The Gist

“We Are on the Verge of a Nuclear War”

Jill Stein on why peace is more likely under Trump and the threat of an emerging Demo-Republican party.

Jill Stein
Jill Stein waits to speak at the National Press Club on June 23, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential candidate, has recently said that a Hillary Clinton presidency could lead to war with Russia. On The Gist, she spoke to Mike Pesca about this belief and how as president she would approach the crisis in the Middle East. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Mike Pesca: When people run for office, they represent a raft of policy proposals, and you and the Green Party certainly do. But they also sometimes put forth initiatives, or clever ideas, to solve problems. Do you have one of those? A clever initiative that the big parties aren’t thinking of?


Jill Stein: Oh man. I’d say just about all of them. You know, like the Green New Deal, which is an emergency jobs program to solve the emergency of climate change. I mean, this is sort of the elephant in the room. It’s absolutely essential, if we’re going to get out of here alive. But we’re not really seeing anything from the two presidential candidates of real substance. And we need a game-changer. We’re not seeing anything like that on the expanding wars and the crisis of U.S. foreign policy based on regime-change and military intervention. This has been an utter disaster. It is exhausting our budget; it takes up 54 percent of our discretionary budget for a defense department, which is truly an offense department, and it takes almost half of your income taxes. And what do we have to show for it?


Right. So that is the policy, being against the war. But you’re going to pull the troops back in a way that, for instance, won’t allow Iraq to collapse? Obama promised to pull the troops back, tried to do it, got sucked in again.

Well, right. Shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.

But not his fault. Not your fault, if you become president.

Then there’s this surge into Afghanistan, which was his doing. We are bombing seven countries right now. Yesterday we fired missiles at Yemen. I mean, there is no end to U.S. incursions. We have this terrific power of militarism, which is all over the planet, and when you’ve got your finger on a big trigger, it’s hard not to pull that trigger. And we’re doing it all over the place. So here’s the solution, which is not rocket science: We need a weapons embargo in the Middle East, and we need to freeze the bank accounts of those countries who insist on continuing to fund terrorist extremism around the world. Hillary Clinton herself identified the Saudis as still the major funder of extremist terrorism around the world.


What about Yemen? Should we be taking a side in Yemen?

Well, we already are taking a side in Yemen.

But should we be?

Yeah, we certainly should not be taking a side in Yemen. We are party to the war crimes that are being committed by Saudi Arabia, who’s using cluster bombs made by us. And we’ve supplied $100 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis in the last decade—the Saudis, who have been massively committing war crimes and human rights abuses. It’s against our own laws. The Leahy bill requires that we not sell weapons to human rights abusers. So just in accord with our own policies, we should not have anything to do with Yemen.


What happens if the Houthis take over Yemen? Or if the Houthis turn that into a state where you can stage terrorism from?

How much good is this [action] doing us? Where have we gotten? Where did the Taliban come from in the first place? This is a series of cycles of violence that you can ultimately trace back to our fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, where the U.S., CIA, and Saudi Arabia came up with this great idea for disrupting the Soviet Union, which was to create this international religious extremist force to disrupt the Soviet Union. And out of that, we trained Osama Bin Laden, we funded and armed this new international extremist group, out of which grew the Taliban. The Taliban is stronger today than at any time since we’ve been fighting them.


But not more dangerous to the United States.

But what we can see clearly, if we dare to look at the historical record here, is a series of cycles of violence. And it went from the Mujahedin, which were supported and funded and armed by us, then to the Taliban and al-Qaida. And then out of the fight against al-Qaida, we generated ISIS. Now we’re going to fight ISIS and create the next version of terrorist extremism. It’s time to stop this cycle of violence. Where have we gotten? Trillions of dollars spent here, according to a Harvard study—it was $6 trillion for Afghanistan and Iraq if you add in the costs of caring for our wounded soldiers, which is enormous and absolutely justified and probably not enough for what they deserve, actually. But we’re talking many trillions of dollars. If you spread that $6 trillion out over the American public, that’s about $50,000 per American family, for these wars. And what exactly have we gotten for it? Failed states, mass refugee migrations, and worse, terrorist threats. We need a new way forward.


If the U.S. disengages in Yemen, doesn’t arm the Kurds, how does ISIS respond?


Well, the point is, ISIS needs to be deprived of its nutrition and its life-blood. That’s why we need to start an arms embargo, that’s why we need to cut off the funding that flows through our allies, in particular. That’s why we need to convince Turkey, our ally in theory, to close its border to the movement of jihadi militias across its border to reinforce ISIS.

What kind of leverage do we have?

They’re supposed to be a member of NATO.

They are.

We’ve got to try. We’ve got to start somewhere. And the road that we’ve been going down, which is essentially a road that says, “Let’s just shoot ’em out. More bombs and bullets.” That’s been an utter catastrophe. We need to really dedicate ourselves to another option here, that is consistent with our future.


But don’t you question our involvement in NATO?

That certainly needs to be revisited, yes it does.

So then what leverage do we have in Turkey?

NATO is a bigger issue that’s going to take some long-term thinking and discussion. For example, Andrew Bacevich, a military historian at B.U., his suggestion is that we set a deadline for approximately, I think he said 2025, and that we work with Europe to transfer NATO to being a European defense organization that doesn’t involve us. We’re not funding it, we’re not using it to do an end-run around the need for Congress to approve our foreign policy. We shouldn’t be making foreign policy through NATO.


You don’t think that NATO gives us leverage in Europe, particularly in regards to Russia?

Well, it’s been a two-way street in the conflict with Russia.


Let’s put it this way: Gorbachev said last week that we are now closer to nuclear war with Russia than we have ever been. That’s a pretty dangerous state of affairs.

What about the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Well, right now we got the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse going on, where we have now surrounded Russia with missiles and nuclear weapons and NATO troops, for that matter. How would we feel—

We have in place nuclear treaties, which Russia recently said that they’re not going to be a part of.


That was actually not a nuclear treaty. That was the disposal of nuclear waste, actually. However, the real nuclear treaty, which in fact we withdrew from, is the anti-ballistic missile treaty. That was the foundation of nuclear arms control from which George Bush withdrew, and actually Russia—to their credit—tried to restart the nuclear arms control process, and invited us back in and we have not budged on that. We also promised Gorbachev that we would not be moving one step to the east. Remember, the Warsaw Pact was the counterweight to NATO. The Warsaw Pact went away, and what did NATO do? NATO expanded and went east. We said we wouldn’t move one inch to the east; we have.

Countries were under Soviet control, though. They were client states.

That was the reason for NATO, right? That reason went away, yet NATO only got bigger. So it’s really important not to think like the only show in town here. So this was a very messy and complicated situation, but the U.S. had a hand in this messy, complicated situation as well. So it’s not like there were good guys with white hats, and bad guys with black hats. There was some—

It’s not that simple.

It’s not that simple. So let’s not pretend that we can blame Ukraine on just bad action by Russia.

What about Crimea?

Well, Crimea, remember, had a vote. Do you remember. Crimea actually had a vote in which Crimea decided to secede from this new Ukraine which had just had a coup.


What about Russia arming rebels in Ukraine that shot down that Malaysian airliner?

That remains to be seen. It’s not at all clear yet.

The reports just confirmed that.

Right, just like the reports confirmed yellowcake [in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq] and the reports confirmed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.


So you don’t believe reports?

Well, did you believe yellowcake? Did you believe weapons of mass destruction? You need to look—there remain to be a lot of open questions, and we are now on the verge of nuclear war with Russia.

I think most people think Putin is a menace, and there is an open question as to whether you think that is the case. Do you think Putin is an autocrat?


Absolutely. Putin is an autocrat.

And he kills his enemies.

Well, Putin, certainly, he is not a defender of human rights. Putin’s track record is not a good one on human rights, on freedom of the press, on political expression.

He kills writers.

That appears to be the case, yes it does. And I would not want to be in a position of defending Putin. However, we need to be cautious about plunging headlong into a nuclear catastrophe, which we are verging on right now. Hillary Clinton wants to start an air war with Russia. Let’s be clear: That’s what a no-fly zone means. It is tantamount to a declaration of war against Russia. And in the current climate, what caused the current breakdown? It was the accusation that Russia’s been tampering with our elections. But you know what Homeland Security said in that same article? What Homeland Security and national intelligence said was, “However, there is no evidence that the Russian government is involved in this.” There is no evidence. They say it’s just that this would be typical for Russian motives and methods. Well, you know what? Russia actually, some 10, 15 years ago, proposed that we undertake an international treaty against cyberwarfare. That’s the only way out of this, because we’re guilty of cyberwarfare as well. Still, there is no evidence that Russia in fact is tampering with our elections. Clearly the Democrats are incredibly embarrassed about the nature of these revelations, and they’ve created a smokescreen here to try and distract from that. But that smokescreen is pushing us to the brink of warfare with Russia now, where you have the U.S. head of defense, Ashton Carter, talking about nuclear war. We just did a dry run dropping fake nuclear bombs over Nevada. This is really dangerous stuff; this is not pretend. So we need to take a deep breath here, we need to step back and stop beating the war drums. In this context, Hillary Clinton is talking about starting an air war with Russia. Which could slide—you know, we’re on the verge of nuclear war right now.


Is it as bad as things were in 1962, though?

Did Russia have troops along our border? Were they doing war games in the Caribbean? No they were not, but that’s what we’re doing right now to Russia. So from our point of view it may not seem so bad, but from Russia’s point of view, they’ve been encroached upon, there have been missiles that have surrounded them now. And this has been going on for years. Now there are war games going on and exercises, and our negotiations have absolutely broken down. And both sides are moving their missiles in for exchange. So to my mind, this is the Cuban Missile Crisis in reverse, on steroids.


Why do you think a nuclear war is more likely under a President Clinton than a President Trump?

If you watched the debate the other night, you would have heard Trump saying that he’s looking for collaboration with Putin.

He has been consistent with his praise of Putin.

Yeah, he has. I mean, for better and for worse.

I would say for worse.

In many ways for worse, however—

And maybe motivated by his business interests.

Absolutely. But he’s got business interests all over the place; on that basis, hey wow, maybe he’d be the peace president because he needs peace all over the place.


Oh, jeez. [Laughs.]

But I consider the threat of nuclear war not trivial at all, and this is one of the most clear and present dangers to our surroundings. Yeah, climate change is horrific, but it’s not happening tomorrow.


Why is it more likely under Clinton, though? This is about Trump’s hair-trigger temper generally, not just with Putin.

Put it this way: The most likely nuclear threat right now is with Russia. There’s no doubt about that. When you have Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the prime minister of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, saying that the threat of nuclear war is hotter now than it has ever been in all of history, you’ve got to take that pretty seriously. And when you have Hillary Clinton then beating the war drums against Russia, and essentially saying that if she’s elected that we will declare war on Russia—because that’s what a no-fly zone over Syria amounts to. Shooting down Russian warplanes.


Not if the Russians adhere.

But our no-fly zone, however, does not adhere to international law. If you just look at international law, the current recognized government of Syria—for better or for worse—invited Russia there to participate in its civil war. This is a horrific mess, and there is no war solution.


But there are ways to enforce a no-fly zone that wouldn’t necessarily lead to conflict.

To say that just totally ignores that Russia is already in the air and is already committed to the Assad government. So for us to step in and say, “No, we’re taking over here, guys,” that’s not consistent with international law. For better or for worse, international law gives a certain recognition to existing governments. So Russia is consistent with international law. We would be in violation of international law to go in and impose a no-fly zone, and effectively declare war against Russia for being in the skies there. Let me just clarify that in terms of the nuclear threat, Hillary Clinton is a disastrous nuclear threat right now in a context where we’re already off-the-charts in the risk of nuclear war. She has stated in this context that she’s essentially opening up a battlefront with Russia. So to my mind, this emerges as the clearest and most present danger. That’s not to say that we would be safe with Donald Trump. My point is, we have more than two lethal choices here. Shouldn’t we start with democracy?


So you wouldn’t unilaterally disarm if you were president. There would have to be a treaty?

I’m not sure about that. What I would say is that there are many ways we can engage the Russians on this. In fact, they’ve been trying to engage us on this for decades, and it’s us who’s been slamming the door on nuclear disarmament progress. So yes, we need to get into this really seriously with the Russians. We don’t have to offer unilateral negotiations. I don’t think that’s even a relevant question at this point; we’re not forced to do that at all. We just have to respond to the overture that’s been on the table here, for decades.


Which nuclear weapons would be the first to go under a Stein administration?

Gee, I don’t know. I think that’s a technical question we can approach. Right now, the weak link in the chain here is not knowing which nuclear weapons are going to go first. It’s establishing a dialogue with the Russians that begins to put us on the same page here and move us in the same direction.


Why, as a principle, is rejecting the lesser of two evils a principle you would adhere to?

I think at this point the lesser evil has a track record. This philosophy that you have to vote your fears rather than your values has actually delivered everything we were afraid of.


But fears are sometimes legitimate.

But consider what we’ve gotten. It’s not legitimate if it backfires on you. All the reasons you’re told to vote for the lesser evil because you didn’t want the expanding wars, you didn’t want the meltdown of the climate, you didn’t want the offshoring of our jobs, the attack on immigrants, on freedom of the press. We’ve gotten all of that, on steroids, because we the people allowed our voices to be silenced and to allow a corporate lesser evil to speak for us. But they have the same agenda. And right now, we see in this election the fusion of the Democratic and Republican parties. As the Republicans fall apart, their leadership joins together with the Hillary Clinton campaign. So we have one united Demo-Republican party. It’s not just this moment that we’re deciding on. We have a future here, which is going over the cliff right now, and this strategy of lesser evil is a race to the bottom with the greater evil. We’re in a Hail Mary moment, now. The clock is ticking, especially on the climate and also on nuclear weapons, and we are in a very precarious position.


The lesser evil is not going to save us. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. The lesser evil argument only makes sense if, in fact, it does accomplish lesser evil, which is certainly not true, to look at the track record of where we’ve gone. And it only makes sense if you assume there’s no other option here. But there is another option, and my problem is that the lesser evil argument is used to silence the fact that there is another option. And that is what the American people are clamoring for. Democracy is not just a question of “Who do we hate the most?” and “Who do we fear the most?” Democracy needs a moral compass, it needs a vision, it needs an agenda that we are for. And it turns out we actually have the numbers that what we are for could actually win the day. One other thing, which is that ranked-choice voting could solve this dilemma in the blink of an eye.


This means that a vote wouldn’t necessarily be thrown away.

Not at all. It absolutely ends the throwing away of the vote. And we use it all over the country; Maine has it on the ballot in this election to make it apply to statewide offices. There’s no reason it can’t be adopted right now on an emergency basis. Your legislature could change the way that votes are counted, reprogram the voting machine—


But given the electoral college, it would be unconstitutional on a presidential level.

That’s actually not true. This instructs the electoral college; this is how you count the votes on your state to instruct your electoral college. What happens is, if your first choice loses, your vote is automatically resigned to your second choice. My campaign—

We could use that. Nebraska and Maine use that. That could be constitutional.

Right. And even if the rule in your state was a winner-take-all, the winner would take all based on the result of the votes counted through a ranked-choice system. But here’s the giveaway: The Democrats won’t pass it. We filed that bill in my home state, in Massachusetts, the first time I ran for office against Mitt Romney as a Green back in 2002. They wouldn’t let it out of committee, even though they had the votes to pass it. Why won’t they let it out of committee? Because they rely on fear. They rely on fear in order to intimidate your vote, because they can’t win your vote, because fundamentally, it is the big corporate powers that call the shots in the Democratic Party.

Whatever party dominates a state would be against that.

Whichever of these corporate parties has us by the throat will not allow it to pass. That alone is reason alone to deny them your vote, because they are not on your side.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.