A year of war in Ukraine with State Dept counselor Derek Chollet
In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with State Department Counselor Derek Chollet about the state of the war in Ukraine as it enters its second year. Morell and Chollet discuss the implications of a deepening relationship between Russia and Iran as well as Russia and China, which the U.S. recently warned against providing material aid to Moscow. Chollet also provides new insights into the newly tense relationship between Washington and Beijing, following the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon. He outlines the Biden administration’s approach to managing Iran’s nuclear ambitions after the earlier collapse of nuclear talks.
- U.S. path forward in Ukraine: “Now we’ve just got to stick to it, I think. And the basic lines of effort that were put in place a year ago remain, which is to punish and isolate Russia, make it harder for Russia to conduct this fight by choking off its resources and isolating it. By, second, to strengthen Ukraine and to ensure that Ukraine, as best we can, has the means at its disposal to defend itself and regain territory and put itself in a position where we can have a just and durable peace. And then third, to ensure that our commitments to NATO partners and the strength of the NATO alliance and this larger effort to support Ukraine remain strong. And so that’s kind of the basic framework we have been operating under over the last year. And I think that’s how we’re going to continue into this next year.”
- Is China providing lethal assistance to Russia? “Our assessment is they have not yet made that decision up to this point. But there are just increasing indications that this is something on their minds. And that’s a concern to us. It’s a concern to the Ukrainians. It’s a concern to our European partners. It’s one of the reasons why we want to talk about it, because this is not something that they’re considering to do out in the open. And I think, you know, it would be a grave mistake for them to make and it would do nothing than further the hardship inside Ukraine. And I think it would frankly make life more difficult for China as well. And so it’s important for us to talk about it.”
- Diplomatic fallout of the surveillance balloon: “Having a surveillance balloon to collect intelligence fly over the United States territory, the continental United States, visible for all to see, for people to go out in their backyard and take a picture on their iPhones of a surveillance balloon, is not a responsible way to manage this relationship. And the reason why it was important for Secretary Blinken to have a chance to speak face to face with Wang Yi about this in Munich was to send that message clearly, but also at the same time make clear that we still believe that, given the charge that was given to the secretary by the president and by coming out of the meeting in Bali, that obviously there are things that are important to our relationship with China, that are important to global security that we need to talk about.”
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Intelligence Matters / Derek Chollet
Producer: Olivia Gazis
Lightly edited for clarity
MICHAEL MORELL: Derek, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.
DEREK CHOLLET: Great to be back with you, Michael.
MICHAEL MORELL: So, obviously, Derek, there’s a ton to talk about. Lots going on in the world and we want to get to that. But we are called Intelligence Matters. And given that, I wanted to ask you about the intelligence you consume. Obviously, you do that. I, I assume you do that.
DEREK CHOLLET: I’m a loyal and voracious consumer.
MICHAEL MORELL: Excellent. And I wanted to ask you how you do that. Do you have a briefer who comes to see you every day? Do you just get a package and do you go through it? How do you consume it?
DEREK CHOLLET: It’s a great question. And I’m sincere when I say I’m a vigorous consumer of intelligence. I get a briefing book every day that’s on an iPad. And when you were back in your old job, that was a sort of state of the art, to put it on an iPad. And that’s becoming a lot more common, which is really user-friendly and easy.
And then I also get it the old school way. I also get a hard copy of another binder that’s done by the Intelligence and Research bureau here at the State Department, which is the State Department’s arm in the intelligence community. And in the iPad, I get the PDB, the presidential daily brief. That is a version of what Secretary Blinken gets, my boss. And so obviously, it’s important for those of us who work closest with him to kind of have a sense of everything that he’s seeing or nearly everything that he’s seeing, because, of course, I don’t see everything he sees.
And then throughout the day, I’ll get updates either on particular issues that I’m following. And so, you know, whether it’s pegged to a trip that I’m going to be doing or an issue set that I’m working on intensively, I’ll get an additional packet of intelligence based on that because, you know, typically when I’m involved in a particular negotiation, there’s no amount of material that’s too much. Which is a given.
And then I also have a human being that will come by usually twice a week. It’s actually the same briefer that Secretary Blinken has and other senior officials here at the department. He’ll swing by a couple of days a week and we’ll go over any material that I might administer. It’s also, again, as you know well, someone who lives this stuff to just get his or her perspective on pieces that he thought were particularly useful, interesting, or were getting a lot of attention within the IC, just to give you a little situational awareness.
MICHAEL MORELL: Also gives you an opportunity to ask questions.
DEREK CHOLLET: Ask tons of questions. You know, sometimes sort of the back story on particular pieces is really interesting and useful to know. Particularly ones that are saying something particularly provocative or, you know, analytically interesting, just kind of unpacking those a bit and understanding a little bit of how the sausage got made is really helpful.
MICHAEL MORELL: All right. Let’s dive into the world here and let’s start with the obvious issue, which is Russia, Ukraine. We’re coming up on the one year anniversary. And my first question, Derek, is really an analytic one, not a policy one. Where do you think we stand at this point in the war, a year in, now from a strategic perspective.
DEREK CHOLLET: So I think stepping back and thinking about where we were a year ago and where we thought things were going and, you know, exactly a year ago today, we were three days out and pretty much within the zone of nearly any hour, we were thinking that the war would begin.
I think there was a widely held view that the war would be extremely tough for the Ukrainians, just given the numbers game. I mean, there was no question, I think, that the Ukrainians were going to fight like hell, but just that the superior firepower on the Russian side would prove overwhelming. And certainly that’s what Vladimir Putin thought. And he thought by week one, he would be largely in control of Kyiv.
Well, of course, he totally failed at that. And so I think from a strategic point of view, a couple of things. I think in many ways, Russia’s already faced a strategic defeat in terms of what it was trying to do in Ukraine, whether it’s the slow decoupling we have seen between Russia and Europe when it comes to energy – I mean, if you think about it, it’s a project that was decades in the making to have the Soviet Union and Russia be Europe’s chief energy supplier. And we see that being dismantled largely in the course of the last year or two.
The tremendous setbacks the Russian military has faced – an estimated 200,000 Russian military personnel either killed or wounded in action. You’ve seen a flight, private sector companies from U.S. and Europe, you know, head for the exits in Russia.
Around 95% of Russia’s ground forces are currently employed in some fashion in and around Ukraine.
NATO’s stronger today. Its budgets are up. We’re on the cusp of having Sweden and Finland join the alliance, which was not something that was on our to-do list at the beginning of last year. And I think Russia is increasingly isolated in the world.
And we’ll see another demonstration of that this week in New York at the United Nations, when foreign ministers, including Secretary Blinken, will get together to talk about this
first year, the Ukraine war.
So, look, it’s a tough fight. And Russia controls 20%, roughly, of Ukraine’s territory. But Ukraine is is getting stronger. And I have been heartened to see the resilience and strength, first and foremost, of the Ukrainian people and their military, but also of the international coalition that has been put together to help support Ukraine.
And I think if you and I a year ago were talking and said that after the first year there’d be over nearly $30 billion in U.S. security assistance had been provided to Ukraine, and that’s matched by nearly the same amount by the 50 some countries that are contributing one way or another to Ukraine’s defense in addition to the United States, that we would have seen the resilience in the international community and that Europe would have, you know, basically helped engineer – not only impose sanctions, but then engineer this largely cut off of Russia in terms of energy, I would have thought that would have been the kind of outer edge of what could have been accomplished.
So now we’ve just got to stick to it, I think. And the basic lines of effort that were put in place a year ago remain, which is to punish and isolate Russia, make it harder for Russia to conduct this fight by choking off its resources and isolating it. By, second, to strengthen Ukraine and to ensure that Ukraine, as best we can, has the means at its disposal to defend itself and regain territory and put itself in a position where we can have a just and durable peace.
And then third, to ensure that our commitments to NATO partners and the strength of the NATO alliance and this larger effort to support Ukraine remain strong. And so that’s kind of the basic framework we have been operating under over the last year. And I think that’s how we’re going to continue into this next year.
MICHAEL MORELL: Great. Derek, I want to ask you three questions that many of my listeners asked me. The first is why is the outcome of this war so important to America? Now, I have an answer for that. And I believe that President Biden ran on a platform of a foreign policy for the middle class. And so give me the administration’s answer to that question for, say, the people of Akron, Ohio, where I grew up. Why is this important to them?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, look at what Russia’s been doing. What it’s trying to do violates the fundamental principle of international politics. And it goes to the heart of the United Nations charter, which is that states should have a right and must have a right to their sovereignty and independence and to be able to choose their own destiny. And then if Russia is allowed to succeed and be able to not just change a border by force, but to try to change a country by force, then no nation can be safe if this kind of aggression goes unchecked.
And that’s why whatever peace that is possible, and of course, we fully, sincerely hope we can have peace and that this war ends soon, that that peace be just, that Russia is not
rewarded in any way for what it’s been doing.
And by the way, it’s not just gobbling up territory or trying to gobble up territory. It’s also, as President Biden was clear this week in his speech in Poland, conducting crimes against humanity. We’ve seen this repeatedly over the course of the last year, the deliberate targeting of civilians, the attempt to take down Ukraine’s energy grid, which is trying to basically terrorize the Ukrainian population.
I mean, this is the largest conflict Europe has seen since the Second World War. And the United States, along with our allies and partners in Europe and elsewhere around the world – I think what’s notable about this is we have Asian partners stepping up and contributing in some way to this effort to help defend Ukraine, as well as as partners elsewhere in the world that are doing their part. Not everyone’s doing the same thing, but are doing their part to help Ukraine.
This is why it’s so important. And I have to say, you know, Michael, I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I have been struck as I’ve traveled around the country over the last year a bit to see how widespread the support for Ukraine is in the United States and just how you see Ukrainian flags pop up all around the country. It’s not just something that’s a Washington, D.C. thing, because I think everyone understands the kind of basic facts here that there really isn’t a neutral position that is possible when it comes to war of aggression.
MICHAEL MORELL: You just can’t take away somebody’s territory. You just can’t.
DEREK CHOLLET: And I think we have to be very clear to differentiate here who is the aggressor and who is the victim. This war could end tomorrow if Vladimir Putin decided to pull his troops out of Ukraine. If Russia stops fighting, the war ends. But the hard reality is, if Ukraine stops fighting, then Ukraine is. And that’s the fundamental challenge we’re dealing with here.
And I can say – I sit in the State Department, I work for the secretary of state. We tried very hard to prevent this conflict from happening, to try to test whether there was some way that we could stop what was so obvious in terms of Russia’s troop build-up when Vladimir Putin was trying to do up until a year ago. Unfortunately, that didn’t work. And unfortunately, over the last year, we have seen nothing to suggest that Putin is interested in moving off his maximalist objectives, which are to completely subjugate, control Ukraine. And he gave a big speech here today, Tuesday, in Moscow, and he was an hour and a half long speech where he touched on a lot of issues, but again, repeated the same sort of lies about Ukraine, which just shows the fundamental misunderstanding he has about the Ukrainian people in that country.
MICHAEL MORELL: The second question people ask me is, what are the objectives of the United States? What do we want here? Is it the Russians totally out of Ukraine? Or is it just what the Ukrainians want? You know, if they are willing to go to the negotiating table,
we’re with them. And when you’re sitting in the Sit Room, what’s the policy objective here?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, again, fundamentally, it’s allowing Ukraine, as it defines it, to regain its sovereignty and territory. We were kind of guided by several basic precepts here. First, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine, and particularly a year ago, but still popping up now. And then in the discussion, there’s, you know, we’re told, “Why don’t you just go talk to the Russians and cut a deal?” Right. This fight is not about us. Russia invaded Ukraine, so we’re not going to decide for the Ukrainians what their future is.
And at the same time – and these are the precepts we’re guided by –we can’t be more Ukrainian than Ukrainians. We want to be less Ukrainian than Ukrainians. We want a Ukraine that is democratic, that is viable, that peace in which it engages and can be durable. So we’re just not sort of, you know, dealing with the same set of issues ten years from now. Right. It’s important.
And your wise listeners will remember that it was 2014 when we were dealing with the first incursion, Russian military incursion into Ukraine, which led to the illegal annexation of Crimea. So we just don’t want to be back in the same situation ten years from now. So that’s why peace needs to be both just – in other words, Putin can’t be rewarded for what he’s doing – and also needs to be durable. And that’s got to be something that sticks.
But when it comes to the specifics of how a deal might come to fruition or what the contours may look like, that’s not for us to decide. And President Zelenskyy has said himself repeatedly: Wars end by negotiation. Russia has shown no interest to have a legitimate, sincere negotiation in any way. In fact, Putin has said, look, “I’ll happy to negotiate, Russia, as a precondition for any talks with the Ukrainians, they would have to accept that we now own the territory we have thus far taken, which is not not an indication of a particularly serious negotiation.
But so our view is that therefore, the best we can do is ensure that Ukraine is in the best possible position it can when the time comes to enter negotiation. And that means having a Ukraine that can defend itself and a Ukraine that has the ability to take back territory that Russia has tried to take away from it.
MICHAEL MORELL: And then the third question, Derek, is why does there seem to be sort of a no-yes dynamic to the decision making on weapons, just on on weapons systems? Right? One day we’re a no on tanks, the next day we’re sending them. Is it because the situation on the ground is changing? Is it because we have a coalition of allies that we need to hold together and therefore make decisions with that in mind? Is it because our assessment of the escalation risk is changing? You know, how should my listeners think about what we’re seeing on that front?
DEREK CHOLLET: Well, I think it’s all of the above. But also, based on Ukraine’s needs and what they can use quickly. Here, again, if we were to step back a year ago from where the
conversation was prior to the invasion, when we were already beginning to ramp up our security assistance to Ukraine and then, of course, has just dialed up exponentially in the last year.
But a year ago it was all about getting them stingers, you know, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, then to javelins, anti-tank missiles to then, you know, armored personnel vehicles, then sophisticated air defense like Patriots, and now tanks. So this has been a kind of a constant conversation. We’ve been having the Ukrainians, both in terms of their own needs and what they can use as well as also what’s available.
One of the things we have done in addition to providing $30 billion of our own assistance to Ukraine, has been working with allies of partners all around the world to try to rustle up equipment that they can use quickly. So starting a year ago, it was all about Russian-made or Soviet-made systems that allies and partners had in their stockpiles that could get to the Ukrainians in short order, that they didn’t need to get trained on. It was just a supply issue. Now, of course, we’re talking about systems like M1 Abrams tanks that require training. So that’s one consideration.
But also, just as the battlefield has changed, that’s changed now. And I would say it’s probably like – the debate, the external debate creates a perception that it’s a no-yes. But I would say it’s more of an evolving conversation than we say no, and then it’s yes. It’s a kind of a constant kind of triaging of what’s available, what they need, what the training pipeline looks like.
And also alliance management. And I think one of the things that I feel like has gone in a way that that that we’re quite happy with thus far, although it takes constant work and tending to, is this establishment of such a robust coalition of countries. And I can’t think of a precedent in the last 30 years other than what we did in the lead up, in the execution of the Persian Gulf War, 1990-1991, in terms of building such a broad based coalition of countries that are contributing to this, to this effort to help support Ukraine.
And obviously, countries are going to make different decisions based on their own needs, based on their own politics and their own assessments. It’s not for us to decide what particular countries are doing, and we often are getting asked and try to get sort of dragged into the debates of other countries about what they’re doing or not doing. Our position has been consistent, which is we think everyone should do as much as they possibly can, but it’s not for us to make the judgment for them on what they’re going to do. But of course, we’re coordinating really closely with them.
MICHAEL MORELL: So those are the questions that my listeners ask me. Well, that’s great. That was great.
Here’s a question I want to ask you, which is about Western resolve. So, President Biden’s State of the Union address. You know, very strong. I think the quote here is, “America will stand with you as long as it takes.” The president was just in in Kyiv. He just gave a very
strong speech in Poland that you noted earlier. Vice President Harris just gave a very strong speech in Munich, calling out the Russians for war crimes. All of that shows American resolve.
But there’s just this sense, right, in that at least outside of government that you read in the paper that there’s some sort of timeline here. I think The Washington Post, I think, it was after the State of the Union, there was a senior administration official who was quoted as saying, you know, “There’s a timeline here on on how much we can give and how long we can give.”
So there’s just a sense – and I’m not saying that’s right. I’m just saying that’s what people are seeing. So there’s just a sense that this can’t go on forever. And I’m just wondering, from your perspective, is that right or is that wrong? Is there some sense that it’s going to be tough to keep the coalition together for an extended period of time? Is there some sense that it’s going to be tough to keep the American people behind this for an extended period of time? How do you think about that?
DEREK CHOLLET: Yeah, it’s a great question. Look, I think first we don’t take anything for granted. We realize – and this is what we’re doing here from the State Department, colleagues across the government, the White House and the president, from the president on down, are doing every day is ensuring that we are doing everything we can to keep this coalition strong and that that includes leading by example, by doing our part and in showing the world that we’re stepping up in ways that’s historic in terms of providing support for a country in which we are not a direct combatant in this conflict.
The closest analogy I can come up with historically is Lend-Lease, 1940s, prior to entry into World War II, just given the scale and the speed with which we provided such significant security assistance.
But the other thing I can say is that I feel like over the last year-plus now, the obituary of our common resolve here and the international coalition has been written multiple times and it’s proven to be wrong. And I think many are surprised that Europe has stepped up in the ways that it has in terms of willingness to impose meaningful, serious sanctions which have done real harm to European economies.
Europe’s made some quite bold decisions on energy, which I think very few people, I think certainly here in the United States expected Europe to be able to make, as well as on equipment. And one can debate about the timing of some of that. Did it happen too fast, too slow. But as you know these issues so well, it’s not an insignificant thing that German tanks are on their way to Ukraine. The last time German tanks were in Ukraine was not a happy time in history
MICHAEL MORELL: Was the wrong side of history on that one.
DEREK CHOLLET: Exactly. And, you know, the psychology of that country for good reason
has a lot of, you know, there is a stigma to that. And they’ve made some brave political – they, the Germans, I think, have made some brave political decisions to step up.
So this is a long way of saying, I think that whereas we don’t take anything for granted, nor should we, because that’s when you start to get into trouble, we could step back on this year and take gains in confidence about the sort of resilience and resolve that has been shown.
It’s important to note as well, I think a huge amount of credit for that, if not most of the credit, needs to go to the Ukrainians because not just in the skill in which they have conducted themselves and President Zelenskyy has been a real historic figure along these lines, just the way that he has made the case for his own country since the beginning of this war by speaking to basically every major democratic parliament around the world, to an amazing visit here to Washington late last year, to triumphant visits to London and Brussels just a few weeks ago to hosting basically every world leader of consequence in the coalition in Kyiv. It’s been remarkable.
But then also the skill of the Ukrainian people and the bravery and their courage that has inspired the world and it’s inspired the public. So this is another reason why I think you’re seeing such resilient support – is it’s not just leaders of democracies out there trying to make the case for why we should care about this, even though that’s really important. And we’ll still do that. I think, you know, common folks are watching TV or, you know, listening to podcasts or, you know, on the Internet and they see reports about what Russia is doing in Ukraine. And there’s just a sense that this is not right and that it’s right for us, therefore, to be stepping up to support them.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah.
DEREK CHOLLET; That said, this is a long war. It’s been a year. It has been a tough fight. It will continue to be tough. We want it to be over. No one wants it to be over more than the Ukrainian people. So we are constantly thinking of ways that we can put the Ukrainians in a position that they can end this war in a way that will be just and durable.
But we also have to be realistic that, as I sit here today, in late February 2023, I don’t see that around the corner. But nevertheless, we have to wake up every day and make that our goal.
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay, let’s switch to China. Secretary Blinken just had what I thought was a terrific interview with Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation. He talked about his recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart. And he said that he focused on two issues. One, the Chinese spy balloon. And the other I want to quote here – this is the secretary talking – “Information we have that they, meaning China, is considering providing lethal support to Russia.”
I’ll take the balloon second, I want to take that lethal support first. It’s a huge deal that the
Chinese are thinking about it, and it would be a massive deal if they actually did it.
You know, I’m a little surprised by this, because my sense was that Xi, like President Biden, wanted to make some progress in the bilateral relationship. And so it seems odd from that perspective and it seems odd from the perspective that they had stayed away from this for a year. What’s driving this on their part? What can we do to deter them? How do we think about that?
DEREK CHOLLET: So, look, again, I think it’s important to take a step back. It was a year ago this month that Xi and Putin met before the Winter Olympics and released an epically long joint statement.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, I tried to read it, but –
DEREK CHOLLET: I believe you,, as someone who’s had a hand in writing other joint statements, I felt for whoever the poor souls drafted that thing. Anyway, so that famously called for a no limits partnership, right?
This week we saw Wang Yi, the senior foreign policy official in the Politburo, visit Moscow, where he talked about a rock solid relationship between Russia and China. And I got to say, just, you know, China has really picked the wrong horse here. And I think they’re experiencing the impact in ways that are – I’m mystified to think that they find this unexpected. But nevertheless, I think it is unexpected, that this is sort of sinking like a stone in Europe, right? Before Want went to Moscow, was in Munich, where he gave a very defiant speech before he saw Secretary Blinken. And, you know, in my view, they’re completely misreading Europe and they still profess to want to have close ties to European partners. And it’s just hard to see how they can square that ambition with their full square rhetorical support of Russia.
MICHAEL MORELL: And they’d do even more damage, right, if they go down the road of lethal support.
DEREK CHOLLET: No question. And look, our assessment is – and your listeners know better than anyone who could possibly be listening that there’s very little I can go into here. But our assessment is they have not yet made that decision up to this point. But there are just increasing indications that this is something on their minds. And that’s a concern to us. It’s a concern to the Ukrainians. It’s a concern to our European partners. It’s one of the reasons why we want to talk about it, because this is not something that they’re considering to do out in the open.
And I think, you know, it would be a grave mistake for them to make and it would do nothing than further the hardship inside Ukraine. And I think it would frankly make life more difficult for for China as well. And so it’s important for us to talk about it.
MICHAEL MORELL: And it would make it very difficult for the United States to move
forward in any kind of positive way with the Chinese.
DEREK CHOLLET: This is true. I mean, it would only add to what is already a challenging moment in our relationship, only more challenging, to state the obvious.
MICHAEL MORELL: Okay. Let’s go to the balloon part of this. And I’ve been talking way too much about the balloon.
DEREK CHOLLET: I’m sure you have. And believe me, speaking of consuming intelligence, I will always remember the day when the briefer walked in my office and briefed me on the balloon. And I had to stop him. I said, “Wait, rewind here. Did I hear it? Did I hear you correctly? Is this –we’re talking about a balloon?”
MICHAEL MORELL: So the secretary also said to Margaret Brennan that he made it very clear to his Chinese counterpart that sending a surveillance balloon over the United States in violation of our sovereignty, in violation of international law was unacceptable. It must never happen again.
DEREK CHOLLET: Correct.
MICHAEL MORELL: Given my background and where I spent my career, I’m wondering if we’re making too much politically of this. Countries spy on each other all the time. I always found that if one gets caught spying, the best approach is to keep the response to that in intelligence channels so as not to constrain the decision space of leaders. That’s been kind of the history.
And it really seemed to me that both President Biden and President Xi wanted to make some progress in bilateral relations. And this balloon got in the way of that. And so I’m just wondering if responding in intelligence channels, you know, kicking out the senior Chinese intelligence official here in D.C., you know, would have made more sense than canceling the secretary’s visit. Or was just or was that just not possible given how public this was?
DEREK CHOLLET: I think obviously it was the latter, meaning that it was – the conditions for the secretary to have a productive visit to Beijing with the balloon traversing the United States was unsustainable.
MICHAEL MORELL: I was going to say hanging over him.
DEREK CHOLLET: Believe me, there are so many balloon jokes around here. It’s like the jokes write themselves.
So that was just not possible. The secretary had prepared for this trip to China quite intensively, as intensively as is appropriate for any trip he had done as secretary of state. It would be the first secretary to visit China since, I believe, 2018.
And obviously, this planned trip was a direct outgrowth of President Biden’s meeting with President Xi in Bali late last year, where they talked about the importance of putting guardrails on the relationship, establishing a floor on the relationship – various metaphors to basically try to find a way that we can manage this competition.
And I can say, Michael, it’s important, like we feel and Secretary Blinken often says that he feels the responsibility and the expectation that we, the United States, will manage this relationship responsibly. He hears that from allies and partners who, you know, are not in any way naive about the various challenges and indeed threats the PRC poses, but nevertheless wants to see this relationship managed.
MICHAEL MORELL: They have to live with the Chinese.
DEREK CHOLLET: Absolutely. And so that’s what we want to see, a relationship that’s managed responsibly. Having a surveillance balloon to collect intelligence fly over the United States territory, the continental United States, visible for all to see, for people to go out in their backyard and take a picture on their iPhones of a surveillance balloon, is not a responsible way to manage this relationship.
And the reason why it was important for Secretary Blinken to have a chance to speak face to face with Wang Yi about this in Munich was to send that message clearly, but also at the same time make clear that we still believe that, given the charge that was given to the secretary by the president and by coming out of the meeting in Bali, that obviously there are things that are important to our relationship with China, that are important to global security that we need to talk about. But there’s a right time and place to do that. And given the situation with the balloon, that was obviously the correct judgment not to move forward with the trip. And we’ll see what the future holds on that.
MICHAEL MORELL: But the plan is for him to go at some point.
DEREK CHOLLET: No, I mean, we’re still sorting our way through kind of where we go from here. I mean, obviously, we’re committed to maintaining the dialogue with the PRC on any number of issues. And our meeting in Munich was a good example where they had a very blunt and clear discussion about the balloon, but also talked about Ukraine and the concerns we had about China’s position on Russia.
MICHAEL MORELL: So one last question, Derek, on China. You guys at the department just launched what you call your China House. What will the China House do and how do you think about that?
DEREK CHOLLET: Sure. And it’s kind of analogous to what the CIA did, Mike, which you know well, on the Mission Centers on critical issues, where it’s meant to be a kind of, to bring together the various parts of the department and literally have them co-located.
So let me again take a step back. When I re-entered the State Department two-plus years
ago, now, at the beginning in the Biden administration, I was struck from, since the last time I served here, that China was not just something that the East Asia Pacific Bureau dealt with. It touched every corner of the department, you know, from our oceans, environment and science to consular affairs to the regional people, to the arms control people.
And so there was a sense that we needed to be better organized, to have sort of a more of a single purpose of our mission here. And so this is a bureaucratic fix to to ensure that we’re not stovepiped internally and that we’re better coordinated. Organized.
And the debut of China House, operationally, was the preparations for the secretary’s trip that we ended up having to postpone. But they did a terrific job kind of bringing together a whole of State Department effort in trying to enhance our policymaking towards the PRC because it is such a complex and consequential relationship. It was important for us to make this change. So we still have – it’s not to say it replaces any particular part of the department. It’s just housing this work in one place so we can be more efficient and more effective in our policymaking.
MICHAEL MORELL: Got it. Derek, let’s turn quickly to Iran. Not a lot of good news here.
DEREK CHOLLET: No.
MICHAEL MORELL: We have Iranian lethal assistance to the Russian war effort. We have Iranians purchasing sophisticated Russian fighter jets. We have the IAEA just saying Iran is now enriching uranium to 84%, which is obviously just below the level required for a nuclear weapon. We have the Israelis – I don’t know if this is true or not – we have the Israelis just accusing the Iranians of attacking an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.
So I guess my my kind of big picture question here is what’s our strategy for dealing with a country that seems perfectly prepared here to become more and more of an international pariah?
DEREK CHOLLET: Yeah.
MICHAEL MORELL: That’s the way it seems it’s going. Going down the North Korea road.
DEREK CHOLLET: And under increasing stress at home as well.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, exactly. Didn’t even mention that.
DEREK CHOLLET: The significant sort of variable we’ve seen emerge just the last year.
I mean, look, Iranian behavior has only gotten worse over the last two years, but I would extend it out over the last 4 to 6 years.
MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, absolutely.
DEREK CHOLLET: Whether it’s measured by the pace of their nuclear progress on the nuclear program, their support for terrorist proxies in the region, their proliferation of weapons in the region and beyond.
Now with Russia, Ukraine, whether it’s their efforts to undermine regimes that are friendly to us in the region – you know, threats, direct threats, these real attacks on U.S. personnel in the region – every indicator has gotten worse over the last 4 to 6 years, I would say. And I think, unfortunately, there are no silver bullets here, as you know.
MICHAEL MORELL: Otherwise, they would have been used already.
DEREK CHOLLET: Exactly, long ago. But I think first it starts with our presence. And, you know, again, it’s been said too often that the U.S. is pulling out of the Middle East or withdrawing or whatever, and none of that is true. President Biden’s been very clear about that.
My colleague Brett McGurk at the White House gave a great speech that was building on President Biden’s speech that he gave in Jeddah last summer. But Brett gave a speech before the Atlantic Council that kind of laid out our thinking on the Middle East generally, which Iran was front and center in that discussion, which I would commend to all of your listeners.
So it starts with our presence to ensure that we continue to maintain a robust military presence in the region to protect our interests.
Second, it’s our partners in the region and ensuring that our partners, that our relationships with our partners are as resilient and strong as they can be. But then also by helping our partners relationship with one another. And that’s a project in the Arab world that’s been underway for quite some time. I was part of this when I was back at the Pentagon a decade ago in terms of building the kind of the muscle tissue of cooperation between our partners in the GCC with one another.
But the new factor, which is arguably the the most positive thing that’s happened in the region in the last several years, is the relationship between Israel and U.S., an increasing number of its Arab neighbors. And that’s something that back when you and I were working together, a government, we knew about the ties between Israel and some of our Gulf partners in particular. But it was all very quiet, very quiet stuff that I know neither of us would have talked about openly. Right now, it is in the open and it is in many cases thriving. And so although that’s not driven primarily by Iran, it’s that the strength of those relationships is an important answer to the Iran issue as well.
But at the same time, we’ve got to continue to afford to work with our partners on specific issues like the Iran nuclear program. And again, we are not where we wanted to be and the JCPOA is – Secretary Austin, Defense Secretary Austin’s put it, is kind of in the deep freeze right now.
But we have over the course of our efforts the last two years, I think built up a stronger consensus between us and our key European allies, who are key, key players in the Iran nuclear discussion. U.S. together with them against Iran. And Iran is clearly the outlier. Iran is clearly the the party that is not engaging constructively. And so that I think will help us in the sense of trying to gain leverage over them.
MICHAEL MORELL: Derek, we could talk about, you know, 25 more issues, but obviously, obviously, we’ve got more to surface here. You’ve got to go back to work. So thank you very much for taking the time. This has been a terrific conversation and we will do this again sometime.
DEREK CHOLLET: Always great to be with you. Thank you so much.