Editor’s note: POLITICO Magazine released a list of the top 50 influential people in Washington, D.C., including Brookings Senior Fellow Robert Kagan and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, described as “the ultimate American power couple.”
Victoria Nuland and Robert Kagan fell in love “talking about democracy and the role of America in the world” on one of their first dates. It’s a shared passion that hasn’t faded over time.
It was just two years ago that President Obama was gushing to aides about an essay that Kagan, a historian and author, wrote about the myth of American decline—a theme Obama echoed in his State of the Union that January. This year, Kagan’s sprawling New Republic essay, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire,” insisted on America’s enduring responsibility to shape the world order—and issued a direct challenge to a president who has summarized his own foreign-policy doctrine with a minimalist “don’t-do-stupid-s—t” directive. Obama promptly invited Kagan in for a West Wing consult, but it was also clear that Kagan had helped rouse the president’s Republican critics, who have been increasingly adopting Kagan’s argument that just because it’s been a decade of wearying war in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t mean America can roll up its superpower carpet and stay home when new crises, from Iraq to Russia to Syria, beckon.
Nuland, overseeing European and Eurasian Affairs at the State Department, has been a strong advocate of the engaged approach her husband favors as a crisis with Russia has unfolded on her diplomatic turf this year. The point was made, rather sensationally, in February, when a leaked audio recording of her F-bomb-laden diatribe about the fecklessness of the European Union, which she accused of not exactly playing a constructive role trying to end the growing conflict in Ukraine, appeared on the Internet. Nuland, a career Foreign Service officer, has been an impassioned advocate for democracy-building in Eastern Europe, and while she got pushback from European counterparts over her “f—k the EU” comment, the United States has been leading the effort to impose sanctions on Russia since President Vladimir Putin seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and waged a proxy war in the country’s east—dragging a reluctant Europe along pretty much every step of the way.
Falling apart? The politics of New START and strategic modernization
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.
Over the arc of his presidency, Trump has shed himself of cabinet secretaries he doesn’t trust and surrounded himself with loyalists. That will continue and escalate. But the big problem is, he doesn’t know where he’s going.