April 5, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Ivo H. Daalder, Kori Schake

Deep Dish: How John Bolton Might Cause the Next Iran-Contra Affair

A national security adviser trying to implement the president's agenda might be tempted to run around any bureaucracy slowing down the president's impulses. With no congressional or public oversight, John Bolton may soon find himself taking national policy into his own hands. Former National Security Council members Ivo Daalder and Kori Schake join Brian Hanson to discuss the future of the NSC under John Bolton. 

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[Ivo Daalder: The focal point of Bolton was going to be enforcement of the President's will and you can be tempted as a strong National Security Advisor to take actions that try to go around the obstacles that are there in order to do what the President wants you to do.

Kori Schake: Okay. So, now I am deeply regretting having come on this podcast because Ivo has just given me a whole new perspective of nightmares I'm about to have that I had not anticipated, which is John Bolton trying to run defense policy from the White House clandestinely and without congressional or public oversight.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today, we're talking about the national security council and the recent appointment of John Bolton to serve as President Trump's national security advisor. I'm joined today by two experienced foreign policy hands who both had experience serving in the National Security Council.

First, I've got Kori Schake, who's currently Deputy Director General of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London and she also served in the George W. Bush National Security Council, as well as in the State Department under the Bush administration as well. Also with me is the President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Ivo Daalder, who served in Bill Clinton's National Security Council and also served under President Obama as the US ambassador to NATO. Kori, Ivo, welcome.

Ivo Daalder: Great to be here.

Kori Schake: Thanks.

Brian Hanson: So, President Trump has named John Bolton to replace H. R. McMaster as the National Security Advisor. This is a controversial pick that I'm sure we'll get a chance to talk about and also the third person who's been named to this job in the last 15 months. I'm hoping you can help us better understand, what is this role? What does the National Security Council actually do, and then how to think about Bolton's appointment?

So, let me start off just with the basics. We hear about the National Security Council and National Security Advisor all the time, but I think most people don't have a really good sense of what this job is. Now, Ivo, you literally wrote the book on the National Security Advisor. If people are looking for it, it's called In the Shadow of the Oval Office. So, briefly, what does the National Security Advisor do and also, what's the National Security Council do?

Ivo Daalder: So, the National Security Council formally by law is a council that has as its chair, the President, and as its members, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of the Treasurer. It also has as statutory advisors, so by law, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence. So, that's the National Security Council. The council has a staff and that's really when we talk about the NSC, we tend to talk about the National Security Council staff. That staff is headed by the National Security Advisor.

So, he is the head, or she, as it's been a she before. In fact, the last two administrations had Condoleeza Rice and Susan Rice, no relations between the two. But they were National Security Advisors in the previous administrations. The staff is actually quite small when you think about it. It's usually no more than 100, maybe 200 staff people, many of them detailed from other agencies. They are military officers and intelligence officers and foreign service officers and sometimes members from the treasury in other places. Some of them are political appointees who come in with the new administration and reflect more the thinking of the President.

The National Security Advisor runs that staff and he is also a major advisor to the President as a councilor and he runs what is called the interagency process, the process that brings together members from the different administrations to talk about issues of common concern. So, he's a process manager, a policy councilor, and a staff head for the President.

Brian Hanson: Kori, having worked on the staff, one of the things that H. R. McMaster has been given credit for is building a pretty doggone good National Security Council staff. Now, there's a new head coming in, but what does the staff do and how related is that to whoever is the National Security Advisor? How autonomous can the staff be underneath that?

Kori Schake: That's a wonderful question and the answer varies from administration to administration, depending on how the President is comfortable making decisions and how the National Security Advisor does her or his job. Typically, the staff first identify issues as of prominence for the President's national security agenda. They run an interagency process of vetting the problems, the potential solutions, the tools to be addressed, and it perks up through the administration to the National Security Council, as Ivo pointed out.

I agree with the judgment that General McMaster ran a textbook disciplined process. They had something like 13 different interagency working groups looking at different aspects of China's interference in the United States and the threat that China buying high tech companies and things like that posed for the United States. The problem in Lieutenant General McMaster's National Security Council staff was that it doesn't appear to have any connection at all to actual decisions the President made.

Brian Hanson: So, building the staff is something McMaster did well. Building the process is something that he did well. Are there any other important legacies that he's leaving behind him?

Kori Schake: I think the national security strategy that Dr. Nadia Schadlow ran and produced is so much better than any of us had a right to expect of the Trump administration. It acknowledged the President's political direction, but it also firmly anchored it in sensible approaches to solving national security problems. But again, as we have the interagency process on China or Russia policy, Lieutenant General McMaster in his farewell address at the Atlantic Council went on a tear about how terrible our Russia policy is and one would be surprised he was the National Security Advisor to hear his criticism. So, I think the legacy is some good products that the President feels no compunction to be governed by. So, they're going to be interesting for students of the subjects, but they're not going to govern policy.

Ivo Daalder: Let me jump in here because, one, I agree that McMaster in some way has been a textbook National Security Advisor and maybe that is part of the problem. To be a good National Security Advisor, you actually have to remember who it is that you're working for and who you're working with. It's not clear to me that McMaster mastered that part of the job in the sense that he may have read a book like-

Brian Hanson: Your book, maybe.

Ivo Daalder: ... In the Shadow of the Oval Office. Who knows, right, and said, "Okay, well that's how Brent Scrowcroft did it." Brent Scrowcroft, we hold up as the pinnacle of how to be a National Security Advisor. But Brent Scrowcroft had a President who he had an extraordinarily close relationship with. Remember, the only President ever to write a memoir together with his National Security Advisor, George H. W. Bush. and, and this is critical, he had a very, very important and cooperative relationship with both the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. He knew who was Secretary of State and who was Secretary of Defense and when.

By all accounts, McMaster's relationship with both Rex Tillerson and James Mattis have been rocky. In fact, he never was able to find out, "What is my standing in the pecking order among those advisors?" He probably wanted to be a little higher in that pecking order than they thought he should be and I'm not sure that he ever adjusted to that. The example here where it did work really well is somebody Kori used to work for: Colin Powell.

When Colin Powell was National Security Advisor, by the way, also a three star at the time serving, he knew that the Secretary of Defense, who was Carlucci, who had been his boss as the National Security Advisor, and the Secretary of State, George Shultz, were his superiors. He would say, "I work for them. I'm not a coequal. I work for them." The question about Bolton is how is he going to look at his standing vis-à-vis the President and vis-à-vis the other principles, as we call them, in the national security structure?

Brian Hanson: That's a perfect segue because that's exactly where I wanted to go.

Kori Schake: [inaudible 00:09:58] salvo at McMaster before we go on?

Brian Hanson: Please. Yeah. Please. Please.

Kori Schake: One of the things I learned from Ivo Daalder is that the only way a National Security Advisor can be good at their job is if they understand how the President takes information, likes to get decisions, likes to take decisions, and implements them. I think on all three of those things, Lieutenant General McMaster seemed to never get in sync with the President. Moreover, I agree with Ivo's judgment that he seemed to be passing judgment on the President all the time. "He's not doing it the way he's supposed to." Only one of those two guys got elected.

So, it's the National Security Advisor's job to align to how the President likes to do business, not vice versa. I think McMaster never got that. Again, as Ivo said, he never got the fact that if you have to ask whether you're the peer of the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, you aren't and his boss never treated him like he was.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. I think this is great background because it sets up the arrival of John Bolton, who's a very different kind of character. Kori, John has been very involved in the foreign policy workings of the Republican Party for quite some time. Could you give a little profile of who John Bolton is?

Kori Schake: John Bolton is one of the most intemperate and willfully destructive Republicans who worked on national security policy. I hold the distinction ... So, the worst assignment I ever had in government was when I was the Deputy Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, I got sent to the Herzliya Conference in Israel to brief people on the 2007 National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, the one that said that they stopped working on their nuclear program mysteriously in 2003. John Bolton actually called me a traitor. He and I were on the same panel.

So, I'm not his biggest fan. I think he's good at destruction and I've never seen him be good at construction. He's going into a job where he actually has to build things. He has to build consensus, he has to find ways to implement the President's policies, he has to manage a cabinet of people who already have a relationship with the President to a greater degree than he does, and I actually think he's really going to struggle to do that.

Brian Hanson: Ivo, you laid out the role of the National Security Advisor and his relationship with the other two foreign policy cabinet positions. How do you think John is going to manage that?

Ivo Daalder: So, I think he's not going to be a textbook National Security Advisor. That's a good thing because the textbook National Security Advisors we saw with H. R. McMaster doesn't work in this administration. So, Presidents get the National Security Advisors they want and sometimes that they deserve. So, I think that how he looks at his role is likely to be twofold. First, I think he's going to be the principal articulator of our foreign policy. He's going to be an outside player, not an inside player. I think he's going to spend a lot of time on Fox News and a lot of other places, which is where the President wants him.

He's going to be a public exponent of the foreign policy of the President and he will do it in a way that is supportive of the way the President wants the foreign policies be depicted in a way that McMaster never did. Kori and I and others have had the opportunity hearing an off the record McMaster. The foreign policy he described, maybe the one that's in the national security strategy, it's not the one that they were pursuing, or the President was pursuing. That disconnect, I think, is going to go away.

The second way in which I think he is going to be different is he's going to focus a lot less on building consensus for the making of policy and instead focus on enforcing the will of the President on the bureaucracy. He's going to spend a lot of time on making sure that the President's wishes are implemented throughout the administration and enforce it. He's going to create a staff whose role it is less to think about what should we do and more about how do we make sure that the government does the way the President has acted. That's different.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, Kori.

Kori Schake: I think that's really interesting and I somewhat agree with Ivo. I hadn't thought about the fact that he would be an outsider proponent of the President's policies. I think that's exactly right. That's clearly what the President wants and values. I think you're right that Bolton believes he has come to conclusions and that those conclusions just need to be carried out by other people. But he is in a very institutionally weak position compared to, say, Mike Pompeo or Jim Mattis. So, whether Bolton can actually force those policies through, I think is an open question.

I've never seen him be very good at that. Matt Waxman has a terrific piece that he wrote for Lawfare suggesting that Bolton's a brilliant, bureaucratic infighter and one thing and another. That was actually not my view of John Bolton. When he was UN ambassador, he didn't manage to get anything done. I think he's more likely to end up at Henry Kissinger. "I'm the President's personal envoy. Nobody but me knows what's happening," and we will get an even more disjointed national security policy.

Ivo Daalder: So, I agree with that and I'm not saying he's going to succeed. But in fact, it is the frustration in his inability to get the Pentagon or intelligence agencies or the State Department to do what he thinks the President wants them to do will lead him to, in fact, try to be one of two kinds of National Security Advisors. One is Henry Kissinger, who, by the way, was also the outside face of the Nixon administration and a very effective one and had a very close relationship with the President that enabled him so. But the second part that Kissinger, of course, did is he ran his own foreign policy.

It may be true that he can't get Pompeo and the State Department to do what they want, but he can get on a plane and he can walk into the Kremlin and he can have a conversation with Putin or he can go to Beijing and talk with Xi Jinping and not tell anybody what it is that he's talking about, which is what Henry Kissinger did. So, that's one way in which I think he's going to try to make sure that the President's policy is implemented. The other possibility is he'll be Bud MacFarlane or John Poindexter.

I don't think many of our listeners will remember who those two were, but they were National Security Advisor number two, sorry, number three and number four in the Reagan administration and they made sure that policy was implemented by doing it themselves, illegally, by the way.

Brian Hanson: The Iran-Contra Affair.

Ivo Daalder: It was the Iran-Contra Affair. The arms for hostages. I think that the way in how the President thinks about policy making is a recipe for a rogue actor to go rogue. Now, whether John Bolton decides to go rogue or not, I have no idea and I'm just putting out there that the textbook way of thinking about the national security strategy and thinking, which by the way, came because of the Iran-Contra Affair, it was started to institute staring with Carlucci and Powell, the last two Ronald Reagan National Security Advisors, and then, of course, Scrowcroft, etc. after that, that that textbook was based on a way in which Presidents thought about national security. We've never had a Donald Trump and therefore, we've never had the kind of possibility for a National Security Advisor to do what either Kissinger did in the '70s or MacFarlane and Poindexter were able to do in the 1980s.

Kori Schake: Okay. So, now I am deeply regretting having come on this podcast because Ivo has just given me a whole new perspective of nightmares I'm about to have that I had not anticipated, which is John Bolton trying to run foreign defense policy from the White House clandestinely and without congressional or public oversight. I think Ivo is exactly right that we are looking at the potential of future Iran-Contras and I had not even plumbed the depths of that nightmare.

Brian Hanson: So, let me jump into that nightmare a little bit.

Ivo Daalder: So, let me-

Brian Hanson: Please.

Ivo Daalder: Let me just make clear, I'm not predicting this. I'm not. I think that if you look at the logic of the situation and think about how people operate and the enabling environment that the President provides, which I think is very important, this is a possibility. Also, one of the clicks in my mind on this was a piece in Axios that Jonathan Swan did a week or so ago saying that the focal point of Bolton was going to be enforcement of the President's will. When you make that your focal point rather than the presenting the options on policy, then you're going to find yourself frustrated because bureaucracies exist to, in fact, resist at times the implementation of the President's will.

That's true for Presidents, whether you like them or not. It's true for the ones that I worked with who found bureaucracies singularly unresponsive to their wishes and needs. Given this situation we found, you can be tempted as a strong National Security Advisor to take actions that try to go around the obstacles that are there in order to do what the President wants you to do. I think that's important.

Brian Hanson: So, let me jump into that a little bit because one of the narratives of the first year plus of the Trump administration was the, quote, "adults in the room" as being a restraint on President Trump's foreign policy decisions. At the start off, McMaster, Tillerson, and Jim Mattis. Mattis, by many accounts, is seen as the most powerful voice on foreign policy inside this administration. How is that likely to change, given the scenario that you laid out? Is he going to have a harder time prevailing on policy?

Ivo Daalder: My reading of the first year of the Trump administration is that the adults tried to stop the President and they lost, and on all the very important decisions. Whether it was talking out of TPP, moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel's capital, walking away from the Iran deal, which I think he will do in May, confronting North Korea, he has moved in a way that the adults told him he shouldn't. On trade, the trade tariffs, of course, as well.

Many of the adults have consequently left. It's part of the, from Gary Cohen on the trade side and economic side to Tillerson, who was fired by tweet, to McMaster, who was also, I think, fired by tweet, although was told that he was being fired by tweet beforehand, which is nice. I do think that the President has proven something that we tend to forget when we are too close in Washington is that they're elected and they pretty much get to do what they want and there's almost no one who can stand in their way.

Now, the big issue, war and peace, we haven't yet seen a situation where the President wanted to do something in terms of the use of military force that others didn't think was a good idea. I hope we never get to that point.

Kori Schake: [inaudible 00:22:27]

Ivo Daalder: Oh, on Syria. Yes. So, the Syria question is playing out and we'll see where that ends exactly.

Brian Hanson: Kori, develop that a little bit. This is the decision of whether or not to pull US forces out of Syria, right?

Kori Schake: Yeah. In the defense community right now, people are trying to figure out, the people who are trying to find a logic to the President's position, given that he has a publicly stated Syria policy that the former Secretary of State announced two months ago, three months ago, that he has a military strategy that's been consistently implemented for the year of his administration, and the President appears to have completely undercut it by saying it's time for us to start withdrawing troops from Syria, which sends a message that we are an unreliable ally. It sends a message that people can wait us out.

All of the criticisms of President Obama's Afghanistan policy are now equally appropriate to President Trump's Syria policy and that was clearly not the position taken by the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, or the National Security Council. So, I think Ivo's exactly right. The President is frustrated at being hemmed in by people more reasonable than he is and that choices that he's made in about the last month suggest that he wants the administration that carries out his policies, that carries out his campaign promises and he is much less concerned about the consequences of that than the members of his cabinet are concerned about it.

Brian Hanson: So, this is an interesting question because this is about the use of military force. Jim Mattis at Secretary of Defense, Kori, is someone you know well. You two wrote a book together at one point. If the Defense Department opposes this approach, what should we look for in the playing out of the tussle for defining this policy? What's going to tell us who's coming out on top and what should we expect to see?

Kori Schake: The Secretary of Defense can speak for himself. My sense is that the President made a decision this morning that he wants a plan to begin withdrawing troops from Syria now, which means the policy decision's been taken. I think what you can expect is the Defense Department, its civilian leadership, and its military leadership will salute the Commander in Chief and do that because our system of civil military relations gives the Defense Department very wide latitude for influencing policy before it's made, but zero latitude to counter policy once it has been made. The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs have a very rich understanding, richer than sometimes the American public does, that only the President got elected and they don't get to make decisions.

Brian Hanson: So, what are the other policies where we could expect to see a shift in what the US does?

Ivo Daalder: I mentioned one: Iran. I think the story of Iran in 2017 was the story of the President wanting to walk out of the agreement because that's what he had campaigned on. He thought it was the worst deal ever, like every other deal he has not negotiated himself. He wanted to walk away for it and the adults tried every possible way to keep him in because they thought it was ... They may have not liked the idea, but they thought walking out of it was worse. As Secretary Mattis said point blank to Congress, "I think staying in the deal is in America's national security interest."

Now that you have different personnel and, more importantly, you have a National Security Advisor who fundamentally agrees with the President on that premise, he's going to make sure that that happens and there's no agreement that the Europeans are going to come up with that is going to be close enough for the President to say, "Okay. We'll stay in," let alone for John Bolton to say, "We're going to stay in." So, I think the deal on Iran is set. May 12th, which is the day that the President needs to waive sanctions on Iran in order to stay within the agreement, he's going to not waive sanctions and we're backing out of that deal. I think that's one clear thing that's going to happen.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. Before I bring you in to talk about North Korea, Kori, Ivo, in just a couple sentences, so what? Why is the Iran deal so important and why is this policy reversal so important?

Ivo Daalder: So, I think there are two parts to the Iran deal that are important. One, it was a deal that we made not just with Iran, but we made it with three European countries who were our closest allies, as well as Russia and China. This would put us on the side against all of them. Not only against Iran and Russia and China, but importantly, against our European allies. That's not a good move, particularly when we're already having trade and other tensions. It just makes an alliance that is already brittle even more brittle. So, that's one reason.

The second reason is we don't know what the Iranian reaction's going to be. But presumably, they're going to be more relaxed about meeting their side of the deal or they're going to ask more from the Europeans to keep their side of the deal and stay within it. So, they're going to be better off. If the idea is to put more pressure on Iran short of military force, I don't think walking out of the deal is going to put more pressure on Iran.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. Turning to another part of the world now, Kori, North Korea, what is your concern there?

Kori Schake: That the President appears indifferent to the consequences of choosing to fight a preventative war against North Korea that is to undertake our first strike against North Korea's nuclear facilities that in the best possible case for the United States, ends up with about 200,000 dead South Koreans and Japanese. The entire geopolitical order is going to get reframed if the US chooses to make ourselves feel safer and incur that much damage to our treaty allies. But the President appears willing to do it and John Bolton certainly appears willing to do it.

Brian Hanson: Yeah. He's actually publicly stated, not in a policy position, but he's publicly stated that he believes this is a policy option worth considering. How about things like sanctions on Russia, policy toward Russia?

Kori Schake: There, Bolton has actually been better than the President, she says using a normative term for a Russia policy that doesn't reward them for interfering in our elections and trying to undercut our government and divide our society. Bolton has been in favor of a more anti-Russian policy in favor of penalties for Russian interference in American domestic politics. So, he's actually better than the President on that.

Brian Hanson: Ivo, this is something you followed carefully. How do you read it?

Ivo Daalder: Yeah. I think the continuing disconnect in this administration when it comes to Russia policy is going to stay because the President, who yesterday said that he has been tougher on Russia than anybody else, and to some extent, that's not actually that untrue, which is to say he has now finally imposed sanctions for the 2016 election interference, he did expel 60 diplomats and worked very closely, including personally involved in working with Europeans to make this a collective response. First time we've actually done really something collectively, aside from North Korea.

He did send defensive weapons to Ukraine, something that many of us thought we should have done and President Obama as frankly the only person in the administration opposed and therefore prevented. So, he's done all that. At the same time, he has had this extraordinary fascination and degree of desire to have good relations with Vladimir Putin, as if that's something, in and of itself, a good thing, which he keeps on saying it's a good thing. Well, it's only good thing if it actually leads to good things, like where Russia and the United States do things together that improve our security interests.

The problem with Russia is that Russia is engaged in the kind of behavior that is designed to undermine our security interests, whether it's the unity of the Transatlantic Alliance, our democratic system, what's happening in Syria, or indeed what's happening in Ukraine. If good relations could lead to a fundamental change in Russia policy, that would be one thing. If good relations lead to a fundamental change in American policy, that would not be a good thing.

Brian Hanson: Okay. You've both given us a lot to think about and listeners, I think, a very helpful kind of agenda of areas to keep an eye on as Bolton comes into this new position. As we close, I want to ask each of you to make a prediction. John Bolton is the third National Security Advisor for President Trump and my question to you is how long will he be in this job and why will he leave it?

Kori Schake: I think John Bolton will be in this job through the end of the administration. I don't think he will leave it because I think he has yearned for this kind of opportunity and has a President he is intellectually and policy aligned with. So, there's not going to be any reason for him to. So, I don't think he does leave.

Brian Hanson: Ivo?

Ivo Daalder: John Bolton's going to be as long in this administration as the President wants him to be. Now, that's a truism and I would agree that if the decision is up to Bolton, he will probably stay as long as the end of the administration. I find predicting the President's behavior towards his staff to be very difficult, so I will only say he will stay as long as the President wants him. Whether that is until the end of the administration or not, I have no idea.

Brian Hanson: We'll all see how this plays out because I think one of the things that this conversation has demonstrated is this is a significant role and this is a very significant appointment that will have an effect on US foreign policymaking in the future. Kori, thank you so much for being on and calling into this discussion.

Kori Schake: It was a great pleasure, my friend.

Brian Hanson: Ivo, thanks for coming back to Deep Dish.

Ivo Daalder: Great to be here. It's always wonderful to be on with Kori.

Brian Hanson: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish on Global Affairs. If you have questions about anything you heard, please feel free to ask them in our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. If you liked the show, let us know by tapping the Subscribe button on your podcast app. You can find us under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know of someone who would enjoy this episode, tap the Share button and send it to them as well. Deep Dish is produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Joe Palermo. I'm Brian Hanson. We'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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