Historian Stephen Kotkin became the Kleinheinz Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution in 2022. He taught at Princeton for more than 30 years, and is the author of nine works of history, including the first two volumes of his biography of Joseph Stalin, Paradoxes of Power, 1878 to 1928 and Waiting for Hitler, 1929 to 1941. He is now completing the third and final volume. Since the war in Ukraine broke out a year ago, Kotkin has appeared regularly on Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson to offer his unique perspective on the Russian aggression and answer five questions for us. This is the third installment.

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:

Peter Robinson: The study of history may be fascinating, it may even be ennobling, but does it do any good? Can history tell us how we need to conduct ourselves today? Five more questions for historian Stephen Kotkin "Uncommon Knowledge" now. Welcome to "Uncommon Knowledge". I'm Peter Robinson. 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, and then taught history for more than three decades at Princeton. Professor Kotkin is the author of nine 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". Professor Kotkin is now completing his third and final volume, "Stalin: Totalitarian Superpower". Last year, Stephen Kotkin left Princeton to become a full-time fellow here at the Hoover Institution, which among its many other benefits for your friends and admirers is that it should make scheduling these interviews much easier. Stephen, welcome. Five questions.

Stephen Kotkin: Thank you. It's great to be back and it's great to be here full-time.

Peter Robinson: Yeah. Good. The war in Ukraine. A lesson of history, as this layman understands it, and then a few quotations. I'm gonna take a moment or two to set this up and then just step back. So here's the lesson of history. We saw it in the First World War and we saw it in the Second World War. Unless the United States intervenes on behalf of democracy and peace in Europe, Europe is a mess and will drag us in sooner or later anyway. That's the lesson of history.

Stephen Kotkin: Okay.

Peter Robinson: Here's a quotation. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on the new $45 billion aid package enacted at the end of last year. "This is the second spending bill for Ukraine in two months. Our total aid to Ukraine will almost equal the entire military budget of Russia. And it's not as if we have money lying around." Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio. "I'm sick of Joe Biden focusing on the border of a country," Ukraine, "I don't care about while he lets the border of his own country become a total war zone." Final quotation, foreign policy expert Elbridge Colby arguing that we should leave the defense of Ukraine substantially to the Europeans. "Europe is both less important than Asia," less important to us, "economically and geopolitically. And our allies in Europe are far more capable of shouldering a big part of the burden of defending themselves against Russia than our Asian allies are of defending themselves against the far stronger China. Everything should be going to Asia while we deprioritize everything else." Question one, Stephen, the lesson of history notwithstanding, what are we doing in Ukraine?

Stephen Kotkin: Peter, I noticed you didn't quote Senator Tom Cotton on this question, but we'll take it from here. We heard a lot about the pivot to Asia, a phrase that was a little bit unfortunate that came out of the Obama administration 'cause it implied that we weren't there, when of course the United States involvement of Asia goes back a very long way. And it's been part of our prosperity and our way of life for some time to have deep connections to Asia. So the pivot to Asia idea was that, yes, Europe was less important. Yes, Europe was rich and should take care of itself. Yes, Asia was the future, and yes, we needed to invest more there. And then the Ukraine War comes, that is to say Russia has a full scale invasion of Ukraine. They've already bitten off big pieces of Ukraine in 2014, for which I think we slapped both Putin's wrists, not just one wrist. And after those slaps on the wrist he went and decided he wanted to take the whole thing. What did we discover? We discovered that his invasion of Ukraine and Xi Jinping's support, mostly rhetorical but nonetheless support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, turned the Europeans into questioning whether they were too close to China or not. The beauty of Xi Jinping's strategy, which he inherited, was that there was a wedge between Europe and the United States on China policy. Meaning, sure, the US was going to be hostile. The US, according to China, couldn't abide China's rise. The US was gonna hold China down anyway it could. But the Europeans, well, they hate conflict. They love trade.

Peter Robinson: They love business.

Stephen Kotkin: And so for them, they were gonna differentiate themselves from the US by not having a hostile China policy. And that worked for a while for the Chinese and then Xi Jinping just blew it up. He decided to throw his weight behind an invasion of a sovereign country on European soil. And the Europeans said, "Wait a minute. Maybe our China policy shouldn't be so distant from the US. Maybe the US was right about China. Maybe we have to be wary of our dependence on China. Maybe we have to reconsider some of the trade packs where China doesn't abide by international norms or international rules. Maybe, in other words, this is a wake up call." Now, I could even add here that something similar happened in the case of Japan. Japan, which is probably the country on the planet that, maybe the only country. that understands deeply both the United States and China having a long entangled history with China going back.

Peter Robinson: Centuries.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes. And now being an ally of the United States after that devastating defeat in the war, Japan too began to rethink its China policy and how close it needed to be to China versus how close it needed to be to the US on Asian strategic questions. And so to a great extent in Europe and to a lesser extent in East Asia, it turned out that the pivot to Asia went through the transatlantic alliance. The stronger the transatlantic alliance got, the stronger China policy got. The more our allies came on side, the more that we weren't moving unilaterally against China. So the horror of the Ukraine War, and it is a horror, they are fighting and dying right now as you and I sit here, comfortably speaking. The horror of the Ukraine War delivered a bounty to us on China policy. And so, what some people are calling expenditure is actually an investment in our prosperity and security, because you're a lot stronger with friends and allies than you are when your friends and allies are moving in another direction. There's a wedge between you and your friends and allies. And so I think, we got lucky here. This was not a policy. We did not sit around in the situation room or some other august setting on the White House property or in Foggy Bottom and say, "How are we gonna manage this China stuff?" We'll have to reinvigorate the alliances. We'll have to reinvigorate our relationships with our friends. That's how we're gonna do it. It was a gift from the Ukrainians. No one saw it coming. Their valor, their ingenuity, their willingness to defend their piece of the Earth was a gift to us in our China policy. And it continues to do that.

Peter Robinson: So Stephen, I said five questions as if I could limit myself to five questions when I've got you at the table. But can you, I'm gonna grant everything you just said because that was a remarkable answer. And as usual, on one of your answers, I can't even find a handhold. But let me ask a related but a somewhat different question. The European's Olaf Schultz, the Chancellor of Germany, after the Ukrainian invasion, he gives a big speech. "Things are different now. We're going to spend a hundred billion dollars this year on the military and we're gonna ratchet up our spending and get to the 2% of GDP that we've long promised we would spend, long promised NATO we would spend."

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: And of course, it doesn't happen. And indeed, this latest, what was in the news over the last couple of weeks is that the Pols have German-made tanks and want permission to let the Ukrainians use those German-made tanks that the Pols own. And the Germans wouldn't even grant that permission unless we went in. The number of German tanks in question is, I believe, single digits, and we're going in and have now committed ourselves to a, I don't remember the unit, squad, squadron?

Stephen Kotkin: Battalion.

Peter Robinson: Battalion of Abrams tanks, which numbers 30 as I read. It's in double digits, okay. Even though the Europeans said, "This is our moment, we will rise to this challenge," what the Ukraine has demonstrated is their dependence on the United States. Why is it that they can't pull themselves together? The EU has been in existence for six decades. They couldn't handle a problem in Kosovo, on their own continent, now they can't handle an even bigger and dire problem more direct threat to them. It's already impinging on their economic well-being. Why is it that they can't? They're as populous as we are, they're as rich as we are, and they cannot pull themselves together. Why?

Stephen Kotkin: How to answer that excellent question? So, first we have to acknowledge that Europe is an enormous success. That's why it's good to be friends with them.

Peter Robinson: The European Union?

Stephen Kotkin: Europe as a whole is an enormous success. They're a bunch of very rich countries. For the most part, they have rule of law and stable constitutional systems. They democratized over time, just like the United States did. More and more people got the right to vote there. And their peace and prosperity is deep. It's in values terms. It's not something that is easily sloughed off by this election or that election or this economic crisis or whatever have you. And so they are a success. Now we can talk about the European Union. We live here in a country where the Left loves the European Union, and yet they won't let us teach Western civilization on a college campus. Western civilization is evil to them, and yet they love the European Union. And then the Right, they detest the European Union, and yet they want Western civilization to be taught on the college campus. So it's a very strange situation that we find ourselves in. Western civilization, one side won't let us have it, and the other side can't abide it. And yet, they're connected. There are many, many issues with the European Union that the Europeans would like to fix, and they can't because of all the issues that you know. Our friends in Britain got out of the European Union in a process that we have to wait and see in the fullness of time what that's gonna look like. But it doesn't look very successful now because it was a club, for all its faults, of highly rich, successful rule of law, democratic, prosperous countries. And so you'd wanna be in that club. There are other clubs you could join and they are not so good. They have some of the same bureaucratic nightmares without the prosperity and the rule of law. So let's acknowledge that Europe is a success. Let's also acknowledge that bringing in our friends in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet satellites has done wonders for Europe. It's changed the tone to a very great extent, both in security terms and just in wider terms of who has a voice, who should have a voice, what's the center of gravity in Europe, and how should Europe operate. That story is also still unfolding. Sure, some of the countries are small, but Poland is not a small country

Peter Robinson: Poland is not small.

Stephen Kotkin:  It's changed the religious makeup of Europe a little bit because some of the countries that came in are more religious than some of the countries that were there. So Europe is an unfolding project with much disappointment, but overall it's packed. It's a club of very successful countries and its dynamic is shifting a little bit because of its enlargement, and the same goes for the NATO story. So I'm actually not a fanatical critic of Europe, although I understand how the European Union operates in practice. I'm familiar with the history and the current situation, but I wanna have Western siv on our college campuses and I wanna have the European club as our partner. You know, let's talk about the 2% for a second.

Peter Robinson: Go.

Stephen Kotkin: because you raised the big issue and you framed it properly with the US and World War I and World War II, Kosovo. So, if I commit 2% of my income to something, you're gonna get something from that. If Peter Thiel decides to commit 2%, or even 3% of his income-

Peter Robinson: Then you become a rounding error.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah. And so, even the Germans who have a substantial economy, very large economy, even the Germans to get to 2% is never going to be anything like two or 3% of the US economy in any way. And then you factor in many other issues that we could discuss, but the point being is that Poland gets its over 2%, the UK over 2%. Some of the other countries are under 2%. If each one of them got to the number or above it, the US would still be the dominant military there.

Peter Robinson: Right?

Stephen Kotkin: And so either we disarmed the US, which is certainly an option. We've demobilized after wars previously. We could roll it back, cut it back, spend the money elsewhere. Come what may, let the Europeans take care of themselves. Let the Japanese take care of themselves. Let the Middle East take care of itself. That's-

Peter Robinson: That sounds pretty attractive really.

Stephen Kotkin: That's certainly an option.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: We could do that. And there's some savings in the short-term on that. But historically there aren't a lot of savings. If you look at the history and you look at the way the world works, the US' provision of security guarantees globally is why the world is a better place today than it was a hundred and something years ago when the US was not so committed. So it is a cost that we pay or it's an investment.

Peter Robinson: And Stephen, you don't feel that it would be better, that the alliance would be better if Germany,

Stephen Kotkin: Had an army.

Peter Robinson: Well, if it were more,

Stephen Kotkin: It doesn't have one.

Peter Robinson: if the French and the Germans were more self-respecting, frankly, at some basic level, it has to be debilitating that Macron and the president before him, who was such a non-entity I can't even remember his name, and Sarkozy before him.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: They've all said we need a European, it's debilitating for them to say, "we need to stand up for ourselves," and then fail to do it. Wouldn't they be better allies? Wouldn't the whole tone of the relationship be better if those countries had not, over the last six decades, been infantalized by our taking care of them?

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah, so I was with you until that last.

Peter Robinson: I know, I thought I, I overreached.

Stephen Kotkin: That last hammer blow.

Peter Robinson:  I overreached.

Stephen Kotkin: That last strong note on the piano. Of course it would be better. No question it would be better. First of all, let's understand that we develop a lot of weapons together with the Europeans. That our supply chains are interwoven. That we share technology. Let's also remember that the Europeans are good at many other things that benefit us. Let's call it big pharma. They're pretty good at big pharma. The vaccines, which work, that we're, I hope, justifiably proud of. I certainly have had my booster shot vaccine. I don't wanna die from COVID. That was developed. Oxford, right?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: Had a vaccine. BioNTech is a joint venture with the Germans. So the Europeans are pulling their weight in many ways, but yes, we do have a far superior military. And yes, they could and should do more. And yes, it's kicking and screaming and promising and not delivering. And yes, that's the world we live in. So what's the answer?

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: The answer is continue to engage with them and have them as our friends

Peter Robinson: Check.

Stephen Kotkin:  or walk.

Peter Robinson: No.

Stephen Kotkin: The answer can't be to walk.

Peter Robinson: No.

Stephen Kotkin: We don't want a world that looks like the world prior to American engagement in the world. Does that mean everything America did was smart? Everything America does is smart? That America has to bear all of the burdens or most of them? No, of course it doesn't mean that. That's why you have alliances. So sometimes you get in a relationship and you say, "You know, I think that you're not washing the dishes enough. I think that you're not taking out the rubbish enough. I think that you're not spending enough time with me and let's go on a date." And there's all sorts of ways that you can negotiate, let's say the division of labor, as Adam Smith once called it. So, no, I'm not happy with the situation, but I'm not gonna throw out the baby with the bathwater because we are in this terrific marriage that requires negotiation and that baby is gonna grow up and we're both invested. So yes, your critique definitely is a hit. You know, when you play that game Battleship and you get the hit and you put in the red peg,

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: you got a red peg or two there.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes. But I gotta tell you, I don't wanna lose all of these alliances and relationships. I don't wanna lose the integrated global economy. I don't wanna lose all the stuff that we built and that we died for on the battlefield, right?

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: That stuff is just too valuable to us. Sure, there's some freeloading. Sure, we get that. President Trump reiterated the points of his predecessors a little bit more Trumpy in fashion about the 2% problem. He was right. They know he was right. They are pacifist nations. This is one of the reasons why the Russian argument about NATO being a threat was so silly because it's an alliance where almost everyone is a pacifist nation

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: in the alliance and doesn't have a real army like the Germans, but they'll get there. They'll get there because the world is forcing things that way, unfortunately. And the point of having an army, Peter, is, as you know from the Reagan administration, the other guy decides not to do stuff against you.

Peter Robinson: Correct. Correct. All right, back to Ukraine and what comes next? Again, let me give you three quotations. Niall Ferguson, our friend and colleague at the Hoover Institution. This is Niall last autumn. "Ukraine could celebrate the first anniversary of this war," that is the first anniversary will take place this very month as you and I speak. "Ukraine could celebrate that anniversary by driving Russia all the way to the status quo ante of February 23rd, 2022." That's Niall Ferguson. Henry Kissinger in The Spectator just last month. "The time is approaching to achieve peace through negotiation." Vladimir Putin in an essay in 2021. "There is no historical basis for the idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians." Niall says the Ukrainians are willing to fight and capable of fighting. Henry Kissinger says, "No, no, no. Negotiations." And Vladimir Putin says, "Ukraine is my country. I will do what I need to do to defend my country, and it is my country." Stephen, question two, how will this end?

Stephen Kotkin: Well, we don't know how it's gonna end, but we know where we are. The Ukrainians, amazingly, fought off Russia's attempted conquest. Russia failed in its Maximalist aims of taking the capital Kyiv and installing some type of puppet regime. And so, being denied in their Maximalist aims looks like Russia's lost the war from that point of view. But as we said from the beginning, the problem with that argument is not that the Ukrainians aren't courageous and ingenious, it's that Russia is destroying their house. So let's imagine that you have a house, I use this metaphor, maybe I overuse it, and your house has 10 rooms. It's the only house you have. And somebody barges in and snatches two of those rooms. It's your house and they just snatch two of those rooms. And they wrecked them. They completely wrecked them. And what's worse, from those two rooms they're trying to wreck the other eight rooms at your house. You don't have another house. This is it. And moreover, the person who took those two rooms, that person has their own house which has a thousand rooms. So they don't need your house. They say they need it, they say it's theirs, it's not theirs, but they don't actually need your house. But you, you don't have another house. And so here you are where they've gotten two of your rooms and they're trying to wreck the other eight and they won't go away. And so this is why I've said from the beginning that despite the prevention of conquest, right? Despite the fact that the Ukrainians

Peter Robinson: They come to two rooms.

Stephen Kotkin: held the capitol Kyiv,

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: nonetheless you cannot call this a victory. In fact, as I've said before, this is one of those problems with Vladimir Putin. "I can't have Ukraine? Nobody can have Ukraine. I'll just wreck it." This also tells you why the Chinese can't take Taiwan. If they take it, they can’t have it. They don't get a country that's prosperous, dynamic middle class-

Peter Robinson: Don't coming to Taiwan. That's, all right.

Stephen Kotkin: Okay. But the point being is that Ukraine shows that if you take it militarily, you don't actually get it. You get a smoking pile of room. So that's where we are. Wars begin as wars of maneuver 'cause somebody starts a war.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: They begin as wars of maneuver. There's just a lot of ground taken at the beginning. It looks like that's how the war's gonna continue. And then a couple of things happen. If there's a victory, the other side can capitulate and acknowledge that victory. The other side can say, "We don't capitulate. We're gonna fight a guerrilla war, an insurgency."

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: Like what happened to us in Iraq. We had this incredible military victory on the battlefield and then we couldn't consolidate those gains. We ended up in a insurgency, counterinsurgency. And our colleague, General McMaster, H.R. McMaster, he invented modern counterinsurgency against the Iraqi insurgency when it shouldn't happened in the first place because we needed to consolidate that victory, okay. The other way that wars go, and this is probably more typical, is what we call a war of attrition. Where each side is grinding down the other side, losing massive casualties, inflicting massive casualties. Gaining an inch, losing an inch. A war of attrition is not a stalemate because they're killing you. They're killing you every day. They're killing them right now as we speak. And moreover, they could advance in a war of attrition. You can win or lose a war of attrition. How do you win a war of attrition, which is what we're in in Ukraine? There's two ways to win a war of attrition. One, willpower. Your willpower holds and the other guy's willpower collapses. That hasn't happened yet on either side. Both sides have the will to continue fighting. Both sides assume that if they continue they can destroy the other side's willpower at certain point. So that war of attrition where you think the other guy's willpower is collapsible, can continue indefinitely. The other way is, if you can't collapse the willpower, you have to outproduce the fighting capability, the weaponry, the stuff, and you have to destroy the other guy's fighting capability.

Peter Robinson: That was us and the Soviets in the Second World War.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Stalin produced tanks, we produced ships. Lots of them.

Stephen Kotkin: And planes, and of course we fought the Japanese in the Pacific simultaneously. So you win a war of attrition by either breaking the other guy's will and/or outproducing in a massive way over time. So what do we see here? We see that we're giving Ukraine stocks. Stuff that we have in stock, right? So, Javelins which destroy tanks, Stinger missiles which destroy things in the air, that was the beginning of the war. And now we're up to giving them the Abrams tanks that you refer to. We're not producing more of that stuff. We haven't ramped up the production on our side.

Peter Robinson: We're just emptying the warehouse.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes. The Wall Street Journal, January 31st, did a brilliant article about the fact that Ukraine has expended 13 years of Javelin production. 13 years of Javelin production. So now we have to ramp up Javelin production, but we don't have the assembly lines. We don't have the military industrial complex 'cause we wound it down. And so getting the stocks to be refilled, even if the Ukraine War would've stopped today which it's not, getting the stocks refilled requires several years of ramping up.

Peter Robinson: Just restocking our own shelves.

Stephen Kotkin: And then there's the uncertainty for the military contractors. If they ramp up now, will the demand still be there in three years or in five years? What if the war is over by then? They need some type of guaranteed contracts to invest in massive expansion of their production capacity. And so we are not expanding production capacity. So we're gonna run outta stuff. How soon? It's hard to say. The entire time, we've assumed that we can just, there's stuff we can just send it. Here it is. There's more, there's this. First, no HIMARS, then we send the HIMARS and those HIMARS rockets, which are just fabulous because they have precision guided capability. And then now it's up to the tanks and we're fighting over the fighter jets. The point being is that we're sending the stuff that's already there in Europe, in the warehouses that NATO owns, or stocks from the individual members of NATO or stocks that we have back here in the US. We didn't ramp up production massively on our side. In part because we said, "Well, we have sanctions. That's our secret weapon. And we're gonna degrade the Russian economy and they're gonna run out of stuff on their side. And so at some point, they're gonna be unable to continue the war because they're not gonna have stuff." And so we heard that in March 2022, and we heard that in April 2022. And there were stories about how Russian missiles and tanks were using chips, computer chips from washing machines because they were running out of production of computer chips. And look at this, this is gonna end at some point because they can't keep up production. So this morning there was a massive barrage of cruise missiles and other missiles of Ukraine from the Russian side. So the stuff that they ran out of six months ago, they're still using it to destroy civilian infrastructure, the energy grid, kill people, murder them actually. Hospitals, schools being destroyed. So, evidently, the Russians still have a lot of stuff. They're able to produce stuff. And so we are not degrading their ability to fight with the sanctions. So we're in a war of attrition where we're not destroying, as we did in World War II, their production capacity the way we did to the Germans and the Japanese because we're not hitting Russian territory.

Peter Robinson: We're not permitting the Ukrainians to go over the border.

Stephen Kotkin: Correct. And we're not ramping up production on our side. So you tell me how you win a war of attrition where you're not attriting? You're not actually destroying their capability to fight and you're not ramping up your capability. So I'm not confident that we have a good strategy for this phase of the war. You see, success is a problem. We were successful in enabling, facilitating the Ukrainian's defense of their country. That has produced a new situation. That's produced a new version of the war that wasn't there at the beginning. We were prepared for supporting the Ukrainians in an insurgency. Russia would conquer Ukraine. That was the pessimistic thinking. Remember, we've evacuated the embassy,

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: we, et cetera.

Peter Robinson: We agreed with Putin. We thought it would be quick.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes, and we made the same error he made, which was to overestimate his military and underestimate the Ukrainian's ability to defend their country. But now that's happened. And now we're in this new phase. The new phase has been characterized by incremental support for Ukraine. And this makes many people angry. If you're gonna support them, what are you doing slowly, slowly ramping up? Grudgingly saying yes on this weapon after saying no for so long. Why don't you just give 'em everything? And the answer is, is because our policy, which is rooted in domestic politics and alliance politics, has been not to get in a direct US or NATO combat war with the Russians. There's no domestic support for that in the US and there's certainly no domestic support in Europe and it would potentially fracture the alliance and it would potentially change the ability of Congress, or the desire of Congress to vote that money that you refer to. So this incrementalism, why? Why do we have the incrementalism? Because we don't want to get to an escalation into a direct war with Russia. A proxy war rather than direct war is our policy. But the other reason is, is because Russia possesses certain capabilities and those capabilities are for real and they haven't used them yet. And people say, "Oh, they'll never use a nuke. They'll never escalate to using nuclear weapons or whatever it might be." And the answer is that's probably true. There're a lot of reasons they're deterred. Like for example, they would lose their own country because there would be a response potentially, right? So, it looks very logical to say they'd never do it. But if you're the commander-in-chief and you sat across the table like this with one of our commanders-in-chief to discuss putting his thoughts into writing, and you knew those thoughts well. If you're the commander-in-chief, you buy all those arguments about how they are deterred. But the problem is, is they have the capability.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: And so you cannot just assume that it's all gonna work out rationally or the way it's supposed to work out. You have to assume that if someone has the capability, you have to prepare for the fact that that person has the capability.

Peter Robinson: And may I-

Stephen Kotkin: And so I've been saying that his threats are empty from the beginning. I was unimpressed with Putin's threats. You know, "If you do this, if you support Ukraine, fire and brimstone." I came up with this equation very early in the war. Ukrainian valor plus Russian atrocities equals Western unity and resolve. And so the whole war is in atrocity. Everything Russia does in, they're bombing the schools, they're bombing the hospitals, they are murdering civilians. It's nothing but atrocity. And the Ukrainian courage and valor, despite the losses that they've taken, massive losses have killed and wounded, it's still there. And so Western unity and resolve is still there. But I knew-

Peter Robinson: So if you're, if I may,

Stephen Kotkin: Go ahead.

Peter Robinson: We have an ally in President Zelensky who says, "This war is not done until we reclaim every inch of our country that the Russians have taken." And he is not just talking about stopping at the status quo ante before 20 February 2022. He wants back the Crimea, which the Russians took in 2014. So if I'm just,

Stephen Kotkin: Go ahead.

Peter Robinson: just playing this out for you. If you're our commander-in-chief, you're dealing with an ally who wants to take back the Crimea, and there's just a little historical fact about the Crimea. That Sevastopol is their main naval port on the Black Sea and it was established by Catherine the Great

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: in 1783. The Crimea has been Russian since five years before we ratified the Constitution.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Is there some possibility, I have an ally, Zelensky, who wants it back and there's a man sitting in Moscow who has tactical nuclear weapons. This is a problem, is it not?

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah, the definition of victory is the whole game.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: You nailed it. So let's just finish the point that we're fighting a war of attrition. That's where we are. We're in a war of attrition

Peter Robinson: Right, right, right.

Stephen Kotkin: with two hands behind our back. We're not ramping up production, that's one hand, and we're not destroying his production, that's the other hand. So either you're gonna fight a war of attrition properly or your chances of winning it are gonna be diminished. So that's the first and most important point. Either we have to ramp up production on our side and/or we have to destroy his production, or we're not in a good situation. Let's talk about the war aims. How you define victory, just as you put it down. President Zelensky's definition of victory is recuperation, reclaiming of every inch of internationally recognized Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

Peter Robinson: Including Crimea.

Stephen Kotkin: All of it. Reparations for the damage that the Russians did and the criminal aggression, and a war crimes tribunal for those on the Russian side who are guilty of the war crimes and of launching the war in the first place. How do you think you're gonna get reparations and a war crimes tribunal? Maybe you're gonna take Moscow and impose that?

Peter Robinson: Yes, this is right.

Stephen Kotkin: So that definition of victory makes complete sense from an emotional point of view. Someone is occupying two rooms of your house and lobbying missiles and drones in the rest of your house and killing your people.

Peter Robinson: Totally unprovoked.

Stephen Kotkin: Right. And so therefore, I get, at all levels of psychology, emotion, history, their definition of victory. But I am living in the world that we're living in, and so I'm not sure that that definition of victory is attainable. Moreover, suppose they get every inch of territory back. Suppose that happens, right? Right now, we're living through what could well be in offensive by the Russians. There are indications here on the one year anniversary that the Russians are ramping up. They did their mobilization way back in the fall. It's been about four months since they mobilized those troops who've now been through training. They've ramped up some of their production of their war equipment. Partially they purchased it from Iran or in other surreptitious deals with neighbors. Partially they went back and got the stuff that they had originally sold to Africa or to other countries. And so they've been restocking plus they've been figuring out how to produce again despite the sanctions. And so now we see what could be in offensive. And then the Ukrainians are gonna have a count if they hold the line against the Russian offensive, which looks like it's probably happening now. Maybe the Ukrainians then launched their own counter offensive and by then they have the tanks that we've promised potentially, and they've had training on the tanks. And they have workshops to repair the tanks that are destroyed on the battlefield because tanks don't last more than a couple of days. Even if you're doing well in a war, they have to be rebuilt or fixed in some way. Okay. So let's imagine that the Russian offensive fails. If it happens, it fails and the Ukrainian counter offensive is massively successful beyond everyone's wildest dreams and they take back the territory. Russia army disintegrates in the field and all sorts of great things happen for the Ukrainians. Then what? You see, you have a couple of big issues that aren't going away. One is, this war is about Ukraine joining the West. If Ukraine gets back every inch of its territory and is not admitted into Europe, is that a victory? Moreover, if Ukraine doesn't get back every inch of its territory but is admitted to Europe, is that a victory? Yes.

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Stephen Kotkin: Yes it is. So the game here is not necessarily territorial. We understand that from a humanitarian point of view. The game is accession into the EU. And so that process, which President Zelensky also talks about and which has been promised, that process is the game and that needs to be accelerated, and we need to be on a pathway to that that's realistic. The Western Balkans, North Macedonia, Serbia, they've been undergoing EU accession almost since you and I had hair that was darker color. And they haven't gotten there yet because EU accession is, you check the box then it's another box. You check that box, internal reforms, until you check all, and only until every box is checked do you get in.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: And so you could be checking boxes for 10, 12, 15 years as the Western Balkans have been, making progress, doing well, but there's no intermediate stage of admission. You're either in or you're out.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Stephen Kotkin: And so that's one piece. And then the other piece is geography. So, let's imagine that Ukraine cannot pick up Russia, move it to the other side of China, and then drop it there. Let's imagine that this Russia thing stays where it is, and it's a country of a hundred plus million people and it's got a substantial sized economy, and there's a strategic culture there that may change, may not change. If Russia does not get transformed into France in our lifetime,

Peter Robinson: Which will not happen.

Stephen Kotkin: If it happens, great. And if it doesn't happen, what? Tell me what then? So, France is this magnificent country. It's rich, it's got a military unlike the Germans, it's very proud of its civilization, its culture, its history, and it doesn't attack its neighbors and decide to take over their territory anymore. And so that would be a great outcome if Russia became like France. It has an absolutist tradition like the French, you know, a sort of old regime. It has a revolutionary tradition like the French. It has an imperial tradition like the French. The problem is, it's not enough like the French,

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: the Russian thing. And so if the Russian thing is not transformed institutionally, but also deep or fundamentally in terms of strategic culture, then Ukraine has to live there. And so there needs to be some type of DMZ or demilitarized zone like we have on the Korean peninsula. Think about the Korean peninsula. Is that a good solution? There was an armistice. The war actually never ended. The fighting was paused with the armistice. And yes, there are occasional instances of cross-border violence, but for the most part, the armistice has held since 1953 and South Korea became part of the West. It's just the scene,

Peter Robinson: That's what we want.

Stephen Kotkin: enormously successful story. So "our part of Korea", right? It's not a solution, North Korea still exists. The DMZ is there. There's no peace treaty. Now the North Koreans have nukes, just like the Russians already have with nukes. So it's not a perfect solution by any means, but it looks good given what the options were in reality for South Korea to be able to become a prosperous and eventually, after a lot of internal convulsions, a democratic rule of law country and a great ally of ours. And so, that's the outcome we have to get to in Ukraine, unless,

Peter Robinson: Unless there's a tragedy.

Stephen Kotkin: unless Russia becomes France, which only the Russians can do to themselves. There's no evidence that this is happening. So we need a solution that fits the reality, which is Ukraine can become a rebuilt, prosperous country like South Korea, join the Western club, which is not geographical but institutional. It's about rule of law, constitutional order, open, dynamic market economies, free societies, right? That's the solution in whatever territory they're able to reclaim. I would be ecstatic if Ukraine was able to reclaim the territory under international law at a cost that was bearable. Right now, we're waiting to see if that can happen. More casualties are in the immediate future. This could go on for quite some time. The production is not there. We may run outta stuff before, ironically, before the Russians run out we might run out of stuff. Can you imagine? After all the talk about how the Russians can't do this, they're gonna run out, the sanctions are gonna work, I'm not sure now. And so the path that we're on, God willing, it works. Ukraine gets its territory back on the battlefield, Russia is transformed into France somehow, and then we can have the kind of solution that President Zelensky has outlined as victory. If we don't get that, then what? My answer is an armistice, which has to be forced on the Russians now

Peter Robinson: And Zelensky.

Stephen Kotkin: and on the Ukrainians. An armistice that enables Ukraine to be rebuilt. The rebuilding of Ukraine alone is just the phenomenally complex and expensive proposition. People are talking about 350 billion as the estimated cost of rebuilding Ukraine right now. I think that number is a low ball number, but let's take that number. The entire Ukrainian economy, its GDP pre-war was 180 billion. So you're talking about a reconstruction, which is two times GDP. That's just a lot of money that has to not vanish, not disappear. We had the COVID support that our Congress passed for wages and for other things. And guess what? That was not twice our GDP. That was not even one-10th of our GDP, and a lot of it vanished. And we have institutions, we have rule of law, we have independent judiciary, things that Ukraine doesn't have yet. They could get them with an EU accession process. They're fully capable. It's unbelievably impressive what they've been able to achieve so far. I would never bet against them, I would bet in favor of them. But how in the world, with their current level of institutions, are they going to bring into that country, double their GDP in reconstruction money, even if we get the armistice today? So we need to talk about what victory actually could look like rather than what we would like victory to look like. And we need to get there sooner rather than later. And so that means forcing this criminal to the negotiating table on terms that are more favorable. Remember our friend, that chief executive that you sat across the table with, that commander-in-chief putting his words into writing? Remember that he understood that you negotiate. That's the only way to solve any issues. That's the only way to advance American interests. You negotiate, but you negotiate from a position of,

Peter Robinson: Strength.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Stephen, other side of the planet. A few headlines then a quotation. We're in Taiwan now. All the headlines come from The Wall Street Journal. October 3rd, 2021, "Record Chinese Aircraft Sorties Near Taiwan Prompt US Warning". January 3rd, 2022, "China Scrambles Fighter Jets Near Taiwan in Wake of US Carrier Exercises". December 26th, 2022, we're only talking about a couple of months ago. "China Sends Waves of Warplanes Near Taiwan. Maneuvers come a day after President Biden signs defense-policy bill authorizing 10 billion in military assistance to Taiwan." Those are the headlines, here's the quotation. This comes from a memorandum that US Air Force General Michael Minihan sent to his officers last month that got leaked. No surprise, I don't know how you send a memo to a large group of people and expect it not to get leaked, but here's the quotation. General Minihan, "I hope I'm wrong. My gut tells me we'll fight in 2025. United States presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Chinese President Xi a distracted America. Taiwan's presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason to attack." Stephen, question three, Taiwan.

Stephen Kotkin: They're getting easier and easier, Peter, as always with you. You're just over. You're, as usual, very well prepared here. So we began with this issue of if you take it, you can have it. We also talked about running down our stocks.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: We're four years behind, three to four years behind on deliveries to Taiwan of what we've promised them, and in some cases, what they've paid for. Weapons deliveries. So you're General Milley and you're sitting there and-

Peter Robinson: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs right now.

Stephen Kotkin: And you've got that nice office in the E-wing of the Pentagon. And you're sitting there at a table bigger than this one, and you look like this and there go your Javelins. There go your Stingers. There go your munitions, right? Your howitzer and other munitions. And you're just sitting there and the stuff is just going out the door. And you can't call Raytheon and say, "Next month I wanna have triple the production," or Lockheed Martin or fill in the blank, one of our great companies that produces for the Pentagon in a very complex, broken procurement system. Okay. Moreover, the phone rings and it's Taiwan and they say, "Well, where's our stuff? We don't get any Stingers. We're contracted. We paid for them or we're gonna pay for them, and where are they?" And they're going out the door as Milley sits there to Ukraine. And so, the definition of victory in Ukraine is also tied to the Taiwan story. We began with the idea that the pivot to Asia was a bad phrase. You would never have written a phrase like that

Peter Robinson: I hope not.

Stephen Kotkin: had you still been there. You would've been much smarter and your pros would've been much more precise. We began with that as a plus because it reinvigorated the alliance system. It explained that having friends to face China is much better than trying to do things unilaterally. Especially friends who have high technology and are rich and are trustworthy because they've been in a relationship with you that's based on values, fundamental values. Okay. So that was the good part. The bad part is, the longer a war of attrition goes on, the less stuff goes to Taiwan for deterrence purposes, or God forbid, for resistance purposes. So this is yet another argument for a definition of victory in Ukraine. When I talk about an armistice, when I talk about it's a victory even if they don't regain all their territory as long as they get into Europe, I'm talking about victory not capitulation.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: This is not a story that we have to cut and run here. That Russia gets to win something. Russia doesn't win anything. They have degraded their military in front of the world's eyes. They have lost their statuses and energy superpower. They have lost whatever semblance of self-respect they had in moral terms, right? They did this in Syria and we thought it was some type of tactical victory in Syria because they're part owner of a civil war and atrocities in Syria, and now they're doing it in Ukraine. And so it's not a win for them, it's a massive loss. It's a deep degradation of their human capital. They lost the new economy. It fled the country, right? It lives in Armenia, it lives in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. So it's a massive loss for Russia. It's a win for Ukraine if we can get the war of attrition to be transformed into an armistice where Ukraine can get an EU accession process that's realistic, a security guarantee that might not be NATO but will be a security guarantee, and start focusing on those contracts on those promises that we have to Taiwan, right? It's tough to bring Putin to the table over this. He's gotta feel threatened. His regime has to feel threatened. You see, it's not about shaving a few points on his GDP. By the way, his GDP went down maybe 3% last year.

Peter Robinson: Not that much, surprisingly.

Stephen Kotkin: Ukraine went down. They're estimating 30%. It could be more like 40%. And Russia is projected to grow its economy in 2023. So in any case, he's not a private equity mogul. He's not worried about his GDP growth. He's gotta feel pain. And so you feel pain because your regime is threatened. Because there are internal and external alternatives to your regime that politically you are destabilized, right? That's where you get him to the bargaining table. Sure, you can continue to arm Ukraine, as we should, as I've been in favor of from the beginning, but where are our political operations? Our political ops to destabilize that regime to make him feel pain for him to understand that if he continues, he loses his regime, not we shave a point or two off his GDP. So let's get there because he's got a lot of vulnerabilities politically and they need to be exploited. And let's not be wussies about it. Let's not be afraid.

Peter Robinson: To what extent?

Stephen Kotkin: And then let's focus on your Taiwan thing, which is exactly the right question going forward.

Peter Robinson: So Xi Jinping, I've heard this argued both ways.

Stephen Kotkin: Go ahead.

Peter Robinson: And a little layman than I am, I don't know how to decide. On the one hand the argument is, Xi Jinping is less likely today to go into Taiwan because he's looked at what happened to Russia. And he's not Vladimir Putin. He's not gonna be happy just being the strutting man who gets to wreck Ukraine. What he sees in has happened to Russia, he's much more rational and he sees what you see, which is that Russia has threaded its trust, shredded any possibility of alliance, humiliated itself. He doesn't want that. On the other hand,

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah?

Peter Robinson:  what he also sees is that Putin got away with it. He's still in power, bizarrely enough to the extent that there's polling in Russia. The Russian people seem to have rallied to him. This conflict in some bizarre way seems almost to have been good for Putin politically. And then General Minihan has a point. We're busy with presidential elections in 2024, we're busy with Ukraine, we're distracted in all kinds of ways, and Taiwan is going to have a presidential election in 2024, in which on current trends, it looks as though the independence party may do very well. Xi Jinping has a time window. He's a man in his 70s, his time is limited. The West is distracted, Taiwan is provocative, maybe we move. Maybe we move. How do you weigh these possibilities?

Stephen Kotkin: You know, there's a secret here.

Peter Robinson:  I'm hoping.

Stephen Kotkin: The secret is, I don't know what Xi Jinping thinks.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: And all the people who say they know what he thinks,

Peter Robinson: They have no idea.

Stephen Kotkin: They don't know either.

Peter Robinson:  All right.

Stephen Kotkin: Because this is a single person regime and people inside that regime don't know. One of the things that we've discovered from totalitarian regimes after they're gone is that the insiders didn't know either.

Peter Robinson: Stalin kept everybody guessing. His own guys were guessing.

Stephen Kotkin: They were practicing Kremlinology. Let's remember that when the CIA went public saying that Russia was gonna attack Ukraine, it knew things that the number three person in Russia's Ministry of Defense didn't know. Because Putin had kept the circle really tight and he didn't tell his own people. Very, very few people had any clue that he was actually gonna do this. And so, inside these regimes, they're guessing what's the guy up to? What's the policy gonna be? What are our orders? How should we behave? Do you know? Do I know? Are you up? Am I up? Who's down? Who's up? And so, we think that there are these well oiled machines and they have a strategy and they communicate it down the chain of command and if you don't fulfill your orders, you're toast, right? If you don't fulfill your orders, they're gonna take you out. They're gonna demote you, or worse. We think of these regimes as more or less well-functioning, as more or less disciplined, as more or less capable. And-

Peter Robinson: They're just not like that.

Stephen Kotkin: As more or less understanding what the strategy is and what the policy is. So some general has a birthday party for his kid and he blows up a balloon for his kid and the balloon gets outta hand and it ends up over Montana. And this is gigantic white balloon, and who did that? And he was just trying to make sure his kid had the best possible birthday party. Sure, there was a lot of surveillance equipment on it. There was a lot of sophisticated tech on it because he didn't have other balloons for the birthday. He just needed, that was the balloon closest off the shelf that he could use for his little daughter or his niece for the birthday party. And it ends up over Montana. These regimes, they don't always know what they're doing and the leader doesn't always know, let alone the leader's minions. So what's on Xi Jinping's mind? Boy, would I like to know. I would kill to know. But here's the thing that we know. This is the bottom line on Taiwan that you have to use as your point of departure. And we knew this, well, some of us knew this before Ukraine and Ukraine reconfirmed this. If you take it, you can have it.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: So it has to be an act of desperation. It has to be, "I can't have it, nobody can have it.' It has to be, Taiwan is proclaiming its dejure independence, not de facto independence, but it's saying, "We are now no longer part of China,"

Peter Robinson: That had got accepted.

Stephen Kotkin: and the US has to recognize that or hint that it's gonna recognize that, in which case Xi Jinping has no choice but to say, "I can't have it, nobody can have it. and so I'm gonna take it and wreck it." So that means he doesn't get the chips factories, he doesn't get the fantastic companies, those Taiwanese, all that goes up in smoke. And so for him to try to take it militarily, we'll get to the part about whether he can or can't take it militarily, but for him to try to take it militarily is an act of desperation. Once again, would he do that? Could he do that? Could he try that? Well, Putin did the Ukrainian thing. What Xi Jinping think about the Ukrainian thing? You tell me. I would love to know. And so that the Taiwan knot is about how the status quo is working for us. It's failing for him. His status quo doesn't work. You see, he thought, "I'm gonna integrate Taiwan economically, make them dependent on us, integrate very deeply, and then they'll move politically towards our system. They'll wanna join us because of the great benefits of being economically integrated." Where have we heard that before? That was US-China policy. The same engagement fantasy that we had here in the US.

Peter Robinson: For three decades.

Stephen Kotkin: That same fantasy, which some people think still could work. He tried the same fantasy with Taiwan and it didn't work in his case on the contrary. The Taiwanese are less and less inclined to consider themselves ethnic Chinese or to wanna be part of a political system with the Mainland. That was already before Hong Kong, what Xi Jinping did in Hong Kong, right? So the status quo is failing for him. That's his problem, right? He has no way, right now, to bring Taiwan politically closer voluntarily because if it doesn't come voluntarily, he can only-

Peter Robinson: He can only destroy it.

Stephen Kotkin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: He can't have it.

Stephen Kotkin: Right, and so he needs to have it voluntarily. And so he's not getting it. So the status quo is beautiful for us. Taiwan is a self-governing, prosperous country that is not part of Communist China. It's a rebuke in China's face. And as long as it doesn't try to become independent in law, as well as in fact it doesn't try to upset the status quo or we don't try to upset the status quo, we're winning that situation. Yes, better deterrence. Yes, get the stuff on the island before, God forbid, a war breaks out. Yes, the Taiwanese need to have different weapon systems than they previously ordered. Yes, they need better military training. Yes, we need scenario planning with our allies. All the stuff we're doing, by the way. All stuff that's working, not at the pace that anybody would like, but is happening. But the key to us is we don't try to overturn the status quo. We just say, "Geez, we're winning. Let's continue to win."

Peter Robinson: Okay. Stephen, one of my questions got subsumed in another, so this is gonna be four questions. And now I'm coming up to my fourth question.

Stephen Kotkin: Okay.

Peter Robinson: Now I have to sum up a little bit my impression of what has happened so far. Here's what's happened so far.

Stephen Kotkin: I failed to answer three of your questions and now we're on the fourth?

Peter Robinson: No, no. I am asking questions of a man who is capable, as very few other people are, of bringing to bear on the question. History, a deep knowledge of history, a deep understanding of strategy, and an insistence on reality. What are the possibilities that reality gives us? The DMZ in Korea is unsatisfying.

Stephen Kotkin: Sure.

-Peter Robinson: We haven't won anything, but it permits South Korea to become a great nation. It is a great nation now.

Stephen Kotkin: Incredible success.

Peter Robinson: Incredible.

Stephen Kotkin: Unbelievable success.

Peter Robinson: Democratic, prosperous, all right. What's happening in, we've got this cockamamie situation where it works in practice but not in theory, so to speak. Where Taiwan is allowed to be independent, to build its own tremendously powerful economy, to integrate deeply with the West as long as they don't pretend they're actually independent. And Kotkin says, "We can live with this. Maybe it's unsatisfying, but life is unsatisfying. We can live with this. You're bringing to bear, in some fundamental way, an understanding of the human condition based upon a lifetime spent studying history. And you say, "Let's find some kind of solution in." Okay, now, that's what I think has happened so far, and I'm now going to ask you about George Kennan and Henry Kissinger. This is the last question.

Stephen Kotkin: Okay.

Peter Robinson: George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, again, I'm gonna take a moment to set this up, but then I'm gonna let you just take it. February 1946, George Kennan, who's then the State Department official posted in Moscow, sends the State Department a 5,000-word telegram, the so-called "Long Telegram", in which, right there, at the beginning of the Cold War, he lays out the inner dynamics of Soviet communism and lays out the fundamental strategy of containment, which remains American policy for the next four and a half decades. How is it possible that he's able to write, and by the way, it's marvelously literate. It's beautifully written.

Stephen Kotkin: I wish I could write like that.

Peter Robinson: So he does this, and back in Washington they recognize the importance. And this is possible because Kennan has read widely. He understands Russian history and he's dealing with people. Acheson, Chip Boland,

Stephen Kotkin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: these were literate people who had steeped themselves in history all their lives. This brings us to Henry Kissinger. He publishes a book last year at the age of 99, called "Leadership". And Kissinger argues that at any given time, only a few people, only a few people really understand the complexities of maintaining the world order. Now I'm quoting Kissinger. "The contemporary world," here's reality. "The contemporary world is in the midst of a transformation in human consciousness so pervasive as to be nearly invisible." He's speaking here about television, Facebook, Twitter, all of it.

Stephen Kotkin: Sure.

Peter Robinson: "New technologies mediate our experience of the world and our acquisition of information. Reading a complex book carefully has become a counter-cultural act." Kissinger continues, "What risks being lost in an age dominated by the image? The quality goes by many names, erudition, learnedness, serious and independent thinking. Emotional display is now privileged over self-command, changing the kinds of people and arguments that are taken seriously in public life. Lacking a moral and strategic vision, the present age is unmoored." So here's question four, and I'm asking it of a man who's devoted his professional life to the study of history, but also to the instruction of undergraduates. You've watched, as the information revolution has rippled through the new rising generations of Americans. Are we still capable of producing the George Kennans and the Henry Kissingers and the George Schultzes and the Stephen Kotkins?

Stephen Kotkin: I'm sorry you put me in that sentence. I'm secretly thrilled, but I'm sorry you put me in a sentence I don't deserve to be in, but thank you. I appreciate that. So we have history professors walk around the campus and they complain that students don't know any history. And it's true. They don't know any history, but why? Who's to blame there? Are the students to blame? Or are these professors that don't have anybody in their classes to blame? It's one where you gotta pick the mirror up. We all have to look into the mirror and stop blaming the students that they don't know any history and figure out how to teach them history that they'd be interested in learning, and that would be helpful and useful to them. Consequential history. So, we gotta turn the mirror to ourselves here on this problem. That's the first and deepest point. Secondly-

Peter Robinson: By ourselves, you mean contemporary academia?

Stephen Kotkin: Those of us who are complaining that people don't know history, that's on us.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Stephen Kotkin: That's not on them.

Peter Robinson: I include myself in that group.

Stephen Kotkin: That's on us.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Stephen Kotkin: We need to do better. We need to enthuse them about history so that they understand why it's valuable for them to know it. And we need to deliver it in a way that makes them lifelong devotees of history. Do we do that now? I'm not so sure we do. And so, let's get our own house in order. Let's figure out how to teach history and enthuse young people about it and give them a history that's consequential and make them more than just learning history while they're at college or in AP world history or US history in high school. Let's give them a love of history and appreciation of why they should continue to read it. Okay, so that's the first point. The second point is, there's a lot of junk history in the policy world. Everything is Munich.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: Everything is Munich. It turns out not everything is Munich. It turns out Munich wasn't even Munich when you get down into the nitty-gritty details. Everything is Pearl Harbor, right? Whatever it might be, whatever the simplistic analogy might be, we latch onto it and it becomes the defining category or the defining meme in how we approach things. And so, junk history is just as dangerous as no history. Because you think you know some history, but the history that you know is bunk or it's not applicable to the situation that you're in. History is a sensibility. History is a sensibility which says, the present is not gonna last. The present is gonna change. I don't know how it's gonna change. I don't know in what direction it's gonna go. I only know it's gonna change because that's happened every single time before. And so how did it happen before? Why did it happen before? Who did it? Whose agency? Et cetera. So we study the past to understand not just what happened in the past, but to understand and to have the humility, right? The deep and fundamental humility that we're living with uncertainty, we're not sure, present is not gonna last, where is it gonna go? All of that comes from the sensibility of studying history. We study biography because we want to see exemplary lives. Sometimes it's exemplary in the negative sense.

Peter Robinson: You meant Stalin.

Stephen Kotkin: We don't want another Stalin. Sometimes it's exemplary in the positive sense. Let's say Lou Cannon's biography of Ronald Reagan. Sometimes it's exemplary in between. Let's say Robert Caro's "Master of the Senate",

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: which is just one of my favorite ever biographies because of the complexity-

Peter Robinson: Lyndon Johnson was effective but he was also a pretty nasty piece of work.

Stephen Kotkin: He could be,

Peter Robinson: Yeah.

Stephen Kotkin: and Caro is honest in portraying that. But Johnson understood power and he knew how to use power. We can argue about the aims he pursued, but the beauty of the book is to show that he understood how power was accumulated.

Peter Robinson: He knew how it's done.

Stephen Kotkin: How you could increase your agency, how you could expand your scope of action. How you could acquire leverage on the system in order to affect change. Whether the change is the direction that we would prefer or not is a political debate. But the analytical story is about the how you can do something like that and make it consequential. So that's the kind of history that you learn how to then understand, or at least approach pose the questions of contemporary policy issues. Not the junk history, which is, at least as pervasive as the ignorance of history. So I'm not saying that everybody needs to know history, and here it is, it's on two sheets and one side of the sheet is Munich and the other side of the sheet is Pearl Harbor.

Peter Robinson: Well, we're that simple.

Stephen Kotkin: Right, and so that's the first and most important point is, is history is about humility. It's about a sensibility and it's about figuring out leverage scope for agency, how systems work and how you can shift the system. Reagan shifted a really big system and how did he figure out how he could expand his scope for agency? How could he set in motion things that he set in motion when the system is so big and he's just a single? And that's history, right? And there's also history of the fact that there's all these people that work 16 and 18-hour days and their labor is how we have a mug here that we can drink something to refresh ourselves. And I could go on, right? There's a massive story of who holds up the global economy through their sweat and their tears and their ingenuity and entrepreneurialism and their credit systems and their stable currencies and all the other things that are important, right? That's big history, too. So, you know, Kennan, let's be honest. He was for the Cold War until he was against it.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, he got six years of his life, he was right about everything and 80 years wrong.

Stephen Kotkin: In some ways he's a John Kerry figure, right? He was for it until he was against it, as they said. Some of your audience will understand that reference. And Henry Kissinger also. There are things in Henry's career, Dr. Kissinger, excuse me, which are just, you marvel at and then there are some other things which you wonder, did he really do that?

Peter Robinson: Did he think that way?

Stephen Kotkin: Right?

Peter Robinson: Right.

Stephen Kotkin: So reducing the scope of Soviet influence in the Middle East, squeezing the Soviets out of the Middle East, that was pretty breathtaking. A, that he knew to do that and B, that they pulled that off. Unbelievable lesson there for us today. On the other hand, the deal with China, with Mao, and the abandonment of Taiwan and all of that kind of stuff, how does that look in the fullness of time, the Nixon-Kissinger triangulation of the Sino-Soviet split so that we could peel the Chinese off from the Soviets onto our side. And in the fullness of time, we could maybe re-evaluate that differently. I don't know, but that's a debate worth having. So can we have such people again? Because you pointed to the fact that we don't read as much

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Stephen Kotkin: because we have entertainment, social media, the infotainment complex, et cetera. So let's remember that there was radio, and radio was a shot because they could just broadcast anything right into people's living room. Here these people sitting at home in their living room, they touch the dial and anybody can just broadcast demagogy or whatever.

Peter Robinson: Right, right, right.

Stephen Kotkin: And who was controlling it? Nobody was really controlling it. And the class of Brahmans, the great intellectual class, all the editors, the owners of newspaper, they were being bypassed by radio. It was the end of democracy, you see, because they could say anything and people could get riled up and there would be untruth and there would be all sorts of rumors. And the totalitarians were great at radio. Hitler and Goebbels were great at radio, and Mussolini was great at radio. And even Stalin, who had trouble with his voice, mastered radio. And so radio looked like the end of the world for us. And then it turns out that democracy is adaptable, it's resilient, and the people aren't so stupid. And in fact, they can be entertained, but they can also understand what they're doing. And so we assimilated radio somehow. Roosevelt was the radio president.

Peter Robinson: He became pretty good at it.

Stephen Kotkin: He was the guy who mastered the medium, and look at the success that he had in political terms of being elected four times. We can debate his policies. And then we had television. And my God, was that the end of the world? Who was gonna read a book again after television came? And it was very upsetting and the images and manipulation, and we had Kennedy. Kennedy was our television president. Here's a young guy, hadn't achieved very much, kind of voted present in the Senate. And here he is. He's our president now, Kennedy. Once again, you can argue for or against his policies or his-

Peter Robinson: But he was spectacular on television.

Stephen Kotkin: And there was this other guy who was no good. He was sweating all the time, wiping the sweat off his brow and he had these jowls and his name was Nixon. And so he wasn't a good TV president, was he? And then, with social media came, it's the end of the world again. It turns out nobody's gonna read ever again. It turns out the totalitarians know how to manipulate images and words and the whole story. We're way behind the eight ball. Donald Trump gets elected. How in the world did that happen? It must be this crazy social media. Maybe it's even the Russians manipulating our social media. Who knows? It's the end of democracy. It's the end of the world. And so this is our third episode of this within a hundred years or so, right? About a hundred years, third episode where the world is ending. The totalitarians have this new technology that they're better at. Somebody made a breakthrough in the American domestic political system that was a bit of a surprise. And because they were masters of 140 characters or the radio, fireside chat or the TV debate or whatever it might be. So maybe it is the end of the world. Maybe the third time it turns out that the first two times we got lucky and the third time crushed us. Or maybe it's not. Maybe we're adaptable and resilient. Maybe we're not so stupid. Maybe people still read.

Peter Robinson: I am gonna ask you a fifth question.

Stephen Kotkin: My children still read.

Peter Robinson: I am gonna ask you a fifth question. We've gone way long because I'm indulging myself. Am I gonna cut you off? Never. I get that you at a table, but give me, as briefly-

Stephen Kotkin: I'm not succinct. Let's be honest. You ask a question and it's a whole show. One question.

Peter Robinson: Here comes the fifth question. We talked about Russia and Ukraine and it's going to be difficult to get the Russians to negotiate. And Xi Jinping who knows what he's thinking and Taiwan can only be broken, not taken over. And we've got Henry Kissinger saying, "We're never going to produce the kind, reading a book has become a counter-cultural act." Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble. Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine, referred to the 20th century as the American century. Really briefly, how optimistic are you as you survey the scene, and I say optimistic, you of all people are gonna reject any attempt for me to kind of nudge you into some sort of Pollyannish statement. What I want here is a historian speaking. Does the 21st century look like another American century?

Stephen Kotkin: For sure. Let's be honest, the 20th century was the American century. Why? Because Germany went from being our enemy to being our friend. That's a good friend to have. Japan went from being our enemy to being our friend. There're a lot of countries that became our friend and there are a lot of other countries that would like to become our friend. We have a system. If we understand our own system, if we know who we are, if we know how we got here, if we know what makes this country powerful, not infallible, certainly not infallible but powerful. If we understand who we are and how we got here and what we're capable of, we can project forward pretty far here. Our system has capabilities 'cause it's got corrective mechanisms. It's got adaptability. When we make a mistake and we make some doozies, and we've made some doozies recently and we'll make more mistakes, we can correct them. When Xi Jinping does Zero-COVID for a few years and then he repeals Zero-COVID in the dead of night, there aren't very many corrective mechanisms in a system like that. China is a breathtaking civilization. It predates us by millennia. Let's be honest. We have to understand how remarkable China is and that we have to share the planet with China. But on whose terms? On what terms? what are the terms of sharing the planet? And the terms are terms, I hope, that we, in this fantastic club that we've created known as the West, which is North America, Europe, the first island chain in Asia, and many other partners, Israel, in the Middle East, and we could go on, and needs to be expanded and needs to be cultivated like a garden to bring up George Schultz again. Constant cultivation of the garden. All of that is within our grasp, and we're the only ones who can ruin it. It can't be ruined from the outside. Who are we? Why did we get to where we are? What is American power? Where does it come from? How can it be used? Who are our friends? And let's teach that to the next generation and let them appreciate it, including the fact that our system allows condemnation of our system, not just criticism. That is a strength that other systems do not have and can never have. They're afraid of their own shadow. Every day is existential for them. A dissident here, a dissident there, and they got the largest ministry of state security you've ever seen to try to police all of that. Police the internet, police the public sphere. We, fortunately, don't have a system like that. We have a different system. Why and how and who and every, that's who we are. Let's discuss that on our next show

Peter Robinson: On our next show.

Stephen Kotkin: if I get invited back. Thank you.

Peter Robinson: Stephen Kotkin, thank you. For "Uncommon Knowledge," the Hoover Institution, and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.


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