3:53am

Tue April 16, 2013
Author Interviews

Is The United States A 'Dispensable Nation'?

Originally published on Tue April 16, 2013 2:04 pm

In The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy In Retreat, former State Department adviser Vali Nasr describes veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke being all but frozen out by President Obama's inner circle, for whom Nasr believes diplomacy was a "lost art."

Instead of engaging civilians to find political solutions in Afghanistan and beyond, they would look first to the military and intelligence agencies for solutions that were politically popular — that includes getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

Nasr speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep about how the U.S. has reduced its footprint in the world, and how China is primed to fill the void, especially in the Middle East.


Interview Highlights

On China's interest in the Middle East

"China is very interested in energy supplies of the Middle East. Oil and gas are extremely important not only to China's overall economic development, but to the development of western China and central China as, increasingly, population and industry moves westward in China. The Chinese are also very worried about the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and Pakistan because they think that ultimately those countries can have an influence on political developments in western China."

On how China is "filling the vacuum" that America has left behind

"If we are globally competing with China, all the way from Africa, Latin America and then Asia, why would we abandon the Middle East and leave it to the Chinese essentially to gradually fill that vacuum? And secondly, are we really reconciled to the Chinese [refereeing] the Arab-Israeli issue, or the Chinese handling al-Qaida, or the Chinese refereeing disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia? And therefore, our conception of this idea that all the game in the world is happening in East Asia and Asia Pacific is at odds with the way I think the Chinese are looking at the global reality, which is pushing them westward."

On the Middle East as a strategic asset for China

"The Chinese will eventually be drawn in. It's not that the Chinese are looking to come in. But the Chinese clearly don't see the Middle East as a declining, diminishing strategic asset. To them, it is a growing strategic asset. Now, I don't think that our calculations about the Middle East are correct. I don't think the Middle East's strategic value is declining. In fact, at the moment we can see that the Middle East is valiantly trying to defeat President Obama's foreign policy, because it's creating crisis after crisis. Which makes it impossible for the administration to ignore the region and to be able to say that ... 'We brought the troops out of Iraq, we brought the troops out of Afghanistan, now we can very happily move to Asia.' It's just not happening."

On the story behind the title, The Dispensable Nation

"President Clinton used the term 'indispensable nation' to describe us. That we are indispensable to world order, to world security. Even if we err and we overreach, the world without us would be less liberal, more conflictual, and no country has the convening power or the stabilizing power of the United States. And it is our mandate and our duty and our responsibility to exercise that leadership. When you go outside the United States, it's very clear that the U.S. does not want to live up to that responsibility and duty, and it is happy, particularly in the Middle East, to play a less important role, to no longer be the stabilizer, no longer [be] the provider of security. And I think that basically means that we no longer want to be the 'indispensable nation.' And I think it's important for Americans to consider what that means. Is that really where we want to go, and would that make the world a safer, more prosperous place?"

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, let's summarize what little is known about yesterday's attack in Boston. Three people are dead, well over 100 injured. Investigators say the attack was so generic in nature that it's not easy to identify suspects. We heard our colleague Dina Tempe-Raston report the improvised explosive devices were unsophisticated enough that many people could have made them; and police have no person of interest in custody.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As investigators do their work, we are also keeping a longer perspective in mind. Our next conversation is about the Middle East, and the United States' rivalry with China. After President Obama took office in 2009, the Mideast scholar Vali Nasr was appointed as an adviser to veteran diplomat Richard Holbrook, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr writes about that experience in a new book, called "The Dispensable Nation." He describes a disillusioning experience in which he saw Holbrook frozen out by the president's inner circle, for whom he believes diplomacy is a lost art. Vali Nasr says the U.S. is looking to reduce its role in the world, while China is primed to fill the void.

What is China doing to extend its influence in that part of the world?

VALI NASR: China is very interested in the energy supplies of the Middle East. Oil and gas are extremely important not only to China's overall economic development, but to the development of Western China and Central China as increasingly, population and industry moves westward in China. The Chinese are also very worried about the Central Asian republics Afghanistan and Pakistan because they think that ultimately, those countries can have an influence on political developments in Western China.

And generally, the Chinese look at Western Asia - that is, all the way to the Mediterranean - as part of greater Asia. When you tell Americans what do they think when they say Asia, they're talking about from Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia; from North Korea to Indonesia. And therefore, we are trying to pivot east, supposedly; leave the Middle East - where we have, actually, a very strong anchor - to go to China's backyard in Asia, whereas the Chinese are pivoting west.

INSKEEP: I want to translate that a little bit just because people are trying to put this map in their heads. You're saying that when we think of Asia - as Americans - we're thinking of that Pacific coastline of Asia, pretty much.

NASR: That's right, Asia Pacific.

INSKEEP: And the Chinese are thinking about the largest continent in the world, and everything in it; and all the interests, all the way across it.

NASR: Exactly. And everything that's been happening in recent years accentuates this - the need for Central Asian and Persian Gulf oil and gas; the need for markets. When you look at Chinese railway building investment, it's to connect Turkey to Iran to Pakistan, and then onto Western China.

INSKEEP: When you look at a map, that puts them practically in the Persian Gulf, if they're in that...

NASR: Practically in the Persian Gulf, and that raises important questions for the U.S. One is that if we are globally competing with China all the way from Africa, Latin America and then Asia, why would we abandon the Middle East and leave it to the Chinese, essentially, to gradually fill that vacuum? And secondly, are we really reconciled to the Chinese one day refereeing the Arab-Israeli issue, or the Chinese handling al-Qaida, or the Chinese refereeing disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia? And therefore, our conception of this idea that all the game in the world is happening in East Asia and Asia Pacific, is at odds with the way I think the Chinese are looking at the global reality, which is pushing them westward.

INSKEEP: So you think the United States is, in some ways, abandoning this region. Your next point was that China may be putting itself into a position that it would be the referee of disputes in the Persian Gulf, or in the Middle East. Really?

NASR: Once you leave the bubble of Washington, the impression of the region is that we are retreating on the double.

INSKEEP: But are the Chinese really stepping in?

NASR: The Chinese will eventually be drawn in. It's not that the Chinese are looking to come in. But the Chinese, clearly, don't see Middle East as a declining, diminishing strategic asset. To them, it is a growing strategic asset. Now, I don't think that our calculations about the Middle East are correct. I don't think Middle East's strategic value is declining. In fact, at the moment, we can see that the Middle East is valiantly trying to defeat President Obama's foreign policy.

INSKEEP: The Middle East is valiantly trying to defeat President Obama's foreign policy...

NASR: Because it's creating crisis after crisis, which makes it impossible for the administration to ignore the region, and to be able to say that this idea that we - OK, we brought the troops out of Iraq, we brought the troops out of Afghanistan; now, we can very happily move to Asia. It's just not happening. The president went on a highly touted trip to Burma and in the middle of it, the secretary of state had to fly back to Jerusalem in order to, you know, end the fighting in Gaza.

The president is being forced to focus on Syria. We are all seeing, increasingly, that Asian countries are getting nervous because they think the way U.S. role in Middle East is playing out may be egging on countries like North Korea or China in adopting a more belligerent posture. So, you know, when you go out of the United States, the debate is very different. People there see a United States that is timid, reluctant to get engaged and particularly, they look at the Middle East.

This is a place where the U.S. said for a decade is of critical consequence to its security, to its foreign policy. And now, all of a sudden, the message is that we really have no real, vital interests here anymore; and we don't see conflicts in Syria any different from conflict in Congo - and we don't want to get involved in Congo. We don't want to get involved in Syria. And that creates...

INSKEEP: I should mention, you're paraphrasing an actual quote by the president, in an interview with The New Republic. Right?

NASR: Which was quite consequential in the region. That was heard very loud and clear, that we're diminishing the importance of the region to the way we look at Central Africa, which also has conflicts and humanitarian crises. Well, that would force leaders in the region to say, OK, if you are not going to be here and the Chinese have interests here, or the Russians have interest here, we're going to begin looking there.

INSKEEP: You have called this book "The Dispensable Nation." Provocative title. What do you mean by that?

NASR: President Clinton used the term indispensable nation...

INSKEEP: To describe us.

NASR: ...to describe us, that we are indispensable to world order, to world security; even if we err and we overreach, the world without us would be less liberal, more conflictual; and no country has the convening power or the stabilizing power of the United States. And it is our mandate, and our duty and responsibility, to exercise that leadership. When you go outside the United States, it's very clear that the U.S. does not want to live up to that responsibility and duty. And it is happy, particularly in the Middle East, to play a less important role; to no longer be the stabilizer, no longer the provider of security.

And I think that basically means that we no longer want to be the indispensable nation. And I think it's important for Americans to consider what that means. Is that really where we want to go, and would that make the world a safer, more prosperous place?

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr - the book is "The Dispensable Nation." Thanks very much for coming by.

NASR: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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