Peter Tarnoff Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Foreign Policy in a Democracy: Conversation with Peter Tarnoff, former Undersecretary of State and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; 10/13/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Public Opinion

As U.S. foreign policy adjusts to this much more fluid world and operates on a different set of parameters than was the case after World War II, the role of organizations like the World Affairs Council and the Council on Foreign Relations becomes very important. What exactly is the role, especially of the Council on Foreign Relations? Because, as you know, there is a conspiratorial tenor in a lot of our popular culture, with shows like The X-Files and so on. There is a notion that the Council does something different than what it probably does. Tell us how an organization like the Council shapes the agenda, and how organizations like the World Affairs Council are useful for mobilizing -- well, not mobilizing public opinion so much as educating the public about what's before us.

I'm smiling because when I sat in the chair of the chief executive officer of the Council on Foreign Relations and would read some of the theories and conspiratorial reports about how the Council was running, if not the world, at least the U.S. government, I would sometimes sit back and close my eyes and say, "Would that were the case, that I would have this kind of power." There was a lot of absolutely unfounded speculation about the role of the Council. It is true that during the period that you referred to earlier, during the post - World War II period and even during the Second [World] War, when foreign policy was made by a much more limited number of people, certain organizations, including the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, probably did play, at least intellectually, quite a considerable role.

For example, during the course of the war the Council did, not a secret study, but a discreet study on behalf of the government to try to assess what the forms might be that the United States should favor with regard to international organizations after the war. And much of the thinking, the preliminary thinking about the formation of the United Nations, was done at the Council on Foreign Relations and somewhere else. So I think at that point its role and influence was probably greater.

The one thing that's happened, to leap fifty-five years into the current period a bit abruptly, is that it is no longer the province of the Council on Foreign Relations or the World Affairs Council of Northern California, in San Francisco, to have as much of an exclusive hold on the way people are dealing with foreign policy. And the simple reason for this is that foreign policy has come to mean, in its new forms and permutations, a lot of what people are doing naturally anyway in the course of their normal lives and professions. Oftentimes when I speak to students, including here at the University of California at Berkeley, I ask a group of even undergraduates who are unclear about exactly what their professional choices might be, can they imagine having a professional activity which does not have a very high international content of some point? And there are usually only ten or fifteen percent, aspiring poets or people who want to do individual research, who will raise their hands, because the others begin to think that whether they're in the sciences or the arts or the social sciences, government service, the media, university life, business, labor, they are going to have an international component to what they're doing.

It's not only that businesses themselves have vast international operations; all of the major professional activities have connections around the world. So, therefore, the traditional organizations, like the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Affairs Council have got to broaden their base considerably to help educate and inform people on international relations, not because they spend a junior year in France the way I did when I was twenty, but because they find themselves in a professional setting where knowledge of the world is a requirement. Not because they like French food or enjoy Thailand and Singapore for travel, but because their professional lives are tied up with a broader universe. And it's quite a challenge, by the way, to do this. I think many of these organizations, including the two that I've mentioned, are doing it well.

But the band has stretched enormously wide. One of the most fascinating exercises of, let's say, the Council on Foreign Relations, is to pick a country, whatever the country is, let's say India, and to bring people in who approach India from very different professional perspectives, all of the activities that I mentioned before hand, and have them in the room talking about India from their own personal professional perspective. It's like a kaleidoscope. All of those pieces are held in a contained space which is focusing on a country, in this case India, but they are seeing it very differently. Having people understand how rich the array of interests are and how beneficial it is for them to understand not only their particular focus, but the views of others who are interested in that country and sometimes working in that country, is the challenge that all of these organizations and universities have now.

So that as the global society has become more muscular, more important, what governments do may, over time, become less important so that the traditional notion of foreign policy as conducted by the state will be of less salience, except maybe in the case of a threat of terrorist attack or of war, or something like that.

I agree. It's difficult to see that because the headlines usually involved terrorist attack or international catastrophes, which are the province of government.

But take economics, for example, and the decisions that not even major corporations make (although there are some of them as well), but individual investors or bond traders will make every day when they decide where they should put their money and how much should go here and how long it should stay in light of sometimes pure political or social developments in a country. It means that unless governments, like the United States government in particular, are willing to put huge sums of public funds into the mix (which of course they are not willing to do because all of us wouldn't want them to do it at this point in our history), the private sector can make what amounts to be enormously important decisions, at least with regard to the economies of these countries.

And insofar as the economic issues around the world, like in the United States, are of rising importance, and citizens are participating more actively in the governance of their countries in places where they have not known democracy in the past, and think of themselves as economic entities as well as political people, they are making choices which confront governments with realities but which the governments can't change. If the international investor community decides to pull out of country X, there's very little that most governments or international financial institutions can do. And this is a new source of unfocused raw power that's not political and not directed but can make or break governments literally overnight.

So does government and governments acting with each other assume a new role in regulating those things that work negatively either against a particular country or the common good? Is that more of a possibility for the future than has been the case in the past?

I think governments will try more, but I think governments will be less and less successful at it. Just on economic issues, for example, as we were saying before, government, including the U.S. government, which really doesn't want the American business community to participate at all in country X -- Iraq or Iran let's say -- can pass legislation or executive orders which prohibit this activity. Now it's one thing to do it in Iraq where you have the United Nations Security Council resolutions. It's another thing to do it in Iran where you do not have universal sanctions and therefore, like in Cuba, the rest of the world is going ahead and trading with this country. So you get to the question of what the effectiveness is of government action.

With regard to making positive investments in countries, I've been involved (and I know it's still going on) with government efforts to interest the private American economic leadership in going to countries and making investments, not because the government is interested in the well-being of American companies, although of course they are, but primarily because they want, for political and strategic reasons, a greater U.S. presence in these countries and they want to shore up the foundation of the regime, and sometimes of the leaders themselves. And this means that the administration will call on the private sector to do that. The private sector is increasingly inclined to resist that kind of pressure unless the economic figures are valid. It's quite rare, in our day and age, that a publicly held company with transparent financial records, which of course we have under our system, will -- to me it's inconceivable, Harry, that the CEO of a major company can go to his shareholders and say that they have made an investment in county X because it's in the U.S. national interests for geostrategic or political reasons. Now, that's a bit of a caricature, but I'm trying to make the point that the ultimate levers -- at least with regard to American capital, and given the fact that our assistance budget has been driven down so steadily and dramatically in the past year -- are held by people who are in boardrooms and not in government departments.

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