An Interview With Stephen Kinzer, Part 2

An Interview With Stephen Kinzer, Part 2

An Interview With Stephen Kinzer, Part 2

The award-winning foreign correspondent and author of The True Flag speaks about the state of US foreign policy and the media.


Stephen Kinzer’s The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, published earlier this year, drew me to a correspondent turned historian who has, through nine books, never lost the habit of commenting on our present circumstance. I read True Flag as a good occasion for Kinzer’s first retrospective, as I liked to see it. The body of work merits it. This thought shaped our lengthy exchange last month.

In Part 1 of our talk, published September 11, we focused on Kinzer’s strategy as an historian—how he went at history, how he makes use of it (in some ways as scholars of conventional academic training cannot). In the conclusion that follows, we turned toward current events—an inevitability when two former correspondents sit side by side for several hours. The Iran nuclear accord, “Russiagate,” the Pentagon budget, the prospects for an alternative foreign policy—Kinzer weighed in sensibly and usefully on all these topics. After we spoke, he published an especially germane piece in The Boston Globe. “America’s slow-motion military coup” is a courageous assertion that, under President Trump, foreign policy is now openly the Pentagon’s prerogative.

The current, fallen state of the American press—a perennial pebble in my shoe—was something I was especially eager to take up with a 23-year veteran of The New York Times. “I hate the idea that the press is on somebody’s team. We are not on the government’s team. In fact, the opposite should be true,” Kinzer said. “Whenever there’s a narrative that’s so widely shared by all factions in Washington, the job of the press should be the opposite of what they’re doing now. Their job should be to look under the rug and see what’s there, to question the narrative. Instead, the press jumps on it.”

What he said.

As I drove home from my encounter with Stephen Kinzer, two thoughts lingered and linger still, as if they were professorial truths that fully open out only after they’ve had time to sink in. One concerns language. It is bracing, to put the point mildly, to read of how plainly spoken were those who first began the debate about American conduct abroad. One is castigated as extremist today if one speaks anything like so frankly and directly of events, policies, and those behind them. A lesson emerges: There should be no shrinking from such criticism. A rhetoric of plainspoken candor and clarity is an asset of great value, to be defended against all efforts to continue running the fog machine that imposes a culture of obfuscation and unreality upon us.

The second point concerns what lies behind us. Those who oppose America’s foreign policies as squarely against the principles on which this nation was founded and still professes are never so alone as they are nearly always made to assume. There are many friends alive in the pages of the better history books. They comprise an alternative tradition. They give us a past. They practically beckon forward with their words and deeds, just as they do in True Flag. Too seldom do those alive now call upon these friends. This is to miss a source of strength and determination.

I conducted this interview August 8 at Kinzer’s summer residence on Cape Cod, a former chicken coop behind the house he grew up in. I once again thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his attentive work transcribing the audio recording.

Patrick Lawrence: As I suggested earlier in our conversation, you write about the past to write about the present, if I can put it very simply. Please talk about the Iran nuclear accord through the lens of your book. I should mention, I think the Iranians may have given too much away, considering the extraordinary parameters of the accord and its plainly invasive aspects. This may put me in line with conservatives in Tehran, but one can’t determine what is and isn’t a sound judgment according to who else makes it. What are your thoughts?

Stephen Kinzer: The Iran nuclear deal was probably the greatest diplomatic achievement of the Obama administration. I don’t think it would have happened if Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. So I give a lot of credit to [Secretary of State] John Kerry. It was positive not only because it resolved a geopolitical problem, but also because it showed that reconciliation long after bitter conflict is possible. And even possible for the United States, which is quite a rare thing.

PL: I never put it in that frame. I’m not a great enthusiast of Obama’s foreign-policy record, and I honestly say I didn’t see it as you do, but you make a good point. Please continue.

SK: When you look at a map of the Middle East, one thing jumps out at you: Iran is the big country right in the middle. There’s not going to be any security in the region unless there’s an architecture of which Iran is a part. It’s precisely analogous to the situation in Europe after the Second World War. There was this Morgenthau Plan, by which we were going to punish Germany and break it apart and never let it have a factory again. Finally, we realized that we should take the opposite approach of the Marshall Plan—create a security arrangement in Europe in which Germany would have a role. That was the underlying promise of the nuclear accord with Iran: that Iran could be brought in to a Middle East security architecture. [The Morgenthau Plan, drafted in 1944 and signed by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, urged the radical disarmament of Germany by dismantling numerous many of its key industries.]

PL: It’s plain enough to me. Why would Iran want anything other than a secure Middle East? To cast it as a terrorist-supporting, troublemaking nation is dead wrong.

SK: Sometimes you’ll even hear the phrase about Iran: “World’s No. 1 supporter of terrorism.” This is so bizarre when we sit next to our friends in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and Washington, DC. Our engagement with Iran also had the effect of opening the way for a transition within Iran toward the direction that most Iranians would like.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Iran, and one thing I’ve understood about Iranians is, having been around for several thousand years, they’re not insisting on changes happening tomorrow. Better to bear those ills you know than to fly to others you know not of. Iranians believe this very deeply. That’s why they didn’t want American intervention during the repression of the Green Movement. “This is bad, but American intervention would be far worse.” We were not able to grasp this. We still believe that the Iranians, in their hearts, are just praying for American paratroopers to fall out of the sky. It’s a self-delusion on a monumental scale, and a failure to recognize the reality of Iran as a vibrant, modern, educated population. [The Green Movement, 2009–10, was a mass protest movement provoked by the severity of human-rights violations during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.]

PL: In my estimation, shared by others, Iran’s easily the most democratic nation in the Middle East.

SK: And I’d also add to that, probably the most pro-American population of any country in the world.

PL: You’ve praised the nuclear deal, but what happened after the nuclear deal—a bit subterranean for a time, but it’s now clear enough to anyone who looks: We signed it and then we set about subverting it. Treasury started going to Europeans and saying, “Don’t you do any business with those Iranians.” In other words, Barack Obama (or Kerry) signed an agreement, and then other powers in Washington said, “OK, you signed it. Now we’re going to see about it.” What’s your reading of that?

SK: One of the assumptions that you must embrace in order to participate in discussing or shaping American foreign policy is that Iran is irretrievably evil. It may be that Obama and John Kerry were able to let go of that, or maybe didn’t believe it in the first place, but it definitely is a strong conviction across the board in Washington. It is based on complete ignorance.

I sometimes have this fantasy of a senator or congressman railing against evil Iran, and I interrupt him by raising my hand and holding up an outline map of the world. And I say, “Can you find Iran on this map?” I want there to be a rule that you can’t favor intervening in a foreign nation that you can’t find on a map. Which would probably rule out most interventions.

PL: Clever thought. There are occasions when humiliating others is proper.

SK: To get back to your point, it’s definitely true that there was resistance to the Iran deal from inside our foreign-policy establishment from the beginning. A great part of it stems from Israel’s decision to paint Iran as its No. 1 enemy. And now, in the new administration, we are seeing the quiet efforts to subvert the agreement become very public and obvious.

As we are speaking, however, giant companies like the oil conglomerate Total and Renault have signed huge deals with Iran. So I don’t really think it’s clear to some people in Washington that the nuclear deal was not between two countries. It’s not just the US and Iran. There are other countries involved. If we want to drop out that’s our business, but it doesn’t end the deal, and we will find ourselves isolated. But this is a concept that no one in America can grasp. How can the United States be isolated? We rule.

This is going to be one of the first times in the post–Cold War era when the whole world is essentially on board with a major global project and the United States is the only outlier.

PL: It is also going to worsen an already near-critical breach in the Atlantic alliance.

SK: Which might be positive.

PL: I agree. When in hell are the Europeans going to stand up and say something—speak for themselves from their own independent perspective?

SK: Well, when we stop saying we’ll give you billions as long as you let us shape your defense policy.

PL: I had a long talk in the same context as this with Perry Anderson [the British writer] a couple of year ago. He said, roughly, “You have to understand, Patrick. The last European leaders to think of themselves as an independent pole of power were prewar—’30s, ’40s. At the very latest, Anthony Eden at the time of the Suez Crisis, and de Gaulle. These were the last to conceive of themselves in this way. The rest of these people, right up to Angela Merkel: It’s postwar consciousness. They know nothing else but American preeminence.” I thought it was an interesting reply.

But back to something you mentioned a couple of minutes ago. I spent only a brief time in Iran. Absolutely fascinating. It was during the Khatami period, and if I had to pick a time that’s probably what I would’ve picked. I came away greatly admiring Khatami and the people around him. [Mohammed Khatami, an outward-looking reformist noted for a thesis he called Dialogue Among Civilizations, was president from 1997–2005. His two terms in office were marked by their social and economic openings—as well as Khatami’s conflicts with conservative political factions. My visit was in 1999.]

SK: But you committed a great faux pas: You actually went to the country. It ruins your stereotypes! Never do that!

PL: I’m not the first one to say it—you touched on it as well—but there is an extraordinary reservoir of goodwill among Iranians for Americans. I’d be walking down the street and someone would pop out of a shop and say, “Are you American?” I’d spend the next couple of hours drinking tea and shooting the breeze in the shop. One of these places became a friendly hangout. It was a marvel. How do you account for this and relate it to the animosity stemming from ’53, which is also perfectly plain? I have trouble combining these things.

SK: Iranians are highly educated and very sophisticated people. They’re acutely aware that it was intervention by the United States that cast them into two forms of dictatorship that have lasted 70 years. Nonetheless, they seem more willing than we are to let go of that. They’re looking toward the future. I believe Iranians admire not only the American character but the openness of American society.

It is remarkable to me when I travel in the world the extent to which, despite all our sins, huge numbers of people admire the United States. They admire the freedoms that we have. They want the wonderful aspects of American life. Why don’t we promote that rather than only show the ugly face of militarism? We have such a great story to tell in the world, but we’re not telling it.

PL: I think the Iranians, along with many others—the Vietnamese, the South Koreans—privilege us in a way we should be grateful for, because they distinguish between American people and American government and policy. I always feel very fortunate when someone will sometimes even explicitly say this. The French, even, can manage this at some times. Are you with this?

SK: Yeah, I agree.

PL: Also, a moment ago you said, “two forms of dictatorship.” Do you call what Iranians have now a dictatorship? I think they have a democracy with a critical constitutional flaw.

SK: It’s definitely not a classic dictatorship. I covered Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era. That was a real dictatorship. I got an understanding of what that means. Iran is so open. The political freedoms are remarkable. As long as you don’t criticize the Supreme Leader or one tier down, if you want to say your governor is corrupt, the parliament is a farce—all that is allowed. So political dialogue is quite vibrant.

PL: Sometimes I think Iranians, like Vietnamese, see Americans as even better than we really are, so it’s a wonderful place to go. If you’re feeling bad about being American, they’ll tell you America is great.

SK: I would just add one other factor to that. At this moment, Russia is a particularly appealing enemy because there’s an identifiable individual who can be portrayed as a demon. Americans love a demon. We loved Castro, Mao, Gadhafi, Khomeini, Ho Chi Minh. If it’s just a system that we don’t like, that’s diffuse. It’s not a good enemy. So Putin is the perfect foil for Washington fantasies.

PL: We must personify in order to dehumanize—a sort of paradox.

SK: I would also add that there’s a confusion in our foreign policy between interests and affection. People don’t like Putin. And there are plenty of reasons not to like Putin. But whether we like Putin or not should not be a factor in our foreign policy. Our foreign policy is based on promoting the interests of the United States. Whether you want to spend time with that guy and have a beer with him at night or respect him is totally irrelevant.

Now, when I hang out with my friends at night or go to a ballgame, I only want to hang around people I like. But diplomacy is not like that. So what’s happened in Washington is we’ve decided we don’t like Putin, therefore, we have to crush Russia. Whether or not you like Putin should have nothing to do with foreign policy. Foreign policy is supposed to be about promoting national interests. However, the fantasy of Putin creates the ideal demon for the modern age.

PL: Now we’re in the present; let’s stay there. I’d like to turn to “Russiagate.” You wrote a blistering piece in the Globe recently. [“Moscow is our friend. Honest,” The Boston Globe, August 4, 2017.] Tell me what you think the drivers are in this case.

SK: First of all, the United States, hardly unique among nations, is always in search of enemies. We define ourselves by our enemies.

PL: You don’t think we’re unique in this way?

SK: I don’t. I think we’re an extreme case of it. I remember reading a line in an Italo Calvino novel where a guy shows up in a strange place and the first question he asks is: “So who are your enemies? This is how we’ll understand who you are.”

Russia is our most deeply engrained enemy. We’ve been an enemy of Russia, almost without break, since 1917.

PL: Go back to Tocqueville’s last paragraph in one volume or another, I can’t recall which offhand. [Democracy in America, Vol. 1] In truncated terms he says, There are two great nations in the world and they will eventually come to blows. Tocqueville published Volume 1 in 1835 and Volume 2 five years later.

The modern concept of the West, the West as a political construct, goes back to the rise of czarist Russia in the first half of the 19th century.

SK: You need to have a counter, a nemesis.

PL: It’s reactive. The West as we now understand it is, by definition, a defensive, reactive notion.

SK: I think the Cold War also gave us an exaggerated view of the evils emerging from Russia. We passed up opportunities to ease the Cold War in the period after Stalin died because we believed that negotiations with those savages was not possible.

PL: I’m a “What if FDR lived?” man. We’d be having a very different conversation.

SK: On the Russia thing, this is a very interesting historical fantasy. Historians are not supposed to engage in counterfactuals, but I’m not a real historian. I’m not a PhD. I’m allowed to do it.

For a group of American military intelligence and security officials who served during World War II, the war never really ended. We just changed the identities of the enemies. Everything that we had thought about Japan and Germany that was evil we simply transferred onto the Soviet Union. We know the Soviet Union could have concentration camps and kill millions because that’s what Germany did. We know the Soviets can attack us without warning any day because that’s what Japan did. We simply posited all of that onto the Great Enemy.

The worst part happened when we wouldn’t accept their sovereignty after the Cold War. We tried to explain to Russia what Russia should do, and Russia had another idea about what Russia should do. That Russia was not going to be a part of an American-led alliance.

PL: We were talking about a partnership, but that was very illusory. We meant junior partner, really.

SK: America is not good at alliances. We’re not good at partnerships. We have an idea of what those mean, but that idea is not what the dictionary says and it’s not what other countries understand. We’re only used to partnerships or alliances where we rule. In the new age, in the post–Cold War era, we’re going to have to readjust that. If we want to have alliances and partnerships, we actually have to listen to and abide by what our partners say.

PL: It is the rule of the 21st century: If we don’t get this done we’re not going to manage.

SK: But that requires a change in rules, and we’re not good at that.

PL: You’ve discussed the background of our adversarial consciousness, but in the “Why now?” category, I think fundamentally this arose out of strategic considerations. The deep state—I’m OK with this term—panicked when Trump, during the campaign, said, “I want a form of détente with Russia. What is NATO all about, anyway?” It’s a very good question. “Wars of adventure: Why are we engaging in this?” I think the origin of Russiagate is, at bottom, strategic. They wanted either to get rid of Trump or at least to cripple him, and they’re well on the way.

SK: If you’re suggesting that Russiagate actually has more to do with domestic American politics than US-Russia relations, I think you’re correct.

PL: I’m suggesting that at bottom it started as a strategic matter.

SK: I would just add one other factor to that. At this moment, Russia is a particularly appealing enemy because there’s an identifiable individual who can be portrayed as a demon. Americans love a demon. We loved Castro, Mao, Gadhafi, Khomeini, Ho Chi Minh. If it’s just a system that we don’t like, that’s diffuse. It’s not a good enemy. So Putin is the perfect foil for Washington fantasies.

PL: We must personify in order to dehumanize—a sort of paradox.

SK: I would also add that there’s a confusion in our foreign policy between interests and affection. People don’t like Putin. And there are plenty of reasons not to like Putin. But whether we like Putin or not should not be a factor in our foreign policy. Our foreign policy is based on promoting the interests of the United States. Whether you want to spend time with that guy and have a beer with him at night or respect him is totally irrelevant.

Now, when I hang out with my friends at night or go to a ballgame, I only want to hang around people I like. But diplomacy is not like that. So what’s happened in Washington is we’ve decided we don’t like Putin, therefore, we have to crush Russia. Whether or not you like Putin should have nothing to do with foreign policy. Foreign policy is supposed to be about promoting national interests. However, the fantasy of Putin creates the ideal demon for the modern age.

PL: What do you make of the confluence we just touched upon among liberal hawks—if you don’t mind, Clintonians for short—and neoconservatives?

SK: The difference between policies that were personified by George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld, and the policies pursued by Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, are only in vocabulary. Actually, they’re both aimed at American primacy. Nowadays, if you want to bomb a country or overthrow a regime, all you have to do is talk about how the regime is violating human rights. That becomes the new justification, but it’s just a change in index cards. The goal is the same, from Dick Cheney to Samantha Power. It’s just a difference in the index card they’re reading. Although the motivation is described differently, the actions that they’re seeking, the role that they promote for the United States in the world, is identical.

PL: Distinctions in foreign policy become questions of style, basically.

We have to talk about the press. Not long ago you called coverage of Syria an historic blot on the American press. I think Syria coverage is pretty atrocious, but one of only many instances. Let’s not forget Ukraine.

SK: Terrible coverage. Awful.

PL: Oh, indeed. The Times, for my money, now has the worst Moscow bureau it’s had in my lifetime.

SK: What about how it covers the Defense Department? They think the Defense Department is too weak, a bunch of wimps.

PL: To begin with, I have to ask, do you nurse a feeling of betrayal? I’ll make it easier for you: I certainly do.

SK: I still have a sense of loyalty to The New York Times.

PL: Do you? I worked there as well—not for as long as you—but I have none.

SK: But I do see the role of the American press in promoting our interventions in recent years as atrocious.

Just as a parenthesis, that column I wrote about Syria [“The Media Are Misleading the Public on Syria, Boston Globe, February 18, 2016.] has gone all over the world. I still get letters. It’s still being printed. It’s two years old. The Syria crisis is again portrayed as one that just exploded from nothing and it was a brutal dictator who couldn’t accept the idea that people wanted a little bit of freedom. He responded by, as we kept reading, bombing his own people with barrel bombs, crushing Aleppo.

PL: “Hospitals.” “Children.”

SK: It’s the perfect paradigm. In America, if you want to bomb a country, just show me a picture of some poor girl that got acid thrown in her face.

PL: Did you love Nikki Haley with the pictures at the Security Council? [Haley displayed undated, uncaptioned, photographs of children at the U.N. Security Council on April 5, 2017.] It proved nothing. As I said, I feel very betrayed. I was inside the tent urinating out, let’s say, for a long time, nearly 40 years. I don’t regret most of those years. The last of them, yes. And here’s why.

I think the key turning point was 2001. After September 11, Ari Fleischer [George W. Bush’s press secretary] had a lot of the top editors in Washington—not least Jill Abramson, who has recounted this episode—and said, Look, we’re on the same team here. We don’t want any more negative stories or difficult questions. [Abramson was The Times’ Washington bureau chief at this time.] At that point, they accepted the term “war on terror,” and the minute you accept that term—this is “war”—the press is licensed to assume a different footing. I think it’s ever since then that we have seen this marked ideological streak in the press and this profoundly degenerated relationship with power. It was never very good—I’m not into “golden ages”—but it’s never been this bad in my lifetime.

SK: I agree. I hate the idea that the press is on somebody’s team. We are not on the government’s team. In fact, the opposite should be true.Whenever there’s a narrative that’s so widely shared by all factions in Washington, the job of the press should be the opposite of what they’re doing now. Their job should be to look under the rug and see what’s there, to question the narrative. Instead, the press jumps on it. The press is fanning the flames of anti–Russia hatred, anti–Iran hatred. They are worse than the publicists for the defense industry and the Pentagon.

PL: I count this among the most dangerous aspects of the situation we are living in and now talking about.

SK: And it’s the one that outrages me the most. I understand the political necessity for Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives in Washington to compete for how many countries they want to bomb and how much more money they want to put into the defense industry. But I cannot forgive the press for abandoning its role as an independent voice and jumping on the team.

PL: The Nation’s editor interjects with this question: How do you break this impasse we are discussing in the press? This profoundly dysfunctional relationship between the press and power, this suffocation of discourse. As a friend of mine uses the phrase, perception management. Practically speaking, what’s to be done, if anything?

SK: First of all, I think this syndrome is most visible in coverage of world affairs and U.S. foreign policy. You still see great investigative reporting on domestic affairs. The real problem is the reporting on national security issues. I think on these issues the left-right spectrum is not useful.

I would like to see people on both ends of that spectrum, and in the middle, who are unhappy with American interventionism in the world, try to overcome their differences over other issues, or put them aside for the moment, and focus on providing a counter-narrative. Nonetheless, it hasn’t happened yet because the suspicion and mistrust and, in some cases, the hatred between those groups is so great.

PL: Another question from the editor. She calls what you’re talking about “trans-partisan politics.” Good term. A moment ago I asked you about the confluence of liberal hawks and neoconservatives. Now, turn the coin over. What is your view of the confluence among people such as ourselves and rather far-right people on questions such as Russia. I watch Tucker bloody Carlson on television now. Rand Paul has some sensible things to say about foreign policy. What do you think about that? Is there something there?

SK: It’s an essentially conservative view that the United States should be more moderate, more restrained, more prudent, less promiscuous. So I would imagine that great support for anti-interventionism would come from the right end of the political spectrum.

Here’s how I would argue the case for a confluence among people of different political views on other issues who agree on this one. If America fundamentally changes its approach to the world, we’ll have a real “peace dividend.” We’ll save huge amounts of money. People on the left and people on the right would have a great disagreement about what to do with that money. Put that aside. We’ll have that debate then. Let’s first focus on stopping the hemorrhaging of our Treasury on foreign wars, and after that we can worry about what to do with all the money.

I see this as a fundamental prerequisite to renewal in America, and I think, That’s something that right and left people could agree on.

PL: On the way here I had to drive across Connecticut from west to east. My state is probably one of the worst-off in the union, fiscally. We are very seriously broke. They had this radio program on an NPR affiliate [Where We Live, WNPR]. You should hear what these people are talking about. Money from Hartford is just drying up. In my town, Norfolk, they’ve cut millions in education subsidies. People in Hartford are making decisions by looking at spreadsheets. They’re not talking about how it’s going to affect any of the 169 towns in my state. These mayors came on the program and said, “If this [budget] goes through, we’re going to have to gut our public schools, police departments, public works departments. We won’t be able to plow the roads this winter. This is what we’re going to have to do.”

I listened to this program and there was one thing missing. Nobody made the connection between this crisis and the Pentagon budget. When are we going to connect those two very large dots?

SK: And I would add one more observation, which is that public education, among various other things, is a national security issue. And so is health care. That’s what provides security and safety for your country in the future. We can’t be left behind and be the dumbest country in the West, and we’re on the road to being there. And that’s a national security crisis.

PL: Anybody who’s covered Asia sees this dimension of things very plainly.

I’ll begin my next question with your splendid phrase, referring to how “depressingly monochromatic” our foreign policy has become. We’re talking about an alternative foreign policy without using the phrase “alternative foreign policy,” so let’s use it now. The Nation did a collection of pieces on this last December. I remember thinking that we can no longer begin with, quotation marks, the possible. We have to set aside “the possible” and begin with “the necessary” and then work back to make it possible and then get it done.

What’s your thinking on an alternative American foreign policy? How plausible do you think it is? What would such a policy look like in broad contours? What would be its core principles? And finally, and most nettlesome, how can it be achieved? Or are we doomed to what the French call angélisme, idealistic daydreaming?

SK: If we were going to reorient our foreign policy, before we start thinking about what we should be doing in the world, the first step should be to stop doing some of the bad things that we’re already doing. First of all, pull back from rhetoric and stereotypes and look at countries in the world with a fresh perspective. Ask yourself: Is this country pursuing interests that are compatible with ours? Or is this a country that is pursuing interests that are subversive to what we want in the world?

Don’t be bound by what you’ve heard in the past. Take a fresh look, and you’ll find that some of the countries we consider allies don’t deserve to be in that category, and the ones that we consider enemies also don’t belong there. Look at these countries with a fresh eye. That would be my first prescription. Come to it without the prejudices of the past. It’s very hard to do that for a nation, as well as for individuals.

PL: You’re saying it’s not impossible.

SK: It shouldn’t be impossible. Why does our relationship with any nation have to be determined entirely by the history of our relationship with that country? Why not base it on what that country actually is doing in the world right now? So I’d like to see us reexamine countries that we consider friends and countries that we consider enemies and try to arrange a more realistic constellation of potential partners and friends, choosing those countries that really do support interests that we want to promote.

After that, I would say as a general rule we should rid ourselves of the view that the United States needs to pick a side in every conflict in the world. Whenever you choose friends in a conflict, you’re also choosing enemies. We have collected so many enemies in the world. We shouldn’t be collecting any more. So let’s be much more restrained when we see a crisis. If something bad happens in Belize or Bolivia or Bangladesh or Botswana or any other country that starts with a “B” or any other letter, maybe we should sit back and say, That crisis is going to play itself out, and the United States doesn’t have to be involved. This is a difficult thing, but it shouldn’t be impossible.

On specific parts of the world, I would like to see the United States withdraw from being the dominant force in NATO. I would love to see NATO transform itself into a principally European institution. The United States doesn’t want that. The reason: If Europe is deciding Europe’s foreign policy, it’s going to be more conciliatory. They don’t want confrontation in their neighborhood, but we do. We’re far away, so it doesn’t bother us. We are paying for their security policy; therefore, we’ve bought the right to determine it. If we stop paying, the Europeans will shape their foreign policy, and it’s going to be a much more conciliatory policy. That’s why we don’t like it.

Stop thinking that we have the answer to every problem in the world—that we’re smarter than everyone. What was it that Madeleine Albright said? “We stand taller and we see further than other countries.” We have to rid ourselves of that idea.

PL: Probably one of the worst secretaries of state in my lifetime, and there’s competition.

SK: “What’s the point of having this wonderful military if we don’t use it?” Another one of her best lines. Which proves the point that when you build up the military you produce something that there is then pressure to use.

PL: We don’t have a foreign policy now. We have a military policy. Are you with me here?

SK: The militarization of our foreign policy is almost complete. The naming of generals to direct it now is the coup de grâce. Generals are great at tactics. They know how to handle the situation this month. But they’re not trained for long-term strategic thinking. The scorn for diplomacy is something that has become more acute under the Trump administration, but it’s nothing new. Americans really trust someone with a gun more than they do a bunch of diplomats.

PL: You mentioned earlier Eisenhower’s famous military-industrial complex speech. Somebody went into the papers and discovered in the drafts that Eisenhower wasn’t actually warning us against the rise of a military-industrial complex—this is how it’s written in the history books—he was advising us, subtly, that it had already been accomplished.

SK: Yes, I agree.

PL: How do you crack that? Can you? Depressing way to put the question.

SK: It’s very difficult. The stranglehold that the defense industry has on American politics is impressive.

PL: You cannot be a realistic thinker if you don’t question whether it is possible to break this.

SK: It costs those companies so little in terms of their overall operations to buy congressmen. The placing of contracts in every district is such a spectacularly brilliant idea.

PL: Even if it’s just Phillips screws, they’re doing something in every district.

SK: We have this problem in Lynn, just north of Boston. They’re manufacturing one of the engines for the F–35 fighter. So how can the congressman up there get up and say the F–35 is an absolute waste? He’s throwing people in his own district out of work.

PL: Bernie stood up for basing some in Vermont. What the heck?

SK: Exactly. Somebody told me in Washington—I’m not a Washington insider at all, but I know a few—Bernie decided a long time ago that he was going to be an economic progressive, not a foreign-policy progressive.

PL: It shows. And I’m sorry, Bernie. They’re not separable at the horizon. You are not going to have democracy at home until you quit the empire abroad. You can’t have free college tuition and health care and all the rest until you address the Pentagon’s budget. This is why I told you the story about Connecticut.

SK: And to put it into more human terms, trampling on the rights of innocent people abroad has accustomed us to doing it to the extent that we’re willing to accept it here at home.

PL: It’s a variant of what we do at home. The great James Baldwin—he was a civil-rights man, of course, and wasn’t by a long stretch a foreign-policy thinker—said in one of his essays that at the core of American foreign policy lies white supremacy.

SK: Undeniable, when you look at history. When you look at statements. You don’t have to interpret them. Just see what they said and you’ll understand why.

PL: One of the key events in the formative phase of American foreign policy was T.R.’s so-called imperial cruise. [Roosevelt sent a large diplomatic mission, which included his daughter, Alice, on a tour of the Pacific in the summer of 1905.] What did he do? It’s in that splendid book, The Imperial Cruise [by James Bradley, 2009]. T.R., figuring the US the new master of the Pacific, subsequently gave the Japanese dispensation: Go and take over the Koreans. And indeed they did, five years later.

SK: I really like that book, because it does what I try to do in all my books, which is find a story that was hugely important and shaped history, but one nobody’s ever heard before.

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