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Advice for 44: 'Talk frankly' about the limits of U.S. power

Host of 'Conversations with History' discusses foreign-policy challenges facing the next president

8 October 2008

Harry KreislerHarry Kreisler (Cathy Cockrell photo)

For more than a quarter century, Harry Kreisler has been interviewing individuals who have helped shape the modern world. The executive director of UC Berkeley's Institute of International Studies recorded the first of his hour-long "Conversations with History" in 1982, and recently completed his 436th. Kreisler does intense reading in preparation for talking with each of his guests, most of whom are visitors to the UC Berkeley campus.

Recently — thanks to satellite television (via UCTV) and the Internet, then webcasting and YouTube — the audience for "Conversations with History" has grown exponentially, with YouTube "views" reaching into five figures for the most popular segments. With the 2008 presidential campaign in its final weeks, NewsCenter writer Cathy Cockrell spoke with Kreisler in his office, amid a mountain of tapes and CDs of his "Conversations," to get his thoughts on the future of U.S. international relations.

Q. How we deal with the war in Iraq will be an immediate issue for the 44th U.S. president. What other international challenges are on your short list for the incoming administration?
A. One of the next president's most important tasks will be to talk frankly to the American people about who we are and what we can realistically achieve in the world. Are we the "city on the hill" that leads by example? Or are we the hegemonic power able to transform the world in our own image? Since the end of the Cold War, our leaders have assumed that through our economic power (Clinton) or military power (G.W. Bush) we could democratize the world and make other countries in our own image in order to ensure our security.

The next president, in defining an agenda, should not confuse what the United States has achieved as a country internally, in its 200-year history, with its strategy for securing our interests abroad. Failing this, the U.S will continue to find itself isolated from potential partners in a changing world — one where important centers of power (like Brazil, China, India) are consolidating their position as actors, not subjects, of history. So there's a task of political education required of the next president. He has to have a dialogue with the American people about what we can and should do internationally to ensure U.S. security.

That said, a number of problems we face require multilateral solutions — problems like the environment, terrorism, disease, international crime, nuclear proliferation, rogue and failing states. For problems like these, unilateral solutions aren't sufficient.

Selected 'Conversations with History'
These experts expand on issues discussed in this Q&A. (A wider selection can be found on UCTV and YouTube.)

Philip Bobbitt
Jane Mayer

American nationalism
Amy Chua
Anatol Lieven

Multilateral issues
Stephen Krasner
Samantha Power

Rising world powers
Kishore Mahbubani
Parag Khannna

Mark Leonard
Susan Shirk
James Fallows

Intelligence & military
Michael Scheuer
Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson
General Anthony Zinni
General John Abizaid

Afghanistan & Pakistan
Ahmed Rashid
Tariq Ali
Steven Coll

NATO enlargement & crisis in Georgia
Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier

Trita Parsi
Karim Sadjadpour

Andrew Bacevich
Jonathan Clarke

Q. Could you expand on international terrorism and the challenges it presents?
A. Terrorism poses a unique set of challenges. The "war on terrorism" is a misnomer, confusing Cheney's strategic goals in the Middle East with the serious threat posed by transnational terrorist networks that are non-state actors. In overemphasizing jihadist extremism as a cause, we've played into the hands of Al Qaeda and neglected to build a foundation for dealing with terrorism in a globalized world of loose nukes and other weapons of mass destruction.

Philip Bobbitt, a professor of law at Columbia University, argues that terrorism and jihadism need to be distinguished. We are moving toward a world, he believes, where states are market states — and where the adversaries are terrorists and networks of terrorists, not necessarily related to extremist religion, whose goal is to create a state of terror. Bobbit's argument reminds me of Heath Ledger in the newest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight." As the "Joker," he captures the essence of that threat. The Joker is not after power or money. He's basically out to destroy the city of Gotham as an end in itself; he's out to create a state of terror.

Q. Do you expect the next president to place as much emphasis on unilateralism as in the past eight years?
A. I doubt that will be possible. We're going to have to work through international institutions and alliances. The U.S. is still very powerful, but to deal with the current international challenges, we're going to need to work with other great powers and international institutions — to provide leadership but not domination. I interviewed  Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished Asian diplomat from Singapore. He's a strong supporter of America, and yet he's very disappointed with our inability to take the lead in changing the international institutions that were created in the Cold War (such as the U.N. and international trade organizations) to reflect new centers of power. We should be listening to the rising powers — which have their own perspectives on economic development, national autonomy, and what a stable world order looks like — and leading in the reform of the international institutions.

Q. How reliable are traditional sources of expertise, such as the intelligence community, as sources of information and guidance on foreign policy today?
A. Government institutions are always less than perfect. But many of our government institutions for thinking about and implementing foreign policy are broken — broken because we have never transformed them, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to deal with a different kind of world.

Q. What about the military? Do you believe it is broken as well?
A. We've militarized our foreign policy; there is too much emphasis on military solutions. The Pentagon is being given tasks, such as nation building, that it may not be able to perform. Last year I interviewed General John Abizaid, the former head of Central Command; he was waving a red flag about the tasks that the military is being asked to undertake without the resources to fight 21st-century wars.

Campaign '08

Think, for example, of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our policy there is a disaster; our relations with those countries should be part of a regional strategy that emphasizes diplomacy. To solve the problems of Afghanistan — if they can be solved — you would have to provide development aid, and support for the Afghan government, and seek the support of regional actors, so that the process of nation building can occur. That's more than a military problem requiring a military solution. The next Congress and president will need to fund the State Department and aid organizations, not just the Pentagon and the Pakistani military.

Q. When thinking about our international problems today, it's tempting to heap blame on Bush. Could you talk about earlier administrations? Is there more continuity between administrations than we often recognize?
A. Afghanistan is a good example of foreign policy by past U.S. administrations that lays the groundwork for current crises. I'm thinking of our funding of the Mujahadeen to fight the Soviets under Carter and Reagan, which unintentionally led to the emergence of Al Qaeda.

A new administration often wants to ignore good advice that the outgoing president offers; think of Clinton warning G.W. Bush about the Al Qaeda threat. Typically, a new president also spends a lot of time getting out of the traps laid by his predecessor. This is clearly the case with Afghanistan: current problems cannot be separated from our long-term commitment to the Pakistani military, especially after 9/11. (Former Pakistani President Pervez) Musharraf received $10 billion in the last seven years; he didn't use the money to provide for the welfare of his people.

The recent conflict in Georgia — another example of the importance of historical continuity between administrations. Bill Clinton, as president, endorsed a policy of NATO enlargement, or dealing with Eastern Europe and the states around the Soviet Union and the Caucasus. The idea was: we're going to democratize the world — not the way the European Union does, through ongoing dealings with these countries, to encourage them to modernize their laws, build democratic institutions in order to gain full membership in the EU. No. We advocated doing this through the enlargement of NATO — a military alliance whose function, some would argue, ceased to exist once we defeated the Soviet Union. We kept it alive and said "We're going to make all these former Soviet states part of NATO."

This was a concern for Russia, which we ignored; the recent situation in Georgia points to where that can lead. NATO enlargement was an idea we embraced with little discussion back in the 1990s, and we're living today with the limits of that policy. We discovered that, in the context of the realpolitik of that region, we're not  capable of intervening militarily. But we gave the president of Georgia the idea that we would, which helped to fuel reckless action on his part.

The new administration will need to overcome the dead weight of outdated ideas like NATO enlargement and Bush's doctrine of preemption, which holds that the U.S. has the unilateral right to preempt any perceived threat — a doctrine, you could argue, that Russia applied to Georgia. The neoconservatives have not disappeared nor have their notions about using military power to impose democracy. Those ideas have been delegitimized, but they're not dead.

Q. John McCain and Barack Obama — what's your assessment of how each would approach international challenges, as president?
A. McCain would be very influenced by the neoconservatives; he would emphasize military solutions. But it's very important to distinguish between the military's role, as seen by politicians such as McCain and Cheney, and the military itself. The military, strangely enough, has been misused and abused by the conservatives who've been running the country for the last eight years. It's been under-resourced, and given tasks it only reluctantly undertook. By "under-resourced" I'm talking about the soldiers going into Iraq with inadequate protection — not the totality of the military budget, which is bloated.

If McCain comes in, I think you're going to see a very interesting interplay between what he wants to do, and thinks the military wants to do, and what he can do. McCain is not going to be able to adjust to the diminishment of U.S. power in the world, and he's going to go for military solutions. He may get push-back from the military.

Obama appears to be a strategic thinker who can think outside the box. He may have the imagination to change U.S. foreign policy; his multicultural background may empower him to see both the possibilities and limits of our power. But he's going to get push-back from policy makers and powerful interests in Washington; he may be overwhelmed by the albatross of old ideas in Washington.

The best ideas are not popping out of the CIA, or working their way through the Pentagon, or coming out of Congressional staff. They're coming from people who have grappled with the realities of the 21st century. To the extent that Obama is not engulfed by outdated ideas of the Washington bureaucracy and the chattering class — and has links to sources of ideas outside of the traditional channels — that will be helpful. But his problems if he's elected are going to be immense.

Kreisler is currently using "Conversations with History" segments as a basis for discussion in a class on foreign policy through UC's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.