Rahim Kanani Interviews Joel Rosenthal

by | Mar 24, 2011

This interview was first posted on March 24, 2011, on the website World Affairs Commentary by RAHIM KANANI. It is posted here with kind permission. (There is also an abridged version on Huffington Post.)

Recently, I conducted an in-depth interview with JOEL ROSENTHAL: , president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, on his assessment of President Obama’s foreign policy, the Middle East and North Africa protests, the WikiLeaks revelations, U.S. leadership in the age of globalization, the future of U.S. diplomatic engagement, and much more.

Joel H. Rosenthal is President of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The Council is one of Andrew Carnegie’s original peace endowments. It was founded in 1914 to promote the principles of pluralism and peace. Under Dr. Rosenthal’s direction, the Council sponsors educational programs for worldwide audiences. The Council’s lectures, publications, and educational programs focus on issues relating to ethics and war, the global economy, and cultural difference.


RAHIM KANANI: As you observe U.S. foreign policy in the context of the recent and continued uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, his ethical argument how would you assess the Obama Administration’s current posture towards the crises?

JOEL ROSENTHAL:  For an administration that came to power promising a new posture of “engagement,” the recent crises offer an opportunity that President Obama could have barely imagined when he went to Cairo in 2009. Obama began his speech at Cairo University with candor: “We meet at a time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world—tension rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.”

Seeking to end “this cycle of suspicion and discord,” the president’s goal was to find a “new beginning.” The opportunity has arrived much sooner than he thought. What he makes of it is an open question.

Engagement is a useful means. But it is not an end. So the administration has to figure out what it can do to help the anti-government protests result in genuine pro-democracy outcomes. This is a monumentally difficult task requiring strong principles, tough bargaining, good timing, and good luck. But here are two rules of thumb to keep in mind. The administration seems to understand both.

The first rule is to state clearly and unequivocally where the United States stands. The U.S. commitment to human rights must be unwavering. Compromises made in the past with authoritarian rulers must be explained in the context in which they were made. These were compromises made with the hope and expectation that the trend line was moving toward democracy. Democracy is now and always has been the goal.

Second, the U.S. must remember that the outcomes of the revolts are not up to us. The outcomes rest in the hands of the people in each country. There are important actions that the United States can and should take to shape the environment and to help friends and allies. But ultimately, there are some things that are not about us and are not up to us.

RAHIM KANANI: With the White House now deciding how to balance democracy promotion around the world and the values and principles that underpin this effort, with the desire for stability and order in the region, what would your advice be to President Obama moving forward?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: President Obama has done a commendable job so far in balancing the moral imperative to stand with the anti-government protestors while understanding the need for some measure of stability and order. He seems to understand that democratic change cannot be sustained if order is not maintained. Freedom and order are not opposing ideas; each depends on the other.

I would advise the president to allow the protests to remain as home-grown and independent as possible. There is no need for the U.S. to own these movements. Their legitimacy is enhanced by their self-help character.

With this in mind, the positive actions the U.S. can take are mostly in the form of carrots. Why not re-direct some of the billions of dollars in foreign aid to economic and educational efforts? Job creation in particular would go a long way toward improving the prospects of the young and disillusioned.

The U.S. could also do more to forge common policy with our allies in Europe and in the developed world to encourage economic development in the Arab world and thereby set the stage for more stable, open regimes.

RAHIM KANANI: What is your ethical argument for the U.S. to either stay in Afghanistan, or leave Afghanistan?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: The ethical argument for intervention in Afghanistan is to deny safe haven to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda declared war on the U.S. with its actions on 9/11 as well as its attacks against the USS Cole in Yemen and U.S. embassies in Africa. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in late 2001 had a clear purpose: to defeat the Taliban government of Afghanistan that was harboring terrorists.

The original target was al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors, not Afghanistan itself. The ethical argument for continuing operations there is confined to a single proposition: as of today, there is no indication of an al Qaeda truce or surrender. So as long as it keeps up its intention to attack the U.S., al Qaeda remains a legitimate target.

Ethical arguments for staying in Afghanistan have expanded to include providing support for the democratically elected government and the promotion of a relatively free society in the wake of the dismemberment of the previous regime. However, these arguments are fraying under the pressure of two realities: first, the imperfections and corruption of the Karzai regime; and second, the difficulties, if not impossibilities, of the military operations we have assigned ourselves. Civilian casualties are unavoidable, with each inadvertent death breeding increasing discontent among the people. In addition, the demands of counter-insurgency operations with relatively small numbers of troops in a nation as geographically vast as Afghanistan test the limits of feasibility.

Given the above, it seems to me that the ethical arguments for withdrawing from Afghanistan are gaining momentum and winning the day. The ethical imperative of “breaking and therefore owning” Afghanistan has run its course now that we are facing the ten-year anniversary of the original invasion. The Afghan government has had sufficient time to assume responsibility for order. And the U.S. is doing much now and will continue to do even more in terms of providing political, economic, and structural assistance.

The U.S. maintains its ability to strike al Qaeda targets at any time without being a large on-the-ground presence in Afghanistan. So a military withdrawal and an emphasis on what the military calls “non-kinetic” solutions seems the most pragmatic and ethical course.

RAHIM KANANI: Is the trove of U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks a story of ethical success for increasing transparency in international diplomacy or an ethical failure in that diplomacy is best conducted behind the curtain?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: The results are mixed. Openness is a good thing. And governments should never be fearful of their business becoming public. The most obvious test of ethics is the sunshine rule: How does a decision look when revealed to the public? The cliché used in reference to personal behavior is equally valid when it comes to government: How would your decision look if it were printed on the front page of The New York Times? If you are uneasy with the thought of the front page story, perhaps you should be uneasy with the decision.

Governments exist to serve their people. Their legitimacy rests on consent and good faith effort. In this manner, transparency is important and it is a necessary element of good government.

However, immediate and total transparency is not necessarily a virtue. There are some government actions that can and should be done in private. Most of us recognize the value and validity of secrecy in government functions such as jury proceedings, military planning, national security briefings, and some policy deliberations where candid advice is necessary.

The WikiLeaks case reveals the over-valuation of transparency in my opinion. The ethical standard most operative should be “accountability.” Who decided on certain policies? Why? With what outcomes?

From a U.S. perspective, the real story in the WikiLeaks revelations was the non-story in policy terms. There has been less deception than one might have thought. Most policies are what we thought they were. No great conspiracies were revealed. The chatter behind the scenes was mostly just that, chatter.

To the extent that WikiLeaks will promote accountability, this is a good trend. But as a factor in day-to-day government and diplomacy, I am doubtful of great impact. I wonder if this will be the case when WikiLeaks spreads to the corporate sector. The corporate experience may turn out to be quite different. We’ll see.

RAHIM KANANI: What has surprised you the most about U.S. foreign policy since President Obama took office?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I have been surprised at the misjudgments made about the use of presidential power in several cases. For example, the president set as a goal the closing of the Guantanamo detainee operation in one year. He missed the mark badly. It was a laudable goal and it set a certain direction for U.S. policy. But nevertheless, he failed to achieve it.

There was a similar failure in the Israel/Palestine peace process. The focus on Israeli settlements as an opening strategy was unsuccessful. Somehow there was a misjudgment on what the administration could induce the Israelis to accept.

Both of these cases show a lack of judgment regarding feasibility—the connecting of ends and means. In both cases, the president has a strong view of the goal. But he misjudged the terrain in getting there.

This uneasiness with the use of presidential power has not been confined to foreign affairs. I think it is fair to say that he has experienced similar difficulties on domestic issues such as health care legislation and budget battles. But the use of power is an art, not a science. With so many issues to be acted on and so many variables to be considered, there are bound to be miscalculations.

RAHIM KANANI: In a recent interview with Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, former United Nations deputy secretary general, he stated that this generation is probably the last globally unregulated generation. With international institutions and mechanisms slowly catching up to handle the effects of globalization, how do we ensure such bodies are built and developed on ethical foundations?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: The first step is acceptance. Better global governance depends first and foremost on accepting the fact that we live in a globalized world that challenges us politically, economically, and morally. Globalization is a fact. It is not an abstraction. Every American’s experience is shaped by the global economy, the global climate, and global media and information.

Regulation of these global systems is coming, if only as a matter of coordination and management. To deny this now is only to put off the inevitable and to perhaps lose an opportunity to shape new agreements, new institutions, and new ways of doing things.

From an ethical perspective, we might do well to look at previous examples of American leadership at global-level institution-building. After World War II, several institutional systems were created with Americans as co-architects and co-creators. The Bretton Woods system embodied a normative vision for international finance: free trade would be accompanied by commitment to social safety nets—a global new deal would underpin the new financial structure of a post-colonial world system. The United Nations and its specialized agencies embodied a normative vision for international politics. Similarly, NATO embodied the ideals of the North Atlantic democracies.

The best way to insure solid ethical foundations for new global-level institutions is to be robustly involved in their formation and development. It would be a mistake to leave the heavy lifting to others. The United States should use its preeminent position in military, economic, and political power to lead and guide others.

In the long run, properly structured global arrangements will be good for the United States from a self-interest perspective. Unilateral action will not be sufficient or sustainable in areas such as providing security (with challenges ranging from Libya’s instability to pirates off the Somali coast); maintaining global financial stability; or even regulating flows of information in cyberspace while protecting against cyber-attack. The biggest threats today require collective action. We cannot fight terrorism alone, we can not manage the global economy alone, nor can we reasonably address an issue like climate change without engaging others.

If we want a principled approach to any of these issues, we must be at the center, not the periphery, of new cooperative arrangements.

RAHIM KANANI: What role do you see, or wish, the United States might play as this new global paradigm is being both shaped and solidified?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: “Indispensible nation” always had too grandiose a ring to it, even if it is true that U.S. participation in global initiatives has been decisive since the days of the League of Nations. Perhaps we ought to shift to an approach closer to “first among equals.” We must use our energy, talents and power to lead forcefully. But we have to bear in mind the interests of others.

There are two leadership challenges to overcome. The first is internal. We need to convince ourselves that we, the United States, can and should be an architect and an engine of global-level change. It is in our interests to be globally minded. Globalism is not some vague ideal that has to do with charity and altruism. It is, rather, central to our interests and well-being to be responsible global citizens. Our interests are now tied up with the interests of others—so our calculation of what is in the national interest should evolve. We need clarity on this.

The second challenge is external. We must find ways to get others to do their part. The test of leadership is to persuade others to come along with you. We have not been as successful as we would like in burden-sharing on issues such as providing humanitarian relief.

RAHIM KANANI: If you were to address the United Nations General Assembly at the start of this year’s session in September 2011, on the topic of ethics in international affairs, what would be your opening paragraph?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: The events of 2011 are proof that ethics matter. Peaceful popular uprisings give us fresh evidence and renewed hope. The real weight of ethics is in the granting and withdrawing of legitimacy. Let’s remember that the mitigation and cessation of evil practices ultimately comes from the assertion of core values. The end of slavery began with various revolutions and rebellions—yet the source of its ultimate demise was its loss of moral legitimacy. Communism, for the most part, ended in similar fashion. The Soviet Union collapsed when the values that held it together were no longer credible and sustainable. Its legitimacy evaporated. The same could be said of apartheid South Africa. We have seen more regime change in recent years because of the power of principles rather than the power of the gun. Let’s make this coming year a year of continued peaceful change through the assertion of the ethical principles of pluralism, democracy, and human rights.

RAHIM KANANI: What worries you the most about the future of U.S. foreign and diplomatic policy?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: I worry about the things that we can do something about, policies and outcomes that are within our power to change.

So for example, I worry about the relative lack of priority given to nuclear weapons issues. During the Cold War these issues were front and center. We understood the gravity of the problem—it was second nature. Now, the idea of living with nuclear weapons has become oddly accepted as a matter of course. This is a danger, especially as new generations come to power without the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), and Star Wars.

The work of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) under the leadership of Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger deserves more attention. These elder statesmen have issued a vital wake-up call. There is much we can and should do to deal with the challenges of nuclear proliferation. Nunn, Perry, Shultz, and Kissinger have specific, actionable ideas. They are calling attention to our outmoded ways of thinking about deterrence as well as what we might do in the event of the detonation of a nuclear device as an act of terrorism.

I also worry about the overall strategic vision of our national security strategy as we begin to reckon with budgetary limitations. Our current posture provides basic security at the global level. We are now the global 911—we are policing the seas, dealing with tyrants, insuring global order. We now see as our minimum duty many capacities that exceed self-defense. It has become impossible to disentangle national security from global security. The two have become one. This is not sustainable. So we will have to decide how to recalibrate. The consequences of our recalibration will have momentous impact upon us and the world. Somehow, much of the public seems to be sleeping though this period of inevitable change.

RAHIM KANANI: At the same time, what are you most optimistic about?

JOEL ROSENTHAL: There is much to be optimistic about. For all of the challenges we have economically, we have advantages in size, composition, and structure that give us great opportunities for success. As Anne Marie Slaughter, former director of Policy Planning in the State Department points out, the U.S. has unparalleled assets in facing the challenges of world politics in the 21st century. My thinking follows hers in this regard.

As a nation of 330 million people with continental resources, we are big enough to continue to project power while avoiding the burdens of China and India, who must attend to the needs of their more than one billion people.

The composition of our society is multi-cultural and truly universal. The U.S. continues to attract immigrants from every part of the globe. This diversity positions us well to be central players in global networks and systems. While we have our own problems of assimilation and integration, in relative terms, we are doing better than many of our friends, especially in Europe.

Finally, our political and social structure is open. We have social mobility. We have ready access to capital. Creative minds can find the means to explore their creativity and bring their ideas to fruition. Politically, we have the capacity for self-correction. We should never underestimate or under-value this trait. We can and do make mistakes. We have significant shortcomings in areas such as health, poverty, education, and so on. But our core values are strong. Our openness and self-criticism lead us ceaselessly back to those core values. As long as we continue to look at our selves critically and strive to do better—and as long as we maintain the capacity to do so—the future will favor us.

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