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Sun. September 25, 2022
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IA-Forum Interview: Dr. Stefan Halper

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IA Forum: In your book America Alone you talk about the effect American foreign policy has had on its image. So, what do you consider the most damaging to our image and do you think it’s repairable?


Dr Halper: Clearly the events surrounding the invasion of Iraq have led to a reduction in American credibility. Pew polls, which are reasonably authoritative, on the question of images of different countries indicate the U.S. has suffered a great deal in the eyes of the Europeans, certainly in the eyes of the Third World, particularly Africa, Latin America, and very clearly and dramatically in the eyes of the Islamic world. The problem is related to the reasons the U.S. has given for the invasion of Iraq. America’s position has suffered at the UN as well. Some of it has to do with the way Washington has related to the rule of law as perceived by the international community. There seems to be a non acceptance of the argument Washington has advanced favoring preventative military initiatives. That was encapsulated in the 2002 national strategy, and it’s a departure from previous positions the U.S. has had, particularly these pre-emptive strategies rooted in the law by the Caroline Incident. I think certainly events like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been troubling to the international community and given ammunition to those people who thought ill of the U.S. at the outset.

But the important point is that the effort to develop democracies, and to bring pluralism and representative government to Iraq was misconceived in that it sought to bring a very sophisticated form of government to a very traditional society which related primarily to tribal and ethnic structures, rather than to the enlightenment on which democratic government is based.


So do you think we can rehabilitate our image and what do we need to do to do that?

Well, it’s going to take quite a while. We can’t begin to recoup our stature and credibility in the Middle East until we find an acceptable way of concluding events in Iraq so that some form of Iraqi government emerges that we find acceptable and the region finds acceptable. Things may deteriorate before they improve. It may be that Sunni and Shiites conflict for some period of time. Until some sort of conclusion is reached between them, it may be we end up with a strong man type government. It could be that we end up with a confederation of Kurd, Sunni and Shiite governing entities. It’s very unclear at this point how this will be resolved.

It is clear though that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are seeking to establish stability and I think it’s encouraging to see that the Administration in Washington has accepted at least one of the recommendations in the Baker Hamilton Report, and is opening discussions with Iran this week. That’s a positive step and it may point the way forward to some sort of resolution.

If you look at American relations with, say, the UK, we have a dramatic reduction in U.S. approval here in England; you notice it in the media. And, we have a new government coming in which is Atlanticist and does support Anglo-American friendship. But still there is a chill which has arisen in the UK and all across Europe because of the actions of the Bush Administration in Iraq.


I see. President Bush still has almost 2 years left in office. Do you think there is anything his Administration can do to help repair our image in that time?

I don’t think there’s much this president can do. I think he’s trapped in many ways by the events that he has stimulated and his options are not extensive. He has limited relations with the Europeans at this point and certainly limited flexibility. He’s lost the benefit of the doubt. American leadership has been called into question and the value of the American friendship has also been called into question. So I’m not optimistic that there’s a lot Bush can do at this point. I think the political process in the U.S. is going to draw this to a conclusion. The Republicans will require that progress is shown on the ground in Iraq by the September/ October period or the support that Bush has in the Republican party will begin to crumble and if that happens he won’t be able to sustain a veto in the House and Senate. Congressmen are very concerned and want to see the Iraq war in the rear-view mirror and not through the front windshield.


In your most recent book Silence of the Rational Center, you talk a lot about Iraq but also mention some other issues which could help repair America’s image…

Yes. That book talks about the process which America goes through in times of crisis or when the country is challenged. It points out that the surge of patriotism and emotion that sweeps the public to discourse tends to suppress the critical opinion and opinion which questions the rationale of the administration. And it demonstrates how in the media, the major newspapers (the Washington Post, the New York Times), television media, especially cable news have been reluctant to challenge the Administration’s rationale for war. Moreover, it has been difficult for expert opinion and nuanced policy recommendations to find their way through what is an environment populated by powerful catchphrases and bumper sticker think, all of which connect with American exceptionalism and American patriotism but do not encourage a full debate in the public square.

The book also looks at how susceptible America has been historically to surges of patriotic emotion, for example in the time of the Red Scare, and even during the Vietnam War.


Ok. Obviously there has been a lot of criticism of US foreign policy recently. Do you see any positive elements and particular strengths in US foreign policy?

Well, ultimately the U.S. has the largest and most powerful economy in the globe. And it has governmental institutions which were built on concepts of the enlightenment. It’s an enormously sophisticated political process which permits a very wide range of opinion to be reflected in national political discourse. I think the advantages that this represents for nations and people around the world are manifest. It has been the envy of many nations on earth, (not all, but many) and people wish to emulate the American example. It’s moments like this where we kind of get off the track that so much is compromised. We have an inherent strength and an inherent gift which is a government based on principles such as the loyal opposition and a range of individual freedoms and a social contract which are truly remarkable and a very high achievement. And I think that that does shine through when it’s allowed to.

I would point out to you though, that when you look at what the Chinese have been able to do with market authoritarianism, where they get about 10 percent growth a year, have a middle class and improve the quality of living for the people- that is a model of government which eventually is going to challenge market democracy. And so it’s incumbent upon the U.S. to be very mindful that as other nations move to determine how to structure their governments- whether South Asia, the various ‘-stans’ that we refer to, areas of Africa and so on- they are going to look carefully at both the Chinese and American models and they’re going to decide which is more important to them: the range of freedoms and guarantees provided by the American system or the higher rate of growth and stability of leadership (where you don’t have elections every 4 years or have changes in Congress every 2) that the Chinese model offers them. I rather suspect that the American model will prevail handily, but I think also we have to be mindful that it is not something to be taken absolutely for granted.


Looking forward to 2008, do you believe the candidates are grappling with the right issues in terms of foreign policy? And what do you think their priorities should be?

Well I think that one issue I would like to se these candidates address is the very important question of precisely at what point the United States should project power internationally. I think we’ve got to return to a clear agreement that we project power- decisive military power- when there’s an imminent threat. And the decision taken on Iraq was not the right one because it was not an imminent military threat. I think we need to know and the public needs to understand that these wars that we find ourselves in- the Vietnam War, wars in Somalia and other places- they are not like the industrial wars that we have fought previously- World War 2 for example where there was a clear victory psychologically and physically where you devastated your adversary and could rebuild from there- we’re involved now in what you might call ‘wars amongst the people’ and in these kinds of wars the objective has got to be to change the enemies’ intentions because it’s very hard to achieve the kind of across- the-board, decisive victories that Americans are used to having. And there’s an education process that one would look for among the candidates to begin to cause Americans to realize that we’re not going to find the decisive, black-and-white clarity going forward like we have in the past. But that doesn’t mean we’re failing, it doesn’t mean we’ll be unsuccessful; it means that not all problems can be solved, some problems have to be managed over time and then solved. So I think that’s one thing I’d like to see the candidates address. It’s not just the generals, not just the Administration which hasn’t been able to tell us what victory looks like in Iraq, or even what progress looks like. It is also the structure of our media, our Congress, which hasn’t come to grips with this.

A second thing I’d like to see is a recommitment to fiscal responsibility. The spending on the part of this government cannot be sustained and it will turn us into a nation held hostage by our creditors over time. The enormous amount of debt held by the Chinese will eventually be a huge liability for us, and it has already become a significant problem.


And do you think these things are being discussed?

Well, I don’t think the first part is being discussed at all. This administration- contrary to George H. W. Bush’s Administration, contrary to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon as far as Republican presidents are concerned (just to compare apples to apples)- has not been risk adverse, it has engaged in ‘adventures’ abroad and it has not been fiscally responsible. And those are things that need to be said- that this administration has not acted as a conservative republican government, rather a radical manner. And I think we need a course correction on that sort of thing. We need to return, if I may say, to a predictable, structured, perhaps even boring foreign policy.






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