One of the first programs that we produced on the still-nascent FORA.tv in April of 2006 was Stephen Kinzer speaking at the World Affairs Council of Northern California. Public forum speakers offer, if you’re lucky, a big idea or an engaging presentation. Kinzer offers both: exhaustively researched incisive analysis and big-hearted storytelling. I carried Stephen’s books around Guatemala and Nicaragua. He helped with a critical introduction to Carlos Chamorro in Managua.
Stephen spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times. He was the Times bureau chief in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and in Germany during the early 1990s. In 1996, he was named chief of the newly opened Istanbul bureau. Since leaving the Times, he has taught journalism, political science, and international relations at Northwestern University and Boston University. And continues to publish some of the best reads on American foreign policy.
We caught up to discuss some of the key themes of “War: The Afterparty.”
Is there something in the American psyche that lusts for war or has a comfortableness with war that you see in very few other countries?
I think there is in the American psyche some kind of martial spirit. It comes from our history. America was largely settled by people that used force to resolve disputes, the old ‘we shoot horse thieves’. I do think you get this western movie paradigm, ‘this town isn’t big enough for both of us.’ Another reason has to do with geography, which I consider to be one of the unappreciated factor in geopolitics. If you are living in Europe, you have to learn to get along with other countries. You are in the middle of a bunch of them. If you are living far away from other countries, separated by vast oceans, you don’t have to settle much. In addition, our sense of exceptionalism leads us to believe we can accomplish whatever we want. We have had such spectacular achievements…settling the West..we built the transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal…which leads to a sense of invincibility. The idea that there is a military solution to troubles in the world is something that is more prevalent here than in other countries.
Americans love a demon. A particular individual especially, even better than to have an idea or a concept or a force that’s agin us. You know this is not a new idea. Many historians like Arnold Toynbee had an idea that, countries need enemies, and if you don’t have an enemy, you should go out and get one. Otherwise society loses its focus, its coherence, society gets weak and flabby, you need to have a threat to keep people focused. And I guess the subtext to that is it needs a threat to show how much they need their military industrial establishment. A peaceful world is obviously a threat to a lot of entrenched interests. Americans are often quick to judge groups or tendencies or organizations or people that we don’t like as existential enemies. We tend to think there is one way to organize society. We feel like countries that are too resistant to our suggestions are automatically defiant to us. We don’t like the idea that different societies and cultures come up with different ways to organize society. We feel like we have been providentially given the key to fix people. And it would be so churlish of us not to go out and share it with other people including those people, especially those people, who are so backwards that they don’t realize how much they need our help and how important it is.
You mentioned the idea of Providence. Do you believe that the belief in a divine hand guiding America foreign policy is widespread? I mentioned the phenomenon to a Serbian writer last week and she laughed at me.
I don’t think we feel it as much in a religious sense as we did in the 18th and 19th centuries. I do think the essence is still there. We still believe that we are the indispensable nation. We are the country that all other countries should look toward.
We believe that the world is divided into two groups, one is the United States and the other group is all the other countries in the world, which in different degrees are struggling to be like us in one way or the other. But they don’t have the one thing that is really worth having in life and that is the chance to be American.
You referred before, Stephen, to an organizing principle around which the country needs to keep focused. Is there a star chamber, a group of people driving these national priorities or is it a lot more loosely organized than that?
I think it is more loosely organized than that, but I see a variety of interests converging within this national psyche that we’ve talked about. People are very easily frightened. Americans are no exception to this. The ability of government to sell its narrative is huge. And it’s not considered acceptable to question any of its fundamentals. That’s why the limits of acceptable debate on questions of foreign policy are so narrow. In order to participate in the foreign policy discussion in Washington, you have to accept a hundred principles, assumptions about America and American power, and then you can sit at the table and argue about details. Almost all of the think tanks in Washington, certainly the leaders of both political parties are part of this consensus. If you dissent from that consensus you are considered some kind of a wacko who really does not deserve a seat at the table or a chance to be taken seriously.
There is one other factor that I think is very pernicious. The political system by which we elect our leaders is effectively a form of legalized bribery that is not accepted in any other democratic country. For example, in England, if you are running for office, you don’t buy yourself an ad on television. You can’t do that. That’s illegal. If you are living in Germany or Japan or Australia, you can’t get a corporation to contribute money to your political campaign. You can’t have a corporate lobbyist sitting in the capitol writing out amendments for legislators to attach on to a bill. These are things we consider natural parts of our political system, but they are fundamentally undemocratic and they rob the political system of the variety in debate that could enrich it.
Among the worst offenders in the foreign policy sense is the defense industry. They are very clever not just in their spreading around of campaign contributions, but they do something even better, or worse, depending on your point of view. Every time they get one of these giant contracts to build one of these big defense projects like the F-35 fighter, the first thing they do is divide the project up into pieces, so that each part of the project is built somewhere else, and then they make sure that the districts of every important senator or congressman benefits from this project. Where I live in Boston, just north of us in Lynn is the General Electric plant that is building an engine for the F-35 fighter. We decided we couldn’t figure out which company should build the engine, so we gave it to two companies. You only need one engine, but we are building it twice, we are paying double. If I were the congressman from Lynn, I would like to get up and say this is a complete waste, we don’t need two engines, let’s just build one, but I couldn’t do that, it would result in a thousand people in my district losing their jobs. This is also a very effective way of controlling the political process. That is something that is more extreme in the United States than it is in other countries.
Some who supported Barack Obama’s election have been disappointed by his foreign policy. Do you think he ran into certain pressures or obligations that forced him to change his point of view?
Certainly in the area of foreign policy and security policy, there is a tremendous magnetic pull in Washington towards the center, towards all these basic assumptions. Everybody around you believes all those things, so it seems like that must be gospel. You could reach beyond that circle of people, but neither in foreign policy nor in domestic policy did Barack Obama do that. I never believed that Obama was going to name people to foreign policy, security positions who were seriously questioning the consensus view. Therefore, I haven’t been surprised about what happened.
First of all, I am a hyper-realist on foreign policy, I am not a fantasist, I am not a utopian, I don’t believe in changing the world, I’m not a Trotskyite, or a Wilsonian, who believes there should be constant upheaval. I actually like stability. And I also believe that national interest always rises as the principal force shaping foreign policy and you are not going to get away from that so that’s fine, countries should act in their own interest. But we should stop and think about what really is in our interest over the long run, and not do things that just make us feel good for a few minutes, but actually wind up undermining our own security. We tend to be very short term oriented. We want to get things done very quickly. We have the power to achieve a lot of things but we don’t have the power to control the long term consequences. We would better defend our own national security by being much more prudent and conservative in our interventions abroad.
Don’t be lustful. Don’t be promiscuous, Don’t feel like you got to grab at every problem that is out there. The world is being reshaped by forces that the United States does not control. This is a psychological shock for Americans. We still haven’t adjusted to this. We are brought up to believe that we rule, when we decide something, we get it done, that is the can-do mentality.
Watch the FORA.tv event with Stephen here: