World Affairs Councils of America
2014 National Conference
“America and the World 2015”
The National Conference of the World Affairs Councils of America was held November 5-7, 2014 in Washington, D.C. The theme for this year’s conference was “America and the World – 2015.” The conference is an annual opportunity for the 90+ councils around the United States to come together for meetings, panels, coordination, sharing best practices, networking and fellowship. The conference features two full days of keynote speeches, panels and symposia providing a platform for distinguished officials, diplomats, business people, military officers, journalists, scholars and others to address the issues of the day — focused on a slate of key issues that have been at the forefront of the WACA agenda for the year.
This year’s Wednesday night banquet was highlighted by an opening keynote by Dr. Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Middle East scholar, author, foreign policy advisor and commentator on international relations. The presentation was moderated by Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky, Chair of the World Affairs Councils of America National Board and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. They were introduced by Mr. Alex Lari, Vice Chair of the WACA National Board.
The Tennessee World Affairs Council, a member of the World Affairs Councils of America, produced transcripts of the conference proceedings and is pleased to provide the opening keynote address here for your consideration.
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World Affairs Councils of America
2014 National Conference
“America and the World 2015”
November 5-7, 2014
Remarks as delivered.
Opening Dinner Keynote: America and the World 2015
- Introduction: A. Alex Lari, Vice Chair, National Board of Directors, WACA, and Chairman, the Claremont Group
- Keynote: Vali R. Nasr, Ph.D., Dean, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
- Moderator: Ambassador Paula J. Dobriansky, Chair, National Board of Directors, WACA
[Alex Lari] [Recording Begins] …His chapters on Afghanistan and Pakistan received special attention as they covered the two years when Vali had a ringside view of the Administration policymaking as a Senior Advisor to Richard Holbrooke, who was Obama’s first Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. His earlier books examined the post-war sectarian violence in Iraq in an uprising known as Arab Spring. From 2009 to 2011, Vali was special advisor to the President, Special Representative in Afghanistan as I said earlier.
He served on the faculty of a Naval Post-graduate school, Stanford University, University of California. He was a Carnegie Scholar and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, and a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Study at Council on Foreign Relations, and a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings Institute; very impressive credentials. Vali has his Ph. D in Political Science from MIT.
Our moderator this evening is Ambassador Paula Dobriansky, our own chair of the World Affairs Councils of America and National Board of Directors. She’s a Senior Fellow at Harvard University JFK Center of Science and International Affairs. From 2010 to 2012, she was a Senior Vice President and a Global Head of Government Affairs at Thompson-Reuters. During this time she also held the National Security Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy. From 2001 to 2009, Paula served as Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. She also served as the Senior Vice President and Director of the Washington office Council on Foreign Relations. Paula is a foreign policy expert who served in key roles as a diplomat and policymaker in the administration of five presidents, both Democrats and Republicans. She’s a specialist in the area of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Over the course of a career, Paula has received high level of recognition and orders of merit from the governments of Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Romania, and very impressive – she’s a recipient of four honorary doctoral degrees.
[Paula Dobriansky] Thank you, Alex. Well, good evening everyone. Thank you so much, Alex, for those introductions. We’re in for a real treat I think this evening, and Vali, first of all, thank you for coming, and we’re looking forward to our conversation with you. And I want to begin off and get you to maybe set the scene. Describe where you see the United States and its role in the world today, and what is the state of the world today? We’ll let you take it any way you want to at the beginning, and then we’re going to hone in.
[Vali Nasr] I guess your next question is a bit easier. Well, first of all let me thank you and thank the World Affairs Council for inviting me here. It’s truly wonderful to be with you and over the years I’ve had the opportunity to visit and talk before different World Affairs Councils all the way from California to the east coast, and I think it’s a fantastic organization that truly serves not only America’s national interests, but really it serves world affairs by helping engage a larger number of American citizens, this most important country in world affairs, in the issues that the rest of the world really looks up to America to take leadership on. So it’s wonderful to be back.
I would say it’s a very interesting time for American foreign policy and for the global environment because we’re coming from a period where we thought that international affairs had lost its importance and that many global problems had been solved, and we needed to focus on issues at home. If we went back to the first period of President Obama’s presidency, the rhetoric was largely nation building at home and let the world take care of its own problems, and by the way it has many problems to speak of. But in a very peculiar way the trend of history has proven us wrong, so we have a set of very interesting new issues.
First of all, economics has truly changed the shape of the world. We were all very conscious that the greatest superpower rivalry today is over economics. It’s with China, it’s about economic power, and it’s about GDP. We’re seeing the rise of other important centers – Brazil, India. Europe for instance by comparison has declined in terms of its contribution to global economy. We’re also seeing changes in the key ingredients of global economy.
Take for instance the case of energy. Not only we’re talking about different energy sources, but who would have thought ten years ago that we would say that by 2020 the United States would be a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia? And that whole revolution in oil, shale oil, shale gas, the whole change that it has brought about has been truly transformative. It’s changed the direction that we thought economics was going. And we still have to come to grips with what this means. And if you think about it, Americans are in the same day saying well other people are rich and important enough, but we’re not quite comfortable with giving leadership to others at the same time.
Secondly, we’ve become much more conscious of big global issues. So climate change is the biggest one of them, but there are other ones out there that are really big, global issues that we didn’t take seriously a number of years ago. Water scarcity and water management, food security which is now increasingly a very big issue, global health as we saw with the case of Ebola, refugee crises that we’re now beginning to see that it is reaching a tipping point of being a major global crisis. These are the sorts of things that don’t capture front page of the newspapers despite presidents and prime ministers of the countries trying to put them there, but we all understand now intuitively that these things do matter.
We thought that in many ways we were out of some of the hairiest of the problems in the Middle East, that we could actually leave that region, leave the problems of terrorism, of war, and the like, and we can see in the past year with the collapse of Iraq and Syria that the United States government was actually forced to reverse its foreign policy completely, and in very rapid order. And you can add to these also the fact that for the past five, six years the United States decisively withdrew from foreign policy, that we became less engaged internationally. We thought that it was better to assume a supporting role and allow others to take a leadership role, and in cases like the Middle East we actually decided that really we ought to withdraw from this region and for instance focus on Asia. And that itself became an international issue, because largely I don’t think the world was ready for a sudden departure of the United States or a sudden change in its role.
So all of these things are in play, and I think these are problems we are going to face going into the next two, three years of how do you manage all of these, and for instance when we think about how you train the next generation of world leaders it’s really about helping them understand the combination of these things. It’s the complexity that matters. So if you really thought that water scarcity and climate contributes to wars and civil wars, for instance the uprising in Syria happened after the worst drought in Syria since biblical times, and that the uprising in Egypt happened after a massive drought in that country and a sudden surge in the price of wheat. We often don’t associate these things for instance together. Or that your refugee crisis coming out of Syria are going to be potentially far more consequential in the Middle East than the war itself, or that climate change is producing generations of poor urban migrants which really provide the foot soldiers for groups like the Boko Haram in Nigeria.
So there’s a linkage between climate and terrorism, between water and democratic uprising, between drought and civil war, and ultimately we have to be equipped to deal with that. And we’re going to see more of this. We’re going to be dealing with a complicated, complex world going forward. It’s not necessarily getting easier, it’s not necessarily getting worse – it’s going to become much more interesting. But I think the long and short of it is that foreign affairs will matter enormously to prosperity and security of the United States going forward. It’s not whether it would have leadership, but it’s how much of it it should exercise and in what way, and those will be I think important issues for Americans to debate as they go into choosing the next president for the United States.
[Paula Dobriansky] All right, well great. That’s a good overview. I think in many ways you’ve identified many of the challenges confronting us, and not only us but the globe at large. But let us take it a step further, and that is can you identify what are the most pressing threats facing us? Now, some you mentioned in your remarks. You talked about some environmental issues and climate change. Some argue climate change. There are those who have the war on terror uppermost and the kind of threats that we’re seeing posed by ISIS and the developments in the Middle East. Some will talk about nuclear weapons and the concern still about proliferation. Give us a sense of sort of your pecking order. What are you concerned about the most and that you think is most – of greatest concern to us.
[Vali Nasr] Well I think we should sort of parse it. What is really truly of greatest concern to the United States, and then we have to decide what is it that concerns us. Is it that we’re not the largest economy in the world or that we are threatened along our borders or that we’re no longer say the top dog internationally, or are we really afraid of a physical threat to our safety and security?
The second is that what is the threat to politicians in the United States, and that threat is really defined by twenty-four hour news. So Ebola became a threat when CNN discovered it. Then every American – then we really had to stop it at home and we had to stop it in Africa. Of course we had to do that, but was it ever truly a national security threat for us? You could ask the same thing about ISIS. At what point did this terrorist organization qualify as a threat? Different parts of the world you go – they have been living with security threats like terrorism. The threshold of tolerance is different from us, and they don’t necessarily view it in the same degree of threat that we do. Not to say that it’s no threat, but it’s just calibration of how threatening was the IRA to England is different from the level of threat we associate with it. So that largely is our own – to some extent these threats is part of the American political discussion.
But there is no doubt that ultimately we live in a competitive world, so where do we end up in that competition – economically, politically – matters to us, and that there are actual events in the world that do impact us. So climate change does impact us. Twenty-five percent of all the particulates in the air in San Francisco come from China. So there’s no way to say you’re divorced from pollution in another part of the world. Many of you I’m sure have been to China. You know there’s a point at which you just cannot ignore air quality, you cannot ignore the fact that if you’re running out of water or if price of food goes up or drought causes mass migration or refugee status. So these are real issues. I think that part of our problem is that some of the more real issues tend to be taken less seriously. So I find it was very interesting that we have far more of a debate as to whether climate change actually exists than whether terrorism actually exists. It’s a far more immediate consensus say around security threats than there is around a threat to climate.
But I think actually that’s part of the change we’re going to see in the United States, is that we will have to basically take in the totality of these different changes that’s happened, which are perhaps within a phase that is the most significant changes we’re seeing in the international system we live in say since World War II in terms of the scope and depth of not just political challenges, but all sorts of other challenges that we are seeing, and that requires us to sort of have a fundamental rethinking about a lot of the core issues.
[Paula Dobriansky] Alex in introducing you referenced your book “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat”. Talk a bit about what you believe and as you’ve articulated in the book what the United States role should be. What is the proper balance? There’s always been historically a debate in our society, even from the days of our founding fathers in terms of should we be isolationists or should we be more engaged. What’s the balance? How do you see it?
[Vali Nasr] Well, I think during President Obama’s presidency it was not a question of isolationism, it was a question of minimalism, and that’s something very different which is basically foreign policy is not as important as Americans had assumed and also we could basically get away with doing the least amount possible internationally, and that the world would take care of itself without us.
[Paula Dobriansky] And where did we come out?
[Vali Nasr] Well I think those assumptions that by and large failed because it’s very clear that may be a good thing but it couldn’t happen all of a sudden. So the mechanisms don’t exist for in many places for substituting for the United States. So there are regions of the world including the Middle East for instance where the United States played the role of a regional organization, played basically the skeleton and the backbone of regional order. You take it out then basically any sorts of things could take place.
We found out for instance you couldn’t just remove the United States out of Iraq quickly and expect it to work. Just admonishing people that you need to get along – it doesn’t work with the Congress, I don’t know why it works with the Iraqis – but we saw that it didn’t work. We found out unless you have American leadership you can’t galvanize the international community to deal with something like Ebola in West Africa. So if the United States wants to step back it needs to do so in an orderly way.
But also I think there is a contradiction in a lot of our assumptions. We often say well the Chinese should step in to do things but we actually don’t want them to do that because if they truly did we would lose control. Or you would say what is sort of the most powerful instrument of American power today? And most of you if I asked would probably say U.S. military. You’re correct, but actually it’s the dollar. We have the ability to force a bank in France to pay billions of dollars for trades we decide they shouldn’t do, not their own government, not their own parliament, but they don’t have a choice. There’s no system around the dollar. If actually we truly withdrew from global leadership then basically we would lose an enormous amount of ability to compel countries to do certain things, which we do using sanctions and using our power of the currency. You can’t have that power of the currency unless you’re willing to be engaged in the world.
So I think the day President Obama made the decision that we were going to bomb ISIS and get reengaged in Iraq although I think it was somewhat of a reluctant decision it was largely an admission that that idea that we could just withdraw from the Middle East and let the Turks and the Iranians and the Europeans and people who are closer by manage that that we basically had accepted that the policy not only had not worked, but actually had catastrophic consequences that now makes it much more difficult for us to manage the region. So too much of American power is not a good thing. The Middle East attests to that, but too little of it is not a good thing either.
[Paula Dobriansky] Does the United States need a grand strategy? You’ve written on this, and in terms of our own vision and foreign policy is it imperative to have a kind of grand strategy in the way in which we approach the world?
[Vali Nasr] I think so. I think many of you are in a business – you wouldn’t run your own business without having a strategy beyond the next quarter and beyond balancing your books in the short run. You have to have a sense of where you’re going, and particularly the more complicated the world becomes the more important it is to have a sense of what are your interests first of all. If you took the case of Syria and the Middle East – if you asked American party leaders, different parties, Congress, the White House what is our interest in the region, I don’t think you’re going to get a same answer from them. Or what is our interest in Asia.
So you have to first of all know what it is that you want to achieve, and then you have a sense of how you’re going to achieve it and how you’re going to achieve it also having knowledge of all these other things that are there. And if you don’t have that sense then it’s pretty much a game of whack a mole. So you know you can go after one thing and then you have to deal with another issue, and then you go after this and you have to deal with another issue.
There was a time when the United States did have a grand strategy. If you look back for instance the approach to China – it was built on a global vision of how do you reduce the threat of nuclear war, how do you deal with Russia not only in one location but globally, and how do you connect the pieces in Asia to Europe, to Africa to make sure that you protect against Soviet exercise of power. So our objectives were very clear and we had a global sense of how these different pieces relate to one another. I think we’ve lost that in many ways in our foreign policy making.
[Paula Dobriansky] You’ve written also quite extensively about Iran, naturally, and one of things that is uppermost in peoples’ minds is whether or not a nuclear deal can in fact be concluded with Iran. Give us your views on that, and before you do let me just put in the mix I follow very readily of course what’s happening in Ukraine, and one of the things that did happen was with Russia’s invasion and annexation, illegal annexation ultimately of Crimea. They abrogated essentially the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in return for its territorial integrity and its sovereignty. And the question to other countries, including Iran, they must wonder well what’s the value – I’m going to be devil’s advocate – what’s the value? Just as this happened it really undercut nuclear non-proliferation. So what do you think? Can a deal be cut with Iran? Where is this going?
[Vali Nasr] Well to your first point about Ukraine, you’re absolutely right. The world is interconnected, sometimes in ways we don’t understand. I remember when the issue of the Syria red line came up, I was in Asia in Korea, and everybody thought that Syria’s red line was absolutely relevant to Asia because if we cannot enforce a red line in Syria then we will not enforce it with North Korea if they did something and we’re not going to enforce it with China if they went after an island in the South China Sea or vis a vis Japan in East China Sea. And it’s an open question what lessons did Putin take from our handling of Syria. And that’s exactly why you have to have a grand strategy.
A grand strategy is about how do you manage the expectations and behaviors of everybody, not just the people right in front of you. I remember in the old days there was an axiom that Mrs. Thatcher went to war in the Falklands so she doesn’t have to go to war in Hong Kong. Exercise of power over there, so you said the expectations in Asia. In the case of Iran I think a number of things have changed. One is that the Administration went so far out of its way to argue that it really doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Middle East and its sole objective is to get out, and any kind of an involvement in Syria is a slippery slope to war. And these arguments over two, three years amounted to a very adamant argument that we will never, ever, ever go to war with Middle East, that is impossible for Iranians not to conclude that there was no military option on the table. And I think as they were going towards a deal they know there’s no military option. Whether these talks fail, whatever happens, the United States is not going to go to war and nobody else is going to go to war. And I think that’s a big sea change.
Some in Iran say that was a positive thing that actually allowed them to come to talks because it removed the stigma from negotiations and the threat of war that gave them political room to do so, well you can take that with a grain of salt. But that’s a big change in the sense that there is no threat on the table. The sanctions will go so far, but I think once the Iranians decided, changed our president, had a more acceptable face to the country and once they engaged in negotiations and once they held on to an agreement for over a year – the Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman said two days, three days ago at CSIS that Iran has observed all of its agreements under this joint plan of action since last November – and once it became known that Iran had made serious concessions on the topic, it might not be what we want but they have made concessions, that it becomes very difficult to also maintain a sanctions regime against them going forward.
So that motivates the United States to get to a deal because the alternative for the U.S. is not going back to where we were. Iran is out of its box and it’s not easy to put it back in, and there’s not sufficient threat to do so. Now, on the Iranian side they clearly – they can live with these sanctions but it’s much better for them not to live with the sanctions, so they are also motivated to cut a deal. I think in most cases as in business there’s always a deal to be made. The question is at what price and whether – who wins in a deal. But there’s always possibility for a deal. And I think now both sides actually want a deal and they’ve moved closer to where they might meet for a deal, but they’re not quite at the right place. So a deal that is acceptable to Iran would be very difficult to sell in the U.S., and a deal that is acceptable to the U.S. is very difficult to sell in Iran.
The main impediment to the deal is not technical; it’s not that they cannot come to some agreement over number of centrifuges and getting rid of enriched uranium or inspections. It’s quite possible to see what the shape of a final deal would be, but the problem is whether the politicians on both sides can survive a political backlash to the deal, and how do they assess a deal. In the end any president anywhere in the world that makes a deal is taking a political risk. In the end it has political implications. So this can be an excellent legacy for President Obama or it could be a further point of confrontation with his own party and the Republican Party, but it’s all political. It depends on how this deal will be received by the American public and how it will play in the political scene in the U.S., and it’s the same in Iran, whether the deal will be seen as a triumph or a surrender.
[Paula Dobriansky] I have another question I’m going to pose, and let’s open it up because it will be great to have your participation and to pose questions to Vali. I want to take you to a different part of the world. We mentioned China earlier – how would you define the relationship the United States has with China? Is it a friend; is it a competitor? Where is the relationship going or what is it?
[Vali Nasr] It is both. It’s a sort of “coop-atition” I would say – we cooperate and we compete. But you know interestingly it’s a relationship the Chinese are more comfortable with than we are. I think we need countries to be either our friends or our enemies. We have difficulty dealing with a grey area. I think the Chinese are much better at thinking about how they might co-exist with the U.S., benefit from a relationship, build their capabilities, try to have a harmonious relationship which at the same time gives them room to compete with us aggressively. We like to see them as either Europe or as the Soviet Union, and I think we’re intellectually more comfortable with that. So either they become like Japan, they agree to all of our rules, they sign all the international treaties, they open up everything, they support us on every international issue, or that we’re more comfortable in seeing them as in the context of the Cold War relationship. The problem is that it’s not going to be either. This is going to be completely different.
So China is not a military power, it doesn’t have the capability now to compete with the U.S. military, but it has an enormous amount of economic power, and even that is difficult for us necessarily to put our hands around because their economic power lies in their size, and the amount that they consume and will consume, and the amount that they will produce, and the footprint that they’re going to have in the global economy. They’re not a technologically advanced country, but they’re capable of exercising an enormous amount of economic power.
We haven’t figured out exactly how to manage this relationship, but also we haven’t really figured out what we want out of it – what is the objective here? Do we want to actually prevent China from rising any further, or are we afraid of China’s ambition going in the wrong direction, or is it that we need China to join international agreements and international treaties because they matter to us? Do we want the Chinese to actually shoulder international responsibility like let them take care of the Persian Gulf? But we haven’t really thought about what that might mean if they replace us in the Persian Gulf. So I don’t think we really have a China strategy. They I think have much more of a global strategy, and they clearly have much more of an American strategy than we do.
[Paula Dobriansky] Well I remember when Robert Zoellick I’m thinking whether it was when he was Deputy Secretary of State or when he was the head of the World Bank, but I think it was Deputy Secretary of State, he gave a speech and in the speech he did challenge the Chinese to become responsible global stakeholders, and actually when there were crises in different parts of the globe to have them step forward and to contribute whether be it in terms of humanitarian assistance or in other cooperative and collaborative ways. There was some movement after that, but also I think there’s been a reluctance on the part of the Chinese to step forward in such a way.
[Vali Nasr] You’re absolutely correct, and the problem is as follows – is that the Chinese are not willing to basically carry our bag in conflicts that we need. So their understanding of conflicts say in the Middle East is very different than ours. And not that there’s no conflict, but their understanding of the dynamic or what needs to happen is very different from us. I would assume if you gave them control of the Persian Gulf their assumption of how you fix the Persian Gulf is force the Saudis and the Iranians to make friends, not take one side against the other. That would be their push. So they’re not going to sign up to a security arrangement in the Persian Gulf that essentially is backing one side in containment of the other, largely because they were contained themselves. They don’t believe in that strategy that was deployed against them in Asia.
Secondly, I think the Chinese fundamentally refuse to sign on to international treaties and agreements that they had no part in designing and don’t get a fair share in them. So conversations you have with Chinese leaders – you tell them you need to join these international agreements because if you join the international agreements whether it’s on currency, climate, on anything – when you join these international agreements it will create fair play and an even playing field for everybody. They say no, not joining them keeps the even playing field and fair play because these are all your agreements. So they basically will cage us. And as they’re getting bigger the difference is when Zoellick was giving his talk they would dodge. Now they’re becoming more confident of actually demanding basically their say.
So if the IMF wants a bigger share of Chinese contribution to its branches, China has to have a bigger voting bloc in IMF and the World Bank than Europe does or they are very happy to join hands with Russia, Brazil, and India and create an alternative, not that it flies, but the very fact that if you’re comfortable putting that on the table it’s suggestive that they just are not ready to sign on to international agreements we back.
[Paula Dobriansky] We’re going to go to the audience, and I can’t help myself – as you’re thinking of your question I’m just going to make one statement because I can’t help myself because Vali mentioned climate change, and the interesting thing is China’s actions in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is a member of the group of 77, which is the developing countries, although it is an emerging and even more than that an emerged economy, but yet where it places itself in this venue is actually with the developing countries, and it’s very ironic. Many of the developing countries have come forward and they have cried out you shouldn’t be with us.
Look, let’s hear from you. Yes, why don’t we go over here, and we have a microphone, and if you don’t mind please introduce yourself. Who you are and where you’re from so Vali can know.
[Karen Segel] Hi, I’m Karen Segel. I’m a former diplomat, but my husband and I are living in northern Michigan now, Traverse City. I’m wondering if you would talk a little bit more about the lack of a strategy on President Obama’s part? Do you think it’s because he has not surrounded himself by advisors who could give him a true strategic view? Clearly we’re lacking somebody like Kissinger. Is it because the political situation is just so divided and we have “Planet Fox” and whatever other alternative universes you want that has so restricted options, or is it something in President Obama himself, or another option?
[Vali Nasr] I think generally President Obama is the chief strategist in this administration. I think he actually – my read of it is that he has a very strong theory of the case. It’s very different from other presidents that have come in and you said well they really don’t know the world, they never traveled outside. They’re basically more of a blank slate, and it really depends on who around them is filling them with ideas. I think he actually has a very strong view of international affairs, but as I said his view is minimalist. , Is that really, I think he saw the best strategy for the United States was to shrink as much as possible its direct international involvement. And this obviously first of all happened in the Middle East because that’s where we had the greatest amount of involvement. Ultimately it is true, and I’ve written in my book that part of the problem is that there is a circle of people who came from the campaign world whose approach is to manage things headline to headline and are very tactical, but you know if six years in you still have the same people that must be an active decision on his part. That must be a conscious choice to have that sort of barrier between himself and the cabinet members. Many of them have written books you’ve read. They all have expressed frustration with this situation.
I was reading in New York Times the other day when the Chief of Staff said the cabinet members are implementers, meaning they’re not the ones who are supposed to think, they’re supposed to do, and when they think is when they get into trouble and conflict. But that clearly is obviously something that’s deliberate. So I think it’s a combination of these. Personalities do matter in politics. I worked for Richard Holbrooke and I do think for instance a personality like his forged history, his tenacity, vision, like a great merger acquisition a wheeler-dealer. You make things happen. Or if you have competent people, you have experienced people who’ve witnessed things, who have knowledge of the world – these things do matter, and it does matter for that reason that we invest in training of our Foreign Service Officers, investing and encouraging the brightest minds to go into international affairs, and really have an infrastructure that is capable of addressing greater complexity and advisor our politicians.
[Paula Dobriansky] We’re going to take your question up here, and then we’ll go to you back there, and then over here. Okay? So we’ll catch you too.
[Michael McClausure] Thank you, ma’am. Michael McClausure from National Defense University. Under both Republican and Democratic Administrations the United States has made the promotion of global democracy one of its fundamental principles of foreign policy. To what degree do you think that’s been successful, and to what extent should we continue to forcibly advance that agenda in our foreign policy?
[Vali Nasr] There are cases of success. Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Latin America ultimately are testaments to success of what I would call first of all a long strategy of encouraging that transformation, and then at critical moments the United States was very instrumental whether you take the case of making a decision when Marcos was in trouble of not supporting him, or in Latin America encouraging the transformation of power in Argentina and Brazil that then became a cascade of democracy, and then we massively invested in economically supporting democracies.
Then you have a case like Iraq, which was based on a faulty idea that you could essentially wage war on a country, basically shatter all of its institutions, and then build institutions, democratic institutions on top of it. And then there is the case of the Arab Spring where we basically had a very distant, cheering role with the Arab Spring helping it. So the trend is uneven if you were to say.
In the last two Administrations, you had a case under President Bush of over-subscription to democracy, and then I think thinking of a military solution to bring democracy was an overreach. I think under President Obama we basically had a very little interest in actively promoting it, and to some extent I would say the failure of the Arab Spring has to do with that. If you compared how much money the United States and Europe put in Eastern European economies, so between 1989 and 1999 we collectively put 1,000,000,000 dollars into East European economies. That would be in today’s dollars three, 400,000,000,000 dollars. When Mexico was going through a transformation, Goldman Sachs, the Treasury, and the IMF collectively put 40,000,000,000 dollars into Mexico’s economy. If you looked at how much money we put into the Arab Spring, at a meeting of a group of G8 countries Sarcozy pushed and pushed and pushed for advancing those countries to commit 9,000,000,000 dollars to all of the Arab world, of which five years later only 116,000,000 million dollars had been appropriated.
So is it shock that they failed? No. I mean a case like Syria was really messy, but there were others that potentially could have – including Egypt – could have gone in a different direction. I think it does matter to us because we understand that ultimately non-democratic governments are not permanently stable. So if you’re going to build a long-run investment policy relationship you want to have certain certitude about the character of countries and you want stability, and that stability is best assured in a democracy, so we definitely would like that, but I don’t think we’ve had a coherent strategy about this for some time.
So under President Reagan and President Bush Sr., this was really a democratic capitalism experiment, right? The countries that are most likely to go democratic, you help them politically, but then you invest massive amount of money to create market economies that become the basis of democracy. We lost the formula, so the second Bush Administration thought that regime change is enough for democracy. All you need to do is to bring down the regime, give them the right to vote, and say good luck. And then under the Obama Administration it was basically good luck, period. We’re not going to get involved at all. Not that we should be promoting democracy, but if we set that as our goal we know how to do it. It’s not that we have not been part of some sweep of democracy across three major regions of the world, but it requires that kind of an investment.
[Cameo Cheung] Thank you. My name is Cameo Cheung. I’m with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and my question is about youth. Particularly with the growth of the youth population in emerging economies, how do you see that affecting global world affairs, and what would your advice be to young professionals pursuing a career in foreign policy? What would you say they need to be looking out for an preparing for?
[Vali Nasr] Two good questions. The first one is we have to be very careful not to associate youth with hope. I didn’t mean it that way, but in the sense that we automatically assume that if you have a very young population it means stability, prosperity, and good new things. It doesn’t. Youth is the most unstable portion of the population, whether it’s in the U.S. or whether it’s in any other part of the world. If you have too much of them it does create political instability. That can be for the good or it can be for bad. When you look at the Middle East for instance, or Africa, we always say they have a really youthful population as if that necessarily means that they’re going to be democratic, everybody is going to be technologically savvy. That’s not the way it works.
In the Middle East, you go country to country – 65 percent, 70 percent of the population is young. The thugs are young, the terrorists are young, the entrepreneurs are young, the middle class – everybody’s young. The swing vote is the old people. But whether it would push the country in a democratic direction or an authoritarian direction is open to question. So the Iranian Revolution of 1979 had to do with the youth bulge, and it ended up producing an authoritarian regime in Iran ultimately. It didn’t end up necessarily opening the system positively. In 2009 there was a green movement in Iran that was associated with the youth, but the thugs that beat them up were also young people. It was youth militias the government had put together. ISIS recruits among – the fanatics are youth and so are the entrepreneurs.
So largely what does youth mean? Youth means – too much of it means instability. Too much of it means pressure on creating jobs; it means forecasts for pressure on resources. So very young populations means you have a very flat pyramid, there’s a lot more pressure on creating jobs for them, it means much more pressure on providing food, water, and varieties of other resources for them. It’s more of a demographic management issue than it is necessarily a singular trend. And if the populations of the world, particularly in critical areas, begin to become more and more youthful, you can expect more instability rather than democracy and stability there. That’s going to be likely the case. You have to have the right balance of young population, and then there are other factors including education, jobs, and an economy that can grow with the youth. If a youth population is growing at seven, eight percent a year, you can’t have an economy that’s growing at four percent a year. It just won’t work. You’re always behind the eight ball.
Here I would say we live in a world that there is no career that you’re going to have that will not involve knowledge of the world, and the most competitive people will be those who are globally educated. So languages, they understand world history, they know at least the region of the world well. It doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily are going to be in the State Department – that’d be great if you joined them and worked in that arena – but any big American corporation you work for today is a global corporation, and its most prized workforce are those who are able to operate in a global environment. It is no longer sort of an option for youth, American youth let’s say. It’s really something they have to embrace and see it as part of their career goals is to be international.
[Paula Dobriansky] Okay. We have a question right here, and then we’re going to go over here, and then we’ll go back there, okay?
[Sky Forrester] Thanks Vali. I’m Sky Forrester of the National Board and Colorado Springs World Affairs Council, and I teach at the Air Force Academy. And unfortunately by question is going to take you off your last comment, which I wish we could actually spend more time on because it’s a wonderful comment. But one of the challenges of dealing with strategy is balancing domestic as well as international politics, and we’ve talked about the Middle East but I don’t think I’ve heard the word Israel yet. So what is the impact of the U.S.-Israeli relationship on America’s role in the Middle East and our approach to this whole world? Thank you.
[Vali Nasr] Well the Arab-Israeli issue has been a constant in the region for a very long time. There’s not much change that has happened in that dynamic whether what impact the Arab-Israeli issue has had on Muslim public opinion and Arab public opinion, that hasn’t really changed. And we’ve gone through the periods of defending Israel’s position then trying to negotiate a peace between them, giving up, letting both sides brood then go back to it, and we just saw one of those cycles happen. The Arab-Israeli issue and the U.S.-Israel relations is not the big news in the region – doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but if you’re looking at the region the future of the Middle East is not being written around the Arab-Israeli issue. In fact that was one of the criticisms of Secretary Kerry focusing so much on this issue.
So the shape of this region, the map of this region, physical map of this region is being drawn, and the fate of this region is being decided in Iraq and Syria and say in Egypt and in Yemen and in Bahrain. And the political map of this region is being redrawn in U.S.-Iran negotiations as well as also in this Shia-Sunni conflict and what is happening in Syria and Iraq. So at this moment in time even if the Israelis and Palestinians had signed a deal it would not have had an impact on these issues in the region. So in Iraq the Shias and Sunnis have opinions about the Palestinians and Israelis, but they’re not fighting over that. They’re fighting over division of power among them, and the fight in Syria between Sunnis and the Kurds and Assad regime and ISIS is not about the Palestinians and Israelis, it’s about themselves.
But one of the issues that I think we made a mistake about the past four, five years is that we thought that we were only in the Middle East for oil and we really don’t have any other major interests, but one of our most important interests as you said is Israel, and Israel happens to be in the Middle East, so we’re going to be involved in the Middle East going forward so long as this is an issue that beckons our interest. But our neglect of Syria and Iraq has actually changed the strategic context for Israel. So since Camp David Accords, Israel has had by and large stable borders. Lebanon is a problem, but Lebanon still doesn’t have a standing army, so the peace treaty with Jordan and Egypt and ultimately sort of a standstill with Syria basically freed Israel from having to think about land wars.
So yes, there’s terrorism, there’s Hezbollah, but those are not the same thing as an Egyptian army sweeping across Sinai in 1973. It had economic benefits to Israel not having a lot of divisions sitting on the Egyptian border probably accounts for three billion dollars of savings a year for the Israeli economy, and it also gave it a great deal of a sense of security that existed for a long period of time. The idea of stable, secure borders are gone because Egypt is in a mess, maybe Israelis will have a sigh of relief that there was a coup, but it’s still a long way to going back to where it was. Syria is no longer a stable border. There’s threat to Jordan. The crisis in the region has come right onto Israel’s border, and it’s not about standing armies right now, it’s really about insecurity and instability.
So you could say one of the things that even would help security in this kind of an environment is actually bringing an end to the Syria war and bringing an end to Iraq war. Stability in this region would be beneficial to Israel as well. And that ultimately is also reason we cannot just let the Middle East just deal with its own problems because once it impacts Israel it’s going to bring the U.S. into the conflict as well.
[Stephanie Shinn] Hello, good evening Dean. I’m Stephanie Shinn. I’m sitting Middle Eastern Conflict at Whittier College and I am here on the behalf of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. Unfortunately my question might stray away from the previous one as well. Earlier Ambassador Dobriansky asked you specifically does the U.S. need a grand national strategy. What would be your response to this in respect to Pakistan? Especially thus far the U.S. seems to have a very ambiguous agenda with Pakistan. Congress signs onto international monetary assistance, intelligence in the region continues to insist drones continue their presence there. Since bin Laden, is Pakistan friend or foe, and moreover who are we dealing with? Are we dealing with Pakistani intelligence, the ISI? Are we dealing with the Parliament? Are we dealing with their military? And specifically what are your views on all of this? Thank you.
[Vali Nasr] It’s actually very good questions, questions to be honest came to me very directly when I was working on that issue in 2009-2011, there was a lot of actually focus on that. We didn’t have a particular Pakistan strategy as we had an Afghanistan strategy then, and then we had a terrorism strategy, and then our idea was how do we get the Pakistanis to support our strategy. Well, the Pakistanis were not supporting our strategy not because it was good sport behavior, but because they had their own agenda which is Pakistanis had very strong opinions about Afghanistan. It’s a country next door, they have a lot of history together, and they don’t trust the Afghans just as the Afghans don’t trust them. I mean believe it or not, the two countries don’t have a border yet because the Afghans don’t recognize the border. If you don’t have a border with a country means it can go either direction. And they obviously – they were not as worried about the Taliban as we were. They were more worried about a stable, prosperous Afghanistan because that would be a threat to them. Once the Afghans get their act together they’re going to want a piece of Pakistan as their own. That’s why they don’t recognize the border. And as soon as the Afghans get their wherewithal’s they’re usually the allies of India. That’s the way the Pakistanis calculate. So to them the Taliban was a menace, but it was less of a problem than what they thought our project in Afghanistan would be. So they wouldn’t necessarily collaborate with us. There was joke that they would collaborate with you Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but not Tuesdays and Thursdays, or like as you were saying with Chinese – they try to still get to their own national interests while they try to remain close with you.
During the Bush Administration we had a strategy of pretending what we’re seeing is not there. So we had sort of a suspension of disbelief. So we would bring President Musharraf here and we would say what a liberal man he is and what a great friend in fighting terrorism he is, whereas all along Musharraf was basically looking after Pakistan’s interests, which meant it was allowing all these things happening on the ground. To his credit, when President Obama came in we sort of had a sort of a clear eye policy. We’re not going to pretend we don’t see what’s happening. We know what you’re doing. We want to change what you’re doing. We tried to persuade them, push them – it didn’t work, largely because we never took into account why is it that they’re doing this. Our answers are always that it must be pathological, but in reality is that they’re also pursuing some kind of a national interest. So you either address their national interests otherwise – you give them a security treaty or you force the Afghans to recognize the border – you somehow address the fear they have, or that you recognize the fact that you actually are looking at the same country and seeing different pictures. We never did that. As a result we became very frustrated with them. And then when we left Afghanistan we didn’t really care that much anymore because the issue was no longer that important to us.
The other point you make about who we’re dealing with – it always depends on what you want out of a country. So if you really just need to get drones flying over a territory, need to share intelligence, you really don’t need to bother with the civilian government, you just deal with the military. We also did that in Egypt a long time. If that’s the extent you want to engage with a country you really don’t need to do much more than the military, and we end up making the military a lot bigger and more important than they were before. And it’s not a good policy because you’re not really engaging the rest of the country, you’re not engaging them economically, you don’t have normal give and take with them, and your relationship becomes very narrow.
Pakistan is dangerous because it’s a country of 180,000,000 people, it’s nuclear armed, it’s unstable – politically is unstable. It has ethnic groups in it, it has enormous amount of poverty, it has terrorism, it has drug lords, it has all of these elements in it, and its stability really matters to us. But dedicating attention to Pakistan and try to fix it requires us to think in longer terms than we’re used to do. In the very short term you get what you need and then you move on. And so we got some of what we needed when we were there. We really don’t need it anymore. Our attention is on Iraq and Syria.
[Paula Dobriansky] We have one last question. We’ll take yours and yours – we’ll hear both of them if they both get mics, and we’ll let you answer both. So we have right here and then over here.
[Ed Mines] This may actually relate to your first question. Yes, my name is Ed Mines. I’m head of the Bill Clifford fan club of Boston. My question – you spoke at length about China. I’d be curious to your comments about India, the second by population – I believe it’s a billion now. A thriving high-tech sector, they speak English there – very international. What future do you see for India?
[Paula Dobriansky] Before you answer that could we get the mic over to the other person so we can take both? Thanks, thank you so much.
[Joyce Davis] Thank you. I’m Joyce Davis with the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, and I want to get a little bit lower to the American people, because while you talked about Obama’s minimalist policy, could it be he’s reacting to the war wariness and perhaps the international weariness of the American people who are tired of this kind of aggressive foreign policy, or who have been tired. That’s one thing, and the other thing – again with the people. How can you have a grand strategy if you keep changing your parties? These two parties really have different views of the world and different understandings of what the American role should be in it. A grand strategy would need to have their buy in both parties. How is that possible when they are so divergent?
[Vali Nasr] Good point. There is no doubt that the war wariness was there, and also the American economy was not doing well in 2008, and obviously that puts a lot of pressure on the Administration. The key question was when you have that sort of a public opinion do you try to change it or do you go with it? And to some extent you might not have a choice but to follow what public opinion is, but I think in this case there was a coming together of what public opinion was and what I think the Administration’s view was. So there was no pushback against public opinion.
The second issue you raised is actually important – interesting in this way that ultimately it’s important for national leaders, whether they’re Republican or Democrat, not to quibble about methods – that’s where the fighting is – but rather have an agreement over what are our fundamental interests. So what are America’s fundamental interests in the Middle East? Is there a disagreement on that? Or say what is our fundamental interests in Asia or what is our fundamental interests in global leadership or sustaining a powerful dollar or sustaining our military? I think there is a lot more possibility for them to have a common interest, but also I think what is lacking is that the American public doesn’t hear from its leaders what is there interest in a particular region or a particular issue or overall in foreign policy?
What they hear is reaction to events, which are based on fear. So the questions is not why does Africa matter to the United States, the question is how am I going to defend you from Ebola when that’s an issue that worries you, but the larger issue of why is it that the United States needs to be engaged in Africa, what is our interest in that continent? That doesn’t get really discussed. And I don’t know, maybe it’s asking too much of the politicians, but I think there was a period where there was greater control at least within media about these sorts of discussions. I think the democratization of American media has not been a good thing because it’s been a race to the bottom, and it actually encourages short term-ism, it encourages fleeing. There is no sort of – you don’t really have opinion makers, what we used to call opinion makers in the past, people who actually would define those core issue for the public, and then it would give a lot more room to politicians to follow on that.
And your second point was about India. India is clearly in economic terms has a lot of opportunities, but there are big differences between India and China. India also I think has many more critical hurdles that it has to cross. It has enormous social problems. It has a caste system, it has inequalities of race and language and region and tribe and class that actually rapid economic growth can trigger all manners of conflicts coming forward. So doesn’t mean it’s going to derail it, but it’s not necessarily a straight shoot up. It has a very important middle class that has yet to sort of realize its full growth potential. So the Indian economy can grow at seven, eight percent for a period of time, but once it reaches that level then going to the next level might be more difficult.
It also has greater difficulty organizing around rapid growth. So people would say the rise of China is one of the most important historical events ever if you looked at the wealth generation in a country between 1949 and compared to today. It’s never happened in history, the amount of doubling and tripling of a GDP over time. But that was also built on the back of a very centralized authoritarian system. It’s open to question whether Indian democracy, as splintered as it is, would be able to reproduce that. But India will matter to the global economy in a variety of ways and it has a tremendous amount of potential.
It matters to us in a different way – not so much business wise – but largely because it’s the other Asian giant, and when we think about the days when we look at China through the lens of the Cold War and who’s going to be balancing China and Asia, we sort of tend to gravitate towards India. So some of our most important deals with India have been military deals in recent years – upgrading India’s military capability. We would rather India stopped bickering with Pakistan and focus on China. We would much rather they build a navy that could counter the Chinese navy in the Indian Ocean, and India clearly has these ambitions. India and China have disputed borders. They went to war in 1962. The Indians also see benefit in being America’s partner against China. And I think in that sense the more difficult our relationship with China becomes the more harmonious our relationship with India is going to become going forward.
[Paula Dobriansky] Vali, let me say that we have been truly, truly fortunate indeed that you were our opening conference speaker. But I just want to add not only have you given us a tour d’horizon of literally so many issue confronting the United States, but what I especially really like about your comments this evening your directness, your candidness, and also your wittiness at various points of time. So just again let’s give another round of applause.
Transcript provided as a courtesy of Ryan&Associates
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