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Peter Robinson: The son of a factory worker, Princeton history professor Stephen Kotkin has one of the most fascinating minds I've ever encountered. Five questions for Stephen Kotkin on Uncommon Knowledge now. Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. A professor of history at Princeton and a fellow at the Hoover Institution here at Stanford, Stephen Kotkin grew up in New York City, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester, and his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He's the author of nine works of history. Nine big works of history, including the first two volumes of his biography of Joseph Stalin, "Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928" and "Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941." Dr. Kotkin is currently completing the third and final volume of that biography of Joseph Stalin, "Stalin: Totalitarian Superpower, 1941-1990s" and that will be published in about two years? Ish.
Stephen Kotkin: We hope. Thank you.
Peter Robinson: We hope, we hope. All right. COVID has prevented us from seeing each other for the last couple of years, but I've been making notes. Five questions for my friend Stephen Kotkin. Question one, China. You and I had a conversation, three, four years ago, in which it occurred to me that you have probably spent more time reading Soviet archives than any other person. And I said to you, Stephen, what's the one central finding? And you replied immediately, "They were communists." The leaders of the Soviet Union really believed that stuff and they really wanted to achieve the communist goal of worldwide revolution. What does president Xi Jinping of China believe? And what does he want?
Stephen Kotkin: I'm thrilled to be back, Peter. I missed your show and I'm sorry that we've had this hiatus of a couple of years, but it's really great to be here today. Thank you for the invitation.
Peter Robinson: Thank you.
Stephen Kotkin: Of course, I've been watching all your shows in the interim, but it's really great to be back live.
Peter Robinson: Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Kotkin: So Xi Jinping, like me, is a student of the Soviet collapse. He spent a great deal of his time and resources figuring out why that happened in the Soviet Union and why it would never happen in China. And they teach it at the communist party schools, the Chinese communist party schools. He talks about it in public very frequently, and it's uppermost in their minds. Why? And the reason is just as the arguments that I made in "Armageddon Averted" and other volumes, communism is an all or nothing proposition. You can't be half communist. Either you have a monopoly on power or you don't. And so when you attempt to reform communism, politically, you can open up the economy as they do sometimes with quasi markets. But when you liberalize politically and you allow discussion within the one party, within the communist party, it turns out that people wanna have discussions about other parties and maybe they wanna establish other parties. And so you can't contain the liberalization within the one party monopoly. In fact, when they did this in Hungary in 1956, under Imre Nagy, the whole thing unraveled really in days. The Prague spring in 1968 and of course Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, every time they've attempted to open the system up to get some quote "democracy" or liberalization within the one party monopoly, they've discovered that people want other parties and people don't wanna stay within the communist monopoly. And so there's no reform equilibrium. There's no spot where you begin political reform and you stabilize it at some point, there's only complete unraveling. So you pull a thread in the sweater and that one thread and the entire sweater unravels. So you don't politically liberalize a communist system unless you want to commit suicide. This is the argument that I made in "Armageddon Averted" and it is the motto of Xi Jinping's life. So when many people were saying, oh yeah, if they just liberalize economically, and we integrate them into the global economy because of modernization theory, they will have to eventually liberalize politically because they'll grow a middle class and the middle class will demand property rights. And the middle class will want rule of law. And because that's how it always happens when you have economic growth and integration into the global economy.
Peter Robinson: You're being a little dismissive. Everybody fell for that, including me.
Stephen Kotkin: But a communist system can't do that. And if it does do that, it's bye-bye. And so people who toy with political liberalization under communism, those are our friends. We wanted a Chinese Gorbachev. We didn't get it because the system selected as it were for the person who would preserve the system, who would never permit the kind of political liberalization that would end up with a Hungary in '56, a Czechoslovakia in '68 or a Gorbachev. Remember Mikhail Suslov when the scientist, he was the number two in the Brezhnev regime, the top ideologue and the scientists went to him, this is before Gorbachev, and said, we need to liberalize. We need to open up. We need to have less censorship. And Suslov said, okay, we'll do that, but who will send the tanks to Moscow? And so Xi Jinping, as I said, is a student of this process and he's made the whole regime study this process. There is a pirated edition in Chinese, outside of copyright of my work "Armageddon Averted" about this. And I've had discussions in China. And so think about one more dimension to this. You liberalize economically with the communist party monopoly in place, and you think you can go pretty far. But then people begin to amass wealth. They begin to amass independent power because of their wealth. And they begin to say things like, well, the border should be open and the internet should be open. And you can only imagine how far that goes. And so when you liberalize, economically, there are limits to that as well, because it's a threat to the communist monopoly to have independent sources of power created by markets and entrepreneurs. And so we're seeing the crackdown on the private sector by the communist party because it threatens their monopoly. The perception is under, Marxists, that politics is only the super structure. And underneath is the so-called base or the mode of production, the socioeconomic relations. Well, the socioeconomic relations, if they're determinative and they're capitalists, what's gonna to happen to the Leninist political structures, the super structures? They're not gonna survive in the Marxist thinking. And it turns out, in reality, not just in Marxist thinking, but in reality, opening up your economy and allowing legal private markets is a threat to the party's rule. So now they're reinserting communist party officials and communist party committees into private sector companies. And so you have a CEO and a board, and then you have a party machine that's saying this has to align with the mission of the party, meaning it can't threaten the party's monopoly.
Peter Robinson: Okay, one more question on China. Well, let me set it up. There's a quotation from Xi Jinping that has been made a lot of over the last couple of years, although it dates from 2013, he gives a behind closed doors speech to new members of the central committee. And then the speech is, of course, we have no idea what he said behind closed doors, but the speech appears in one of the party's most important journals. And here's what Xi Jinping says in 2013, "There are people who believe that communism is an unattainable hope. But facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engel's analysis is not outdated. Capitalism is bound to die out." Close quote. All right, you have just said this party intends to retain power, but power to what end? Power because this communism, communist talk is just talk? They're an old fashioned Chinese Imperial regime that wants to reassert their place at the center of world affairs, or because you're finding about the Soviets and the Soviet archives, they're true believers, they're genuine communists? They believe in a worldwide revolution that will usher in some form of the Marxist version. They want to retain power to what end?
Stephen Kotkin: We all thought they were cynics, that they just vowed the communist ideology. They want the Leninist structures to stay in place politically. And so therefore they try to legitimate them also with some verbiage, rhetoric about communism. And so we were dismissive of any possibility that the ideology was still alive. They couldn't be, smart people couldn't believe that, not after what happened in the Soviet Union, not after what happened in the triumph of markets globally. Some of them believe it, not only do some of them believe it, but it's inherent in the system. The most, the largest threat to a communist system is the ideology. The ideology of communism is dynamic and it produces people who have what we call socialism with a human face fantasies. They think that we can do it better next time, that it wasn't because of the ideology, it was because of leaders, leaders, Stalin made mistakes, or Mao made mistakes. We'll correct those mistakes, we'll have better leaders. And we'll get to socialism with a human face or communist reform. That is very destabilizing for the system because the system produces that, the system produces the reform impulse from within, it also produces the hard line impulse, the Andropovs, or the Xi Jinpings, which is to say, yes, we have a need for more dynamism in the system, but not at the expense of the monopoly power we have. And so that tension between the so-called reformers, who are essentially wearing suicide vests, right? That's auto liquidation if they get to power versus the hard liners who are correct, but don't have, they're correct about the threat to the political stability, but they don't have a growth mechanism because the markets, the private sector, the GDP growth and the job creation, all comes from something that they don't really believe in. So this is the core problem of self-destabilization of communist regimes. Let's give them credit there. They've had a remarkable run of decades and decades of tremendous economic growth, lifting people out of poverty because they liberalized economically and legally permitted a private sector, which did drive that growth, did create those jobs, and has produced an economic miracle of global impact. We could get into the details of precisely how that worked and whether the party deserves the credit for that, or somebody else might have done that. But the impact is there. However, the idea now is let's redistribute that income. Let's get back to where we were before. Let's get state control over the economy, state-owned enterprises, where we have greater central party control than we do of the private sector. You can insert communist parties into the private sector, but you still have private owners. Whereas state-owned enterprises are much easier for them to control, but then you don't get the GDP growth. Then you don't get the dynamism, the job growth. There are other reasons why their growth is slowing, politics, communist monopoly is not the sole reason, but it is the reason everyone ignored, because we thought that quotes like that, one that you read from 2013, were cynicism, but they're not cynicism. And they are a vulnerability, a self-created vulnerability of the system.
Peter Robinson: Question two. The same question I asked about the president of China applied now to the president of Russia. What does Vladimir Putin believe and what does he want?
Stephen Kotkin: We all would like to know the answer to that question, Peter, we don't get a chance to ask him personally. I wish that I was sitting behind the camera and he was sitting in this chair. And the best interviewer on the West Coast was sitting across from him, like he's sitting across from me right now and would ask him those questions, and then we would hear it. We've had a couple of very revealing interviews with people, including Oliver Stones, which allowed Putin to speak. And Putin has made some dramatic public interventions beginning with that Munich speech, that infamous speech in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference. So we have a sense of what he thinks, but of course he keeps us guessing and he may not know. So this is gonna be a supposition. I'm gonna go a little bit around and sideways back in rather than frontal on this one if you'll permit.
Peter Robinson: Stephen, I'll just watch. You're the best show in town.
Stephen Kotkin: It's very kind of you. So when the Russian empire collapsed in the first World War and there was the Russian revolution, people assumed that that was it. Russia was gone, the Habsburg empire, Austria, Hungary collapsed, and it didn't come back. The Ottoman empire collapsed and it didn't come back. And the Russian empire collapsed along with the monarchy, it dissolved, and people thought it's a goner, it's finished, but it did come back. And it came back pretty quickly, within a generation. It was once again an industrializing powerful country that you couldn't ignore in the international system, but the entire Versailles Treaty, which was about punishing Germany alone for the war and excluding the Soviet Union entirely from the Versailles accord. And so Russia wanted to revise the Versailles settlement, the World War I settlement, it was imposed on them. They didn't like the world order that came out of World War I. Remember Germany won the war on the Eastern front, in March 1918, there was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Germany lost the war on the Western front, which invalidated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and made Germany a loser on both sides. But Russia was excluded and its territory had diminished. Independent Poland came back into existence, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia became independent states. Part of the Russian empire that is today Ukraine went into independent Poland. So Russia retreated farther from Europe and was excluded from the settlement. They didn't like the settlement, at first they couldn't do anything about it, but over time they acquired the wherewithal. Let's call that the tanks and the airplanes and the trained engineers and the trained officers. They acquired the wherewithal to act on their desire to revise the Versailles settlement. We know how all that worked out. Fast forward to 1991, a settlement is imposed. The Soviet Union dissolves, the United States pronounces itself, properly so, the victor, we stood up to that regime through thick and thin over various generations, including Republican and Democrat both. It was the right thing to do. There were mistakes on our side, but the Cold War was right and necessary and it had a colossal role in putting pressure on that system, producing a reformer, a socialist with a human face ideologue who liquidated that system unintentionally while trying to insert dynamism again to face the west. The settlement is imposed, the west expanded, the EU expanded, NATO expanded. And the territory of Russia had been diminished even more after 1991 than after 1918. And they had no possibility to revise that settlement that they didn't like. Boris Yeltsin would make speeches about how this was no good. And we don't like this, like that, the big bear that he was. And so what? Bill Clinton would just push NATO farther long, George Bush would push NATO farther along, and there we are today. But lo and behold, Russian power came back. Something that people assumed would not happen, or if it did happen, it would come back in democratic fashion because they would have markets in private property, they would grow a middle class. They would be integrated into the world economy and pygmalion style, we would remake them into a small junior partner of the United States and the West. And so of course, that didn't work because they have a sense of themselves as a special nation with a special mission in the world, a providential power. And they reacquired the wherewithal to do something about the settlement that was imposed by us, the victors that they didn't like. So they can now do something the same way that the post World War I Soviet Union acquired that wherewithal to revise the settlement. And that's what's going on, has been going on for some time and is going on today. So that's what he's about. He's about revising the settlement. He issues public treaties. They published the treaties that he wants with the US and NATO calling for a rollback of the settlement that has been enacted since 1991. And if they don't get it, they may do it themselves militarily. So that's the situation that we're in, which was foreseeable because it happened before, it happened before under a different kind of regime. The Putin regime is not the Stalin regime. The Stalin category is a small category. It includes Mao and Hitler. Putin is not in that category, but nonetheless, you see the phenomenon. And so for us, it's understanding that mentality, understanding as well the vulnerabilities and understanding that we're America and we can have diplomats again. We can have diplomacy again. So we can go on the offensive diplomatically.
Peter Robinson: So one more, we've only got through two of my five questions, but a follow up on this one, Xi Jinping and the Chinese communist party are communists. You said a moment ago some of them really believe it. And so there's among those who believe it, they have expansionist aims, communism says this is the ultimate end for all mankind, not just China, all mankind, and Vladimir Putin is a Russian.
Stephen Kotkin: Yes.
Peter Robinson: He's not a communist. He's a Russian, he stands in a tradition of 1,000 years of trying to assert dominance over that huge Eurasian mass. So why don't we let him have it? What is our interest in the Donbas region of Ukraine? Why should we even have been concerned when he recaptured, annexed, I think is the technical term, when he annexed Crimea, Sevastopol, the Russian port on the Black Sea was, I looked it up the other day, it was established in 1783 by Catherine The Great, it's a Russian holding. Let him expand because that's all he's interested in. He just wants to be Russian and we can live with that.
Stephen Kotkin: Xi Jinping is also a Chinese nationalist. It's just that he inherited a communist regime and had a communist upbringing, but he's trying to preserve the power of that regime, but also promote Chinese nationalism. Putin has a personal regime. It's not fully institutionalized. We're not sure how it works because it's got narrower and narrower and narrower at the top. The inner circle is smaller than ever. And we don't really have access interlocutors with those people as we did previously when the regime was a little bit less narrow and the second echelon participated in discussions about policy and we had access to them and the first echelon was wider. So we're not sure. This is what we know for sure, though. What we know is they're afraid, they're afraid of their own people and they're afraid of American power. They're more afraid of American power than we are proud of American power. We think democracy promotion is how we lead. Well, at least some of us think that. In fact, it's just the very existence of our system that threatens both the Russian regime and the Chinese regime today. We are an example of how freedom operates in practice, imperfectly with all sorts of the chaos and cacophony that we know is America, as well as other democracies. And that's ipso facto a threat to them. Hong Kong was a threat. Taiwan is a threat. The United States by its very existence is a threat to them because it's a different kind of system that could interest their people. And so we don't have to promote democracy and we're still threatening them every day. So how do they respond to our threat? Because we exist and the way they respond to it is they want to divide. They want to divide our alliances. They wanna divide our country. They wanna weaken us so that we don't understand that we are more powerful, that we have a better military, a better financial system, that we have corrective mechanisms in our political system, that we have deep and dynamic markets, and that no matter what goes wrong in a private economy, there are corrective mechanisms to create new jobs and to pull us out of slums. We have what they don't have. We have just a tremendous can't be bottled American power across all dimensions and self-correcting mechanisms. We forget, but that's who we are and what we have. And they know that. And so for them, they must counteract that. We have alliance systems, they must divide them. We have rule of law, they must have propaganda saying that our rule of law doesn't work, that it's unfair, that it's corrupt or whatever it might be, and fill in the blank. I don't mind that they do that, it doesn't frighten me. I'm not frightened by them. I expect them to do that. What I don't like and what scares me a little bit is when we do that to ourselves. When we denigrate our institutions, when we say that we're a terrible system, when we say that American power is imperialist. When we say things that the communist Chinese and the Russian nationalists say about ourselves, and we bash ourselves. Now we have freedom here and people are allowed to say things like that. And we have a lot of institutions and a lot of trends which need correction and can be improved. And fortunately, we're allowed to discuss that freely in the public realm. But at the same time, let's not forget who we are, where we came from, what our strengths are, nobody in Russia or China can destroy America. Only people in America can do that.
Peter Robinson: Alright, I'll return to that in a moment. Question three, war. Now I'm gonna take a moment or two to set this one up. It's something I've been thinking about in these couple of years since we've seen each other, but here's the way I'll do it, just a few years before he died in 2015, Rene Girard, literary critic, political thinker, anthropologist, my neighbor as it happens, we lived across the street from each other, so I got to know Rene quite well. All right, Rene Girard publishes a book just before he dies called "Battling to the End," which is an interview with him by a journalist on his reading of Clausewitz. Clausewitz publishes, actually it's published after he dies, but he publishes 1830 a book "On War" which he wrote after he himself had witnessed and participated in the Napoleonic wars. All right. So as I say, I'm gonna take a moment to set this up and then just let you have it. Rene Girard, toward the end of his life, reads Clausewitz for the first time and he notices that Clausewitz immediately grasps an internal dynamic. And now we quote Clausewitz, "If one side uses force without compunction, that side will force the other to follow suit. Even the most civilized of peoples can be fired with passionate hatred of each other. The thesis must be repeated. War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force." Close quote. All right, then Rene Girard notes that Clausewitz stands, he bridges two worlds of war. He appear as the old 18th century model, a gentleman's wars, let's say, wars of maneuver, relatively minor casualties that dominates Europe is fading. And he witnesses this vast escalation of war that occurs under Napoleon. When Napoleon mobilizes for the first time we see perhaps a till of the hun, but that's a separate matter. But for the first time in modern history, we see this notion of national mobilization, the French do it first and they sweep across Europe. And Rene Girard has this phrase that he refers to the acceleration of history, limited combat in gentleman's wars, an entirely new and far more destructive kind of warfare under Napoleon. And of course you see where this is going. The Chinese have developed hypersonic missiles. Vladimir Putin still has some 5,000 nuclear weapons. All right. And Rene Gerard insists "Human nature hasn't changed, and neither has the internal dynamic of war." To repeat that phrase again, "There is no logical limit to the application of force." Against all that, this is Robinson here, against all that, we have 45 years of the Cold War when the nuclear weapons in some paradoxical way, limited combat all over again. So Johnson won't invade, Lyndon Johnson won't invade China because he doesn't wanna risk a nuclear war so he limits himself, limited objections, even Richard Nixon only mines Haiphong Harbor, limited bombing, even of Hanoi, I beg your pardon, Hanoi Harbor. So we have these two different visions Renee sees, who knows where the mistake might occur, but if there's another war, we could be facing Armageddon. And against that, we have the actual experience of a half a century of superpower conflict between us and the Soviets, which in some ways was encouraging, the conflict is limited. I've even heard the argument, and I don't know the history well enough to judge it, but I've even heard the argument that even between India and Pakistan, the moment both acquire nuclear powers, they're much more careful of each other. All right. So has technology, does nuclear weapons and whatever comes next of nuclear weapons in space, whatever comes next. We know technology will continue. We have this acceleration of history that's going to continue. Should we be very, very concerned? Or should we say no, oddly enough, the technology tends to limit the violence?
Stephen Kotkin: Peter, this is a great subject. Thank you for bringing it up. It's true that deterrence operates as long as it operates, human beings can launch a nuclear war. And so yes, most human beings would not want to have mutual destruction, otherwise known as mad mutually assured destruction that therefore prohibited a big war, because if I start it, I get annihilated and the answer is that seems really logical and really helpful to prevent it until someone decides, okay, I'll destroy you, you'll destroy me. That's just the way it's gonna go. In other words, there's the deterrent as long as individuals in positions of authority to launch the nuclear war, feel that deterrent, but the moment they don't, that deterrent is no longer operative, which is why George Shultz spent a lifetime, actually it was three lifetimes, first because of the length of time George lived, but also because of the level of activity, dynamism and productivity he had, because if you still have the capability, it could be used. Let's talk a little bit about war in addition to the way you framed it. Vladimir Putin is not Hitler and cannot be put in the same sentence with Hitler, but let me make a little bit of a comparison so people can understand Ukraine now. Hitler went to Munich and he was wanted a war. And he got talked into going to Munich and he got the Sudetenland for free. And he got the Skoda Worksin in the Sudetenland Western Czechoslovakia without having to pay compensation, was probably the best military factory in Europe in 1938.
Peter Robinson: This is the Munich Agreement where Neville Chamberlain returns home and waves a piece of paper and says, "Chancellor Hitler and I have achieved peace in our time."
Stephen Kotkin: Hitler got everything he wanted for nothing. But he didn't get the war, which is what he wanted more than anything else. And he was angry and disappointed about Munich. Having achieved a total victory in Clausewitz sense without having to fight, win the war without fighting, right, Sun Tzu, the greatest Chinese theorist of war said "The best war of all is the one you win without fighting." Which is what Hitler did at Munich. Putin is the opposite. He wants his demands met without having to fight the war in Ukraine.
Peter Robinson: We can live with a man like that.
Stephen Kotkin: It's easier if you understand that he's constrained by the fact that Russian public opinion is not in favor of invading Ukraine. And that Ukrainian public opinion is not in favor of being annexed by Russia. So he needs our concessions without him launching the war. He needs from us what Hitler got at Munich, at the same time, if he has to go farther, he won't go immediately to invasion. He will ratchet the pressure up until he gets the concessions. So let's take an example of what he could do. I have no access to secret information from our government. I do not have classified information whatsoever. This is purely me thinking. There's a government in Kiev. What if Kiev becomes unlivable? What if, for example, the water supply is poisoned or the air is poisoned? Somehow, I don't know who did that. And suddenly it's unlivable city and the government evacuates along with refugees, the populace, and they go to Lviv in Western Ukraine and set up a temporary government there while they're seeing what's gonna happen to Kiev. And so they've self-evacuated Kiev and Putin is denying that he had anything to do with the fact that the water supply was poisoned and the air is poisoned. How did that happen? And all of a sudden, there's an uprising in Kharkiv and it declares itself a pro Russian Ukrainian regime. Kharkiv was the original capital of Soviet Ukraine. And so you have a different Ukrainian government in Kharkiv, an unlivable capital Kiev, and a Ukrainian government in Lviv, which is the former part of the Ukraine that's formally part of Poland, and before that, Austria, Hungary. And so you've dismembered the country without invading. And so you can ratchet up, you start with cyber and you show your teeth that way. And then you say, can we have these concessions? And that doesn't work, but you can escalate short of full scale war and invasion because your people don't want a war. They don't want an invasion. And so you are constrained even though you won't admit it and we don't think about that in Russia. But he has these escalation mechanisms, covert ops type escalation mechanisms. Are we ready for that or not? I don't know, once again, because I don't have access to the classified discussions, but in thinking the scenarios through, his ability to ratchet up the pressure and make demands is something we need to pay attention to. He's not gonna be angry like Hitler was, if we make concessions to him and he doesn't have the war. So you don't put yourself in a position where you haven't negotiated a settlement with him, where he's angry and can use wherewithal that he's built up and acquired in the time since 1991 to cause this kind of tension and we don't have a diplomatic process prior to this. And now we're scrambling to get a diplomatic process, right? The way diplomacy works, Peter, and someone who was in the Reagan administration doesn't need me to explain this, is you build yourself up, you get yourself ready. And then you prompt diplomatic negotiations from a position of strength. You initiate the diplomacy, you are on the front foot, you have a diplomatic offensive. You don't sit there wait reactively and say, we're pivoting to China, we're pivoting to Asia. We're getting out of the Middle East and the Russia thing, God forbid, anything should happen. Well, that's where we are right now. And that's where we have been under more than one administration. And so this is war. One final point, if I could, on war, war is not what we think it is anymore. War is not I shoot artillery, you shoot artillery. I shoot a missile, you shoot a missile, right? War is about doing things like making cities unlivable, and forcing millions of refugees to flee. It's about shutting down communication systems, transportation systems, right? It's about shutting the lights off and shutting the power off, blowing things up and saying, I didn't do that. It's about decapitating the leadership, war is about eliminating the other society's ability to function, not just the battlefield, it's the society that's the aim. And so in a war game, you don't invade, you turn a country off, you make a country unlivable.
Peter Robinson: Turn a country off.
Stephen Kotkin: And so that's where we are with war. And so God forbid, Peter, there hasn't been a war that wasn't a tragedy. There have been wars that were necessary, but all wars have been tragic. World War II was 55 million approximately, civilians as well as soldiers on the battlefield. What would World War III look like? I don't even wanna think about that. And therefore I need a diplomatic offensive. I need George Shultz-like authoritative figures. I need a president who understands that you have to have more lethality than they do, and they have to know that. And that goes across the board, but you also need a public behind you. You see, 'cause Putin's weaker. 'Cause the Russian, they don't want a war in Ukraine. And so if our president is gonna do something, the public has to understand and they have to be behind him.
Peter Robinson: That brings us to question four, a house divided, our house.
Stephen Kotkin: Yes.
Peter Robinson: And again, I'll take a moment here to set it up. In a recent lecture on history, you said this.
Stephen Kotkin: Oh oh.
Peter Robinson: And this is yesterday and I was taking notes. "Countries that are defeated by their enemies often rebuild. But the countries that are destroyed from within, that's really the end of the line." All right. So again, let me take a moment to set this up. Ross Douthat, in the New York Times earlier this very week, Douthat writes, "The country is more ideologically polarized than it was 20 or 40 years ago. We're more likely to hate and fear members of the rival party, more likely to sort ourselves into ideologically homogenous communities, more likely to be skeptical about our own public institutions, more likely to hold conspiratorial beliefs. 'How Civil Wars Start' is a new book by a prominent political scientist" and Ross Douthat writes "that was cited all over the place in the days around the anniversary of last winter's riot at the Capitol." Close quote. Polarization, even talk of civil war, slowing economic growth over the last couple of decades, I think most economists would argue, declining marriage rates, declining fertility rates, last year for the first time in the history of this Republic, the population of the United States shrank. So the question is this, I think back to this recent history that you just mentioned, 1970s in this country, we have economic stagnation, collapse of national morale with Watergate and the defeat in Vietnam. We have an erosion of our position in the Cold War as the Soviets expand Africa, Latin America. And then the very next decade, we have economic growth, a restoration of national morale, and victory in the Cold War. From 1979 to 1989, 10 years, we go from the national humiliation of the hostage crisis in Iran to victory in the Cold War with the fall of the Berlin Wall. How bad is it now? And is this country capable of another act, another great act of self-renewal?
Stephen Kotkin: Let's admit, Peter, that that is the question and let's also admit that I'm not an expert on the United States. I'm only a taxpayer. In fact, I pay taxes in New Jersey, 'cause I work at Princeton University. I pay taxes in New York City in New York State 'cause I live in Manhattan. I pay taxes in Massachusetts because my wife works at Harvard and I pay taxes in California because I'm a adjunct senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. I have not figured out how to pay taxes in Illinois yet, but obviously I have to check that box too, to get every single liberal-
Peter Robinson: High tax states.
Stephen Kotkin: So I'm only a taxpayer and you can see that I'm not very clever because I'm managing to pay taxes in all the worst jurisdictions for that. This is my take on that. We're not polarized, Peter, in the sense that polarization is a problem. This is a big and diverse nation. There are 330 million people and we run the gamut from far left to far right, and everything in between. And there are crazies and there are people who think other people are crazy and vice versa and we're America and that's okay. And we've always been like that. It would be kind of bizarre if we didn't have a great diversity of opinion in our country, it would be weird. It would be inexplicable if in fact there was no intellectual diversity across, no political diversity across our country the way there is at our great liberal universities right now, it would be bizarre. The problem is not polarization. I was at the University of California Berkeley in a PhD program when Ronald Reagan was president. So nobody's gonna tell me that there's some type of political craziness now that's greater than what there was back then. The problem is demonization, not polarization. The problem is two people disagree and they're evil for disagreeing. They're beyond the pale. And if they get back into power, the Republic is over. And so everything become existential in a demonization situation. So if those guys get in, it's the end of our Republic. And if those guys get in, it's the end of our Republic, when something is existential, you have to fight to the death and you have to use any means necessary, including breaking all norms, breaking your institutions because it's existential, it's the end of the Republic. That demonization. Empirically, it's not the end of the Republic. I'll remind your fantastic audience that Donald Trump was president and we're living in the American Republic today. I'll remind your fantastic audience that Joe Biden is president today and at some point will not be president again. And we will still be living in the American Republic. So the existentialism is a lie and it's a mutually reinforcing lie and it needs to be broken. The demonization is the problem. It comes from all sorts of good ideas that have had perverse and unintended consequences. Let's make who gets to be a candidate more democratic, instead of a smoked filled room, let's have a primary. And let's have only people of that party vote for their candidates, not cross-party primaries. And so a small percentage of one party shows up because they're the ones who go to vote in a primary. And they're a small percentage of the nation. And they produce the candidates that the whole nation then has to adjudicate. And it's what happened? These are our candidates? This is America, can't we do better? And so the idea of more democracy produced the demonization in part. And so we need less democracy. We need smoke filled rooms again. We don't need these primaries or we need primaries where everyone can vote no matter what party they belong to and pick candidates who are more aligned with the median voter. Remember our system is designed to thwart anything but a broad coalition. And you can't form a broad coalition under demonization, can you? You can get 50% plus one and you can ram through everything you think you need for your side because it's existential. You can get three Supreme Court Justices and colossal tax cuts with the margin being too small to see without a microscope. And then the margin shifts, that same too small to see without a microscope, but it shifts the other way. And then you can reinvent all of our institutions from top to bottom, whether it's federalizing voting or some of the other things that are on the table now. How silly is that? It's silly. Yes, but it's because of the demonization, the existentialism, if the other side gets in, it's the end of the world. If the incentives change, the behavior changes. If you're incentivized to appeal in the primary to the median voter, you get a different candidate. If you're incentivized in the national, if your districts are not gerrymandered by the Democrats for their side and the Republicans for theirs. So there are many tweaks of our democracy that could get us back to making our system work, being aligned with the median voter, things not being existential, not getting everything you want with 50 plus 1%, no matter which side you're on. There are people out there who've diagrammed this pretty well from Yuval Levin to all the other, Ross, all the other fantastic people you've had on your show and programs that I've watched. I'm not an expert, as I said, I'm just a taxpayer and an observer, but I understand incentives and I understand that incentivizes a certain behavior, can we renew ourselves? Of course we can. How do we know? We've done it many times before, many times. We did have a Civil War, it was over something much deeper than any issue we have before us today. It was over the crime of slavery. There's no other way to describe it. People in this country were not considered human beings, let alone citizens. We rectified that, it was very hard. It was very costly. And it didn't end just with the Civil War and the work continues today. And the civil rights movement was a spectacular efflorescence of all races in all walks of life coming together to advance that agenda of the Civil War that was incomplete. That's within us. We know because it was there. We've seen it. We study that history. We understand it. We have the ability, we just need to incentivize different types of behavior. And we also need to revive civics to remind people what institutions we have, how they work, why they're valuable, and why we are the nation that we are. It's not that hard provided you change a few incentives, a few mechanisms, a few institutions, right? You know this with your kids. If you give them one incentive, you elicit one type of behavior. And they're the same good kids that you raised, it's just you changed their incentives a little.
Peter Robinson: Question five, last question, patriotism. In talking about China and Russia and this country's diplomacy, you're being what you are professionally, you have been on this during this conversation what you are professionally, which isn't an analyst, a historian who places even his own country at a certain professional distance as he talks about it. Just now in this last question about the country, you're talking about the country as a taxpayer, but again, you're talking this institution, that institution, alright. I happen to know that you don't feel a professional distance from this country. I know you well enough to know that you love the country. So here's the question. And if you have an ideal audience in mind for addressing this question, I suggest it's not me. It's not even the ordinary listener. It's the kids. You've spent three decades now teaching undergraduates at Princeton. All right. So here is the question, it's the last question. And I'd like you to address it to kids in their late teens and early 20s who are trying to figure this out. Does Stephen Kotkin, this remarkable, accomplished figure, who is a brilliant analyst, does he loved his country for the same reason he loved his mother, good and understandable reasons, but essentially subjective reasons. Or are there rational grounds for loving this country, for loving this country in particular?
Stephen Kotkin: Yes. And I'm not afraid to admit it and to talk about it at length, if we had such length. This country's given me everything, I was not born into what I have today, but I was given every opportunity to succeed. And when I did succeed, I was rewarded. And that had a lot to do, not just with the hard work, with the good upbringing I had, thanks to my parents, it had a lot to do with the mores as well as the institutions of this country. I was able to work hard at school and to continue in school until I didn't wanna go to school anymore and then compete for a position and then work hard and succeed. And yes, this country gave that to me, my parents gave a lot to me, yes, and the country gave a lot to me. And I'm here today because of that, I didn't come up from a different country. I came up from this country and young people deserve that opportunity. I live on West End Avenye right now, and two blocks over from me, you could say it's a block and a half, are housing projects. And my kids were born on West End Aveue in our house. And those kids were born in those housing projects. Why? No explanation, they didn't choose that. They need every opportunity to be able to succeed. They need school systems that are excellent with excellent teachers. We have such school systems in New York, in the public system and my kids went there, and you know what? My kid went to one of the best high schools in this country, Stuyvesant High School, a STEM school in New York City, you have to test to get in there and half the kids in there are on subsidized lunches. What does that tell you? It tells you that they're not all West End Avenue kids who got in there who were able to pass the test. There are 100 plus different nationalities in that school with languages in the corridor running from Syrian to Afghani, to Korean, to Chinese. It's remarkably diverse, remarkably accomplished school. And it's a public school and it's in New York City and we need more schools like that, Peter, we need a lot more schools and they should be in the neighborhoods where those kids don't have the same opportunity that my kids had. It's about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, equality of outcome delivers perverse and unintended consequences. You wanna make everybody equal? Well, I'll show you some history books I wrote about how that turns out. The best intentions, perverse and unintended consequences. But when you give equality of opportunity, including on the front end, not admission to Stanford when it's too late for the intellectual capital and the social capital and the human capital and everything else that these kids deserve, you gotta start on the front end. And so I'm in favor of investing in education in our kids paying our teachers like they were lawyers or doctors and paying them a differentiated wage if they're better than the others, the way that private schools do. I'm in favor of opportunity and we should have an opportunity agenda. There should be a party in this country called the American Opportunity Party and it should be all about those kids, not just my kids, my kids have every opportunity because of what I could provide, not only what the country could provide, but I didn't have that when I was growing up. So I know. And so I love this country for that reason alone, but also many other reasons.
Peter Robinson: Dr. Stephen Kotkin, historian, taxpayer, and patriot. Thank you, Stephen. Good to have you back.
Stephen Kotkin: Thank you.
Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.