An exclusive interview with Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow at Brookings Institution, leading expert on Russia and former foreign policy counsellor to President Trump. The state of the States, relations with Europe, Russia, the ghost of the Cold War, the chances of a new one with China, and more.
By Francesco Bechis and Otto Lanzavecchia
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, bu