As the pandemic trial puts our countries to the test, another, more ominous threat looms. Fiona Hill talks about how the US and the UK have lost their sense of community, to be found in Italy, and what geopolitical perils await the West.
Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Ms. Hill spent three years serving as Director of European and Russian Affairs at the Trump administration’s National Security Council, advising the US president in her capacity as world-class leading expert on Russia.
In this exclusive interview for Formiche.net she outlines a host of issues, including the possibility of a new Cold War with China and how to avoid it, as well as the threat posed by contemporary Russia and the specter of the former USSR. She explains how diplomacy and reinforced Western alliances are the antidote we need right now, and she touches upon her year since she left the West Wing, the impeachment hearings and the ensuing anonymous threats and insults.
FORMICHE: Fiona Hill, are we entering a new Cold War with China?
Hill: There are major differences with the US-USSR Cold War, but yes, China is a rising power and it’s showing systemic threats. It’s very regionally focused in Asia Pacific, but it has a global reach that stretches to the two poles. During the Cold War with the Soviet Union you had defined blocks, and we absolutely have to avoid dividing the world into pro-China and anti-China blocks – we must not fall into a repetition of the Cold War, and we must find a way of creating incentives for China. I guess we all thought we were by bringing China into the WTO and the G20 and all of the international financial institutions, and then we actually found that, sadly, China didn’t behave as we thought it would; so now we have to be firmer. However, there are so many issues that would require collaborating with China, especially climate change. We’ve already lost an awful lot of time, we’ve only got one planet, and I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we’re at risk of putting ourselves into extinction.
Italy has always had the ambition to help the United States talk with Russia, or China more recently. Do you think this might be a risky game?
I think that Italy’s relationship with the US is so longstanding that we shouldn’t be talking about sides. I also don’t think that Italy wants to become subordinate or exploited in any way by China; but that risk exists, particularly at a time of economic crisis. Different countries will have varying degrees of concern about specific issues, but I think there’s enough of a common concern about predatory trade practices and the future of communications, 5G. If we all pull together we can mitigate those threats, and that doesn’t require taking sides. The pandemic is an opportunity to do some reassessment, even if I fear it won’t be taken. Now we just have to keep at it.
You had an exceptional perspective on US foreign policy from the White House. How has America’s place in the world changed during this administration?
I think it has been changing for quite some time, actually, since the Bush II and Obama administrations. The break probably dates back to after 9/11, when the US decided to go into Iraq. We know only too well that there was a great deal of resistance. I remember French experts warning that Iraq didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, people protesting in the streets of London, Turks not allowing the US into Iraq through Turkish territory. Our threat perceptions have changed since the end of the Cold War, with the war on terrorism, the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS, the Sahel and Libya. We all started to see the world in a different way. And this, I think, was accelerated under President Trump.
How did that happen?
The President’s focus was on trade and China, and it’s taken some time for other countries to change their perspectives on the latter. Take Italy: I know some Italian politicians see China very differently, as with the security risks concerning 5G and Huawei. And although the Italy-US relationship has remained solid, we’ve had a lot of divergence on a host of issues.
What can be done to close this gap?
It’s going to take a larger acknowledgement that we’re all in this together, we really need to be more mindful of how important our overall alliances are. This has to happen on the European side, too. It’s going to be a lot of hard work – but I think that we can start from discussions at the think tank and media level.
You’re known as one of the world’s leading experts on Russia. What can the US and the West do to amend their relationships with the Kremlin?
I think that we in the West need to have a very sensible discussion about Russia. There’s been a lot of different views on Russia. For instance, I’ve seen a lot more willingness in some political parties and individuals in Italy to work more actively with it than others. And we haven’t had a serious discussion about what we want that relationship to be. One thing is clear, though: the West is no longer engaged in a frontal geopolitical struggle with Russia. Whoever stands by the opposite theory is still living in the 20th century. Our systemic rival, as of now, is China.
Is Russia not a threat anymore?
No, it is. Take arms control, or the fact that we theoretically still have the ability to destroy each other with our military and nuclear capabilities. But much of the threat comes from Russian security agencies as they’re still looking for the US to be their main adversary and they’re trying to whip up conflict among Western nations. I often wonder if the Russian intelligence services would have known what to do with themselves in the absence of having the US or NATO.
Why would they do this?
Truth is, they want vengeance for all the humiliations, both perceived and real, that came from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we got into a cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation, but without a real meaning to it. The invasion of Georgia, the seizure of Crimea, the war in the Donbass, shooting down MH17, interventions in Syria and Libya, poisonings, assassinations – there’s an awful lot to get upset about. But this is a kind of game that the Russians themselves can’t seem to break out of. If we want to be able to put this on a different trajectory, we have to find points of engagement; arms control is one of them. But if they continue with their dirty tricks, then we won’t be able to change the relationship – which sometimes leads me to wonder if they actually want to do that.
What’s their real objective, then?
I think their goal at the moment is to weaken us, humiliate us, sow chaos and division within our individual countries and between them – which is why we must remember what our Western alliances are for, not just what they are against. And that’s why we need to go back to the basics of having really serious discussions about managing Russia. There’s no silver bullet to this, but there’s also no great mystery. We have to become systematical and we have to work together. We’ve been most effective when we’ve had a unified approach.
There’s been some talk about including Russia in multilateral forums from which it is excluded, like the G7. Even president Trump is favorable. Is this viable?
Diplomacy isn’t a reward, it should be what we’re doing; we should be engaging in diplomacy with them at all times. The reasons for which the G7 rejected Russia were very specific. Today there’s a push from the Trump administration to have the G7 focus on China, but the Russians don’t want to be engaged in this at this particular juncture.
We have to find ways of engaging with the Russians and dialogue in different formats; the NATO-Russia Council was one of them. We can’t keep having people being assassinated, we can’t keep having them interfering in our elections. We’ve seen what happened with the Bundestag hack in 2015, we know what they did with the French elections, and maybe with the Italian ones, too. We need to have a concerted effort to discuss this. And we can do that, we just have to have it properly structured – but that’s very difficult to do during a pandemic, let alone during election period.
The Russia Report just came out in the UK. Do you feel that Russia might have had some reasons to interfere in the English and Scottish referendums?
I think that, overall, Russia wants to make people feel that they can’t have confidence in their own democratic systems. And again, it’s a sort of revenge against the West for causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. On top of that you have Putin’s own belief that we all had something to do with the creation of the protests against him when he returned to the presidency in 2012. This had its own domestic roots, but the Russian government always believes in some hand of the West. Also, they want us to be constantly talking about them because it makes them relevant and keeps them in the mix. Another thing the Russians are very worried about is being ignored and not being given a seat at the international table. By being a nuisance, they think they get leverage because we can’t ignore them. So, when Barack Obama said that Russia was just a regional power, or people start saying that Russia is no longer a major player, the Russians want to show that no, they’re actually a global power, and they can do nasty things.
It’s been a year since you left the White House. Meanwhile, you went through a Congress audition during the impeachment hearings, a great deal of mediatic clamor, and anonymous threats. How have these months been?
A lot of people have personal or family experiences in their background that helped them with personal resilience – they call it fortitude. I’m not unique in that, and my upbringing certainly helped. I don’t take these things personally because we’re all living in a very politicized environment, with lots of people reading into conspiracy theories. Even public health is being politicized nowadays. In the social media environment, people are always looking to discredit people, and women in particular are fair game. It just seems to be part of the atmosphere in which we’re operating right now; which doesn’t make it right either, we need to push back against this.
Do you think you might ever come back into public service?
Public service is very important. This is the message I wanted to get across during the hearings and in everything I’ve done so far. We’ve seen during the Covid-19 pandemic that public servants, in the form of doctors and nurses in public health, have been vital, as have scientists and governors. Prime minister Conte in the Italian context has been very effective in rolling in these people behind him. What I want to do at Brookings is deliver very clear, open, facts-first information that’s not political nor partisan. I think most of the issues we’re dealing with right now – take climate change – require an all-of-society effort to fix them. I don’t see a particular position in this government that would make sense for me, but I do see what I’m doing at Brookings as public service.
Your country is living through very hard times – the pandemic, social tensions, political divisions. What do you think America needs to be great again?
We need to see everybody as a part of the same community. I look at the cases of Italy and Spain, which were really hard hit by the virus in the beginning. I’ve been really impressed by some of the small towns in Italy that came together at their level: that’s the merit in the community. And prime minister Conte not politicizing the response to the virus helped. This hasn’t happened elsewhere.
Such as where?
What’s been striking to me, coming from the UK, is how suddenly the UK and the US have failed to get on top of this, because there’s been a more individualistic approach to everything. People lost that sense of pulling together, which both countries have had in the past. I mean, both the US and the UK have done great things in terms of response to crises – World War One, World War Two. People mobilized in the name of a greater good, and we can do that again. The unfortunate thing is that this has occurred around a presidential election, in an era of great polarization.
How can Britons and Americans start over?
We all have to do something here: wearing a mask, going out to vote, volunteering, or just having people looking out for members of their own family or neighbors. And we also have to work with our allies on best practices. Our scientists are working together behind the scenes as part of our collective approach to vaccines. The biggest horror will probably be the anti-vax movement; these are public health issues that require people to take to vaccines and treatments. It’s the same way with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis: if people don’t stick to the regimen of the treatment, they won’t get rid of it.
This interview has been edited for the sake of clarity and readability.
(Photo: Kuhlmann /MSC)