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She Was at the Top of the State Department. Now She’s Ready to Talk

As Victoria Nuland steps down, she gets real about a world on fire.

Victoria Nuland has long been known as a relentless, even pugnacious, U.S. diplomat, with a strong belief in American power. The approach sometimes got her in trouble, but it rarely held her back.

Nuland recently left the State Department after serving at its highest levels, first as the Biden administration’s undersecretary of State for political affairs, and, for several months, acting deputy secretary of State. She previously was a career diplomat who held an array of roles under presidents both Republican and Democratic; her first posting more than three decades ago was as a consular officer in China.

In an exit interview with POLITICO Magazine, Nuland discussed her time in public service — dismissing chatter that she was passed over for a promotion — as well as her views on where American foreign policy has gone wrong and right.

Notably, she said the United States was not quick enough to realize and prevent the expansionist ambitions of both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

A longtime champion of Ukraine and the effort to counter Russia, she also warned about the perils of Donald Trump blowing up NATO if he wins back the White House in November.

“Don’t throw it out,” she said of the trans-Atlantic alliance, “because you would never be able to re-create it again.”

The following has been edited for length and clarity:

How’s life on the outside?

Life is wonderful. I am doing a lot of projects that I had put off, seeing a lot of people that I love, and I’m staying involved in ways that are meaningful. I’m speaking on foreign policy issues I care about — whether it is Ukraine or ensuring that the United States leads strongly in the world. I’m getting a chance to prepare for my classes in the fall and work with the next generation of foreign policy leaders. I’ll be at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Why leave the Biden administration, really? People said you felt passed over for the deputy secretary of State job. Is that true?

I actually didn’t compete for the deputy secretary of State job. I loved being undersecretary for political affairs. I love working with Secretary [Antony] Blinken. But as you know, I’ve done three years altogether and I’ve done eight months plus in both jobs, and so it was just the right time for me and my family to do something different.

Do you have any regrets from your time in the role?

I think whenever you finish a job like this, you wish you’d been able to do more on more issues. Travel more, touch more people, get more done faster, ensure the U.S. was leading strongly on as many continents as possible, mentor more of the next generation. And you’re always constrained by time, by resources, by the crises that overwhelm the inbox. So you always want to have done more.

Can Ukraine win this war against Russia? And how do you define winning?

Let’s start with the fact that Putin has already failed in his objective. He wanted to flatten Ukraine. He wanted to ensure that they had no sovereignty, independence, agency, no democratic future — because a democratic Ukraine, a European Ukraine, is a threat to his model for Russia, among other things, and because it’s the first building block for his larger territorial ambitions.

Can Ukraine succeed? Absolutely. Can Ukraine come out of this more sovereign, more economically independent, stronger, more European than it is now? Absolutely. And I think it will. But we’ve got to stay with it. We’ve got to make sure our allies stay with it.

A Ukrainian tank drives down a street in the heavily damaged town of Siversk.
“We’ve got to stay with it. We’ve got to make sure our allies stay with it,” former U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland said of supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

And we have to accelerate a lot of the initiatives that were in the supplemental, like helping Ukraine build that highly deterrent military force of the future, like deploying these longer-range weapons to strategic effect, like ensuring that the critical infrastructure and the energy sector are protected, like building up our own defense industrial base and that of our allies and Ukraine’s again, so that we and Ukraine are building faster than Russia and China.

But can it get all its territory back, including Crimea?

It can definitely get to a place where it’s strong enough, I believe, and where Putin is stymied enough to go to the negotiating table from a position of strength. It’ll be up to the Ukrainian people what their territorial ambitions should be. But there are certain things that are existential.

Any deal that they cut in their interest and in the larger global interest has to be a deal that Putin is compelled to stick to. We can’t be doing this every six months, every three years. It has to actually lead to a deal that includes Russian withdrawal.

Putin is a master at what we call rope-a-dope negotiating, where he never actually cuts the deal. It has to be a deal that ensures that whatever is decided on Crimea, it can’t be remilitarized such that it’s a dagger at the heart of the center of Ukraine.

Was it a mistake not to push the Ukrainians harder to go for some sort of negotiated end to the war in 2022, especially the fall of 2022?

They were not in a strong enough position then. They’re not in a strong enough position now. The only deal Putin would have cut then, the only deal that he would cut today, at least before he sees what happens in our election, is a deal in which he says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.” And that’s not sustainable.

You’ve had a long career, especially when it comes to Europe. Where did the U.S. go wrong in its understanding of Russia?

With regard to both Russia and China, after the end of the Cold War, the prevailing wisdom among all of us — right, left and center — was that if you could knit Moscow and Beijing into the open and free global order that we had benefited from for so many years, that they would become prosperous, and they would become strong contributing members of that order. And that’s what we tried for a very long time.

That works if you have a leadership that is fundamentally accepting the current system. But once you have leaders who are telling their populations that this system keeps their country down, doesn’t allow it to have its rightful place, that has a territorial definition of greatness, that is bent on economic, political and or military coercion — that’s antithetical to this order, and then our policy has to change.

Did we realize fast enough Putin’s ambitions and Xi Jinping’s ambitions, and did we do enough to ensure that those ambitions stayed inside their own nations and didn’t spill out and coerce others? 20/20 hindsight? Probably not.

How much of it comes down to what particular guy is running the show? I sometimes wonder, could things be different if it wasn’t Putin in charge? If it wasn’t Xi? How much of it comes down to the dude at the top?

In highly centralized societies, which both China and Russia have historically been, without an electoral refresh of the kind that we all go through in the democratic world, it matters hugely, because it’s that human who’s defining what greatness means. It’s that human who’s deciding how to maintain order in that society. It’s that human — allowing them to speak, allowing a free press, allowing protests, allowing alternative political parties — who’s going to shape the options. And that constrains obviously the kind of relationship we can have.

What is the lesson we should learn about foreign policy in general when it comes to the experiences we’ve had in Russia and China?

We should always try to talk both to leaders and to people, to the extent that we’re allowed. We should always offer an opportunity to work together in common interest.

But if the ideology is inherently expansionist, is inherently illiberal, is inherently trying to change the system that benefits us, we’ve got to build protections and resilience for ourselves, for our friends and allies, and particularly for those neighbors of those countries who are likely to be on the front line of that first push.

Where do you see the Israel-Hamas war heading?

Essentially, there are two paths on the table. There is continuing this war with all of the destruction and horror and lack of clarity about how you end Hamas’ reign of terror.

The other path is the route that the administration and allies and partners and a lot of countries in the Gulf are pushing, and a lot of Israelis want, which is: a hostage deal leads to a long-term cease-fire, leads to a better future for Palestinians both in the West Bank and in Gaza, leads to Saudi-Israel normalization and a path to two states, and a region where the ideology and the violence that Hamas is offering is beaten by more opening, more opportunity, more peace, more stability.

Are you saying that because you believe it or because it’s the Biden administration’s position?

I’m saying it because, anything other than that, this is going to happen again and again and again.

If you could go back in time on that one, what, if anything, should the U.S. have done differently?

Beginning with the Trump administration, everybody fell in love with regional normalization as the cure-all for the instability and grievances and insecurity in the Middle East. And that’s a part of it.

But if you leave out the Palestinian issue, then somebody’s going to seize it and run with it, and that’s what Hamas did. I also think that both we and the Israelis knew too little about the terror state that had been established in Gaza.

You’re going to be teaching at Columbia, the epicenter of campus protests over this situation. If you could offer these protesters some advice as someone with significant policymaking experience, what would it be?

Peaceful protest is part of the fabric of who we are and the fact that we allow it, and the Chinese don’t and the Russians don’t, makes us Americans. But when that protest becomes violent, when it impinges on other people’s human rights or denigrates others, then you veer toward coercion.

So, express your views, ask for concrete paths forward. But stay away from violence, make sure that it’s actually indigenous to the campus, that you’re not becoming the tool of outside agitators. And be respectful of alternative views as you expect people to respect your views.

What if you are peaceful? And you say what you want and the people in charge just say, ‘Oh, that’s very nice, thank you,’ and then they ignore you and they keep doing what they’ve been doing for years. How do you do just keep pushing on that front? Do you join the government?

I would certainly say if you care enough to devote all day, every day to political change, come join the folks who are setting policy, commit your life to public service. I didn’t expect that that’s where my life would lead, but it’s been incredibly rewarding.

There are many, many ways to change policy, but being on the inside is not only extremely rewarding, but you can actually get stuff done.

If Trump wins, and leaves NATO or limits America’s role in NATO, does the alliance fall apart? What happens?

First and foremost, America suffers. Because if you look at every single one of the challenges we have globally, even as we make the security commitment to Europe, it is the European countries who have contributed more to Ukraine — on the security side, on the economic side, etc. It is the European countries who have to adapt their policies toward China if you want to have an impact on China’s eagerness to coerce others. It’s the European countries who we need to help fund the Haiti mission, to help defeat terrorism in Africa, and provide prosperity.

If we are not part of that family, on a daily basis, we are standing alone, our own influence in the world is greatly reduced, and we have no influence over how they choose to spend their energy and resources. And they’re less powerful in doing it without us.

What about this idea that look, we’re the U.S. at the end of the day. We’re the superpower. Whether we’re in NATO or not, people are going to come along with us. Isn’t there something to that argument?

I’ve worked for six presidents, Republicans and Democrats. I always believed that a new president with a fresh mandate from the American people should look at every global problem with fresh eyes, bring new solutions, and should have that opportunity, working with Congress, working with the American people, working with allies and partners.

The U.S. Capitol building is seen.
“I always believed that a new president with a fresh mandate from the American people should look at every global problem with fresh eyes, bring new solutions,” said former U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

That’s a different thing than turning your back on bedrock, bipartisan institutions and policies that have protected Americans and advanced our own prosperity and global influence for 70 years.

Why do you want to throw out what’s working and what benefits us for no other reason than you’ve had a fit of pique? Work within the institution to make it work better. Don’t throw it out, because you would never be able to re-create it again.

Does the rest of the world fear the United States?

Is fear what we want from the rest of the world?


I think what we want from the rest of the world is they see us leading in a manner that advances their own security, advances their own prosperity, creates this community of nations that can handle global problems — whether they are terrorist problems, whether they are health problems, whether they’re environmental problems — and we do it in a primarily self-interested but unselfish way, and we’re creating that community.

They should only fear us if they’re opponents of a largely liberal democratic way of advancing human prosperity. And in that context, if they are viciously invading a neighbor, if they are coercing a little state because they can, then I hope they would fear our reaction and the reaction that we will build with other democracies who want to protect the system that favors freedom.

Do you ever plan to go back into government?

I love what I did for 35 years. I’ve always loved it. And I continue to love it. So in the right circumstances, of course.

Source: Politico