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US needs to be ‘less arrogant’

June 25, 2007

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WASHINGTON: When foreign policy gurus Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft all start saying the same thing, it’s time to pay attention. That happened this month in a joint appearance broadcast on “The Charlie Rose Show,” and their comments ought to be required reading for presidential candidates in both parties — not to mention the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Their collective message was this: in a radically changing world, America needs to be less arrogant about its use of power and more willing to talk to other nations. That may sound obvious, but the United States has spent much of the past six years doing the opposite. The three former top officials argued for more dialogue not just to improve America’s image but so that we can understand the new rules and opportunities in the game of nations.

“The international system is in a period of change like we haven’t seen for several hundred years” because of the declining power of nation-states, said Kissinger, who was secretary of state under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. “We are used to dealing with problems that have a solution,” but Americans have to realise that “we’re at the beginning of a long period of adjustment”.

Brzezinski described the changes taking place as a global political awakening: “The world is much more restless. It’s stirring. It has aspirations which are not easily satisfied. And if America is to lead, it has to relate itself somehow to these new, lively, intense political aspirations, which make our age so different from even the recent past.” Brzezinski served as national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter.

In this new, “very different world,” explained Scowcroft, “the traditional measures of strength don’t really apply so much. . . . It’s a world where most of the big problems spill over national boundaries, and there are new kinds of actors and we’re feeling our way as to how to deal with them.” Scowcroft was national security adviser for Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush.

Now, you could argue that these prominent establishment figures are three peas in a pod who would inevitably agree on foreign policy. They’re all counsellors at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, which brought them together for the June 14 discussion.

But on the dominant issue of Iraq, they have taken radically different courses. Brzezinski was the earliest and sharpest critic of the war among former officials; Scowcroft argued against the invasion and has criticised neoconservatives within the administration, but he remains a Bush family insider; Kissinger has supported the war and talks regularly with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to give them advice.

So it’s noteworthy that the three offer similar prescriptions for what to do, post-Iraq. They all argue that this is a time when America needs to be out in the world — talking, yes, but even more, listening. And their advice to the next president is almost identical.

Scowcroft urged America’s next leader to declare: “I think that we are a part of the world that we want to cooperate with the world. We are not the dominant power in the world that everyone falls in behind us.” Brzezinski offered a similar formulation: “The next president should say to the world that the United States wants to be part of the solution to its problems” and that it will be “engaged in the quest to get people in the world the dignities that they seek today”. Even the sometimes brusque Kissinger agreed that the next president should express his willingness “to listen to a lot of other countries about what they think should be done. He should not pretend that he has all the answers”.

All three want to see America talking not just with friends but also with potential adversaries. With Iran, where Kissinger said “we should at least attempt to have a quiet negotiation with a high-level Iranian to determine where we’re trying to go”. With Russia, where Brzezinski advised “we shouldn’t overdramatise the current disagreements”. With the Chinese, who, Scowcroft insisted, “need a stable world,” too.

This triad of experts helped shape foreign policy for the past 50 years. They’re old men now, but they remain intellectual rivals — still jockeying for influence and trying to outsmart each other in the Faculty Club of life. What’s striking is that they see the future in such similar terms: a new global game is underway; the very idea of power is changing; America’s future security will be more about adapting than imposing our will.—Dawn/The Washington Post News Service