Josef Joffe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power and Culture in International Affairs; Conversation with Josef Joffe, editor and co-publisher of Die Zeit, 1/20/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Democracies and Foreign Policy

Germany and the United States, both democracies, have to make foreign policy. Compare them in the way they respond to today's world.

First of all, I think they're more similar than dissimilar when it comes to the issue of democracy, notwithstanding the disparity in size and power. Politics has become really quite local. Not all politics but a lot of politics has become local, and there has been a tremendous decline in the interest in foreign policy since the fall of the Wall and the end of the Soviet empire for a very simple reason. We no longer confront existential issues like nuclear war, like a third world war, or any of those local, regional crises like the Middle East which immediately threatened to become global contests. So the existential nature of foreign policy being gone, democracies everywhere are losing interest. One of the signs you can see, if you look at newspapers today, elite newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times -- is how much more space non-international stories, especially business stories, take up. The story has become business. And that's true of all democracies.

Now, there's a big difference, of course. Germany, like Italy, like France, like Sweden, is a middle power, and one that no longer thinks in global terms. The Swedes, the Dutch, the Germans used to think in global terms, but they don't. And the United States is a global power, the only global power, and so the most important difference is that the United States matters a hell of a lot more in the global system than Germany or all the others.

And Germany's problem in part is belonging, being part of the world, so that it won't go alone as it has in the past. State that better for me, this coming to terms with both its geographic position and its history.

If you look at the world and at yourself from a Berlin vantage point, if you look at this century, then two lessons are almost genetically imprinted on you. Whenever Germany tried to go it alone it, it reaped ever larger disaster, this is World War I, World War II. And when Germany, as after World War II, pursued its interests in community and multilaterally in international organizations such as NATO and the EU, it flourished beyond belief. And I think together those two historical lessons can explain about 90% of contemporary German foreign policy.

What about the United States? What, beside its hegemonic position, besides the apparent universality of what it has to offer the world, is particularly marked about the way it will approach the world?

Let's start off with its position in the international system, which is unique, uniquely powerful. This sobriquet "the last remaining superpower" is really true. There's nothing out there remotely resembling the U.S. And more importantly, there's not going to be anything out there for the next twenty-five years remotely resembling the United States. So the United States is this singular animal in the international jungle that is interested in everything that is happening and that triggers the interests of everybody when it does something. So this double role of being number one, overwhelmingly powerful but also overwhelmingly watched because it affects so many people everywhere in the world, that's what distinguishes the U.S. from any other country. You don't hear people protest Malaysian power or even Russian power these days. But the United States is ubiquitous, overwhelming and, in many respects, also indispensable.

If the U.S. is that important in today's world, do you fault our leaders, say the Clinton administration, for not coming up with a strategic design for how it should act in the world?

American leaders have rarely done that; in fact, Western leaders have rarely done that. And those who pretended to do that, let's say, like Charles DeGaulle in the fifties and sixties, were really not following a strategic plan, they were more like strutting on stage than implementing a strategic design. So this is not part of the American tradition, it's even less in the American tradition now because of what we said earlier: foreign policy doesn't matter that much any more, and Clinton least of all would be somebody to articulate a strategic design. But if you look beyond the rhetoric or non-rhetoric, and this will be true for his successor and their successors, the United States has to follow a certain script whether it articulates it or not. That script comes from being number one. And the most important rule of that script is you want to stay number one as long as you can, and therefore you want to keep others from forming hostile coalitions against you. And that script, unwritten though it is, is something that Clinton has followed, and it will be followed by any American leader. The only issue is, can they get enough support for this game at home?

You believe that America's presence in some form is very important across the board in all of the regions. What role do you think the U.S. should be playing? What should be its model for its strategic involvement?

It's already playing that role, which is the only one it can really play. Let's take Asia, where the waters are repeatedly being roiled by carefully ritualized clashes between the United States and China. What is America's role there, and why does everybody want to keep the United States there? The United States protects Japan, and therefore keeps Japan from becoming a muscular imperial power again which will trigger all kinds of nasty countervailing responses in Asia. It protects everybody against the overweening ambitions of China. It is a kind of buffer state, the mother of all buffer states if you wish, that is protecting everybody against everybody else in an arena which is rife with ambition and rivalries and rising powers, not only China, but India and then behind them Indonesia. So the United States discharges this enormously important function of being a background security factor in the region which stabilizes the region enormously. And I think Clinton or whoever understands that, that the United States is this buffer factor that will keep stability in the volatile region.

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