Guest Host: Tom Gjelten

Congressional Republicans call President Barack Obama’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine part of a failed foreign policy. A look at the president’s approach to world affairs and American power abroad.


  • Ambassador Nicholas Burns Politics professor, Harvard University and senior foreign affairs columnist, Global Post; former under secretary of state.
  • Michael Hirsh Chief correspondent, National Journal; author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
  • Peter Feaver Professor of political science and director, Triangle Institute for Security Studies, Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University.
  • Rep. Jane Harman Director, president and CEO of the Wilson Center and former chair, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence.


  • 10:06:54

    MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's out on vacation. U.S. efforts to broker peace talks between Ukraine and Russia failed yesterday. That was a key part of the Obama administration's strategy to diffuse the escalating tensions on the Crimea Peninsula now under Russian occupation. Vladimir Putin is playing the tough guy, and Republican leaders, like Lindsey Graham and John McCain, fault President Obama for not standing up to the Russian leader.

  • 10:07:22

    SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAMEvery time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression. This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength anymore.

  • 10:07:48

    GJELTENTo discuss President Obama's handling of foreign policy challenges, we have Michael Hirsh of National Journal here in the studio with me. Joining us from Cambridge, Mass., Amb. Nicholas Burns of Harvard University and the Global Post, and from Durham, N.C., Peter Feaver of Duke University. Thank you all for being here with me today.

  • 10:08:08

    GJELTENOur phone number, if you want to join in our conversation, is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is, or you can send in comments or questions via Facebook or Twitter. So before we start assessing President Obama's leadership, let's go to the latest from Crimea. The local government there upped the ante today, didn't it, Michael? Tell us about this referendum that's planned for just nine days from now.

  • 10:08:35

    MR. MICHAEL HIRSHRight. Originally, it was set for March 30. It was moved up, and, basically, the Crimean parliament, which is obviously very pro-Russian, requested to be admitted into the Russian federation and set a referendum nine days from now that will supposedly give people in Crimea the right to make that decision.

  • 10:09:03

    MR. MICHAEL HIRSHOf course, the immediate reaction from Kiev and the Ukrainian government that has been set up in the aftermath of Viktor Yanukovych's ouster was that this is not constitutional, that any such decision needs to be made by all the Ukrainian people in such a referendum. So you have a pretty serious escalation here of the crisis.

  • 10:09:28

    GJELTENAnd that came after Secretary of State Kerry met in Paris yesterday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and those talks didn't go very far.

  • 10:09:36

    HIRSHNo. There was apparently an attempt -- although Kerry later said that he didn't have any expectation that it would occur. But there was an attempt to get Lavrov to meet with the interim Ukrainian foreign minister, and apparently Lavrov did not make himself available because, I think, the Russians do not want to really acknowledge the legitimacy of this new Ukrainian government.

  • 10:09:58

    GJELTENAmb. Burns, Vladimir Putin is a former KGB colonel. He definitely plays hardball. As the U.S. president, how do you deal with a guy like that?

  • 10:10:10

    AMB. NICHOLAS BURNSWell, once a KGB colonel, always a KGB colonel.

  • 10:10:13


  • 10:10:14

    BURNSMaybe the first step is for President Obama to recognize that. Tom, I'd say that, first of all, to frame this a little bit, I think this is the most important and dangerous security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War in 1991. And I do think it remains the single most difficult foreign policy challenge for President Obama because it strikes at the heart of what's vital for the United States -- a free, united, peaceful Europe and the principle that big countries like Russia don't have the right just to roll across the border and claim part of the territory of another country.

  • 10:10:47

    BURNSSo I think what President Obama's done very, very well here is that he and the Europeans have rushed assistance to the new government of Ukraine. You saw that the European Union came up with a very big plan, $15 billion worth of aid yesterday. The United States is adding $1 billion in loan guarantees. That's a substantial package that replaces the aid that Putin was to have given the older government in Ukraine of Yanukovych. That's number one.

  • 10:11:13

    BURNSNumber two, the president has got to reaffirm our security commitment to our existing allies in Europe and NATO because they're very worried. If you talk to the Estonians, the Latvians, the Lithuanians, the Poles, they've lived the Soviet reality in the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. They fear that Putin will now become emboldened. So the president needs to lead NATO to say, we're reaffirming our security commitment to the existing allies.

  • 10:11:37

    BURNSWhat hasn't gone as well -- and here's where the diplomacy now is breaking down a little bit -- Europe and the United States have not been united on what to do against Putin. We're not going to use military force, but there's a question of sanctions. The U.S. wants to sanction. Angela Merkel or Germany is very reluctant. And so you're really left with diplomacy.

  • 10:11:56

    BURNSCan the United States and Europe convince the Russians to accept civilian monitors that would go into Crimea or Eastern Ukraine to reassure the Russians that the ethnic Russian's rights are not being violated? That's where the diplomacy is. That's where it broke down yesterday. That's a very weak hand for us to be playing.

  • 10:12:14

    GJELTENSo, Amb. Burns, you say this is the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Ten years ago, you were ambassador to NATO. Should the United States and European governments have seen this coming? Wasn't this predictable given how seriously Russia takes its sphere of influence interests?

  • 10:12:36

    BURNSWell, first, I'm very proud both having worked in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations that we expanded NATO and that we took in 10 new countries in Central Europe. Had we not done that in 1997 and 2002, you can be sure Putin would be intimidating and coercing the Latvians and Estonians, Lithuanians, and perhaps the Poles now. So I think that both of our presidents were right to do that.

  • 10:12:58

    BURNSTom, I did think that a lot of people saw this kind of crisis -- not in its exact form, but as inevitable -- because Russian strategy under Putin is to create a buffer zone in what the Russians call their near abroad of countries that will be tied to Russia in Russia's orbit. And those countries are Armenia. They've intimidated the Russians in Armenia into not having trade agreements with the E.U. Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, these are the countries that didn't end up in the E.U. and NATO.

  • 10:13:28

    BURNSThey're kind of, as an historian said decades ago, the lands between the great powers. And Putin is preying on them, and he's willing to go to war in Crimea over the fact, as Roger Cohen said in The New York Times, Ukraine wanted a trade agreement. That's how banal this is. So this is Putin trying to keep these countries with him against their will. I think that crisis was inevitable.

  • 10:13:51

    GJELTENPeter Feaver, you just heard Nicholas Burns lay out what he thinks Putin's agenda here is. Now, you advised President George W. Bush on strategic planning in national security. There's been all this talk recently about the importance of toughness and credibility and resolve, decisiveness. You heard Senators McCain and Graham. Is this really what presidential leadership is about or does that kind of talk oversimplify the challenges that presidents face on tough policy issues?

  • 10:14:26

    PROF. PETER FEAVERWell, being tough is part of it, so the argument that Putin evaluates the people on the other side of the diplomatic table from him and makes judgments about their resolve and how committed they are to certain courses of action, that seems to me obvious and true. So it matters very much, as Nick said, that how President Obama responds and how effective he is in leading the Europeans to respond, Putin will adjust his behavior accordingly.

  • 10:14:59

    PROF. PETER FEAVERBut it's not merely a matter of bluster, of a single tough move. One of the challenges is thinking about the third and fourth and fifth move down in the chess game. And so one of the problems we'll face is that when we impose a cost on Putin, as we should, for his actions, he will have the opportunity to impose costs back on us, probably elsewhere on the chess board, and I'm thinking especially in Syria and Iran, two places where the U.S. has been dependent on Russia for its diplomatic strategy thus far. And we have to be prepared to pay that price as well and to adjust our strategy accordingly.

  • 10:15:44

    GJELTENWell, Peter, you say that the way that President Obama responds here is important. To what extent do you share the concerns of the criticisms of people like Senators McCain and Graham, that the way President Obama has responded in past crises in a way explains the predicament that he has gotten himself in now?

  • 10:16:08

    FEAVERThey are right that it contributes to the predicament. It's not the whole story. As Nick explained, Crimea is a matter of utmost strategic importance to Putin and so our ability to influence his actions in Crimea are limited. At the same time, though, Putin drew judgments about President Obama, and for five years, President Obama has pursued a particular course of action with Putin called the reset policy, a policy that, I think, clearly has failed and the Republican critics criticized along the way at the time.

  • 10:16:47

    FEAVERAnd in response, they got a very derisive pushback from the Obama White House. President Obama himself memorably said -- mocked Romney by saying, the 1980s are calling, and they want your foreign policy back. They want their foreign policy back, mocking Romney's position on Russia as if it were a throwback to the 1980s. Of course, now, in retrospect, Romney's warnings look far more prescient than Obama's laugh line at the time did.

  • 10:17:15

    FEAVERAnd so that -- I think it is fair -- Republicans have a fair critique on the historical part. Where the critique might be overdrawn is what to do now. There's relatively little daylight between what Republicans are recommending and what the White House is leaking that President Obama is considering. We don't know what President Obama will do, so there might be more daylight than we know. But based on the leaks, they seem to be basically working from a similar playbook, and that, perhaps, is lost in some of the commentary on cable news.

  • 10:17:47

    GJELTENMichael Hirsh, very briefly, it seems Republicans have been of two minds in talking about Ukraine, on the one hand, saying they back Obama if he does tough things, on the other hand, not passing up an opportunity to criticize him.

  • 10:18:00

    HIRSHOh, well, absolutely. I mean, clearly there's politics in here. There's also McCain who, you know, to give him credit, has been warning about this danger in the Ukraine since the 2008 campaign which he lost to Obama. But I do think that there has been a little bit too much focus on Obama and what he has and has not done.

  • 10:18:23

    HIRSHClearly, you can question his policy towards Syria. You can question whether he's been naive about Putin, but, you know, you also have to go back to what happened in 2008 when George W. Bush was president and Putin basically helped with the invasion of Georgia. And the response was fairly meek.

  • 10:18:39

    GJELTENMichael Hirsh is chief correspondent for the National Journal, and he's the author of "At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World." We're going to take a short break right now. Please stay with us.

  • 10:20:00

    GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about President Obama's foreign policy challenges in Ukraine and elsewhere. My guests are: Michael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal, and, from the studios of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., Nicholas Burns. He's a politics professor at Harvard and senior foreign affairs columnist for the Global Post. And, of course, he's a former undersecretary of state, former ambassador to NATO and to Greece.

  • 10:20:30

    GJELTENAnd from the studios of Duke University in Durham, N.C., Peter Feaver, professor of political science and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke. He was special advisor to President Bush on the National Security Council from 2005 to 2007. And joining us now from the Wilson Center, which he is the director, president, and CEO, we have Congresswoman Jane Harman, the former Democratic representative from California. Good morning, Congresswoman Harman.

  • 10:21:01


  • 10:21:02

    GJELTENSo, Congresswoman Harman, are you one of those old-fashioned types who believe that Congress should leave foreign policy to the president? Or is there a role for members of Congress to second-guess foreign policy decisions and judgments?

  • 10:21:17

    HARMANWell, first, let me express my undying affection and respect for Diane and applause to you, my friend, for masterfully moderating some of the national conversations we have at the Wilson Center.

  • 10:21:29

    GJELTENWell, thank you so much.

  • 10:21:30

    HARMANI actually think Congress' role is not just second-guessing. That seems to me to be using a loaded word. Congress has a major role here. Legislation will be required if we up the sanctions and do some of the other actions that are being considered. I know there's an executive order that Obama has promulgated yesterday. But Congress on a bipartisan basis -- let me state that again for anyone who thinks I've lost my mind -- on a bipartisan basis is starting to move legislation to provide aid to -- economic aid to Ukraine and to set in place a framework for additional sanctions.

  • 10:22:07

    HARMANEric Cantor, the majority leader in the House, is leading that effort, and it has bipartisan support. I don't think, notwithstanding the comments of a few, that this will be a controversial action by Congress. So I think Congress' role is to legislate here, certainly to create a context here, and I think, against all odds, Congress is stepping up and doing a very good job.

  • 10:22:32

    GJELTENI want to read to you a email we just got from Jonathan here in Washington, D.C. He says, "If Putin's move on Ukraine was related to Obama, it's because of the giant rift between Republicans and the president. Regardless of the president's successful or failed policies, the GOP's singular focus on attacking Obama whenever possible, that's the weakness Putin is exploiting." Is there anything to that, that, you know, this image of polarization in Washington may encourage foreign leaders like Putin to take steps that they otherwise might not consider?

  • 10:23:08

    HARMANWell, I think the toxic partisanship in Washington is hurting everything. It's hurting the development and enactment of good policy. I'm very proud of being at a nonpartisan institution. I worked in Congress for 17 years as a member, and I saw the slippery slide into a dark hole. So I'm sad about that. Yes. Probably foreign leaders are exploiting this, but I don't think that's the reason Putin's doing this.

  • 10:23:34

    HARMANWe saw him do something very similar in the last administration in Georgia. And the reaction was not robust, as the folks on this call, all good friends and very impressive people, have said. So there was that. And there is his sort of messianic view. There's a very good op-ed today by Henry Kissinger, one of the, I think, you know, premier strategists of several generations. And he says what we ought to worry about is how the policy ends, not how it begins.

  • 10:24:07

    HARMANAnd he has, over the years, continued to meet with Putin -- I'm not sure how well known this is -- but his suggestions are pretty careful. And one of the things that he says is that, you know, demonizing Putin is not going to be helpful here. And I want to commend this administration working with Republicans to try to put in place the right strategic response, which is tough, and to generate, it seems to me, opportunities for Putin to find a way out of this.

  • 10:24:38

    HARMANAnd John Kerry, in particular, has worked hard on this. I don't think he ever sleeps. And I do think he's being effective here. And being effective here will help him and us be effective in the other crises that are huge in Iran, Syria, and this effort to broker some peace between Israel and Palestine.

  • 10:24:59

    GJELTENI did see that op-ed by Henry Kissinger. And the points that he made, which you well summarized, Jane, actually bring to mind what Peter Feaver was saying earlier, which is that you've got to look at these challenges not only in terms of the options that you face today, but what actions and reactions and what steps might unfold as you move down the road.

  • 10:25:23

    GJELTENNick Burns, as a student of history and diplomacy, what's your view of whether regimes pursue a particular course, a risky course based on their perception of the rival's psychology, intentions, and priorities? Is this a really multi-move chess game that is unfolding here?

  • 10:25:44

    BURNSYes, I think it is. And I agree very much with what Jane and Peter have been saying. And, Tom, I guess I'd just make two points here in terms of your question about history. Secretary Kissinger's piece in The Washington Post is fascinating because the first part of it only deals with history. The fact that the Russians and Ukrainians, the modern Russian state was born in Kievan Rus' a thousand years ago in Kiev, that the Ukrainians and Russians, he said, have lived together for many hundreds of years, it's only in the last 23 that Ukraine's been independent.

  • 10:26:11

    BURNSSo that's part of what this crisis is all about, that Putin -- and here's the second point -- Putin has convinced himself that Russia cannot live with a truly independent Ukraine, that Ukraine must be part of Russia's future in some way. And he's also convinced himself that international politics in the 21st century is a zero sum game, that any gain by Germany or the United States or Latvia is Russia's loss. That's a 19th Century way of looking at politics, but it's his view.

  • 10:26:43

    BURNSHe's also convinced that the United States and NATO are out to get him, that we're supporting all these democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe to subvert Russian rule. So we have to -- we don't have to accept his psychology. We don't have to agree -- and I don't agree -- with his point of view, but we have to understand his position.

  • 10:27:00

    BURNSAnd I think, Tom, this is a part of it. Putin will not allow Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine to become truly independent, to be able to seek a relationship with the E.U. NATO because he believes that's fundamentally injurious to Russian national security interests. He's mistaken, but that's his point of view.

  • 10:27:20

    GJELTENPeter Feaver, Nick Burns just made a really important point, which is that Putin really sees at stake here almost existential interests for Russia from his point of view. Nick said Russia can't live without -- with a truly independent Ukraine, without a Ukraine that is linked to Russia. The United States and Europe, on the other hand, it seems to me, don't have the same level of interest at stake in Ukraine. So does it make sense for the United States, Europe and Russia to stand up to each other when their perception of their own interests may be not quite in sync here?

  • 10:28:00

    FEAVERWell, what that suggests is that the compromise that people will have to live with will be one that is tilted in favor of Russia's prerogatives in the Crimea. So Putin actually lived with an arrangement in Ukraine that the west could live with. That was an independent Ukraine but one where Russia had privileged access to their bases in Crimea.

  • 10:28:27

    FEAVERWhere I would disagree with those who say this was inevitable is that Putin had other ways he could have responded to the Ukrainian political crisis. He had ample political and economic tools at his disposal to pressure the new Ukrainian regime, the post-Yanukovych regime into making concessionary arrangements that would preserve Russian prerogatives in the Crimean. And the west would've lived with that. We've lived with that for decades.

  • 10:28:53

    FEAVERSo I think there were other alternatives and I think there are other alternatives going forward than a pitched zero sum battle. But that doesn't mean that Putin should get away without paying a price for what he did. Because what he did transgressed important norms in the system. And if we let him get away with it then, as Nick indicated, it's a big problem for our NATO allies, the Baltics and Poland, for whom we have a treaty obligation to defend them. And that's a very important obligation that President Obama must fulfill.

  • 10:29:33

    GJELTENJane Harman, you want to jump in here.

  • 10:29:35

    HARMANI do. I agree with what Peter just said, and I don't think it's inconsistent with what Nick said. Nick was just giving us historical context, which too often is lacking. And thank you for that, Nick. I learned something, too. Putin cannot get away with this. And I think -- I hope that one of the things that happens is the G8 meeting does not take place in Sochi.

  • 10:29:57

    HARMANHe just spent $51 billion creating goodwill about this new 21st century country called Russia by hosting the Olympics there, notwithstanding a few glitches. And that's where the G8 meeting's supposed to be in June. But I think either boycotting it or moving it is a good strategy for the other participants. The G8 itself is not that important to Europe. Certainly having Russia in the G8 is not that important to Europe.

  • 10:30:25

    HARMANAnd I know there's an anxiety about Europe's trading relationship with Russia but now our editorial pages in the U.S. are full of new opportunities for the U.S. to develop with safeguards gas and supplant Europe's reliance on Russia. So this could, in the end -- our strategy around this, if we're careful, could in the end create consequences for Putin way beyond having a meeting in a showcase part of Russia.

  • 10:30:55

    GJELTENNick Burns, I want to go to you in a second, but, Michael Hirsh, is there a way for President Obama politically, let's say, practically to find a way to -- I don't want to use the word back down -- but get back to a situation where Russian, U.S. and European interests are again aligned as they were previously?

  • 10:31:17

    HIRSHWell, they've never been fully aligned. And I completely agree with those who've said that Putin has a very different view, a zero sum view that's at odds with this sort of post-Cold War vision of a world that, you know, economic integration, everyone benefits. There's no question. And if you look at various previous flashpoints going back to the Georgia occupation to break away provinces there, going back to Russia's very different view of Bashar Assad's Syria in support of him, the Iranian nuclear talks.

  • 10:31:46

    HIRSHI mean, clearly this is a relationship between two countries that are at the same time in competition and occasionally in agreement, as we saw with the chemical weapons pact that Russia actually pushed. And that Obama, in his State of the Union Address, later said was, you know, one of the great triumphs of 2013. So clearly this is a very complicated picture where you're at the same time competing and cooperating. And right now we're not cooperating. But, yes, you know, and obviously, particularly when it comes to Syria, we need to get back to that point.

  • 10:32:22

    GJELTENNick Burns, if Russia's willing to take risks here that the west is not willing to take, what does that mean for how to move forward?

  • 10:32:30

    BURNSWell, I think it's very important for us, as Secretary Kissinger reminded us, to understand your adversary's history and interests. But it's also important to be clear about your own interests. And in terms of your question, Tom, it's in the vital interests -- and I say vital interests of the United States to preserve democracy, freedom, unity in Europe.

  • 10:32:50

    BURNSThink of it in the largest historical context. We fought the First and Second World Wars and four decades of a Cold War over that principle, the absence of peace and unity in Europe. We've had it since the Cold War's end, largely democratic, largely whole, free, and at peace Europe. And now Putin has sundered that. And Putin is trying to impose power rules in central Europe. So we're not going to fight him over it militarily but we've got to oppose him.

  • 10:33:16

    BURNSAnd here, Tom, I think the president needs to meet this challenge. There's a suspicion in Europe that the president is much more focused, and his administration, on Asia and the Middle East, that the administration has not focused on Europe as much as it should've. The Europeans feel insecure. Barack Obama's the NATO leader.

  • 10:33:35

    BURNSI think a NATO summit should be called. The president should go to Europe. He should reassure the Baltic countries and Poland and the neighbors of Ukraine who are members of NATO, that we have their back, that the Article 5 commitment stands. And we have to oppose Putin on this very important question or principle.

  • 10:33:52

    GJELTENAmb. Nicholas Burns speaking to us from Harvard University. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Peter Feaver, Nick just mentioned Asia and the U.S. role in Europe and the need for a U.S. leadership at NATO. We do need to mention Syria here. Do you think -- would you argue that Vladimir Putin concluded from seeing President Obama apparently back off his threat of military action there, do you think that Putin concluded from that that he could get away with this push in Ukraine?

  • 10:34:28

    FEAVERI think Putin read Syria very differently than President Obama apparently read it. One of the great ironies or coincidences is that President Obama gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg that posted the day before the Crimean invasion. This is a coincidence, not linked in any way. But in that interview President Obama described the unfolding of the Syria crisis in a way that was quite remarkable and hard to square with the facts.

  • 10:34:58

    FEAVERHe described it as an example of President Obama being firm and giving a very firm threat. And then Syria backs down, and Russia joins the United States. That's not exactly what happened. And I'm sure the president -- I mean, that Putin, I should say, read it very differently and saw it for what most diplomatic observers who saw it.

  • 10:35:24

    FEAVERWhether they were Democrat or Republican, at home or abroad, they saw it as President Obama backing himself into a corner, looking for a desperate way out and then seizing the gambit offered by Putin at a moment of weakness by the United States, not at a moment of strength.

  • 10:35:42

    FEAVERAnd I'm sure that's how Putin saw it. That's not ironically how President Obama saw it. And so there is a difference of opinion there. But I want to go back to something. There's all this praise for Kissinger's op-ed. In it he makes a recommendation that I do think is provocative and controversial. He recommends that the west pledge that Ukraine would never join NATO and that he views that as an essential part of whatever ultimate deal that Putin would get.

  • 10:36:14

    FEAVERI wonder -- I think there's a lot of bipartisan support for much of what President Obama's doing, but on that question I'll bet you the Republicans would differ, that this is not the time to promise Russia that Ukraine would never join NATO. And I'd be curious to see whether Jane, Nick and the others agree with Kissinger on that point.

  • 10:36:35

    GJELTENJane, a quick comment from you before we go to break.

  • 10:36:38

    HARMANOK. I don't agree with Kissinger. I think Ukraine should decide in concert with NATO whether it will join. Ukraine is a real country. It's not two different countries. And the folks at Wilson who study it would agree with that. I also would make another comment that no one's made yet, which is no more pivots. U.S. leadership is needed everywhere.

  • 10:36:59

    HARMANObviously we have to pick our priorities. We can't do everything everywhere but we need our eyes focused carefully, right this minute, on central Europe as well as the Middle East. And let's not leave out Asia. But here's a, you know, renewed call from a Democrat for muscular U.S. leadership, leading with diplomacy and smart strategies.

  • 10:37:20

    GJELTENFormer Congresswoman Jane Harman, she's director of the Wilson Center. She has joined us now. She's going to have to go back to work now. Thank you very much, Jane, for joining us.

  • 10:37:28

    HARMANThank you all.

  • 10:37:29

    GJELTENOK. We're going to take a break here. When we come back, we'll bring listeners into the conversation. We're talking about President Obama's conduct of foreign policy and the challenges he's facing in Ukraine, in Syria, in Iran and Venezuela. Stay with us.

  • 10:39:59

    GJELTENAnd welcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. We're talking about the challenges that President Obama faces in Ukraine and elsewhere. You can join our conversation. Our phone number is 1-800-433-8850. Our email is I want to go to a couple of emails now. Our listeners are raising some really interesting, thoughtful and intelligent questions.

  • 10:40:27

    GJELTENFirst of all, John, from Grass Lake, Mich. says he'd like to hear some historical context of reactions from U.S. presidents to Russian and Soviet aggression. "What did Eisenhower do when the Soviets invaded Hungary? What did Johnson do during the occupation of Czechoslovakia?" Actually, the occupation of Czechoslovakia came when Nixon was still president, I believe.

  • 10:40:54

    HIRSHMm mm. Johnson.

  • 10:40:55

    GJELTEN1960? No. No, it was Johnson.

  • 10:40:59

    HIRSHIt was Johnson.

  • 10:41:00

    GJELTENYeah, and "Reagan, when the Soviets declared martial law in Poland. Also, maybe a comparison between the Bush administration and Georgia, versus the Obama administration and Ukraine." Nick, as a professor at Harvard University and Peter Feaver, as a professor at Duke, I'm going to let you guys sort of quickly go through the history here. Nick, what have other presidents done in reaction to similar actions by Russian or Soviet leaders?

  • 10:41:28

    BURNSWell, you'll remember that in the middle of the Cold War, in 1956 in Budapest, 1968 in Prague -- even before that -- 1953 in the East German workers' uprisings, American presidents -- Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Ronald Reagan in the '80s -- did not use military force against the Soviet Union to prevent those outrages because we were living under the sword of Damocles, the reign of nuclear terror. And I think in that sense -- this is a very good question from John -- President Obama's being very consistent here.

  • 10:41:59

    BURNSLike President Bush in August 2008, when the Russians invaded Georgia, the president has decided -- President Obama -- we're not going to use military force to defend those countries. We don't have security guarantees that require us to do that. And it would be catastrophic, potentially, for two nuclear powers to go at each other. That's the correct decision, but there's a second element that Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Carter, Clinton all agreed on.

  • 10:42:26

    BURNSEurope should be free. And that should be the overriding goal of the United States, to combat authoritarianism. And Putin's an authoritarian. And here, let me answer Peter's question -- it's a very good question. I disagree with Secretary Kissinger. We should not make a commitment to Russia that Ukraine will never join NATO. Ukraine should be free to join NATO should it wish to join NATO. That's an American interest that I think all those American presidents have believed in on a bipartisan basis.

  • 10:42:53

    GJELTENPeter Feaver, how would you compare what President George W. Bush did with respect to Georgia and what President Obama is doing now with respect to the crisis in Ukraine? Would you agree with Nick Burns that there's actually more consistency between their two reactions than inconsistency?

  • 10:43:10

    FEAVERI think that is fair. President Bush imposed economic sanctions and diplomatic sanctions in response. And there was some token military-related moves, for instance flying Georgian troops back from Iraq, I believe they were, back home to let them join the defense. But very, very careful and no military moves that would escalate the crisis. But -- and here's where the historical perspective is important -- those sanctions that imposed a price on Putin for his Georgia actions were lifted later by President Obama as part of the reset, the effort to relaunch and restore relations with Russia.

  • 10:44:02

    FEAVERSo the price that Putin was paying for Georgia was quickly removed when the new administration changed course with Russia. So one of the challenges going forward is not to be so quick to lift the price that Putin must pay for this. And that'll be a challenge for President Obama. Will he sustain the pressure on Putin until the situation resolves diplomatically? Or will it be token pressure that is then subsequently lifted?

  • 10:44:31

    GJELTENMichael Hirsh, is that how you see it?

  • 10:44:33

    HIRSHWell, not exactly. And I'd just like to add another note of historical context here. One other president that we haven't named, which is George H.W. Bush, delivered in 1999 what infamously became known as The Chicken Kiev speech. Because Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft were very concerned about Russian sensitivities in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and about not being unnecessarily provocative, Bush advised the Ukrainians not to engage in what he called suicidal nationalism and become independent too quickly.

  • 10:45:07

    HIRSHAnd of course this was later seen as weakness by his own party and by others. But I do think it makes a legitimate point about not being unnecessarily provocative. And I would not dismiss Kissinger's proposal so quickly about not asking Ukraine into NATO. Clearly, as Kissinger argues in this piece, historically the Russians see Ukraine as part of their, you know, they're blood brothers.

  • 10:45:34

    HIRSHThey're basically part of the same history and land. And this is clearly what's going on here. This is underlying what Putin's actions are. His concept of developing a Eurasian economic union is all part of this view of ethnic Russians who live in the surrounding areas. It's not just buffer states. It's an ethnic sort of civilizational issue. And I think we have to be careful, our diplomats have to be careful about not provoking that unnecessarily.

  • 10:46:02

    GJELTENYou know, your analysis -- all of you -- is so thoughtful it would be easy to go on all day just with you. But I do want to bring our listeners into this conversation, starting with Mark, who's on the line from Orlean, Va. Mark, Orlean? I'm not…

  • 10:46:17

    MARKYeah, Orlean, Va.

  • 10:46:19

    GJELTENI don't know Orlean.

  • 10:46:20

    MARKYeah, I've been sitting here almost beside myself. I just don't understand the need to rub Putin's nose in the dirt. You know, look, I agree with the comments that your last speaker just made. The time to be provocative is not now. We're dealing with a wounded Russian bear. You know there's a test that's used in all of our military academies, at the Army War College, the Art of War by Sun Tzu. And the central tenant is know your enemy.

  • 10:46:50

    MARKPutin has to deal with his right wingers, his conservatives, his people who want to be bellicose. They see Sevastopol as an essential port for the Black Sea fleet. As your speaker just said, there's been an historical union with Ukraine and Russian peoples for hundreds of years, the birth of Russian Christianity was in Kiev. And it's clear that Putin overreacted. I think he understands that. I think what we should do right now is exactly what Kissinger suggested. And I never thought in my life I'd agree with the guy.

  • 10:47:24

    MARKBut right now we have to find a way to let Putin gracefully exit from this, without making him look like a fool. And at the same token, we could say, hey, look, let's hope the guy learned his lesson. We've made it clear we're not going to allow this to happen. And just as a final comment, I think the expansion of NATO to the Russian borders was one of the most provocative things we ever could have done. Russia was trying to make moves toward democracy.

  • 10:47:49

    MARKThey even suggested at one point that they become part of NATO. And instead we responded with the actions that we did by expanding NATO in a country that still has vivid memories of World War II.

  • 10:48:02

    GJELTENOK. All right. Nick Burns, you've got -- 20 years ago you were a Soviet specialist on George H.W. Bush's national security staff. Do you agree with Mark that the main strategy for diplomacy in war is know your enemy?

  • 10:48:18

    BURNSWell, I think Mark's asked a good question. I think you must know your enemy, but I disagree respectively with Mark's point of view. We're not rubbing Putin's nose in the dirt. He's the one who crossed a border last Saturday and invaded another country. And by the way, Russia agreed on Dec. 7, 1994, in Budapest, to respect Ukraine's territorial integrity. That was an agreement assigned by President Clinton and President Yeltzsin and the British prime minister.

  • 10:48:44

    BURNSWhen Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons back in the early 1990s, Russia has violated that agreement. There has to be a price to pay. It will not be a military price. It'll be an economic and political price, but if the United States doesn't stand up against Putin on this very important issue of principle, then we will be derelict in defending our own national interests. And I am very proud that the United States, under President Clinton and President George W. Bush, expanded NATO. Imagine where we'd be if we hadn't.

  • 10:49:13

    BURNSTom, in 10 seconds, let me just also defend President Bush 41, George H.W. His Chicken Kiev speech, July 19, '91, largely derided by William Safire at the time. What Bush was trying to say is that the United States did not want to see a violent breakup of the Soviet Union, where nuclear weapons could have been released to warlords. Judge President George H.W. Bush -- he united Germany peacefully in NATO, he ended the Cold War without a shot being fired. Brilliant performance by Bush and James A. Baker.

  • 10:49:48

    GJELTENGood. I want to go to an email here from Diane, who says, "I'm concerned that Putin's Ukraine policy is not going to be restricted to Europe. I suspect Chinese leaders are watching the U.S. and European reaction very closely, since Chinese policy is almost identical to the Russian position with respect to China's neighbors. If the West fails to act strongly with a unified voice and decisive measures, China will take advantage of this weakness and act against Japan, Korea, India, Vietnam, Philippines and other friendly countries." Michael Hirsh?

  • 10:50:22

    HIRSHYeah, well, I mean, that's largely what the so-called pivot to Asia was about, was China exercising undue influence in its own region, which is mainly where the Chinese have always been focused. In other international issues, you look at the votes in the U.N. Security Council, they've tended to follow Russia, which I think does take a somewhat more global view or at least extends to the Middle East. But I agree with Jane Harman that…

  • 10:50:50

    GJELTENNo more Asia pivots.

  • 10:50:51

    HIRSHNo more pivots of any kind. American presidents, for the foreseeable future are really going to have to exercise leadership in a global sense.

  • 10:50:59

    GJELTENLet's go now to Charles, who's on the line from South Bend, Ind. Good day, Charles. Thanks for calling us.

  • 10:51:06

    CHARLESHi, there. I want to make a couple of quick points. First, I think it's absurd that during the Cold War we used to call Czechoslovakia, Eastern Europe. And now we're calling the Ukraine, Central Europe. It's kind of crazy. I'd like to second the opinion voiced earlier by your first caller. There's no more need for NATO.

  • 10:51:26

    CHARLESThe Cold War ended more than 20 years ago. There's no more Warsaw Pact, yet we still have NATO and it's poking its ugly face into countries where it need not be. I mean, look at the way it redefines itself, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and now this hawkish talk from the left and the right in this country, so-called left, the central right and the right.

  • 10:51:53

    GJELTENBut, Charles, we may be here in a Cold War redux.

  • 10:51:56

    CHARLESNo. No, we're not. OK. And we have our own kleptocracy in this country. We created one in the former Soviet Union, thanks to Wall Street. But we have our own kleptocracy that President Eisenhower warned us about. And he called it a military industrial complex originally, and then he detuned it for mass consumption. But the problem is that corporate elites have a vested interest in expanding eastward.

  • 10:52:23

    CHARLESIt's a land grab. You can call it what you want, but chop up the former Soviet Union, get their resources, infrastructure, educated populace. It is confrontational. The West is the one that's pushing the Russians. It's not the other way around.

  • 10:52:42

    GJELTENOK. All right. Let's get a reaction. Nick Burns, what Charles was saying there at the very beginning is that there's no more function, no more mission for NATO, and I'll bet you respectively disagree with that argument.

  • 10:53:00

    BURNSI'll bet I do. I'm a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Secretary of State Colin Powell used to say NATO's still relevant when so many countries are knocking on the door to get in. NATO ended the war in Bosnia. NATO ended the war in Kosovo. This is after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. NATO is the vital protector of European Security.

  • 10:53:21

    BURNSAnd NATO, right now, is proving its relevance because Putin would be on the doorstep of many of those Central European countries -- East European, whatever you want to call them -- if NATO didn't have the Article 5 collective security guarantee to protect them. And so NATO's highly relevant. It's not an ugly face, as Charles said. It is the face of the United States, which is a great country and a protector of freedom and democracy. I think NATO is vital for the future.

  • 10:53:47

    GJELTENPeter Feaver, I want you to -- we haven't talked about Venezuela yet. We haven't talked about some of the other countries where the United States is facing really difficult challenges. One of the themes of U.S. foreign policy for a long time has been the promotion of democracy.

  • 10:54:03

    GJELTENThat seems to have given the United States a stake in what's going on both in Ukraine and in Venezuela. Actually, I should mention that -- before we go to you -- that I'm Tom Gjelten. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Excuse me, Peter. So what happens when the United States take on the promotion of democracy as a foreign policy goal?

  • 10:54:28

    FEAVERWell, the promotion of democratic values has been a priority of U.S. foreign policy for decades. So President Bush, the person I and Nick worked for, didn't invent the promotion of democracy. He elevated it and emphasized it, but this is a long bi-partisan tradition. And American presidents have long recognized that American interests best flourish when the rest of the world gets the freedoms, the political and the economic freedoms.

  • 10:55:00

    FEAVERSo it's not just democracy, but also market liberalism, that when you promote political and economic freedom, the world benefits and the U.S. benefits. So it's in U.S. interests to be doing this. That said, you can't impose it on the barrel of a gun. And the local conditions will contribute to the pace by which states democratize.

  • 10:55:26

    FEAVERAnd it's possible to have democracies run off the rails. And, of course, that's what's happened in Venezuela, where you had elections, but then you had a success of leaders, Chavez and now Maduro, who have run that democracy into the ground. And so it's a challenge for American foreign policy to help the opposition groups and work with pluralists opposition groups to put them on a right course.

  • 10:55:57

    FEAVERHere's the challenge, though, does that work better when the U.S. is receding and retrenched and turning inward? Or does it work better when the U.S. is globally engaged? I think it works better when the U.S. is globally engaged. When the U.S. recedes from a region the vacuum of power makes all of these problems more difficult. And that's why I agree with Nick and with Jane that we need a more globally active administration then we've had, perhaps, for the last couple of years.

  • 10:56:26

    GJELTENLast word, Michael Hirsh.

  • 10:56:28

    HIRSHYeah, I would just add, though, if there's any lesson from the last several years of history -- including what's happened inside Russia -- it's that democracy is no panacea. In Venezuela, obviously, what we've seen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, what happened in Egypt, where the spectacle of the very same people who are protesting against Mubarak, later effectively supported a junta to replace the Muslim Brotherhood-elected president. It clearly requires a lot more than simply democratic systems. That's been a grim lesson from the last several years.

  • 10:56:58

    GJELTENMichael Hirsh, chief correspondent for the National Journal. He wrote in a recent piece that the Ukraine situation is the toughest crisis of President Obama's presidency. And I think the comments from our guests would reinforce that analysis. Nicholas Burns, politics professor at Harvard University and senior foreign affairs columnist at The Global Post.

  • 10:57:19

    GJELTENPeter Feaver, professor of political science and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at Duke University. Earlier we heard from Congresswoman Jane Harman, director of The Wilson Center. I'd like to thank all our guest. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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