by Federico Pieraccini, Strategic Culture:
In New York City on September 20, 2018, the Intelligence Squared hosted a debate of critical importance in helping one understand much of what we are currently seeing on the global scene.
The debate developed along three main questions. The first was on the role of NATO (“NATO is no longer fit for purpose”), the second was about Russia (“The Russian threat is overblown”), and the third was on Iran (“It’s time to take a hard line on Iran”).
To discuss these important issues, five very special guests were invited, namely: Derek Chollet, Executive Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former US Assistant Secretary of Defense; Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and History, New York University; Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former CIA Analyst; John J. Mearsheimer, American Political Scientist & Professor at the University of Chicago; and Kori Schake, Deputy Director-General at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Looking at the panel, one immediately notices how Cohen and Mearsheimer were invited to bring a realist point of view to the discussion, as opposed to the other three who have an interventionist view of American foreign policy, viewing the United States as the indispensable nation. Cohen and Mearsheimer have worked for years, if not decades, to explain to American and international audiences how Washington’s hegemonic policies have accelerated the end of the US unipolar moment as well as spawned chaos around the world.
Cohen, and especially Mearsheimer, are pure realists. Without going into the merits of the differences between offensive realism, defensive realism and offshore balancers, they both have a coherent vision of why American actions have provoked the results we have seen around the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For those who follow Cohen and Mearsheimer and see themselves as realists when observing international relations, watching this debate was painful and frustrating, but also immensely useful for understanding today’s divisions. In fact, the other three panelists must be carefully analyzed. Derek Chollet is part of the neoliberal camp, having served in the Obama administration. Chollet finds himself amongst the field of the imperialists who, following the debacle in Iraq in 2003, opted to subvert sovereign countries using a different set of methodologies, namely, coups d’état organized through such things as color revolutions and the so-called Arab Spring. In the name of spreading democracy, countries like Libya, Ukraine and Syria have suffered unspeakable devastation at the hands of the US and her allies.
In order to represent the full spectrum of US foreign policy, former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht was brought in as a hardliner, repeating the type of neo-conservative arguments reminiscent of the Bush era. Kori Schake, a former adviser to G.W. Bush, completed the lethal neocon-neoliberal offering, representing the position of NATO and the most Russophobic and Iranophobic countries in Europe.
Looking at these guests and at the questions asked, it was obvious that positions that were diametrically opposed would emerge. Cohen and Mearsheimer argued practically in symbiosis, with slightly different perspectives but coming to the same conclusion. The United States, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, found itself the sole superpower facing no direct adversaries. Washington’s subsequent mission was to remake the world in its own image and likeness, exporting democracy to the four corners of the world and attacking its geopolitical adversaries with soft or hard power. But this course of action, ironically, only served to accelerate the end of this unipolar moment.
Mearsheimer and Cohen tried to reiterate in their every answer how Washington has only managed to damage itself through its own foolish thinking and actions. Regarding the first question concerning NATO, both Mearsheimer and Cohen emphasized that NATO’s eastward expansion following the end of the Cold War was the main cause of instability in Europe. The three neoliberal-neocons — who for the sake of convenience I will now call “the imperialists” — responded that it was in fact the European countries who demanded America’s presence in Europe for the purposes of protecting them against Russia. The three imperialists brushed off or ignored Mearsheimer’s simple and straightforward riposte, borrowed from Obama and Trump’s election campaigns, that the European allies only wanted the US in Europe in order to avoid increasing their own military spending. Having apparently not heard what Mearsheimer said, the three insisted that as long as Poland and the Baltic countries demanded a US presence, Washington was obliged to respond. It was also frustrating for Cohen to explain, for the umpteenth time, how NATO’s advance towards Russia’s borders damaged relations between Russia and the US, two countries he believes should be global allies on multiple fronts. Mearsheimer even urged the three imperialists to think of the Monroe doctrine and of how intolerable it would be for the US to have a foreign power plant itself militarily in the western hemisphere. He also recalled the Cuban missile crisis, brought on by the USSR’s military proximity to the US.
Unfortunately, the three imperialists, even when painted into a corner by Cohen and Mearsheimer’s arguments, simply ignored or glossed over them. The most aggressive imperialist of all was, unsurprisingly, the former CIA agent, who pushed the arrogant line that America’s presence in Europe is necessary not only to keep Russia at bay, but also to prevent the Europeans from descending into a Hobbesian state of nature and tearing each other apart, as happened in two world wars.
Not surprisingly, the arguments used by the former CIA agent regarding NATO in Europe received the full accord of Kori Schake and Derek Chollet. Cohen’s reminder to those present that the coup in Ukraine was organized and financed by the West was dismissed as false and ridiculous. Derek Chollet averred: “the manifestations of the Maidan were spontaneous, invoking a greater proximity to Europe in the face of a dictator in the hands of Moscow.” The second question was related to the first, discussing Russia and its role in the world. Once again, both Cohen and Mearsheimer had to summon all their patience and explain to the general public how Putin has always acted in reaction to Western provocations. NATO’s eastward expansion (in spite of Bush’s verbal promise to Gorbachev not to extend NATO beyond Germany) was the cause of the war in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014. Of course the three imperialists denied these arguments, accusing Putin of unprovoked aggression, confirming in their mind why the US presence in Europe is needed to oppose Russia as a negative actor on the international scene. Not even Mearsheimer’s echoing of Kissinger’s strategy to divide Russia and China convinced those present that the aggressive attitude towards Moscow and Beijing was only damaging the United States, accelerating the end of the unipolar moment and forging the birth of a multipolar reality that will leave Washington isolated from the other great powers.
The three imperialists affirmed that the cooperation between Russia, China and Iran should not be surprising since dictators always confederate with each other; and besides, they say, this situation should not scare the United States, as it has the capacity to deal with multiple fronts simultaneously. Fortunately, Cohen’s words, recalling the disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya put paid to such delusional optimism, provoking laughter from the audience. Such moments served to highlight how ridiculous the imperialist arguments are. Two or three such arguments were enough to open the eyes of audience members who may not have been familiar with opposing arguments to the ones presented by the imperialists.
Two such instructive moments stand out. The first was in response to the former CIA agent, who called for a coup d’état in Iran, stating that the United States knows how to conduct these successfully. But Mearsheimer’s rejoinder, recalling the failures in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, provoked loud applause from the audience. Mearsheimer reminded how these arguments were employed by Obama and Trump during their election campaigns to win office. The second moment, even more effective, concerned Iran. In response to Kori Schake, who argued for greater pressure on Iran because of its alleged interference in the region in a bid to expand its influence in many neighboring countries (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen), Mearsheimer pointed out the staggering level of hypocrisy involved, where the United States of America is the world champion of regime change and interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The strong applause that followed testified to the incontestable truth of this observation.
Unfortunately, the debate ended with most of the audience continuing to believe that NATO is of fundamental importance, Russia is an evil actor, and the US needs to place more pressure on Iran. The number of people who changed their minds before and after the debate was important (Mearsheimer and Cohen changed the attitudes of about 10% of those present regarding the first two questions) but still marginal compared to the total.