In his final article as Palatinate’s Profile Editor, William Rome spoke with Fiona Hill and attended her speech at the Union, discussing and hearing about her extraordinary career in international relations, her assessment of the three US Presidents with whom she worked so closely and, most importantly, what Durham means to the Bishop Aucklander who has risen to the pinnacle of American foreign policy power.
By William Rome
Of all of the great foreign policy minds who I have been fortunate enough to meet during my time at Palatinate and the Durham Union, I can think of no more complete and outstanding expert than Fiona Hill. The County Durham native’s North-Eastern accent stubbornly remains, and she quips that it was inexplicably mistaken in the US for that of the late Queen’s! Durham clearly occupies an important place in her heart as she grew up within 10 miles, but despite knowing much of the City of Durham and of the university’s reputation, she knew little of what lay “behind the doors” of the centuries-old townhouses of the Bailey.
As I walked Hill back to Hotel Indigo nearing midnight, a particularly enjoyable walk with such an amiable individual who is so generous with her time and who I had the treat of enjoying the Union’s pre-event dinner with earlier, she remarked on how “astounding” it was for her that she was made Chancellor of Durham University, delighting in finally being able to see what lies behind the doors of the Bailey. For a working-class girl growing up in County Durham during a time of declining economic prospects for the region, the University loomed large as an object of “pride”. Over dinner at Indigo we discussed this too: great pride is taken by County Durham locals in the “international reputation” of the University, which Hill emphasises.
Hill’s focus on social mobility, with a particular focus on the University, is immediately apparent; after all, it is social mobility that brought her from her Bishop Auckland house, daughter of a former coal miner, to the seat of global power as a senior foreign policy advisor to three Presidents (George W. Bush, Obama and Trump). She observes that when she was at Bishop Barrington Comprehensive School (in 1977-1984) the shift from grammar to comprehensive schools limited the opportunities for many local students to see the University as a viable option, but now sees the significant progress made in recent decades, which she intends to further pursue as Chancellor.
As a teenager deeply unnerved by the 1983 Missile Crisis, she decided to pursue a rare objective available to few in the North-East and suggested to her by a relative: to learn Russian. This was made possible – with a rather delightful dose of irony, given her later position as one of the world’s foremost advisors on the Russia-Ukraine conflict – by the Miners of Donbas, who were in solidarity with the Miners of County Durham and so helped to fund the young Hill. She visited Moscow during the Soviet years as an exchange student, hearing Reagan’s speech at Moscow State University and, after her years at St. Andrew’s University, attended Harvard to further her understanding of Russian history and culture.
Emigrating to the United States was greatly formative for Hill as it allowed her the “opportunity to reinvent myself.” Her career fortunes were influenced in no small part by fate: she had considered pursuing a career in the Foreign Office but they managed to lose her application down the back of an ill-placed radiator, which she jokes was a literal and metaphorical “slip up!”
This quirk of fate has led Hill away from a hypothetical career which she characterised as sitting in a room and bringing important people together to being one of those important people herself. She was a senior foreign policy advisor in the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, occupying the position of Senior Director for Europe and Russia of the National Security Council in the latter. Over dinner she discusses her assessment of the various Presidents: as an individual, Bush was her favourite, always eager to learn more and genuinely friendly and enthusiastic. Obama was more “reserved” and aloof, giving the impression that “he already knew everything from the briefs” and so questioned more in the manner of a chiding academic – but she praises his intelligence, a quality consistent from those days when she knew him at Harvard. She characterises the experience of briefing Presidents as “get[ting] about 5 or 10 minutes before they interrupt you”; concision is evidently a valuable asset.
Trump’s administration, unsurprisingly, diverged significantly from those of his predecessors. Hill has always been “politically neutral”, though evidently had some qualms about working in the Trump White House. “It was (his first National Security advisor) General Flynn who asked me to join the administration, and I’d worked with him previously on Georgia” (the Republic in the Caucasus, which had endured a largely forgotten war against the Russians in 2008, not the State). “He [had become] a very different person: I was pinching myself wondering how he could be the same person as before.” Hill’s diplomatic tact is here once again evident: like many of his colleagues, Flynn had been sucked into the Trump administration’s black hole of psychodrama.
When she was offered the job in the Trump administration, “I was so shocked, I bit my tongue!” She considered her options at length and was advised by many to turn down the job, but took the approach that “the country’s on fire and I felt a responsibility to do something.” She did ensure not to become an “enabler” to Trump, joking that working in the administration “was a bit like working on the Chernobyl sarcophagus”: an exercise in containment.
As a Russia expert, Hill’s analysis of Vladimir Putin is formidable in its nuance and understanding. She argues that he “is a patriot of his country but he is also a KGB operative” at heart, an expert in the “dark arts”. “Putin thinks that alliances and partnerships are deadweight, a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.” His worldview is predicated on the notion that “the larger dynamics” of popular movements have no significant bearing on the outcome of events: history is determined by a small group of individuals “at the top”. Fundamentally, he is an individual with a warped but semi-rational world view: he is “out of touch but his rationale is sound in many respects” – his impunity in Georgia, Crimea and Donbas and the frequency with which his adversaries found themselves meeting decidedly sticky endings without action from the West gave him a mindset that the West would never stand up to him.
His warped but not wholly irrational worldview is also seen in his understanding of NATO politics: he feels that only the US has agency and its allies are merely puppets, and so he “wants Yalta 2.0 without Churchill – just him and the US President”. “We need to disprove this” notion of European ineffectiveness, Hill argues, and the Ukrainians have already gone some way in the “absolute miracle” that they “are still fighting the Russians to a standstill.”
She believes that European nations need to show greater leadership. She argues that “NATO needs to start thinking about security in a way that is not dependent on the vagaries of the American political system.” She is critical of Trump but acknowledges his reasoning for pushing the Europeans to increase their defence spending. More broadly, she gives credit where it is due, noting that “Trump was really focussed on trying to [advance the cause of] arms control”, failing – somewhat predictably – because his narcissism brought with it a compulsion to complete the negotiations himself. DIY Nuclear non-proliferation is rarely recommended.
She also believes that, put bluntly, “a bunch of Republican Congressmen and Senators need to get some balls” – there’s “a total lack of political courage because these people are worried about losing their political positions.” This is in the context of speaking out against Trump’s present-day contempt for conventions (and, many would argue, the rule of law). Trump’s liberal interpretation of what constitutes acceptable behaviour for a President is what made Hill a household name: in Trump’s first impeachment trial, Hill’s testimony was a crucial part of the case made against him for pressuring Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, and Hill maintained a cool head under extensive scrutiny from Republican congressmen. Hill does not believe that, as per the results of one of Trump’s other famous legal investigations, he had been “colluding with the Russians: he wouldn’t collude with anyone, only focussing on himself!” Nonetheless, his narcissism and unpresidential conduct was a common theme. Hill had the admirable position in her testimony in Trump’s first impeachment case that she was telling the “truth”: she posits that it would have been much harder otherwise!
Hill’s appointment as Chancellor was, like her appointment to the Trump administration, something of a surprise, but here she was unequivocally delighted to accept. Throughout the evening, it was abundantly clear the care she has for Durham as a place and as an institution. She spoke at length about the value of taking placement years as well as internships and work experience, and is eager to help the students of Durham whenever possible. It is hard to pick a flaw in the University’s choice for the new Chancellor. Paraphrasing one of her predecessors, Durham is a magical place and I can think of few better people to look after it than Fiona Hill.
Image: William Rome