James Dobbins Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Nation Building: Conversation with Ambassador James Dobbins; Director, International Security and Defense Policy Center, Rand Corporation; February 28, 2005
by Harry Kreisler

Page 8 of 8


Looking at your experience over the years, starting with the negotiations in Paris to end the Vietnam War, [through years] in Europe where diplomacy and civility must have been at their highest, and then in later years, trying to solve the problems of some of the real basket cases, what skills do you think are important in understanding the world -- understanding these kinds of problems and America's place in the world, where it has more power than anybody else, but in some ways, less power than it had?

Well, it takes a lot of skills and it takes a lot of combinations of skills, and probably no one person has them all. An effective diplomat, first of all, needs an understanding of how power is distributed in other societies and how decisions are made, who actually makes the decisions, on what basis do they make them, what inputs are important to them. [One] prerequisite for influencing a system is understanding how that system works.

The second is an ability to establish relationships of confidence, even with potential adversaries, in which each party sees a self-interest in being reasonably candid, reasonably straightforward, and in working through a problem, ideally to an agreed solution. That's often a lot more possible than one might originally accept.

The two things you need are, first of all, an understanding of how power is effectively distributed and managed in another society, and secondly, a certain empathy for your interlocutors, where are they coming from, what's important to them, how to shape your arguments in a manner which is likely to appeal to them and change their minds.

Do you feel confident that American domestic politics will provide a foundation for America playing the strategic role it has played in the past, but also being able to understand when and if multilateral solutions are appropriate?

Well, of course, America is so powerful that multilateralism doesn't come naturally. If you're a small country in a big world, you rapidly come to see the necessity for working through multilateral institutions. A big country which has so much power and capacity to achieve things nationally or within small coalitions is harder to persuade, and so it does take sobering experiences, like our experience in Iraq, to remind people that even the world's only superpower has considerable limitations.

The United States also has more difficulty institutionalizing these lessons because our patronage system creates such a huge turnover of personnel. Most democratic governments, when they change administrations from one party to another, there are perhaps 50 or 100 people who leave their office and another 50 or 100 people come into the office. In the United States you're talking about 10,000 to 20,000 people who change. It's a staggering number.

As a result, particularly in institutions like the White House, there's virtually nobody left. The file drawers are empty, a new team comes in, and there's a process during which they learn lessons. Sometimes that's quick and painless, but often it's not so quick and it's very painful, and it's very costly. The advantage of the system is that it makes the connection between the citizen and the government stronger. People come from all over the country, they move to Washington, and it's not just an elite of bureaucrats and politicians who are governing from a distance. But the disadvantage is that when we change, particularly when we change both parties and administrations, there is often a prolonged vacuum of experience which can lead to costly errors.

I know at Rand, the center that you're heading is focused on an array of security issues beyond the ones that we've just talked about. Is there some way that we should be conceptualizing the security threats that thus far we have not done, or are we moving in the right directions?

There's a tendency to oversimplify. A lot of people have suggested 9/11 was a fundamental watershed, that everything has changed, and that the threat is now a Muslim Jihadism and weapons of mass destruction. Those are certainly threats, but the world isn't that different, and a more sophisticated and reflective understanding of the world would lead less to the assumption that everything has changed, everything is new, and none of the old solutions work. I tend to think that the world changes a little more slowly, and I was pleased to see that the president, in his inaugural address, spoke more about democratization and less about counterterrorism. Now there's a lot of oversimplification from that inaugural address, but what it means is we now have a foreign policy based on hope, whereas prior to the president's inaugural we had a foreign policy based on fear. All in all, I'd rather have a foreign policy based on hope than fear.

Ambassador Dobbins, on that note I want to thank you very much for coming to the Berkeley campus and participating in our program today and sharing with us this very interesting odyssey and the ideas that are going to matter in our U.S. foreign policy. Thank you.

Thank you very much, a pleasure.

Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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