Part one of my interview with Chas Freeman, the retired diplomat who served in senior posts at State and Defense over a career spanning 30-plus years, considered topics ranging from the Middle East to the role and workings of the National Security Council. Our conversation yielded what I had hoped when I telephoned Freeman last summer to arrange an interview: a seasoned insider’s view of the foreign-policy process, an honest voice in a milieu not noted for its tolerance of them.
As I worked through part two of our conversation, I wondered whether it might be even more exceptional than the first half. Here Freeman offers a thorough critique not only of various policies—notably but not only in East Asia—but also of the psychology prevalent among our policy cliques. There is much talk about how Washington thinks, or—more to the point—so often refuses to do so. If such a thing is possible, Freeman gave me rational explanations of prima facie irrational policy outcomes; fatal flaws not readily apparent to most of us came to the surface. It was refreshing to hear someone of Freeman’s professional background speak plainly, clearly, and directly of matters that careerists prefer to leave unsaid.
When I finished what amounts to an exceedingly light edit, one thought stayed with me more than any other, and here I share it: This interview is perfectly of its time. It is what a nation in its late-imperial phase would sound like were it frankly to acknowledge its place in history. I doubt Ambassador Freeman would put the point in such terms. But in what follows we have a primer of what those who think through and execute American foreign policy will eventually have to consider if we are to proceed into the 21st century at all coherently.
Once again, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his careful work transcribing a very lengthy audio recording.
Returning to something that came up earlier, we seem to share an assessment about long-term decline in the American foreign-policy process as it relates to the State Department. My perspective derives from a long time in Asia as a correspondent. Policy was very plainly militarized if one looked at all closely at it: I found this very sadly evident as a newspaperman out there. It brings to mind Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s thought at the conclusion of his memoirs: “Diplomacy is for weak nations. The strong have no need of it.” [Secretary general at the United Nations from 1992 to 1996, Boutros-Ghali published Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga in 1999.] I relate this in large part to the Pentagon’s assumption of primacy in the policy process, and I wonder what you have to say, either in agreement or correction.
It’s correct that the military has assumed the lead. There are many reasons for that. One is the growth of a philosophy—always here in some form in the United States—that goes beyond having low expectations for government and denigrates government as “the problem.” Therefore, it does not look to government as the solution. You get what you pay for.
And as I said at the outset, we have a propensity for amateurism in government. The sole exception is the military. They are professionals. They also happen to be the institution that enjoys the highest respect among the American people. I don’t think the two are at all unrelated. Thrashing about as an amateur, learning on the job, is not a way to guarantee good performance: Skilled work requires skilled workmen. We have had a habit of appointing people to positions for which they are manifestly unqualified, and—maybe—they exit those positions qualified, but they don’t enter them in that condition.
The ultimate corrosive force in our loss of confidence is the spoils system. The spoils system treats positions not as fiduciary but as convenient for the party in power. This spills over—it creates a lot of thrashing around for no useful purpose on the civilian side of the government, but it has a further consequence: When we go through a presidential transition every eight or four years, in effect, we administer a frontal lobotomy to ourselves. All of the accumulated experience of the preceding terms is erased as people are fired or bail out.
There’s no institutional memory, in short. The Japanese and Chinese, I recall very well, marvel at this carelessness. In their foreign ministries, senior positions are always filled by careerists. The America desk at Gaimu-sho [the Japanese foreign ministry] is staffed by people who have spent their professional lives studying America, coming up through the system.
The one exception is the military; they are there. There are things that have to be done and decided even during transitions and their aftermath. And every transition in recent times has resulted in the military gaining authority and power and expanding its role in government. This is particularly true in foreign affairs, but it’s also true now in domestic affairs. Look at who staffs our intelligence agencies—generals. Look at who is brought in on narcotics matters and other things. You see the creeping position of military men. Why? Because they are demonstrably competent in some ways; they enjoy the respect of the American public; they’re seen as nonpartisan; they’re seen as representing some meritocratic impulse that is otherwise lost in the country. So it’s natural that the growth of the military’s authority and influence should be as great as it is.
I think we have a serious problem of creeping militarism. I note in this regard some of the more thoughtful members of the military, who remember civilian control as it once was. Civilian control of the military is essential to keep the military out of politics. By reserving political decisions to elected officials or those duly appointed under the Constitution, the military is free to develop its professional expertise without the burden of having to be accountable for the decisions that it has to implement.
But that depends on competent civilian guidance, and if there is no competent civilian guidance, the military have a choice: They can either be incompetent, or they can demonstrate their competence. And so, it’s the civilian incompetence of our system that has invited a military expansion of role.
This leads to thoughtful people in the military becoming very concerned that under some circumstances we could have a coup d’état. Because you see now general after general after general presenting himself—and eventually herself, I suppose—as a putative candidate for president. Why? Because they look at the people who are running for president or who are incumbent and they say, “You know, I’m a hell of a lot more competent than that guy and I could do a better job!” And they also have egos that are as large as they come, because they are the last surviving lords of feudal systems with sycophants hanging onto them as they walk.
It induces the problem I raised earlier, having to do with means to ends. Don’t forget your Tennyson: “Ours is not to reason why.” These people, how are they trained? They’re trained in operations. They’re trained in getting things done. They are not trained in conceptualizing national goals.
Well, more to the point, the civilian control of the military leads to… I can remember at the end of the Gulf War, Jim Baker [secretary of state 1989-92], who should have known better, asking General Schwarzkopf [Norman Schwarzkopf led US and “coalition” forces in the first Gulf War], in my presence, “What do you think the war aims should be?” And Schwarzkopf gave a professional military answer. He said, “Mr. Secretary, I’m a general. I implement policy; I don’t make it. So ask Chas what the war aims ought to be, don’t ask me. Whatever you decide, I’ll implement.”
That was a proper deferral.
It was a classic military professional answer. The military at its best. The problem in that discussion was not that Schwarzkopf gave that answer, but that Baker invited something else. And that reflects our national culture. Jim Baker is a very able, thoughtful, forceful person, but that’s where he was. That’s indicative of where the best of our political elite is.
Let me ask you something, and you can reply as a diplomat or as an American, or both. The question of violence arises in light of all of the shootings we’ve seen in our country recently. There’s a book called Regeneration Through Violence, by Richard Slotkin, about the place of violence in American culture: It is attractive to us as a kind of cultural trope because of its finality. Wesleyan University brought Slotkin’s book out in 1973. It is still perfectly to the point, in my view.
We have this military-option-first on the table in foreign policy. Whatever the strategy under consideration, the place of force figures first. Am I flying a kite not worth flying to say, “Look, I don’t think this is separable, in the end, from the place of violence as manifested in our culture at home”? Our leaders are forever counseling against violence, but their policies abroad are rooted in violence.
I think the two probably are related. Violence is a tool that can be useful on occasion, if it has defined goals and those goals can be accomplished by violence. There aren’t many instances of that, but there are some. I think the problem in our popular culture is evidenced by our television and Hollywood films, which glorify rains of bullets and explosions, and even torture and other deviations from both common sense and moral standards. We have a very strange culture, in which we’re prurient about watching sex, to some extent, but totally at home watching people murdered and tortured and so forth.
As graphically as a pornography film.
Well, exactly. Snuff films. I think this is not unrelated, but violence is controllable if the intellect is brought to bear on it. And we don’t do that. We respond to situations with a public demand: “Don’t just sit there, bomb something.”
The cultural popularity of military action and military imagery among ordinary Americans makes my point, right? I’m a child of the ’60s, at bottom. That wasn’t the way we thought.
There are a whole series of things that have gone into this. One is, of course, that we now have a professional military, which is a praetorian military. It’s not rooted in the public; it’s separate. There is no conscription; there is no popular participation. We had a president who launched a war in Iraq [George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion], and when asked what the public could do to support it said, “Go shopping.” So the military is now an instrument of state power that is not constrained by public opinion. That was Nixon’s intention in creating the volunteer army, and he succeeded. So that’s the first thing.
The second is that the sorts of wars that we’ve fought have, by and large, been between ourselves, as a highly technologically advanced and professional and very lethal military, on the one hand, and amateurs or less well-trained people, on the other. There has grown up a view that military action in the real world is simply some sort of video game in which the bad guys die and we don’t, and nobody misses the bad guys. We don’t do body counts—for good reasons, I think—which means that we don’t realize how many innocent people we are killing. We have a system of veterans’ medicine and battlefield medical services that means that a vast number of people who in any previous war would have died now survive, often maimed or mentally incapacitated for life, and they’re out of sight. They’re in the veterans’ institutions; some of them are homeless and occasionally go haywire, but they are certainly not what our political and economic elite has any cognizance of. People who go to Harvard don’t join the military, and people who go to Wharton [the business school; Donald Trump is a graduate] don’t join it, either.
It is shocking to walk around Manhattan and see someone on the street begging for a few dollars—and, when you get into an exchange, turns out to be a veteran.
Well, that’s another thing. We have basically undermined the infrastructure of so many things in this country, including public health and the treatment of mental illness. It’s really unconscionable.
Just this past May, you addressed foreign-service officers and singled out five points you wanted to make. All five were interesting, but I’ll pick two and ask you to dilate on them. First: “A nation invites problems if it doesn’t ask, ‘And then what?’ as it develops and executes a policy.” Second: “A country with no credible enemies is yet vulnerable to ruin by allies and friends.”
Why can’t we think about causality and consequences? I do not understand this. These people are very well-educated, often at better schools than I went to. Where does this habit of conjuring adversaries come from? Are we a nation that can’t do without an enemy? I’m thinking primarily of Russia and this grotesque demonization we insist on indulging in.
The first is an expression of hubris. It presumes omnipotence rather than the reality, which is that the other side gets a vote on the outcome. If you do things, the other side will respond or react, and if you don’t anticipate those responses and reactions you are playing chess with a strategy of one move, which makes no sense. And that, unfortunately, has become the national habit. And it’s not new. Think about the way in which piling sanctions on Japan [in 1940 and 1941], which were seen by the Japanese as potentially crippling and therefore an existential threat, led to Pearl Harbor. This is nothing new. The failure to anticipate the viewpoint of the adversary is not new.
The basic quality that we seem to lack, and this relates to your own profession of journalism and its current condition, is empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. It doesn’t mean agreement, but it means understanding where the other party is coming from and why, and therefore being able to predict their reaction to what you do.
The most militaristic general knows the wisdom of understanding the other side.
Exactly. That is Sun-Tzu’s formulation: “Know yourself, know your enemy, and you will win every battle.”
When I was talking to Andrew Bacevich in Boston in April, this word, “empathy,” suddenly came to me in the middle of the conversation. I realized we don’t have any empathy—maybe not consciously, but quite willfully. Not having empathy is proof of our superiority, our immunity…
Yes, exactly. We don’t have to have empathy. Again, it’s what Boutros-Ghali said about diplomacy: Diplomacy’s for the weak, not the strong. We don’t need it. To repudiate the value of empathy provides psychological confirmation of American primacy. Are you with that thought?
I think that is very insightful. Anyway, without empathy, diplomacy is totally impossible. Because diplomacy is an effort to get someone else to do things your way, and to do that you must persuade that party that it’s in their interest to do something other than what they initially thought they should do. The failure to ask, “And then what?” encompasses a much larger arena of failure. I think that it’s related to both diplomatic and military misadventures that we’ve had.
And the second point? “A country with no credible enemies is yet vulnerable to ruin by allies and friends.”
There are two issues in that statement. The first is that, as President Eisenhower warned, we built a huge military-industrial-congressional complex. His original draft had the word “congressional,” and that was deleted in deference to political correctness, but it very much accurately described what we’ve created. A very substantial part of our production is linked to the military. A lot of our technology is linked to the military. The military, through its spending, is a jobs program, and treated as such by the Congress.
And so when you suddenly lose your enemy, the justification for this complex, you suffer from “enemy-deprivation syndrome.” You have to invent a new enemy, or find one, to justify going on spending what you were spending and doing what you were doing. After the Cold War, we went through a kind of psychological crisis of disorientation.
It was very curious to live through it.
Andy Marshall and the Net Assessment people [Andrew Marshall directed the Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, 1973-2015] invented a marvelous concept called the “peer competitor.” The peer competitor was a fictitious, conjectural creature who, whatever you did in the military sphere, would do something that one-upped you. This is the perfect program driver, because whatever you do, you have to do more, because there’s somebody out there, potentially, who can compete successfully against what you did. That concept got applied, eventually, to China. It has driven a lot of the deterioration in US–China relations.
Then we had an unfortunate encounter with reality, which was 9/11. First of all, contrary to what Mr. Rumsfeld imagined—the danger of missile attack, for which he posited missile defense—[the threat] was not from missiles, but from improvised explosive devices in the form of aircraft. The human brain being the best guidance system there is, if you fly a plane into a building it turns out you create a hell of an explosion. You might as well have hit it with a missile. It was a missile; it was just an IED version of a missile.
We were totally surprised by this, and we didn’t take account of the fact that we live in a world in which there’s no bipolar structure; there’s nothing to constrain those whom we harm from seeking to harm us back. The Soviet Union wouldn’t let [Libyan dictator] Colonel Gadhafi engage in reprisal against the United States. But there’s no Soviet Union. So we now have a problem of a world in which if we bomb people, they bomb back, in one way or another. And we haven’t come to grips with that.
That’s part of it. The other part of it is, if you provide blank checks to ostensible friends, clients, you shouldn’t be surprised if they cash them. If the check is meant to be filled out in American blood and drawn on American treasure, you pay the consequences for that.
Your answer derives from material considerations. I wonder if you think there is a psychological dimension to this—that we, as a people, require an enemy to remain a coherent American culture. Is there anything to that, in your view?
I’m not sure that we require an enemy to sustain our domestic culture, but our foreign policy, unlike that of most other countries, very much reflects the geopolitical advantages we have—of two wide oceans and no enemies on our borders. We don’t have a defense policy, we have an offense policy. Nobody is concerned that Jamaicans are going to take over by force in the United States, or that Mexico is going to militarily invade the United States, or that the Canadians will cease to be charmingly polite and harmless. They might take over by intellectual means, but they’re not going to take over by force. And yet, we have this huge defense establishment, which is devoted entirely to offensive actions far from our shores.
The whole structure of this situation is one in which we have to have enemies. Isolationism is impossible, but if we went back to a policy of focusing on our own defense, then we wouldn’t have enemies. The world would be a very different place. We have that option. We are unique, in that we have the option to retreat defensively behind our oceans.
I recall Bismarck’s wonderful comment about the United States, coming from Germany, which had very nasty neighbors and no natural borders, where he said, “The Americans are truly a lucky people. They are bordered to the north and south by weak neighbors and to the east and west by fish.”
I want to turn to Asia. Your 2013 book is titled Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige. I thought the word “prestige” was curious—power is what’s at issue—but the title alone says a lot about your view of the dynamic at the far end of the Pacific. In my view, we’ve got a firm grip on the very wrong end of the stick. We should be cooperating with China to ease a transition into what I consider an inevitable evolution of relationships in the Pacific. Instead, we seem to be fighting an unwinnable war to resist China’s emergence and keep history’s clock from ticking. That’s my point of view. I wonder what yours is. This is one of the core, characteristically 21st-century questions that we have to come to grips with.
I couldn’t agree more. China is not the Soviet Union. It has no messianic ideology it’s attempting to export. It is not territorially expansive, although it wishes to establish secure borders, which it has never been able to do, in part because of our garrisoning of Taiwan. It is also a far more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union ever was. China’s industrial production—its industry, as opposed to its economy as a whole—is already one-and-a-half times that of the United States. Some people say in purchasing-power parity terms, it has a larger economy; I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but I think the fact is that this is a country with a faster growth rate and a very large economy, maybe bigger already, that we are challenging on its own doorstep.
Why are we doing that? Because in World War II the Japanese first destroyed the European and American imperial power in East Asia, and then we destroyed Japanese power and filled the vacuum ourselves. Since 1945, we have been not just the preeminent, but the dominant, military power in the western Pacific, and that is not a position that we are apparently prepared to relinquish. So, despite the fact that the vacuum that we filled in 1945 has been filled first by the resurrection of Japan and then by the growth of powerful industrial economies like that of South Korea and Taiwan, and the growth of ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, founded in 1967] as a group of countries with rising prosperity and significant economic heft, we are behaving as though there is still a vacuum that we are required to fill.
Now we come across the reality of China, which has risen with remarkable speed, basically reasserting its historic position in the region, and which is now basically everybody’s largest trading partner, everybody’s largest source of new investment, everybody’s largest market—nobody’s political model, by the way—and we are treating this as a military challenge, because that’s what we do. I would think that it is primarily an economic challenge. It’s not a political challenge unless and until the Chinese invent an attractive political system, which they haven’t done. It is becoming a military challenge, is now a military challenge, primarily because we chose to make it one.
Going back to a theme we touched on earlier, it seems to me that Defense Secretary [Ash] Carter is openly working at odds with some of Secretary of State [John] Kerry’s undertakings, for example with the Russians. He got very intensely involved in the Pacific this past spring aboard the Stennis [an aircraft carrier sailing in the South China Sea] and all that. It’s a clear case of the Pentagon insisting on its primacy [in the policy process].
I think that’s correct. We have a commander of our Pacific forces, Admiral Harris, who is openly making policy, to go back to the earlier point about the proper role of the military in relation to civilians. The fact that he gets away with that is an indicator of the extent to which civilian government has lost influence and power. But the question, really, about the military in East Asia is this: If you are dealing with a country that does not have global military aspirations but merely aspirations to exercise decisive defense of its borders in its own region, and therefore has a far less extensive, burdensome military apparatus than you do, and that country has a faster-growing economy and defense budget, what makes you think you can forever be in its face?
The question never gets posed, unfortunately.
It is an essential question, because basically where this points—and ultimately the United States is going to have to accommodate the reality of China’s power—is that every country in the region wants backing from the United States to achieve an accommodation with China. They don’t want the United States to get into a war with China.
To characterize them as eager, on the way to desperate, for American protection against the Chinese dragon is a gross exaggeration of their true position.
Exactly. They are using both the United States and China for their own purposes, as any intelligent statesman would do. They want to have a sound relationship with China, and they want, of course, the advantages of having American military support in times of need. This is a far cry from demanding to be organized by us in some sort of anti–Chinese military alliance, which is the basic premise of much of the thought—what passes for thought—in Washington.
Let’s touch briefly on the maritime and territorial disputes. I don’t think the Hague case accomplished anything whatsoever. It seems to me the purpose of it was to cast the Chinese in a very unflattering light. [In July an arbitration tribunal in The Hague decided in the Philippines’ favor on a lawsuit Manila filed against China in 2013.]
I think it succeeded in that.
If that counts as an accomplishment, but other than that it did nothing.
I agree. The origin of this lawsuit was the frustration of the Philippines at their lack of leverage over the Chinese in negotiations and their inability to solve a problem that, frankly, they had helped to create, at Scarborough Shoal.
The background there is that Scarborough Shoal is a rich fishing ground. Traditionally it had been, like everything else in the South China Sea, essentially a no-man’s land in which everybody helped themselves to whatever they could. So there were Filipino, Chinese, other fisherman there, and the Philippines suddenly attempted to exercise jurisdiction and control, arresting Chinese fishermen. The Chinese countered, and that was the conflict’s origin. The Philippines started a lawsuit, essentially for domestic political purposes, because it couldn’t do anything else.
My read is that [Hillary] Clinton, in her last days as secretary of state—the dates are curious—
She encouraged it. I think that’s right. I would note that no great power, including ourselves, has ever accepted a unilateral arbitral decision. So to expect that China would do anything other than stiff the tribunal was unrealistic.
With the Senkaku/Diaoyu [islands] and other disputed areas in the East and South China Seas, it seems to me that some form of condominium arrangement covering sovereignty and resource exploitation is the logical way out of this. Do you agree?
Yes, and it has ample precedent. I would distinguish the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands from the South China Sea case, in the sense that China’s claim is that they’re part of Taiwan. The Taiwan issue is not settled. China is not unified. Beijing is not in a position to negotiate anything with Tokyo on this without querying the prospect of reunification with Taiwan. Therefore, this issue was intelligently shelved by the Chinese and the Japanese for many years. It was an inexperienced, somewhat naive Japanese government that broke that pattern in 2010 under Hatoyama [Yukio Hatoyama was the Democratic Party of Japan’s first prime minister, 2009–10].
The relevant point is that Deng Xiaoping, who had a good sense of strategy and was a great figure in 20th-century history, looked at the question of the Diaoyu versus relations with Japan: Which is more important? Five rocks in the middle of nowhere, or good relations with the, at that time, second-largest economy in the world? And he said it’s not a question. The Senkaku issue is nothing. Leave it aside.
We need to have the same wisdom to put things in perspective. Are we really going to go to war over sandcastles and sandbars and rocks in the middle of nowhere? They’re not even on the shipping lanes, despite all the press to the contrary.
I remember a point from earlier that I wanted to return to: Part of our incompetence internationally derives from the fact that we no longer have reporting on foreign affairs. The late Arnaud de Borchgrave—he was a correspondent during World War II—once told me that after the war, ’47 I think he said, there were over 2,500 American foreign correspondents. We’re down to 150 or so now. We depend on the BBC.
You turn on NPR and they’re importing the Beeb [the BBC news feed].
I think that’s a lot better than nothing.
But anyway, we need to put these things in perspective. The American people are not going to support a struggle with China over these rocks. They have more sense than that. So this is entirely a within-the-beltway Washington construct.
Somebody told me once that in Afghanistan, at the village level, they make decisions in jirgas [tribal councils]. At the national level they have the national jirga [known as the loya jirga]. In Washington we have a circle jirga [laughs].
Good old boarding-school humor…. Given your experience outside the West, I want to ask about democracy in non-Western settings. In the Middle East, it’s a question of the form and character of democratic practice in a culture that doesn’t make a strong distinction between religious belief and law, to put the matter simply. In Asia, you have the thought of “Asian values”—the phrase is no longer in fashion but the thought certainly remains—the core assertion being that democratic practice is a Western phenomenon, not for us.
There’s a wonderful Bengali scholar named Partha Chatterjee, who writes about “governmental technologies” [The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, 2004]. You can take the concept and apply it to China, to [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s India, and elsewhere: Regimes tend to draw legitimacy now no longer from citizens’ participation, but from their capacity to deliver services, such as infrastructure: administrative government, not democratic government.
I’m dropping a huge question on you, and therefore I invite you to begin and end wherever you like.
I have an unpopular answer. A very conservative answer, not in the sense that the word is used now in the United States, which is sort of radical liberalism, but perhaps in the British sense, or the Burkean sense. I think the legitimacy of government is derived from the consent of the governed. It’s not derived from the consent of the United States. It’s not derived from the approval of foreigners.
While I happen to believe that democracy is a very good system in many respects, and I’m happy that we have had one, I think the way to promote it is to make it work at home. To demonstrate that it is superior to other systems by making it work, not to insist that other people adopt our system. In fact, nobody adopts our system: To the extent that democracy has spread after the Cold War, it has spread with the Westminster model, not the American, separation-of-powers, presidential- government model. Where that’s been applied, it’s a mask for autocracy.
My own view is that “democracy promotion” is essentially an improper interference in internal affairs, and likely to backfire and to be resented rather than approved. I don’t think our democracy is working terribly well, and we need to make it exemplary again if we wish to promote the idea of democratic rule.
As to how systems might evolve abroad, I think the question is a little bit more complex than you suggested in quoting your Bengali intellectual. All politics depend on constituency services. [The late Chicago] Mayor [Richard J.] Daley understood that. Democratization in Taiwan began as a competition over whether the ruling Kuomintang or those without a party affiliation could, in fact, deliver more efficient filling of potholes and upgrading of educational services in the ’70s. Taiwan now has an exemplary democracy in many respects.
Between them and the Koreans—
Yes, very great successes. And I think that’s instructive, by the way. We actually can take some credit for having fostered the emergence of those societies, which are governed by the rule of law and also happen to be democratic. Yes, there was some public criticism of their human-rights practices, but we were there with the US Agency for International Development aiding the modernization of their law, their judicial institutions, their legal education systems, their legislation, their practices. We were on the ground, not dictating, but supporting people locally who believed in the advancement of the rule of law and wider popular participation in decision-making. And that worked.
The approach we have taken, essentially since the Carter administration, has been to stand on the other side of the ocean and give them [other peoples] the finger. It is not an effective mode of influence, and it contrasts decisively with the approach that the European Union has taken, which has been very similar to what worked for us in Taiwan and South Korea. I don’t understand why we don’t learn from our own successes, but replicate policies that have a proven record of alienating friends and failing to produce positive change.
That is, perhaps, the consequence of the collapse of the separation of powers in the United States, where the Congress cannot implement policy—all it can do is preclude things. It can prevent and inhibit and outlaw actions, and so it resorts exclusively to sanctions. There are no positive incentives for behavior; everything is a stick, there is no carrot; and there’s no follow-up on the ground. So we sever relationships. Tell me when the last time was you had an influence on somebody with whom you’ve broken? This is madness. We’re applying techniques of influence to our international relations that we would never adopt in our own lives, because they don’t work.
I think, actually, most Americans are uncomfortable with our being “Granny Sam,” hectoring people and finger-wagging and lording it over them and pretending that we have all the answers.
You’re very right. In my experience, you have to scrape away the received opinions that Americans hold dearest to get there, but I agree with you.
There have been exceptions, but I think as a people we traditionally have been more diffident than obnoxiously assertive on this level. We tend to want to understand other people. We don’t have the supercilious sense of superiority that the Brits display. And yet, in this area of foreign policy, we follow practices that are clearly counterproductive.
It goes to [Frank–Walter] Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, who ordered a review of not only German foreign policy [in 2013], but the process by which it is produced. The feature that prompts me to mention this here is subjecting the policy process to the democratic process. Policy, as he put it, should reflect the aspirations of the people it represents. This is wildly beyond tradition, not only in America, but also in Europe. It might turn out to be a helium balloon, but I’m all for the thought. It would be a key step if we could move in that direction, because I’m completely with you about what Americans would really like a foreign policy to look like.
Even George W. Bush, in his campaign, argued for humility. He didn’t practice it, but he argued for it. If we had a government and policies that reflected the aspirations of the American people, it would be very different than those that reflect vested interests of one sort or another.
Finally, I’d like to discuss the controversy prompted by the Middle Eastern Policy Council’s publication of [John] Mearsheimer and [Stephen] Walt’s working paper, which later became a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy .
Well, that paper was commissioned by The Atlantic magazine [in 2002]. Then The Atlantic declined to publish it because it feared what the reaction of advertisers would be. At that point, Walt and Mearsheimer took it to the London Review of Books and published it there [in 2006]. I became aware of it, and I thought it was a very important piece of work. I thought it deserved publication in the United States in a journal that is widely read by people dealing with the Middle East. [Middle East Policy published a revised version later in 2006.]
Actually, the paper itself is the least inflammatory, most boring, over-footnoted, cautious examination of the very complex phenomenon of Israeli right-wing dominance of the foreign policies of the United States in the region that you could possibly imagine. When I saw the reviews of the paper I was astonished, because it was clear that most of the reviewers had never read the paper and they were reacting viscerally to the insinuation, as they saw it, that Israel had excessive or improper influence over US policy and that somehow this was an anti–Semitic slur.
Well, the paper keeps itself totally away from that arena, so essentially the whole controversy was the demonstration of a taboo. We have taboos in the sense that ancient Polynesians did, and we curse people who violate them. We don’t need to know the facts, because the taboo supplies the narrative. I think what Walt and Mearsheimer did was very courageously open up a discussion which was nonexistent because the penalty for addressing that topic was immediate and brutal.
They mauled Finkelstein when he attempted it. [Norman Finkelstein published The Holocaust Industry in 2000.]
Well, exactly, but he’s not the only one. There are many dead bodies in the political arena knocked off for the same reason. Chuck Percy and, also in Illinois, Adlai Stevenson III [former Democratic Party senators]. Quite a number. The only politician who actually said a critical word about Israel and survived was the late John Chafee in Rhode Island. [Chafee was a long-serving Republican senator.] So this is a taboo in American politics. They began to open up the possibility of discussing it, and since then it’s become much more widely discussed.
It is not in the interest of Israel, or certainly the Jewish community in the United States, to foreclose discussion of this issue. If you foreclose the discussion, Israel feels free to do stupid things. If you foreclose the discussion, the American Jewish community imagines that there’s no penalty for their hubris. And, in fact, it’s not the American Jewish community that exercises this influence anyway. It’s a small group of very wealthy fanatics.
I’ve argued for years that we would be doing ourselves, but also Israel, a great favor to put some distance in the relationship.
Of course. And the more interesting thing is that the American Jewish community, which espouses universal values—which are those of the Enlightenment, because Judaism, like Christianity, went through the Enlightenment in the West—feels very alienated from the redefinition of Judaism in racist, oppressive terms in Israel. Israel is delegitimizing itself in the eyes of the American Jewish community. Should it be left to do that without a warning? That is the question.
I want to go back to the so-called “pivot” [to Asia, one of President Obama’s signature initiatives] and the militarization of our policies toward East Asia. What we are exemplifying is an unreasoning impulse to be wanted as a protector. We have no allies in East Asia, by the way—an alliance is a mutual obligation to defense. We have unilaterally agreed to protect Japan; it has no obligation to protect us. They are clients. Japan is an extraordinarily important one and I don’t want to denigrate it, but we are essentially perpetuating dependency. And we are spending whatever the figure is, 4.6 percent of GDP, on defense—actually, that’s an understatement, because, of course, there are many military expenditures not in the defense budget, so maybe it’s more like 6 percent. But whatever it is, Japan is spending 1 percent and we are defending Japan.
This is something where, in his inimitably incoherent fashion, Donald Trump is onto something. Namely, the creation of moral hazard and enablement by the United States undertaking to do everything for everybody rather than demanding that they defend themselves first and foremost—so that we complement and supplement, but don’t usurp their requirement to defend themselves.