2:00 P.M. EST
NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, 799 UNITED NATIONS PLAZA, 10TH FLOOR
MODERATOR: So good afternoon, everyone. I’m Daphne Stavropoulos. I see many familiar faces around the table. Thanks for joining us today. It’s our pleasure to welcome Professor Walter Russell Mead back to the Foreign Press Center. Professor Mead is the Editor-at-Large of American Interest magazine and professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College. After Professor Mead speaks, we’ll move to 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.
So with that, welcome, Professor Mead.
MR. MEAD: Hi. Well, it’s good to see – I think some of you I’ve seen before even in this very room, so hello. And I hope I’m speaking loudly enough, clearly enough for everyone.
What I thought I would do is just take a few minutes and look at what some of the big hotspots or issues are that the President is thinking about as he gets ready for the State of the Union, a couple of suggestions about some of the issues, decisions he may need to make or the thoughts, sometimes regrets, sometimes pleased recollections that may be going through his mind. And then we can go to Q&A, and I’ll be happy to take questions either on the things that I have brought up in this presentation or other things that you may want to talk about.
So, the big picture: Obviously, with the conference going on in Syria and all the discussion of the implementation of the temporary agreement between the P5+1 and Iran, the Middle East is very much in the front of the politics in the United States and international diplomacy. That’s not what the President would have wanted. President Obama is, I think, quite serious that he would like to see the United States less focused – less of our energy being taken up in dealing with Middle East issues, and he would like to be focusing more on Asia, though not exclusively on Asia. And I should say that is not – sometimes you see some speculation that this is linked to U.S. energy production, where the U.S. is now on the verge for becoming, at least for some time, a net energy exporter, and so there’s some thought, well, now that the U.S. is no longer dependent on the Middle East for energy, that’s why the United States is trying to pull back.
See, that’s not really what’s going on. The U.S. has never actually had a great dependence on Middle Eastern oil for its domestic supply. And if the Middle East were to disappear tomorrow, in terms of physical supply of oil, the North American economy would be far less disrupted than either the European or the Asian economies. And even before the large, new production in the United States had been – was coming online, the U.S. was actually looking to Africa and South America, and, of course, Canada, rather than to the Middle East for its own supply needs.
So why does the U.S. care so much about it, about the oil? It is not even about getting concessions for oil companies. That’s not actually the way the U.S. process works. It is much more that if global oil supplies are disrupted, there is a war in the Persian Gulf, there is some kind of embargo, or other conflict that interrupts the flow of oil, oil will go to $300, $400 a barrel, who knows, and there will be shortages in all the U.S. major trading partners – in India, in Japan, in China, in Europe. This would have devastating impacts on our economy. Our exports would collapse, our supply chains, corporations in America that depend on global supply chains would be unable to function. And of course, much more rapidly than that, our financial sector would take an enormous hit. We would have a major financial crisis.
So the United States is not tied to the Middle East by its physical dependence on Middle East oil to burn in our own factories and homes. Though cold as it is this winter, we’re very happy to have whatever we can burn. And therefore, it’s likely that the U.S. will be interested in the Middle East and concerned about the security of world oil markets even if the United States is for a long term itself an oil exporting country.
Well, what – so why, then, is President Obama so interested in stepping back? And the answer is that both President Bush and President Obama tried to change the Middle East in ways sort of – using different strategies, but with an aim of producing a Middle East that was, let’s say, more like Europe – peaceful, democratic, all of those kinds of things. And both men, I think, certainly President Bush by the time he left office, didn’t think he’d achieved that goal. And I think President Obama does not necessarily think he has – the embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian experiment with democracy has collapsed, there are problems in Turkey. Tunisia is about the only place one can point to, and as Middle East countries go, it’s both very unusual and not particularly large. Libya, again, being another, probably for this president, unhappy example demonstrating the limits of one’s ability to effect political change and reform there.
So I think what the President is doing, and he’s certainly not alone in this thinking in the U.S., is he’s thinking, okay, if we can’t get what we would love to see, a democratic, peaceful, happy Middle East that is stable because people are doing well, what are our vital interests and how we can we secure them? And there’s a good argument to be made -- that some kind of balance of power in the region or some – that the United States as a less interventionist power could achieve its core goals of oil security in world markets and perhaps reduce the friction between the United States and both governments and currents of public opinion in the Middle East. And that, I think, is some of the thinking behind President Obama’s pivot, as he’s called it, to Asia.
And we’ll see if it works. I think we’re in a very, very interesting period. In some ways, the complication for the President’s strategy, I think, in the Middle East, is that the sort of the Sunni Arab camp, if we can use that description of something that is actually quite divided today, is in real disarray. Egypt has gone through a wrenching experience. One doesn’t know where it’s going. The Saudis are bankrolling, but the Saudis are not – their effectiveness to be a leader of the Sunni Arab world is somewhat disputed. The Turks and the Muslim Brotherhood have very different visions of what that leadership should be.
So the Sunni world is in some disarray. Meanwhile, Iran is doing very well, and the Shia in what is now almost a new Thirty Years’ War, a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. At the moment, the Shia appear to be winning. The Shia majority – Iraq, which is a Shia majority country, has a Shia majority government, which I have to say strikes me as appropriate, though I hope they will be wise and thoughtful in what they do.
In Syria, where the majority is Sunni, you still have an Alawi government – based government, which is aligned with the Shia, and you have a bitter, bitter sectarian conflict going on there. You’ve seen the horrendous pictures of the tortures, very careful and coldblooded tortures that the Syrian Government is carrying out – not to say that the rebels are, (inaudible) let’s say, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. But it’s an extremely ugly situation, and if you look at Hezbollah, you look at Assad in Syria, you can sort of see from the standpoint of a lot of people in the Middle East it looks like Iran is on the verge of consolidating some kind of hold on what used to be called the Fertile Crescent.
This is not a stable balance of power in the region. It’s not something that the Saudis or even, indeed, many other Sunnis can accept, certainly not without a lot more fighting. So we have a very, very unstable situation. And the goal of reaching a nuclear accommodation with Iran is in some ways in tension with the goal of creating some kind of a stable balance of power between Sunni and Shia in the region. It’s not clear how that’s going to be working out. I imagine that the lights are burning late at the White House in the offices where people think about these issues.
Okay, I – we can get to Secretary Kerry and the peace discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians in Q&A maybe. Like President Obama, I’ve spent more time on the Middle East than I intended.
Then let’s go to what has also emerged as a kind of an unexpected but very interesting flashpoint in world events, and that would be Ukraine, the situation in Ukraine, where again, we’re seeing a kind of a geopolitical struggle playing out in a very interesting way. I think for President Putin and many people in Moscow, in Russia, preventing Ukraine from joining a trade association agreement with the EU that would eliminate any chance of Ukraine joining a Eurasian union or participating in a meaningful way in that is an almost existential question related to Russia’s stature as a great power.
If President Putin is at best bringing Ukraine into some kind of deeper association with Russia and other former Soviet states, then his foreign policy looks like a success and his narrative of a Russian recovery and reemergence has a certain coherence. If Ukraine were to definitively leave – make a definitive decision for Brussels, however gradually that took place, but a wall of some kind went up between Russia and Ukraine, in a sense, the whole question of what is Putin’s presidency, what is Russia’s destiny, what has happened to Russia, where is Russia going, is reopened in a very, very serious way, a historic way.
And I think one of the things that we saw in the last few months was that the United States was not really paying a lot of attention to this issue, certainly not the way we were paying attention, say, to issues in Europe after 1989, and the European Union underestimated the degree to which Russia was really prepared to work hard on this issue. I wrote on my blog at one point that the EU took a baguette to a knife fight, and the results were sliced baguettes. And now what we see in the streets of Kyiv and throughout Ukraine is a very, very dangerous and difficult situation.
Whether the United States is going to get more involved in this, I can’t say. We’ve certainly heard some conversations about this. Again, it greatly complicates for President Obama the narrative of working with Russia on Syria, working with Russia on Iran. It is a politically difficult turn of events for the President in foreign policy, and I think you’re seeing some of the opposition in the Senate that is taking hold on some of these initiatives is sort of reflecting – is being driven in part by that. So where it goes, again, I don’t know. I’m not sure that Ukraine knows where it’s going. It has had a difficult time with this for some time.
So we have Middle Eastern geopolitics, we have European geopolitics, and of course, we also have Asian geopolitics. And here again, I think a lot of the attention that people pay to the region and a lot of the sort of narrative in the news is driven by China announces an air zone, China builds some kind of a building on an island, that sort of thing. And that is significant, and it certainly has helped over a number of years to create tension in that part of the world. But what many people may be missing – and I think, again, this is going to complicate President Obama’s foreign policy in the region – is we really are seeing a much more significant move by Japan to reassert itself as a great power than people had expected.
I’m old enough to remember back in the 1980s and early ’90s when Japan was China. That is, it was the rising Asian super giant that was going to sort of relegate the United States to the backwoods of history, and Japan was emerging. I think at one point, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in real estate were worth more than the state of California. That didn’t last, but it was an interesting moment. I think we all went from overrating Japan to underrating and forgetting Japan.
And in fact, we think, well, the population is aging, the public opinion is a little bit pacifistic. They’re certainly – their economy is stagnant. In the 21st century, the number of 18 year-olds you have who are willing to carry a machine gun is going to be a much less important factor in national power than it’s been in the past. Technology is more and more going to be the great engine of national power. Japan is extremely good at many of the technologies that will be the foundation of military success and power in the 21st century.
If you look at a pattern of decisions that Japan has been making, it’s not just stuff like sort of establishing a national security council, but more fundamentally, they are opening the Japanese equivalent of DARPA. They seem to be moving toward something that we might call military Keynsianism, where the government spending on high tech and research strengthens your IT industry at the same time that it develops your military capacity. I think the Japanese have looked at the way Silicon Valley and other U.S. tech centers have benefited from U.S. Government spending on sort of the revolution in military affairs and so on, and I think we’re seeing a pretty serious move by Japan. It’s reducing its restrictions on arms sales. It is in many, many ways repositioning itself. And I think it’s doing this because China has frightened it, and because it’s not sure whether the United States is going to be reliable. I think in some ways this is part of the price we’re all paying for the failure of the United States, China, and others to bring an end to the North Korean nuclear program. The sort of message is a – reverberates in the Japanese psyche as we are on our own more than we would like.
So we’re seeing a world where there are more players taking more geopolitical initiatives. This is not – a rising Japan is not necessarily a bad thing from the standpoint of U.S. national interests, thinking about balance of power and so on. So these trends are not necessarily signs of American either resignation from world affairs or inability to achieve key goals. But they do mean that the world is getting more complicated.
If you’ve been reading the dispatches from Davos, a surprisingly large number of people are talking about analogies to 1914. I think that is perhaps getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but that people are beginning to think about the world in some of those terms, serious people – is a reason for all of us, I think, to pay attention to some of these geopolitical issues. And we can be pretty confident that in the White House, some bells are starting to ring and some people are starting to look at these trends.
Don’t know if the President will be talking about this in the State of the Union. He is a very cool-headed, collected person who is not necessarily going to sort of – the State of the Union is not going to be the laundry list of everything that is on Barack Obama’s mind. Typically, by the way, Presidents focus more on foreign policy in their second term than they do in their first. And there are usually several reasons. One is the President’s just more powerful under our Constitution in foreign policy. You can do more things without getting Congress to support you. You need money from Congress, but there are a lot of things that you can do. So he’s got that.
Second, in a second term, a president is usually more experienced in foreign affairs, knows the other leaders, has worked with them, so has a better sense of what he can accomplish.
Third, usually presidents have less support in Congress in their second term than they do in their first. We don’t know at this point who will win the races in the Senate in the fall, but it certainly – Obama’s almost certain not to control both houses of Congress in his second term. He may not even control either house after November 2014. So that’s another reason why presidents in their second term then look overseas.
But if you put the intersection of a more critical geopolitical climate with the natural tendency of an experienced president to move into foreign affairs, we might see an interesting second term for President Obama in the world of foreign policy.
So those are some thoughts that I have of where we are, where we’re going. I’ll be happy to take questions.
MODERATOR: If you could just state your name and organization before you ask your questions.
QUESTION: Yeah. Martin Suter. I’m a Swiss journalist for a Sunday newspaper and an online publication. You said that the lights are burning late in the White House about the Middle East. Can you say anything more? I mean, that Obama would rather have less to do with that area of the world is well known, but still I wonder how you see the strategic steps that the U.S. at the moment is seemingly taking. Are they appeasing Iran? Do they kind of rely on Iran to kind of – give a new order to this region, or – I mean, what is going on in more concrete terms?
MR. MEAD: I certainly think if you ask President Obama, “Are you appeasing Iran,” he would answer, “No, I’m not.” I mean, it’s a very complicated picture. I do think that President Obama does, in his thinking, put nuclear and WMD issues on kind of a different plane than regular geopolitical issues. And this is a little bit, it seems to me, like President Wilson during World War I. President Wilson would not go to war against Germany to protect the balance of power in Europe. He would go to war against Germany if Germany was breaking international law, in his judgment, and sort of left the United States with no recourse.
So in that sense, the Germans, I think – because he – Wilson – he used to say things like when – he kept the United States out of that war from August 1914 until April of 1917, and he would say things like, “There’s such a thing as being too proud to fight.” And he made – “He kept us out of war” the slogan for his reelection campaign in 1916. Then the Kaiser actually came to the conclusion that Wilson would not fight. And I think President Obama is in some ways like this. He is more willing to – he doesn’t like war. No one – I think no sane person does. But a war over principle will strike him as much harder to evade than a war over geopolitics. That’s the opposite of the way a lot of statesmen think, and it can lead to a certain amount of confusion.
But I think he has always been very serious about his bottom line with Iran on nuclear weapons. And again, I think in the White House there is the belief – and who knows what telephone conversations they’ve been listening to that help them affirm this belief for them – that the Iranians really are – the Iranian Government is having a problem with the sanctions and that this is taking a real toll. So I think from President Obama’s point of view, I don’t think this looks like an appeasement. Again, I think you ask yourself what’s the relationship between the policies in Syria and so on and the nuclear policy. I’m not sure that’s the way they think about it in the White House. I don’t know. I’m not sitting up there at night with them with the lights burning. But it’s an interesting question.
QUESTION: Marta Torres from Spain, from La Razon newspaper.
MR. MEAD: Uh-huh.
QUESTION: Do you see Bashar al-Assad as staying in power after all what is happening? And if you see there is going to be any kind of – or if it’s going to affect the drama over the weekend about Ban Ki-moon inviting Iran and then cancelling the invitation when it comes to Iranian talks over the nuclear program?
MR. MEAD: I don’t know if you read David Rimnick’s piece about President Obama in The New Yorker. I would really recommend that to all of you. It’s just a very, very in-depth – and David, by the way, wrote what I still think is the most insightful biography of President Obama. So this is a man who has had some real contact with him – a very thoughtful interview. I was actually surprised at how frank the President was at moments in the interview. He said – I think he said that he thought that there was less than a 50-50 chance, or at best a 50-50 chance, of a nuclear deal with Iran, a treaty with the Palestinians, or a good outcome for the Syria conference.
So he’s got three signature diplomatic tracks going in the Middle East, and he isn’t sure, and in fact he – I imagine he thinks that it’s unlikely, based on those odds, that all three would work. So I’m not sure. Remnick doesn’t ask him in the piece, “What do you do if you don’t get these? What are the next steps?” But again, I imagine that after reading an interview like this, the White House staff and the National Security Council staff have to be asking themselves, okay, what’s Plan B?
MODERATOR: It looks like we have a question in Washington, so --
MR. MEAD: Oh, okay. Sorry.
MODERATOR: -- Washington, can you hear me? Can you go ahead?
QUESTION: Hi, Professor Mead. My name is Jeremy Au from the Straits Times of Singapore. I was just wondering if you could speak a bit about what Obama’s priorities might be in Southeast Asia, assuming there’s some bandwidth left for that region. Specifically, could you talk about how it intends to deal with the ongoing problems with the Rohingya in Myanmar?
MR. MEAD: I don’t know the answer to that. The situation in Burma/Myanmar has become a lot more complicated. I think in the beginning of the reform process, there was a certain tendency to think of this as kind of a human rights fairytale of bad dictators seeing the light, country moving forward harmoniously into a beautiful new democratic dawn. And now, the reality that this is one of the most complicated countries in the world with not just the Rohingya problem, but all kinds of ethnic issues there. And some of them sort of bleed off into China, into Thailand, and into India and even Bangladesh. It’s a very, very difficult thing.
My guess is that President Obama probably is not spending all that many hours a day reading up on this, but that this is where the sort of strength of the American bureaucracy is, and that there are a lot of people who are deeply familiar with the region. But I would add another wrinkle. I think the situation in Thailand is, if anything, more of a concern. I mean, in terms of bloodshed, it’s not on the same level at this point, but it is a – if you think about a country that had been the pillar of the region for quite some time, now is – the king doesn’t seem to be able to – I would imagine medically able to really intervene here. And there’s no institution or person who can replace what the king has been to Thailand as a kind of an ultimate arbiter who was seen as a legitimate authority.
That’s a deeper problem in some ways, even than the Rohingya, and I – so if you think about – if you think of those two very large countries side by side, Southeast Asia is looking much more interesting than it has in quite a while, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
MODERATOR: Let’s take the question from Nina.
MR. MEAD: Yeah.
QUESTION: Hi. Channel 5, Nina Vishneva, Channel 5 Russia. Professor, what do you think what the U.S. should do about the current situation in Ukraine? What if this streets protest will turn to the real war? And the second question is: How this current situation will impact the relationships between U.S. and Russia?
MR. MEAD: Well, I haven’t heard anything out of Washington suggesting that the U.S. Government thinks that these protests are headed toward civil war or anything like that. It doesn’t seem to be at that level, and let’s hope it isn’t. I imagine if things continue to develop in a very negative way, then we would – then everybody would start thinking further down that road. I don’t think people are thinking about that much right now.
But for U.S.-Russian relations, I think it is a bit of a problem. And it’s – in some ways, I think it goes back to the problem that after the end of the Cold War, no one – neither Europe nor – the European Union nor the United States really gave enough thought to Russia. And if you say, okay, there are two big things happening on the continent of Europe; one is NATO as a security alliance, and one is the European Union as an economic and political agenda, and Russia is banned from both, is uniquely banned from both. That is an unsustainable picture. And the question is – and I think it would have been much easier in the 1990s for Russians and the West to agree on some sort of joint vision of the future. Now, Russia has evolved in one way and has had a sort of a history of responses to the situation that now make it much more difficult to think it through.
I was glad to see that the Obama Administration wanted to improve relations with Russia, but I felt that the attempt in the first term was a little superficial, that the problems are actually a good deal deeper and require on both sides, I think, some fairly searching reexamination of some deeply held assumptions.
MODERATOR: Let’s take one more question here and then we’ll go back to Washington.
MR. MEAD: Okay.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) my name is Arie Elshout. I come from the Netherlands, paper in the Netherlands. And I have to say, America, they wanted stability in the Middle East, guaranteed by backing the status quo. That was for decades, that was the main policy. Then after 9/11, they decided that the stability didn’t work, we had a spillover of the violence to lower Manhattan, and then they decided, under influence of the neo-cons, that maybe doing away with the status quo would be better to create a new stability. Now, we have seen the stability and the status quo has been shattered. Obama speaks in the interview in The New Yorker, he speaks about finding a new equilibrium. And he said the old order doesn’t exist anymore. What can you do? Because you also said he is not so interested in geopolitics. I’m a little bit amazed by that. But what can he do to find a new equilibrium there in the Middle East?
MR. MEAD: Well, I don’t want to say that I think the President’s uninterested in geopolitics. I think the President doesn’t want to fight geopolitical wars. He’s interested and aware, I think, of geopolitical realities. But he doesn’t want to be a sort of 18th century European monarch engaging in countless petty wars for the sake of an abstract balance of power.
The story that you just told I think ignored one very, very important dimension of what’s going on, and that’s the people of the Middle East. I don’t actually think that endless stability under the old regimes was a possibility. I mean, the United States didn’t lay a glove on Syria, and look what’s happened. The sort of presidential military republics in the Middle East gradually – they tended to become more despotic. The State tended to sort of be absorbed into a very hard, sort of brittle, hard surface. Civil society died. We saw what happened when the regime was removed in Iraq. There’s no state underneath it anymore. And clearly, in some ways this has happened in Syria. It’s – this is why those regimes were increasingly fragile.
To give Bush credit, I think this is one of the reasons both he and Obama are so uncomfortable about embracing what looks like a less and less and less sustainable status quo. And let’s not forget that there’s a huge youth bulge in the Arab world, and you have these sort of 15-year-olds and 18-year-olds in the millions who are restless and want change.
So I’m not sure that anybody outside the Middle East, or for that matter, inside the Middle East, is capable of directing the stream of Middle Eastern history. These people are making history on the ground. And Sunni – yeah, the Egyptian revolution was, by most measures, ultimately a failure, at least so far. Well, most revolutions fail. 1848, most – in most cases, the Ancien Regime or something very like it came back and revolutions can fail in two ways. They can fail by not being able to seize power, and then they can fail by becoming so horrible and bloody and monstrous that they’re worse than the – anything the old regime could have dreamed of. And most revolutions, historically speaking, don’t sort of lead to three months of demonstrations and then 200 years of stable constitutional government.
So the Middle East is in a historical period where neither we nor they or anybody else that I’m aware of really has the answers to the urgent human problems that people face all over the – you’re a 22-year-old Egyptian and you’ve graduated with – from a bad college with a degree in engineering, and there’s no job for you and no real way of getting one. You depend – to be able to feed yourself, you depend on food subsidies which are visibly bankrupting your governments, and no one knows what to do.
So these are big problems, and I think we all, as observers of disease that we can have, is that we think, oh, there is an answer in the box somewhere, and the problem is the people in power are too stupid or too bribed or whatever it is to go do the simple thing that would just fix it all and be very nice. But in fact, if the study of history teaches us anything, it is that that’s not the way the world works most of the time. Sometimes you get lucky and it does.
So, I think it’s – I think history is on the march in the Middle East, and we’re just going to have to see what fate decrees in some ways.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Professor Mead. Let’s go to Washington.
QUESTION: Professor, my name is Shirato, the correspondent of Mainichi Newspaper of Japan, based in Washington, D.C. Thank you very much for giving me a chance to ask questions. I would like to ask one question with respect to Obama Administration’s diplomacy towards Asia. As you know, White House already announced that President Obama will make a trip to several Asian countries in April this year. But the destination was not announced yet, so is it possible for you to predict which country will President travel in April? And another question is: What is the most things that Obama – President Obama would like to say? What is the main message that Obama Administration wants to say to the Asian countries? If we can anticipate many issues like maritime security or easings of tension in between Japan and China and South Korea, something like that. So what is the significance that Obama Administration wants to use – take advantage of this President’s trip in coming April? Thank you very much.
MR. MEAD: Okay well, I am – unfortunately, I am not a prophet or a seer and I can’t tell you which countries he’s going to visit, but I can certainly tell you that there are a number of countries like Japan, like China, like Indonesia, like a number of other good friends of the United States that Obama will – the Administration will be discussing its plans with in great detail.
I think the core message that President Obama will be taking to the region is pretty much the message that any American president or any serious American politician or even just policy wonk would take to Asia, which is, look, you people in Asia have the opportunity for the greatest century in the history of Asia in – of thousands of years. You stand at the brink of unimaginable prosperity. You have the ability in the coming century to raise the living standards to create the kind of deep peace among Asian states that the European states have been able to create. You have – and if you do that, the 21st century will be for all of humanity a wonderful time.
You’ve also got the ability to really screw it up. You could drag yourselves and the world into unimaginable horrors that would make anything that happened in the 20th century look small and modest. You need to make up your minds what you’re going to choose. And the United States will be there because our security and our happiness and our prosperity are very much bound up with the choices that Asians make. The United States will be there to do what we can to make it easier for Asians to choose the path of peaceful prosperity and cooperation, and that is a long-term interest of the United States. It’s not something of one administration or one political party. It’s not just – we didn’t just get involved in Asia in 1941. We have actually – the U.S. engagement, economic and even military with Asia, goes back into 1819; we had a fleet in the South Pacific. We have been an Asian power for centuries.
So I think that’s the message that one way or another President Obama will be trying to project when he’s in Asia. And it’s not a message of hostility to any country. It’s not a message of – it’s a message of trying to encourage all countries to work together for common objectives. It’s not a message to threaten one country or isolate one country or punish one country. That is not what the United States wants.
QUESTION: Gerben van der Marel from Dutch Financial Daily. If you look at coming Tuesday at the State of the Union speech, if you look at the history, is the State of the Union a platform to launch big foreign policy ideas, if you look at all the presidential speeches of the last decades? And what will be the core message on the foreign policy – in the foreign policy field of Obama? And what will be an issue that he wouldn’t address on purpose, which is too sensitive to touch on, on this podium?
MR. MEAD: I would be surprised if – perhaps I will be surprised – but I think the President at this point probably feels that his foreign policy is – has been laid out pretty well. That is to say the front pages of every newspaper in the world are talking about the Geneva discussions, the Iran discussions, the Palestinian-Israeli process, and so on and so forth. He’s – I don’t know that he is thinking of launching some huge new initiative. I think at this point he feels he has an agenda. It’s a big enough agenda. He’s got important trade negotiations, whether the WTO or the Asian ones or the European ones. He has – there’s plenty on his plate.
And I think it’s more likely that his primary focus in the State of the Union will be on domestic politics. Remember the midterm election that’s coming up in November is very important. And he really – he does not want to lose control of the Senate. So he will be focused – and it – and we’re still many months away, but it looks as if the Republicans will gain seats. Whether they’ll gain enough seats is very hard to say.
So he will be delivering – the Democrats have been working very hard on putting together an agenda to define the debate in 2014 in the United States that will set them up to do well. He’s – people are – he needs to talk about the health care reforms, where we are – he’s not happy with the way those have – the initial rollout has worked, and he’ll want to create confidence in the country that that health care initiative is moving in the right way. So I would be surprised if he announced any new international programs this year. But again, I’m not the president.
You’ve been very patient.
QUESTION: Thank you. Gulveda Uruzcan (ph), Turkish journalist based in New York.
I know you slightly touched upon the current problems that is going on in Turkey, and I was – and obviously, some of the remarks that the prime minister has made, accusatory remarks towards the United States. How do you think the current events will unfold and affect U.S.-Turkish relations, especially in a region which is very fragile and U.S. and Turkey need each other equally?
MR. MEAD: Right. Well, I think that the last thing you said is still the key to the situation. The United States and Turkey need each other. And I think there was a period earlier when on the surface U.S.-Turkish relations were very good, but I think the prime minister had a vision of Turkey operating sort of in a complete, independent way in the Middle East. There was – he would go to Egypt and be cheered by millions of people. I think he must have felt a little bit like President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, all over Europe they’re coming out, and God has brought me to this place, and those kinds of things.
And I think now Turkish foreign policy is once again in a situation of Turkey – Turkey needs allies and Turkey needs to find partners on issues that are critical to Turkish security. And obviously, also, I think there’s been a clearer understanding in Turkey that events in Syria aren’t necessarily just foreign problems, they are Turkish problems. And not just in terms of the Kurdish issue, but other issues that – that it’s very polarizing inside Turkey.
So this is – this puts the prime minister under a lot of political pressure and a lot of constraints, but it also increases his need to find people to work with. And it just happens that regardless of how people feel about each other at any moment, objectively speaking, U.S. and Turkish interests are quite parallel on a lot – not on every point, but on a rather large number of issues the U.S. and Turkey kind of come out on the same place even though they start in very different ones.
So I think we’ll see – it says more of the same, U.S.-Turkish relations somehow managing to move forward despite a lot of storm and unhappiness on both sides from time to time.
Oh, wait, this would be your second.
QUESTION: Hi, my name is Robert Poredos from Slovene Press Agency. I think you mentioned the possibility of screw-ups before, and that made me think of National Security Agency and Edward Snowden scandal. What do you think? It’s going to have a lasting effect on the relationship with Obama with the foreign leaders and it’s going to blow up fast, or you think it’s going to linger there? Can you talk about that a little bit?
MR. MEAD: It’s interesting, I was in Europe in the spring when the scandal was just – I was in The Netherlands in Denmark and a couple of other countries, and at that time all the Europeans were saying, “You Americans, you’re forgetting us, you don’t pay attention to us anymore, you’re pivoting to Asia.” And I said, “No, you’re wrong. We’re obsessed with you.” (Laughter.) “We can’t – no, we’re stalking you. We haven’t forgotten about you at all.”
Look, I think if any country could have an Edward Snowden who could pop up and start telling a lot of things that the government wishes that other governments didn’t know, and I think many of the governments who have been the most in public demonstrative about their feelings are angrier at is the NSA’s superior technological capability. Why aren’t we doing that? I mean, so governments do these things. I personally think that you have to always balance the harm – the risks and the benefits of doing something. And I also frankly, if I were the President of the United States, I would not want to listen in on Mrs. Merkel’s phone calls. Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail. Well, they certainly don’t intercept ladies’ phone calls. That’s my own personal view.
And I think that sometimes in bureaucracies the internal logic of more is better runs – so like, what do you mean I can’t get – wouldn’t it be nice if we knew X? Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew Y? – can get out of control. This does need strong – it needs strong leadership from the top, because a bureaucracy will always try to expand and go where it shouldn’t.
After 9/11, I think in the U.S. it was even harder to stop these things because it’s like no one wants to be the person whose signature is on the order that says don’t stop collecting a certain type of intelligence, and then it turns out that if we’d had that we might have known and stopped it. Nobody wants to be that person. But the fact that it’s difficult to do this stuff responsibly and thoughtfully doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do it and that there isn’t a price to be paid when you fail.
So it’s – we’ll see. I think it’s both domestically and internationally this will have to be rethought. The other thing I would add is we all have to remember that the technological environment is changing all the time, and the – I tell this to my students who often get upset about all the monitoring. And I say, “Listen, we all have the idea that when we go on the internet we’re – you go in your room at night and you go on the internet, you’re alone. You’re not. You’re going to the mall. You are in public.” And that’s just something I think that we all as individuals and as societies, we just have to – we have to adjust.
This technology is new. We’re all still exploring it. It was almost like the Garden of Eden at the first. It was – people thought of the internet as this place, a space that would be free of all of those terrible human limitations and crimes and governments and spying and all this. And bit by bit it turns out that we’re as horrible online as we are in real life as a species. (Laughter.) Original sin extends into cyberspace. So it’s going to be complicated.
QUESTION: Yeah. The thing is I need you to (inaudible) you think it’s going to stay or it’s going to blow over, I mean, soon? You think it’s the real thing or it’s more for show (inaudible)?
MR. MEAD: I think it will change things, but I think that over the last 60 years the United States and the Europeans and other U.S. allies have had many quarrels, have listened to each other, and have been – just within the EU – countries know that the relationship is important. They are angry. They figure it out. This, I think, is what people will do.
MODERATOR: We’re at the end of our program. I don’t know if you have time for one last question or if –
MR. MEAD: Sure, I can take maybe one more question, then I’ve got to get going. My semester break ends and my students – I have to plan my courses now. It’s a very onerous task.
MODERATOR: Is there any last question in the room?
QUESTION: Could I ask something about the Snowden, too? Do you think he should have gone to Congress instead of leaking all of this to the press?
MR. MEAD: All I can say is I wouldn’t have done it the way he did. But I don’t know all the details and it’s easy for me to say this at my advanced age, but he’s a very young man under a lot of pressure. We don’t often make the best decisions when we’re very emotional and so on and so forth. There probably were better ways to do what needed to be done.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much for coming today. Thank you, Professor Mead.
MR. MEAD: Thank you all. Good luck to everyone. Happy New Year.
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