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The Open Mind, hosted weekly by Alexander Heffner, is a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas across politics, media, science, technology, the arts and all realms of civic life.
Trita Parsi is co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. Stephen Wertheim is cofounder and research director of the Quincy Institute and a research scholar at Columbia University. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Alexander Heffner: Is this also about preserving liberal democracy?
Stephen Wertheim: For the Quincy Institute, we certainly think we want to preserve liberal democracy. In fact, we’ve come to the conclusion after several decades of overly militarized foreign policy, where unfortunately, experts and politicians from both sides of the aisle routinely tell us that foreigners are coming to kill us when we’re a fundamentally safe, secure country. It’s no surprise that we see our own democracy at home under strain because we have a president right now in a movement that is appealing to nativism, you know, threatening to take our own civil life in a more authoritarian direction, in a direction that brings the war abroad to our civic life at home where we seem to be so at odds with each other internally. It’s as if we’re waging a kind of cold war within our own country. So I think the record of bipartisan militarism has a lot to do with that. And I think in this particular moment, this is one reason why different people are responding to, you know, from different political sides, are responding to this moment and saying, wait a minute there is a real cost to liberal democracy to crusading through military force to promote liberal democracy at least in the name of liberal democracy or to do any number of things that really don’t respond to the national security interests of the United States.
Heffner: How do you define the underlying philosophy that Quincy will espouse?
Trita Parsi: Peace requires a tremendous amount of diplomatic engagement. It requires a lot of conflict resolution. It requires to a certain extent, the degree of nation-building, things that are not suited for the military, things that the military itself does not want to do. I think the problem we’re seeing is that we’re thinking that for every problem that emerges in the world, the military is the solution. It’s the militarization of our foreign policy. What we need is to take a step back and recognize that diplomacy has to be at the very center of American statecraft. We have to rediscover the art of diplomacy and recognize that that is actually not only more effective, it is far less costly. It also tends to have far less blowback than throwing around military weight and might all the time.
Heffner: The Marshall Plan is often cited as a post-war measure that redeveloped social capital and diplomatic means of achieving political goals. How are you going to peel away the temptation of war with the current administration?
Parsi: There’s this bizarre combination of a remarkable degree of lack of self-control when it comes to the escalation and then a surprising degree of self-control when it comes to actually not pulling the trigger at the last minute. That’s what we saw in North Korea. That’s what we saw in Iran. In the case of Iran, he destroyed a fully functional nuclear deal. There’s no reason for us to be in this escalation whatsoever. But when push came to shove, he’d rather blink than pull the trigger, which I think actually was the right decision; and one has to be fair, many presidents probably would not have been able to do so at that last minute. He did. But it doesn’t take away the fact that many presidents probably wouldn’t have ended up in that situation in the first place by having shown greater self-control at an earlier stage and not escalated in a situation needlessly. But having said all of that, I think what we want to do is to—instead of just immediately be in the middle of these different crises and then having more or less a tunnel vision. What do we do now? If that’s our approach, we will likely end up with the same type of policies as in the past, with the same repeated failures as the past. We are at a moment where the country needs to take a significant step back and rethink not just how do we get out of here, but how do we get in to this place in the first place?
Heffner: When the statecraft or diplomacy is only on the part of Trump and Kim in the case of North Korea, that doesn’t bring any relief to the people who were under severe duress in that country.
Wertheim: Absolutely true. And right now we’ve gotten to the point where our reliance on military force actually gets in the way of diplomacy. It prevents us from using our good offices to mediate conflicts, because instead we find ourselves on the side of every conflict. Now, what we did, the cofounders of Quincy put together a set of principles of responsible statecraft, and some of those principles address the specific scenarios that you were mentioning. So, in the case of Venezuela, one thing that we say is that, you know, the United States should not be attempting to change regimes of governments that don’t threaten us. That should just be a basic principle because even though the Trump Administration hasn’t yet taken that to a military level, it decided very early on to withhold the recognition from a government in power to confer recognition on a faction that was vying for power but hadn’t made it yet. And that’s effectively a regime-change policy, perhaps just without willing the means. And so what that systematically does is it puts pressure on the president to ramp up the intervention. It makes it very difficult to use diplomacy to bring the sides to the table so that they can discuss their differences. So that’s what we’d like to see, a more even-handed approach that uses the influence of the United States to convene people, not to dictate to them which party we prefer and which we want to see go.
Heffner: In the case of North Korea, there aren’t any good answers, because you have the beginning of a diplomatic relationship and then you see them fire off more missiles—and there’s no indication that they recognize values of liberal democracy and freedom of speech and human rights.
Parsi: Democracy has emerged wherever it has emerged because of forces inside of that country, oftentimes decades-long, if not centuries-long, processes in which a society is transformed internally from inside indigenously towards this movement. Yes, it would be absolutely fantastic if we could just wave the magic stick and be able to turn countries into democracies. And it would be great if we really could. We don’t have that capacity. We have been under the illusion that we have that capacity, and a lot of people have died because of that illusion. And one thing that John Quincy Adams says in that passage, towards the end of it, is that if we were to go down this path of chasing monsters to destroy outside it will perhaps lead to a scenario in which the United States would become the ruler of the world. But it would come at the expense of its own spirit, the spirit of liberty and freedom at home. And that is exactly the process that we have seen, that the more militaristic the U.S. foreign policy has become, the more it has come at the expense of the civil liberties of the American people at home.