Editor’s Note: The following are adapted from remarks by Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University and New York University, delivered at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on November 24, 2015.
I am delighted to be here in San Francisco with you. The farther you go from Washington and the mainstream media, the better introductions you get!
Some of you may know that the small group of us who have been protesting against the American policy since the Ukraine crisis began two years ago have been described in harsh and derogatory language as “Putin’s apologists, Putin’s useful idiots and Putin’s best friends in America.”
Paris should have changed everything, but for these people it hasn’t. I clicked on the Internet this morning and there it was again. So let me begin with a word about myself.
My answer to these charges is that, “No, I, not you, am a patriot of American national security.” And I actually have been since I started studying Russia about 50 years ago. I started out in Kentucky and then went to Indiana University, and old friends here today can testify that I was doing this many years ago. Along the way I came to a conviction, exactly how and why doesn’t matter, that American national security runs through Moscow. It means that an American president must have a partner in the Kremlin—not a friend, but a partner. This was true when the Soviet Union existed, and this is true today.
And it is true whichever existential or grave world threat you may emphasize. For some people it is climate change, for others it is human rights, for some it is the spread of democracy. For me, for quite a while, it has been the new kind of terrorism that afflicts the world today. These terrorists are no longer “non-state actors.” These guys are organized, they have an army, they have a self-professed state, they have ample funds and they have the ability to hurt us gravely in many parts of the world. Everyone seems to have forgotten 9/11 and Boston, but Paris should have reminded us of what’s at stake.
So for me, international terrorism is the threat in the world today that should be America’s national-security priority. And I mean it should be the top priority for the president of the United States, whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat. It is the existential threat represented by a combination of this new kind of terrorism, religious, ethnic, zealous civil wars—and, still worse, these guys desperately want the raw materials for making weapons of mass destruction. A cup of radioactive material in those planes on 9/11 would have made Lower Manhattan uninhabitable even today.
Terrorists today are using conventional weapons, bombs, mortars, and guns. But if they had a cup of this radioactive material in Paris, Paris would have needed to be evacuated. This is the real threat today. This kind of threat cannot be diminished, contained, still less eradicated unless we have a partner in the Kremlin. That is the long and short of it; note again, I didn’t say a “friend” but a partner. Nixon and Clinton went on about their dear friend Brezhnev and their friend Yeltsin; it was all for show. I don’t care whether we like the Kremlin leader or not; what we need is recognition of our common interests for a partnership—the way two people in business make a contract. They have the same interests and they have to trust each other—because if one person violates the agreement, then the other person’s interests are harmed.