A lot has changed in U.S. foreign policy since Frank Wisner began work as a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department in 1961. A former U.S. ambassador to Zambia, Egypt, the Philippines, and India, Wisner has also served as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman sat down with Wisner to discuss lessons from the Cold War era, the refugee crisis, and the future of U.S. engagement in Asia, the Middle East, and beyond.
DAVID ANDELMAN: You’ve had a remarkable career at the heart of American diplomacy as an ambassador to such critical nations as Egypt, the Philippines, and India, serving under both Democratic and Republican presidents. Your last post ended nearly 20 years ago in India under President Bill Clinton, if I’m not mistaken. Tell us where you see the U.S. right now in terms of its place in the world compared to when you served.
AMBASSADOR FRANK WISNER: That’s an extremely good and important question. I might add to your otherwise remarkably accurate and complete biography that is that I did return to government service in 2005, during the George W. Bush administration, to represent the Secretary of State in the negotiations regarding the independence of Kosovo, and I remained in the position for the following three years.
I choose to emphasize the point because, in effect, my assignment to Kosovo represented one of the major changes in the world’s political landscape that occurred during in my career. I joined the Foreign Service in the early 1960s, following the footsteps of my father’s public service. He was drawn into the Cold War after a period of service with the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and dealt with the high points of the Cold War in the 50s. That was the world I grew up in.
The Cold War and our global opposition to the erstwhile Soviet Union defined the context of American foreign policy for me. It was the driving force; it disciplined us; in the name of security it meant that we had to build relationships with regimes that we did not always find palatable. It meant that we had to be careful before we threw our weight around the world or before we committed ourselves to using military force because military engagement could lead to a Soviet-American confrontation, the price of which would be much too high for anyone to pay. The discipline of the Cold War years evaporated in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. For the first time, America ruled the roost. We had no opponent of our size, weight, and influence. This was enormously exciting, but in retrospect it was also incredibly dangerous because we could go anywhere and do anything that it was politically acceptable or attractive to do. And so we tended to overlook many of the lessons that had ensured our survival and success during the Cold War: respect for others, the need to maintain coalitions and alliances, the need to invest public resources to support our influence and policies. Abroad, all of these hard-earned lessons went by the wayside. We were on our own, expecting others to listen to our word, which led us to act as the world’s preacher and moralist when restraint was the better course of action.
DA: In all those countries where you served, America was once treated with a respect that has since evaporated. The president of the Philippines has threatened to insult our own president, Egypt is no longer a partner in any American-backed peace effort and is again a dictatorship, and India seems intent on going its own way. How did all this fall apart? We seemed to be on such a good path after the Cold War. We were riding high. Everyone respected us, looked to us.
FW: I believe that picture is overdrawn. I believe the U.S. continues to enjoy enormous respect across the world, but it is measured. Certainly we enjoy less than the dominant position we enjoyed immediately after 1989. In part, we overplayed our hand. We lectured other governments. We were incautious in managing sensitivities of great powers like Russia; we moved the boundaries of NATO into the Baltic states and were seen to intervene in Georgia and Ukraine. We moved missile defense systems forward in Europe. Taken together, these steps set the stage for a crisis with the Russians, especially playing into Putin’s ambition to reassert Russian power
In the Middle East we went further in asserting U.S. power. We intervened militarily, first in Afghanistan. Instead of simply punishing the Taliban, we set out to win a war and transform Afghan society, and guess what? We are still stuck there trying to do that, overlooking the enormous history and cultural sensitivities of the Afghan people. The crisis in Iraq and the consequences of that intervention have studied and debated extensively. We now face the rise of the Islamic State and an Iraq on the verge of dissolution. Islamic fundamentalist attacks against established regimes in the entire region are now facts of life. We need to remember our intervention in Iraq provided a catalyst for this fundamentalist violence.
On a separate note, China has space to challenge the U.S. It is not asserting its own claims for a large place on the world stage. China, among other actions, is asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea. Broadly, we face a fundamentally different world politics and geography, as well as a wider range of threats to American security. Some of our problems, frankly, are of our own making.
DA: But it is also because we don’t always live up to our bluster. We don’t even walk too softly anymore, but we certainly don’t carry a big stick. There was the red line in Syria, which we didn’t make good on. We do not necessarily play an important role in Asia. We are waffling over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So is it because we do not make good on our well-intentioned words with deeds?
FW: Let me make two points. At heart, I agree with what you just said. Number one: I believe that the U.S. has relied excessively on the threat or use of military force as opposed to political and diplomatic engagement to address problems that are important to our national security. We failed to define strategy with outcomes that we could achieve, and marshal the resources to back them up. Our over-reliance on military force has turned others off and made them highly aware that they have to press back hard to assure their own national sense of honor and interests.
The second point is there is a natural and quite predictable realignment of power in the world. We are no longer the totally dominant political and economic force in any part of the world. Other economies have grown, much at our instigation, and in becoming trading partners have benefitted us through their growth; but, they enjoy strength, and with strength comes respect, and we have not thought about the interests of others before we asserted our own interests. Too often we overstepped the line that others could tolerate. Should we have enforced red lines in Syria? I’m of the school that if you draw a red line, you must enforce it. And you had better be sure you have thought it through and know where you are going. If you do that, then I’m with you. I’d like to enforce our words.
DA: Do you think we are pursuing the right course in our involvement the world’s most difficult conflicts? This is going to be one of the great challenges facing the new president when he or she comes into office, right?
FW: I’ve listened to the rhetoric of the current campaign and, frankly, I’m appalled. I hear particularly from one candidate, the Republican candidate, that the answer to most of America’s problems is bullying and the use of force. I don’t believe we have that kind of strength or the national interest in threatening or applying force. The so-called Islamic State will not be defeated by American bombs alone. It must be defeated politically by building coalitions among the Arabs. After all, it is in their interest—even greater than ours—to defeat the threat. Similarly, we are not going to contain Chinese overreach by the use of force or bluster. Every time we confront China with words I’ve heard too often during the campaign, the Chinese can look right back at us and say: “At what price do you want to confront us? Do you really think that we hold none of your debt? Do you really think our trade matters nothing to your prosperity? Do you think our ability to exercise power won’t destabilize Asia?”
We’ve got to be careful, strategic, pick the right objectives, resource them properly, and bring allies together to help solve them. We’ve done it successfully with the Iran agreement. We need to use that kind of example to guide our path in the future.
DA: Now, you say you are concerned and appalled by things you’ve heard from both sides. Most of those sound like what’s coming from the Republican camp.
FW: I think that’s right.
DA: What do you see from the Democratic camp? Do you find anything you would like to see expressed differently there?
FW: Foreign policy has hardly been the core issue in the campaign, but to be frank, I would like to see a little more granularity from Clinton on the way we would deal with Russia, a great power, the way we would engage China, and how we would develop strategy to protect our interests in the Middle East. I would like to see the huge experience she’s developed in foreign affairs translated into a strategic vision that I could get my mind around.
DA: Absolutely. When Obama came into power, one of his first priorities was to restore a certain sense of America’s image in the world. I’m not sure he really succeeded in doing that. So, how can the next president achieve that?
FW: Well, one thing the President did—and it is an accomplishment—is to say, “We tried to use military muscle in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s gotten us into more trouble and has created bigger problems than if we had gone about these two issues in a different way.”
That lesson has not fully sunk in, as the current campaign demonstrates. Certainly, Trump believes that military force is the way to solve diplomatic and political problems. But, having said that, the President has given an inkling of the importance of alliances reshaping the balance of power in the world. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is both a political and an economic instrument for providing greater balance in the Pacific, to make it clear to China and other Asian nations that they have alternatives to the Chinese market and Chinese power. In addition, the president has made clear that the U.S. will firmly stand by our traditional alliances in Asia—Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. He has built bridges to new friends in the region—India, Burma, and Vietnam. I’m disappointed by what I’ve heard during the campaign from Bernie Sanders, and then from the other candidates. Our core political, strategic, and economic interests are served by an expanding free trade area. TTP is the way to go.
DA: My old college professor, Henry Kissinger, used to say that the presidents that have succeeded best internationally are those who have, and he loved the word, weltanschauung—a worldview. I have a sense lately that presidents don’t have that. They may come into power expressing the need for that, or hoping to develop something like it, but it all falls apart and they wind up just ping ponging from crisis to crisis. Is there some way of getting a president to understand that’s really at the heart of everything, and that if you don’t, all you will be is reactive rather than proactive in terms of America’s role in the world?
FW: I think you are on the right track, though I might phrase it a bit differently. I find presidents come in and have certain attitudes—such as that we shouldn’t be so heavily involved militarily—but that’s a long way from having a strategic sense of global issues or picking the issues that are vital to America’s security, and then bringing in the political, diplomatic, and military instruments that will address those and putting secondary issues off to the side. I believe that the Syrian crisis today, for example, is of huge national importance to the United States. I’m not persuaded, however, that replacing Bashar al-Assad is a direct American security interest. The Islamic State is the threat to American security, not Assad. He is a brute, willing to slaughter his people and destroy his cities, but Assad does not directly threaten the U.S. The Islamic State does and it must be our priority in terms of the use of American military assets. We need also to address the tragedy of the Syrian civil war, but that means we should be diplomatic in pursuit of a settlement, arms assistance to the non-radical opposition to make sure pressure on Assad is maintained, and humanitarian aid to relieve the suffering of the Syrians in need and the refugees.
DA: Which segues neatly into my next question. You were on the Board of Refugees International, if I’m not mistaken?
FW: I was. I retired from it some years ago.
DA: Much of Europe believes that the Americans are the proximate cause of most of today’s refugee movements. When I was in Paris in the spring, that was all anyone talked about, and yet we seem to be at the very tail end of aid to refugee assistance. Do we need to do more in that respect?
FW: We certainly do. We are an immigrant nation. We have thrown our doors open over the decades to those who suffer repression. We have now closed our minds and our hearts. We brought a million people in from Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—at the end of the war there. We could barely, after two years of hard screening, bring in 10,000 Syrians, when there are more than a million Syrians and Lebanese living in this country, having very productive lives and having enriched our country immeasurable. We are not doing the job; we certainly have the ability to screen refugees for militants. Nor are we allocating the funds needed to help an international resettlement effort, for the relief of those suffering in camps, or for those not able to get to camps. It is one of the great failures of American responsibility in my lifetime, and it’s appalling. Look back at how many hundreds of thousands of refugees we brought from Europe after World War II, when economic conditions were a lot tougher than they are today, and the refugees we brought in during the 1970s recession. We can’t hide behind the argument that we can’t afford it. We can. We always end up a richer nation from bringing people in, particularly those who deserve protection in times of crisis.
DA: To play Devil’s advocate, I think the big difference is that in both of those cases, in Europe after WWII and in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia at the end of the Indochina war, the wars were over. We lost in one case and we won in the other, but the shooting war was over. We are right in the middle of this conflict. Does that make a difference? It seems that people are more afraid now or perhaps have more to fear than during those other times.
FW: I think you make a very important point. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism expressed in terror is a very strong fear. It swept Europe and it’s active in this country. But, I ask you, is that really a justifiable fear when we sit down and think about the capacity we have to screen people who come to this country and to deal with problems thereafter? We’ve had lone wolf attacks, but this is not the result of refugees coming in from the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, we have millions of fellow citizens who are Muslims or are of Syrian or Lebanese origin, and they have settled very well in this country. They’ve been great Americans, serving at the highest positions in all the major professions, including in our Congress. Do we say, at the risk of importing some malefactors, we deny our responsibility to the humanitarian mission on which the U.S. was founded? It really makes no sense to me.
DA: You make a compelling point. Just before we wind up, I’d like to turn to regime change. The United States played a key role in the process of regime change that moved Egypt from a fairly stable if authoritarian regime under Hosni Mubarak into today’s chaos, and you had served as ambassador in some places that had also had substantial regime change. Trump has suggested we made major mistakes in facilitating the end of autocrats in the Middle East. You can go all the way back to our role in putting the Shah in power in Iran decades ago. So, what should our role be in a case like this? As you pointed out, this is obviously playing out again in Syria.
FW: Right. I think the use of the phrase “regime change” and identifying the United States with the accomplishment of regime change is a foreign policy disaster. First of all, we have no ability to understand another society so well that we can predict who will be in charge when the regime changes. Time and time again we’ve seen governments fall and chaos follow. Second, we stoke the assumption here and abroad that we can serve as deus ex machina in world affairs, that we can make things happen, that we can topple governments. That’s not true. And we certainly can’t do it physically; it’s not possible. When we set this goal and fail we will disappoint ourselves. When George W. Bush announced the “axis of evil,” we created a lot more foreign policy problems than we have solved. We created deep hostility among the North Koreans, which has fed some of their instincts to pursue nuclear weapons, and we complicated our ability to reach an agreement with the Iranians. We are wise to keep our mouths shut, heads down, and pursue objectives we can accomplish. One can be tough and determined without being a loud mouth.
DA: What do we do with someone like Assad in Syria or Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt, who seems to me another explosion waiting to happen?
FW: First of all, Syria and Egypt are two completely different circumstances. Lumping them together is extremely dangerous. El-Sissi in Egypt is the president of a country with which we have a long and very important relationship. Second, Egypt is the biggest country in the Arab world. Its weight in the Arab balance of power is absolutely critical to the furtherance of our own interests. We don’t approve of Egypt’s security forces abusing the opponents of the regime, but in fairness we should admit Egypt is facing terror and violence, and it has taken tough measures to deal with that. We would like those measures to respect the rule of law, and not the way Egyptians have gone about suppressing threats to regime security. We need to respect that, but Egypt’s weight in the Middle East, its peace treaty with Israel, and its capacity to lend heft to our own diplomacy are what’s really important to U.S. national interests. We should also respect Egypt’s long history and the desire for stability. Egypt’s army and security are deeply admired by a majority of Egyptians. Assad and Syria by no means meets any of those standards. Our relationship with el-Sissi can be a fruitful one even if in private we our critical of what he does. But to badger him publicly, and to belittle his regime, and to forget the historic achievement of the Egyptian-American relationship is really to act in direct defiance America’s national interest. Have we forgotten the role Egypt plays in Israeli security?
DA: Right. You were ambassador to Egypt under President Mubarak. Do you see a difference between Mubarak and el-Sissi?
FW: Honestly, I don’t believe el-Sissi, having come out of a very destabilizing series of events in 2012 to 2013, has the same standing and authority as Mubarak enjoyed. The government was weakened in the events of 2011. El-Sissi has to reestablish stability—a key demand of Egypt’s people. Mubarak was not similarly challenged. Terror and violence in the Sinai is still an issue; it was not in Mubarak’s time. Egypt’s economy was stronger. By the later years of the Mubarak period Egypt was beginning to pick up some economic steam. Now, el-Sissi has his hands full trying to relaunch economic performance. We want him to succeed. A good strong Egyptian economy is in America’s interest. A strong Egypt is in America’s interest. We want to see the rule of law, as we understand it, applied in Egypt, but the best way to achieve that is to deal with President el-Sissi with respect, and deal with our differences or our concerns in private. That is much better than shaming, and outing, the Egyptian government. El-Sissi knows what we think, and Egyptians know, too. But in the final analysis, they are responsible for their own society. If they are going to change, it they will do it themselves. They’ve shown they have the ability to do so. We can help and encourage but we should not bully.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of Hynek Moravec]