Andrew Northrup has strong, mixed reactions to an interview with Berkeley Professor Steven Weber on current U.S. foreign policy. I know that I always learn a lot from every conversation with Steve. And when I need an informed view on an International Relations topic, he is one of the first people I go to to borrow one from...
The Poor Man: Somewhat less rubbishy is an interview with UC Berkley's Steven Weber, who is alternately right, wrong, and horribly confused. I'm not saying it's a great piece in and of itself, but it is something I had a lot of reactions to...
Here's the interview with Steve:
Posted by DeLong at January 12, 2003 04:05 PM | Trackback
A conversation with Steven Weber An expert in international relations looks at the changing role of the United States in the world...
By Russell Schoch
The world of international relations has undergone a dramatic shift since September 11, 2001. The United States has changed the direction of its foreign policy from one of containment (of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, of Iraq since the Gulf War) to talk about "pre-emptive" strikes against other nations, specifically Iraq. Ten years ago, Berkeley associate professor of political science Steven Weber argued in favor of the first Bush administration's war against Iraq. He agreed to share his point of view with us on world affairs then and now.
Weber is research director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy and director of the MacArthur Program on Multilateral Governance at Berkeley's Institute of International Studies. A student of international relations, multilateralism, the political economy of networks, and "scenario planning," he also consults widely with business (including Shell Oil) and government (including the State Department). He was a consultant to the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, which issued its report prior to the attacks on U.S. soil in 2001. Weber, by chance, was in New York City on September 11 and saw the Twin Towers fall.
Born and raised in Baldwin, Long Island, Weber went to Washington University in St. Louis, where he majored in history and graduated in three years, at the age of 20. Unsure of what he wanted to do, he went to medical school, at Stanford.
Weber loved the first two years, with its emphasis on basic science, but not the applied part of medicine. He took a year off to earn a master's degree in political science (one of his first professors was Condoleezza Rice), and felt he had found an intellectual home. Weber pursued both fields, earning a Ph.D. in political science while stopping a few months short of an M.D. ("I had to prove to the political science field that I was not going to go back to medicine," he says.) His dissertation, "Cooperation and Discord in Security Issues: Towards a Theory of U.S.-Soviet Arms Control," was chosen as the most outstanding in the field of international relations for 1989, and became his first book. After a postdoctoral year at Harvard, he accepted a teaching appointment at Berkeley in 1990. Weber is enthusiastic about his teaching experience at Berkeley. "I love it," he says. "The graduate students in my department are nothing short of extraordinary--just an amazing group of people. Teaching undergraduates here is very challenging because you have large classes--300 is sort of normal--and a very diverse range of interests and backgrounds." He says there's an "entrepreneurial" energy among the students here that he didn't find at Stanford or Harvard. "They know that if they don't work for the attention of faculty members, they'll get lost in the crowd. And the students here really work hard." Weber has the "privilege," as he puts it, of being a senior honors thesis adviser "for some incredible undergraduates. In fact, almost every year there are a couple of undergraduates who just blow you away; you can't believe they are so intuitively brilliant."
Weber's central theme as a scholar has been large-scale collective action in non-hierarchical settings. He has written a monograph about multilateralism in NATO, and edited books about globalization and the European political economy and about European integration and American federalism. His next book, which Harvard will publish in 2003, is "The Success of Open Source," about the new Internet economy and the changes in systems of knowledge production. He is also working on several smaller projects concerning the ramifications of the shift in U.S. military doctrines from deterrence to pre-emptive action.
We talked to Weber in late September about the shape of the world and the United States' changing role in it, especially in relation to Iraq, and about new aspects of foreign policy revealed this fall as President Bush calls for a"regime change" in that country.
Let's start with your work on the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. Did you talk about terrorism?
Yes, a great deal.
This was when?
At the end of 1999, beginning of 2000. The final report of the commission said: It is likely that there will be a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil. I remember--this sends chills up my spine--looking back at my lecture notes from the year 2000, and finding a section on the U.S. fighting an undeclared war against someone named Osama bin Laden.
But we weren't the only ones to recognize this. Lots of people predicted it in a general sense.
Was there, then, an intelligence failure?
Yes, of course there was. It's easy, with 20/20 hindsight, to say that. However, one could also say they got it 99.8 percent right. There is a tendency in thinking about foreign policy to overemphasize the intelligence failures--when things go wrong--and the policy successes--when things go right. There are also intelligence successes and policy failures. We learned a great deal about the intentions and capabilities of al Qaeda during the second half of the 1990s, but policymakers can rarely expect intelligence to provide precise information about the moment-to-moment activities of any adversary. Good policymaking always requires judgment calls on imperfect information.
You were in New York City on September 11, 2001. What was that like?
I think it's easy for people on the West Coast to underestimate the emotional impact of September 11. It was a very different feeling to be there. You wake up the next morning in Manhattan and realize in a visceral, not just intellectual, way how extraordinarily vulnerable a complex system like New York City is to disruption.
I was in New York City for a week. Aside from walking around in a daze, I spent a lot of time talking to people, watching what they were doing, and listening to what they were saying to each other.
The first thing you noticed was in the bookstores. On September 12, the shelves were emptied of books on Islam, on American foreign policy, on Iraq, on Afghanistan. There was a substantive discussion about what it is about the nature of the American presence in the world that created a situation in which movements like al Qaeda can thrive and prosper. I thought that was a very promising sign.
But that discussion got short-circuited. Some time in late October, early November 2001, the tone of that discussion switched, and it became: What's wrong with the Islamic world that it failed to produce democracy, science, education, its own enlightenment, and created societies that breed terror?
What changed the discussion?
I don't know, but I will say that it's a long-term failure of the political leadership, the intelligentsia, and the media in this country that we didn't take the discussion that was forming in late September and try to move it forward in a constructive way.
Let's face it, the truth is that September 11 was the result of two things: the American presence in the world, and the rest of the world. Both of those matters need to be discussed. But it's always hard to ask: Why do people see us in this way? What have we done that contributed to this result? That discussion got cut off and then was completely lost.
We're in a tough situation. September 11 woke us to something most Americans don't want to realize: The vast majority of people on this planet have nothing to lose from the decline of the West.
That's one message coming from September 11?
Yes. In a way, the message coming out of Seattle in late 1999--the protests at the World Trade Organization meeting--was taken more seriously for a longer period of time than the message at the World Trade Center. At a very abstract level, they are both about the nature of the global economic-political order, in which the United States' presence plays a major, major part.
What should be done in response to those messages?
It has become critical that the political leadership stand up and say what the United States would like the world to look like in 2005--something different and more comprehensive than saying: the same as 2000 without al Qaeda.
Can the war against terrorism be won?
I don't think anyone's defined what winning that war means. If winning it means destroying the ability of al Qaeda to carry out large-scale destructive attacks against American interests, can it be won? Yes. Will it be won? Unclear. At what cost? We don't know because we don't know how al Qaeda works. Terrorism is a means of disrupting established orders. There will always be people who try to disrupt established orders; so in that sense, the war against terrorism will never be won.
Is the war against terrorism unprecedented, as we're told?
Right after September 11, I remember reading that the nature of this new adversary is unprecedented, and has never existed before in human history. It's ideologically driven, it's a shadowy network, a non-state actor, and so forth. But if you look back at what people were saying about Communism in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War, what do you see? You see people saying: We're fighting something that is not exactly a state, it's an international, ideological movement; it works in shadowy networks that are deeply embedded in societies, even here within the United States. Very similar ways of envisioning an enemy. Also, we were told: The Cold War will go on for a very long time, perhaps forever. Interesting, isn't it?
Let's talk about another war that may be repeated--against Iraq. What changed about Iraq after September 11?
The situation in Iraq didn't change on September 11. What changed was the politics around the issue in the United States. There are a lot of people in Washington who have felt for a long time that Saddam Hussein's regime is a problem that needs to be solved. And they felt, not entirely incorrectly from a political standpoint, that September 11 gave them more or less a blank check to do that.
Weren't you in favor of the U.S. war against Iraq in 1991?
Yes. I thought it was the least bad of the options facing the United States at that time. But my view was: If the interests of either the United States or the United Nations were such that you're willing to risk the lives of 500,000 Americans and however many millions of Iraqis, then you don't stop before you've accomplished the goal. And the goal of fighting a war at that scale is to change the regime, not simply to recapture occupied territory.
The way the Gulf War ended was the worst possible outcome. I don't think anybody really knows how much destruction took place, and in the end we left in power the regime that we opposed. Then, for the next ten years, the civilian population of Iraq paid the price for our foreign policy failure.
As a result of the sanctions imposed on Iraq?
Yes. I think they should have been lifted ten years ago.
Should sanctions ever have been imposed?
Maybe they should have been tried for a while. But once it was clear that they weren't going to work and that they were causing undue pain to the wrong people, and probably strengthening Saddam's hand, they should have been removed.
Why didn't the U.S. finish the job in 1991?
There are two stories about that. One is military. Many of the Gulf War commanders were actually quite troubled by the slaughter the American troops were inflicting on the Iraqis. They were worried, not just from an ethical or moral perspective, but about the psychological impact on their soldiers of such killings.
The political story, as I understand it, was that people around [former President] Bush made the argument that the most promising option was to cage the tiger, to contain Saddam rather than risk the dissolution of the country, with the possibility of an extended period of instability where U.S. or allied troops might need to be there for a long time. In the heat of the moment, that seemed like the least risky thing to do.
Let's talk about oil.
The biggest failure of U.S. policy in the 20th century has been to maintain a very vulnerable position, where we're heavily dependent on a part of the world, the Middle East, over which we have very limited control. We've had to cut lots of deals with people we'd rather not cut deals with, and do lots of things that are dysfunctional and costly for us in order to maintain our dependence on fossil fuels.
What about our dependence on Saudi Arabia and its oil?
The dependence of the United States on Saudi Arabia and Saudi oil is still high, but is declining. It's declining because we want it to decline. Look, it was no surprise to anyone in Washington that lots of the September 11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.
But what's new is that the focus of the world oil market has shifted to Russia and Central Asia. If you look at the reserves and the production of Russian and Central Asian oil, you'll see that in a matter of years, that oil can replace Saudi oil.
Yes. And then Saudi Arabia simply doesn't matter in the way that it once did. That fact, seldom publicly discussed, has dramatically changed the politics of the U.S. relation with Saudi Arabia.
And how does this affect the situation in Iraq?
It increases the incentive for the U.S. to control the Iraqi oil spigot. This is going to sound Machiavellian, but it's going to take a few years to bring Russian and Central Asian oil onto the market. There are also transport concerns: The U.S. is reluctant, for obvious reasons, to build or rely on pipelines that go through places like Iran. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia remains the "swing producer" in world oil markets, which gives the Saudi leaders substantial control over the price of oil. You can imagine a situation where an American victory in Iraq makes it possible for Western oil firms to bring a massive amount of Iraqi oil online in a short time, with relatively little capital investment--a very attractive prospect indeed. Meaning that we can rid ourselves of our extreme dependence on Saudi oil, using the Iraqi oil to bridge the gap until we can move to sustainable production in Russia and Central Asia.
But we're not being told that, we're being told that Saddam is evil and a danger to his neighbors and to the United States.
I think the Washington elite underestimates the intelligence and maturity of the American public. I feel very strongly about this. President Bush refers to Osama bin Laden as "the evil one," and talks about something as apocalyptic as an "axis of evil." There is a tendency to put things in black and white, and I think the reason people in Washington do this is because they believe it's an effective political strategy. But I think it's infantilizing the American public.
What is Washington to say instead? "We need oil"?
Yes. Something like: Here's the situation--oil is critical to our economy. And we're facing a leader who has demonstrated both a desire and a willingness to invade and occupy his neighboring countries primarily, in our view, to gain control over the oil supplies. We can't live in a world where a hostile dictator owns 470 billion barrels of oil--44 percent of the proven oil reserves in the world. That's not acceptable to us. Therefore, we need to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
Then people might step back and say: Okay, that might be the case now, but in the long run we need to make sure that our energy situation is more sustainable so we're not in such a position ten or 15 years from now.
In fact, some of the more forward-looking oil companies are now recognizing this. The managing director of Shell Oil said a year and a half ago: If we are still predominantly an oil company 15 years from now, we'll be out of business. Such companies are recognizing that, for a set of increasingly compelling reasons, both from a political and an environmental standpoint, we're just not going to be able to run an economy on fossil fuel for very much longer.
Let me ask you about the latest version of the United States' national security strategy, made public in September.
It's quite a remarkable document. It lays out a strategy of pre-emption which is enormously ambitious. It talks about the fact that we now believe there's a single sustainable model for national success--ours. Freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. That's an extraordinary and incredibly ahistorical proposition.
This is the sort of document that, ten or 15 years from now, people will look at and be amazed at how we could have believed it. For now, it will be read by many abroad as a sort of shameless justification for what they will see as imperialism.
How do you see it?
I think the basis of the criticism of the Bush administration--as "drunk with power"--shows up very strongly in this document. One part reads: "These values of freedom are right and true for every person in every society." Does this mean simply the particular way in which "freedom" is interpreted by Americans in 2002?
There's been a very interesting change of tone of late. When the Clinton Pentagon put out a document raising the idea that the U.S. might try to prevent the emergence of a great power capable of rivaling U.S. military power, there was a huge outcry over it.
We have a new administration. And the political atmosphere has changed dramatically since September 11. We have in this national security document a much broader statement about what dynamics of power the United States will seek in the world--the notion that we ought to use our power to suppress any power that would rise up to rival us.
This is not an obvious corollary to the war on terrorism. But the two for the moment are being conflated in this document. They're using the terrorist threat to advance a much more expansive argument about the role of military force in international politics.
It seems they're deliberately being put together. President Bush went to the U.N. about Iraq one day after the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attack.
I think they're being put together because lots of people in the administration see this as an opportunity to do a lot of things they wanted to do.
Some might say: to rule the world.
I think that's overstating it. But certainly to maximize American freedom to act, to pursue what are perceived to be U.S. interests in the world without too many constraints.
Isn't that what imperial power does--rearranges countries to its advantage?
That's what great powers do. Imperial powers occupy countries and try to extract resources for their own benefit. But, no doubt about it, oil has been and continues to be a major part of our strategy in the Middle East and in Iraq. If it were not for the oil issue, it would be an entirely different story. A containment policy would look much more viable, I think, if it were not for oil.
What do you and your colleagues think should be done about Iraq?
I would guess that the mainstream of American international relations scholars, basing this on my e-mail traffic, is almost entirely opposed to an invasion of Iraq. I'd say 95 percent opposed.
Because they're all left-wing ideologues?
Not at all. It's because it's easier for people who are not in decision-making positions to be against high-risk strategies than to be in favor of them. It's very easy to point out the five things that could go wrong.
What are they?
Well, the war might not go all that well. The United States might not win; probably will, but might not. More likely, the U.S. would win the war but at substantial costs in American lives and to the economy. There could be a huge number of civilian causalities in Iraq. There could be a use of weapons of mass destruction, either against Israel or the United States. There could be a terrorist attack in the United States; one of the underlying fears, which is not often voiced, is that Saddam Hussein has prepositioned biological weapons in this country, and that they would be released. And all these problems could come up before the war is over. Afterwards, even after a decisive military victory, there are many other problems that will emerge, both within and around Iraq. "Regime change" is just the beginning.
Some people criticize the administration for laying out an overly optimistic, even naïve, vision, which is that five years from now, we've got a democratic Iraq that stands out as a vision of new possibilities in the Middle East. The truth is, we just don't know.
Where do you stand?
I'm conflicted. I am very sympathetic to those in the administration who argue that the status quo is unacceptable. But that's not to say that going to war is the best way to solve the problem.
What's the main issue, as you see it, about Iraq today?
The main issue for me is nuclear weapons. If Saddam is close to having those, then I see an argument for going ahead with a war. But I don't know that, and I'm probably not going to know that, which is why it's almost impossible for me to have a firm position for or against war with Iraq.
This raises a deeper question, which is the relation of the intelligence community to our democracy over the next five to ten years. A lot of what the United States is going to be doing in its foreign policy, security policy, and external behavior--in this war against terrorism and elsewhere--is going to be based on data that comes from intelligence sources that people are going to be very reluctant to release. The intelligence community needs to figure out a way to maintain the secrecy and viability of their sources while at the same time providing the trusted information that is necessary to have a democratic debate. Otherwise, we're going to be in big trouble.
Because either we're going to be asked to take things on faith--in which case sometimes we will and sometimes we won't. Or people are going to get very disillusioned with the whole process, and the public will lose trust in the government when it comes to the management of foreign affairs. That would be a very dangerous situation. This is a problem that needs to be addressed very soon, regardless of what happens in Iraq.