceasefire agreement.

On the War Powers Act, I should probably defer to others in the room who may have more expertise on the United States’ legal position. But I would suspect that our members that I heard discussing this is that clearly, the initiation of a preemptive strike or a massive strike against North Korea would require the permission of Congress to move forward. The president would have to consult with Congress. The War Powers Act—you should probably say this rather than I since you sit where you sit, but the War Powers Act requires our president to notify Congress within 30 days, right, and he has 30 days—there’s a 30-day extension withdrawal period to remove U.S. forces once sent out. So there’s a 60-day period. But the initiation of a preemptive strike on the scale that I was suggesting would really not be, you know, a rational response. That would require I think pre-consultation with our Congress.

MCGRIFF: OK. I’m going to jump to the back, the young lady in the last row.

Q: Thank you so much for coming here. I’m an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, majoring in political economics, and my question is for Mr. Elliott.

So you mentioned that ISIS will be defeated, and you also said that we can’t go back specifically in Syria to a central government that we had before, which, you know, leaves this power vacuum. And there is a lot of international interest in the region. So how do we go about addressing those different international interests? And do you see maybe another post-World War II Germany situation happening here?

ABRAMS: Well, welcome. I was at Berkeley last week on 4/20. We won’t mention what—(laughter)—

SMITH: What you were doing?

ABRAMS: What they were doing.

I think there is a lot of interest, obviously, in the sense of putting the pieces back together. There are a few places in Syria that are very promising now where ISIS has been driven out, and what happens is a kind of spontaneous local government where there is a kind of municipal council in a town that ISIS was governing and has been kicked out of—really spontaneous, really bottom-up where people come together and say, let’s put our lives back together, let’s get the schools open again, let’s get that hospital running again—which gives you a lot of hope that if you could—you know, post-ISIS, people can start running a normal life at the local level.

I think there’s going to have to be some kind of international agreement on zones. It’s going to look a little bit more maybe like immediate postwar Germany—French zone, British zone, Russian, American—and then over time you can hope to weave them back together.

I just—you know, there’ll be—I don’t think the place is going to be broken apart in the sense that international borders will change and there’ll be two or three or four countries. I think there’ll be zones within Syria with a weak—a weak national government and with lots of Arab, Sunni Arab influence in some areas and Iranian and Hezbollah influence in other, Turkish influence, Kurdish influence—all under the general rubric of Syria, but as I said, with a very weak government. I think this can actually work. And with enough international help, you can begin to see some refugees return and at least no more refugees created.

In the shorter run, I favor the establishment of kind of safe zones. This was something that actually Secretary of State Clinton proposed when she was secretary of state, and she proposed it as a presidential candidate. I think it’s a very good idea because you give people protection, you begin to allow people to stay home, maybe you begin to see refugees returning. And we can do that.

I think it was a very good thing to say to Assad with a bombing strike, no more use of chemical weapons. I would like to see that extended to, no more use of these so-called barrel bombs to hit apartment houses and hospitals. And we can do that too. I think by—frankly, by saying, that’s over, that’s over, and if you do it again, you will lose your air force, you lost about 20 percent of it, there is more to be done. And we’re not talking about World War III here. We’re talking about, frankly, pretty limited strikes of the sort that the United States did, what is it now, about a month ago.

MCGRIFF: OK. Moving to the front. This gentleman here.

Q: Hi. My name is Ivan Escamilla (ph). I’m a graduate student at American University.

I have a question for each of you, so I apologize if this is a bit long-winded, but—

MCGRIFF: Keep it short. (Laughter.)

Q: All right. For Mr. Elliott Abrams, given Trump’s rhetoric and also his actions with the MOAB, do you think this could also be somewhat of a pathway for increasing recruitment for jihadis or ISIS membership? It’s just been an issue that’s been on my mind lately. For—I’m sorry—

MCGRIFF: Actually, if I can just get you to keep to one question.

Q: Really?

MCGRIFF: Yes. (Laughter.) Unfortunately, there are other people.

ABRAMS: So many people want to—

MCGRIFF: Sorry, my dear.

SMITH (?): There’s a lot of people. Yeah.

MCGRIFF: Lot of people. Sorry, my dear.

Q: Well, one more, one more, if you don’t mind. (Laughter.) Only because it’s—

MCGRIFF: Well, we’ve got to—I’ll let you answer the question. Unfortunately, I can only allow you one question.

ABRAMS: I’ll be very quick because there are so many people who want to ask questions.

First, I don’t think it was the president’s decision to use that immense bomb. What he did was to say, military commanders can choose the kind of weaponry they’d like to use; I won’t try to choose it in the White House. I think that’s generally pretty smart. So it was the commander on the ground who chose that.

You know, I think that—Afghanistan’s a different situation. And I don’t claim any real expertise about Afghanistan, but I think we and everyone else who’s helping agrees that you just can’t allow another Taliban takeover of the country, and you cannot allow a jihadi takeover of the country. So I think if you had asked Trump in November, are you going to get out of—privately—are you going to get out of Afghanistan, privately, he’d have said, absolutely, been there 15 years, we’re getting out. But he has taken the advice of the U.S. military, which is that if you leave precipitously now, you’re going to waste all of what we’ve accomplished, and you will leave them in a situation where either ISIS or the Taliban’s going to come back and take over Kabul. Don’t do it. So I’m actually glad that he is taking that sober military advice and actually reinforcing the American presence.

You know, look, we’ve been in Korea for 50 years. We may have to be in Afghanistan for another 25 years. It’s worth doing.

MCGRIFF: I’m going to jump to the back. Gentleman with the yellow tie.

Q: Hi. Daniel Chou (sp). This question is for Mr. Abrams. So—

ABRAMS: Come on, we got to—

Q: I had a question about how did the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan apply to Syria now? And then how do you find the balance between, you know, winning, you know, militarily, tactically, versus winning the hearts and minds, political will of the people?

ABRAMS: Well, one lesson from Iraq was don’t allow chaos. We won the war in about three weeks, and then we allowed chaos to develop, and into that chaos came some very bad things: jihadis, Iran being able to come in with tremendous influence. So one lesson there I think, and it’s one we should’ve known probably in advance, if the army and police forces just disappear and disintegrate and chaos develops, nothing good is going to come out of that. And that is actually what happened.

So I don’t know what one can really say about, you know, the future there. Look, let me just say the most influential foreign country in Iraq is Iran, and it’s going to remain the most influential country. What I would like us to do is not disappear completely. We’re down to about 5,000 troops in Iraq. I hope we stay at that level because if we were to pull out entirely—and this was a conclusion President Obama reached himself—a complete pullout is a mistake because it means you’re going to have zero influence. And there are an awful lot of Iraqis, even Shia Iraqis, who do not want to be a kind of colony of Iran. And the American military presence, small though it is, allows us to have some greater political influence.

I better leave it at that, and you better start asking them questions.

MCGRIFF: I’m going to go towards the center here. Young lady with glasses.

Q: Hi. My name is Kanjina Sani Murthy (ph). I’m a Master’s student at Georgetown University. Thank you for being here today.

My question is for Ms. Polyakova. So, in regards to sort of this rise of populism or far-right candidates in Europe, you mentioned that unemployment is the really huge issue kind of potentially driving this force. You also briefly mentioned the refugee crisis. And I was wondering to what degree that you believe, you know, how much that plays a role in what’s happening right now and what you—what you think might happen in the future with that, say if Ms. Le Pen is elected in France, say—and these other elections going on—Germany is having elections soon as well. And I just wanted to get some more of your thoughts on that. Thank you.

POLYAKOVA: Sure. Well, thank you for the question.

I should be clear. So while we’re seeing—we have seen worrisome trends in youth unemployment specifically since the economic crisis, the trends have been abating since about 2010. So actually, youth unemployment has been declining. Unemployment in general has been declining across the EU—obviously, some variation between countries. GDP per capita has been slowly increasing. So European economy is projected to grow around 2 percent. Of course, this is not huge, but it’s also not a decline, so just slow, steady kind of stagnant growth.

But it’s interesting: If you look at the trends, the economic trends and vis-à-vis electoral support for far-right political parties since the 1990s, there is no clear causal relationship between an economic decline, increase in unemployment and how likely these parties are to do well at the polls. And I think this goes against a lot of our common conceptions about when do you see the emergence of extremist political forces on either side. We tend to think it’s the economy. Well, it’s not actually the economy because again, we’ve seen these economic indicators getting better at the same time as we’ve seen the increase in support for these far-right parties, especially in places like—that are doing very well economically, like Austria is doing very well, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, right? The very wealthy European countries.

So what this tells us, and this is what some of the research has shown, is that it is about cultural questions of identity and belonging. And what these political forces have been very good at and very sophisticated at is framing these economic problems in terms of cultural identity questions. So it’s really about getting to this emotional side of, you know, where do you see yourself belonging, right, who belongs in your community of the nation-state.

And of course, Europe has gone through rapid change, economic political change as a very, very fast period of time. And even if, you know, you personally were not affected by that change, your perceptions of incoming, you know, mass immigration—your community has not seen any refugees—huge economic decline even if you have not lost your job and your friends and family haven’t lost their jobs—but perceptions are real, right? They’re real in the sense that they determine how people often act and behave when it comes to voting.

And I think—just very briefly since you asked about Germany—you know, Germany is the major country that everyone’s watching. Merkel is certainly weakened. But I don’t see an outcome where you have even the AfD, the Alternative for Germany—they’ve been—they’ve been losing a lot of ground recently. And I think that’s because we’ve seen the emergence of a stronger center-left candidate, which, again, is different than what we’ve seen in many other European countries.

MCGRIFF: The gentleman here with the blue shirt.

Q: Hello. Thank you for being here. My name is Curtis O’Neal. I’m a graduate student at American University.

We’ve talked and covered a large range of topics. What are some of the larger impacts these hotspots could have on great power politics and the stability of the liberal world order?

MCGRIFF: OK. (Laughter.)

POLYAKOVA: Is that for all of us?

MCGRIFF: I’ll start with you, Sheila. (Laughs.)

SMITH: I love that question. (Laughter.) We could be here for whole—all Saturday night. (Chuckles.) Great question. I think that’s the—that’s the $20 billion question for the international relations field and for all of us, frankly, whether we’re looking at the Middle East, we’re looking at Europe or we’re looking at Asia.

There is a—there is a tendency today to see us moving forward or back, I’m not sure, but into an era of, you know, competitive great power politics, away from I won’t say more static because I don’t think the liberal order was static by any means, but there was an emphasis on global governance institutions, especially on collaboration through economic—what we think of as the Bretton Woods institutions, how we run the global economy, how we manage economic dislocations and stress and how we attempt, successful or not, but we attempt to address things like, you know, global development and how do we open up to many countries around the globe, right, the opportunities of information, right, of growth, of economic growth and of equality, right? So there was the big postwar agenda, and it was a multilateral, at least in theory, a multilateral project, right?

Today I think there’s a lot of questioning, not only here in the United States, unfortunately, but around the world, right? It’s interesting to me that Japan has popped up as—and Germany, of course, right, as one of the leading voices today in defending that liberal order. They benefited from it, but they did not necessarily welcome it in the—it wasn’t a choice. You know, they didn’t have a choice in the 1950s, right? It was imposed, right on these countries that lost World War II. China did not embrace it, but, you know, Xi Jinping at Davos began to talk about the values of the global liberal order, right? So it’s an interesting dialogue I think that we should watch. I don’t think we should accept that the global liberal order is receding.

But I think it’s under challenge. And it's not only under challenge in terms of the values but in the way we sit at the table, who gets to define it, who gets to say who’s in and who’s out. And so the equities issue across the global I think is one of the focal points that I think we should give a lot more attention to.

Now, that being said, my little 30 seconds on the Asia piece of great power politics, right, the rise of China has dislocated a number of powers, right? I wrote a book about it two years ago about Japan’s response to the rise of China. And it is not a diplomatic or a military phenomenon. It affects citizens, economy, social order, national identity debate of the Japanese. I mean, the rise of China just transforms what it means to be Japanese, right?

So this is not, again, we all think of the 19th century kind of dialogue about great power politics. But in this globalized world of ours, it is seeping deeply into the consciousness of the Japanese, about who they are, what they’ve achieved, the hostility of their neighborhood, and not just in military terms but in normative terms as well. It’s not a surprise that there’s a lot of talk about World War II and what the Japanese did in the 1930s today. Much of it is emanating from Beijing but also from Seoul and other parts of Asia. So there is a little bit of that normative debate that is very crippling I think for the Japanese to attempt to respond to.

So again, it’s a multifaceted—it’s a fabulous question, and I don’t have a straight answer for you. But I think we have a lot of talking to do about what we mean by the liberal order and what’s really under challenge and what’s really still being embraced around the globe.

MCGRIFF: OK. Alina or Elliott, would you like to take on this?

POLYAKOVA: I’ll say a few words.

I think it is interesting that we use this phrase, the international liberal order, the global liberal order, among, you know, this policy wonk community that we find ourselves in. But in reality, I would say most average Americans, Europeans, whoever, have no idea what that means, right?

And that’s partially because this entire idea of transatlantic partnership being defined around a system of values and principles—democracy, liberal economics being the core principles of that—one, has been taken for granted by new generation. This is not—I guess the peace that Europe has enjoyed since the founding of the EU and after World War II has been absolutely incredible and it has been fought for, and people have died for these values. Certainly, in the former socialist republics during the fall of the Soviet Union, people fought with their blood, sweat and tears for this. And I think now there’s a lack of realization that, you know, we—these values and principles and the institutions that embody those values and principles are, you know, going to be here forever. And that’s just simply not true.

And it worries me about Europe is that, one, we see this political disenchantment from young people who should be the carriers of this project going forward, that these words and values don’t have as much meaning. You know, for example, some surveys show that democracy is having a reputation problem among young people, increasingly so. And this is deeply problematic.

And what the—and in that vacuum—I think of, you know, what the international liberal order is—we’ve seen the emergence of authoritarianism. We’ve seen this in the emergence of self-styled illiberal states in Central Eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary. And of course, we’ve seen that with the rise of Vladimir Putin and an increasingly illiberal, authoritarian, dictatorial Russia.

And the other flipside to this is the lack of leadership, right? The United States specifically has been at the forefront of defining what the international liberal order is. And the United States has stepped back from taking that kind of leadership role. So now we hear about Merkel being, you know, the beacon of the international order. She doesn’t want that title. I don’t think any European leader actually wants that title. But the problem is that when the U.S. steps back and we don’t have U.S. leadership in NATO, U.S. leadership in—(inaudible)—institutions, U.S. leadership in responding to aggressive authoritarian regimes like Russia, like others around the world, we get a vacuum. And who fills that vacuum? It is the opposite the international liberal order. It is countries like Russia, potentially China and others in Central Eastern Europe that we thought were on this clear liberal democratic path.

And I think we are at a—I hate the phrase “inflexion point” because it’s ridiculous, but there is a turning point that we’re going through in our history. And I don’t—I hope the trend away from liberal democracies abates and that young people like yourself take up the reins of investing and being part of this project. But without that, I do fear that, you know, we’re going to see these trends continue, particularly in places that we thought were safe, like the post-socialist space.

MCGRIFF: OK. Young lady with a pink—

Q: Thank you. Good afternoon. Thank you for this. I’m Jadayah, the executive director of the International Youth Leadership Institute.

And my question actually goes right along those lines discussing the role of youth around the world. And I want to get a forecast from some of you about how you foresee the role of youth in these specific topic areas. For example, in Syria right now, you mentioned that 12 million people are now out of their country, and that’s created a vacuum for the youth because someone not able to even apply for college in the countries where they’re staying because they haven’t fulfilled, like, the college requirements in that nation-state. And we could talk about—I also want to know more about this youth being pushed on the fringes of the political side. But to keep it short, what are your all’s thoughts on the role of youth coming into the future in a global political sphere?

ABRAMS: You’re right about the lack of preparation, but forget about college prep; you’re getting children, say Syrian refugees, who have never been to school. They have never been to school. It’s really tragic.

I don’t think there is one thing we can say. I’ll just stick to the Middle East. You clearly have one group of young people who are attracted by extremism. I mean, the average recruit for ISIS or al-Qaida is not 50 years old. Usually, it’s “he,” but he or she are much younger than that. So that’s one, if you will, cohort.

There is also a democratic cohort. You know, the average age of people who went to Tahrir Square and overthrew Hosni Mubarak was young, and the average age of people who overthrew in the beginning of the Arab Spring—that was Tunisia—the dictator Ben Ali were young. And I think poll data shows you that this desire for freedom, for liberty still exists, and for something else. Do you know how the—actually, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia. And the incident was a guy named Mohamed Bouazizi. And he had a—basically a pushcart. And a police—actually it was a policewoman—knocked over the cart and smacked him around. That incident was not Mohamed Bouazizi looking for, you know, voting rights. That was dignity. And that’s something else that people are saying. Under these dictatorial systems, there is no dignity. You are not really a citizen at all; you’re a subject.

So I think there is—and I think all over the Middle East there is a demand for systems that work better because they’re not producing jobs, they’re not producing dignity, they’re not producing freedom, which means that the systems in place are very often illegitimate. And I would like to insert here the term “legitimacy” because unless the systems are legitimate in the eyes—not in our eyes; in the eyes of the people who live there—you’re going to have a constant ferment, some people wanting democracy, some people becoming quite extreme in their views in the younger generation. Legitimacy comes in many forms. And you will notice that none of the monarchies have been overthrown because they have a greater element of legitimacy than these phony republics like Tunisia, Egypt, that were actually just plain dictatorships.

But this fight is very much underway in the Middle East with the younger generation I would say being torn among groups that are quite passive, groups that have mostly economic desires, groups that become extremist, groups that have a clear desire for democracy, groups whose main commitment is Islam. And that fight is on.

MCGRIFF: Alina, from a European perspective?


So I’ve been thinking a lot of about this question, so I’m glad that you brought it up again because in looking at Europe but not just Europe, but, you know, the problem we’re seeing there is that particularly center-left parties, which have generally appealed to younger people, you know, that’s still the case to some extent, but they’re losing the hold on that constituency. And why? I think in many ways, center-left parties specifically have become technocratic in Europe. They achieved a lot of what they set out to achieve in the 1960s: expansive social welfare state, universal rights; all of these, like, things are in place in all the European countries. And so since then they’ve been fighting the fight of trying to prevent rollbacks to those social institutions in the age of austerity. But as a result they have failed to fulfill what I think is the ultimate agenda of a self-styled liberal left party, which is to have a progressive vision for the future. And again, in this void we have had the entry of far-right parties, which tend to be actually regressive in their visions usually; they want to go back to something that used to exist, people’s imaginations, anyways. And now they have provided a vision for the future.

And this is I think the core problem as to why a lot of young people are not just disenchanted with the centrists. They don’t see a vision there. You know, Macron is an interesting example of this in France. He’s very young. He’s inexperienced. But he’s capturing people again. Of course, he’s gotten very, very lucky. He’s gotten very lucky because the center-right failed in such a profound way to have a good candidate. If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know if he would’ve gone into the second round like he has.

And I think my fear with European young people is that this will become Europe’s lost generation unless the EU and unless center-right and center-left parties once again figure out how to appeal to the new generation. And it goes both ways. I think disenchantment doesn’t just come out of the blue. There are processes for why young people are becoming more disenchanted with values like democracy and the EU. It’s because maybe they don’t see what is benefiting them from being part of this. And again, this is a communication problem. There is democratic deficit problems in the EU.

Quickly on Russia and Russian youth: I think this is a question we don’t talk about very much when we talk about Russia. We saw just last month these protests out of the blue emerge in Russia, and they were very different and they were particularly different than what happened in 2011, 2012 when there were massive kind of anti-regime demonstrations in Russia. In 2011, 2012, those protests were primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the people that were on the streets were older. They were kind of the more traditional liberal opposition. And just last month what we saw was 15-year-olds, 16-year-olds, very young people who had never even heard of the protest that happened in 2011, 2012. And we saw these protests take shape across almost a hundred cities in Russia. They were not particularly I guess ideological, a bit incoherent in terms of why people were there, seeing that people just showed up because there was something happening. But at the same time it showed that there is a real sense among even Russia’s youth. So even an authoritarian regime that has complete control over the media, the information environment, the political institutions, the economic institutions, young people know that there is something better out there, right? And they sense that. And they know that what they’re getting is not what they deserve.

And I think at the end of the day it is this kind of energy that you have to be active participants in how institutions like—that were forged by the previous generation, how they become shaped in the future to come. And I think this, to me, is the key point. You know, you have to be actors in this yourselves because it is up to you to shape the future now and shape it in a way that makes sense, not necessarily following the path that is already there for you.

MCGRIFF: What about young people—

SMITH: Young people in Asia. So Asia is a broad swath of the world. And I hate to try to say, OK, here’s what’s happening with youth in Asia. And I think one of the pieces of the puzzle in Asia, of course, is demography. If you’re looking Northeast Asia, in China, South Korea and Japan, the birth rate has fallen precipitously, right? So these are all largely aging societies—in the Chinese case, because of the one-child policy; that was a creation of the Chinese policy, right? But nonetheless, in the next decade or two, you’re going to watch a Northeast Asia that largely doesn’t have a big bump or a youth bulge of the kind of phenomenons that you might see in other parts of the world.

That poses very particular problems for the youth of Northeast Asia. They have to shoulder the burdens of this aging generation, right? They will have to work, and they will have to provide the state with the tax revenue to take care of—maybe 50 percent of their population are going to be in retirement at the same time. That’s the Japanese statistic, by the way. South Koreans will not be far behind. And the Chinese similarly are trying to ease back, but they’re going to have a very difficult time ahead. What demographers say about China is many Chinese will get old before they get rich, right? So the demography piece in Northeast Asia is an important part of the—how you think about young people there and what their futures look like.

Now, these are very economically stable societies, or they’re at least, you know, relatively wealthy societies. If you shift gears and look into—across Southeast Asia, you get a very mixed picture. You’ve got Indonesia, very highly populated, very young society, but also a Muslim society that is confronting a lot of the social pressures and the political dialogue that you see in other Muslim societies as well. You have a range from Myanmar to—or Burma today—to Philippines to the high-tech and extraordinarily wealthy Singapore. So again, you want to sort of make those judgments separately.

One thing I will say, though, in terms of political behavior is you should also ask the question about the future role of women. And in Asia in particular—I’m sure it’s true in other parts of the globe, but in Asia in particular, even Northeast Asia, the role of women in society, the political—the share of political leadership that are female in Japan is abominably low. And if you look at OECD statistics, it’s the bottom of the ranking. So too in South Korea. So despite wealth, despite, you know, affluence, despite high-tech and all of the benefits of globalization, the women in these societies have not risen to position of leadership with any sense of equity across the board. It’s much more complex in Southeast Asia, but there is a similar question about how women, young women in particular, can shoulder more of the—not the responsibility of leadership but the opportunities of leadership and how they’re going to argue for those openings and opportunities in their own societies and cultures. It’s a diverse and large region, but it’s an important question to ask.

MCGRIFF: Gentleman here with the glasses.

Q: Hi. My name is Farrell Charles (sp). I’m a grad student at NYU.

My question—thank you guys for all being here today—my question is for Ms. Polyakova. I lived in Russia last summer. I speak Russian. I don’t consider myself a Russian hawk. But when I was there, I did feel the authoritarianism. When I woke up in the morning and I ate breakfast with my host mom, we’d watch Russian TV, and it was very anti-American, the news channels. But what I’m interested in in terms of my career is trying to spark a new debate on how the U.S. can engage with Russia because our problems with Russia aren’t just originating from Russia. Some of it is originating from our own policies. So how can you find balance with Russia? How can you criticize Russia’s nefarious activities within their borders and outside of their borders but at the same time promote dialogue and cooperation with Russia?

POLYAKOVA: That is a huge question, and I think some of my panelists might also have some answers for you there.

First, I’m delighted to hear that you are a Russian speaker, that you studied Russian. You know, we’ve had a general lack of I think expertise or interest in the region for a very long time, certainly in my generation. So I’m absolutely thrilled to hear that this is interesting to people again, thanks to Mr. Putin, I suppose. (Laughter.)

But that—putting that aside, I mean, the question you ask is the big question facing this administration. What do we do about Russia? I think CFR even hosted a panel of that not that long ago.

I think right now we are at such a low point relations—which is, of course, what Secretary Tillerson said when he visited Moscow and had his meetings with President Putin and the foreign minister, Lavrov—that there is a profound gap in understanding, communication between our two countries. And I absolutely agree with him. We are at an impasse.

And I think we know what the Russian position is vis-à-vis Ukraine, vis-à-vis the Middle East, vis-à-vis Europe, and they know what our position is. And at the core level of disagreement is I think the vision of national sovereignty where the U.S. thinks and I think most Western countries think—if you can say countries think at all, but governments, let’s say, and policy leaders—see that the people of a country should determine their path. And from the Russian perspective, that is not how they see national sovereignty, right? From the Russian perspective, we should return to grand power politics and spheres of influence. And this is the way that the world should be decided upon, not about the people in the countries in which they—that actually affects what grand powers do, great powers do.

I think at this point it’s going to take very small steps. And unfortunately, everything I’ve heard from Russian officials, you know, Russian talking heads, you could say, you’re absolutely right, this anti-Americanism has been on a really concerning increase in Russia for many years now. And I think most Americans, if they watch Russian television, be shocked by the kinds of things that are being said there about the United States.

So I think when you have this environment, when you have this increasing anti-Americanism in Russia, and then you have I guess a confusion in the United States of what we do with Russia—and this is not unique to this administration; this has been the case since the end of the Cold War—I think it’s going to take honestly re-establishing some of those Cold War institutions and mechanisms for cooperation that we thought we wouldn’t have to go back to: military-to-military communications and dialogue—this is already happening; I think people-to-people relations, maybe, although I don’t the Russians are actually open to that, to be honest with you; potential other points of cooperation. But these big questions of what do we do about terrorism, ISIS and can the U.S. partner with Russia to solve this problem I don’t think are realistic anytime soon. I think it’s just about starting to communicate again and re-establishing some of these mechanisms like the working groups that used to exist in the Cold War era and in the 1990s that were abandoned.

But I think this is the profound problem. And honestly, I don’t know how we move from here. One side is going to have to compromise. And until I think the Russians are willing to compromise—and the U.S. I think has been willing to compromise for a very long time, in the last administration, the Bush administration—how many resets have we had? And there is a reason why he reset doesn’t work. And I don’t think it’s because the United States is not willing. I think it’s because the Russians need an enemy on the one hand, and they’re not willing to come to the table and to compromise on what their official narratives are of their own political actions in foreign policy. But actually, I would love hear from others if you want to contribute to this Russia question.

ABRAMS: I just want to say one thing very briefly, what’s striking about your question. It’s late April. In the period from the election, November 8th, to January 20th, maybe even to February, maybe even into March, the main question people were asking was, is Trump in the pocket of Putin? Now we’re asking, how can we possibly get along? It’s a big change.

POLYAKOVA: Yes, absolutely.

MCGRIFF: And we just have a few minutes, so just one more question. Way in the back, the gentleman with the blue blazer on.

Q: Thank you. My name is Carlos Rodriguez. I’m a Archer fellow from the University of Texas in Dallas.

And this is a question about nuclear testing since we talked about North Korea so much. What is the national security benefit to the U.S. if they were able to be part of kind of an international monitoring system that could verifiably monitor and find out when a nuclear test occurs, something like a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty? And if that’s a benefit, what steps can the U.S. take to get there and be a part to ratify something like that?

MCGRIFF: And in two minutes. (Laughter.)

SMITH: Everybody’s looking me. (Chuckles.) Gee, I wonder why.

Well, you know, next Tuesday we’ll get to hear about some of these. No, you know, everybody’s expecting that the North is about to test. And again, we’ve been watching facilities. We’ve got satellites and we’ve got all kind—so I don’t think our problem is we don’t know when testing occurs. There’s lots of ways in which we can evaluate and discover at least the kind of framework of what has happened, what may be about to happen. And that’s, you know, with or without a new mechanism, right?

But the question is how do we deter proliferation, I think. And therein lies a very sticky path, I think. We’re looking at first the Iran deal, right? We had the—and I am not an expert on the negotiations with Iran, so I’ll defer to others. But we had a successful although not necessarily ideal but nonetheless successful negotiation with Iran. We have been trying and trying and trying through Democrat and Republican administrations to have a similar kind of, you know, agreement with North Korea that would back them away from their nuclearization objectives and it would also address what they consistently talk about in terms of their security concerns. So the six-party talks was designed in the Bush administration to accomplish that. We had the September agreement. We had buy-in from China and Russia, South Korea and North Korea, Japan and United States. It was a framework that allowed a bilateral conversation between North Korea and Washington. And we haven’t gotten there yet.

So am I going to critique this administration or the last one or the last one? No, I’m not. What I'm going to say is a country has to want to denuclearize. It has to see the benefits of walking away. And those benefits can be carrots or sticks. I mean, how we get them to see the benefits are both carrots and sticks, frankly. The Iranian case was a very, very considerable effort at imposing sanctions and high costs, not only on the government but on the Iranian people, right? Can we do that to North Korea effectively? Well, here we go. We’ll go back to your initial question. It’s not without China, right?

So I think the question is not about the technicalities of, you know, a treaty because North Korea was a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It talked away from that treaty. It kicked inspectors out. It said, we’re going a different path. And we now for—that was 1993, ’94—we have ever since been trying to carrot and stick our way back to negotiations with Pyongyang that will get them to change their mind. We may not be able to change their mind.

Now, I am not somebody who doesn’t want to continue to try. I do, and I think we ought to in every which way possible. And China, frankly, is going—is going to be the key. Without Chinese buy-in to put pressure and extensive pressure on Pyongyang, I don’t think Kim Jong-un is going to give up his nuclear arsenal. I think it’s going to be costly for China to do this. And it may be costly for us to impose secondary sanctions on China. We could get ourselves in a very sticky situation there. But I think we have to try because a declared and acknowledged nuclear North Korea is a disaster for Northeast Asia and thereby a disaster for us.

So again, it’s a long-winded answer, but I don’t know that the technicalities of a treaty or the first part of my concern—my concern is how do you deal with a regime that is resilient—we all think it’s about to fall down, but it really hasn’t, right—and a regime that has dug in on this nuclear question in a way that has made it very difficult for us to assume that there’s going to be continued peace and stability in Northeast Asia. And that’s a considerable challenge for the Trump administration.

MCGRIFF: And thank you for summing that up for us. And we are actually out of time, unfortunately. Thank you for all the great questions. Thank you to our panelists. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of China have prompted renewed debate about the U.S. government’s role in shaping the economy.

United States

Progress on President Biden’s climate agenda will slow with a split Congress. But with federal efforts dulled, state-level action could supply added momentum.

International Organizations

The 2022 FIFA World Cup has kicked off in Qatar, and billions of fans worldwide are tuning in to the world’s most popular live event. And yet as in years past, the Qatar Cup is transpiring under the shadow of controversy.