"The Primary Purpose of American foreign policy must be to defend and advance the national interests of the United States"

Posted in United States | 12-Nov-06 | Author: Roderick Latham and Costantino

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: "There is no more such thing as Conditional independence"
Nikolas K. Gvosdev: "There is no more such thing as Conditional independence"
- Exclusive interview with Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Editor of The National Interest -

WSN: In its more than twenty years of existence, the National Interest (TNI) has affirmed itself as a leading journal of international affairs. What are its basic purpose and outlook? What are its theoretical foundations?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: The National Interest was created in 1985 in the hopes of making US foreign policy “more effective and coherent”, as its founding statement observes. It went on to declare that “the primary and overriding purpose of American foreign policy must be to defend and advance the national interests of the United States” and “for better or for worse, international politics remains essentially power politics.”

The magazine has always conceived of itself as a “broadly realist” journal but also as a place to showcase a variety of moderate and conservative viewpoints about US policy and to foster debate.

WSN: How do you think TNI has evolved during its existence?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: Certainly, the collapse of the Soviet Union removed some of the “glue” that had held the founding group of writers and thinkers together. Throughout the 1990s, the direction of the magazine meant it stood in large opposition to the foreign policies of the Clinton Administration. Some assumed that, as a result, The National Interest should have become a cheerleader for its successor, and have not liked the appearance in our pages of what might be termed the “loyal Republican opposition” to some of the stances taken by the Bush Administration (not to mention Democratic voices as well).

More than ever, the magazine wants to serve as a voice for a pragmatic, sustainable foreign policy. It is not popular in the current Washington environment that still revels in the description of the United States as the “world’s sole superpower” to stress the need to make choices, set priorities, and accept compromises. We are particularly concerned about the real lack of debate on foreign policy—no, debate is not loud shouting about tactical shifts (especially in Iraq). I haven’t seen or heard leading Democrats talking about hard choices or setting priorities in a way that might produce different outcomes. And repudiating a stance you took four years ago doesn’t provide guidance for how you plan to deal with the situation today.

The Iraq debate

WSN: What should the United States do to improve the situation in Iraq?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: In late 2005, Paul Saunders and I co-authored an essay, “Defining Victory”, which was our response to the “what would you do about Iraq” question. More than one year later, I still stand by what we wrote then:

“Rather than attempting to micromanage Iraqi politics and engineer the government and constitution, the United States should concentrate on destroying the international terrorists who have flocked to Iraq and preventing them from turning the country into a base. This approach would allow for a considerably reduced military presence (especially among politically sensitive National Guard and reserve units) even before more Iraqi forces are trained and deployed, with US forces based outside cities and dedicated to securing Iraq's porous borders and fighting the terrorists and ‘dead-enders’… Let the Iraqis take over responsibility for security in the cities so as to reduce our visibility and vulnerability there—and let Iraqis decide on the best means to combat internal threats to their security.”

“The temptation to believe that we are more knowledgeable and effective in resolving internal Iraqi disagreements than the Iraqis themselves will be considerable, especially in the wake of the inevitable further setbacks that remain ahead. But the Iraqis must solve their own problems ...”

WSN: Do you think partition represents a viable solution for Iraq?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: The first rule in thinking about Iraq (or any other area of conflict) should be not to treat the country as some sort of social science laboratory for nation-building, but to focus on sustainable solutions.

In several elections, Iraqis have had the chance to cast ballots for parties and politicians who advocated a multi-cultural Iraq and instead voted for ethno-sectarian representation. In a place like Iraq, the “democracy paradox” is in full effect—where an outcome which Western democrats may not particularly care for has been ratified by the ballot box and which can only be overcome by using non-democratic, authoritarian means.

At first glance, partition seems attractive because it offers a way out of having to have outsiders maintain, by force if necessary, a state where it would appear that a majority of the citizens feel no real allegiance. In theory, partition could do for Iraq what it did for Czechoslovakia—permit the emergence of smaller, more compact, more homogenous units that truly command the respect of the people.

WSN: What are the downsides of partition in practice?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: There are several difficulties. Iraq’s provincial boundaries don’t neatly coincide with ethno-sectarian lines, particularly when one considers the fate of Baghdad; the three mini-states would do nothing to protect the interests of Iraq’s other minority communities, particularly the Assyrians or the Turcomen; and partition cannot be neatly separated from the fate of Iraq’s oil industry.

I’m less concerned about the impact of outside intervention since for all intents and purposes outside powers have already begun carving out “spheres of influence” within Iraq; there is already a de facto partition in place. And Middle Eastern powers have long experience of intervening in other civil wars and engaging in proxy conflicts yet keeping these brush wars limited in scope.

But the collapse of the framework of the Iraqi state would weaken the tenuous foundations of other states in the region also defined by arbitrary borders and with restive minorities. It would be very difficult to limit the spillover effect, say, to Syria, Turkey, Lebanon or even Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is no “Helsinki process” in the Middle East that recognizes inviolability of borders as a starting point for a regional security system, so the disappearance of one state calls into question the viability of all the neighbors.

WSN: So, what do think about Sen. Biden’s (D-DE) proposal to create three autonomous entities in Iraq along ethnic lines? This plan, unlike outright partition, requires that the belligerents remain under a common political authority, and does not entail any “unmixing” in areas in which sectarian and ethnic groups are highly intermingled…

"The National Interest was created in 1985 in the hopes of making US foreign policy more effective and coherent"
"The National Interest was created in 1985 in the hopes of making US foreign policy more effective and coherent"
Nikolas K. Gvosdev: The process of ethno-sectarian separation has already begun; it is not a question of any future “unmixing” of populations but how to cope with the ethnic cleansing that is already occurring. Ain Kawa, outside of Erbil, is already a de facto safe haven for Iraqi Christians leaving Baghdad, Basra and other areas. What may end up being the only workable solution is some sort of “partition within unity.” This may require some degree of peaceful resettlement of populations to work; following the model adopted by the government of Cyprus after 1974 of not keeping refugees in camps but providing homes and jobs to create new communities.

Senator Joseph Biden has discussed his plan for an Iraq solution based on a federation of three autonomous entities at great length in the September/October issue of The National Interest. He is a proponent of what was labeled a “division within unity” approach. For the foreseeable future, Iraqis are going to look to local authorities rather than national ones for security and assistance, and local figures are going to command much more allegiance. Starting from that position, one reconstructs Iraq from the local level upward rather than the preferred approach taken so far, of focusing on national institutions and using the nation-state as our frame of reference

If Iraqis are given clear incentives for maintaining a viable national “framework” that operates under the style “Iraq” and effectively controls the territory so delineated, they will do so. One reason why Bosnia limps along is that the governments of the two entities (and in turn the power-sharing relationship that defines the Muslim-Croat federation within Bosnia) is that Europe and the United States have made it clear that if Bosnia becomes dysfunctional, there will be no recognition of the Bosnian entities as separate states with full independence. So they can “play” on the international stage as Bosnians, or they can leave the playground.

Separatism and partition

WSN: This leads us to other hot-spots around the world where issues of separatism and partition are strongly debated. The question of the final status of Kosovo is still unresolved. What is the solution that would minimize the probability of renewed violence?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: As much as the US State Department may deny it, and claim that Kosovo is a “unique case”, the argument for independence rests on two foundations that other groups—such as Iraq’s Kurds, the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Ossetians and Abkhaz in Georgia—claim as relevant to their position—the right to ethnic/national self-determination, and the exercise of a de facto independent status.

There is no more such thing as "conditional independence" as there is "conditional pregnancy"--conditional independence is the sop to the consciences of the Tony Blairs and Bill Clintons who said the 1999 air campaign was about preserving tolerance and multiethnicity and who don't want to admit that Kosovo will follow the same logic as the emergence of other modern states in the Balkans, beginning with the massive exchanges of populations between Greece and Turkey (in the aftermath of ethnic cleansing and wars)--that states (or sub-state units as in Bosnia) are based on the principle of one government, one ethnicity.

It might have been possible if the major powers had acted with determination to set up for Kosovo something along the lines of what was done for the Aland Islands—and it is important to recall that the Alanders wanted full separation from Finland and voted against the substantial autonomy plan.

Perhaps something can be done for the Serbs of Kosovo along the Aland Island model—the creation of an autonomous, demilitarized, monolingual Serbian-speaking administrative province in the northern areas combined with some sort of extra-territoriality for their holy sites.

The “EU” solution—the idea that Kosovo becomes independent and then once both Serbia and Kosovo have joined the European Union there can be free movement of populations back and forth (and European institutions in place to protect minority rights)—if it takes place, is too far into the future.

We should not assume that any solution is a panacea for the problems Kosovo faces—particularly in combating organized crime, but also in preserving inter-ethnic peace and promoting economic development. Success in Kosovo depends on the willingness of the major outside players—Kosovo’s neighbors, the European powers, the United States and Russia—to enforce the settlement and make it work. One of the problems is that independence for Kosovo is being sold in the United States as a way to disengage and declare that the problem has been “solved.”

WSN: Do you think likely that, if the international community decided to grant independence to Kosovo, Russia would feel legitimised to openly intervene militarily in support of the Georgian breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Nikolas K. Gvosdev: I do not believe that the Russian Federation would launch a military intervention à la NATO in 1999, but it would strengthen Moscow’s case for defending South Ossetia and Abkhazia from any attempt by a Georgian government in Tbilisi to use force to reunify the country in the absence of a negotiated settlement.

One of the problems is that no nation has developed its approach toward these frozen conflicts based on any set of consistent standards. We should have a standard that is applied whether a country is democratic or not or we happen to like the ethnic group in question or not. Russia’s own stance on this question is contradictory; it opposes independence for Kosovo, supports a unified Cyprus, but suggests that states like Georgia and Moldova—who not coincidentally have tended to be more pro-American—should consider the option of partition.

Of course, the US Congress is notorious for throwing consistency to the wind and advocating policies based on favoritism. You have members of Congress who support independence for Kosovo and independence for Nagorno-Karabakh while upholding the territorial integrity of Cyprus and Georgia and arguing that separatist governments that exist in those states cannot be recognized.

If Kosovo becomes independent, this will put Washington in a very delicate situation because Nagorno-Karabakh can be said to be the other frozen conflict that most resembles the Kosovo situation. For many Americans, supporting independence for Kosovo is an “easy” decision because the Serbs were “the bad guys”. Nagorno-Karabakh, however, pits a strong Armenian-American lobby (and the sympathy for the Armenians as victims of a genocide) against those who argue that jeopardizing relations with Azerbaijan—a growing provider of energy and a US strategic partner—would seriously damage vital US interests.

Woodrow Wilson’s somewhat careless advocacy of “national self-determination”—with the understanding that self-determination can only be expressed via achievement of a separate nation-state—continues to bedevil policymakers today. It creates binary choices when, for many of these frozen conflicts, creative diplomacy can develop solutions that can satisfy desires for self-governance and ethnic expression without having to perform radical surgery on the map.