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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 3: Robert Kagan

Episode 3: Robert Kagan


Andrew Neil talks to the hawkish US foreign policy thinker about Russia’s war in Ukraine, his belief in liberal interventionism and why he thinks there’s a constitutional crisis in the United States


Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory. A series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events, and to influence our understanding of them. 

In this episode I’m joined by a veteran of the US foreign policy establishment. Someone who believes it is America’s duty to protect and promote liberal democracy around the world. Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for The Washington Post. He’s also the author of “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperilled World”.

We discuss Russia’s war in Ukraine, whether the United States still has the appetite for the liberal interventionism he promotes, and why he thinks America is facing the greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War. This is The Backstory from Tortoise.

Andrew Neil: Robert Kagan, you wrote in February about the dire consequences for Nato and Europe, if Mr Putin should success in conquering Ukraine; what are the consequences if he fails or is held to a stalemate?

Robert Kagan: Let’s just talk about the first part of that, which is his failure to conquer Ukraine and I think it will obviously be an enormous set-back for him but it is also a kind of, it’s a statement about the health of the liberal world order which I have to admit even I’m surprised at how well the liberal world order, which is to say the United States and its democratic allies, have really snapped into place in response to this act of aggression. I would probably have been a little bit more pessimistic about the kind of unity that we’ve seen, the kind of reversal or apparent reversal, of course, that we see in countries like Germany and in general, the American’s ability to step in and play a role that America had been accustomed to playing for many decades after World War II but which looked in the last couple of decades as if Americans were not interested in continuing. So the fact that American public opinion has supported this policy as well is also both, I would say it is pleasantly surprising to me and to perhaps to others. 

Andrew Neil: Why did you think Russia would be so swiftly victorious in Ukraine? 

Robert Kagan: I’m sorry, did you believe they were going to be bogged down like this and essentially lose to the Ukrainians? 

Andrew Neil: I wasn’t the one who wrote in the Washington Post that it would be so swiftly victorious! Why did you think that? 

Robert Kagan: Well, I just assumed, as I think everyone did and I think Vladimir Putin did, that after spending ten years of pouring significant quantities of money into upgrading the Russian military, he set out in the 2000s to build a more mobile, more rapid response, more capable military than he had shown in Georgia in 2008 and even to some extent in Crimea in 2014, that I think most of us assumed that he had that capability. One of the great questions that I think people are going to go back and look at is what exactly happened to that military that he’d been building? Why was it so apparently incompetent at every level?

Andrew Neil: What do you believe was Mr Putin’s primary motivation for invading Ukraine? 

Robert Kagan: Well, I think it was fundamentally strategic. If Russia wants to be a great power again, anything even resembling its powers as the Soviet Union but even as the Russian Empire before the Soviet Union, it can’t be that as long as Ukraine is an independent entity. All you have to do is look at the map and see that basically if Russia does not control Ukraine, its forces are hundreds of miles further east and pose much less of a threat in Central Europe than if Russia does occupy Ukraine and effectively Belarus, then probably at the end of the day, Moldova too. It is just the location of Russian forces in the event of controlling Ukraine really changes the whole strategic picture in a way that everyone would have had to adjust to. I don’t think we need to have much more explanation than that. I know people talk about how Putin wanted to get at the United States and wanted to get at the West; I must say I find those issues secondary to what ought to be a pretty basic strategic understanding that Russia is a great power with Ukraine and fundamentally, it is not a great power without Ukraine. 

Andrew Neil: Is it not also possible thought that he feared a prosperous, democratic Ukraine, a Europe-facing Ukraine and that really what he wanted was another Belarus? 

Robert Kagan: I think his goal in this particular conflict was to basically get rid of Ukraine altogether as an independent entity and absorb it into Russia which I think he will do, is in the process of doing in the case of Belarus and I understand the argument and there is some truth to it, that it was concern about encroaching democracy that worried him but I actually don’t believe that Ukrainian democracy was such a … What is the evidence that Ukrainian democracy was such a threat to Putin’s continued squelching of democracy in Russia that that would be the reason to force him into action?

I think if you look at his behaviour and actions, he’s been very clear about what his goals are and what he has done since then is to probe consistently to see what he can get away with from the West, to see what the West’s reaction is. I think he anticipated in this case that the West’s reaction would be minimal so I hesitate to look for much larger objectives in his case or to believe that he is really fundamentally, at least before this war, was fundamentally unsure about his position in Russia, although this conflict may have made him vulnerable. 

Andrew Neil: What do you say to those who argue that the West played a part in this? That it was too aggressive about getting Ukraine to join the EU or become a member of Nato? We were not sensitive enough to Russian pride, we made Moscow feel threatened?

Robert Kagan: I think it’s more complicated than that in a way. I don’t think that, especially if you look at the actions of the United States and Europe in the early years after the Cold War, if you start looking in 1991 and beyond. Neither the United States nor Europe was in any rush to enlarge Nato, in fact even the Clinton administration held off on enlarging Nato and chose to go with this partnership for peace, which was essentially meaningless in terms of security guarantees.

You recall that George H. W. Bush gave a speech which I think was uncharitably labelled the ‘Chicken Kyiv’ speech, in which he made it very clear that he did not seek and did not favour the independence of Ukraine. I really think that what happened had less to do with the policies of the West than with the simple reality of what the end of the Cold War meant. The end of the Cold War led to a drastic diminution of Russian power before the United States did anything, under both Gorbachev and then in the early Yeltsin years. Russia cut back on its military budget by approximately 80-90%; they basically gutted the Russian military. They would not have done that if they were afraid of Western attack; they did that because they felt they needed to restructure their economy and that this was an opportune moment to do so but the bottom line is, Russia was extremely weak. 

The nations that had been essentially captives of Moscow, the Warsaw Pact nations as well as some of the newly independent states, as they were known, looked to the West which was richer, stronger, freer and so there was a natural sort of attraction and really, what people are asking now when they say ‘Why were you so aggressive?’ is that the West somehow gave Russia its traditional sphere of interest, even though Russia no longer had the capacity to sustain such a sphere of interest. Spheres of interest are not things that nations grant each other out of sensitivity; spheres of interest are things that exist because of power relationships and the power relationships in Europe had simply shifted and Russia was unfortunately the victim of that power shift and I think has been trying to claw its way back ever since but it remains the case that Russia clearly still lacks the real capability to enforce a sphere of interest. 

So, it would have been quite something, I think, for the West to say to, for instance, the Poles that even though Russia now has no capability to control your actions, we are going to accept that you are basically in Russia’s sphere of interest and that means and that means that you’ll have to be subservient to Moscow and that’s just tough. That is what people were talking about when they say aggressive. The fact was Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, all the other states, desperately wanted to join Nato. We in the West would have had to say no, you’re in Russia’s sphere of interest, you can’t join and I really wonder on what basis of justice or even strategy we would have made such a decision. 

Andrew Neil: But even given that, let’s say that that is the correct analysis, was there not more post-the fall of the Berlin Wall that we in the West could have done to ease Russia into the community of Western nations?

Robert Kagan: I honestly think we did. I’m not saying we did it with complete competence because we don’t do anything with complete competence. The offer was made to Russia on numerous occasions that Russia could join Nato and become one of the Nato partners. Russia’s attitude to that was we’re too big to be just another member of Nato. There is a lot of Russian pride, of historical feeling, a lot of humiliation after the fall of the Soviet Union but I really do think the effort was made. I think what we are dealing with was a decision by, I will say Russia but certainly by some Russians, not to choose integration but to choose the path, the historical path of Russian greatness. It’s an understandable path, it’s a path that great powers frequently take but it was a choice that Russia had and that’s the choice they made.

By the way, other powerful countries have made different choices in that circumstance; Britain for instance. Did Britain give anything up over the course of the 20th century to accommodate itself to new realities in the world? Britain, once the strongest power in the world with a sphere of influence that covered the entire planet? No one said, well what are we giving Britain? Britain just settled into the new world and I think lived very happily inside of it. So did, after the war, Germany and Japan; so did France, etc. Somehow Russia is the country that doesn’t want to play that game but I don’t know that you can blame that on the West.

Andrew Neil: It is certainly true that President Putin revived the idea of Russian spheres of influence; would he have been deterred from his Ukrainian adventure if the West had shown a tougher response to his previous invasions of Georgia, Crimea, Donbas?

Robert Kagan: Yes, I believe so. He was probing throughout this period, he know that he couldn’t take on the West if the West was determined to take him on, so he took actions to see what the West would tolerate and I think what we demonstrated, unfortunately, was that we would tolerate a great deal and ultimately, we discovered – I think to our own surprise – that we would not tolerate his ultimate desire to take over all of Ukraine. By the way, this happens, at least in American foreign policy, all the time. We are constantly convincing not only others but ourselves that we are not going to defend this part of the world or that part of the world – Korea comes to mind, right, in the early Cold War – only to discover that when they are attacked, we find that we care more than we thought we did. We have a way of fooling, sort of trapping other powers into making bad decisions on that basis and I do think that that, to some extent, is what happened here as well. 

Andrew Neil: Would it over-egg it to say that there are echoes of the 1930s in our response to Mr Putin?

Robert Kagan: [Laughs] Well, as the person who is constantly being criticised for always thinking it is 1939, I plead guilty to thinking there are parallels in our behaviour in both cases and without getting into exact parallels, because we accept that that the [14:20] parallels are, you know, things aren’t perfect but what it does indicate is a constant theme of American foreign policy. You know, it’s hard even for Americans to understand how different the American position is from that of most countries in the world. Because America is so distant from the main cockpits of conflict in the world, it is very easy for Americans to believe that things that happen so far away can’t possibly affect them and that was true in 1914 and it is true today as well, whereas other countries, they live in the middle of these crisis regions so they understand the immediate impact. 

So, Americans are slow to realise that something that is happening thousands of miles away ultimately has some implication for them and so they were slow in the 1930s to realise that and they were slow in this case to realise that as well, at a lesser level of strategic threat. 

Andrew Neil: Should the West make it clear that there can be no return to normality with Russia, as long as Mr Putin is in the Kremlin? 

Robert Kagan: No, I don’t think it’s possible to return to normality with Russia while Putin’s in the Kremlin in the same way that you wouldn’t have felt – I mean once a person has shown that he is willing to commit aggression again and again and again, you have to assume that that is what that person is, not to mention the steps that he’s now taking inside Russia which are even more draconian than the already draconian crack-down that he’d undertaken. I find it very hard to imagine ever going back to anything resembling business as usual but you know, I think business as usual with a country that is so clearly a revisionist power as China is, I mean business as usual is probably out the window in both cases. In both cases at the very least you are going to have a competitive contested relationship in which in fact you are battling over spheres of influence sort of continually and I think it would be a mistake, and in fact it’s a pretty common mistake that we in the West succumb to, to think that there is such a thing as normalcy, that there is such a thing as … which is another way of saying ‘Can we all go back to not worrying about all this?’

The answer is, to some extent you can never stop worrying about it because the world is in constant flux, you know. Nations rise and fall, that is the woof and warp of international relations; there’s no statis. We had somehow convinced ourselves the enlightenment had triumphed, peace had broken out, globalisation had cured the evils of mankind. You know, that’s not what’s happened, right, and I think it’s time for us to grow up and realise that we live in a complicated world to say the least.

Andrew Neil: If Ukraine survives this terrible ordeal that it is currently going through, if it survives as a sovereign state, should membership of the EU be back on the agenda? 

Robert Kagan: If it were up to me, then the answer would certainly be yes. I don’t see any reason to exclude Ukraine from the West and less so today before the invasion it seems to me should we consider trying to exclude Ukraine from the West. You know, one of the reasons why people said, well don’t push on EU, don’t push on Nato, was because you will provoke a Russian invasion. Well, no one was pushing on Ukraine for Nato and certainly the EU question was shelved for the time being and yet he invaded anyway. Maybe we can get over the notion that it is our fault that he is attacking Ukraine.

Andrew Neil: So, given Europe’s robust response to the invasion of Ukraine so far, are Americans still from Mars and Europeans still from Venus, as you once memorably wrote?

Robert Kagan: I still think it’s the case and, by the way, for entirely understandable reasons that the United States is still more prone to use force in situations than Europeans are. That derives to some extent from European capabilities; Europe doesn’t really have much in the way of force projection capabilities and up until now, I think it has been quite clear that Europeans haven’t wanted it. The discussion has certainly been taking place for decades, right? How many times have we said that the Europeans, that the Europeans have said that they are going to build up their military? They haven’t; they’ve made their choice. Maybe that will change to some extent but I don’t see Europe playing that kind of, becoming its own sort of stand-alone superpower, even though I would be delighted if it did.

So, it is partly capability and capability to some extent drives decision-making but of course, on the other hand – and this is something that I wish Americans were more sensitive to when it comes to countries like Germany – Europe has a past that is fraught with conflict and nationalism and two major bloody conflicts in the 20th century and for Europe to be inclined toward peace is of great benefit to the world and to the United States. I think we should, to some extent, welcome the degree to which Europeans are more peacefully inclined than maybe they have been in previous centuries and I wouldn’t be quick to want to push them in a different direction, quite honestly.

I think it means, and this is where it gets complicated, is it means to some extent Europe is going to continue to depend for its security on the American security umbrella. America should be willing, in fact perfectly willing to provide that security umbrella in the interests of global peace and there is going to be that disparity between the two. 

Andrew Neil: Let me move on to some wider considerations of American foreign policy and its place in the world. Is there not less of an appetite for America, at home and abroad, to play its dominant role on the world stage because of the failure of the US interventionism that you’ve espoused? 

Robert Kagan: That’s not what it seems to be the case, does it? I mean, it’s interesting to me how frequently since the Iraq war, to take the obvious example, Americans have been very slow to get over the Iraq war and I would agree with you that it has certainly made Americans less inclined to use force in situations where I think in retrospect they ought to have, for instance Syria, to keep Russia out and to deal with the horrific humanitarian disaster visited upon the Syrian people by Assad, but yes, there is no question that Iraq and to some extent Afghanistan, have had that effect.

The effect on the rest of the world I think is much less clear. I don’t notice in Japan any less of a desire to hold on to the US security relationship. In fact, they continue to be demandeurs in that relationship, as are other nations in East Asia and what we saw in the case of Europe was that the United States was not only called upon to play a critical role but that role was welcomed and in fact, the one reaction that I most noted in Europe in recent years was the horror with which Europeans greeted the Trump administration and the whole idea of America First and Trump’s discussion about perhaps getting out of Nato and Trump’s general hostility to the idea that the United States should do anything for Europeans, to provide Europeans with any security. And what was the European reaction to that? It was horror and hopes and prayers that we would get back to an administration like we have now, which is willing to play that role.

Most people and most countries that are made up of people, they have one question on their mind at any given moment, which is are you there for us or not when we need you? That is the question that people ask in East Asia, it is definitely the question that people ask in Eastern Europe and when they ask that question, they don’t talk about Iraq, they talk about the fact that they want the United States there to protect them and to help them protect themselves.

Andrew Neil: But the American people have got a right to ask a question too. 

Robert Kagan: And they do and they have. 

Andrew Neil: You want us there to help you but what are you doing to help yourself? Look how Germany has allowed its military to be hollowed out and is only now, in the aftermath of Ukraine, doing anything about it.

Robert Kagan: Well, as I say, I’ve never quite understood why Americans should be eager for Germany to become a big military nation again but if that’s what Americans think they want, I understand the impulse, it’s not agreeing with it. But mostly I think you’re right, of course, Americans – and by the way, that’s why I was surprised by the reaction in this case, right. I would have expected, based on what you’re saying and based on what American public opinion have looked like at least for the last decade or so, that there would be less interest in a European crisis of this nature than there has been. But look at what’s happened in the United States, it’s been almost a revolution of American public opinion, which will increase by the way inevitably, but the dissenting views have been few and far between in the United States so what that indicates to me is that there is more in that reservoir than we may have thought in terms of American willingness, the American public’s willingness to play a more active global role.

Of course, we’ve seen reverses like this in the past. You brought up the 1930s, clearly that was a major reversal of American public opinion, driven eventually by Pearl Harbour but not initially by Pearl Harbour. I mean American’s opinion began to shift after Munich, after Kristallnacht, after the invasion of Poland etc, so again you have to go back to this understanding that Americans believe they live in a safe corner of the world, where the rest of the world can’t touch them and it is very easy for them to say ‘Why did we get involved in here and why did we get involved there?’, especially when the wars don’t turn out the way we want them to but does that kill off that sentiment for international involvement of the United States? I would say clearly not.

Andrew Neil: I can see why America, you can argue that America still has an appetite to protect existing democracies and it is democracies, they’re our allies – Japan because of China, European democracies because of Russia and so on, but it doesn’t, I would suggest to you, have an appetite now for your kind of liberal interventionism. I mean, it’s often bloody efforts to spread democracy this century, has rather than succeeding, we’ve had a century of growing authoritarianism and autocracy. So-called liberal interventionism has hardly been deemed a success.

Robert Kagan: Well, first of all, it’s a complete myth that the United States went into Iraq and certainly went into Afghanistan in order to promote democracy. The reasons why the United States went into Iraq – rightly or wrongly – were driven by security interests and fears, especially after 9/11. It was not … 

Andrew Neil: There was a whole floor of the State Department devising plans to rebuild an Iraq based on democracy, I saw it myself. It was called Iraq Shack. 

Robert Kagan: I understand that but that was the … the purpose of invading Iraq was not to spread democracy. Now, as you know, once the United States invades a country, it invariably decides the best way to leave that country is to leave it a democracy. That was the case in Germany and Japan, it was the case in Central American countries where we were more or less – usually less – successful in accomplishing that goal but the question is, if you want to say an American foreign policy, anyone’s American foreign policy, certainly my foreign policy was aimed at spreading democracy by force: that’s just a myth, okay, that’s a myth that’s been created by people who want to oppose these things for one reason or another, which is fine. There was a perfectly good reason to oppose the war in Iraq but that’s not what that was about.

Now, the fact is however, I am interested to hear you say that the world has just become incredibly authoritarian. Russia and China have been authoritarian all along but it is driven by this single rule by one individual and I do think, by the way, to some extent that is an indication of how the order has weakened in recent decades and I don’t deny that the order, the liberal order, had weakened. So, countries that used to at least feel that they needed, even dictatorships needed to put up the pretence of having elections to legitimise their rule, I think in recent years they have felt less and less the need to do so because the democratic idea has been in retreat, by the way, just the way the democratic idea was in retreat in the 1920s and 30s as well. 

But I don’t think that what we have witnessed is the triumph of authoritarianism and I would say it is even harder to say that today where it seems to me if any country in the world, if any regime in the world is in peril right now, it is more likely to be Moscow’s than any democratic countries. 

Andrew Neil: Part of your case for liberal interventionism is that there are global responsibilities which only America can bear. Would it not be more honest to say, it’s got global interests that it needs to pursue?

Robert Kagan: You would have to explain to me exactly why the United States has more interest in stopping China’s expansion or Russia’s expansion, for that matter, than any of the dozens of countries that lie around their borders. It seems to me that the United States has less interest and that this is not driven, American policy is not driven exclusively by what Americans perceive as their interests except insofar as Americans perceive their interest as defending the democratic world order, which by the way, most Americans would not say was their goal even though I think it ought to be their goal, okay. 

It is simply the case that Americans at a certain point, I would say World War II and aftermath, decided that they didn’t want to live in a world that was dominated by authoritarians in Europe and Asia but the anti-interventionists who argue that America would not have been threatened if Hitler had won in Germany and Japan had won in Asia, I don’t think that we can know for sure that they were wrong about that. So, we have to be careful about saying these are American interests because, in many cases, what Americans have done is they have incorporated the interests of their allies as their own, but if you just look, if you are sitting in Iowa today, what do you care what happens in Ukraine?

Andrew Neil: But as we move now well into the 2020s and the 20th century becomes a bit of a memory, does America, do Americans still have the stomach to be a global player on a major scale in Europe and East Asia? 

Robert Kagan: Well, it’s a good question. I don’t think I can say with any certainty that I know what the answer is. They have in the past played simultaneously large roles in both Asia and Europe; they certainly are capable of doing it. I think one of the things that we’ve discovered in this crisis is how sort of healthy and vibrant those relationships really are. You know, I think the most extraordinary part of this whole thing of course was the financial response and the ability to get countries in Asia which are not at all threatened by what is going on in Ukraine, to take part in these sanctions because they want to make sure that when the same thing happens to them, the Europeans will then support them and the United States will support them. To me that’s a sign of real health on the part of the overall structure of the system, which makes it easier for Americans – and that’s why I wanted to make that point.

It makes it easier for Americans to sustain such a role when they feel that the allies are also heavily engaged and is it going to help in American politics if Germany fulfils the recent commitment to increase their defence budget? Yes, it will. It will be an argument for those who want to say these alliances are important and so I do think it is quite possible that they will sustain it but the problem is of course, we don’t know what events are going to happen, we don’t know what disasters will befall us. We don’t know for instance – and I know this is of interest to you – what the political situation in the United States is going to be after 2024 for instance.

Andrew Neil: And I want to come onto that in a minute for our final part but the reason I ask if America still has the stomach, because you will know better than me that the demands of Europe, where the Russian bear is still active, and Asia where you have this enormous rising power in China, they require very different military capabilities. One is land-based, boots on the ground, armour; the other is amphibious and air. That’s a big military build that America would have to pay to do both. 

Robert Kagan: Well, I think it ought to have been doing both all along in any case and, you know, as it happens, if the United States had favoured anything in the past ten years, it has favoured preparing for a China contingency, not a Russia contingency and the good news I think on the Russia side of it is, well look, we were able to [33:57] tens of thousands of troops, the troop build-up in Eastern Europe right now is pretty substantial and again, we may have the luxury afforded us of having seen that the Russian military does not have the kind of formidable capabilities that we may have thought. 

The problem is going to be in Asia, because even without anything happening in Europe, we are engaged in a very difficult arms race, the Chinese only have to deny access, we have to acquire our access; there are asymmetries that favour the Chinese and yes, China is a rich country, capable of forwarding a lot of military capability but we were already on that track and the American people, by the way, what’s been – I wouldn’t say amusing but certainly interesting to watch is that the American people were geared up to worry about China, the Republican party was completely geared up to focus on China as the one issue so now they have been forced to deal with Europe as well, but I don’t think that means that any concerns about China have diminished. 

Andrew Neil: President Biden has said that Ukraine, it could be an inflexion point in this century’s battle between autocracy and democracy. Is it the beginning, can we see it as the beginning of a democratic push-back? 

Robert Kagan: It’s very risky to make these kinds of predictions in the middle of a conflict without knowing how the conflict is going to end and then you’ll have me on a week later telling me that I was wrong about my prediction, you know. Of course, it’s a never-ending topic for talk shows.

Andrew Neil: That’s what we do, that’s what we do! 

Robert Kagan: And thank God for it too, let me say. But look, I do think, if we can put the if where it belongs, if in fact Putin sustains what I think will clearly be a loss in this effort, yes, that is a blow because one of the things that one heard not only coming out of Moscow but even in the West, and certainly in the United States, was a creeping concern – by the way, similar to the 1920s and 30s – that maybe democracy isn’t really all it was cracked up to be, that maybe it is not an efficient form of government and it is certainly not a tough enough form of government and that these dictatorships can move fast, they can stick with the moves that they make, etc, etc. 

Andrew Neil: They can make the trains run on time. 

Robert Kagan: They can make the trains run on time, thank you Benito. So, therefore, now maybe you might say, well gee, maybe that’s not all it’s cracked up to be and I’m sure we are now going to have all the theorising coming forward about how it is better to be a democracy because then you have a more collective decision-making and you don’t have one guy who can screw up the whole country, etc, etc, and maybe you can trust your military more in a democracy, blah-blah-blah, whatever it’s going to be but I don’t think, I think it’s reasonable to say that they will have a larger effect, yes. 

Andrew Neil: Let’s turn lastly to democracy on the home front. Last September you wrote that America faced the greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, which takes us way back to the 1860s. Do you still stand by that? 

Robert Kagan: I still am very concerned and one of the things that … I do foreign policy for a living and not domestic policy and so it has been easy for me to pivot, if you will, to foreign policy but the things that I and others were worried about back in last Fall are things that we still need to worry about. You know, I still think that Donald Trump is likely to get the Republican nomination which means that the Republican party in a way will officially endorse not only him but the argument that the 2020 election was stolen from him. A very large percentage of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was fraudulent; people genuinely believe that and unfortunately, our society, the American society, which was always violent to begin with, has become more violent and more prone to violence. People are armed and dangerous out there and I think that therefore we face the real prospect of contested state elections in 2024, which even if Trump doesn’t … regardless of what happens after that, that mere fact is a constitutional crisis because there is no remedy in the constitution really for contested state votes and so it is going to put us in a very difficult position.

Andrew Neil: But isn’t Donald Trump running again in 2024 central to your argument? If he doesn’t run, doesn’t the threat largely – and I don’t say entirely – but doesn’t the threat largely go away?

Robert Kagan: I am, I think, in a minority in thinking that the answer is yes, that you’re right, that it does largely go away. I think what other people would say is look, this movement has already shown that it exists independently of Trump to some extent because there were cases where Trump himself has had to reverse his position in order to get right with the moment that he supposedly leads. For instance, on vaccinations and most recently on Russia. It was clear that the movement was anti-Russian and he had to flip in order to get in the right place on that, so that’s what people would say but I actually agree with you that Trump is special, that he is in a way the living avatar of all these resentments, all these hatreds. He is the disruptive force, he is the … that anybody finds him charismatic I find hard to believe but I don’t think there is any question that he is charismatic and that he is capable of leading this group. I think in the absence of Trump, what you would see is the movement would fracture. I think the only person that I can see right now who can hold this whole movement together is Trump.

Andrew Neil: It is now fashionable to say, I think you have written it yourself, that America has never been more divided but isn’t American history replete with deep divisions? I mean, you had a whisky rebellion only a couple of years after you were invented; you had the Civil War, which is still the most brutal war you have ever fought in; you had the Civil Rights of the 1960s; you had Vietnam; you had the National Guard. I mean, even in sleepy Wilmington, Delaware, in 1968 the Governor had to deploy the National Guard for eleven months!

Robert Kagan: By the way, I did make the point that it was that word divided, because I know perfectly well that we’ve always been divided. Back in the late 19th century, when people died, they put their political party on their gravestones. It would say in their obituary, Republican, Democrat, and that was a direct outgrowth of the Civil War, obviously but division is typical. All I want to say is that Trump is unique. The turmoil in the United States, the racism, the white anxiety, every other cultural aspect of this, that has always existed. What was unusual in this case was this particular man, that is why I think he is so critical and whether or not he gets the nomination is critical.

Andrew Neil: What in your view is the likely impact of Ukraine on US domestic politics? Is there not a chance that it rekindles a respect for democracy and it discredits the Putin lovers and those on the far right and the far left who have a soft spot for authoritarianism?

Robert Kagan: That is definitely my hope and I think you can see signs that that may be in fact happening. The fact that it really is a very fringe group on both the left and the right that is against the mainstream response to all this, is encouraging and one thing I’m sure you think but that you didn’t mention is there is also bipartisanship on this issue. You know, you really do have Republican and Democratic senators on this issue, almost exclusively, working together so sometimes these foreign policy crises, I think what you are saying and quite rightly, do have a way of reminding Americans what it is that unites them in the middle of their divisions. So, I don’t want to go too far with that, it’s hard to predict but I do think there are encouraging signs of the impact on the American domestic political situation. 

Andrew Neil: On that optimistic note, Robert Kagan, I thank you for your time and for your insights. 

Robert Kagan: Thank you. 


Andrew Neil, narrating: His latest book, “The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order”, will be published in Autumn 2022.

Tortoise members and subscribers on Apple Plus can hear my reflections on that conversation in a bonus episode called Inside the Interview, which comes out every Friday during this series. You can join our Newsroom by going to tortoisemedia.com/Andrew and entering the code AndrewNeil50, that’s five-zero and all one word. 

This episode was mixed by Studio Klong with original music by Tom Kinsella. The Executive Producer is Lewis Vickers.

Thanks for listening.

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Inside the interview: Robert Kagan

Inside the interview: Robert Kagan

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with Robert Kagan, a contributing columnist at the Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

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