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Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense talks American diplomacy

Chas W. Freeman, Jr. spoke on America’s international failures, domestic setbacks

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2020

Chas Freeman Jr., a Watson Institute senior fellow, outlined his views on the current state of American diplomacy at a lecture Thursday.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs senior fellow, compared the current political and economic state of Washington, D.C. to that of St. Petersburg (then called Petrograd) during the last days of the Russian tsar at a lecture entitled “America in Distress” at the Joukowsky Forum.

“America (is) losing its aura of imperial purpose and invincibility,” Freeman said to a packed audience Thursday night.

A career diplomat, Freeman specialized in Chinese affairs, acting as the principal American interpreter for President Richard Nixon during his 1972 visit to Beijing. Freeman has also acted as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. Freeman was also Chargé d’Affaires in Bangkok and Beijing.

Director of the Watson Institute Edward Steinfeld introduced Freeman, calling him a “jaw-dropping” intellect and “illuminating” presence at the Watson. Freeman “has provided us a series of perspectives … on the shifting geopolitical situation globally, and, fortunately or unfortunately for us, that situation keeps shifting so much that we keep needing (Freeman) to come back and give us new perspective,” Steinfeld said to audience members.

Freeman outlined his views on the current state of American diplomacy and hegemony, criticizing actions taken by the federal government since the Cold War, and explaining the implications and ramifications of U.S. involvement and influence in foreign and domestic affairs.

“The norms of long-moderated and international and domestic behavior have been largely erased” in recent history, Freeman said. “Incivility is now ubiquitous. Political systems everywhere have been overtaken by socioeconomic and technological change, and there is no sign that (the systems) are catching up.”

Responding to how analysts have attributed the current “global and American despondency” to President Trump, Freeman said “the trends that underline the shocks we’re experiencing began long before” Trump’s emergence.

“Washington’s given up on diplomacy,” he said, and instead has turned to “taunts, threats, unilateral sanctions, ultimatums, cyber warfare, drone and missile attacks, assassinations, proxy warfare and military invasions and pacification campaigns” to exercise its influence abroad.

Freeman mentioned the recent American intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the nuclear agreement with Iran and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as examples of the United States’ “capricious abrogation of treaties, … wanton sabotage of multilateral compacts and money-grubbing hedging of security commitments.”

In addition to talk of foreign policy, Freeman also spent time discussing the American dollar’s role in the global economy. “An erosion of economic primacy could have profound effects on American hegemony,” he said, adding that “U.S. ability to print money and exchange it for foreign goods and services would be reduced, if not ended.”

“Little green portraits of dead presidents would be regarded as works of arts rather than things of value,” he said.

America’s shortcomings abroad and at home are “examples of American self-sabotage, not predatory foreign behavior,” Freeman explained. “Curing these deviations from past practice and their pernicious consequences requires introspection and reform in Washington, more than anywhere else.”

Freeman commended the Watson Institute for its Costs of War Project, saying the institute has taken up an issue Congress should be dealing with. “There is a role for our great universities in stimulating the debate about the state of the nation and its future,” he said.

Freeman ended his lecture by posing a question to the audience: “Is it too much to hope that American civil society will intervene where our increasingly ineffectual government has failed to?”

Of the students that attended the lecture, Kevin Kang ’23 said the lecture made him reconsider U.S. foreign policy.

“I think a lot of Brown students are very invested in the American political system,” Kang said. “I think, in regards to foreign affairs and domestic affairs, he has some very acute observations that I think I haven’t even considered, especially when you’re talking about how the (US dollar) is the biggest pillar that supports the underlying American hegemony around the world.”

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