U.S. influence on the wane, journalist says

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Though President Obama’s worldview is more intelligent and informed than his predecessor’s, the decline of American power and the current economic crisis may hinder his administration’s success, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fred Kaplan told a packed Joukowsky Forum yesterday.

During the discussion, entitled “Obama and the World: U.S. Foreign Policy in an Age of Global Anarchy” and hosted by the Watson Institute for International Studies, Kaplan delved into topics ranging from the world’s power structure to the difficulty of waging war in tribal Afghanistan. He consistently characterized the positions of the Bush and Obama administrations as deeply opposed.

Kaplan, a military analysis columnist for Slate and author of the new book “Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power,” answered questions from Professor of International Studies James Der Derian and Visiting Fellow in International Studies Christopher Lydon during the event, which was recorded to be posted online as a podcast.

“It’s not quite anarchy,” Kaplan said of the world’s political structure, which he described as having many competing sources of power – a change from the polarized Cold War-era power structure. “But it’s a situation without a point of equilibrium.”

Much of this global fragility results from the end of the Cold War, Kaplan said, which he described as a frozen moment in history. “What is going on now is a resumption of history,” he said.

This resumption of history marks the end of the U.S. as the world superpower, Kaplan said, a situation that Obama tacitly recognizes. But with most of the world’s economies suffering, the United States may by default resume its leadership role, he added.

“The challenge that Obama has is how to re-engage the United States in the world and restore some of our powers and influence in a world that is not so keen to go along with this,” Kaplan said.

In foreign policy, Kaplan said, Obama’s policies will not be characterized by any particular doctrine but rather by flexibility and multilateral collaboration. As Obama “is from everywhere and nowhere,” he enjoys incomparable world support, Kaplan said – although he predicted this support will dry up within nine months.

Kaplan said Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan will be the crucial first tests for Obama in terms of foreign policy. He said Obama will not dramatically expand American presence in Afghanistan because of budgetary constraints, the memory of Vietnam and Obama’s view that the Afghan problem fits into a wider regional one.

“He is very reluctant to get trapped into some escalation,” Kaplan added.

But the real threat, Kaplan said, is an unstable and nuclear Pakistan. “For every five terrorists that we’re killing, we’re creating 50 or a 100 terrorist sympathizers because we killed their cousins,” Kaplan said. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan requires regional collaboration that must involve India, China, Russia and Iran, he said.

Much of Kaplan’s talk also focused on his new book’s description of the Bush administration as having promoted bad ideas at a particularly bad time – as being men with visions as opposed to visionaries. “The nature of that bad time made the nature of the ideas particularly bad,” Kaplan said.

Despite their failures, Kaplan said, members of the Bush administration will not be held accountable. Though Kaplan foresees Congressional hearings, he said, Obama is more inclined to look toward the future and work in a bipartisan fashion.

Nevertheless, “there are a lot of countries Dick Cheney can’t go traveling to,” Kaplan said to laughter. “I’d be very surprised if Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir sells a lot of copies.”

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