Walter Russell Mead Interview (2004): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Grand Strategy in a World at Risk: Conversation with Russell Mead, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, May 10, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Grand Strategy

Your book is subtitled America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk. What are the key elements of a grand strategy for the United States, understanding, on the one hand, the turmoil that's out there in the world, but on the other hand, the vortex of issues and ideas and personalities here at home?

The challenge of leadership, which we were talking about earlier, is to somehow find a path for the United States that makes sense in the wider world, but which also makes sense in terms of the political forces here in the U.S. Sometimes that's the hardest thing to do of all. We don't have a new grand strategy yet, by the way. It's interesting, at least at this stage in the campaign, whether you're hearing from the White House, or whether you're hearing from the Kerry folks, there's a lot of talk about this issue or that issue, but there's not a lot of talk about how we win the war on terror, or what does a victory look like, what is the big picture here?

The first thing we've got to start doing is thinking exactly about that. I think we could do a lot worse than going back to the Cold War and using the concept of containment, reviving the idea of containment as one of the ways we try to think about dealing with terrorism. Because on the one hand, you've got the containment of the military threat, the security threat that the terrorists pose, and so we've got to obviously step up our homeland defense, we've got to proactively go in there, disrupt and destroy the organizations of terrorism, we've got to cut terrorists off from access to weapons of mass destruction, we have to stop states giving money or other support to terrorists -- all of these kinds of things.

But then we've also got to look at this fanaticism the way we looked at communism, as an ideology. Communism just wasn't linked to the Red Army. There was a climate of opinion, an ideology. In Western Europe, particularly in the early Cold War, it was quite possible that communism could have taken over in those countries without Soviet intervention, but on the basis of internal political events. So you had to learn to combat an ideology.

In the same way, we're going to have to combat this fanaticism (I argue in the book it's really a form of fascism), but we've got to marginalize it, we've got to bring the center and moderates over to our side. And, after all, Osama bin Laden is somebody who thinks that the Royal House of Saudi Arabia has apostatized from Islam, so this is way out there in far cuckoo-land from the vast majority of Muslims. So we want to push this kind of thinking out to the edge. And that's going to involve a political strategy, where, frankly, we have not yet been very successful at where we need to go in the future.

So it seems to me that containment as a concept offers a way to explain to American public opinion and to world public opinion what we're doing. It's a flexible approach that ranges from military action where necessary, but puts a hell of a lot of emphasis on political and economic steps that have so far played only a rhetorical role in what we're doing. That's part of what we need to do.

We've also got to think about how do we make millennial capitalism and this new era less a force for radical disruption in the world, and that's another dimension where our foreign policy needs to go.

What sort of things do you have in mind here? I recall one, that is, the notion of retired people being deployed in a kind of a Peace Corps.

Well, "deployed" is a little strong, but I do think that if you think about Mexico and the Caribbean, one way that we could do a lot more for promoting economic development there that would also help people here in the U.S. is to make it possible and even easy for Americans who want to retire into these countries to do it. So you have tax treaties, you allow people, very importantly, to use their Medicare for reimbursement there, and you take other steps, because it's much cheaper to live in many of these countries. In the future, we've got 100 million people retiring in the United States, or turning sixty-five in the next thirty years. Many of them, as we well know, are going to face a limited economic picture. But, in any case, at any income level, it would increase people's choices to be able to go there. What's interesting is this is not a classic form of foreign aid, in the sense of state-to-state transfers. It's not the free-trade agenda, either. It's a different way of trying to stimulate economic development in ways that benefit both countries, or everybody concerned. That would be one of the new approaches.

Another that is very important that harnesses the potential of millennial capitalism comes from some of the work I've done in trying to understand housing markets in developing countries. If you take a walk, as I've done, through some of the very poor squatter settlements in South Africa or Rio de Janeiro, some of these places, what you often find out is that people living in these miserable and squalid little shacks, if they could do what Americans do -- that is, have a 10 percent down payment and a monthly mortgage payment for thirty years -- actually could afford, on the jobs that they have, a basic but decent house, a kind of a Levittown standard, simple but adequate house. Trying to figure out how we could use this exquisitely well developed and extraordinarily powerful international capital movement system that we've developed to meet the human needs of people in these developing countries would be a tremendous force for stability and prosperity in the world.

With your proposals for a grand strategy as a benchmark, how would you evaluate the Bush response thus far?

It's tough, because I can't be one of those people who embrace everything that they've done or curse everything that they've done. I'm wretchedly stuck in this very uncomfortable middle position. I think they're right to say the war on terror is the center of American foreign policy. I think they were right to press toward regime change in Iraq, although virtually everything they've done about how to go about it has been bad. It reminds me of Abraham Lincoln, when he first met Mary Todd. He went up to her and said, "I want to dance with you in the worst way." And she said afterwards, "That's what he did."

But in any case, there were some very important reasons why we needed to do that.

That is, to take out the regime, but not ...

To move toward regime change.

Yes, but not do it in the way that they did it.

There were a lot of ways we've could have gotten to an end state that didn't have him running the country.

I think, also, that American foreign policy can't be Eurocentric in the way that it used to be. It doesn't mean we should have had the fights with Europe, necessarily, that Bush has had, but our future partners are going to be much more in the developing world. A country like India may well be much more important for us in the twenty-first century than all of the European countries in the EU put together, for example. We do need to start shifting our diplomacy out of some of these traditional patterns into new ones.

Some of the work that they've done on the Millennial Development Challenge and on expanding HIV efforts in Africa are small steps in the direction we need to go, in my view, in a much stronger, more powerful way. But in general, I think you give them a grade of "incomplete" at this point

We'll have to see. If there is a second Bush term, will they stop making some of the mistakes that they've made and build on some of the intelligent foundations of strategy? For example, Bush has done the right thing in being very strong in terms of American support for a viable Palestinian state. He said -- which is new and important -- that the state needs to be economically prosperous, have an economic future. Can we go further in that direction?

They're also right to say that the United States shouldn't see the Israeli-Palestinian thing as zero sum: that if you're nicer to the Israelis you have to be worse to the Palestinians, and vice versa, which is the way a lot of people say this. In fact, I think we should continue to be very strongly pro Israeli, but we should also start thinking of ways to be more pro Palestinian: compensation for land that was lost, making sure that at the end of the day, when there is a settlement, Palestinians will all have passports, they will all have the right to live and work freely in some country. To start figuring out how to make a peace settlement acceptable, and more than acceptable, to Palestinians would be important, not just in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian thing, but in how we're perceived throughout the Arab world and the Muslim world.

But again, what the Bush administration has so far done has been very small steps in the right direction, but small steps, and more needs to happen.

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