10:00 A.M., EST
NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: Good morning to everyone. I’m Alyson Grunder, Director of the New York Foreign Press Center. We are very pleased to have Professor Walter Russell Mead with us today. You all have his biography, but his biography does not state that tonight he’ll be receiving the very prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. And he’ll be making a speech on "America and the World," so I’m presuming you’re going to get a preview of that this morning.
So let’s get right to it, and after Professor Mead speaks, we’ll move into Q&A. Please note that Professor Mead's comments do not represent the views of the U.S. government; he is speaking on his own behalf.
MR. MEAD: Okay, great. Well, thank you all for coming. And as I look at the list, I see some of you I’ve actually spoken with before. And I think for everyone who is here – I’ve at least had the chance to visit your country at least once and hope to do so again. I’ll just say a couple of very quick big picture kinds of introductory thoughts and then get to whatever interests you.
Obviously, one clear result of the election is there’s going to be some continuity in American foreign policy. I didn’t think there would be much change even if the President had lost, but certainly with the President reelected there’s less likelihood. And frankly, I think there’s less difference than people often think between the first term of President Obama and the second term of President Bush – not the first term but the second term. I think the real change in American foreign policy came in some ways when sort of Donald Rumsfeld stepped down and Vice President Cheney kind of went into the background and Condoleezza Rice became Secretary of State. From that time forward, American foreign policy sort of moved in more from – in a more familiar direction.
The big themes I think we’re going to see, one of them is certainly continued interest in and engagement in Asia. This is something that not only the President and Secretary of State but I think very widely in the United States is seen as not the only arena of importance in the future, but this is the place that matters the most to America, where America can have the most effect on the development of situations. That is, Europe matters tremendously to the United States and what’s going on with the Euro crisis matters enormously, even in the short term, to the United States, but the perception in the United States is there’s not a lot we can do about that. So while we are interested in it and concerned about it, the thought of expending a lot of resources to try to influence something which (a) we probably can’t influence much and (b) the people who are on the scene have all the tools and all the knowledge necessary.
In the Middle East – I’ll talk about in a few minutes – it’s is a very complicated situation. And the Administration’s policy, I think we can see some fairly conflicted strands running in it, and it will be interesting to see which of the two wins out.
But again, Asia is seen as a place where, if things go well in Asia, what you’ll see is the development of a large, peaceful trading zone that will be of enormous economic benefit to the world, that will help to anchor global peace, will be very good economically for the United States. And on the other hand, if things go bad in Asia, if there’s a return to great power confrontation or even worse, you could see tremendous human suffering, you could see great risks to the safety and the prosperity of the United States. So – and it’s seen not only in the United States but in a number of Asian capitals that the role that the United States has to play in Asia is extremely important. So there’s a kind of a consensus in the United States, I think, that of all the places in the world long term, this is the one that we can do the most and that matters the most to us, if you put those two things together.
The goal of the Administration, I think, in its second term, will be to simultaneously try to continue the process of welcoming a rising China into the world system as a responsible stakeholder and also providing the kind of reassurance to China’s neighbors that the rise of China is not something that should alarm them about their own future, that their independence and so on will be secured. I think the Obama Administration, in its second term, will not try to do this by confronting China but by engaging China. That’s going to be difficult; there are a lot of different dynamics in Asia going on. Even politically speaking within China, there are many currents and cross-currents. But this will be the big thing the Obama Administration is trying to achieve.
It will continue, I think, to deepen relations with all the countries of Asia, China not excluded, emphatically not excluded. But just as we’ve seen the U.S. partnerships with India, with Japan, with China, with Australia, with Vietnam deepening under both the Bush and the Obama Administrations, we’ll see, I think, a continuation, even an intensification, of this process.
So now I’ll say a few words on the Middle East, and then I will be finished with this introduction and ready to talk about whatever is of interest to you. I think the Obama Administration had a grand strategy in the Middle East when it came into office, and it worked pretty hard to implement that strategy. And I think we can call it a kind of a "responsible disengagement" – not that the Middle East was seen as being of less interest to the United States, but that the Middle East was seen as – essentially a lot of the people in the Obama Administration came out of a realist perspective, which would tend to define American interests in the Middle East rather narrowly and also to say that a balance of power among the different countries and forces in the Middle East could secure key American interests very well without a lot of heavy American engagement, especially military engagement but even sort of political engagement, that the United States could be happiest in the Middle East with the lowest profile compatible with its basic interests, for example, in the security of the states on the Persian Gulf and so on.
To achieve that goal, the President tried to rebuild ties between, in general, the U.S. and the Islamic world. He tried to launch – renew the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He looked for ways to bring an end to the confrontation with Iran without conceding an Iranian nuclear weapon. And obviously, he looked for strategies to draw down troops both – and end the war in Iraq and move out of Afghanistan.
We’ve seen a mix of success and failure in those initiatives. Like all grand plans, it does not long survive contact with the enemy, at least in its original form. I should say reality perhaps rather than the enemy, although reality often is the enemy of grand plans. And the sort of first difficult area that came was this failure to restart the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. That’s water under the bridge. We can revisit it if you’d like, but I think there’s, again, something of a consensus that was not handled well in the first six months of the Administration, and as a result things have continued to be difficult since and it’s been hard for them to find a new footing.
The withdrawal from Iraq was obviously achieved, but the big problem that came up for the Obama strategy was the Arab Spring. And what we’ve seen with the Arab Spring is, while the Obama Administration in some ways has continued this process of disengagement, there’s also been a pull toward reengagement, most spectacularly, of course, in the case of Libya, where the U.S. got itself into a military – what can we say – a military effort for regime change and democratization in the Arab world, which is almost first term Bush in some ways. Though unlike that, it was not done with U.S. ground troops and was done with the support of the UN Security Council.
But we see again in Syria, where the Administration is really playing a very intimate political role in the attempt to shape some kind of unity in the Syrian opposition that could serve as the basis for a new government. So for both humanitarian and one might say ideological, democratic, and human rights reasons, the Obama Administration is finding itself at this moment in time is pulled back into the Middle East.
And I’m not – one of the interesting questions for the next phase of the Obama Administration, for the incoming Secretary of State and so on, will be what’s the relationship between these two somewhat different halves of policy. Is the United States going to get itself more deeply engaged in the process of political transformation, renewal, reform, or whatever else is taking place in countries affected by the Arab Spring? What will that look like? How will that be different from old American initiatives there?
And on the other hand, we still have the sort of wild card of Iran, where a very serious effort by the Administration to renew a dialogue with Iran was – did not meet with success, and at this point we are now looking at sort of a continued confrontation. We don’t quite know what the deadlines are, and clearly the Administration is doing everything it can to avoid making the choice between a military conflict with Iran and the acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapon. That choice cannot be postponed indefinitely. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that faced with that choice, the Obama Administration would choose military action – reluctantly, but choose military action rather than accept an Iranian nuclear weapon.
So that’s a quick tour d’horizon, and I’ll be happy to engage in more specific conversation, if anybody has some questions.
MODERATOR: Please identify yourself by name and media affiliation.
QUESTION: Martin Burcharth, Information, Danish newspaper. Nice to see you. Yesterday the International Energy Agency came out with its world energy outlook, and it’s extremely interesting because it projects that United States will be self-sufficient in energy by 2020, believe it or not, in eight years.
MR. MEAD: Yes.
QUESTION: And it comes as a surprise to me, and I’m sure it comes as a surprise for many people. And one of the major implications, obviously, would be within your area of expertise – a major geopolitical shift in the world because the U.S. basically will rely on North American energy resources and Middle East oil will flow to Asia and Europe still, obviously. But the rerouting will go to Asia.
So my question is this, and it’s a very direct question: Will this possibly mean that the U.S. would have to withdraw its Sixth Fleet from the Persian Gulf and perhaps redeploy to the routes that matter, rerouting the oil to China? What implications would that have for the U.S.-Israeli security relationship in the future? These are just some of the questions that could be asked.
MR. MEAD: I agree that these new oil and gas discoveries are really historic in scale. It’s still a little early; there are some questions about – the recovery from some of the shale and nonconventional sources tends to fall more quickly than from conventional oil sources, so projections are a little uncertain here. But there is simply no doubt that U.S. energy production, which has been picking up in the last few years, is going to be – I think the word would be booming going forward.
And this is going to affect international politics in a lot of different ways. One of them we actually saw already in the last U.S. trade deficit figures, that the decrease in oil imports plus an increase in energy product exports was actually accountable for the large majority of the reduction in the U.S. trade deficit.
So this in one sense is probably good news for the dollar, long term. If one thinks of the dollar in its relations to the perceived assets of a country, it’s a bullish sign for the dollar, long term. Generally speaking, I think it does point to – decreased geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China is perhaps the most profound geopolitical insight, because many theorists of the inevitability of an America-Chinese conflict point to energy competition and influenced competition related to energy competition as a key source. But probably China can’t beat the U.S. in a competition for energy influence with Canada and Mexico – just a very wild guess. And on the other hand, if the U.S. truly is, for the foreseeable future – North America, if not the United States, is energy self-sufficient and even a global net exporter, then the U.S. is not going to be particularly concerned about what countries are investing in oil fields in other places around the world.
And it’s also true that if the U.S. trade deficit is shrinking, all other things being equal, that reduces some of the trade friction in the U.S.-China relationship. This is something I think people might not see immediately, but I think that’s actually going to be a profound impact of this shift and one I’m certainly personally very happy to see.
In terms of the Middle East, many people for a long time have had, I think, a misunderstanding of the American interests in the Middle East. They have thought of it in terms of U.S. military deployment and political engagement in order to preserve the security of the domestic U.S. oil supply, but in fact the U.S. reliance on the Middle East as an oil source has been falling even before this latest burst of development. And most analysts in government and out have thought that even without the new U.S. discoveries, very large Canadian discoveries that have been made, plus Brazilian, plus the continued progress in West African resources made it look as if the U.S. was going to be Atlantic-focused even before, as we now see, it is North America-focused. So this is actually not as – in terms of the geopolitics of the Middle East, this is not as consequential as people might – or as new as people might, think.
The U.S. interest in the Middle East is – Middle East oil is much more about assuring the uninterrupted flow of oil from that region on a commercial basis to Europe and to Asia; that the U.S. wants to take oil out of the realm of geopolitics as far as possible and put it in the realm of economics, so that if you have enough money you can buy enough oil, and purchasers compete commercially rather than geopolitically for oil supplies. And that’s seen as kind of a foundation stone, I think, of the Pax Americana to the extent we can speak of such a thing. And so you – it’s – I think even coming into office, the Obama Administration tended to define, as I think its predecessors have done for 30 years, have defined the core U.S. geopolitical interest in Middle Eastern oil as to prevent any country from having the ability to interrupt that flow for political reasons.
And I think that will continue to be an interest. There will continue to be a connection between Middle East stability and U.S. domestic oil prices and, of course, the U.S. domestic economy. If there’s no oil flowing out of the Middle East, there will be economic catastrophe in Asia and Europe. This cannot – this must lead to economic catastrophe in the United States as well. And also, oil is fungible, and there may be some differential between U.S. energy prices and global energy prices in certain areas of the market – I think natural gas, for example, may be one – but there will not – there cannot be a long, sustained, large difference between domestic U.S. petroleum prices and global ones.
So if oil were to jump to $300, $500 a barrel on the basis of some Middle Eastern crisis, the U.S. would have an energy crisis at home and an economic crisis because of the impact on its allies and trading partners. So I don’t think we see the U.S. taking its eye off the ball in the Middle East.
QUESTION: Right. No, I understand that. I mean, that’s clear. But I also think that there’s something called the public opinion in United States. Can – is the public opinion in this country willing to stand on paying that much money for military engagement in the Middle East over that long period of time?
MR. MEAD: I think – well, I think probably the answer to that is yes. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see. In the last election cycle, for the first time, we had Ron Paul as a presidential candidate basically wanting a return to the foreign policy of the 1920s and 1930s, of America essentially not engaging internationally and simply wagging its finger moralistically at things it doesn’t like. That’s a very cheap foreign policy in the short run.
And I think – my sense is that American public opinion remains more threat-focused than opportunity-focused when it thinks about the world. That is, the average American doesn’t wake up thinking, “Ah, today is a day we can make Gambia more democratic,” and that sort of thing. But the average American does have concerns about the world, and I think the combination of sort of terror/jihadi threats in the Middle East, plus a sense of, “Boy, we don’t want a rivalry with China but we’d better make sure that we’re strong enough so that we won’t have one,” that sort of thinking will probably keep U.S. – enough U.S. public sentiment focused to keep up some kind of global defense posture.
And once – in fact, if you really look at our defense budget, once you take out the war in Afghanistan, which is rather a large object, not all of that money – not all that much money can be saved by simply cutting out specific Middle East involvements. I think if anything, there would probably be some incremental pressure to reduce troop levels in Europe, but that’s a slow process that’s been going on and I think is unlikely to go past a certain point.
QUESTION: Nice to meet you, Mr. Mead. I’m Yun Wu with People’s Daily.
MR. MEAD: Hi.
QUESTION: So my question is about China.
MR. MEAD: I think I knew one of your predecessors, who – Tang Zhe, who was here for some time. Yes.
QUESTION: Yes. So my – so at this early stage, just one week after the election, do you perceive that the second term – President Obama’s second-term China policy will be any different from the first one?
And also, there’s another question. I mean, you mentioned that the second Obama term will continue to engage China, but the U.S. has been engaging China for the past 30 years. So in what – so you have to be more specific. What new engagement could the U.S. perceive with regard to China? And also, there is another question with regard to Asia. In the other part, you said the Obama China policy is to provide assurance to China’s neighbors. So in the past years or two, the U.S. has done much. So what can the U.S. further do?
MR. MEAD: All right. Well, I think the Obama Administration would probably say at this point – and of course I don’t speak for them; I don’t speak for the government here, I’m just here as a private analyst – (laughter) – right, yeah, believe me – (laughter) – it’s a good thing I don’t speak for the government. We’re all much better off that I don’t. That’s one of the reasons I’ve never looked for government office.
Look, I think – I mean, I think the Obama Administration in its first term laid out the basic courses of action that it would intend to follow in Asia and vis-à-vis China in the future. And as I’ve said, there’s a lot of continuity there. So, under President Bush as well as under President Obama, you saw the United States deepening ties with India, deepening ties with Japan, but as you’ve said, also deepening ties with China.
Where do they go with China? Our relations in some ways are quite mature. The Chinese Embassy in Washington is very large, and the American Embassy in Beijing is very large. There are a lot of people in those embassies from many departments of both of our governments working together on a whole range of economic, commercial, social, all kinds of questions.
I think one of the things that people in other countries often underestimate or don’t perceive is the degree of deep exchange and coordination between the U.S. and China. I think a very good example of this happened last year where there was – where when Hillary Clinton, Secretary Clinton was in China, we had the incident of the blind dissident, and then – and it’s amazing how under that kind of intense pressure and scrutiny, the U.S. State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs were able to work together very, very quickly to put together a very pragmatic agreement that both sides felt respected their basic interests in that situation. And then when the dissident was nervous about the agreement and it all seemed to break down, the two foreign ministries got together and again put something together and made it work.
Now, anybody who’s worked professionally in diplomacy knows that you can’t achieve this kind of result on such a sensitive matter in such a short timeframe unless there is a certain degree of experience and confidence on both sides. And that bespeaks a much more intimate diplomatic relationship than many people, I think, in some other countries understand. I think the Obama Administration and the Chinese Government both see that effective partnership as a very important asset that they have no desire to compromise and in fact would like to continue to deepen.
So to answer your question, I don’t know exactly what specifics we’re going to do. One thing I hope we will see is continued growth of student exchanges. Again, it’s remarkable how many Chinese students – and now we’re getting secondary school and undergraduate as well as graduate students coming to the United States for long periods of study. And they include the children of very ordinary Chinese. They also include the children of top leadership. You’re increasingly also seeing more American students wanting to study in China, studying Chinese, studying Chinese language – and I think increasingly, particularly as Chinese universities are reaching out to internationalize, we’re going to see many more integrated exchange programs, faculties, students, between the universities of these countries.
Again, this is part of a deep kind of person-to-person relationship that the Americans and Chinese have both been working to build over 20 years, often completely unnoticed by the rest of the world, which tends to evaluate this relationship in terms of very cheap and superficial kind of geopolitical theories without looking at just how deep, how hard both countries are working to make this relationship work.
QUESTION: You didn’t mention Russia in your opening remarks. My name is Alf Ask. I’m working for Aftenposten, Oslo. The reset button – will they press it again, do you think, Russia? And more specific problems, like the missile defense systems –
MR. MEAD: Right.
QUESTION: -- and things like that, would that be solved?
MR. MEAD: U.S.-Russian relations, I think, are going to be problematic, but not break down. I think probably President Putin’s happiest moment in the entire presidential campaign came when Governor Romney said that Russia was America’s biggest geopolitical foe. You can just see a lot of people in Kremlin going, “Yes.” (Laughter.) “Goal achieved. Mission accomplished.”
In fact, in a sense, Russia’s sense of its own dignity and place in the world requires some kind of an acknowledgment by the United States, and to some degree I think of Russia myself as a country an awful lot like a much bigger and angrier France, in a sense a country whose strategic interests are actually fairly closely aligned with the United States on most of the big questions, but a country also whose political culture demands a kind of colère that’s incompatible with being seen as a close and loyal sidekick of a superpower.
So in that sense, I think the sort of tensions in Russian-U.S. relations are both a product of a sort of misfit between the economic and political systems of the two countries. In some cases there are specific clashes of interest, but there’s also a kind of a psychological basis as well. But my understanding is that there are a number of areas where U.S.-Russian cooperation is pretty good, where the countries – the goal for Americans in U.S.-Russian relations, I think, has been for some time pragmatic cooperation on issues of mutual interest, agreeing to disagree where we take a different view of issues, and trying to manage the pluses and the minuses of that relationship in a way that as far as possible advances the interests, the common interests, of both countries. And I think we’ve had some success with that.
I should say that probably the biggest loser in the geopolitical revolution that comes if these – as these big energy discoveries approach is probably Russia. Because Russia is – not only has Russia been hoping to use energy abundance in a world of tight supply as a major geopolitical asset for the country, but even economically, Russia is going to face something of a price squeeze. The Middle East oil is cheap to produce. If the price of oil is $20 a barrel, the Saudis can actually make a profit on every barrel they pump. Russia needs a much higher price, and incremental increases in the price of oil have become essential to the smooth running of the current form of the Russian state and economy, and it’s distributing – it’s become something of a petro-state where distributing that surplus to interest groups and pressure groups is the kind of major political lever of governance.
And I think what we’re going to see is that as this North American energy comes online, there will be a floor under the world oil price because shale oil and these other alternative fuels are not cheap to produce, and especially not when you have environmental concerns, as indeed we do about these. But it does mean there’s a ceiling on the price too, the world price, because production can be expanded. And that, I think, is going to put Russia in a tough spot. But having said that – let’s not look for a grand reset, but let’s hope for pragmatic cooperation where possible.
QUESTION: Well, in the past few years, or –
MR. MEAD: I’m sorry --
QUESTION: Oh, sorry. I’m Sidsel Nyholm. I’m with the Danish newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad. Sorry. In the past few years, the world has been able to see a somewhat polarized and dysfunctional American political system as well as a struggling American economy. What influence does that have on the Barack Obama Administration’s efforts to put the American place as a superpower in the future and to be able to implement American interests abroad?
MR. MEAD: Yeah. No, good question. I think, obviously, we’re all looking at the fiscal cliff and wondering whether it’s going to be an exciting rollercoaster or just another boring political compromise. I’m certainly hoping for boredom. I think, again, there’s still enough of a bipartisan consensus in this country on the need for an engaged global foreign policy that people will try to find some kind of way to work together on this, that it’s easy – if you think about it, in the 1930s America sort of said, well, Great Britain used to be – Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s assistant, said, Britain was “the gyroscope of world order.” And then the gyroscope sort of falls off the string, falls over. In the 1930s, America said, well, we don’t care. Well, immediately what you get is a global depression and a collapse of the world trade system. Ten years later you have World War II with Japan and Germany at your throats, and great conflagration. And then immediately after World War II, you have Stalin advancing across Europe and communism trying to take control of France of Italy.
So there was this kind of huge triple shock, quadruple shock within 15 years, and that generation was heavily imprinted with the idea that America has to – it’s cheaper in the end to try to nip it in the bud over there than wait for whatever it is to come out and get you when it’s fully grown up to its biggest strength. And the Cold War kept that alive till 1989. Interestingly, 9/11, in an odd way, sort of revived that again, that if you don’t, there’s things happening out there that if you just sit back and ignore them and hope they go away, they will not only not go away, they will keep on getting worse and more dangerous till they come and they push themselves in your face in a way that you can’t ignore, and then it will be much harder to deal with them. That is probably still the default way most Americans think about America’s place in the world. Arguably you can make a case that that is slowly – maybe the shock of the ‘30s and ‘40s is slowly wearing off and that the re-imprinting of the last ten years doesn’t quite restore it. But I think even if that’s true, that is going to be a very long-term process.
And again, what would happen is that if the United States does pull back and then something does happen, which it’s likely to in a number of places, that it would then rekindle even stronger than before this idea that if we don’t get out there in front and do something, we’re going to have trouble.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up?
MR. MEAD: Very quick.
QUESTION: What about how the outside world looks at America? Will the international world listen to America when they see this somewhat dysfunctional and economically struggling country?
MR. MEAD: Some will and some won’t, which has pretty much been the case as far as I can tell for a very long time.
QUESTION: Adla Massoud from Lebanese TV. How do you think America is going to solve the problem of Syria and the rise of Islamists?
MR. MEAD: (Laughter.) We’ll pull a magic rabbit out of our hat and send it in to the hills and it will spread peace and joy to everyone. I’m not sure anybody’s going to solve the problem with Syria. I’m not sure what that would mean. I think that the United States – as far as I can tell from the outside, the State Department has been working very, very hard to put together an effective political coalition of the opposition with which the U.S. and other interested powers can engage more deeply and more fully.
We saw the Gulf Cooperation Council, I think maybe last night, recognize the new umbrella opposition group as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. I’m not quite sure if that’s the same thing as diplomatic --
QUESTION: As a legitimate.
MR. MEAD: Okay, a legitimate. But that’s – again, that’s getting very, very close to the point where you can open the door to a lot more cooperation. It’s interesting that we’re seeing the British talking about some kind of potential British military engagement in Syria at least as an option. So I think there’s – I think there is a sense in a lot of capitals – Arab and European and perhaps even North American – that we’ve passed the point where anything useful is served by letting the situation simply – by letting the stalemate chew away; that polarization, radicalism, a lot of bad things are getting worse the longer this thing goes on.
And so what it looks to me that you’re seeing is people looking for ways to first build a diplomatic grouping – a political grouping of the opposition. I wouldn’t be surprised if before long, that opposition started trying to claim some sort of authority in patches of territory that the Syrian army was not in control of, at which point one can start talking about recognizing belligerency. All kinds of legal doors begin opening. So it looks to me like we’re seeing a more aggressive push toward trying to bring the war in Syria to a conclusion. Now what that leads to later, no one knows. But I think that’s my reading of the tea leaves in the wind.
QUESTION: Hi, Janine Harper, Fuji TV. In your opening remarks when you spoke about China, you spoke about the need to reassure China’s neighbors. Just speaking for Japan, I guess they would feel that they would like some more reassurance regarding the territorial disputes that they’re having with the islands, Senkaku and –
MR. MEAD: Yeah.
QUESTION: So do you think anything’s going to change?
MR. MEAD: I don’t see any specific change coming in. U.S. positions on these territorial disputes have been public for a very long time, and there have been periods in the past when relations among various Asian countries over these territorial disputes became inflamed. And so the U.S. has adopted stands on these matters that have stood the test of time, but I think the question – but I think the deeper question behind your question of does Japan still matter to the United States and will the Obama Administration try to show that it does in its second term, I think it is – that Japan and the United States need – I guess it’s time to sort of redefine some of our cooperation agreements, the U.S. and Japan.
It sounds like the ruling party in Japan is interested in entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions in a formal way, so I think the U.S. and Japan are going to be finding ways of deepening their relationship as part of this deeper American engagement in Asia as a whole. And I think Japan, as a very large and important economy, as one of the world’s leading sources of technological innovation, as a longstanding U.S. ally, as a democracy, Japan remains very, very key to American policy in Asia. And Asia is, more than ever, the center of American foreign policy as we look forward.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ahmed Fathi, Al Wafd News, Egypt. A quick question about one of the most chronic problems in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli issue: Last year, we have seen Palestinian Authority try to apply for full statehood to the UN. The bid failed at the Security Council without any (inaudible) U.S. veto or any of the (inaudible). This year, we see President Abbas is planning to resubmit the request to the UN General Assembly to accept them as an observer state. The U.S. Administration stated their position clearly that they are not supporting this direction.
What will happen in case – since it’s going to be voted by the General Assembly, what will be the U.S. position in case the Palestinians manage to get the necessary votes to gain this status?
MR. MEAD: Right. Well, to some degree, that’s going to be governed by legislation that already exists, and I don’t know enough about the details – and that’s something probably somebody who speaks for the government officially could help you follow more clearly than I could.
But look, I think the reality here is that President Abbas is someone who, while his stand on this issue is problematic, from a U.S. position, has played a very constructive role in helping what has been, again, the U.S. policy for some time – to try to help the Palestinian Authority move from talking about a state as a kind of an abstraction to actually creating the structures of a state on the ground, so that the Palestinians have the capacity to run an economy, to enforce the law, maintain security, do things that states do.
And the U.S. has tended to – has felt that the culminating point of this process will clearly be the establishment of a viable Palestinian state in the territories where Palestinians are. And I think the U.S. has felt that engagement with Israel is a necessary part of that. It’s – just as one can’t really speak of the Vatican as managing its affairs as a state without some kind of a good relationship with Italy, in some ways it’s hard to imagine an economically and politically viable Palestinian state that doesn’t have defined boundaries with Israel, that doesn’t have trade, transit, and other agreements with Israel so that you can’t separate the process of Palestinians developing a statehood from Palestinians developing a framework with Israel to govern future relations.
Now there – on the Israeli side, there are problems and obstructions and obstacles, and those are real. I think this is – again, I’m not speaking for the government – I think in his first term, the President got things off on the wrong foot when he wanted to make a complete settlement freeze, including East Jerusalem, the basis for – the sort of minimal Israeli concession that would open the price to talks. Because once that’s been aired in public by an American president, the Palestinian leader can’t take a more accommodating stance than the president of the United States.
And so in that sense, I think unfortunately, Washington sort of persuaded the Palestinians to climb up into a tree and they’ve been left in that tree for four years. This, I think, is the problem that somehow in the second term, the White House has to address, is how do you find a way to reopen a true Israeli-Palestinian negotiation with a real, concrete, pragmatic agreement visible at the end of it once you’ve worked yourself into this very painful stalemate. To some degree, I think it may be that the new elections in Israel, whether or not it results in a change of prime minister – and it seems unlikely to result in a change of prime minister – but the new elections may provide some kind of a starting point.
But I think people in Washington in general understand that the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority is pragmatic, is open to all kinds of constructive ideas, and furthermore, we would like to see them succeed. And I think that’s true in a very bipartisan way in the United States. We would like to see the Palestinian Authority succeed.
QUESTION: So why the objection towards getting an observer status?
MR. MEAD: It’s partly because the – it’s because there’s the question, is the way to Palestinian statehood a question of symbolic achievements or of pragmatic steps? And from – given the reality that for the Israelis – the Israelis believe that the Palestinians would use observer status at the UN as a way to start mobilizing different agencies of the UN in a sort of political competition with the Israelis. So whether it’s the International Criminal Court, whether it’s other UN agencies that the Palestinians would then have a voice in as a result of observer status, there’s a sense that if the Palestinians do this, then it actually makes it that much more difficult to get some kind of agreement with the Israelis, and for the U.S. to effectively make the argument to the Israelis that they should, in fact, make some concessions to help move this thing along.
So that for – I think from the Washington point of view – and again, I’m not in the government; I’m trying to describe a point of view – this is – the choice of a symbol at the cost of a symbolic thing, which does nothing concrete for Palestinian – for the Palestinian people and is not even that strongly supported among the Palestinian population, to complicate the actual task of getting a state by some sort of waving of flag and dancing kind of symbolic thing is a political mistake, a serious political mistake, and the U.S. is not able to shelter either the Israelis or the Palestinians always from the consequences of political mistakes that they make.
And people often say to U.S. presidents, including this President: Why are you so close to Israel? But it remains the case that to the degree the U.S. has any ability to act as a mediator or to advance some kind of solution here, it’s to the degree that we have some trust on the Israeli side. If we lost that, I mean, there are plenty of people that – the Europeans have been trying to establish themselves as mediators in the Middle East for a long time, but they can’t deliver anything from the Israelis, and so no one is interested in what they think. The only reason anyone is interested in America’s participation in the peace process is because of the perception that at the end of the day, we are probably the people who can provide the Israelis with the reassurances and so on that they need in order to make peace.
So the U.S. is constantly in these negotiations, having to try to maintain that position. Do the Israelis sometimes exploit this? They certainly do. Like all states, they use all the tools that they have in order to advance their interests, but there we are, I think. And so – but definitely the Obama – I have no doubt the Obama Administration understands that trying to get this – that getting a peace process going, which has legitimacy on both sides, is – will make everything in the Middle East better for everybody, including the United States.
Yes, in the back.
QUESTION: Mr. Mead, I am Zhang Wei from Economic Daily. President Obama will visit Myanmar.
MR. MEAD: Yeah.
QUESTION: So I want to know, what’s the relation between the U.S. and Myanmar in the future?
MR. MEAD: Well, I don’t know what relations will be in the future. They’re certainly changing. And I think what seems to have happened is the government in Myanmar has decided that the opportunity of engaging not just with the United States, but with the whole range of European and neighboring Asian states is – the benefits are great enough and it’s – to take the risk of beginning to dismantle their political and social and economic control over everything that happens in the country. And so step by step, as the – Myanmar’s government has moved toward the international mainstream, let’s call it, the international mainstream – again, this is not just a U.S. posture – has opened rather dramatically to Myanmar. And really, if we think about the other countries in Myanmar’s neighborhood – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India – these are countries that have been growing dramatically – China. And why shouldn’t Myanmar join Vietnam and other countries in having 8, 10 percent annual growth and see the sort of social transformations the rest of Asia is at? The Myanmar authorities seem to have decided they want to do this, and there’s a lot of sense that it’s a good thing.
There’s also, of course, the geopolitical issue that Myanmar has. In the past, Myanmar simply had one strong international relationship with China, and I suppose you could count North Korea also, and was sort of a pariah elsewhere. ASEAN, not quite a pariah, but not quite in the – not quite equal in membership in the club. And Myanmar has said, well, wait a minute, we don’t want to break off relations with China, we don’t want to have no relation with China, we remain neighbors, and we – they have a lot of common interests. Nevertheless, clearly it’s better to have many friends than only one friend. So that seems to be happening.
I think Myanmar’s future is going to be very complicated. There are a lot of people who would like to read this as a simple human rights morality play. It’s much more complicated if you start to look at the ethnic problems, the religious problems, the political problems inside Myanmar. That country is a very volatile place. The people who have ruled it ruled it in an authoritarian way not simply because they were crude, oppressive people who loved oppression and so on, but because there are serious political problems that are hard to address, and they felt this was their only choice.
They are now trying an experiment. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see what happens. I am glad that a lot of countries in the region are responding to Myanmar’s steps with aid, trade, investment, and other things, because Myanmar will need a lot more resources and a lot of help to get beyond where it is. This is not going to be easy, and we should not underestimate the potential for a lot of trouble in Myanmar going forward.
QUESTION: So what’s (inaudible) for U.S. and Myanmar, the cooperation, and what’s the economic cooperation between the U.S. and Myanmar?
MR. MEAD: I don’t know all the details, but I imagine it’s going to be much like U.S. investment in Thailand and Malaysia and so on. I think Myanmar has a labor force that would like to get jobs, and there are a lot of resources and so on. But I think, again, it’s going to be on a commercial basis. I don’t think the U.S. is, for example, trying to ban Chinese investment in Myanmar or something like that. I think what we’re going to see is, again, Myanmar is trying to develop as a normal Southeast Asian state with a normal range of commercial partners, business partners, and also, therefore, a political system and an economic and a legal system that is a normal Southeast Asian pattern of development. So I think that’s what we’re seeing.
QUESTION: So what’s (inaudible) for U.S. side for the cooperation (inaudible)?
MR. MEAD: What should – sorry?
QUESTION: Human rights. What’s the problem between the two sides?
MR. MEAD: Well, at this –
MR. MEAD: It has been human rights and the – a combination of human rights and also in the past there were times when North Korea weapons shipments and so on seemed to be going through Myanmar and some things were happening that just didn’t look all that positive. So I think some of those things seem now not to be happening.
QUESTION: On that issue, can we just –
MR. MEAD: Well, let’s – you’ve had a question.
QUESTION: I know. I thought everybody that –
MR. MEAD: Yeah. No, no. We have a –
QUESTION: Oh, I see. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: I’m from China’s Xinhua News Agency and my question is: During Obama’s first term, his Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (inaudible) Secretary of State in American history. I want to know why the Obama Administration has put so much efforts and resources into foreign relations and policy instead of more emphasis on its domestic (inaudible). We all know that the United States (inaudible) domestically the United States (inaudible) more.
And the second – my second question is that as (inaudible), there are a lot of exchanges between the United States and China, but we can see (inaudible). I just came from China, and I know that – what Chinese people know about American, but American people know (inaudible) about China. Do you have any suggestions on what (inaudible) misunderstanding?
MR. MEAD: Well, I do think that more – I’ll answer the second question first and then the first. I do think that more young Americans, especially, need to study in China and visit in China. And one of the differences is that – and one of the reasons I think there’s an imbalance is actually it – the first Chinese student to study in the United States, I think, came in about 1850. And since that period – this actually began with missionary colleges. But since that period, there has been a conscious effort on the part of American universities now for more than 150 years to recruit international students and Chinese students. China’s universities have really only started trying to recruit foreign students much more recently, and I think those efforts are going to have more and more success.
But to recruit foreign students, it’s more than to say, “Well, please come.” When there are many cultural languages differences and all these things, you have to develop all – universities have to learn how to work with them. And so I think Chinese universities are getting better at this, and we’re going to see more of it, and my guess is that the next generation of Americans will have more people in it who understand China than any other generation. And I certainly – I’m a university professor. I have more students now who are studying Chinese than I can remember, and more students studying Chinese than studying any European language. So things are changing.
The first question, look, one of the reasons that Secretary Clinton is so well known is because President Obama has been focusing so hard on domestic issues. America is a great power, and it’s not either/or. It’s not that you have to choose between having an active foreign policy and trying to work on your domestic policy as well and your domestic programs. It’s not that we have only one airplane in which a government official can fly, and if Secretary Clinton is flying to Asia, it means the President can’t do anything in America.
So in fact, I think if you really look at what the government has been doing the last four years, there’s been a lot of – domestic spending has been going up much faster than international spending. And you look at things like the banking legislation, the auto industry bailouts, I mean, this is an Administration that’s been working very hard. Personally, sometimes I don’t think they’re – it’s been very constructive, but you can’t say they haven’t been trying as hard as they possibly can.
It’s also worth noting that America’s defense budget today is at a lower percentage of GDP than it was during most of the Cold War, so that, in fact, if you compare America’s – and the diplomatic spending, as the State Department people know, is hardly measurable in terms of our GDP – so that if you put together how much of America’s GDP is going to foreign issues and how much has been going into domestic problems, whether it’s Medicare and entitlement spending or economic development and so on, actually we are now much more heavily invested in our domestic issues at – then we were during the Cold War. So I think we’ve made this adjustment, and yet the U.S. still has a lot of ability to be active globally.
MODERATOR: We’re going to have time for one more.
MR. MEAD: Okay. You’ve been waiting very patient.
QUESTION: Follow-up on China. There was a massive protest against Japanese in China deriving from a territorial issue.
MR. MEAD: Yeah.
QUESTION: It is said that damage to Japanese business from that was more than $10 million. And there was a slowing down of the customs inspection --
MR. MEAD: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- about Japanese goods in China. Is it seen to the U.S. Administration or to you – is it seen as localized problem or it could happen to anybody kind of problem? And if it is – if it could happen anybody in the world, how does U.S. Administration engage with China?
MR. MEAD: All right. Well, again, I think the United States typically – when people in one country are protesting or boycotting another country, the United States Government generally doesn’t take a lot of – we have enough trouble with people boycotting us to – not to worry about other things. But I think as observers of Asian relations, what we think China may have done is shot itself in the foot, a self-inflicted wound, because our impression, talking to many Japanese business executives, is that many Japanese businesses in the last two years have realized it’s unwise for them to be too dependent on China for production.
And so we’re seeing very large – many Japanese delegations, for example, are going to Myanmar. Vietnam and Japan trade is clearly going to rise. The Japanese are actually very deeply engaged with the Indians and are working – one of the stories in – because the media tends to be very Eurocentric and doesn’t actually look at Asia in a serious way, people don’t seem to have noticed the numbers of Japanese working with the Indian Government on things like infrastructure and so on in order to make India an alternative manufacturing platform to China so that Japanese companies can diversify their dependence.
So I think this is a very complicated situation, and I suspect – I mean, my impression is that most people in official circles in China are concerned that these popular protests, however grounded in legitimate nationals feelings they may be, are not good for China incorporated. And this creates, I think, many incentives to – for both Japan and China to try to keep their official relations in a good path.
I think – one of the problems I think in Japan is that people think that – many people in Japan seem to think that China has overestimated its ability to compel Japan. The size of the economy, the military programs, and so on – they feel that China has been pushing very hard, and so you’re seeing even parties like the current ruling party, that traditionally have wanted to distance Japan from the United States and maybe explore friendlier relations with China – these parties are now competing with the other parties to take a harder line on some defense issues and trade issues.
So the question of how does the Asian state system accommodate a rising China so that Deng Xiaoping’s vision of a peaceful rise can actually be achieved is now becoming a quite difficult practical day-to-day issue. And I think the dynamics of Japan-China and then pan-Asian relations are things that we’re all just beginning to discover.
This is – but China – Chinese public opinion is often very nationalistic and sometimes looks at the size of China on a map and the size of Japan on the map, and the size of China’s population and the size of Japan’s population, and then now the size of China’s GDP and the size of Japan’s GDP. And it doesn’t necessarily draw subtle conclusions about what this implies. It draws very broad and sweeping conclusions that may not be accurate. And so now I think there will be a process of, in a sense, China and Japan rediscovering each other.
And again, the United States interest is not to set one against the other or encourage them to quarrel and fight. We don’t want that. We want to be able to trade peacefully with everybody. And that way we make money and also we don’t have to worry about wars.
So we are now entering an extremely complex phase in world history. I’m glad that the Obama Administration is turning so much attention to Asia, because I think it really matters. And it’s going to be difficult for – we don’t always get things right, but China, Japan, Asia, India, and a number of other countries have a lot of work to do, and I hope the United States can be a good friend to all of them.
QUESTION: Just a very quick comment. North Korea –
MODERATOR: I promised I would have you out by 11:30, so I’ve got two minutes.
QUESTION: What about North Korea and all of this mayhem in Asia and what’s happening in Japan and China?
MR. MEAD: One of things that’s nice is that one of the things that China, the United States, and Japan all agree about is we should try to keep North Korea from upsetting the entire region. And hopefully when China, South Korea, the United States, and Japan all agree on something, we can bring it about.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you about the climate issue because, I mean, this --
MR. MEAD: We’ll have to do that another time.
QUESTION: Okay. Sure.
MR. MEAD: I don’t think we’re going to see a global carbon treaty.
QUESTION: You don’t think so?
MR. MEAD: No. I think the global carbon treaty – regardless – it has nothing to do with climate change, but simply – it’s like the Kellogg-Briand Treaty outlawing war. It’s too broad and sweeping for the treaty mechanism to make it work.
Thank you very much.
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