America at the Crossroads: Power and Strategy in U.S. Foreign Relations

On October 29, 2013, Florida International University hosted the 4th Geopolitical Summit America at the Crossroads: Power and Strategy in U.S. Foreign Relations. Sponsored by the School of International and Public Affairs, Ruth K. and Shepard Broad Distinguished Lecture Series, College of Arts and Science and the College of Business, the summit featured two major guest speakers that discussed urgent issues in contemporary American foreign policy and the efficacy of the United States in the world today. This event, with eight FIU faculty panelists and two plenaries, was introduced by FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg and moderated by John F. Stack, Executive Director of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA,) and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at FIU.

Moisés Naím, author of The End of Power (2013) and Senior Associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was the guest speaker for the first plenary of the summit. The second plenary was keynoted by Vali Nasr, author of The Dispensable Nation (2013,) and Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Opening the first plenary was Dr. Moises Naim, author of The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn't What It Used to Be. Dr. Naim began his presentation by explaining how the fundamental nature of power has shifted. He argues that power is shifting from West to East and from North to South, from presidential palaces to public squares, and from once powerful corporations to lithe startups. According to Naim, power is not merely shifting, it is dispersing and decaying. “Power is easy to acquire, harder to use and much easier to lose,” he says, highlighting that those in power today are more constrained in what they can do with it and more at risk of losing it than ever before. While traditional brokers of power—political leaders, corporate executives and religious leaders—continue to wield great influence, they do so with less impact than their predecessors. Today there are many more challenges to the traditional holders of power. Fueled by new technologies, citizen activism, globalized markets and the ubiquitous media create constraints like never before. Naim argues that while the erosion of power has created space for new players and new opportunities, it has also made the world exceedingly vulnerable to instability. He cites the case of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, who quickly ascended to power, and fell from grace even faster.

Following Dr. Naim’s presentation, former KPMG Area Managing Partner Jose M. Aldrich offered an optimistic slant to Naim’s argument. Aldrich agrees with the notion that power is shifting and that there is a mercurial quality to it. However, he states that “as power changes, we will adapt.” Aldrich is confident that we can find a way to work with this moving target and exploit the opportunities that present themselves. This is a natural part of life as he says, “power shifts from generation to generation.” Aldrich argues that good leaders and good ideas ultimately will come to the forefront and that we will move forward.

The next panelist to speak was Dr. Jennifer Gebelein, Associate Director of Online and Web Engagement for the College of Arts and Sciences and Visiting Professor in the Department of Earth and Environment. Dr.Gebelein derived her comments on Dr. Naim’s argument from her field of expertise—surveillance and warfare technology. From this perspective, she focused on the concept of decaying power and the factors that are causing this. One example she elaborated is the phenomenon of micropowers and how these small and largely unknown actors have managed to find ways to undermine megapower players both nationally and internationally. She argues that “their success lies in the fact they are not weighed down by immense size, assets or a resource portfolio,” begging the question whether the attainment of power lies in the prowess for disruption and interference. She argues that warfare today has assumed different forms which often thwart large conventional military establishments. Dr. Francisco Mora, Director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center and a Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, continued the discussion by focusing on the concept of “soft power.” Dr. Mora argues, for example, that the U.S. government has neglected Latin America, raising potential problems. He believes that soft power, such economic and diplomatic engagement, should never be underestimated because it promotes greater alliances between the U.S. and the rest of the world. He points out how Dr. Naim talks about the relevancy of soft power in his book, and the impact it can have if applied properly. Dr. Mora stresses how through soft power we should cultivate significant ties with global partners. “For the past 10 years, countries are not collaborating on global issues and challenges,” says Dr. Mora. “Countries need to pull together in order to address and overcome challenges for the greater prosperity of global communities.”

Concluding the first plenary, Dr. David Wernick, a senior lecturer in the College of Business, challenged some of Dr. Naim’s viewpoints. Although Wernick agrees with Naim’s central point that “power is decaying,” he finds several examples in which this assertion does not hold up. For instance, contrary to Dr. Naim’s analysis of the vulnerability of corporate giants today, Dr. Wernick believes that companies like Wal-Mart, Target and The Home Depot are growing more powerful and argues that it would be very difficult for these companies to succumb to the challenges that Naim cites. His next example focused on the lasting power of Latin American leaders like former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Brazil’s Lula and the Kirchners of Argentina. These political figures managed to stay in power in very traditional roles in a way that seriously challenges Naim’s premise. Wernick argues that while power may indeed be in a process of decay, it is not yet enough to undermine traditional power brokers.

During the second session of the summit, Dr. Vali Nasr spoke about where American foreign policy is headed and why it is important for the United States to remain active in the Middle East. He debated over the benefits and consequences of a laissez-faire approach to foreign policy in the Middle East versus an active strategy of involvement. Dr. Nasr began his argument by using the case of Afghanistan as an example. He described the original plan for American troops to train Afghan soldiers and leave the security of the country in their hands once the U.S. withdrew from the countries. However, in Nasr’s view, this approach sends a singular message to the Afghan people, saying that the U.S. is not committed to them or to improving their country beyond security problems. Dr. Nasr stressed that this has been consistent U.S. behavior for the past few years in regards to the Middle East, in his words, “the U.S. is not staying to finish their job but rather getting out as quickly as possible. Not intervening is also a policy, but can we live with the consequences of not doing anything?” Dr. Nasr concluded his main points by opening the floor and giving the panelists a chance to voice their own views and to ask him questions.

Dr. Maya Boutaghou, Assistant Professor of the Department of Modern Languages and the Women’s Studies Center, was the first panelist to participate. She began by saying that Dr. Nasr’s book presents a thought provoking issue, where the main argument is that what is happening in the Middle East is very complex and demands greater American engagement. She found that after reading Dr.Nasr’s book, The Dispensable Nation, she understood two main strategies towards improving the current situation in this region of the world. The first point was to recognize that a diplomatic approach is more efficient than a military approach, and the second point was to stress the need for economic change in Middle Eastern countries in order to foster democracy. She concluded by asking Dr. Nasr, what kind of economy can one hope to have in the Middle East? And should we be giving a central role to China in our global community? Dr.Nasr answered by saying that Americans need to know that the Middle East is greatly important to the economy both at home and abroad. He stressed that the path toward democracy in Middle Eastern countries can be created through an established and strong economy, achieved only through American aid. Finally, in regards to China, he believes the issue is having a clear understanding of China’s global role and that the U.S may be creating a “boogie man” that just isn’t there.

The second panelist to speak was Dr. Thomas Breslin, Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations. Since Dr. Nasr focuses the last chapter in his book on China, Dr. Breslin wanted further clarification on this country as a global power and potential threat to the U.S. “There is a concern about a rising nation with overwhelming economic means that are somehow making alliances with traditional allies of the U.S.,” said Dr. Breslin. “As a China specialist myself, I would like to know, Dr. Nasr, if you believe that the White House has built up too much fear concerning China’s emergence and how does China play into our involvement with the Middle East?” Dr. Nasr clarified his idea that although the U.S. administration thinks that China is a world threat, he doesn’t think that this nation is what it’s made out to be. He stressed that the Chinese are probably afraid of Islam and its influence on China but they are more afraid of Islam and the U.S. together.

Next to speak from the panel was Dr. Cyra Akila Choudhury, Associate Professor in the College of Law. Dr. Choudhury said that after reading Dr. Nasr’s book, she found a recurring theme that dealt with how poorly the U.S has acted in reconciling and resolving tensions abroad. From this, she concluded that security at the expense of diplomacy was Dr. Nasr’s constant frustration. She agreed with his views, using the example of the Pakistan civil war in 1971, when the White House decided to do nothing about the massacres that were occurring in East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) at the time. She finds this detrimental to U.S. relationships. Finally, Dr. Choudhury asks how do we resolve this issue? Dr. Nasr assured Professor Choudhury that this issue can be resolved through a change of diplomacy. He said, “We must find a balance between decision making and policy making in the White House. We have to make sure that our decisions not only benefit our interests but that we don’t turn a blind eye to major catastrophic events abroad.”

The last panelist to speak was Dr. Shlomi Dinar, Associate Director of the School of International and Public Affairs and Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, who decided to focus on the Arab Spring as Dr. Nasr referenced in the book. Dr. Dinar suggests that Nasr implores us to consider a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, in order to move the Arab world towards stability and democracy. However, he raises an interesting point when he suggests that more American involvement may not necessarily be the medicine needed to aid the Arab world. “To be real and effective, such initiatives must be created and supported by the respective countries and their citizens, not just by the U.S.” Dr. Nasr responded to these remarks by saying that the Middle East is complex and he cautioned against inertia, using the complexity of the region as an excuse to do nothing. He also went on to say, “with the Arab countries, we cannot be led by the mentality of ‘they’re not going to listen to us anyway, why bother.’” Dr. Nasr genuinely believes that through American aid, Arab countries and their citizens can prosper tremendously and move toward stable democratic societies.

The end of the second plenary was closed with an impacting question from an undergraduate student to Dr. Vali Nasr: “Dr. Nasr, what do you think the U.S needs right now? Better foreign policy or better foreign policy makers?” To this last question Dr. Nasr replied, “Yes. Good foreign policy makers do matter, people obviously constitute those ideas. Having experienced people, with knowledge and strategic mindsets does make a difference in foreign policy. Empowering a different set of people and allowing them to make decisions would make a big difference in this country. The point is that we have to analyze our policies and see the results they have given us. The need for improvement is always there, we just have to proceed with the right mindset.”

To view the entire footage of Geopolitical Summit, click HERE