TPI Special: The War in Ukraine, With Charles A. Kupchan

Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at CFR and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its sweeping ramifications for global order. 

February 25, 2022 — 37:05 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Charles A. Kupchan

Senior Fellow

Show Notes

Charles A. Kupchan, senior fellow at CFR and professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its sweeping ramifications for global order. 

 

Articles Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Charles A. Kupchan, “Why Putin’s War With Ukraine Is a miscalculation,” CFR.org, February 24, 2022

 

Charles A. Kupchan, “The Right Way to Split China and Russia,” Foreign Affairs, August 4, 2021

 

Books Mentioned

 

Charles A. Kupchan, Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World (2020)

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to a special episode of The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The topic of this special episode is the war in Ukraine.

Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss Russia's invasion of Ukraine is Charles Kupchan. Charlie is a Senior Fellow at the council and a professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University. From 2014 to 2017, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama. Charlie's most recent book is Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World. He also has a new piece up on cfr.org titled, Why Putin's War With Ukraine is a Miscalculation.

Jim Lindsay:

Charlie, thanks for being here.

Charles Kupchan:

Good to be with you, Jim.

Jim Lindsay:

Now, Charlie, obviously this is a very fluid situation. We're getting conflicting reports coming out of Ukraine as to what's happening on the ground. So we'll keep our conversation on the more general level about the significant reasons and consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And I am struck that it is coming 50 years after President Nixon visited China. That was called the week that changed the world. Are we living through another week that changed the world?

Charles Kupchan:

I think the answer to that is yes, Jim, and that February 24, 2022 will be remembered as the day that we went back to something resembling Cold War 2.0. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a leap into the dark. I think it is the product of building Russian discontent with the post-Cold War settlement and the security architecture that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, his sense that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical catastrophe, and that Russia has been denied its stature, its honor, its great power status, by the process of NATO enlargement, plus, I think, Putin's own paranoia and false narrative about Ukraine and Russia being the same country.

Charles Kupchan:

I think that he actually believes that Ukrainians really want to be Russians, and that in their heart and soul, they see themselves as part of Mother Russia. He's wrong, right? That may have been the case, at least for Eastern Ukraine, prior to 2014, but after Russia grabbed Crimea and intervened in Donbas, leading to the loss of 14,000 lives, most Ukrainians want nothing to do with Russia. And that's why I think, in the end of the day, this is likely to be a miscalculation and a big bite, a leap into the dark, that is not going to serve Putin well.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk a little bit more, Charlie, about Putin's decision. You call it a miscalculation. Clearly, the West, led by President Joe Biden, tried to lay out the consequences for Russia if he went forward with an invasion of Ukraine. He nevertheless did so. Why did deterrence fail? Was it even possible to deter Putin?

Charles Kupchan:

The easiest answer to your question is that there was an inescapable asymmetry of interest and asymmetry of power, and that the Russians care a lot more about Ukraine than the Americans. That's one of the reasons that Biden said, very early on, "We're not going to send troops to Ukraine. We're not going to go to war with Russia over this issue." And as a consequence, and I think this partly explains Russian policy over the last several years, the Russians always knew that they were willing to put more skin in the game than the United States and its NATO partners.

Charles Kupchan:

And to some extent, we're seeing the consequence of that asymmetry of interest and asymmetry of power. I think the Biden administration did everything that it could, given that asymmetry, to, first of all, negotiate with the Russians. I mean, I've never seen a flurry of diplomacy, similar to what happened over the last two months, and to deter the Russians through a combination of severe economic sanctions, reinforcing NATO's Eastern frontier, and most likely, arming some kind of Ukrainian insurgency.

Charles Kupchan:

But clearly, it wasn't enough, that that combination of carrots and sticks didn't satisfy Putin. We saw, over the last several days, particularly his speech early in the week, that you know Putin has grandiose objectives. He may be kind of down in the bunker. He may have, and I'm not sure the pandemic did well for Putin, but he clearly is angry. He's emotional, and in some ways, I think this attack on Ukraine is the culmination of pent up frustration and anger that has been building for quite some time.

Jim Lindsay:

Did President Biden make a mistake, Charlie, by not sending US troops to Ukraine, or short of that, sending much more in the way of lethal military aid to the government in Kyiv?

Charles Kupchan:

No. I think that Biden was right, to say from the get go, that, "We're not sending troops, and we're not going to war with Russia over Ukraine." In my mind, Ukraine is not a first order national security interest of the United States. I have pretty high standards for that. It's a direct threat to the territory and sovereignty of the United States or that of its treaty-bound allies. And Ukraine does not fall into that category.

Charles Kupchan:

I do think that Ukraine is a second order security interest for the United States, in part because of its location. It's a big country, 44 million people, in the heartland of Eurasia, which, Halford Mackinder told us a hundred years ago, is the geographical pivot. That having been said, you know whether Ukraine is not going to immediately impact the welfare of the United States. And I think we live in a world today where we need to be pretty exact and we should have high standards about when the United States is ready to go to war. I think we learned that lesson in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Jim Lindsay:

But presumably, Charlie, argument for having sent US troops to Ukraine is that it would have deterred the outbreak of war.

Charles Kupchan:

I'm not sure it would've deterred the outbreak of war. You know when I think back to what's transpired since 2014, and in the spirit of full disclosure, when I was working in the Obama administration, I was not a fan of sending javelins and other kinds of lethal weapons.

Jim Lindsay:

These are anti-tank missiles too.

Charles Kupchan:

Yeah, anti-tank weapons to Ukraine. My view is that, Russia cares more about Ukraine than we do. Russia has an inescapable military superiority. It's not in our interests to attempt to solve this problem through military escalation. And as a consequence, I think that the economic sanctions, even if they're not perfect, are better than trying to best Russia on the battlefield. And so right now, what we're seeing are the consequences of that asymmetry of interest and the reality that the Russian military is far superior to the Ukrainian military. And I'm guessing that, you know in the not too distant future, Russia will envelope and probably go into Kyiv and likely topple the government.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's look at the flip side of that asymmetry of interest, Charlie, because there has been criticism of the Biden administration, coming from an entirely different direction. And it's been along the lines of, what the Biden administration should have said is that, "Further expansion of NATO has come to an end. Ukraine will not be allowed into NATO." And that would have deterred or satisfied Vladimir Putin. How do you assess that argument?

Charles Kupchan:

You know I think there are two different strains of thought on this front. One, and you know this better than I do, Jim, is that, there is in the Republican party, what I would call a neo-isolationist wing, that is, "It's not just saying, we don't like the expansion of NATO. It's we don't like foreign commitments. This is not our problem. We don't have a dog in this fight. Good night and good luck." And that seems to be coming from the likes of Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, and others who appear to be catering to the Republican base. So, that's one piece of the puzzle.

Charles Kupchan:

The other piece of the puzzle, and this is a more complicated issue, and historians are going to debate this until they're blue in the face, did we, in the 1990s and going forward, not do enough to incorporate Russia into the post-Cold War settlement? Did we, by proceeding with the enlargement of NATO, exclude them from the post-Cold War settlement? you know I'm someone, and I worked in the Clinton NSC at the time, I was not a fan of NATO enlargement, in part because I feared that, over time, it would create a backlash. It would compel Russia to push back against the most formidable military alliance in history coming its way. And so I do think we need to have a debate about that issue. That having been said, the issue of NATO enlargement, where Russia fits into it, that is something that should be settled at the negotiating table, right? That's an institutional issue.

Jim Lindsay:

But we never offered that as the possibility, because there was a clear commitment to the principle that the doors to NATO should remain open, and Ukraine should be free to choose its future. Was that the right decision to make?

Charles Kupchan:

I think that the open door policy was the right policy, and I stand by the Biden administration's commitment to adhere to those principles and to say that sovereign nations should be free to make their own geopolitical choices. The reality of this situation is that everybody knew that Ukraine was not now under consideration for NATO enlargement, and was unlikely to be under consideration anytime soon. That reality should have provided sufficient trade space for Russia and NATO to find common ground. The fact that it did not suggests to me that Putin was using this issue as a smoke screen.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. So it's a rationale, it's not the reason.

Charles Kupchan:

It's a rationale for moving into Ukraine, toppling the government, and bringing Ukraine back into the motherland.

Jim Lindsay:

Do you think his fear of Ukraine's desire to want to join the EU and lean toward the West, the potential success of democracy in Ukraine, that Putin saw that as a threat. Because he has clearly cracked down in countries that have gone through so-called color revolutions in the former Soviet Union.

Charles Kupchan:

I would distinguish between two distinct issues, Jim. One is the enlargement of NATO. And here, to be blunt, I think American policy makers, from the 1990s forward, have too easily dismissed Russian objections. If you look at the history of the United States, we spent the 19th century pushing Britain, France, Spain and Russia out of the Western hemisphere. When the Soviet Union came back in during the Cold War, and particularly into Cuba in 1962, we were not about to tolerate it. The bottom line is, major powers don't like it when other major powers show up in their neighborhood. And I think it would've been wise for the United States, over the last couple of decades, to be more mindful of Russian discomfort with NATO coming closer and closer to Russia.

Charles Kupchan:

The second issue, and in some ways, I think it may be the more important issue, is that Putin feared the emergence of Ukraine as a successful democracy. The orientation of Ukraine toward the EU and NATO threatened a similar kind of colored revolution and reorientation in Russia itself. And so, I think, in many respects, what he was doing here is regime preservation, making sure that the colored revolutions that swept many former members of the Soviet block would not come his way. So I think it's both. I think it's strategic concerns about bringing NATO to Russia's borders, plus fear, that successful democratic transition in Ukraine would threaten the stability of his hold on power.

Jim Lindsay:

One question I don't have an answer for, Charlie, is why didn't Ukraine voluntarily pledge not to join or seek membership in NATO. Given what it faced, given that on military terms, however valiantly the Ukrainian military fights, it is going to lose a match with the Russian army. Simply overwhelmed.

Charles Kupchan:

I think that the politics in Ukraine would make that very difficult. In some ways, the big million dollar question here is for the Russians to ask, who lost Ukraine? And the simple answer, and I think it's the right answer, is Vladimir Putin. Because by intervening in 2014, grabbing Crimea, intervening in Donbas, he unified Ukraine. He gave it a coherent national identity. He encouraged an Ukraine that was ready to leave Russia's sphere of influence. And he created a political landscape in which it would be very difficult for any Ukrainian office holder to say, "We want neutrality. We don't aspire to become part of Atlantic institutions."

Charles Kupchan:

But it is the case, Jim, that last week, perhaps because of the prospect of a Russian invasion, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, uttered the word "Finlandization". President Zelenskyy of Ukraine said, "You know what? Maybe Ukraine's membership in NATO is a dream. Maybe we ought to chill out." And so there was clearly a period in which there was a flirtation with the option that you are suggesting, but it didn't seem to fly in Moscow. And that's one of the reasons that I believe that Putin was using this issue as a smoke screen, because I think Putin understood that Ukraine was not going to enter NATO anytime soon, and perhaps, never. The fact that he did not grasp that reality, and instead chose war, suggests to me that he has more ambitious objectives up his sleeve.

Jim Lindsay:

How do you assess the Western reaction to the invasion of Ukraine, Charlie? We've heard a lot of talk about crippling and devastating sanctions being imposed by the West on Russia. So far, we haven't seen, as best I can tell, those devastating, crippling sanctions. That's even leaving aside the question as to whether or not sanctions work, in terms of compelling countries to change their foreign policy choices. But how do you, as someone who spent a lot of time, not just thinking about transatlantic relations and politics in Europe, but actually working on them, how do you assess what has happened in the last 48 hours?

Charles Kupchan:

I give the Biden administration pretty high marks. I would say that, as this crisis unfolded, they more or less had the right mix of carrots and sticks, the carrots being dogged diplomacy. And I can't remember, Jim, correct me if you think otherwise, any moment in which there has been such intense diplomacy. I mean, it was hour by hour, the US with Russia, the US with Ukraine, the US with Europe, Europe with Ukraine, Europe with Russia, and that it was impossible to keep up with it.

Jim Lindsay:

It was a lot of Churchill's jaw-jaw.

Charles Kupchan:

Yeah. There was a lot of jaw-jaw going on, and that says it should have been, because the stakes are extremely high, and I do believe that the Biden administration went the distance to try to find a diplomatic settlement. Exactly what was on the table, vis-à-vis NATO enlargement, I don't know. And we may never know. I hope that the US and its NATO allies were willing to show some compromise here. I'm guessing that they did, but the Russians don't seem to have been ready to make a deal.

Charles Kupchan:

And then on the other side, the sticks, very significant sanctions, major reinforcement of NATO's Eastern flank, and possibly, and I'm guessing this will happen, military economic material support to Ukrainians resisting a Russian occupation. That strikes me as more or less the right way to go. The sanctions, we've seen them come in two waves. The first, the reaction to the recognition of Donetsk and the Luhansk as independent countries, then a second wave of sanctions after the Russians invaded. Yes, some have been held in reserve. We haven't gone to the nuclear option, which would include taking Russia off SWIFT.

Jim Lindsay:

SWIFT being the sort of plumbing of international commerce.

Charles Kupchan:

Yeah. The plumbing, the messaging system for international exchange. But these are pretty significant sanctions. And I'm guessing that, as the conflict moves forward, we will see the United States crank up the heat. Bottom line, the Biden folks got it right.

Jim Lindsay:

But on that question of sort of turning up the heat, Charlie, are we going to see the Europeans come along and turning up that heat? Because President Biden, in his press conference yesterday, alluded to the fact that we didn't get the application of SWIFT sanctions at this point, because Germany and Italy weren't ready to go along.

Charles Kupchan:

Having been in the National Security Council from 2014 until 2017, I have personal experience working on this issue-

Jim Lindsay:

[crosstalk 00:18:09]

Charles Kupchan:

It is not easy. And, I think it is the case, and I can say this with confidence, that the menu of sanctions that we are seeing today is a product of a group grope, right? You jump in. You sit around the table, and you say, "How far can we go? And what will everybody sign off on?" And, that's the right way to go. Why? Because unity is key. The strongest suit of the United States, of its Western allies of democracies, is unity. It's saying to Putin, "We stand shoulder to shoulder against you." And so yes, that if you look at the menu of sanctions, some of them that the US probably wanted are not now in train, because there was reluctance on the European side. And that reluctance is, to some extent, understandable, because the Europeans will pay a higher price than we will, right? They are more economically tethered into the Russian economy than the United States.

Charles Kupchan:

But again, solidarity is the key. And, having worked on this issue in 2014, I initially felt it was like pulling teeth. It was so hard to get a consensus. And then, when MH17 came down, civilian Malaysian airliner, it changed the game. And really, ever since that airliner got shot down by separatists in Eastern Ukraine, the United States and the EU have moved in lockstep. And I would put a high priority on maintaining that solidarity.

Jim Lindsay:

I take the importance of solidarity in unity, Charlie. I guess the question is, how long can we expect it to last? The view in Europe depends upon where you are. It looks very different if you're in Warsaw than Madrid or in Rome. And, one of the big questions is whether this unity is going to hold up over time. What do you see as the main threats to that unity, particularly when President Putin, presumably, is going to be doing whatever he can to push whatever buttons are available, to deepen whatever divisions exist, both between and within countries?

Charles Kupchan:

I'm pretty confident that the unity will remain. And that's partly because... If you and I, Jim, were having this conversation in early 2017, after Trump took office, and we looked at Trump's view of Russia, I would've said, "The wheels are going to come off. There's no way that US European unity is going to be sustained." And here we are, it's 2022. And really, going back all the way to 2014, EU sanctions have stayed, US sanctions have stayed, the two have coordinated. And that says to me that there's staying power here, and especially because of what we're seeing. You turn on your television, and there are explosions in and around Kyiv. There are Russian tanks rolling down Ukrainian highways. That gives Western leaders political room for maneuver, that I think will be there, until we see some kind of deescalation in Ukraine.

Jim Lindsay:

Charlie, one of the things I'm struck by is your suggestion that the West should funnel supplies to Ukrainians who'll be fighting rear guard actions against the Russians, once they take over the country. Do you see that as being sustainable? I would imagine that many people would worry that that would be quite provocative. It would simply encourage Putin to take the conflict beyond the borders of Ukraine.

Charles Kupchan:

You know, Jim, my crystal ball, and it's pretty cloudy, suggests to me that this is not going to go well for Putin. And it's not going to go well, in part because the military piece of this is clear. Russia is going to do what it wants to. Yes, the Ukrainian military is fighting back and will continue to fight back. They've got a fighting spirit, but there's no match here. The other piece of this is Russia. What are Russians thinking about this? How much support does Putin have for invading his Ukrainian brethren? I got an email at 1:30 AM, the night that this campaign began, from a very high ranking Russian, whose name I will not utter here.

Jim Lindsay:

Probably wise.

Charles Kupchan:

Probably wise. Saying, it was three words, "I am devastated." Right? So, if this is how high-ranking Russians, part of the elite circle, are responding to this, I think Putin is out on a limb here. And, as I think through what comes next, I ask myself a couple of questions. One, how far west is Russia going to go? Eastern Ukraine is much more Russian speaking and oriented toward Russia. Western Ukraine, not, right? Western Ukraine has been under the Austria-Hungarian empire. The Poles, the Lithuanians, it's Ukrainian speaking. Do they really want to occupy Western Ukraine? Western Ukraine borders on four NATO countries, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, Romania.

Charles Kupchan:

And so, what I have in mind here is that, you will see arms, material support, money, coming across that border into Ukraine to help fuel popular resistance to Russia. And we've seen this frequently in World War II. Let's think about in Kosovo, right? The KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army. They were getting arms from expats, the Kosovars, all over the place. What about the Irish Republican Army? Irish Americans were sitting in bars in Boston, raising money to get arms to the IRA. So, I think that Putin has taken a big bite here.

Jim Lindsay:

Oh, he most certainly has, Charlie.

Charles Kupchan:

And I would not be surprised if he ends up facing a long-running grassroots insurgency.

Jim Lindsay:

No doubt that is a real risk, both the insurgency in Ukraine and also popular dissatisfaction in Russia. We've already seen people going out in the streets of Moscow and many Russian cities protesting. And this is in a country in which protesting can get you thrown in jail for quite a long time. I think the real question is, what countries are going to be willing to be sanctuary countries for a Ukrainian resistance, given the concern that Vladimir Putin will up the ante rather than deescalate, if he faces failure? I think that's going to be a big test going forward.

Jim Lindsay:

But I want to shift gears and ask you about your assessment of the reaction of non-Western countries, in particular the reactions coming out of China and India, both countries whose foreign policy has long trumpeted the importance indeed, the sanctity of sovereignty. So far, crickets coming out of both capitals.

Charles Kupchan:

Yeah. Just one quick circle back to the last topic, Jim. I hear you. You know if arms are coming from Poland, does that mean that the Russians start tinkering with Poland? And I do think we need to take seriously the possibility that, if Putin is reckless enough to go into Ukraine, he may be reckless enough to test NATO. And, as a consequence, I support the Biden administration's decision to send thousands of troops and aircraft and Naval assets to reinforce NATO's Eastern flank. And not just Poland, but the Baltics as well.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, the Baltics are clearly vulnerable to Russian military pressure, given the location of Kaliningrad, which is Russian territory. So I think that's something that has to keep NATO planners awake at night.

Charles Kupchan:

I completely agree.

Charles Kupchan:

On your question, I think that this conflict puts India and China in an awkward position, particularly China. The Indians are pretty good at threading the needle. They will generally be part of a "Indo-Pacific coalition", but they're not going to go to the mat with Russia. In fact, they have a good relationship with Russia, and in fact could be helpful here. They could be a conduit for trying to get to Putin a frank assessment of where we stand.

Charles Kupchan:

The Chinese are in a more awkward position, because they have built a pretty tight relationship with Russia over the last several years, and they seem to be flip flopping. One official says, "We stand by our Russian colleagues." The next official seems wishy washy. And I think what's going on here is the following. The Chinese want to push back against what they call the liberal order, American hegemony. But, they don't want to tip over the apple cart, in part because they have risen on the backs of geopolitical stability and global economic interdependence. And so they see Putin out there, turning everything upside down, and they're not so sure that this is a good idea. And so, my sense is that, we don't know where Beijing is going to land, and that it is in the interest of the United States to try to take advantage of this crisis, to put some distance between Beijing and Moscow.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk about that issue, Charlie. As you know, one of the big reasons for Richard Nixon going to China 50 years ago was to do just that, to drive a wedge between China and Russia, then the Soviet Union. Many people note the irony that, 50 years later, we see China and Russia becoming more closely aligned. Can the United States afford to see that alignment persist? And if it can't, who does it choose to side with, given that the Biden administration had hoped to make China foreign policy job number one? But, Russia appears to be world order disruptor number one. How do you parse that challenge?

Charles Kupchan:

It is a big challenge, Jim, and it's not inconceivable to me that what we're witnessing today is the reemergence of Cold War 2.0, not just with Russia, but with a combined Russia-China block. And that's a serious development. That's a game changer. I'm someone who originally was of the mind that, the best way to approach this was to try to peel Russia away from China. And I wrote an article for Foreign Affairs, earlier last year, about how might we do that. And I sort of focused on Russia, in part because China is the rising power. Russia ought therefore to be uncomfortable, because it's the junior partner. And, let's see if we can't take advantage of that opening, of Russian discomfort, to pull them away from China.

Charles Kupchan:

Now that Russia has made clear that it is the more troublesome player in the near term, I think we have to pivot and see if we can pull the Chinese away from the Russians. Because in general, I think Russia has made clear, it's a revisionist power. China, in my mind, is a revisionist power in its neighborhood, but more of a status quo power globally. And so, maybe the play here is to try to reach out to the Chinese to say, "Hey, do you really want your buddy, Vladimir Putin, to cause such disruption, geopolitically and economically? Aren't you better off stepping back?"

Jim Lindsay:

Where are the areas that you think, in American administration, could make nice with the Chinese that would be able to peel them off? Because on a lot of these issues, there's certainly strong domestic sentiment in the United States that we need to stand strong.

Charles Kupchan:

No question that, at this point, it's difficult to see a grand strategy that runs that play, in part because, if there is any bipartisanship in the United States today, and, Jim, there ain't much, it is on standing up to Russia and China. And, if there is a kind of ideological, shall we say, package to American grand strategy, it's democracy versus autocracy. So for those two reasons, it's not going to be easy to try to reach out to China. But I do think that, we live in a world that is deeply and, in my mind, irreversibly interdependent. Some of the top priorities of the United States: climate change, pandemic, nuclear proliferation, creating rules of the road for the cyber sphere. We can't do that without China.

Charles Kupchan:

And so, I do think that we ought to try to find some way of reaching out to the Chinese, even as we speak truth to power when it comes to [Xinjiang 00:30:48], Hong Kong, Chinese ambition in the South China Sea. I get the administration's pushback on the geopolitical front. I would like to see a little bit more action on the, "Here are our collective challenges, and let's add Russia to the mix here, because they have just violated the sovereignty, the territorial integrity of their neighbor, committed a bold act of aggression. Is this something that you can really be comfortable with?"

Jim Lindsay:

Speaking of bold acts of aggression, Charlie, are you worried that what has happened in Ukraine will make Taiwan more vulnerable to Chinese aggression?

Charles Kupchan:

I don't think that these kinds of conflicts are fungible, and the Russians knew from the get go that the United States was not about to go to World War III over Ukraine. And in some ways, there's this weird asymmetry. In the case of Ukraine, we say we have a commitment, but we don't. In the case of Taiwan, we say we don't have a commitment, but we do. And, it is my firm belief that, if the Chinese were to attack Taiwan, the United States and its allies in the region, and perhaps its European allies, would rise to the occasion. And I think the Chinese are aware of that. And so, everybody says, "Well, the Russians acted because we withdrew from Afghanistan. The Chinese are going to act because we didn't go to war over Ukraine." I don't see the world functioning according to these kinds of inferences, and so I'm not worried that we're about to see a Chinese attack on Taiwan, because the Russians are enveloping Kyiv.

Jim Lindsay:

Charlie, let me ask you one last question, and maybe it should have been my opening question, given all the events of this week, what do they actually mean for the United States? And I asked that question, because you've written a book on isolationism. You have referenced the rise of neo-isolationism, particularly in the Republican party, but it also exists in the Democratic party, or certain quarters of the Democratic party. How do you see these events affecting the United States itself, or do they not affect the United States in a material way? Taking your point earlier on that Ukraine itself is not a vital interest, but it is an important interest.

Charles Kupchan:

Well, I think Americans ought to understand that we're at a pivotal moment, and that whatever transpires in Ukraine in the coming days and weeks, we're going to go back to something that looks a little bit like the Cold War with a remilitarized division of Europe. And that will concentrate the mind. It will require more troops in Europe. It will probably mean to increase defense expenditure. And as we see, as we speak, Jim, it will soak up a lot of time, energy and political capital.

Charles Kupchan:

That having been said, I do think that we would be naive to assume that the reemergence of a Russian threat is going to solve our domestic problems, is going to engender this sort of bipartisan centrist, moderate ideological coalition that stood behind presidents, from Roosevelt through the end of the Cold War, and really into the 21st century. And so I guess my sort of closing remark would be, we now have a doubly complicated task, because we have to deal with a pugnacious Russia that has demonstrated reckless intent, but we can't let this distract us from the pressing domestic agenda. We can't let our international urgent pressing needs distract us from the fact that we still have a lot of work to do at home.

Charles Kupchan:

And, I'm someone who thinks that the repair of America's political center is possible, but it's going to take a lot of time and energy and focus. So in some ways, we have a doubly difficult task. We now have to deal with a world that's heading back to something that looks more like the Cold War, but without the domestic consensus that we had the last time we faced this problem. And as a consequence, Biden, and whoever comes after him, has his or her hands very full.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, President Biden will get a chance to try to start on that task come Tuesday night, when he gives his State of the Union address. I would imagine, he and his speechwriters right now are trying to figure out some way to join together the international thread and the domestic thread, as you suggested.

Charles Kupchan:

I think that's right, Jim. And in some ways, the international side of things gives him some wind in the sails, because, yes, there's no question that, when the United States faces a major international challenge, folks rally around the flag. But, it doesn't work like it used to. And I think it speaks volumes that the former president of the United States, influential voices like Tucker Carlson, are not, at the present point, rallying around the flag.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I will close up this special episode of The President's Inbox. My guest has been Charlie Kupchan, Senior Fellow at CFR, professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and author of Isolationism: A History of America's Efforts to Shield Itself from the World.

Jim Lindsay:

Charlie, as always, it was a delight to chat.

Charles Kupchan:

Jim, thank you very much for hosting.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen, and leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. You can find the books and articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed on The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you very much, Zoe. Special thanks also go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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Julie Dorf, co-chair of the Council for Global Equality, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss what the United States has done and could do to advance LGBTQI+ r...

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Aaron L. Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how the United States got Chi...

Aaron L. Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how the United States got Chi...

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David Sacks, research fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the Biden administration’s strategy toward Taiwan amid growing threats from China. ...

David Sacks, research fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the Biden administration’s strategy toward Taiwan amid growing threats from China. ...

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Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the con...

Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the con...

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Jamie Jones Miller and Shelly O’Neill Stoneman, executive committee co-chairs of The Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), sit down with James ...

Jamie Jones Miller and Shelly O’Neill Stoneman, executive committee co-chairs of The Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), sit down with James ...

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Heidi Crebo-Rediker, adjunct senior fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to assess the Biden administration’s “worker-centric” foreign economic policies. ...

Heidi Crebo-Rediker, adjunct senior fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to assess the Biden administration’s “worker-centric” foreign economic policies. ...

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Sheila A. Smith, CFR’s John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies, and Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S....

Sheila A. Smith, CFR’s John E. Merow senior fellow for Asia-Pacific studies, and Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S....

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Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured Internation...

Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured Internation...

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Derek H. Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the Biden administration’s response to Russia’s invasion of U...

Derek H. Chollet, Counselor of the U.S. Department of State, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the Biden administration’s response to Russia’s invasion of U...

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Ebenezer Obadare, Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how African countries are responding to the Russ...

Ebenezer Obadare, Douglas Dillon senior fellow for Africa studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how African countries are responding to the Russ...

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Top Stories on CFR

Ukraine

Ukraine’s first steps toward eventual EU membership are the start of a long process that has raised the stakes in the country’s war with Russia.

Immigration and Migration

Women and Women's Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed the constitutional right to abortion for almost fifty years. How does regulation of abortion in the United States compare to that in the rest of the world?