From "Indispensable Nation" to "Realism-Based Restraint": Reconsidering U.S. Engagement with the World
November 20, 2014
DAVID SPEEDIE: Good evening, one and all. I'm David Speedie, director of the Program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Carnegie Council. I am delighted to welcome Chas Freeman this evening to the Carnegie Council.
As I'm sure many of you know, he is a long-time public servant of the United States. I can't go through his whole bio—it would take the whole session to do so, to do it justice. But, as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia during both operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, director of Chinese affairs at the U.S. Department of State with President Nixon—he went to China in 1972—he has had Middle Eastern, African, East Asian, and European diplomatic experience; a certificate in Latin American studies; and he is fluent in both the national and Taiwan dialects of Chinese from the Foreign Service Institute in Taiwan.
Since we in the Program on Global Engagement are interested in the question of engagement—in fact, we began in 2008, in the run-up to the election, Ambassador Freeman, where all the candidates were speaking about re-engaging with the world, restoring America's moral authority, and so on and so forth.
CHAS FREEMAN: That's right.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Joel Rosenthal and I decided that it would be good to keep a weather eye on this. I can't think of anyone better qualified to give a sort of report card on this than you.
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, the report is in. They didn't mean it. [Laughter]
DAVID SPEEDIE: I see. Well, in that case we can conclude. Thank you very much. [Laughter]
What I would like to do, though, is basically, for the first 15, 20 minutes or so before we turn to the audience, just to engage you in a brief discussion focusing on a few things that you have said about this general subject, and feel free to interject any thoughts along the way.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Recently, you wrote a very interesting piece, called "How Diplomacy Fails," and you quoted President Obama's by now quite famous speech at West Point recently, where he said, "Our military has no peer. But just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
You said: "That insight implies we should be skilled at measures short of war. That is diplomacy. For many reasons we are not. We suffer from a strategy deficit."
You have also decried the tendency in certain quarters to dismiss diplomacy as "namby-pamby nonsense before we send in the Marines."
So maybe that is how diplomacy fails. But why does it fail?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, diplomacy basically presupposes that you raise the word "engagement." It presupposes engagement. It rests on empathy, which is quite different from sympathy. To empathize is to be able to understand and put yourself in the position of another party, and therefore to understand the motives, the reasoning, and be somewhat able to predict the activities of that party.
It also depends on a related gift, which is intuition. Intuition is the ability to make correct decisions when you do not have correct information or complete information, and it rests in no small measure on empathy. So if you sit where we do today and you speak as we used to speak of Mao's China—now we speak of North Korea—and we say, "Well, they are irrational," what you are really saying is, "I'm not going to spend the time to figure out why they believe what they do and why they are doing what they do." They have their own reasons, which may be appallingly mistaken, but which nonetheless are there.
So the basic reason that diplomacy generally isn't even tried by the United States—diplomacy is not coercion. It can be coercive, but it is generally an effort to try to reach a mutual adjustment of relations on a subject to mutual advantage. Most often that is not a coercive process. It may be implicitly backed by a threat, but it is essentially a process of suasion.
Our system puts a premium on declaratory approaches to foreign countries. We condemn them, we express outrage, we demonstrate self-righteous indignation, and we impose sanctions, which are a form of coercion, which Woodrow Wilson incorrectly said were more frightening than war and more likely to compel the surrender of other parties. We now have 100 years of experience with Woodrow Wilson's thesis, and we can see that it never works. And yet we continue to do it, because sanctions have all sorts of advantages. They shift the cost of foreign policy onto the private sector, not the politicians who impose the sanctions. They actually give the appearance of doing something. Generally, what they do is harden the attitude of the other side and unite it against those imposing sanctions.
So in a way, I guess, what I was saying in that particular set of remarks was we do not give diplomacy a chance. We have gotten out of the habit of doing it. Perhaps that is because of our history and our geography.
Our history is very peculiar. We go to war not to adjust matters in dispute, but to destroy the enemy and then reform the enemy—"Repent, be saved, think like we do." That is what we did in our Civil War, it is what we did in World War I we thought, it is what we did in World War II, and then, in the Cold War, and we were always terribly distressed when that doesn't yield results.
We can do this because we have two wide oceans, because we have a margin for error that most countries don't, and because we are immensely powerful and can get away with it. But it doesn't yield the results that we wish. And so my thesis in that particular set of remarks at UCLA was that we need to try to rediscover diplomacy, we need to professionalize it. We are the only country in the world that staffs our diplomatic function through the spoils process, which measures the thickness of wallets, not the number of brain cells or wealth of experience that people bring to the job.
So I think that we are in an era now in which we no longer have the ability to dictate. We need to rediscover how to persuade.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Speaking of the era in which we are, at the Council we have just observed our Centennial, and of course our Centennial coincides with the outbreak of World War I. In another piece you have written, you have drawn parallels to the situation a century ago and the rather dire straits we find ourselves in today, pointing again to the challenges of statecraft.
In fact, you seem quite pessimistic. You actually say that—and I think I quote here—"the factors inhibiting war in Europe in 1914 were actually greater than those impeding it today." That is an interesting observation, an arresting one.
CHAS FREEMAN: I think in 1914 Europe had a European state system in which the leaders were very often related to each other, they knew each other well, the system was staffed by professional diplomats who were in constant contact. There had been a series of crises before 1914, mostly in the Balkans, which had given everybody confidence that they could stop at the brink and not go over it.
And there were other factors which were at work. There was for the first time truly professional general staffs in the various combatants. These were professional military people with great technical competence.
In the case of the Germans, they came up with the Schlieffen Plan. When Kaiser Wilhelm discovered that this plan was put in motion, he tried to stop it and was told by his general staff it can't be stopped. The stake in question involved the invasion of Belgium, which is what brought the British into the war and tipped the balance against Germany.
Today we have many similar factors without the benefit of the close contact. President Obama and President Xi Jinping in China do not have a family relationship, as far as I know. They are trying to get to know each other, which is a very good thing. But we have a troubled and often interrupted relationship with China.
More to the point, there are other similarities which are quite disquieting. If you look at the outset of World War I, there were in the military sphere all sorts of new technologies which had come in which hadn't really been used on the battlefield—everything from machine guns, to rapid rail transport, to heavy artillery, aircraft, submarines. As the war went along, these things became more and more lethal. We have now nuclear weapons, we have cyberattack possibilities, we have ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], we have short-range missiles, we have Cruise missiles, we have hyper-gliders which you haven't even probably read about, and we have systems that will kill aircraft carriers at great distances. We haven't experienced these in war.
What we found in World War I was that war was vastly more horrible than we imagined. If, god forbid, that should happen again, I think we will experience that same sort of revelation. So let's hope we don't.
How do we not experience that? We avoid experiencing it by practicing at perfecting our ability to carry out measures short of war, which is another word for diplomacy.
DAVID SPEEDIE: One of the Council's Centennial themes that we focus on is democracy and its challengers. While it is true to say that the ideal of democratic self-determination and self-rule have become the norm for more than 60 percent of the world's countries, it still as a norm faces challenges from non-democratic rule. Russia, for example, China, and to some extent India, among others, do not reflexively sign on to a "one size fits all" sense of democracy that we would promote, and sometimes seek to do so, and they have been quite allergic, in the case of the Chinese and the Russians, to outside interference.
How do we deal with this sort of tugging in opposite directions—on the one hand, the spread of democratic self-governance and, on the other, resistance from other significant forces in the world?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, I would start from the basic proposition that the legitimacy of governments is to be determined by those they govern, not by foreigners. The legitimacy of systems is really to be determined by the people who live in those systems.
I have lived and worked, for example, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has a system unknown to Aristotle, who gave us our terms "democracy," "monarchy," and so forth. It is called in Arabic, pejoratively, bedukratia, meaning "ruled by Bedouins" or "rule Bedouin style." What this system does is empower a sheikh, a leader, or an emir, or a king, not to be Henry VIII, to run rampant over the laws and those he governs, but to do two things: to proclaim a consensus, maybe to shape that consensus, to help form that consensus, but not to act outside of consensus. The king of Saudi Arabia has never cast the deciding vote in a divided cabinet meeting. So he presides. He doesn't rule in the sense that we imagine.
The second obligation of monarchy in that system is the fair distribution of the wealth to ensure that the poor, the deprived, receive their fair share of the national income. Sometimes this in the past was a little bit absurd in how it was carried out. Abd al-Aziz, the founder of the kingdom, used to drive around—he drove himself, of course, because kings are manly and they do that—he would drive around Riyadh with a bag of gold coins, and when he saw some needy-looking fellow he would get out and give him one. But now there is the very sophisticated welfare system.
Anyway, there is no evidence that people in Saudi Arabia consider this system at all illegitimate. They don't pay taxes, the government pays them, which is not a bad deal I think.
And so the question then is: Really what is the source of legitimacy? We have decided in our society that the source of it is electoral. We actually, most of us, don't vote, which is sort of an odd element here. But I don't think we have the mandate to impose our system—or can.
It is often said we imposed democracy on Germany and Japan after World War II. But the fact was that Germany was a democracy before it was a dictatorship and we revived the Weimar tradition and the democratic traditions of Germany very successfully. In Japan also, the Showa democracy in the 1920s was where we found the leaders to bring Japan back into the democratic world.
You will not find that tradition in Iraq to be revived, and if we looked for it—there is not much evidence we did—it certainly didn't resurrect itself. So I would be very cautious.
You know, there is an American tradition which antedates this. President Kennedy argued that we should stand for the diversity of nations, that our job was to make the world safe for diversity. Sometime at the end of the 1970s, under the influence of the Cold War, this armed evangelism that we have been drawn to on occasion prevailed. President Carter was the main figure in this. We have since thought that we have the right to arrogate to ourselves the function of deciding how other people will be governed.
I think we should be, as John Quincy Adams said, the champion of those who seek liberty everywhere but we should be the vindicators only of our own.
DAVID SPEEDIE: You mentioned your time as ambassador to Saudi Arabia. That leads me to another intriguing phrase that I read in your various writings, "the moral hazard inherent in U.S. policy." You describe that basically as "the condition that obtains when one party is emboldened to take risks it would not take otherwise because it knows another party will shoulder the consequences." In particular, you pointed on various occasions to our unqualified support for Israel and "noninterference in illiberal monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain," and you conclude "clearly, U.S. policy is almost entirely about interests, not values."
Now, with respect to Israel, for example, obviously support for Israel across the political spectrum is nonpareil (without equal) in any foreign policy environment. Is it also not true to say that Israel, however one may be critical, is willing to accept the consequences, and does on a fairly regular basis accept the consequences, of this policy?
CHAS FREEMAN: No, I don't think so. I think actually the issue of moral hazard is at the heart of our difficulties in both the case of Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.
If you take, for example—not to start with Israel; I will come to it—but if you take the example of our approach to the so-called Islamic State—I don't like to dignify it with that name, so I prefer to use the Arabic acronym, which is Da'ish, which means—actually it would be very good in English. The D stands for dawla, which is state, and SH stands for Sham, which is Syria. But if you called it "the Sham state" in English it would be much better. [Laughter]
Anyway, if this state, which is an existential menace to those in the region itself—but not to the United States; there is no prospect that we are going to be converted to this peculiar version of Islam or subjected to it—if this menace is not confronted by the people in the region but by us, then why should they do anything? This is moral hazard, and it is exactly what we are engaged in in Iraq and Syria at the moment.
All this talk in Washington about putting American troops in or upping the air campaign or whatever quite misses the point. If the people who are directly at issue and in jeopardy will not act to defend themselves, if they insist on assigning higher priority to other objectives—for example, overthrowing Bashar al-Assad or rolling back Iranian influence in the region, or pushing back the Shiite expansion in Iraq that we inadvertently catalyzed—then that is a choice they can make. But it is a very, very poor basis on which to commit American prestige or lives.
With Israel, the United States has cast, I think, 48 vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to protect Israel from the consequences of its actions under international law. We subsidize it.
I find myself drawn morally to the requirement to object. I am a taxpayer. I pay for it. I am responsible. What happened in Gaza was funded by Americans. The weapons they used were supplied by us. We are responsible. Now, perhaps we are proud of that responsibility—that is a justifiable position—but we cannot escape responsibility.
If we say to Israel, "No matter what you do, we will back you," then we have no influence, and whatever Israel does we are accountable for but we have no ability to shape it. And if, as I believe, Israel is on a course that is disastrous to its own future, then we are in the position of the man who hands the car keys to a drunk at a party. So enablement is the issue here perhaps as much as it is a form of moral hazard.
So I don't have any hesitation in saying that I think Israel is following the wrong policies. I don't think we shouldn't support Israel, but I think we should not be unconditional and we should not create moral hazard.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Just to follow up a little bit on this matter of Da'ish as you describe ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, the various acronyms and so on, clearly a concern is that, I think, 35 nations now are identified as having fighters in the cause, so to speak, including Western European countries. [For more on foreign fighters in Syria, check out Richard Barrett's recent Carnegie talk.] So clearly there is a concern of the problem coming back home. It may not be an existential threat, but it is one that does engage perforce beyond the immediate region.
In that context, you have said: "The threat of Da'ish requires a Muslim-led political/military response. A U.S.-dominated bombing campaign with token ally participation cannot kill it. Arab air forces are helpful, but Arab religious engagement and moral leadership are essential to contain and defeat Da'ish."
Given the intra-Islam cleavage (Shia, Sunni, and so on), and given various complex and competing agendas of states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and so on, how likely is a "religious engagement" from an extended region to this threat that does to some extent engage those of us beyond the region?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, there is a lot in that to be unpacked.
A moral response leadership from the region will not occur if everybody in the region thinks we are going to do it for them. In my experience—pardon me if I insult someone in the audience—every nation has its characteristic way of making national security decisions, and often they relate to a game, the national sport.
So the Russians play chess, which is a strategic game—they think ahead several moves; it is very rigid, however. The British play cricket, which is simply incomprehensible to anybody other—
DAVID SPEEDIE: Oh, come now, please.
CHAS FREEMAN: It is designed to confuse the enemy. [Laughter]
DAVID SPEEDIE: And also the players.
CHAS FREEMAN: The South Africans are into rugby, which is essentially a brawl. And we play baseball and American football, which are games that are entirely tactical, there is no strategy—one move does not connect very much to the next. What we do is we train ourselves to be brilliant at improvisation. We are very good at that. That is sort of our national style.
Well, I have to tell you the Gulf Arab national sport is professional wrestling, where you hire someone to fake it for you. So if you give them the chance to do that, they will do that. That is in fact in many ways what they are doing. We don't lack F15s and F16s. So if they supply a few, that is nice but it is not crucial. What they have to supply is the moral arguments that we can't.
Go back in history. Do you remember the Thirty Years' War, when Protestants and Catholics tore each other apart in central Europe, a huge number of deaths? We are behaving as though we were the Ottoman sultan. He looked at these Christians doing terrible things to each other, appalling violations of human rights, silly and incomprehensible religious arguments, and said, "The answer is to send in the most Muslim Janissaries." But that is really quite beside the point. It would not have helped to solve the problem and it would be making a nail out of a problem that isn't a nail.
So I think we need to be a bit more sophisticated here and we need to demand that those who want our support offer their own efforts, to not stand aside and expect us to do the job for them.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
Since you spent time in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, this became a major area of concern really with the oil situation and the formation of OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries]. I mean, why did we have to go into Iraq and why have we supported Saudi Arabia, even when there are human rights problems and the status of women and so forth?
Now that the oil prices are dropping, how do you think we are going to reevaluate our dealings with the Middle East and our concern for them? And of course, there is also the contrast. Israel is a real democracy and Israel is really under attack and needs to defend its very being when rockets come from Gaza and so forth.
So how can we reevaluate the Middle East these days?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, there are many questions buried there.
I think in the case of Saudi Arabia our interests are not limited to oil. I would cite several which are key.
One is you can't get between Europe and Asia except over Saudi Arabia or around it. It is a tremendous strategic line of communications blockage or facilitator.
Second, it is the epicenter of a religion that has 1.6 billion adherents around the world, and it has a certain moral authority that is very persuasive under some circumstances.
Third, it is our largest market in the region. And it is vital to health of the global economy. We have never been dependent on Saudi oil, but the global economy is. They are the swing producer that regulates the prices.
And they are also, of course, now our major partner in counterterrorism, since we have the same enemies. Why we have the same enemies is an interesting question.
I would reject, as I said at the outset, an ideologically based foreign policy. I don't think we are in a position to impose our standards on others. I think we need to think first and foremost of our own interests. So I don't think that because a country is a democracy, like France for example, that that means we have to back France on every issue. I notice sometimes we don't. In fact, we invent strange things, like freedom fries, to avoid saying "France" or "French."
In the case of Israel, frankly it is not true that it is a democracy. It is a democracy for its Jewish inhabitants. It rules over 4 million Palestinians who are divided into three categories: those who have a vote as second-class citizens within Israel, those who are under military occupation in the West Bank, and those who are under constant siege in Gaza. So there are four categories of people who live in the area controlled by Israel, but only one category has the full rights of democracy. But even if democracy were extended to the entire group, I think we would still have to look first to our interests, not to alleged unity of values.
I don't think that the Israeli—well, this obviously gets us into all sorts of issues, but it is not the case that the rockets precede the Israeli attacks. The Israeli attacks precede the rockets. The rockets are a futile, totally ineffectual response by desperate people. They are objectionable morally because these are not aimed. They could kill someone. In fact, they kill almost no one, and not because of Iron Dome, partly because Israel has a very, very good civil defense system, but partly because they mostly land in places where there aren't any people.
A final point, shifts in the oil market. Shale oil, tide oil, shale gas—for 10 or 15 years this is going to give the United States strategic self-sufficiency, not independence, because in fact we will be exporting and importing all kinds of different forms of energy. If the Keystone Pipeline goes through, we will be exporting all kinds of refined products made out of Canadian heavy oil. We will not be independent of the world in terms of the level of price. And if you doubt that, I hope you are not invested in some of the marginal shale oil producers at the moment, as oil prices go down.
We cannot separate ourselves from the world. That means that even countries with which we do not share common values have to be dealt with. Those we do share common values with of course are also there and have to be dealt with. We may have a greater affinity for those with whom we share values, but in the end it is our interests that have to drive us—and do.
Whenever a democratization attempt is made in a place and elections produce a government we do not like, as happened in Palestine in 2006, as happened in Egypt several times, we have no compunction about overthrowing it.
I rest my case.
QUESTION: George Berlstein. I am a retired lawyer.
I would like to get back to where you started about war being not unnecessary but to be avoided and sanctions as also not being very good, and I would like you to tell us how you would instruct, let's say, the present U.S. administration or Europe to deal diplomatically with Putin. I don't mean in detail but in some general approach.
CHAS FREEMAN: I think that is an excellent and very timely question.
Let me begin, oddly, by quoting the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiya, whose adage called "Muawiya's hair" is part of the legacy of Islamic statecraft, and it is very relevant. He said, "I do not apply my sword where my lash suffices, nor my lash where my tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my fellow men, I do not let it break. When they pull, I loosen, and if they loosen, I pull."
There are many bits of wisdom buried in that: first, that force is a last resort—it is a possibility; second, that there are gradations of force; third, that maintaining contact and influence and dialogue is the preferred method; and finally, that you should never lose contact with the enemy, which is also a military adage. If you do lose contact, you risk surprise, you become uninformed about the thinking of the enemy or the adversary, and you make mistakes.
In the case of Ukraine, we should in my view spend a great deal less time demonstrating our self-righteous outrage over Mr. Putin's actions, which are in some respects outrageous, and a great deal more time thinking about what it is that we want.
What is it that the United States and Europe, or Russia as well, need in Ukraine? I submit that what we need is a viable Ukrainian state, which has not been in existence since 1991. Second, that that viable state has to be removed from East/West contention, that that requires a prosperous, independent, neutral Ukraine.
Now, is it impossible to arrange that with Mr. Putin and his Russia? I don't think so, because in 1956, when relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, France, and Britain were vastly worse than they are now between us and Moscow, we arranged something called the Austrian State Treaty, which created an independent Austria, neutralized it, kept it out of NATO, and gave it a prosperous international identity that was beneficial to everyone.
So part of diplomacy is thinking about what is it that you really need, can you contrive a situation where that is also in the interest of those of your opponents, can you serve the interests of your opponents as you serve your own, and thereby create a situation that is stable and which all sides considerable desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives?
In the case of Ukraine, there are disconnects between the United States and our European allies, and they are precisely over these issues. There is a good reason that the German foreign minister and Mrs. Merkel are the two people most active in trying to find a solution to the Ukraine and not us, because we have gone out of our way to call Mr. Putin all sorts of names.
Generally speaking, at least in my experience, if you have a problem with someone, a neighbor perhaps—maybe their dog is misbehaving or they are throwing trash on the lawn—you are much more likely to solve it if you invite them to a discussion than if you stand on the other side of the road when they come out of church and give them the finger, which is pretty much what we have done with Russia.
I don't have any admiration for Mr. Putin's performance, which is full of mistakes, but I think there are solutions to be had if we apply ourselves to finding them.
QUESTIONER: It just seems like perhaps Mr. Putin is giving us the finger.
CHAS FREEMAN: I think so too, yes. I mean guys who ride around in tanks with their shirts off may have a problem of a psychological nature. I wouldn't dispute that.
DAVID SPEEDIE: On the other hand, as Kissinger said, demonization of Putin as an individual is not a policy.
CHAS FREEMAN: That's right.
QUESTION: Thanks. Ann Lee.
This morning Christopher Hill spoke about diplomacy too, and he made the analogy that the United States, if it was like a college, the military is like the football team and the State Department is like the chess team. So I was wondering if you can—
CHAS FREEMAN: More like the debating society, I think.
QUESTIONER: I was wondering if you can comment on that reality, in which one obviously gets far more resources than the other and therefore pulls far more weight in determining our foreign policy. How do you actually let diplomacy have a fair shake in that situation?
CHAS FREEMAN: Thank you.
First, as I suggested, we need to rediscover diplomacy so that we can employ it. We do have a strategy deficit in this country. There are many reasons for that. One of those reasons is that a very brilliant diplomat, George Kennan, in 1946 and 1947 gave us a strategy, called containment, which was very successful. The premise of that strategy, by the time it worked we had forgotten. So we were very surprised when, as Kennan had foreseen, the Soviet Union collapsed of its own infirmities and the defects in its own system. That was the premise of containment.
Containment was a strategy which began with diplomacy, including economic, political, and very minor military matters at the beginning. By the end of the Cold War, we had come to see this confrontation, thanks to the invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile and the Cuban missile crisis and so forth, as a military contest. But it was much more than that, and it was not approached that way in the beginning.
Anyway, since we had a strategy for 43 years, we didn't have to think about strategy. I think maybe we got out of the habit of doing that.
We also, because of the emphasis on the military dimension, got into a habit which you can see today. This morning, as I got up and prepared to leave Washington to come here, I listened to the radio. There was somebody on the radio making the argument for addressing climate change, and the reason he gave was because the Department of Defense considers it a menace. Well, that tells you something about our political system, doesn't it? I mean I could argue that climate change is a menace without having to invoke military thinkers on the subject. But we don't. We are in the habit of thinking of the military first and only then about other things.
Finally, with now 70 years, basically, of emphasis on the military—huge Defense Department created after World War II, continuing through the Cold War, still there—now we have a Homeland Security Department which parallels it and a bit of a garrison state and some constitutional problems coming from that. All of this has pumped huge amounts of money into our political system and our educational establishment—we have spent millions of dollars developing game theory and all kinds of academic disciplines, international relations, and things—based on military considerations. It's all about coercion. We have spent almost nothing looking at non-coercive methods of accomplishing things.
So we have become a very militaristic society in terms of how we approach the world. We don't even notice it anymore. We are the cheerleaders for the football team.
Finally, we have another problem that is a related problem, and that is that our press, which has dwindled in numbers and effectiveness—I am talking about the mainstream press. It now reports politics as though it was on the sports page. It's all about who scored points, who did what to whom. You can read an article, even in our best newspapers, about a political struggle and be unable to determine what the issues are, but you will know a lot about who is on top and who is being clever.
I think this is a very complicated issue, and it does bear for some introspection by us and some effort to look at what is right and what is wrong.
We do not have a great string of successes to our credit in the post-Cold War era. You know, Iraq was not exactly a triumph, and the peace process which we tried to broker between Israel and Palestine failed definitively—it's gone. We have no answer for that struggle anymore. Anyway, I think we need to do some rethinking.
QUESTION: Don Simmons is my name.
One of the areas in which our administration is applying both diplomacy and sanctions is in our efforts to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons. One of the main reasons we do that, I believe, is Saudi Arabia. Do you agree with our policy as you see it so far? Secondly, do you think that if it becomes clear that Iran is going to have a bomb, that Saudi Arabia will do the same?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, you know Iran is a very intriguing issue. First of all, the world's best intelligence agencies—ours, Mossad in Israel—all say the same thing, that there is no evidence of an Iranian bomb program. But our politicians say that Iran is hell-bent on building a bomb. So you have another case of fact-based versus faith-based analysis at work. So we are dealing with a conjecture, not a reality.
Now, you might say, if you were Iran and you daily received threats of bombing by the United States or Israel or somebody—not from Saudi Arabia, by the way; again, perhaps some of them would be happy if others did these things but they don't intend to do anything themselves—you might think that you were making a pretty strong case for the Republican Guard to get a nuclear weapon to deter this. In fact, the pressures in Iran to build a bomb largely come from the threat that we will bomb it to prevent it from getting a bomb.
So we are in a negotiation which may or may not conclude on November 24. I think it will conclude. It doesn't look as though it is going to be successful. It is not clear what the next step is. [Editor's note: A few days after this event, on November 24, 2014, it was announced that the negotiations would be extended for another seven months.]
One very likely next step is that if we go back to the pattern of threats of bombing and no discussion that prevailed earlier, Iran will make a bomb. If they do, then Israel will obviously lose its nuclear monopoly in the region. That will be very disturbing to the Israelis. The Saudis will probably bring in a Pakistani nuclear garrison—again hire somebody to do it for them—and have a nuclear deterrent. Others in the region may decide that they also need nuclear deterrence, and the whole mix in a very volatile region will become considerably more dangerous.
There is a lot at stake here. But there are some myths also. One of them is that Iran wouldn't talk until sanctions forced it to talk. That's not true. Iran was always ready to talk, and did. We were the ones who said, "We won't talk to you until you come out with your hands up," which is an odd way to begin a negotiation.
So we are left now—now there is a clear exchange between sanctions relief for Iran versus capping of Iran's nuclear program to ensure that it remains peaceful and not weaponized. That is the tradeoff.
But we have to deal with the aftermath of sanctions. Sanctions have—this is also relevant to Ukraine and Russia—very pernicious effects. They entrench differences and they convert them into a zero-sum exchange. They unite the people they are directed at; they don't divide them. They give them a foreign enemy who is causing pain to blame for all of their problems. They harden opposition to compromise; they don't soften it. There is no instance of that—not even South Africa, the famous exception. I can explain South Africa, and sanctions played a role, but that was not the central element in F. W. de Klerk's decision to release Nelson Mandela.
Sanctions also create market distortions, which give rise to vested interests in their continuation. Ask American sugar producers whether they are prepared to normalize relations with Cuba and you will see a nice example of this.
And finally, of course, they have other effects. They leave a legacy of bitterness in their target country. They appease domestic critics by giving the appearance that something is done, but they actually excuse the absence of any effective action.
And they become an end in themselves. So are the sanctions successful? Well, how much pain are they causing? But wait a minute. Wasn't the objective to change the policy, like in Iran? No. It may be causing a lot of pain, but if we are not changing the policy, what is all this about?
So even before you get to questions like the Congressional deference to Mr. Netanyahu's very negative views on this, we have a problem with Iran. If these talks fail, what is next?
And we don't command the world system in the way that we once did. I am not sure that another round of unilaterally imposed sanctions would work or that anybody else would go along with us. It will be interesting.
DAVID SPEEDIE: And of course, as you said—this is a quick follow-up—what sanctions don't do necessarily is change behavior, which is presumably what they were designed to do. Iran had a few thousand centrifuges spinning 20 years ago and now it's about 180,000. And Russia may be hit in the solar plexus economically, but it certainly hasn't changed its attitude towards Ukraine.
CHAS FREEMAN: I think the classic example of the effectiveness of sanctions was the oil embargo on Japan in 1940. We wanted to get their attention and, by god, we did, and they responded at Pearl Harbor.
So generally it isn't true that they don't affect behavior, but they don't soften positions; they harden them, they make people more belligerent, not less.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
I think everything you have said makes good sense from the standpoint of diplomacy as a board game. But when you are talking about—and I thought the metaphor this morning was an extremely good one—an adolescent institution, like a public high school or whatever, that has guys running around like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, how can you manage the foreign policy internally? How do you lead and assemble a political coalition for doing sensible things?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, in a sense you are raising a question which is vastly larger than foreign policy. You may have noticed we have a dysfunctional government on domestic policy as well. We do not make strategic decisions on domestic policy, we sequester. What that is, is the deliberate avoidance of any setting of priorities in favor of across-the-board cannibalism of our body politick.
We have huge needs in this country. Our economy is not performing in the way that we would like. Some people are very concerned about inequality and the distribution of income. We have an infrastructure that is appalling, absolutely appalling.
I was in China a week ago and I rode at 200 miles an hour in a train with a glass of water on my table that sat just like this, didn't move. I came here on the Acela and I'm bruised. I had black hair when I started out. [Laughter]
We have roads that are falling apart, bridges that are falling down. We have a lot of problems and we can't get ourselves together to address them domestically.
I think your question is very good. If you can't get your act together domestically, why should anybody expect you to do it in foreign policy?
Well, the answer is that actually in foreign policy things can be a little bit simpler because the president does have—one person has unique authority under the Constitution—in some spheres, not all. That means that decisions that are impossible in the kind of gridlocked Congress and politics we have sometimes are possible.
Now, having said that, I would say that the performance from successive White Houses since the end of the Cold War has been appalling. The decisions that have been made—the decision to invade Iraq, for example; the decision to turn what was a sensible punitive raid into Afghanistan to punish the perpetrators of 9/11, to turn that into a campaign of pacification was incredibly stupid; and we have made other decisions of a tactical nature.
I will not go on, but I could describe to you some of the organizational factors that make it extremely difficult for us to do anything but respond piecemeal and tactically.
So my premise is that we need to get our act together. If we do, then we need to apply diplomacy. But I don't think we can invent diplomacy while remaining dysfunctional at home.
QUESTION: Tyler Beebe.
What was it in the air at the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] conference that seemed to make Xi Jinping change from a rather provocative, proactive troublemaker to making nice all of a sudden? What's your view of that apparent shift in strategy?
CHAS FREEMAN: I think it is entirely apparent, and it is a product of our media narrative rather than the reality. He never was the assertive monster that people here made him out to be, nor is he the nice guy that they now think he is. I'll just summarize it like that.
But in the case of China we are dealing with something that is truly remarkable. Since 1880, we have been the largest economy in the world. We are not now, not in PPP [purchasing power parity] terms. We will not be in absolute terms by the end of the decade.
We shaped the institutions after World War II to our liking. Global governance is an American creation and operation. Because of the dysfunctionality in our own system, we have been unable to exercise leadership, and we are now seeing the Chinese not destroying those legacy institutions but building alternatives to them. This is a consequence of our dysfunctional government, not of Chinese assertiveness. They waited a long time and they have behaved reasonably and responsibly.
We have military problems with the Chinese, but remember that we are in their face. They're not sitting off San Diego; we are sitting off Shanghai. Every issue, of course—this goes back to the issue of empathy—has varying perspectives. I'm sorry to say that even The New York Times, which normally sets the gold standard, produces reporting on China that anybody who knows China well—and I am bilingual in Chinese and I have lived there and I go back—finds a caricature, really laughable.
Consistent with narratives—narratives are substitutes for reason. If you know what should be, then a fact can fit into that narrative and you are happy and you don't have to think. That is a lot of what we do with Russia, with China, with even Japan, with our allies in Europe. We have preconceptions which we don't question.
QUESTION: Hi. I'm Joey. I'm a graduate student.
I was hoping that you would elaborate a little bit more on your views on al-Qaeda counterterrorism, particularly because you have talked a lot about how we have to have contact with our enemy and we don't have this policy towards terrorist organizations. I'm really interested in that because while you are saying that in the Middle East we should let the Middle East determine how to deal with these groups, I think that in fragile contexts they don't necessarily have the military capabilities. So in those situations normally they would have to engage with those organizations. The question is whether or not you support that or you support American extermination policy, as I see it?
QUESTION: Hello. My name is Ryan Torres. I am at the Merchant Marine Academy in Great Neck, New York.
The question I have kind of goes in line. You were talking about more ISIS and ISIL before, but going along with just general terrorist groups in the Middle East, you were talking about all the Middle East countries coming together and taking the issues on themselves. With such varied groups like you're talking—Sunnis, Shiites, the Turkish versus the Kurds, all these different groups—is it possible for them to do it on their own, or can the United States help in a way through some type of mentorship or something like that? Is that possible do you think?
CHAS FREEMAN: The two questions are very closely related.
First, let us remember what has happened. For 13 years we have been engaged in killing people in very large numbers, sometimes on the ground, more often from the air, and more recently from robots in the air. The results are in: this did not halt or reduce the spread of anti-American terrorism, which is what we ought to be concerned about.
George W. Bush, when he spoke after 9/11, used a very effective phrase, which he then forgot, which was "terrorists with global reach." Those are the ones we are concerned about, the ones who are anti-American, who can do things to us either abroad or here.
The results of our policies have been to metastasize, not cauterize, the problem. It has spread. We now have issues in West and North Africa, we have issues in Yemen, we have issues in Pakistan, which has been destabilized, we have issues in Indonesia, in the Philippines, in southern Thailand, and we have issues in Europe, fortunately not much here yet.
But the treatment of this phenomenon of terrorism as an apolitical military phenomenon is a mistake.
It's interesting. Osama bin Laden was finally captured as a result of intelligence action, and he essentially was taken down by a police action. The fact that the police obviously wanted to murder him is beside the point. I guess police everywhere once in a while murder people.
But the point is that, instead of dismissing the argument that terrorism is (a) a political issue which requires a political response and (b) is an issue for law enforcement and intelligence more than it is for the military, we should think about that.
Now, as for engagement with groups in general, the purpose of engagement—just to round this out, since you started off with that, David—is, first of all, to collect intelligence on another state or an organization so that you understand its motives and its reasoning and its decision-making process.
You know, the CIA would love to—I don't think you are the person, young lady, but if you really want to go spend time living with bearded men who have fleas in a cave somewhere, they would love to recruit you, because there are not many people who want to conduct espionage under conditions of constant diarrhea.
Another purpose of engagement, of course, is to convey your position to the other side directly, accurately, not through an intermediary, and you want to cultivate a relationship with the other side that is conducive to either problem solving or problem prevention, and you want to maybe buy time or negotiate a solution or show that you are doing something about things, and so forth.
And you want to keep open lines of communication during hostilities. The idea that diplomacy stops when war begins is crazy. You need to have contact with the other side. That's when you need it most.
There is a great Chinese example here. During the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962 China did not pull its embassy out of New Delhi. In the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, the Chinese ambassador stayed in Hanoi. Why? Because that's when those institutions are most useful.
So what do we do? They have a coup d'état—well, Egypt can't have a coup d'état by definition, obviously; no matter what happens there, it's not a coup—but, let's say Nigeria has a coup d'état, then we immediately pull out the military attachés, who happen to be the only people who know the new rulers.
Now, could all the various factions in the region be brought together with or without our help? First of all, if we are not in there doing the job for them, they have an incentive to explore that possibility, which they don't have otherwise.
You could look at the problem of Da'ish or the so-called Islamic State, which is a radical perversion of Sunni Islam, and you could say that, first of all, this is a problem for Sunni Arabs; but it is also a problem for Iran and Shias because it is killing a lot of people. Maybe there is a basis for them cooperating. At the moment they feel free to pursue other objectives because we are in there doing things.
If we actually got a nuclear agreement with Iran, that would open the possibility of some measure of rapprochement—probably not very much—but it might be enough to enable us to play the brokering role that the young man from the Merchant Marine Academy posited.
So nothing is contrary to the common phrase in the Arab world, the [inaudible] maktub (everything is written), nothing is written, nothing is inevitable, there is always a way to shift things. What diplomats are paid to do is to figure out how to do that. If you shove them out of the way and send in the drones, you are losing an opportunity.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Amen. And on that optimistic note, it is always good to find a take-away. There have been so many here, Ambassador, but the one that sticks in my mind is: do we want a world safe for democracy or safe for diversity? That is a very interesting thought.
I wish you had been more thought-provoking [laughter], but we thank you anyway and thank you for being with us.