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Reconnecting with the World

June 28, 2007


Washington Post columnist David Ignatius writes, “When foreign policy gurus Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft all start saying the same thing, it’s time to pay attention.” [“Wise Advice: Listen, and Engage,” 24 June 2007]. What they are all saying is what my colleague Tom Barnett has been preaching for years, America’s best interests are served when we are working with our friends and talking with our adversaries. Ignatius found the trio of foreign policy gurus saying these things (and agreeing with one another) on their appearance on The Charlie Rose Show.

“Their collective message was this: In a radically changing world, America needs to be less arrogant about its use of power and more willing to talk to other nations. That may sound obvious, but the United States has spent much of the past six years doing the opposite. The three former top officials argued for more dialogue not just to improve America’s image but so that we can understand the new rules and opportunities in the game of nations.”

The three also agreed on what I have been saying, that the world is in changing and organizations (including governments) must change if they are to thrive in this new environment. We still don’t know exactly how the world transform as it changes, but it will be more connected and more dependent. Here is what the three sages said about the changing landscape:

“‘The international system is in a period of change like we haven’t seen for several hundred years’ because of the declining power of nation-states, said Kissinger, who was secretary of state under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. ‘We are used to dealing with problems that have a solution,’ but Americans have to realize that ‘we’re at the beginning of a long period of adjustment.’ Brzezinski described the changes taking place as a global political awakening: ‘The world is much more restless. It’s stirring. It has aspirations which are not easily satisfied. And if America is to lead, it has to relate itself somehow to these new, lively, intense political aspirations, which make our age so different from even the recent past.’ Brzezinski served as national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter. In this new, ‘very different world,’ explained Scowcroft, ‘the traditional measures of strength don’t really apply so much. . . . It’s a world where most of the big problems spill over national boundaries, and there are new kinds of actors and we’re feeling our way as to how to deal with them.’ Scowcroft was national security adviser for Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush.”

The Internet and World-Wide Web played roles in this transformation because they spurred globalization in unique ways. The global economy no longer runs in temporal cycles with each day beginning in Asia then moving to Europe and ending in the Americas. It is an “always on” economy. As developing nations have connected with it, millions have been brought out of poverty and given hope for a better life. Much of the strife we now see, as Tom likes to point out, is fomented by those who want to keep their little part of the world in the dark ages — with the lights out and no connections to the outside world. It only makes sense that the answer for many of the challenges these outliers create is connectivity. That, in essence, is what Kissinger, Brzezinski, and Scowcroft are saying. Ignatius notes that the three have sharply disagreed on the Iraq War, which is what makes their agreement on how the U.S. should move forward with its foreign policy all the more interesting.

“It’s noteworthy that the three offer similar prescriptions for what to do, post-Iraq. They all argue that this is a time when America needs to be out in the world — talking, yes, but even more, listening. And their advice to the next president is almost identical. Scowcroft urged America’s next leader to declare, ‘I think that we are a part of the world, that we want to cooperate with the world. We are not the dominant power in the world, that everyone falls in behind us.’ Brzezinski offered a similar formulation: ‘The next president should say to the world that the United States wants to be part of the solution to its problems’ and that it will be ‘engaged in the quest to get people in the world the dignities that they seek today.’ Even the sometimes brusque Kissinger agreed that the next president should express a willingness ‘to listen to a lot of other countries about what they think should be done. He should not pretend that he has all the answers.’ All three want to see America talking not just with friends but also with potential adversaries. With Iran, where Kissinger said ‘we should at least attempt to have a quiet negotiation with a high-level Iranian to determine where we’re trying to go.’ With Russia, where Brzezinski advised ‘we shouldn’t overdramatize the current disagreements.’ With the Chinese, who, Scowcroft insisted, ‘need a stable world,’ too. This triad of experts helped shape foreign policy for the past 50 years. They’re old men now, but they remain intellectual rivals — still jockeying for influence and trying to outsmart each other in the Faculty Club of life. What’s striking is that they see the future in such similar terms: A new global game is underway; the very idea of power is changing; America’s future security will be more about adapting than imposing our will.”

Because the U.S. has demonstrated a certain reluctance to collaborate with others as full partners, it is now finding it difficult to convince other countries that it is seeking a different course as it moves forward. The latest indication of this is America’s search for a home for its new Africa Command [“North Africa Reluctant to Host U.S. Command,” by Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, 24 June 2007]. Whitlock writes:

“A U.S. delegation seeking a home for a new military command in Africa got a chilly reception during a tour of the northern half of the continent this month, running into opposition even in countries that enjoy friendly relations with the Pentagon. Algeria and Libya separately ruled out hosting the Defense Department’s planned Africa Command, known as AFRICOM, and said they were firmly against any of their neighbors doing so either. U.S. diplomats said they were disappointed by the depth of opposition, given that the Bush administration has bolstered ties with both countries on security matters in recent years.”

With the U.S. remaining a firm supporter of Israel and finding itself engaged in fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, it isn’t really too surprising that the U.S. is receiving a chilly reception to placing troops in Muslim countries. This has as much to do with local politics as is does with how good or bad formal relationships are with the U.S. I suspect Muslim leaders, some of whom might feel they have a tenuous hold on power, see hosting a U.S. military command as an invitation for trouble from those within in their country who sympathize with groups like al Qaeda. Whitlock reports:

“Rachid Tlemcani, a professor of political science at the University of Algiers, said the stern response from North African governments was a reflection of public opposition to U.S. policies in the predominantly Muslim region. ‘People on the street assume their governments have already had too many dealings with the U.S. in the war on terror at the expense of the rule of law,’ said Tlemcani, who is also a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ‘The regimes realize the whole idea is very unpopular.'”

The Bush administration is having a difficult time convincing people that the new command is as much about building better relations (including nation building) as it is about security on the African continent. The fact is that nation building and security go hand-in-hand. The Africa Command is the first real experiment to examine how to integrate these two concomitant missions.

“As they search for a place to put a headquarters for the new command, U.S. officials have tried to allay concerns in Africa that the Pentagon has warlike designs in the region. Ryan Henry, leader of the U.S. delegation and principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the main mission for the command would be to stabilize weak or poor countries by training local security forces and doling out humanitarian aid. ‘It’s mostly a headquarters and planning focus,’ he said after meeting with Moroccan officials. ‘AFRICOM doesn’t mean that there would be additional U.S. forces put on the continent.’ Henry said no decision had been made about where to locate the command headquarters, which is expected to have 400 to 1,000 people.”

In fact, AFRICOM may be the first “virtual” unified command headquarters.

“During a stop in Algeria, Henry suggested that the Pentagon might ‘network’ the command from several sites in Africa, rather than have a single headquarters. ‘If at all possible, that’s the way we’d like to proceed,’ he told journalists during a briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Algiers.”

Central Command, which is headquartered in Tampa, FL, but has responsibility over most of the Middle East, has successfully used networking for years. AFRICOM’s command structure is expected to be much smaller but even more broadly dispersed. The African continent is huge and the problems faced by various regions are very different. It makes sense to spread U.S. forces so that they are more in touch with the needs of these regions. The U.S. might be talking about building walls at home, but it needs to be breaking down walls around the world. One of the reasons I’ve been traveling to Iraq and other parts of the Gulf is to help in this building effort.

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