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Jim Sciutto on if the next world war is preventable

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This is a 1939 moment - words written by Jim Sciutto comparing where we are today to that moment on the precipice of World War II, when the global order as we knew it was about to change. Well, Sciutto is a CNN anchor and chief national security analyst. He has made a career of reporting from all over the world. And what he sees today is another tectonic shift underway, a shift he explores in his new book, "The Return Of Great Power" - Jim Sciutto, great to see you.

JIM SCIUTTO: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: Where were you? What was happening when that 1939 comparison flitted into your mind?

SCIUTTO: I was in Ukraine.

KELLY: Oh.

SCIUTTO: And I was covering the beginning of the Russian invasion and witnessing the first missiles falling on Ukrainian cities and the tanks rolling across the border. And though I reported on deteriorating relations between Russia and the West for some time, it struck me that this one was so aggressive, so broad, Russia really dedicating most of its conventional military forces to slice off perhaps the entire largest country in Europe.

KELLY: Trying to redraw the map of Europe. Yeah.

SCIUTTO: One hundred percent. And with tanks and missiles and air strikes and deliberately targeting civilians - that this was a clean break. If we were teetering in that direction for a number of years, and I do believe we were, we had fallen off the precipice.

KELLY: But really? - because obviously, what followed in 1939 was world war, nuclear bombs dropped, global chaos on a scale we have not seen since. Is that really - you really believe we're staring at that kind of precipice.

SCIUTTO: Well, we're not there yet, but we have the pieces. We have the elements. And one of those elements, and perhaps the most dangerous one, is that we have a European leader willing to use force to redraw the map of Europe. I'm not saying he is Hitler, but he has that in common with Hitler. And what is different about this one as compared to the last Cold War is that you have two, not one, global challengers to the U.S. and the West and the system that, while imperfect, we've come to grow used to, an international rules-based order that generally has kept the peace since World War II. So, of course, it's now a tri-polar world.

KELLY: Yeah.

SCIUTTO: And Russia and China often joining hands, calculating that it's in their interest for now to jointly undermine the U.S. and the West where they can. And Russia's intention is just to bring the temple down. They calculate that disintegrating that order is in their interests, and they can thrive from the chaos. China's is to replace it with itself, if not at the top, certainly jointly at the top, perhaps with the U.S. or in some sort of balance - replace it with its own because, to be clear, they look at that system as designed to serve our interests and not their own.

KELLY: So you think it's more than the enemy of my enemy is my friend or the adversary of my adversary is my friend.

SCIUTTO: It is because we've seen some evidence of that. They have not provided lethal assistance in large form to China, to Russia and Ukraine yet, but they helped them in other ways. I mean, buying their oil is basically propping up their economy, and there's some shared technology and so on. So they're not married at the hip like, say, the U.S. with its NATO allies but certainly closer than they were.

KELLY: Based on the reporting you did for the book, how directly do you believe Taiwan's fate is tied to Ukraine's?

SCIUTTO: They are watching Ukraine as closely as we are. They really are. And they believe China is watching Ukraine as closely as we are for the lesson, to see what the costs are. And Taiwanese officials and military commanders I spoke with believe that if China sees Russia get away with Ukraine, they are more likely to go for Taiwan because they would calculate that we could withstand not just the military cost but also the potential international economic cost, diplomatic cost, etc. And then the other piece I spoke to - Army commanders, Navy commanders, Air Force commanders in Taiwan - they watch for those battlefield lessons in Ukraine, for what they can learn, how to better defend themselves because both are asymmetric conflicts if they were to happen - a smaller one, a David trying to beat a Goliath. And they're trying to learn from that as well.

KELLY: So this brings us to the wild card that is developments here in the U.S. I never like to ask somebody to speculate on the future and what may happen because who the heck knows? But how radical a shift could a second Donald Trump presidency represent for America's role in the world?

SCIUTTO: Fundamental, arguably 180. And this is not my guessing. I spoke in the book to some of Trump's most senior former advisers - John Kelly, chief of staff; John Bolton, who was his national security adviser; Matthew Pottinger, deputy national security adviser - all of whom were directly face to face with him and in deep discussions about all these issues. Not only do they say and recount how Trump nearly took the U.S. out of NATO in his last administration. They say with confidence that he will attempt to take the U.S. out or at least neuter the U.S. commitments - mutual defense commitments to its allies because he just doesn't believe it's worth the cost.

KELLY: We should be clear. Congress has a role here if the U.S. were...

SCIUTTO: They do.

KELLY: ...To try to pull out of NATO. But a president could find ways to weaken things to the point where it becomes less relevant.

SCIUTTO: The president could make them meaningless. So if Congress doesn't take him out, he's the commander in chief. And if he decides not to send the Marines to defend the Baltics - right? - then you're not defending the Baltics. That's their read. Similarly on Taiwan, John Bolton tells a story in the book about how Trump would sit in the Oval, hold up a Sharpie and say, see the tip of the Sharpie? That's Taiwan. See this Resolute Desk? That's China - to make the point that Taiwan has no chance against China and, therefore, we shouldn't defend them. And Donald Trump has very frequently praised a whole host of the world's autocrats and said that he can work with them and accommodate with them, whether it's Putin or Kim or Xi. Or, in fact, looking back, he expresses admiration for Adolf Hitler.

KELLY: So let me circle us back to where we began, that 1939 moment, which - again, what ensued was World War II but also the creation of the international architecture - the U.N., NATO - that has provided stability and avoided a world war ever since. What opportunities do you see in this moment?

SCIUTTO: You know, we've been here before where the powers come face to face. And you have to develop systems so that you provide paths, off-ramps from direct military conflict. And clarity of red lines is important and demonstrating that you will not stand for the forcible redrawing of borders by force. If you give Ukraine and if you give Taiwan, as we, you could argue, have already given other slices of Europe, you're just waiting for the next one and then the next one. And not only does that have consequences to world peace and systems and travel and business and so on, but it puts you in a position where, eventually, you're going to have to fight. So you have to make clear that, you know, this shall not stand, in effect. That's important - that alliances are important and keeping to those commitments but also finding ways to cooperate. Climate change is one with China that - the world does not move forward on climate change without China. We're just too big together.

And I will note that there was an instance I describe in this book where working across the aisle, as it were, geopolitically works. And this was in 2022, senior U.S. advisors telling me we came much closer to a Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine than many realize, that the U.S. read from multiple indicators Russia was ready to strike. And this goes back to how close we are to actual...

KELLY: Yeah.

SCIUTTO: ...Great power conflict. But in that moment, the U.S. reached out to India and China, not allies and not even typical partners, and said, we need your help on this to pull Russia back from the brink. And it worked. Blinken and others say it worked. So there are times when you can reach across that aisle to find shared interests - this shared interest was we don't want a nuclear strike in Europe - and find a path forward, a path to peace.

KELLY: Here's to that path. Here's to hope. Jim Sciutto, thank you.

SCIUTTO: Thank you.

KELLY: His new book is "The Return Of Great Powers: Russia, China, And The Next World War."

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY LAMONTAGNE'S "PART TWO - A MURMURATION OF STARLINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elena Burnett
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.