Is America Breaking up the International Order? Q&A with D. Holloway


Photo credit: 
L.A. Cicero


The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies would like to extend the warmest best wishes to Senior Fellow and Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History, David Holloway. After over 30 years as an expert in political science and history at Stanford University, Holloway will retire on September 1, 2018.


David Holloway was co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) from 1991 to 1997, and director of FSI from 1998 to 2003. His research focuses on the international history of nuclear weapons, science and technology in the Soviet Union, and the relationship between international history and international relations theory. He is best known for his book Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (Yale University Press, 1994) which was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of 1994. Holloway has also actively contributed to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Foreign Affairs, and other scholarly journals over the course of his career.


As a member of our institute, Holloway’s quiet warmth and kindness have always been infectious, both inside and outside of the classroom. The depth and insight of his work over the years, not to mention his dedication to FSI and the Stanford Community at large, has been an inspiration. He will be sorely missed. We all wish him the very best with this new chapter in his life and with the completion of his latest book, a complete global history of nuclear weapons, non-proliferation, and international politics, due to be published in 2019.


We caught him to hear his views on recent developments in U.S.-Russia relations one last time and to talk about his time at Stanford.


At the NATO summit, Trump claimed that Germany “is a captive of Russia.” Is there any foundation to this claim?

I don't think so. Trump made the statement in connection with the Nord Stream Oil Pipeline. A lot of people have criticized Germany for building this because it will increase German reliance on Russia. Critics believe that by sending oil through Germany, Russia will potentially have more freedom to interfere in Ukrainian territories. However, the German government has reassured the international community that they would help Ukraine if Russia does use the pipeline to push for recognition of the annexation of Crimea. In Germany’s defense, I think they feel that they have to have economic relations with Russia unless they are in a state of war or close to one – it is the only logical arrangement.


How do you think we can reconcile the disjunction between the U.S. president’s pro-Putin statements and position at the Helsinki press conference with the fact that his administration is implementing sanctions against Russia? 

The policies certainly look contradictory. Trump has not said anything critical about Putin (which is remarkable when he is quite willing to say critical things about everybody else), yet, as you say, his administration has imposed tough sanctions. Why is Trump so reluctant to support his own administration? And why is it that he wanted to meet Putin in the first place? We just don’t know.

On a related note, the Chinese claim that Trump is a very good tactician/strategist and that his behavior at the Helsinki summit was “Kissinger-in-reverse.” That is, it was intended to weaken Russia's ties to China by offering better ties with the U.S. and potentially with Western Europe. Thus, the Chinese see Trump’s performance not as a sign of incompetence and incoherence (as many do in the West), but as further evidence of his coherent strategy.

We often ascribe a malicious masterplan or intentional nefariousness to adversaries. For my part, while possible that the president has a master-plan, I think it is most likely that he does not. Trump has created a backlash against Russia in the U.S. which will make it even more difficult for U.S.-Russian relations to improve in years to come.


There have been a number of articles written about Trump’s push for increased allied investment in NATO; he started by pushing for all members to meet the 2 percent GDP investment quota, but then demanded that they invest 4 percent. Is demanding 4 percent feasible?

The truth is that every American president has pushed the European members of NATO to spend more on defense. Even Obama did it. However, Trump has done it much more openly and offensively. I think the push for 4 percent was more a case of showmanship; the stance he was taking was, “You're not even at 2 percent but you should really be at 4 percent!”

What is the impact of all of this?  I have certainly seen many Europeans turn around say that the E.U. cannot rely on the U.S. anymore. If we have a Trump administration for another six years and/or a U.S. administration in 2020 that takes a similar line, I think we could well see the end of NATO. 


The President’s remarks referred to the fact that only 9 of NATO’s 29 members have reached the 2 percent quota. Yet many NATO advocates are counter-arguing that many of the remaining 21 nations have significantly increased their defense spending. How would you weigh in?

I would agree with NATO advocates and add that the reason why expenditure got so low in the first place is that, after the end of the Cold War, Europe seemed peaceful. I think the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia somewhat changed this perception, and the parts of the continent most under threat are the Baltic States and Georgia. As a side note, we should also remember that NATO troops have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside the U.S. It is not that they have been doing nothing.


The President claims he vastly improved U.S.-Russian relations at the Helsinki summit. Others, like FSI Director Michael McFaul, claim that the summit was further evidence that we are in an era of “Hot Peace” with Russia. What do you think?

Before I answer your question, I want to say that I think it is good to have Russian and American leaders talking to each other. These are the two largest nuclear powers; I think that there should be open communication on military issues and nuclear issues most particularly.

The world isn't at stake in the same way it was during the Cold War. Yet, there are still fears of military conflict, and we have a new phenomenon: election hacking. The question of Russian meddling in the last U.S. election is complicated by Trump's relationship with Russia. The press conference at Helsinki was so extraordinary, not least because, if Trump really wanted to open a dialogue with Russia, he greatly damaged his chances by virtue of his own behavior. If, instead, he had insisted that Putin did interfere—openly declared his trust in his own intelligence services—I do not believe that the Russians would have walked away. I believe they have an interest in having a dialogue with the United States.


Some political scientists argue that we are now in a new Cold War in Asia, namely with North Korea and/or a possible North Korean-Chinese alliance. Do you agree?

I think of the Cold War as having three elements. First, after World War II there was a geopolitical element: the USSR wanted to control Eastern Europe both for security reasons and for ideological reasons. Second: the U.S. and its West European allies were motivated to help spread principles of liberal democracy and market capitalism, the Soviet Union’s Communist Party wanted to rule via centralized government control and a centrally-planned economy. Third, we had a military element: the arms race and the build-up of huge military confrontations.

Based on these three elements, I'm inclined to see what's going on now more as a breakdown of the international system created after World War II and that the U.S. had dominated. America is not as powerful as it once was. First, Russia turned out not to be a great fit for the established international system, for a variety of reasons. Second, China has risen to become an economic powerhouse that seeks to extend its influence – not (primarily) by military means but through the “belt and road” initiative investment, by building infrastructure in surrounding states. There was always a difficult relationship between the U.S. and China, but nothing like what the U.S.-Soviet relation was at the height of the Cold War.


With everything that has happened in the last few years, which event is going to prove a truly pivotal point for contemporary history when we look back in 20 or 30 years' time?

I think that the ten-day trip that Trump took to Europe was pivotal. The attacks on NATO, not to mention the way he treated Britain (Theresa May in particular), and what we know about his conduct during his meeting with Putin… I think we may look back on that week as a pivotal moment in the breakup of the transatlantic relationship. I don't know what it portends for U.S.-Russian relations, but I think it has made those relations much worse.


Let’s talk about your career here at Stanford. What brought you to FSI originally?

I had an invitation to come for a visit of three years. I was teaching in Edinburgh at the time, and I got a letter from Condi Rice, who was the assistant director of CISAC back then. After the three years, I decided I wasn’t going back. What was so attractive about FSI was the people. I know it may sound rather cliché, but there was such a great sense of possibility about the place. If you had an idea, instead of hearing people say, “Oh, we've never done it that way,” people would say, “Oh, yeah, let's see if we can help you do that!”


What is your fondest memory from your time at Stanford?

That's very difficult. I think one of my best memories is when Gorbachev came to speak at Stanford back in 1990. He gave a speech in the Stanford Memorial Auditorium, and the place was packed; it was at the height of Gorbo-mania. In the course of the speech he thanked some of us at FSI for helping to bring about the improvement in US-Soviet relations…Bill Perry, Pief Panofsky, Sid Drell, and myself. And that was – that's a pleasant moment to remember.


What advice would you give an undergrad starting at Stanford?  And what advice would you give a graduate student hoping to have a career in political science, history, or policy?

To the undergrad, my advice is rather obvious: at Stanford, you have this chance to look around and to try different things, new subjects and programs. Take full advantage of that!

To graduate students: I think most assume that when you choose to be a graduate student, you're choosing to be a specialist in a discipline. That’s true! Yet, at the same time, it is also very important to look around and see what there is outside your discipline, to learn how to communicate with people, particularly ones with other interests and in other fields.

We talk a lot about interdisciplinary work. But truly interdisciplinary work is very difficult. When I came to Stanford, I thought it fantastic that FSI had specialists in such diverse fields all in one place. At the time we had John Lewis who was a China specialist. Sid Drell was a physicist with a lot of experience working on national security issues. Phil Farley spent a long time in the State Department working on arms control issues. I learned a lot from Sid Drell; I wasn't doing physics, but we wrote something together. That kind of possibility and opportunity was incredible. I continued to love this about Stanford over the past 30 years, and I've been very grateful for all of these opportunities. 

As a last thought, I remember a conversation I had with John Hennessy when he was Dean of Engineering, and I was director of FSI. I remember telling him that, much to my surprise, a lot of our best supporters were (and continue to be) engineers. He said, “That’s obvious! No engineer thinks that his discipline alone can solve a problem. You have to work with other people when you're doing something!”

Then he said, “Engineers are also not averse to trying to raise money!” [laughter]