Paul Saunders

saunders's picture
Paul Saunders
Senior Fellow
Center for the National Interest

Online press conference with Paul Sanders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest (USA).


The Internet press-conference was organized within the framework of the project "International press-center "Dialogue": Diversification of the sources of international news for Armenian media". These "first-hand" comments Armenian journalists will publish in their media outlets.

This project of the "Region" Research Center is supported by the OSCE office in Yerevan.

Topic: Post-electoral processes and problems of international politics in the election campaigns of candidates for the US presidency; Iran and the Middle East; US-Russian relations
Artak Barseghyan,
Question - Mr. Saunders, after the term of the US President Ronald Reagan a tradition has been established in the United States: the presidential candidate promises to the Armenian community to recognize the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire, however, becoming the head of state they "forget" about his promise. How can you explain this chronic phenomenon, so to say?
Answer – This outcome is not unique to these particular promises. The Armenian community is an important voting bloc in certain U.S. states and politicians naturally say whatever they can to try to win support. That said, the same is true of Hispanic American voters, who have regularly heard promises about immigration reform, and of many other groups (ethnic, social, or otherwise) who politicians want to attract. Sometimes these promises are genuine but naïve, in that they ignore political or policy realities that make them difficult to fulfill. Other times they may be less genuine. But the phenomenon is not specific to the problem of the Armenian Genocide.
Question - How do you assess Donald Trump’s chances in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections?
Answer – Donald Trump’s popularity is overwhelmingly a result of popular anger and political and even economic elites in the United States. However, while the anger is widespread, it appears unlikely to be sufficiently broadly based to carry Trump into office, especially because he has high “negatives,” meaning that many people do not like him and will not vote for him. That said, any other politician who ignores this public anger is making a big mistake.
Question – Can the Democrats in the person of Hillary Clinton as president stay in the White House for another term?
Answer – Possibly. Many believe that the Democrats have a significant structural demographic advantage that will make it easier for a Democrat than a Republican to win a majority of the electoral votes needed to prevail. However, Clinton has also been weakened by scandals, particularly the scandal over her personal email server, and has not consolidated Democratic support—which is made clear by the high level of support for Senator Bernie Sanders. So she is vulnerable.
Question – Many experts believe that ISIS basically is an American project created in the fight against Assad, as the Taliban and Al Qaeda were in Afghanistan at the time. How true is this belief?
Answer – The idea that ISIS was created deliberately by the United States is totally false. ISIS has been able to succeed because Syria has been in an extended state of crisis and chaos. The reason for that is the lack of international consensus, particularly among permanent members of the UN Security Council and among states in the region, about how to end the fighting and more specifically about what to do with President Bashar al-Assad. From that perspective everyone is responsible for failing to find a solution sooner.
Karine Asatryan,
Question – What new challenges does Russia's military action in Syria bring about?
Answer – Russia’s military action serves primarily to highlight the challenges that already exist, meaning the lack of international consensus about Syria and particularly about Assad. If Russia’s actions make it more difficult to find consensus, which is possible, then Moscow will have added to the existing challenges.
David Stepanyan,
Question - Was the proposal of the Russian President to participate in a coalition against the "Islamic state" a surprise for the US, given that the defense department of the USA and Russia started consultations on the harmonization of the joint action against ISIS only on September 1?
Answer – Russia’s leaders have been discussing ideas for an international coalition against the Islamic State for at least a few months and have been actively seeking support from the US and from regional states throughout that period. I do not think that the proposal was a surprise.
Question – Can you, please, evaluate the perspectives of a military operation by the Russian Air Force against the ISIS militants launched on September 30?
Answer – Russia’s airstrikes and missile attacks are primarily symbolic, in that Moscow is conducting many fewer attacks than the United States and its allies. However, if Russia is able to coordinate its actions effectively with the Syrian Army’s ground offensive, Moscow may be able to give the Assad regime some “breathing room.” The key question is how quickly the forces that Russia is targeting will develop counter-measures.
Question - What are the objectives the United States and Russia have in the Middle East and Syria in particular?
Answer – This is a very broad question and probably requires a very long answer. To be brief, however, I think the United States under President Barack Obama is trying to do what it can to maintain stability while avoiding direct military engagement. For various reasons, the U.S. administration has not yet developed an effective strategy to do this. I think that Russia under President Putin has a broadly similar interest in stability but defines stability differently—focusing more heavily on strong governments that can suppress extremism rather than democratic governments that can reduce extremism by addressing root causes. Moscow is also trying to demonstrate that it is a true global great power and is asserting that role in the Middle East and in Syria.
Question - The US administration does not cease to say that the situation in Syria can only be resolved with the resignation of President Bashar Assad. Meanwhile, we see that with the destruction of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, Libya and Iraq plunged into an uncontrollable chaos, the best evidence of which is the flow of hundreds of thousands refugees from these countries to Europe. Do you also think that peace will return to Syria with Assad’s resignation and, if so, due to what reasons?
Answer – The Obama administration has already acknowledged that Assad may need to remain in government during a transitional period in order to reach a stable negotiated agreement. What the administration insists on is that Assad’s departure should be a precondition of negotiations. Neither Assad nor Russia accept this. I think that Russian officials probably agree that Assad’s rule is not indefinitely sustainable—even if he wins the civil war, which seems unlikely, he will be severely damaged as a leader. The key questions are how and when Assad leaves.
Question – On September 30, Donald Trump, struggling for candidacy for the US President from the Republican Party, said that if he wins the election, “he would send back home all the refugees from Syria, which by that time will end up in the United States." Meanwhile, according to the plans of the White House in 2016 the United States plans to accept about 10,000 refugees. What, in your opinion, is such a sharp difference in the views of the current administration and the quite promising Republican candidate conditioned by?
Answer – Donald Trump is a populist candidate and his positions are populist positions. I would not take statements like this too seriously. From a legal perspective, it would probably be extremely difficult to do what he describes within the U.S. justice system.
Question – What do you think of the chances of Republicans and Democrats to win in the upcoming US presidential elections are?
Answer – Democrats seem to have a structural demographic advantage, but also have a weaker than expected candidate in Hillary Clinton. Republicans have so far been extremely divided both in the presidential race and on Capitol Hill. The outcome will depend on whether Republicans can unite around a strong candidate. So far this looks questionable.
Question – What, in your view, explains the activity of the Talibs, the recent capture of Kunduz, observed in the north of Afghanistan? 
Answer -  I am not really an expert on the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sorry.
Question – Would you please assess the prospects for the implementation of agreements reached by the "six" mediators and Tehran in order to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue?
Answer – The Iran nuclear agreement is complicated and was not easy to reach, so I expect it is very likely that there will be a number of disputes about implementation. However, the agreement would not have happened if all of the parties did not want it, so I don’t expect any of these disputes to bring about the collapse of the deal. However, they could create other complications, such as causing new disagreements between Washington, Moscow and Beijing or making it more difficult for Washington and Tehran to discuss other issues.
Armen Minasyan,
Question – In your opinion, is a Cold War possible in the 21st century, roughly according to the parameters that existed during the confrontation between the USSR and the west?
Answer – The current international environment is substantially different from the Cold War of the twentieth century. Russia’s economy is one-eighth of the US economy and one-eighth of the EU economy, so it is one-sixteenth of their combined economies. Russia’s military is also much smaller. A new Cold War would not be sustainable for Russia. There is a real danger, however, that the two sides will enter a deep and long term confrontation that could be quite costly without becoming a seventy-year long global rivalry.
Question – If yes, is it then possible to assume that the latest agreement on the Syrian issue will to some extent exclude such developments?
Answer – So far there have been no meaningful agreements on Syria between the U.S. and Russia except for the chemical weapons agreement a few years ago. The current military talks to avoid accidental battlefield encounters are very limited and will not prevent a wider long-term confrontation.
Question – What impact will the agreement on Iran's nuclear program have in the South Caucasus region and Armenia?
Answer – I suspect that the biggest impact will be economic as Iran escapes sanctions and Armenia and other neighbors can engage Tehran economically.
Question – Does Armenia have a possibility to maintain normal relations with the West because of its membership to the EEU?
Answer – I don’t think that membership in the EEU is alone an obstacle to normal relations with the West or the United States.
Question – Do you think the current US policy in the Caucasus and Armenia in particular pragmatic?
Answer – I am not an expert on U.S. policy toward Armenia and am reluctant to assess it.
Question – In your opinion how topical will the issue of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide be during the election campaign in the US?
Answer – The Armenian Genocide has not really ever been a national issue in U.S. politics. I do not expect that to change. Candidates are likely to appeal to America’s Armenian community, but this is unlikely to have any wider impact (or results after the election).
Tatevik Ghazaryan,
Question – Please evaluate the speeches of the US and Russian presidents in the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.
Answer – President Obama’s and President Putin’s speeches presented starkly contrasting visions of the international system and of some of the main international security challenges, including Syria. The speeches are helpful in understanding why Washington and Moscow differ on so many issues.
Question – What will the results of Russia's decision to apply air strikes against the Islamic state in Syria be for the resolution of the crisis?
Answer – I answered this question earlier.
Question – The Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the Russian and US Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama had mutual understanding, but somehow it does not lead to cooperation on Syria. In your opinion, on what issues of international politics do the heads of the two countries have mutual understanding? Is mutual understanding possible to be gained on the issue of Syria in the near future?
Answer – President Obama and President Putin sometimes can reach very general understandings but have a harder time reaching specific understandings. The problem is that the U.S. and Russia have similar broad interests, such as their common interest in a stable Middle East and in fighting terrorism, but have very different preferences and approaches in pursuing those interests. This makes it possible for some officials to feel that there is an understanding when there is not.
Question – How effective is the fight of the international coalition with the "Islamic state" and terrorism in the Middle East?
Answer – So far, no one has committed military forces that will be sufficient to end the Syrian civil war in any reasonable time frame. Also, the U.S. coalition airstrikes and the Russian airstrikes are pursuing competing objectives. From this perspective, the fight against the Islamic State is not very effective.
Tatev Harutyunyan,
Question – Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly active on the border continuing to violate the ceasefire. Do you think the increase of the level of Armenian-Azerbaijani border tensions to their escalation into full-scale hostilities possible?
Answer – I am not an expert on this issue.
Question – The Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stated that the Nagorno Karabakh conflict was not taken seriously by the international mediators and stated that the long-term status quo was unacceptable. Are such statements in the context of conflict resolution acceptable for you?
Answer – I did not see exactly what President Aliyev said so I am reluctant to comment.
Question – The President of the Russain federation Vladimir Putin announced after his recent conversation with the US President Barack Obama that “the relations between Russia and the US are at a low level now, however, not because of Russia. The US is to blame for it” and stressed that “we are always ready to develop our relations and fully restore them.”
Answer – I am not sure exactly what the question is. If the question is who is to blame for the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship, I would say that it is rare in relationships between countries or people for only one side to be responsible for all the problems. So I don’t think that one side in the U.S.-Russia relationship is responsible for all the problems.
Gagik Baghdasaryan,
Question – Do you expect the growth of the Russian-American rivalry in the South Caucasus? What threats may it bring about for the countries in the region?
Answer – If the U.S.-Russia relationship continues to worsen, it is possible that a U.S.-Russian rivalry will develop all around Russia’s periphery. This would put significant pressure on Russia’s neighbors and could be very dangerous, especially for those countries. The main victim of the U.S.-Russia rivalry in Ukraine has been Ukraine itself. I expect that very few governments want to be in a similar position. If I were the leader of a country in this region, I would try very hard to avoid becoming an object of competition.
Question – Do you think the collective West understands that it has made a mistake trying to completely ignore the interests of Russia historically had in this country? Will there be lessons learned from this mistake?
Answer – Very few people in the West or anywhere else are capable of putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, as we say in English. Many people in the West understand that Russia has interests but do not understand why Moscow defines its interests in the ways that it does. Some may be prepared to take Russian interests into account if Russia defined its interests differently. Others will not see Russia’s interests as legitimate so long as Russia is not a democracy. As a foreign policy realist, I believe that it is dangerous not to consider how another government may respond to your own choices, whether or not you think the other party’s actions are legitimate or justified.
Question – How do you see the Russian-US relations after Obama leaves office? Will the policy of confrontation continue, regardless of the outcomes of the presidential election?
Answer – The confrontation will probably continue. There is currently a bipartisan consensus in Washington that is very skeptical toward Russia and especially toward President Putin. It would be politically difficult for a new president to try to improve the relationship with Russia unless there was a clear and compelling reason to do it in order to advance U.S. national interests. This would require a new president to make this a political priority above many other international and (more important) domestic priorities.
Question – The United States say that they fight against the authoritarian regime of Assad, but the main US ally in the region is a series of despotic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. How come alliance with dictatorial regimes is formed for the alleged struggle for democracy?
Answer – The United States generally takes the view that democracies are more stable and more peaceful than autocracies. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. has applied pressure to many of its non-democratic allies to reform. South Korea and Taiwan have been successful at this in a gradual way over time. In the Philippines, the Reagan administration abandoned a long-term ally (former President Ferdinand Marcos) in favor of people pressing for democracy. The U.S. presses many of its Persian Gulf allies to introduce reforms and some of them have done so. Also, the U.S. usually applies different standards to allies and friends than to others. This is hardly unusual in international politics.
Question – Do you think the creation of an independent Kurdish state an irreversible process? Which geopolitical realities will create an independent Kurdistan?
Answer – I am not an expert on the Kurdish issue, which is a very complex one.



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