Feb 25 • 1HR 20M

Edward Luttwak On Putin, China, Brexit

The grand strategist shares insights and anecdotes from his long and storied life.

Andrew Sullivan
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Unafraid conversations about anything

I first came across Ed Luttwak when I edited him at The New Republic in its glory days. He is a military strategist, historian, and consultant in the “grand strategy” school of geopolitics who has advised many world leaders — and is basically sui generis. He’s the author of almost two dozen books, including Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook and, most recently, The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy.

He’s a trip — and his personality and brilliance come through in this chat. We discussed Russia’s reassertion after the Cold War, the rise of China as a superpower, and the impact of Brexit. You always learn something from Luttwak, and from this conversation, I learned a lot about Xi Jinping, a dictator unlike anyone in China since Mao, and internationally far stronger. Did you know Xi is obsessed with Goethe?

You can listen to the whole episode in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. Ed and I recorded the convo a few weeks ago, so the situation in Ukraine has changed dramatically since then, and he thought Putin was bluffing about invading Ukraine. The reason he gave is simply Putin’s lack of sufficient manpower to hold down a country as vast as Ukraine. We’ll see if that is borne out in due course.

The next Russia expert we have scheduled for the Dishcast is Fiona Hill, a former official at the National Security Council, so stay tuned. We’re doing our best to give you the broadest variety of perspectives to understand where we are. My job, as I see it, is not to win an argument, as if I were a fellow guest, but to push and goad and coax my guests to make the best case they can.

On that note, many listeners have responded to last week’s episode with Anne Applebaum — which included spirited exchanges like this one:

A listener writes:

Thanks for this edition of the Dishcast. I know that Applebaum is truly an expert in Russian and Eastern European history, so I was excited to listen to her develop her arguments in long-form. I expected you to “push back,” and it’s important that you do — but only after listening to your guests develop their position, rather than pick at something in every sentence they utter. I understand your passion — it’s what makes your podcast compelling — but a bit more discipline, please.

All I can say is that, from my perspective, Anne dominated the conversation, which was fine. But it’s all highly subjective! Another listener was also a bit critical of the back-and-forth:

Holy camoly, that conversation with Anne Applebaum was rough! It became so contentious that eventually I lost track of the broader points you two were disagreeing about. I’ve coined the phrase “micro-corrections” to describe what Anne was doing. It is hard to have a productive conversation with someone who’s that fussy and pedantic. It seems like you two are old friends, however, so that’s good.

See what I mean? This next listener praises Anne and chides me:

Anne Applebaum, David Frum, and Timothy Snyder are some of the only voices I listen to these days for a good dose of intelligence, experience, and sanity — and in Anne and Tim’s case, firsthand knowledge of eastern European and Russian history and politics.

It was fairly maddening that you didn’t seem to really grasp what Anne was trying to say about Putin’s motives. You couldn’t seem to separate national pride/patriotism — i.e., the story a country tells about itself — from the paranoid self-interest of a tyrannical leader, who on some level knows what would happen to him if the Russian people really did revolt and usher in a form of democracy. This seems as plain as the nose on your face and mine, but you kept referring to the Kremlin’s propaganda about NATO and indulging in some really counterproductive whataboutism that seems beneath you.

It’s clear that you need to spend more time grappling with Anne’s knowledge and perspective, since the romance of realpolitik that John Mearsheimer offers, and which you seem to admire, doesn’t take into account the practical motives of dictators today and how they are enabled and financed by each other (something Anne briefly touched on and wrote extensively about in her “Autocracy, Inc.” article).

Nevertheless, I appreciate that you had her on the podcast, so at least you’re trying. And speaking of Timothy Snyder, here’s one of his latest newsletters about thinking through the “simple solution” of giving Putin what he wants and why it’s not actually that simple. I found it immensely helpful.

One of the things I’ve learned over three decades of getting things right and wrong on foreign policy is that the neconservative/liberal internationalist rubric of autocracy vs democracy can profoundly blind you to reality in the minds and souls of the people you are dealing with. The writers you follow seem to me to remain, at heart, unreconstructed neocons and liberal internationalists. I’m in recovery from those delusions. That doesn’t mean they do not have a point. But it’s a point that in recent years led to disaster.

We will add Timothy Snyder to the list of Substacks we follow, thanks for the recommendation. Though to my mind, he’s not exactly a font of wisdom. This next listener is critical of Anne’s position:

I like her writing, but listening to her made me think of the hubris that can accompany expertise. She flippantly dismissed all of your hypotheticals that tried to inhabit a Russian point of view. I believe she said at one point “NATO isn’t the Nazis” — indeed not, but the point of the comparison was not “NATO = Nazis”; it was to imagine someone who could be viewed as an aggressor on your doorstep. She had no response to your comparisons to the US’s stated dominion in the Western hemisphere and how Russia might feel similarly.

Perhaps worst, she refused to concede that there can be such a thing as a national character or national mood (even if it’s not set in stone), but she was completely ready to ascribe all Russian actions entirely to Putin’s psychology. That seems a strange error, as if a national mood (including hostility to the West) can’t both shape Putin’s interests, and that getting some sort of buy-in from the Russian people is certainly going to help him. Not that he needs it, but if it’s there and he can exploit it, it matters.

Overall, Applebaum seemed to insist that any view of NATO that wasn’t precisely the West’s view of NATO was somehow illegitimate.

It seems relevant to me also that Anne’s view is Poland’s, which is where she lives and where her husband was once a government minister and is now a European MEP. I think her refusal to concede even a millimeter on the question of Russia’s influence in Europe must surely come from this perspective — understandably! — but the rigidity of her position, and its absolute moral certainty, is something I’m not going to repeat in my own life.

Continuing the theme of psychology, another listener points to “what appears to be an inconsistency in your expression of the realist position you’ve recently adopted”:

Realism in international relations (as Mearsheimer explained in your previous podcast, which was a great listen) argues that states act not according to abstract ideologies (democracy, communism, etc.) but according to hard, unemotional, calculations of national interest viewed in terms of power and security. But what struck me in your objections to Applebaum was how often, instead of talking about Russia’s national interest, you spoke of its “psychology,” “feelings of national humiliation,” and so forth.

Now feelings of national humiliation in post-Soviet Russia may or may not be influencing Putin’s policies, but if they are, then he is not acting as a Realist, because feelings and real self-interest are not the same thing, and there would be no reason to lend any more validity to Russia’s (or rather Putin’s) feelings about Ukraine than to Western liberal “feelings" about the integrity of sovereign states (let alone Ukrainian feelings about being invaded). You can be a Realist, or you can be sensitive to Russia’s putative feelings, but I really don’t see how you have be both at the same time.

Another listener makes that point more concisely:

Mearsheimer even said, “Realism doesn’t care about individuals when it tries to understand a situation.” It’s therefore impossible for realism to understand Putin’s mission and therewith Russia’s — as Applebaum explains it, compellingly. Instead you consistently refer to a “Russian psyche” — ghosts and spirits instead of flesh and blood individuals. How “realist” is that?

I see realism as one vital way to understand international relations, but other factors are also always involved. I’m not a pure realist because I think it’s too reductionist to explain everything, but insightful enough to explain a lot.

“I don’t think this is about the Russian psyche at all,” according to this listener:

If Russia were a well-functioning democracy, we wouldn’t be faced with the crisis in Ukraine. To think that the US and its allies can restructure European security by making concessions to a Russia led by Putin, or someone like Putin, assumes good faith on the part of those in the Kremlin. Why would we expect good faith in the future from a state whose past includes the use of radioactive materials and of nerve-agents on UK soil, the use of gangsters to assassinate opponents in Berlin, the murder of its opponents at home, and the invasion of — and theft of territory from — its neighbours?

Such a regime will simply bank any gains and then watch for the next moment of what it imagines — quite possibly correctly — to be weakness in its opponents. The more concessions we make, the worse our position will become with each succeeding crisis.

Then we better be clear what our red lines rally are. Here’s a reminder of what Anne thinks the US approach should be to Russia’s aggression toward — and now invasion of — Ukraine:

Next, a listener who “appreciates your podcast, especially when I disagree”:

George Kennan opposed NATO expansion, but back then, Eastern Europe was isolated from Western European economies. The European Community has since expanded its economy into the east: banks, high tech, pharma, agricultural companies, infrastructure — big investments in Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Baltic states, etc. This was not the case in Kennan’s time.

NATO is the defense umbrella for North America and Europe and Ukraine is not part of NATO. It is threatened with destruction and occupation, something unheard of in recent times. People should be able to determine their own future. Don’t you agree?

Sure. If you want a nuclear conflict with Russia, go ahead. Yet another listener writes:

First, thanks for getting the Applebaum interview out early. Apropos to the moment, it reflects one of the strengths of Web “publishing” — turning on a dime. It also reminded me of the days of the Daily Dish. And she is a lot of fun. I appreciated her more than Mearsheimer, who to my mal-tuned sense of communications seemed to be out to win academic points and advancing a particular horse, rather than engaging in disinterested evaluation of competing strategies. Or don’t FP academics do that sort of thing?

Back to Applebaum, something you said caught my attention, something along the lines of “we can pick which national adversary we prioritize first” — Applebaum objected, but the conversation veered off. Briefly, it seems to me that, disregarding consequential reasoning, sure, you can exercise free will — but there are always consequences. Pick the wrong opponent to put at the top of the adversary board and you’ll pay for it down the road. In the end, the priority order is selected for us by the ambitions and actions of those national entities, whether they are China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, and I think your statement is terribly wrong.

And, for the record, I think Russia has a long history of territorial ambition and national pride that can be only satisfied through pursuit of traditional goals of nationalism. Give them Ukraine today and they’ll take Poland tomorrow. They’ve done it before. Thus, Russia has to be at the top of the priority list at the moment. I think it’d be great if China would suddenly start massing an army on the Sino-Russo border, but it seems unlikely — more likely they make a grab for Taiwan.

Speaking of Mearsheimer “advancing a particular horse,” he sure placed an accurate bet here:

You can listen to the entire 2015 lecture from Professor Mearsheimer here. (It’s not often you see a foreign policy lecture get nearly 8.5 million views on YouTube.)

Lastly, a listener notes that “the war in Ukraine is in some ways a climate issue”:

Russia’s economy is powered by our collective dependence on fossil fuels. Indeed, one of the things which has empowered Putin is the denuclearization of the European (and, in particular, the German) energy sector. If we really want to punish him, we should build hundreds of new nuclear plants, rendering his economy obsolete.

Leading such an effort could be good politics for Biden, as both red meat for the hawks and as something with which to engage the climate left. This could be a transformative moment in our engagement with the climate crisis if we were to embrace as a war aim what we have hitherto, and with not much success, framed as an issue of social justice. (The imperfect analogy would be Lincoln framing his initial push for emancipation as a measure to undercut the South’s capacity to fight, rather than as the moral issue it truly was). Hopefully, someone in the policy space will make this case, as we navigate this crisis.

I couldn’t agree more.

As always, please keep the dissents and other commentary coming — this war, sadly, is just beginning: dish@andrewsullivan.com.