by Eva Sohlman
- Sweden -
The hope for change is tremendous after nearly eight years of George W. Bush in the White House – both in America and around the world. But regardless of who becomes the next president, we are all in for a big disappointment cautions Strobe Talbott, director of Brookings Institution, one of America’s most influential and oldest think tanks. He warns that the expectations concerning what the US will be able to accomplish as an international actor are exaggerated.
“Never ever in American history has a new president in the White house faced foreign-policy challenges of this magnitude or of this complexity!” The slender and energetic 61-year-old Talbott sighs deeply and shakes his head as he talks about the challenges that lie ahead. At the time of the interview, which takes place in his open and inviting home in Washington, Talbott lights a fire in the living room to defy the chilly weather outside, eagerly assisted by his two hunting dogs.
“It is all going to be about the Middle East. The Middle East is going to be a cauldron of problems: Iraq, Iran, the peace process, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, Syria, the future of Egypt. The list goes on. Therefore it is going to be very difficult for the next administration to dedicate the political and diplomatic energy required to the really serious problems,” he warns. Talbott speaks with composure, but his dark, piercing eyes radiate grave concern.
If the US is going to be able to approach these problems in a fruitful way and have the support of the rest of the world, the first thing the next president must do is to repair the superpower’s credibility on the international stage. Its reputation has hit rock-bottom following Bush’s invasion of Iraq, the US strategy in Afghanistan, the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, internationally viewed as illegal -- as is the exposure of the CIA’s rendition program and the torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and Bagram prisons.
“Bush was an extreme aberration! His first [term] was consequently and consciously the most unilateral period in the history of US foreign policy,” says Talbott, shaking his head in disbelief. He points out that until 2001 when Bush became president, and all during the 19th and 20th centuries, American foreign policy was dominated by the understanding that the country should focus on global interests through international institutions, treaties and agreements. The idea was to lean on an international legal framework that the United States would take part in developing.
“This was our schtick! The US was the master builder of the international institutions. Now we must get back on track, back to an international legal system.”
This is why the next president, during his or her first couple of months, should reinstate the support of the Geneva convention, the UN convention on torture, restore Habeas Corpus (“even for the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay”) and recognize the International Court in the Hague (something Bush refused to do in 2002), says Talbott. He also thinks the next president should begin a process to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), reinforce the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and kick-start negotiations with Russia on measurable and significant reductions of nuclear weapons arsenals.
Talbott does not foresee the United States’ role as the world’s leading superpower being seriously threatened or contested, but he acknowledges that as the economic and geopolitical giants China and India keep growing rapidly, they will demand more influence.
“They will cause great challenges and many problems for us regarding climate change, nuclear weapons and global trade.” Referring to China, Talbott also points out that though we all like to think the cold war is over, more than a sixth of the world’s population lives under a government system run by something called the Politburo’s Communist Party.
“It is an understatement to say ideological problems that humanity hasn’t solved still exist. But the good news is that these two superpowers (China and India) are showing signs of moving toward becoming responsible global actors.” Therefore, he adds with an sardonic smile, it is important that the US also returns to being one.
In comparison, the US’ relationship with Russia will not require as great an engagement as those with China and India, says Talbott, who once was Time Magazine’s bureau chief in Moscow. But it should definitely be greater than it has been in recent years, he adds.
“The development is unsettling, but I don’t belong to the group who think Russia has gone back to being the Soviet Union. Russia sees itself as part of a globalized world, and not as an autocratic hegemonic leader of a military camp. The problem is that Russia has adopted an attitude that the world should dance to its tune because of its oil and other riches. We simply have to learn to say, ‘No!’ to Russia.” Talbott predicts that today’s high oil price will eventually drop, especially as global dependency on fossil fuels wanes. “Then it will transpire how Russia wasted time by not modernizing its economy.”
Before driving to his office in his environmentally friendly Toyota Prius, Talbott concludes that he believes America has learned the lesson from Bush’s failed experiment of acting unilaterally. However he emphasizes that US foreign policy has always had strands of isolationism, and always will.
“This is why we are in for a huge disappointment, regardless of whether the next president will be a Democrat or a Republican. There is a desperate longing for change. When Bush leaves office there will be a huge sigh of relief – ‘Thank God we have that behind us!’ – but the changes are not going to be that great. There is not going to be a big transformation. The United States will continue to act according to the motto: ‘We love to collaborate with you. But by God, if we have to go it alone, we will! And we are not going to ask for permission.’”
- This article originally appeared in Swedish for the publication, Fokus. - Ed.
About the Author
Eva Sohlman is a Swedish journalist and writer with credentials in print, radio and TV. She was formerly the editor and producer of The World in Focus ("Världen i Fokus"), a Swedish TV program which reports world news and in-depth studio interviews. The show follows Eva's international career reporting for Reuters and publications in The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Having lived, studied and worked in Sweden, Britain and France, Eva is fluent in each of those languages. Her book, Arabia Felix [Happy Arabia] in the Time of Terror – Journeys in Yemen ("Arabia Felix i Terrorns tid – Resor i Jemen" ) was published in Swedish in January 2007. It is based on her reporting for Reuters and the Economist. Three chapters translated into English by her Swedish publisher, Wahlström & Widstrand can be found here.