Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott Talks About Cleveland's Rise, Russia's 'Putinism'

Strobe Talbott (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
Strobe Talbott (Tony Ganzer/WCPN)
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The president of the Brookings Institution Strobe Talbott was in Cleveland yesterday to receive the Global Impact Award from the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. Talbott still considers himself a proud Clevelander, after a career that included work as a correspondent for Time magazine, and later he assumed the post of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State. Ideastream’s Tony Ganzer spoke to Talbott about his views on foreign policy, and on his ties to Cleveland.

TALBOTT: “I’ve had family here. My dad passed away just a couple of months ago, and I visited with him many times, and love the town and even support the sports teams, particularly the Browns, who need all the support they can get.”

GANZER: “They appreciate that, I’m sure. Your father, Bud Talbott, he did have a strong hand in Cleveland’s development. He was an environmentalist in a city that has a struggling past with environmental issues. How do you think growing up in that environment influenced you, or influenced the trajectory of your career?”

TALBOTT: “My dad had a huge impact on pretty much everything about my life, and about my profession. I think, literally, I heard about global warming from him about 10 years before it was in the public debate, long before Al Gore was on the stump on that. He was a great outdoorsman, and he was noticing changes in the species of frogs and fish in the ponds outside of Cleveland, and he was convinced that there was something going on, and it turns out, yes, he was right.”

GANZER: “Cleveland’s changed a lot over the years, since you went to school in your youth in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights. Where do you see us now, in this city?”

TALBOTT: “My sense is that Cleveland and what you might call the Great Lakes Region is getting with the program, it’s innovating. Obviously it paid a big price for being in the Rust Belt, we all understand that. We have a program at Brookings called Metropolitan Studies, and that program has taken a real interest, and a very positive interest, with some of the innovative policies, not just that the public sector is doing here, but also the private sector and I might add the collaboration among foundations, city governments, and county governments, but also academe and NGOs, and very importantly the private sector.”

GANZER: “A lot of people see signs of Cleveland coming back, I guess a renaissance, and I’m not talking about Lebron necessarily, but the Republican National Convention, deciding on Cleveland. How do you view that decision? Was this purely political, or does it make a statement about Cleveland?”

TALBOTT: “Cleveland, last time I checked, is in the great state of Ohio, and Ohio has always had a pretty important role to play in presidential politics. But no, I think this is….I’m biased, I want it to be true, and I think it is true. I don’t know when the signs came down saying ‘best location in the nation’ but I always associated myself with that sentiment.”

GANZER: “Much of your career has focused on Eastern Europe, especially the Soviet Union, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many see Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and Crimea as a return to Soviet thinking. Do you see this as a return to Soviet-era strategy, or is this something new from Russia?

TALBOTT: “It’s a combination. And actually, Tony, I think that my childhood in Cleveland may have helped push me in the direction of spending much of my life trying to figure out what was going on in what was then the Soviet Union and the Soviet Empire, and is now Russia and its neighboring states, because Cleveland, as I hardly need to tell you or your listeners, is a great melting pot city. And a lot of the contents of the melting pot here are people whose forefathers and parents brought them over from Central and Eastern Europe. I can remember hearing Hungarian being spoken, as a kid, and being fascinated by the sound of the language, and then when my wife and I lived in Eastern Europe at the beginning of our marriage in the 1970s we went to Hungary a lot, and people always said ‘you know that Cleveland is the second-largest Hungarian city in the world?’ Which I didn’t know, but it happens to be true.

As for what’s happening there, I would say it’s new and old. There’s no longer the ideology of Marxism/Leninism, which was the driving ideology of the Soviet Union. Putin’s ideology is ethnic Russian chauvinism.”

GANZER: “I think it’s interesting that we’re here 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and still we’re talking about Russia threatening, I guess, Europe. We hear this discussion of NATO, and especially the border states who are concerned over what is happening. Do you think that concern is warranted?”

TALBOTT: “I think that it is warranted, and I know that our government and our President Barack Obama have an awful lot on their plate—ISIS, of course, is really the headline crisis of the moment. But I think our government and the American people need to pay a lot of attention to what is happening in Russia. It’s very, very dangerous. I don’t worry that Putinism will prevail in the end, in fact quite the contrary, I think it will fail. But in the interim, it’s going to cause a lot of ruction. I’ll end on a positive note: I was very involved in the policy of expanding NATO to the former Warsaw Pact countries, and the Baltic states from the old USSR, and I think those countries are safer today as a result of having security guaranties from NATO and from the United States.”

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