High level retirees from the US government, ex Secretaries of State, Defense, White House officials and other experts shared their considered thoughts with the several hundred attendees who gathered on the campus of Kent School August 18-20 under the banner of Kent Presents.
Faced with Russian build up of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, the sudden appearance of Russian bombers based in Iranian airports and China’s belligerence in claiming sovereignty over uninhabited shoals in the China Sea, the retired diplomats and strategists had much to consider.
We came away with the impression that the diplomats have a strong preference for diplomacy. William Perry, former Secretary of Defense under President Clinton, considered nuclear issues, their danger and their proliferation. He was a strong advocate of keeping a tight lid on all existing weapons and working diplomatically to eliminate them from the weapons of choice. North Korea was the rogue state, but we had better go very carefully before threatening to bomb their facilities, since they are of a special interest to the Chinese. Ex-Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy said he was told by Chinese leaders that they hated the North Koreans, but liked a buffer state between China and South Korea. They do not want chaos or a war on their border. Perry placed confidence in the ability of our ships stationed off the Korean coast to shoot down any missile that might be aimed at the U.S.
Ex-Ambassador Roy described how in the Ming period and earlier China ships and traders dominated the countries around the South China Sea and how that period is well remembered in Chinese history. This history gives China a good argument for exercising some dominion over that territory also claimed by the states that neighbor those shoals and small islands. The U.S. should recognize the Chinese interest as legitimate while bargaining to keep the sea and air lanes open. Kissinger thought that the Taiwan situation might be a model for dealing with the South China Sea. The model calls for an extended period of negotiations that might last for 25 years or more, time for the parties to forget what they were fighting about.
Ex-Ambassador Jack Matlock mentioned that Ukraine, since the late 18th century, was Russian and is considered Russian by most Russians. The attempt to make Ukraine a member of NATO touches deep nerves as the Russian state considers Ukraine in their legitimate sphere of influence. Just as we would not be happy if China or Russia established military bases, nuclear weapons and missiles in Mexico, so our actions in Ukraine are viewed with deep suspicion by Russia.
Ex-Secretary of State Kissinger made the strongest statement for statecraft in finding common interests with Russia and China to avoid military confrontations. He thought China would not want war and would back off if necessary, but it should not be necessary. He also said we should have a deeper understanding of Russia since Putin is acting in accordance with the Russian situation as understood by Russians. Crimea has historically belonged to Russia and it is not surprising that they took it back.
Former US ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering noted that the band-aid for Ukraine is not working. Its economy is naturally tied to Russia. Crimea, Georgia and Ukraine are seen by Putin as essential to Russian security. He suggests a federation in Ukraine might separate the Russian and Ukrainian-speaking peoples. Ukraine should be seen as a bridge country, which might be the goal of a workout of local differences.
Matlock and Pickering continued in the realist mode of diplomacy, saying that an overall understanding would recognize Russia’s historic economic and social ties to Ukraine, restore the legitimacy of the Russian language in Ukraine and restore historic trade and economic ties. Lifting the sanctions in exchange for something of value should be the goal of our strategy. Sanctions caused as much damage to Europe as to Russia; efforts should be made to restore trade and normal relations.
Sanctions will not restore Crimea to Ukraine: sanctions were ill calculated to achieve that end. Instead, sanctions helped destroy whatever relations we did have with Russia and severely distresses populations and the private sector economy.
A member of the audience asked since the U.S. considers the Caribbean its area of special interest, why don’t we recognize that the South China Sea is a legitimate interest of the Chinese? Thomas Pickering answered, it’s the old story: “what’s mine is mine; what’s yours is negotiable.”
None of the experts would venture an opinion on how either of the candidates would deal with the international problems. They only said that Ms Clinton was experienced. It seems President Putin may not be entirely pleased if she wins.