University News

Watson fellow talks joys of journalism

Stephen Kinzer weaves together foreign policy, writing career in undergrad teaching

Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2014

Before arriving at the University, Stephen Kinzer, visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, reporting from more than 50 countries on five continents. Fresh off a book tour for his latest work, “The Brothers,” a biography of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles, Kinzer sat down with The Herald to discuss his writing, reporting and teaching as he begins work on his next book on American exceptionalism.


You published a book last year about the Dulles brothers. Why did you choose this topic?

I’m very interested in the history of American interventions. Indeed, I teach a course on that subject. The Dulles era — that is, the 1950s — was a period of intense American intervention around the world. We were crashing into countries from Iran to Guatemala to Indonesia to Laos to China to Cuba to the Congo and beyond. Understanding why we carried out those operations and why we got so deeply into the way we were dealing with the world requires understanding the Dulles brothers. The more I learned about them, the more I came to feel that their story reflects the story of our country. I tried to answer the larger question of why we’re like this — why does the United States behave the way it does in the world?


So why does the U.S. act the way it does?

The idea of American exceptionalism is something like a civic religion in this country. It teaches us that we have a providentially granted role in the world. Our actions produce benefits for everyone. We like to believe that other countries act recklessly and selfishly in the world, that they pursue their own narrow greedy interests, but that the United States doesn’t do this. In fact, we do the opposite. We sacrifice our interests in order to help other people. That’s a very powerful strain in the American consciousness. We have a very missionary instinct. Americans are very compassionate people — we hate the idea of somebody suffering somewhere. We want to help. We don’t always stop to think about whether what we think of as help is really positive and whether it will produce good results over the long run. It’s remarkable to me also that when the Dulles brothers were in power in the 1950s — one of them secretary of state, another head of the CIA — they were hugely powerful. They could make and break countries, and they did. There probably wasn’t a literate human being on earth who did not know the name Dulles. Today, they are almost completely forgotten. I’m trying to bring them back to life and restore them to the position they deserve to have in the narrative of the 20th century.

This book is one book in a line of books you’ve written. You were a reporter before and during the period of time you were writing books. How’s the experience of writing books been different than the experience of being a reporter?

Reporters are often shaped by events: You have to cover what just happened … but actually understanding what happened today is not so useful. What’s really important, what’s much more important than what’s happening today, is what happened yesterday to create this situation and what’s going to happen tomorrow.  Let me put it this way: There’s a movie called “Arsenic and Old Lace” with Cary Grant. Two maiden aunts are poisoning the people who stay in their guest house. At one point, one of the aunts says to Cary Grant, her nephew, “Oh, the gentleman died because he drank wine that had poison in it,” and Cary Grant’s eyes pop open, and he says, “But how did the poison get in the wine?” That is the situation to which I am now devoted. Look around the world and see the poison that has been poured into the wine of world peace. How did the poison get in the wine? That’s the question I’m trying to answer in my books.


If we’re speaking of current events, recent events, what do you think of our current diplomacy?

Every time I go to Washington, which is as rarely as possible, I’m struck by how narrow is the spectrum of acceptable opinions on foreign policy. In order to be taken seriously in the foreign policy world in Washington, you have to accept a hundred assumptions about the U.S., how it should act and what its place is in the world. Any original thinking about foreign policy is treated like the germ of a frightful plague that must be stamped out before it can infect the entire policy apparatus. We need creative thinking in order to place the United States in the best possible role as the world changes, but we’re stuck in old paradigms of thinking. Essentially the Cold War is still the paradigm that we live in. That may or may not have made sense during the Cold War. It doesn’t make sense anymore. I should add one little thing: One of the most exciting aspects of being in the Watson Institute is we’re trying our little part to rectify this imbalance and trying to inject some thoughtful alternatives into the policy process. There’s a saying in Spanish: “Yo pongo mi grano de arena” — I’m putting my grain of sand.


If you were choosing a career to go into these days, would you do the same?

I have had a dream beyond the wit of man to say what dream it was! I feel like I had the greatest job in the world. Not only did I meet the people you read about in books, but I got to experience life as it’s lived by people who are very different from me. I’ve got to the conclusion that this is one of the greatest, most fun things you can do in life. People’s lives are very different from yours — it’s the same reason we read novels, we want to be transported to the existence of another life. But to be able to do that physically and actually surround yourself with a way of life that’s very different from yours,   that’s an unparalleled way to expand your understanding of the world and the human soul.


What are you teaching? What are you planning on teaching?

I’m teaching a course called INTL 1443: “History of American Intervention,” and I’m also teaching a seminar about Iran. Next semester … ask me what I’m teaching next semester.


What are you teaching next semester?

Great question! I’m teaching a course that’s never been taught at Brown before. I’m going to teach a course in international journalism — essentially how to be a foreign correspondent — and the course will culminate in a foreign reporting trip to another country so all your skills will lead to a chance to work in the field, write a story and have it published. As far as I know, such an opportunity has never been offered before.


Now, how can I get into that class?

First of all, it would be quite selective. The country we’ve chosen is going to be a Spanish-speaking country, so it’s going to be a language requirement. And I’m in the process of discussing with the director of the Latin America program and the director of the (International Relations) program about how exactly we’re going to carry out this program. I don’t want this to be appealing only to (International Relations) students, nor do I want it to appeal only to those who are focused on becoming journalists. The skills that journalists use are actually useful in a variety of professions. If you’re a public health worker in India and you know how to describe a story, how to write it, how to report it — that could be very helpful. So I want to spread the net widely. Exactly how we’re going to select the applicants, I don’t know. The trip will be during spring break, and the country we’ve selected is Nicaragua.


What are your thoughts on Brown students?

I’m impressed with them, but I don’t like the grade inflation. I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that most students in the class go home with an A. That may put me out of step. But in general, I’m very impressed with the students — they’re very engaged. This is not one of the campuses where students think, “Is it going to be a hedge fund or am I going to go straight into the banking industry or an investment bank?” These are not the limit of options. Many people here are thinking of very creative ways of spending their lives and careers. Brown opens up people’s range of options, and I sense that the graduates of this university are spreading out and making real contributions. And it makes me proud to be a part of this institution.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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  1. Jett_Rucker says:

    It would be useful if Kinzer would include World War II as a case of US intervention in the sense in which he regards the other events and characters.

    The best reason why he never will is that THAT intervention had a sponsoring group and purposes (in favor of that group) that is sancrosanct – the third rail of journalism, if you will.

    For all I know, he’s a member of that group himself, though that may bear on the situation little, if at all.

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