Robert Jervis Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Foreign Policy in a New Era: Conversation with Robert Jervis, Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics, Columbia University; November 17, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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The Consequences of 9/11

So, let's bring it up to date now, because the 9/11 attack by the al Qaeda network changed us. But then another question is did it change the world? So, let me hear you bring your Realist lenses here and help us understand that.

Well, the first thing is, yes, it changed George Bush enormously. I know people who are to the other side, if we want we can go into it, but I think it did. He says it changed him enormously; here, I believe him. Those people, like me and many others, who had studied international politics for years, it didn't change us. We were shocked but not surprised. We did not predict the day, the time, the method. We all predicted a large terrorist attack on the U.S. But it did change Bush and American foreign policy.

I don't think terrorism is a world changing [phenomenon] -- it changes the world because it's changed American foreign policy. The way I see it changing American foreign policy is it being one of a number of possible events that triggered the U.S. to do what I would expect a great power to do at one time or another, that is, decide to run wild, and there's nothing out there to check it. This is foolish because the terrorist threat is much less than Bush claims and than the popular press has it. I think we're being almost paranoid, or we've lost the sense of proportion on terrorism.

And we'll talk about this, but I want to unravel the pieces of this ball of yarn. I guess one of the things that you point out in your newest book -- book coverwhich I recommend very much and I'm going to use it in my class; it's called American Foreign Policy in a New Era -- one of the things that you are emphasizing is because we are the hegemon in the world, the sole superpower, that we, because of our military, our economic and other powers, are always able to act alone, even if we previously acted otherwise. You just a moment ago said it was about balancing our power, and the reality is no one can do that now.

That's right. I think that is right. I know you were talking to Steve Walt a week or two ago, and I agree with Steve normatively, that is, we would like to see the U.S. cooperate more with others. I think Steve sees more of the so-called soft balancing against the U.S. as occurring. I think a little of it is, but I don't expect enormous [impact], because Europe isn't going to unite and [oppose us]. I wish it would because I would like them to be able to check us, but I don't think they're going to. The others all face a big public goods problem. I don't think anyone -- not [that] the U.S. can do everything [we want], but we're not going to face the same external checks that other countries have, and that's very dangerous.

I think 9/11 was almost, like I say in the book, an accident waiting to happen. That is, we were in a situation where there were fewer external restraints than ever had been true in the world, and I think sometime in the next generation, something would've triggered an expansion of American active deployed power in the world as we've seen. That's exactly what Realism would lead you to expect, even if Realism thinks this is foolish, bad for the world, and bad for the United States.

The important point here we should emphasize is that you as a Realist see the world as anarchical. So the relative power you have to everybody else makes a very great difference about what you can choose to do. One of the ideas that has fully emerged during the Bush administration, implicit before, is that we can act by different standards than the rest of the world.

Yes. It's interesting that they have made this explicit, and in a way this is intellectually honest. I think it's fair to say the Clinton administration, to the extent that it had a foreign policy, it was really very slight. They wouldn't want to say that. Madeleine Albright occasionally came close but [it was] considered bad taste. In some ways John Bolton is typical of this administration in not only being forthright but believing that that's good, believing that you should speak the truth as you see it, very unlike normal diplomacy, but that's exactly right. We've said, in effect, "Preventive war? Yes, we can do it. No one else can do it. It's not a matter of fairness. As the major power, that's our role. But we take care of everyone's problems. They're not going to be able to do this."

We should explain to our audience what "preventive war" means. Although the administration and its documents have called it preemption, it's really prevention. [It means] we can choose the time and the place to prevent something from happening that we perceive is a long-term threat.

Preemption is short-term. You attack now because you expect to be attacked in the next few days. That has a great legitimacy to it, is very close to self-defense. Preventive is [based on the perception that] there are a lot of bad things that could happen four, five, ten years from now; we are going to maintain the world order that's good for us and good for everyone. So, we're trying to re-write the non-proliferation treaty rules in a way that would make some sense if we could do it, but is very different from what's written, the sort of equality that's written down in the treaty. It's a very different world they have in mind.

Your book is one of the few books, in my view, and I've read a lot of them, that lays out the elements of this hegemonic position so thoroughly. You say that as power expands -- and you've just explained that in the contemporary situation that power is unparalleled and unmatched in the history of the world -- then the statement of interest also does. So, the bigger, the more powerful you are, the more you think you have to do.

Yes. It's a phrase that I'm not sure who first came up with, but I remember Bob Tucker, a marvelous Realist, arguing that there isn't a corner of the globe that something that happens doesn't touch American foreign policy. Again, the heart of Realism: partly for structural reasons (no world government), partly for human nature, as your power expands, there are more things you're involved in. A revolution in Kazakhstan, oops, American bases are there, or implications for American interests. Remember, Kissinger in the Cold War, when Allende was first elected and he joked, "Chile is a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica," and later he said, "Oops, I didn't mean that ... " What's happening in Chile affects the U.S.

So, everywhere -- and it's, in a way, even more true now without the Soviet Union, because we didn't care about Kazakhstan in the Cold War, it was part of the Soviet Union. Where's a part of the world we don't care about? Doesn't exist.

The other element that you add to this equation in your book is that this is also true of fear, that in other words, you can be more fearful, you can use fear as a way of policy, and you can spread that fear widely.

Fear is an enormous driver in international politics. Again, I go back to Thucydides, the cause of the Peloponesian Wars, the growth of Athenian power and the fear it created in others, what we call the security dilemma which is the way in which one country increases its power and makes others less secure. I think this isn't the root cause but it's one of the two or three root causes of international politics, and living in New York especially, you saw fear and what it did and what it does. You saw the Bush administration feel it in their gut, partly because there were all the stories about nuclear weapons planted in Washington. None of us knew this but I've heard enough now -- I don't know the sources, but they really did believe it. So, they felt the fear in their gut, and then I think they did manipulate it for their own purposes. International politics is a great home of fear.

I want to pick up briefly on this fear because it must also be important that the Pentagon itself was under attack and they did not know if the next target was the White House.


So, there's a personal element here beyond everything that they had prepared for by all the different roles they had played in national security. So, I guess before we go on to talk about their response and how a Realist would grade that response, I want to draw on your education at Berkeley and ask you to what extent are there elements in our political tradition that make us more susceptible [to fear-mongering]?

There are at least three. One, probably the least important; the separation of powers. The president always has to persuade Congress. Ted Lowi, a famous political scientist, has written very well on that. It leads to what Ted called overselling problems and overselling solutions. The second tradition is our previous geographic isolation, very different from others' geography. We didn't live in world politics until 1945. I think it tends to make us lose perspective more. And there's more American nationalism and unilateralism, so I think those magnify [our fears].

In looking at your misperception book that we were just talking about, some of this is about pulling to consciousness things that are latent. What is the problem in this? Is it the American hegemon that has such difficulty in understanding a lot of what we've just been talking about?

I can't fully answer. When I was working on some of these [issues] in my book, I had a conversation with Steve Krasner who now is head of policy planning in the State Department and very close to Condie Rice. Steve's a marvelous political scientist.

A professor at Stanford.

Yes. Unfortunately not at Columbia. Anyway, I was talking to him in the fall of 2002 when it was clear to me that we were going to invade Iraq. I said, "This is crazy," and Steve got upset, I mean, irate, and he said, "No, you can say we're wrong but not crazy." I thought about it quite a bit, and I think there's a lot to that. When I say it's crazy, it means it's unique either to Bush, and we can go back to that, or to the U.S. I interpret Steve's one-word [objection] about being "wrong" [but not "crazy"] is what I've talked about so far, that "No, no, it's what countries do in these situations." And I do go back and forth. I started on the [idea of it being] uniquely American, but the more I thought, and the more I thought of Realism, I came to stress the -- well, the general.

So, you're agreeing with Steve.

Yes, I am. I am. But I think the uniqueness -- the American things, and Bush himself, his personality, certainly magnifies it.

I'm giving you an explanation I don't like. I've got too many factors explaining the same outcome. They are both involved and I do see those -- the structural as the foundational -- but I think there are unique things about the United States that make it even worse. Some of the behavior of the European countries, in a very mini way, a micro way, parallel the Unites States. book coverThe reason I stress the Realism is so many people explain what we're doing in American terms, and I don't think that it's wrong or unimportant, but it's the wrong way to start.

You've worked a lot on nuclear weapons, and you were going to talk about the Bush doctrine and the failure of intelligence. But one of the things that there seems to be universal consensus about is the fear of terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.

Yes, absolutely.

Now that link between these two phenomena -- to what extent is that also driving this fear, and if so, is that legitimate? Is that a new concern?

Yes, it is very important, because what you've got to start with, and is implicit in what you said but I want to say it, which is terrorists without WMD are -- I don't want to say a nuisance; it seems like it's debasing the memory of the 3000 who died, but it is a nuisance. The number of people who died on 9/11 is the number of people who die in less than a month of auto accidents. It's a terrible thing, something to work on, but it's not a driver of American foreign policy, it's a cost of doing business.

What you said about WMD is right, but it isn't all WMD. You really can't do it with chemicals. Anthrax -- you can stop that if you get detectors. It's only communicable biological agents and nuclear weapons. It isn't even a dirty bomb, because a dirty bomb won't kill many people. A dirty bomb in New York would would be terrible for me because it would ruin what I'm passing on to my children, which is the value of my apartment on Fifth Avenue. I'm not in a fashionable part of Fifth Avenue, but it does overlook the park, nevertheless, and it won't be worth anything if there's a dirty bomb. But a dirty bomb won't kill many people. It panics people.

The real fear for deaths obviously are terrorists with real nuclear weapons, and one of the many shames of this administration is it hasn't worked that problem right. The main source of nuclear weapons are loose nukes in Russia. This is one of the things the Clinton administration did pretty well. The Bush administration did not put the priority on that, [but] that is the linchpin. It is the horrible scenario. But we should remember that even this, horrible [as it is], is nothing like what you and I grew up with. In the Cold War, if there were a war, [it would mean] the end of civilization. Even a terrorist nuclear bomb is a horrible thing, but it is not anything like the end of civilization. It's probably less than the tsunami, maybe kills fewer people than the earthquake in the subcontinent. I don't in any means want it, or say we shouldn't worry about it, but I'm not sure even that should be the driver of American foreign policy. But it sure as hell is one of the top things you worry about.

Next page: The Bush Administration's Response to 9/11

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