Defense Secretary Ash Carter has some parting advice for Donald Trump as the president-elect tries to improve relations with Russia: Don’t get your hopes up.
Trump is likely to find exceedingly few areas where Washington and Moscow’s interests still align, the outgoing Pentagon chief told POLITICO on Tuesday. And it may be most fruitful to focus on the handful of areas — such as reining in North Korea’s nuclear program and keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists — where the two sides can work together.
“And stand strong where we can’t,” Carter said.
Trump has made working with Vladimir Putin a signature part of his foreign policy platform, and has alarmed some U.S. allies by casting doubt on the effectiveness of the NATO military alliance. He has also dismissed the conclusions by U.S spy agencies that the Russian leader personally ordered the hacking of emails of Democratic Party officials in an effort to weaken Hillary Clinton in last year’s election.
But Carter expressed doubts that Trump will get much real cooperation in return — without harming American interests. The Pentagon chief said prospects remain dim that the former Cold War adversaries will join forces to swiftly end the civil war in Syria, fight against the Islamic State, or that the U.S. will be able to turn back Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine or get Moscow to halt its saber-rattling and cyber mischief.
“Russia has made it progressively more difficult to align its interests with our interests,” Carter said in an interview in his Pentagon office. “The scope has narrowed of areas where they see their interests as similar enough to ours to be able to cooperate — and vice versa. If they define their interest as being in opposition to ours and the success of their policy in terms of frustrating the success of our policy, it’s very difficult to build a bridge.”
Carter began his long Pentagon career as aide to then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, where he focused on nuclear deterrence with the then-Soviet Union.
After the end of the Cold war, he played instrumental roles in helping Russia and former Soviet republics secure nuclear material and enlisting the Russian military in NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. He served in several top Pentagon posts in the Obama administration, including as undersecretary of defense for acquisition and as the deputy defense secretary.
He leaves office later this week after nearly two years as Defense secretary, with relations with Moscow at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces while the United States, in Carter’s estimation, has “basically paused our [nuclear] modernization and recapitalization.”
He said the lesson he draws from Russia’s nuclear buildup — as well as similar efforts by Pakistan, China and North Korea — is that it “disproves the proposition that if we don’t do something, others will not do something.”
“The history of the last couple decades shows that is the case,” he said.
Yet he still thinks the two nations can reach agreement in some narrow but consequential areas.
“North Korea is an example, I think, where we can work with Russia,” Carter said. “We worked with them on Iran” in reaching an agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons program.
In addition, he said, “we certainly both agree we don’t want others — especially terrorists — to have nuclear weapons.”
“It does seem to me that is the place where there is low-hanging fruit for U.S.-Russian cooperation,” he added.
Carter also had some advice for his likely successor, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, on preparing the military for future threats: Don’t let the Pentagon get outstripped on the latest technology. And keep focused on finding the right incentives for young Americans to choose to serve in the armed forces.
“I have really emphasized — in all three of the jobs I’ve had over the past eight years — our R&D and making sure that our spending on that remained high, even in very turbulent budget times,” said Carter, a trained physicist.
“When I started my career the bulk of technology of relevance to the Defense Department and its future could be found in the United States and within the Defense Department,” he said. “Thirty-five years later we’re still important but most of the technology is outside of defense — in fact a lot of it is outside of the United States. In order to have access to the best and be the best we need to build bridges from our Department to the outside.”
The second piece of advice: Find innovative ways to fill the ranks of the all-volunteer military.
“More important than technology is people,” Carter said. “Many people are not familiar with us, so when it comes to recruiting people there is an extra effort we have to make to reach out. And because out people are so well respected they’re recruited once they’re in uniform. So I have to keep competing to keep them in. There are more kids who turn 17 or 18 every year than we can use and moreover, I’m sad to say, many of them aren’t fit physically or mentally to serve.
“That’s why it’s so important to me that we continue to have access to the entire population — to make sure all schools are letting our recruiters in, that we’re looking in all geographic areas,” he said. “That’s why I thought it was important we open all combat specialties to women. They are half the population.”
Asked what he still has to do before his tenure ends in less than three days, Carter said: “The world never stops. As we sit here now, and I can’t share them with you, we are working on operations around the world and continuing to make decisions, continuing to issue orders, continuing to confer with my commanders. And I will do that right up until midday on Friday.”