Stephen Kinzer is a longtime international correspondent whose reportage from news desks around the world has proven to be both provocative and controversial over the past several decades. Whether it is Latin America or the Middle East, his insights can be either invigorating or infuriating depending on one’s own political persuasion. He commutes into Providence to serve as a Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute. We sat down for an interview recently to discuss American foreign policy and its contours moving into this election season. His next book, The True Flag, is about the Anti-Imperialist League at the start of the last century and will be published at the end of January 2017.
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On our standing in the international arena among superpowers such as Russia or China with policies toward Eurasia:
We’re certainly very far from the place we thought we would be at the end of the Cold War. We presumed then that since ideology and the ideological conflict that had shaped so much of the world for generations, that once that ideological conflict between capitalism and communism was resolved, the world would become a much more peaceful place. We now realize that after you rolled back that one layer of conflict, there were many other conflicts below that. We’ve come back to history which tells us that nations and powers always conflict with each other, they always have interests that are in conflict. Now I think the United States has slipped very much back into the Cold War mentality.
It’s actually understandable when you think that we were in that mentality for so long that we got used to it. That mentality tells us that the world is full of threats, that everyone out in the world is either our friend or enemy. If they’re our enemy we have to be hostile towards them and keep them down. If they’re our friends we have to bind them into military alliances and make sure we do what we say. We have in this way turned Russia into an enemy. And this is not only highly dangerous but completely unnecessary.
In many ways Russia’s strategic interests coincide with ours. We need Russia as a partner, everywhere from the Middle East to Europe. Instead, we’re turning it into an enemy. The US Secretary of Defense recently named Russia America’s Number One Strategic Threat. We are now building our military presence right along the Russian border, we’re doing everything we can to undermine, weaken, and militarily challenge the Russian government. Russia is actually responding, we’re now seeing the highest levels of tension between Moscow and Washington that we’ve seen since the end of the Cold War! This was not necessary but it’s in part a result of the way Americans and particularly the American foreign policy establishment has come to see the rest of the world.
The China situation is also difficult in a somewhat different way. China is perhaps the most complex geopolitical challenge the United States has ever faced. We’ve never had the prospect of sharing the world with a country that’s more populous than we are, perhaps soon to be richer than we are, a country that has great strategic power, great interests in its own region, and a tremendous history of projecting power in its own region. We’ve handled that very poorly. We believe we have vital interests in the South China Sea, we have vital interests in Central Europe, just like we have vital interests in the Middle East, and so many other places.
By stretching our list of vital interests and making it so long, we’ve gotten ourselves into a situation that’s at least as dangerous as what we faced during the Cold War.
On the war in Syria and the US policy towards both its government and armed opposition:
I think the Americans are finally trying to tip-toe back from that one [slogan of ‘Assad Must Go!’] That was a disastrous beginning that truly fueled this crisis. We made that terrible declaration as soon as protests had started against the Assad government. That naturally gave the protestors the sense that there was no reason to compromise with Assad. The biggest power in the world just announced that Assad was finished, that he’s over! So we created a situation of moral hazard in which people that didn’t like Assad decided they would not rest until he was gone. That produced this conflict.
The United Nations and the Arab League made an early negotiating effort. Kofi Annan was the mediator they chose. And Annan presented a plan that would begin with a summit of all parties. But the United States refused to attend. The reason we gave, and this was the reason that was delivered, by the way, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was ‘we are not sitting at a negotiating table either with Assad or anyone who has not already declared ‘Assad Must Go’‘. So that meant not only no Assad but no Russia, no Iran, no Hizbollah, no Shiite militias. We only wanted to negotiate with the groups that were on our side. Naturally that was a nonstarter and pretty soon after that Kofi Annan quit the job and we’re seeing the results right now.
There can only be a negotiated political solution there. And that solution can be had only with the cooperation of Iran and Russia and their partners. You don’t resolve crises by only negotiating with one side. But nonetheless we have built Iran and Russia into such huge strategic enemies that we’re not willing to cooperate to solve a real crisis.
This places a heavy responsibility on the United States for the carnage that’s now unfolding in Syria.
On how Trump and Sanders brought a critique of NATO and American military policies into question like never seen before:
It tells us two things.
First of all, there’s a little bit more room in the American political spectrum for debate over foreign policy than we had previously understood. We used to believe that anybody who questioned the importance of the NATO alliance or anybody who questioned our blind obedience to the Israeli government or anybody who stepped outside the foreign policy consensus in any other way would be immediately punished by voters.
But in fact the opposite happened. As you pointed out, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump offered some substantial dissent from our foreign policy catechism. In fact, so did all the other last remaining Republican candidates, if you look at Cruz and Kasich…all of them had critiques of the foreign policy elite. So I think the first thing we learned from that episode is that there is some room for discussion on American foreign policy which is something we weren’t so sure about before.
Secondly…NATO is one of those organizations that was created right after World War II, like the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which were designed to deal with a situation that existed at that time. That situation doesn’t exist anymore but institutions we created to deal with it still exist.
NATO is an outmoded institution, it was designed to prevent Russian tanks from crashing across the Fulda Gap and attacking Germany. That’s not going to happen anymore.
NATO is an institution designed for a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The idea that Europe might be now a little more able to provide for its own defense than it was in the late 1940s shouldn’t be so shocking. And that is the view that Trump and Sanders have offered.
So although those views did not ultimately prevail and as a matter of fact it sounds like we’re going to have a president who believes just the opposite, nonetheless we have open debate on NATO and other issues in a way is very tentative but still positive.
On the grassroots resistance to the TPP/TTIP “free trade” deals:
The issue of the Trans-Pacific trade agreement is a very interesting part of the current political situation inside the United States. Here’s a classic case of a project almost universally embraced and supported by the political and economic elite but there’s a rebellion against it from everybody else!
Those elites that scorn popular opinion as ignorant and uninformed have had to take account of it. And the most graphic example of this is Hillary Clinton’s change of opinion on the TPP. Now, I wouldn’t be suprised if she changes her opinion back after she’s in the White House but the fact that she felt compelled to change her position and to take a position that is essentially against all of the groups that are promoting her in politics, she knows how intense the reaction has been.
I think the TPP is in big trouble because the peasants with pitchforks have risen up against those who saw that this agreement would hugely beneficial. In fact it would be but only for certain groups in certain economic segments. People don’t want free trade agreements that are only producing economic benefits for small groups of people, they want agreements that benefit humanity, that benefit ordinary people. But ordinary people are not the focus of these international trade agreements. As long as that is the case those trade agreements are going to remain unpopular and its going to be politically difficult increasingly for American politicians to support them.
On third parties in this presidential election:
I’m not so sure we’re yet at the point where any third party movement can have a substantial impact on American politics. Nonetheless, this election cycle has produced a sourness, a frustration with the breadth of possibilities among many voters. It’s a common view that with 200 million adult citizens in this country we should be able to have a better choice than the one that we’re now being presented with, Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. That is the choice that our political party system inevitably brings us to.
Could that over the long run lead to some frustrations? Might there be a break-up in the Republican Party? Might there be a Trump wing and a Chamber of Commerce wing? Could there even be a new party trying to emerge out of the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party and try to make it what the Democratic Party used to be instead of the one that Bill Clinton turned it into, which was kind of the old-styled Republican Party?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to any of those questions, that would be something very new in American history, we’re famous for resisting third party incursions and we haven’t had a change in our political party landscape for a long time… We haven’t been in a moment like this before so it will be interesting to see whether the big tent parties can hold together or whether frustration at the alternatives being offered could lead to some other options.
What about when Lincoln was elected from a third party composed of former Whigs and Free Soilers?
That would be the last time that something like this has happened. That’s 150 years ago so I’m not sure the political analogy is valuable but it has happened before and there’s nothing in Biblical scripture that tells us there can only be two major parties in the United States so we shouldn’t allow the past to be our only guide to possibilities for the future.