Is America Breaking up the International Order?

David Holloway, Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University. Photo by Light at 11B.

Q&A with David Holloway, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History. Written with Áine Josephine Tyrrell.

After over 30 years as an expert in political science and history at Stanford University, FSI bids a fond farewell to David Holloway, who retires in the fall. 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’s quiet warmth and kindness have always been infectious, both inside and outside of the classroom. He will be sorely missed.

We asked him for his views on recent developments in U.S.-Russia relations one last time and about his time at Stanford University.

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 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 be critical of nearly everybody else), yet his administration has imposed tough sanctions. Why is Trump so reluctant to support his own administration? And why did he want to meet Putin in the first place? We just don’t know…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!” Even so, many Europeans now 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.

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, 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, and the Soviet Union’s Communist Party wanted to rule via centralized government control and a centrally-planned economy. Third was 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. 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, which event is going to prove truly pivotal for contemporary history when we look back in 30 years?

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 them much worse.

Let’s talk a bit about your time at Stanford. What is your fondest memory?

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. 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. That’s a pleasant moment to remember.

What advice would you give a student just starting at Stanford?

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 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 know it may sound cliché, but there is such a great sense of possibility here. If you have an idea, instead of hearing people say, “Oh, we’ve never done it that way,” people say, “Oh, yeah, let’s see if we can help you do that!” I have loved this about Stanford over the past 30 years, and I’ve been very grateful for all of these opportunities.

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!”


Read the extended interview.

Faculty views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.