Rhetoric Meets Reality: Foreign Policy

By Kayla McGrady ’05


Stacy Beckwith, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies, specializes in Israeli, Palestinian, and Spanish collective memory and senses of national identity
Hicham Bou Nassif, assistant professor of political science, specializes in the Middle East and political uses of violence and terrorism
Greg Marfleet, professor of political science, specializes in foreign policy
Jon Olson, visiting instructor in political science and a retired Navy intelligence officer, teaches a course on intelligence, policy, and conflict
Stephen Strand, Raymond Plank Professor of Incentive Economics, emeritus, specializes in regulatory economics and the European Union
Joel Weisberg, Herman and Gertrude Mosier Stark Professor of Physics and Astronomy and the Natural Sciences, teaches a course on science and public policy

What should the United States do about ISIS and conflicts in the Middle East?

Olson: Personally, I am not worried about ISIS. ISIS does not pose an existential threat to the United States. The bigger issue, to me, is the Syrian civil war and the destabilization of the region.

Bou Nassif: Defeating ISIS militarily will not stop the ideology that produces terrorism and instability. If ISIS loses its territory, it will go back to being an underground terrorist movement, but it will still be able to affect the region. We cannot rely solely on a security solution for what is, above anything else, a political problem.

ISIS’s goal is to emerge as champion of the Sunni cause in the Middle East. Over the past 20 years, Sunnis have faced disempowerment and marginalization. The Syrian Alawite regime is an offshoot of Shia Islam, so Sunnis have been pushed out of Syrian politics since the 1970s. The current president’s father unleashed repression that resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Sunni people in just two days. If you look at the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Palestinians are mainly Sunni. And in Lebanon, the most important Sunni politician in the past 30 to 40 years, prime minister Rafic Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 by Hezbollah. But ISIS really started with Iraq, which was under Sunni hegemony since it became a country in the 1920s, up until the American invasion in 2003.

Marfleet: We lit that fire, in a lot of ways, by invading Iraq and replacing an autocratic Sunni regime with a quasi-democratic Shia regime.

Bou Nassif: It was still a hierarchical society, and when you become an underdog in the Middle East, you don’t just lose political power. You are outside the state completely. You don’t get access to jobs in the police, military, or public sector—and historically the public sector was the main source of jobs in Iraq. You suffer economically, the police and military can be unleashed on you, and your symbols can be targeted.

Olson: Terrorist movements and insurgencies start when people feel they have no other options, and now they’ve wired those feelings into a religious identity. How many people are willing to compromise on religious beliefs? It’s an absolute.

Bou Nassif: There is a strategic logic behind this madness. ISIS is sending a signal to the millions of beleaguered Sunnis in the Middle East: “I am your champion, your avenger. Join me. Rally around the caliphate, and together we can win.” The goal is to reestablish Sunni hegemony in the Middle East.

ISIS’s acts of terrorism in other countries are what political scientists call “provocation strategy.” In essence, ISIS wants to provoke their enemies into a blunder. When Western countries respond to terrorism by marginalizing Sunni or Muslim communities in the West, those communities are more primed for ISIS’s recruitment propaganda. ISIS can attract to their cause people who wouldn’t have been interested before.

I think candidate Trump was right when he said we need to wage an ideological war to defeat ISIS, but he’s wrong about what kind of ideology we need. Instead of further isolating Muslims, we need to promote a more liberal understanding of Islam. The more unsafe Western Muslims feel, the more likely they will feel they need a champion. This is Identity Politics 101—it’s a new context, but an old game. So while fearmongering will serve President Trump’s short-term political interest—he can appear as a champion to his base—increased polarization between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States will not serve our long-term strategic interest.

The word nationalism has been in the news a lot lately. What do we need to know about it and its effects on U.S. foreign policy?

Beckwith: Nationalism, in cultural terms, is all about national identity, how you might imagine others in your country as being more or less like you, within a recognizable collective. You can see indicators of such a national community in what I call “the language of the lapel pins” that started after 9/11, when more and more leading politicians began wearing American flag lapel pins. During President Obama’s first campaign, at first he didn’t wear one, and then he did, and now so many prominent political figures wear them. These pins have gone from being a partisan statement to being an almost expected external sign of being one of the American people.

Marfleet: Ideological shifts bring changes in policy strategy. President Obama’s foreign policy came from a neoliberal position that promotes international trade because it presumes a growing global economy will benefit everyone. It’s a positive-sum game. Trump’s nationalist view is much more of a relative gains position, a zero-sum game where there will be winners and losers. So as long as we’re the winner, it’s not a big problem if everyone else loses.

Strand: “America first” is a fine slogan, but as an economic policy I think it’s doomed to disaster. In Adam Smith’s foundational economics book, The Wealth of Nations, he argues that there shouldn’t be a winner and a loser in trade. If there’s no coercion involved, the seller is better off because of the money paid and the buyer is better off because of the product received. Both win.

Beckwith: Ideas about “winners and losers” aren’t limited to financial transactions. When we think in terms of being better or more advanced than others, we become unable to see how enriching our interactions with them might be. You can see this in some attitudes toward refugees—we act like we’re doing them a huge favor by potentially admitting them into the United States, often without considering the skills and cultural richness they might bring in that can benefit our country.

Marfleet: The irony of “Make America Great Again” is that while President Trump focuses on that, he’s simultaneously undermining institutions that have made the United States a global leader. The international financial system has been U.S.-centric since World War II, and by backing away from things like the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership [TPP] and the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA], he’d essentially be ceding some of that.

Strand: Renegotiating NAFTA presents some opportunities for improvement. There’s kind of an agreement [among politicians and economists] that we screwed up a little bit with NAFTA, not just with unemployment but also with the environment, because there are different sets of rules that apply to different countries.

Renegotiation is better than rejecting trade deals. Pulling out of TPP means that instead of trying to control the way in which trade grows with China and other very important trading nations in Asia, we’re essentially creating a vacuum.

Olson: China wasn’t even initially included [in TPP], but now it could step in and replace us as the new pole for trade in the Pacific.

Strand: Getting hung up on trade deficits is a mistake. While we do have a trade deficit with several countries for goods and services—and that would be a problem by itself—we also have a tremendous surplus of people from other countries buying American property and stocks, and those investments allow us to increase our capacity. So if you look at the financial flow, a lot of what we spend on imports is coming back into our economy through investment.

Olson: I think President Trump will continue provoking China to try to get us a better deal. We’ve already seen his willingness to do that when he took that phone call from the Taiwanese president.  

Strand: The jobs we’ve lost to China and other countries aren’t coming back. Over the past 250 years of international trade, countries that can support higher-skilled jobs have made advances and then lost jobs when the technology caught on elsewhere. Back in the Industrial Revolution, England made massive improvements in textiles, but that industry rapidly moved to other places, like the United States, and England had to adjust to that change. Now our textile mills are closing up because of increased manufacturing in Asia.

You can’t reverse these changes, which are inevitable in an interconnected world. Instead you adjust to them through international agreements that try to limit the ability of certain nations to exploit those changes. That means engaging in more trade deals like TPP, not abandoning them.

Olson: Nationalistic fervor draws people into an isolationist mode—their country first—and then they want to get rid of these entangling alliances and agreements.

Marfleet: Meanwhile Russia is getting what it wanted. Because NATO has expanded into the Baltic states, Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe has diminished. The only way to reassert it is to weaken NATO and other institutions, like the European Union. Increased nationalism gave us Brexit, for example.

Strand: I don’t think the British fully understand what Brexit cost them yet. They didn’t want to have to negotiate with the EU about who’s allowed into their country, but by breaking with the EU, they’ve lost their ability to influence the rest of Europe. They’ve given up their seat at the table, their ability to negotiate. We are risking the same thing.

Olson: I think a vacuum is emerging that will allow Russia and China to continue to exercise stronger hegemony in their particular areas of interest. For example, China can also step up as leaders to fill the vacancy we leave by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. They are leading the world on investment in renewable energy because it’s a geostrategic investment for their future, so they’re poised to take world leadership in that area, especially if we step back.

Marfleet: Although the Cold War was often typified as a bipolar system with the Soviets and the United States, it was actually multipolar, with China. We played the Soviets and China off against each other to our advantage. So one model of our future is a multipolar system where we continue to play them against each other in some form.

Or we could choose a negotiation model, where we consider each polar power responsible for its respective area of influence—we don’t interfere with China’s influence over the Pacific or Russia’s influence over Central Asia and the former Soviet states. That might give us a stable world, but not necessarily a democratic one. In fact, if we think about rising regional powers, we need to think about Iran. Who’s the stable power that could take charge of the Middle East? At this point it would be the Iranians.

Those choices have moral implications.

Olson: That’s realpolitik, right? During the Cold War we sided with guys like Pinochet because even though he slaughtered his own people he was a staunch anticommunist. We’ve been making those decisions for a long time.

Bou Nassif: We’ve already created a void in the Middle East that Iran is filling. We moved from one extreme—invading Iraq under President Bush—to President Obama withdrawing from the region, allowing Iran to step in. The Shia government of Iraq is essentially an Iranian agent, so even though thousands of Americans died and we spent billions, it was Iran that really won the war in Iraq. Clients of Iran (and Russia) have killed more than 400,000 Syrians—mostly Sunnis—in the past five years, playing directly into the hands of organizations like ISIS that have destabilized the region. Neither extreme—war or withdrawal—has worked. We need to find some kind of middle ground, with a mixture of military and diplomacy.

Marfleet: Keep in mind that the pillars of post–World War II American internationalism—the United Nations, NATO, and the international financial system (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization)—are not coming down right away, no matter what attitude President Trump takes toward them. Our military is oriented toward NATO, and our treasury and commerce departments and the Federal Reserve are oriented toward international monetary stability and open trading arrangements. So if President Trump tries to change that, he’ll come up against a lot of obstacles.

Strand: We are the principal nation in those organizations because we were the only economy left standing after World War II, when they were founded. We essentially control who is chair of the IMF and who heads the World Bank. If we push other countries to play a greater role—and bear more cost—for those institutions, then we might have to recognize that their power should increase too. It is more than half a century later, so maybe this is something that should be negotiated, but we’ll want to be part of those discussions, not turn our back on them.

Why does the United States spend so much money on defense?

Marfleet: Remember that initially the Bush administration was talking about further cutting the military and intelligence community because they’re so expensive. But since 9/11, the pendulum has swung the other way, and we still have a mind-set that we have to have a bigger military than anyone else multiple times over.

Weisberg: We already account for a third of the world’s military spending, and we far outspend both Russia and China.

Olson: Well, in war, second place is a terminal disease. That’s the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine: if you go to war you must have a clearly articulated set of political objectives, go in with overwhelming force, and have an exit plan. To succeed we need force—but we need strategy, too.

Weisberg: Trump has been criticized for asking why we can’t use nuclear weapons if we have them. Actually, I believe that’s a reasonable question to ask, even if it’s naive. The usual answer is that one of their principal purposes is to deter others from actions we oppose, rather than to actually use them, given the horrifying consequences. But in reality, U.S. nuclear weapons policy goes beyond deterrence. We have been unwilling to forswear first use of nuclear weapons for decades.

Olson: When people ask if President Trump would push the button, I ask, well, what’s the situation? Given the right situation, anyone potentially would. But I think a lot of people would resign immediately rather than carry out a launch order if President Trump ordered us to start shooting nukes without a really good reason.

Weisberg: Beyond worries about President Trump’s impulsive nature, or whether weapons could be launched due to erroneous information, we have to consider the enormous cost of the proposed nuclear upgrade—and whether we’d rather be spending some of the money on other crucial needs.

Olson: The upgrade to the nuclear triad—proposed under President Obama—would cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Do we want to spend all that money on a triad, or should we perhaps get rid of the bombers and silos and focus on subs, which are a tremendously effective deterrent on their own?

Weisberg: Eliminating the silos would get rid of what is, in my view, the biggest risk of an accidental nuclear war. Because the land-based missiles are stationary and therefore could be destroyed in a surprise attack, they are held in hair-trigger readiness to avoid destruction on the ground. Unfortunately, this means a computer glitch or incorrect information about an attack could result in all 500 of them being launched. Both the United States and Russia have had close calls in the past due to false alarms.

Beyond the cost, part of the proposed triad upgrade includes rendering some existing weapons more capable than they currently are, and that could trigger a new arms race. Historically, the Soviet Union developed its own versions of our new weapons within a few years of us, and we can expect Russia to do the same. I think negotiated, verifiable agreements for arms reductions are a much saner course of action.

Where can we learn more?

Beckwith: There are great books—that aren’t new—about nationalism. Some foundational books on national awareness and patterns of stereotyping include Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. He examines mental pictures people develop of themselves as a nation, from reading newspapers or literature that suggests to them that fellow citizens are doing the same and thinking similar things in response. Orientalism by Edward Said shows how British and French colonial officials, administrators, anthropologists, and writers kept repeating each other’s descriptions of Arab, African, and other non-Western communities and thus compounded stereotypes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object by Johannes Fabian includes the image of a river to show how Western observers of non-Western societies have often looked at themselves as being ahead, or downstream, while portraying others as being farther behind them in the river, and therefore backward. This gives the impression that not everyone is living in the same time period.

Strand: I’ll give you the same advice [former Carleton president and economist] Steve Lewis would: If you have four or five back issues of The Economist, read them cover to cover. I would add to that recommendation the Financial Times of London. Both of those are British publications, but they provide the best view of American economic policy that I know of, and I read them faithfully.

Bou Nassif: The Carnegie Middle East Center’s website publishes a lot of great resources, so if you only have time to look in one place, that would be it.

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