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On States, Strategy and Strategic States

Fall 2009 Tête À Tête

On States, Strategy and Strategic States

zakariaTop Geocrat Fareed Zakaria speaks with GB on States, Strategy and Strategic States

GB: Which country has the deepest and most sophisticated strategic culture?

FZ: Well, it’s a very interesting question. I think that there are several models. I don’t know that there is one that is better than all the rest, but you look at China, for example, and they are beginning to develop a strategic culture – an interesting one. Chinese decision-making – because this is basically a dictatorship – has an enormous amount of stability and continuity. It is also a strategic elite that is almost entirely technocrats: China is run by engineers. So it tends to be very fact-driven, very pragmatic and there’s little idealism, ideology or vision in that sense. And so what you see developing is a kind of very straightforward, pragmatic, long-term-oriented decision-making that prizes a set of objectives that might be pursued over a long period of time; objectives that are fairly narrowly defined. Chinese national interests are fairly narrowly defined. One could even facetiously say that China’s only foreign policy as far as one could tell right now is raw materials and Taiwan. They want to secure raw materials, and they want to secure Taiwan. They don’t really care about everything else. If you push them very hard, they will do it. But the truth is actually broader than that. They have a very clear interest, and have maintained a very clear interest, in having good relations with the US ever since the late 1970s, and they have seen that as their path into the world economy and international system. Now, there is clearly some debate about this developing in China, but my sense is that this is still the dominant interest. They are beginning to move somewhat more slowly and cautiously on some broader issues of global order, one might say – with North Korea being the best example. But it is still a fairly tightly circumscribed national interest, pursued in a fairly consistent, bloodless way.

GB: So you don’t think there’s a broad strategic imagination or room for a strategic imagination that’s rooted in the great Chinese texts?

FZ: I don’t see it at all. First of all, when people talk about the great texts, it sort of sounds good, but great Chinese texts, like Confucius – all Confucius says is be pragmatic – are an incredibly practical kind of guide. Maybe they will provide you with some sense of Chinese negotiating strategies, but I don’t think that Chinese strategies are that much different from Iranian negotiating strategies. I think that the structure of the regime tells you a lot more than the Chinese culture does. There is one layer that I would add to this analysis, and that is culture – that is, China does not have a monotheistic tradition. In fact, basically, the Chinese don’t believe in God. That means that there is much less of an impulse toward proselytization and universal conversion, which is at the heart of the great monotheistic traditions – certainly Christianity. And I think that you see this translate into Chinese foreign policy. China does not fulfill its world-historical mission by making the rest of the world like itself. It fulfills it by being Chinese, and by creating a great China. So then you look at the other model I’m really struck by – the Anglo-American one – which is deeply influenced by its high Protestant tradition. It is expansionist, universalist, moralizing and visionary, suffused with idealism, suffused with ideas, suffused with a kind of sense of responsibility for the world. It is also executed by democratic systems. And these systems tend to be much more decentralized, with much less of a sense of very long-term planning, and much less of a sense of unified decision-making. But there is a broad strategic elite – if you include people beyond just the government: people in think tanks, the media, and things like that – a broader strategic elite that is actually very well versed in the world, very aware of trends around the world, constantly criticizing and critiquing policy. People will often belittle the US government for not knowing much about this or much about that. At the end of the day, however, given the scope of what the Americans are dealing with, I think it’s fair to say that it’s actually breathtaking how many experts there are, and how much knowledge has developed, in Washington on a wide variety of countries. You want to find the best experts on Pakistan? They’re likely to be in America – outside of Pakistan. The best experts on China? Likely to be in America – outside of China. The best experts on the Congo? Again, likely to be in America – outside of the Congo. And this is because it is a much broader phenomenon than just a narrow decision-making elite. It’s almost a societal interest that has developed – and it developed, by the way, in Britain in the 19th century, when London was the capital of the world. Everything I’ve said about experts in America would have been true in London.

GB: So this is the thesis of the ilk of Niall Ferguson – that Oxbridge people used to go and populate the missions abroad, and that there was a deep talent pool to export in order to run world affairs?

FZ: Precisely. And I think that in Britain it had to be kind of an imperial function, as opposed to pure technocracy. In Britain, I think it had to do with the peculiar structure of Britain’s class system, where the second sons and third sons didn’t have anything to do, and middle-class families would end up finding great glory in places like India. But at heart it was the same thing, which is that the society got interested in this much broader view. It remains to be seen whether that’ll be true in China, but I think that the strategic elite in the US is much looser, more diffuse, more short-term, but in many ways more inventive, more imaginative, more likely to correct mistakes. So each one has its strengths. I don’t think that one is better than the other.

GB: How do you square this democratic function that forces creative and strategic elites into a little bit of a box, with really robust constraints on what they can do, with these same elites’ strategic coverage and imagination? How does this ‘squaring’ compare with that of elites in, say, Russia, who are less constrained by the democratic function? What are the tradeoffs there – the pros and cons in the two types of strategic traditions?

FZ: I think that there’s a tendency, from the time of Tocqueville, to say that democracies can’t make good foreign policy: they tend to be emotional, short-term-oriented and, as a result, prone to policy blunders. I tend to think that the reality is actually more complicated. Look at the Cold War: the US was never able to execute the kind of ruthless, brutal, consistent policy that the Soviet Union was able to, but American policy was constantly subject to external checks, to critiques, to people second-guessing everything from the missile gap to the war in Vietnam to the deployment of troops in Lebanon. And, as a result, I think that there’s a very healthy, self-correcting aspect to it. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, drove itself off a cliff, because who was going to tell Leonid Brezhnev that the Soviet Union was wildly unpopular, despised, that its economic system made no sense, and that it needed fundamental change? This is not easy to explain in a dictatorship, whereas George W. Bush heard from large, influential segments of the US population and from American strategic elites about the necessity for fundamental change in his Iraq strategy every single day, and every week. And that surely had some influence on the course correction that took place in Iraq. So I tend to think that the American system has enormous virtues in that you have a porous elite – lots of criticism, and lots of second-guessing, which is very useful. The danger for the American system is really less about the system than about the lack of any checks or balances internationally. The US is so powerful today that it can afford a series of silly policies – such as the Cuban embargo, such as various sets of sanctions on countries like Burma, which are not doing anything, and not changing the situation on the ground, but make you feel good in Washington. This is certainly fuelled by the democratic system: emotional foreign policy is something that democracies love to do because it gives them a sense of great moral satisfaction and self-righteousness. And then you move on to something else and forget about the fact that the policy in Haiti remains exactly as it was, and that Burma remains exactly as it was, and that your policies have done virtually nothing – perhaps even making things worse by isolating the country. The real problem, then, for democratic foreign policy is the danger of a kind of special interest-driven foreign policy, where special interests care more about the issue than the country as a whole, and are, as a result, able to drive policy. For instance, regarding Cuba, 70 percent of the American people think that the Cuban embargo should be relaxed or abolished, relaxed or repealed. But it persists – even under Obama – because the Cubans in Miami are a strong enough group that they can wrest control of that policy.

GB: Let’s move to your country of birth – you are a Mumbaikite. What do you think about Indian strategic tradition and the different strategic futures for that country?

FZ: India, in cultural terms, actually has some similarity with China in the sense that there isn’t a monotheistic, proselytizing impulse in Indian strategic culture – in spite of the fact that, while the Chinese don’t believe in God, the Indians believe in thousands of gods. The essence of Hinduism is really to live and to let live. Hinduism embraces everything – every possible orientation. You can be vegetarian and be Hindu; you can be non-vegetarian and be Hindu; you can believe in one god, 20 gods or even 2,000, which is a very eclectic worldview. The Rig Veda, which is the great central Veda at the core of Hinduism, basically asks: “How is the world created?” And it says that we don’t know. Maybe the creator knows, but maybe he doesn’t. It’s a masterfully ambiguous philosophical statement. And compare that to the moral fortitude of the book of Genesis. This is exactly how it happened, and this is why it happened. So I think that this leaves the Indians, again, without a very, very powerful kind of proselytizing core. But the real determinant of Indian foreign policy might actually not be the millennial Hindu culture as much as something related – the deep decentralization of the Indian state and nation. What was Churchill’s expression? He said that India was a geographical expression, not a country. Maybe extreme, but it’s certainly true that it is a civilization masquerading as a state.

GB: That’s just Mumbai alone, no?

FZ: Yeah, exactly. And if you look at the last Indian elections, you’ll see that these were really a series of regional elections, which had entirely local issues that were totally unrelated, so that what was happening in Tamil Nadu had nothing to do with what was happening in Uttar Pradesh, which in turn had nothing to do with what’s happening in Punjab. So you have that reality, which then limits the degree to which there is a purposeful, coherent, strategic kind of worldview. You get that sense of coherence when you go to China. You feel like the whole country is on a kind of Chinese national team trying to host the Olympics, or to move ahead economically. In India, you get the sense of a very decentralized, disparate population: enormous vitality and diversity, but also very much a sense of a lack of central direction and a degree of chaos. But I do think that every country has to have a strategic direction, and maybe New Delhi will be able to do it, despite the fact that it has a very decentralized tradition. The US in some ways was very similar – certainly before the two world wars – and was finally able to create a kind of strategic culture.

GB: Any reflections on Canadian strategic culture or potential?

FZ: Canada, I think, is positioned very well in this evolving world, and it is an advanced industrial country that has a highly skilled population, but also has enormous natural resources. It has managed to maintain a political-economic system that is basically very healthy and robust. I think that it is benefiting from two great friends, at the moment – one of which is the great global financial crisis. It’s benefiting because it wisely chose to maintain some of the shock absorbers on its financial industry, while the rest of the Western world dismantled them. And the second one is, of course, global warming, which is making – or will perhaps make, over time – parts of Canada that were inhabitable far more habitable. I think that its pensions, health care and immigration systems are increasingly seen as extremely sensible. So I think that Canada has the raw materials to very successfully thrive in this new world. Will it develop the kind of strategic culture that allows it to punch at its weight or above its weight? The Canadians seem less interested in that. There does not seem to be a powerful desire to do that. And I sometimes wonder why that is. Is it living in the shadow of the superpower? Is it the fact that it was always – for so long, for so many decades – ruled from London? But there does seem to be some sense of comfort in Canada in being a little bit off the radar screen – following, rather than leading. I honestly don’t see any indication that this is changing. It’s up to Canadians to decide whether they want it to, but my sense is that there is a contentment in Canada with being prosperous, being successful, having a strong social market as well as a dynamic economy, but no great desire to have global influence.

GB: So should a country think about changing the world or is its first imperative necessarily to care for its immediate population?

FZ: We’re moving into a system where power is going to be shared: the US will have to get more countries to the table – to include them – to help shape global institutions and global order. And Canada would be a natural partner and powerful player. Its ideas about almost every issue are actually very close to those of the US. It would be a very useful ally – a partner – and so I think that it’s unfortunate that Canada does not have a more vigorous desire to have a greater global influence. Perhaps it will change; perhaps it can be persuaded to become more of a stakeholder in the system, and less of a free rider. I say this with the full understanding that Canada has contributed significantly.

GB: Finally, what about the strategic cultures of Russia and Iran?

FZ: I think that, in the case of Russia, you have a dominant state elite – a statist tradition that I think is somewhat divorced from Russia as a culture. But it is a very strong state that has always controlled this vast territory through a very powerful capital. And I think that what you see in the case of Russian strategy is the desire of Moscow and of Russia and the Russian state to assert control over the country – over the neighbourhood – and to do it in a fairly old-fashioned way: the use of hard power. The Russians seem to have no interest in, or understanding of, the idea of soft power. They also, I think, have very little sense of the complications of the exercise of power, such that the exercise of muscle in, say, Georgia might produce anti-Russian sentiment along its entire European border – which might be far more damaging than whatever little gain they might get in Georgia. I find Russian strategy rather unsophisticated. It is the brutish strategy of a strong state. The Iranians, however, have perhaps one of the great, most misunderstood strategic cultures. The popular impression is of the mad mullahs running around, willing to commit a celestial act of hara-kiri in getting nuclear weapons. I think, however, that this is actually an old, bazaar culture, based on centuries of bargaining and negotiating. The Iranians are in the centre of a very complex world, and always have been. This is a place at the crossroads of great powers – a crossroads of trade routes. The Iranians have always had to deal with foreigners, and they are actually playing a very, very shrewd game in the exercise of Iranian influence in various ways. And I think that they view nuclear power as one more weapon in the arsenal that will allow them to exercise influence in complex ways; whether it’s through Hezbollah and Lebanon, through Shiite religious parties in Iraq, through their appeal to the street in the Arab world, or through the support for the Palestinian cause. The Iranians are playing a very complex game of chess – perhaps even more than that – and we in return have a hammer, and just keep banging away at the table. It’s kind of a perfect case of a lack of understanding of a very complex strategic culture.

GB: Will Iran acquire the nuclear weapon?

FZ: I think that it’s a more complex question than people realize. I’m sure that Iran wishes to acquire nuclear technology and nuclear power. That seems to be an absolutely core national goal. They may, however – in keeping with this very clever, sophisticated tradition – decide that they want to stay just under the radar screen, and just within international law. Therefore, they will develop a very sophisticated missile programme, and a very sophisticated nuclear power programme, but they will not marry the two together; that is to say, they will not weaponize. Now, everybody knows that you can weaponize the programme in a matter of months – that you have breakout capacity. But I’m not as convinced that they are absolutely dead set on building nuclear weapons. And this actually makes the problem more complicated – not less.


Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International, host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, and the best-selling author of The Post American World.


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