The American InterestAn interview with Eliot A. Cohen and Francis Fukuyama

Posted in United States | 17-Jul-06 | Author: Roderick Latham and Costantino

In the twenty years since its first issue was published back in 1985, The National Interest has become established as one of the leading journals of international affairs. Its website proudly and accurately proclaims that “when pundits of the op-ed pages and talk-shows speak of ‘The End of History’, or ‘Geo-economics,’ or ‘The West and the Rest,’ they are using phrases they came across first in The National Interest”. Yet in 2005, some of the most prominent members of The National Interest editorial board made a startling announcement that they had become so disillusioned with the journal that they were cutting their association from it. A rival alternative was established, The American Interest, which first hit the shelves back in September.

Two of the most influential figures behind this dramatic separation were Eliot A. Cohen, author of Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime, and Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man and America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy. In exclusive WSN interviews, these two distinguished professors of the Johns Hopkins University discuss their reasoning for this action, and their views on various issues in global affairs today.

The need for ‘The American Interest’

WSN: Why did you feel there was a need for The American Interest magazine, and what differentiates it from The National Interest?

Eliot A. Cohen: "One of the successes of the Bush Administration has been developing relationships with Asian Powers"
Eliot A. Cohen: "One of the successes of the Bush Administration has been developing relationships with Asian Powers"
Eliot A. Cohen: There were a number of us who wanted a magazine that would not have a clear-cut and hard-edged ideological point of view, which meant not only avoiding the labels of left and right but also of realist and idealist. We wanted a place that would be interesting in part because it was unpredictable. If you see the table of contents and you know what will be in the articles by their titles, then it’s not a very interesting magazine.

Francis Fukuyama: I think the reason why I left The National Interest was that it had become basically an extension of the Nixon Center [a conservative think tank based in Washington, DC], which has a respectable point of view, but one that I don’t share and I think is excessively narrow. We wanted to create a journal that had serious, fact-based arguments on policy issues.

Eliot A. Cohen: The idea we had was that it would be good to have a magazine that dealt with the United States in the world, which included the world talking about the United States. It also required looking at domestic issues, and cultural issues. The model for this, at least to my mind, was Encounter magazine.

Francis Fukuyama: We were also trying to make a journal that dealt not only with American foreign policy, but also with domestic sources of American behaviour, embracing issues such as religion, immigration, ethnicity, and identity.

The responsibilities of the United States as lone superpower

WSN: Does the United States have a responsibility to take on a role of global leadership, given its unique status as the lone superpower?

Francis Fukuyama: Without the United States pushing forward on certain issues, nothing would happen: we wouldn’t have had the intervention in Kosovo without American leadership, for example, so I think that it is necessary. But the problem is that it also creates a backlash and it is increasingly regarded as illegitimate. I’m not really sure what the solution is other than to say that the United States ought to be a little bit more careful about the way that it uses its power. Sometimes it is better to have people begging you to lead them rather than to get out in front and say “Well, we’re just going to do this.”

Eliot A. Cohen: Power always brings with it responsibilities of one kind or another. The United States just doesn’t have much of a choice about exercising leadership. I’m not gleeful about it, because I know the pitfalls, but I’m also not in the game of people who say ‘if we just step away from the world, everything will be all right’. The nature of international politics is such that people get sucked into all kinds of circumstances when there are vacuums and, whether you like it or not, you’ll end up engaged all over the place. Just the very possession of power will lead to that. So the only questions are whether you’re going to do it well or poorly, and whether you’re going to do it consciously or in fits of absence of mind. The wave of instability in Latin America right now is as much because of American neglect as intervention.

How should the rising China be perceived?

WSN: If China continues to grow, the United States might not be the only superpower in the future. How should the rise of China be accommodated by the United States? Should China be perceived as a security threat?

Eliot A. Cohen: There’s no question that Chinese influence is going to continue to grow, as it has grown – and there’s no way the United States can prevent that even if it wanted to. But I think that it is pretty unlikely that China will become a superpower in my lifetime. Firstly, their domestic problems are enormous. Secondly, China does not have the same universal culture that the United States does. When Chinese students were demonstrating in Tiananmen Square they decided to throw up a papermaché Statue of Liberty. When students are demonstrating in, say, Kiev, can you imagine them holding up a Chinese arch or a pagoda? The founding of the United States rests on the universal plane and I think that fact makes us a global force in a way that it would be hard for China to be. The Soviet Union was a cultural superpower not because people liked blini and vodka, but because Communism was plausible in large parts of the world.

Francis Fukuyama: "Iraq is an example of the over-militarization of US policy."
Francis Fukuyama: "Iraq is an example of the over-militarization of US policy."
Francis Fukuyama: I don’t think that China is a security threat right now. I would endorse Deputy Secretary Robert B. Zoellick’s approach, which is to say: “We don’t treat you as an enemy. If you say that you are going to rise peacefully, we will take you at your word but we will watch you, and hold you to it.”

WSN: If China is not a security threat, is it reasonable to expect the European Union not to sell high-tech weaponry to Beijing?

Eliot A. Cohen: Yes, it’s reasonable, so that it doesn’t kill American soldiers, sailors, and airmen. I think Americans would be very angry about that. We have a real national interest, and there is a real potential for conflict. War over Taiwan is a definite possibility. We take it seriously and the Chinese certainly take it very seriously. Weapons aren’t a toy, and they’re not coffee makers. They’re designed to sink ships, blow up airplanes and kill people, and in this case they’re going to be used to kill Americans.

Francis Fukuyama: The dispute here is indicative of the differing positions towards Asia. Because the United States is actually a major player in Asia, it has direct interest, a lot of leverage, and is also affected by Asia. Europe does not have a great strategic role in Asia and is thinking only about making some money by selling arms there. The different stakes and perspectives have actually caused a great deal of misunderstanding.

WSN: How sustainable is the United States’ semi-commitment to Taiwan? At present, there is no binding treaty, just the Taiwan Relations Act.

Eliot A. Cohen: Oh, I think it’s pretty sustainable, as long as Taiwan is a liberal democracy and as long as they are willing to make the effort to defend themselves. It’s partly a matter of principle; partly prestige; partly a desire not to see a very dense, high-tech country go over the other side of the ledger; and partly because of our relationship with Japan. Nobody hears from the Japanese about Taiwan, but they care a lot about it.

WSN: If China did develop to a position where it could unilaterally take over Taiwan, do you think that the United States would, or could, or should intervene in a conflict?

Eliot A. Cohen: Would? Yes. Could? Probably. Should? Yes.

How should the US approach India and Pakistan?

WSN: In July 2005 President Bush signed an agreement with Prime Minister Singh of India relating to nuclear technologies, providing a de facto acceptance of India’s nuclear weapons. Should this deal be viewed as an attempt to bolster India as a counterweight to China?

Eliot A. Cohen: Yes, it’s pretty straightforward. One of the successes of the Bush Administration has been developing relationships with Asian powers as a counterweight to China – not as an anti-Chinese coalition but as a kind of array of balancing forces.

WSN: And does the need for that balancing outweigh the negative impact that such a deal will have on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Eliot A. Cohen: I think we’re on the threshold of a new nuclear dispensation. American foreign policy is likely to accept some guys proliferating but not other guys, which is actually perfectly sensible. Does it trouble us that Great Britain has nuclear weapons? I think not, nor should it. Would it trouble us if Iran had nuclear weapons? Absolutely, and it should.

WSN: If you are comfortable with India having high-technology weapons, are you also comfortable with Pakistan having likewise?

Eliot A. Cohen: India? Yes, sure. Pakistan? No.

WSN: Do you not think that, if you’re willing to aid India but not Pakistan, then it gives a negative message to an ally?

Eliot A. Cohen: Well, that’s always going to be the Pakistani line and there’s probably something to be said for some kind of alliance status with Pakistan. But one has to be very cold-eyed in assessing where Pakistan is and where Pakistan could go. It’s not a stable country and you cannot expect that such weapons will be used responsibly or that the technology will always remain controlled.

Rod Latham, WSN Editor U.S.A.: "How should the US approach India and Pakistan ?"
Rod Latham, WSN Editor U.S.A.: "How should the US approach India and Pakistan ?"
WSN: And yet such an unstable country is vital in the war on terror. Is it not a risk to alienate President Musharraf?

Eliot A. Cohen: We have to be careful not to expect too much given the kind of country Pakistan is: a desperate kind of country, with a large fundamentalist population. If Musharraf was replaced, it would probably be another general in charge, who would be probably be acceptable. The worries are not so much who’s in charge in Islamabad but does Balochistan secede, is the north-west under control, does anybody rule in Karachi? These are different kinds of question.

Should there be military action against Iran?

WSN: Would you support preventive military action against Iran, to stop them from developing a nuclear weapons program?

Eliot A. Cohen: Controlling a sixty-year-old technology is just not going to be easy. I think that we are edging into a world that will end up with some new nuclear powers, but where we may find it necessary, in some cases, to prevent the emergence of others through military means. It is conceivable that this would apply to Iran. Feasibility may be an issue, and quality of intelligence may be an issue. But beyond that, there are two large considerations: the reactions of the Muslim world and the reactions of the Iranians. Right now, and provisionally, I think that I would be against any military action. But I certainly wouldn’t take the option off the table.

Neoconservatism, Iraq, and the Global War on Terror

WSN: Professor Fukuyama, you have previously described yourself as a neoconservative but in your recent book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, you criticize the underpinnings of this intellectual approach and some of the policies that have been informed by it. Why have you changed your position?

Francis Fukuyama: I thought that a lot of neoconservatives became too infatuated with American power as the primary instrument for the United States to lead the world. I agree with the basic position of supporting democracy and human rights, but the way you bring these about is not by having a bigger defence budget: there are a lot of soft-power instruments that are quite important. I also disagree with a lot of the neoconservatives about the level of danger. Islamic terrorists cannot wipe out the United States, or change our form of government. We have overestimated the Islamist threat and in the process we have made it a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, taking counter-measures that actually increase the degree at which people in the Middle East are mad at us.

WSN: Professor Fukuyama, do you think that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism contradicts your famous thesis on the “end of history”?

Francis Fukuyama: Islamic fundamentalism is an ideological alternative to modern liberal democracy. But the question is how powerful a movement is it going to be in the long run? Is it going to attract a lot of adherents? My suspicion is no. This is something that appeals to those alienated when modernization is not successful. It is popular in a Middle East confronting modernity, and with displaced Muslims living in minority communities in Amsterdam or Hamburg. But as an ideology with the capacity to appeal to a significant number of people, I do not think it is that significant.

WSN: What is the relationship between the Global War on Terror and the war on Iraq?

Francis Fukuyama: Iraq and the Global War on Terror were separate originally, but the two have now merged. Invading Iraq was a big mistake, because it was not part of the war on terror. We deliberately portrayed a close relationship between al-Qaeda and Iraq, when there was no such thing.

Eliot A. Cohen: For better or worse there is a connection now, whether or not a connection existed before. But I think that’s a more complicated question than people have allowed themselves to admit. I think Saddam was quite capable of working of tactical alliances with al-Qaeda on all kinds of operations.

WSN: What is the role of the military in fighting the Global War on Terror?

Eliot A. Cohen: There’s no question that military power is important, but it’s fundamentally a battle for hearts and minds. It’s about culture; it’s about religion; it’s about governance. Those are the things that the military cannot really do much about.

Francis Fukuyama: We have created a ‘monster’ in Iraq, which is a breeding ground for terrorists. That is an example of the over-militarization of US policy. The bulk of our efforts should have been a critical ‘hearts and minds’ struggle to win over opinion in the greater Muslim world. The more direct part against hard-core terrorists has always been more of a police and an intelligence matter than one for armies to deal with.

Costantino Pischedda, WSN Editor U.S.A.: "Should there be a military action against Iran?"
Costantino Pischedda, WSN Editor U.S.A.: "Should there be a military action against Iran?"
WSN: What will success in Iraq look like?

Francis Fukuyama: Success at this point will mean not failing. Success would mean to keep some kind of a government that is likely to be weak and unstable, but as long as it stays there and the country does not fall apart or it does not fall into the hands of former Baathists or Jihadists we can count it as a success. The likelihood that Iraq is going to become a stable, western style democracy at this point is pretty low.

Was the revolt of the generals justified?

WSN: Professor Cohen, you have written substantially on civil-military relations. Do you believe that the call for Secretary Rumsfeld’s resignation by a certain number of retired generals earlier this year represents a breach of trust?

Eliot A. Cohen: Basically, it’s politicization, it’s inappropriate and it’s dangerous. The line that I draw is that while it may be acceptable for retired generals to criticize policies, when they begin calling for the resignation of the Secretary of Defense they have crossed the line. There has been a growing tendency for old inhibitions to be broken, and for military leaders to speak on political matters. The problem manifested itself most notably with recently-retired generals endorsing presidential candidates, which is something new in our history, and in the open hostility to the President shown during the Clinton administration. So I think this is one more step. There is always a substantial amount of opinion within the military, particularly among retired generals, who really don’t like this and are really opposed to it. But their cultural norm is not to criticize a fellow general.

Is nation-building possible?

WSN: Moving to the more general issue of stabilizing countries after conflict, do you think that a crucial objective of nation-building should be the creation of democracy or it should instead focus on the more moderate goal of stability? Can democracy be implanted abroad?

Francis Fukuyama: There are a lot of ways that you can go about this. One category is that of failed states, such as Afghanistan or Somalia, where the problem is not so much creating democracy but essentially just creating the state. That’s a very tough problem, as East Timor has demonstrated. The UN had counted it as one of the successes but now the whole place is falling a part. The outside world can play a positive role in helping democratic forces in each country through election monitoring, support for open media, support for civil society and so forth, but if the fundamental impulse for democracy is not there to begin with we have very limited means of bringing about those ends. I think Americans get tired about this type of project after three, four, five years, but most true nation-building takes a lot longer than that.

WSN: Do you think there is an additional difficulty in promoting democracy in the Muslim world?

Francis Fukuyama: Yes, of course. There is a lot of anti-Americanism as a result of American foreign policy and we have all these Islamist groups that are certainly not liberal and most are not really democratic at all. And you have other social characteristics that make modern democracy difficult, like tribalism and the importance of kinship connections, which we have seen in central Iraq. This does not mean that democracy is impossible; it just means that it is more difficult than in countries where religion is less of an issue.

WSN: Do you think that post-conflict stabilization and nation building types of intervention should be preferably conducted by single powerful states or by multilateral organizations (such as NATO and the UN)?

Francis Fukuyama: Well, there is a trade-off. I think that the multi-lateral efforts are more legitimate, but they are less effective because you have collective action problems trying to get all these countries to agree to spend the money and to contribute troops and then on who commands them and on the strategy. Single states, if they want to do it, are more effective but less legitimate. So, some of the most successful cases are multi-lateral efforts that are supplemented by individual states, like in Bosnia. That was the model. In Sierra Leone, you had UN peace keepers that were taken hostage, so it required a separate action by the British military to solve this situation. That might be the best you can do to reconcile those two.

Is the Israel Lobby too powerful?

WSN: Professor Cohen, you have been outspoken in your criticism of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s working paper criticising the influence of the Israel lobby in the United States. If we accept that the Mearsheimer-Walt article was poorly written, poorly researched, and unnecessarily offensive in parts, can we not praise it for bringing up important issues that should be discussed?

Eliot A. Cohen: That is the line I keep on hearing, and I think it is nonsense. It presumes that this is a brand new topic and that nobody’s actually talking about these issues already. That’s nonsense! People talk plenty about it. What Mearsheimer and Walt have succeeded in doing is poisoning a debate that makes it impossible to have a temperate discussion of things or a realistic discussion of things. There are people who don’t speak to one another now, who in the past would have spoken to one another. It has stirred up a lot of very nasty stuff. The dark underside of contemporary politics is there: it is in my e-mail inbox everyday.

WSN: Do you think that you, and others who responded to that article, could have worked to reduce that poisoning of the debate?

Eliot A. Cohen: Look, a lot of people responded. But I felt it was really important to say what it was. In part because I really do think anti-Semitism is now more acceptable in polite society than ever before in my lifetime and you have got to call things what they are. My piece was very careful to call the piece anti-Semitic. I did not say that these people are anti-Semites: I cannot read people’s souls. But it surprises me that people have leapt in to say ‘they’ve gone too far but at least they raised an important issue’, because the heart of that article was an accusation of disloyalty, if not treason, towards a religious group. It drove me… well, it made me very mad!

Feedback is most welcome. Please direct any comments through Roderick Latham (