University News

Former ambassador talks faulty U.S. foreign policy

Watson senior fellow Chas Freeman Jr. criticizes brinksmanship, calls for increased diplomacy

By
Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2016

Ambassador Chas Freeman Jr., former American diplomat and senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, delivered his second lecture in a three-part series on U.S. foreign policy Thursday afternoon in the Watson Institute’s Joukowsky Forum. This lecture, “The United States in the New World Disorder,” focused on the counterproductive continuation of Cold War foreign policy to the present day.

Freeman began the lecture with a brief overview of U.S. foreign policy up to the Cold War, describing a state of “diplomatic minimalism” before World War I made possible by the stability of British global dominance. But World War I ended “Pax Brittanica,” Freeman said. The United States emerged as the new world power, but our insistence on collecting war debts and pursuing “beggar thy neighbor” policies heightened tensions in Europe, Freeman said.

Similarly, at the end of World War II, the United States supplanted Japan and Germany as the dominant geopolitical force in the western Pacific. With the rise of the Soviet Union, a bipolar world order materialized. In response, the United States formed a “new national security structure” and managed a powerful foreign presence designed to contain and isolate the burgeoning USSR.

Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed. Freeman made it clear that this was a critical point in our nation’s history that gave rise to what he jokingly called “enemy deprivation syndrome.” But even with “no existential threat,” the United States refused to change its approach to foreign policy, Freeman said. Instead, “the United States has now expanded our defense responsibilities right up to the borders of Russia and China.”

Freeman said that American foreign policy is still predicated on the belief that “no bluff we make will ever be called.” This “institutional inertia,” Freeman said, has created “self-licking ice cream cones”: self-serving, inefficient or purposeless diplomatic bureaucracies.

The rise of domestic terrorism can be explained as a result of U.S. aggression without the balance of Soviet power, as neither the United States nor the USSR, he explained, would allow their respective allies to engage in such tactics. Both nations feared that an attack on the homeland, as opposed to the relative security of proxy warfare, would result in massive retaliation.

But now, terrorists and rogue nations are no longer “restrained” by a dominant adversary, Freeman said; unlike Soviet Russia, these enemies have nothing to lose. As a result, America is now “both more powerful and more vulnerable” than ever before.

Turning to the current threat of violent jihadist groups, Freeman criticized American leaders for “alienating (the United States) from most of the Muslim world” and warned against increasing tensions within the European Union. Freeman cited the British referendum on EU membership as cause for concern, which Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has promised will take place before the end of 2017. “If Europe disintegrates, so will transatlantic ties,” he said.

Freeman also stressed the continued importance of Russia in global affairs, saying that the Obama administration’s attempts to punish and isolate Russia for its intervention in Ukraine have ironically revealed how important the nation remains. Demonizing Russia is “pure posturing — not policy,” he said. Furthermore, “Diminishing Russia as a has-been power was a mistake.”

Next, Freeman addressed China’s emergence on the global stage: “By 2020, the Chinese are expected to have invested $20 trillion abroad.”  The “bravado” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which the White House is fighting for despite fierce Congressional opposition, is a foolish attempt to counter Chinese influence — diplomatic “trench warfare” must come to an end, Freeman said.

“There is no longer a global zero-sum game. We can afford to try to solve problems,” Freeman said, mentioning the China-Taiwan conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict and North Korea’s role in international politics. “When I first went there, North Korea had an economy twice the size of (that of) South Korea.” Now, South Korea’s economy is 35 times the size of that of its totalitarian neighbor, Freeman said, indicating that a resolution should be relatively easy with the right policies.

Freeman concluded that “Pax Americana” is over, and America must roll back interventionist policies while bolstering diplomatic efforts. There is “no reason for us to shoulder burdens others can now bear,” he said. “Our credibility, with which we’ve become so obsessed, will take care of itself.”

The audience, which grew to approximately 70 people, appeared very engaged with Freeman’s lecture.

Roma Hayda, an audience member who said she has relations in Ukraine, expressed concerns over Russia’s trustworthiness during the question-and-answer period.

Freeman agreed, advocating cautious negotiations. He also said, to collective laughter, that the Kremlin is “a protection racket pretending to be a government — we know about that in Providence, Rhode Island, I think.”

“I think we are building an inherently unstable situation in Europe by not incorporating Russia into the security architecture,” Freeman said. But he also cited the Austrian State Treaty, which created an independent Austria that remained neutral through the Cold War, as a particularly difficult diplomatic accomplishment and a source of optimism for the future of American-Russian relations. “Optimism is to diplomats what courage is to soldiers,” he said, citing a popular refrain.

The next question came from J. Brian Atwood, senior fellow for international and public affairs, who noted that the lecture sounded “like a tutorial for the presidential candidates.”

Freeman agreed that there was a worrying “degree of ignorance” in the field of U.S. presidential candidates, calling the election “a cavalcade of clowns” and expressing hope that Americans can be educated on the role of diplomacy as an alternative to conflict.

More importantly, he said, “it is not for us to tell people what government they should have. The legitimacy of a government is not determined by what foreign governments think of it. It is determined by the governed.”

The third and final lecture, “Recovering Diplomatic Agility,” will begin at 4 p.m. Feb. 18 in the Joukowsky Forum.