USIP’s Steve Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, discusses the risks of isolationism, and why the U.S. must remain engaged in the world, despite domestic economic constraints.

This past year has been offering fresh proof that the world we live in is ever dynamic. Amid fundamental changes in the Middle East and North Africa, a decade of war and a weak U.S. economy, the need to think about the U.S. role in the world is growing. This article is part of a series offering the thoughts of USIP leaders, board members, senior staff and experts on the effects of these changes and the contributions the Institute can and does make during this time of tremendous challenge and opportunity.

Stephen Hadley is USIP’s senior adviser for international affairs. He completed four years as the assistant to the president for National Security Affairs on January 20, 2009. In that capacity he was the principal White House foreign policy adviser to then President George W. Bush and ran the interagency process of national security policy development and execution. From January 20, 2001, to January 20, 2005, he was deputy national security adviser, serving under then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. In addition to covering the full range of national security issues, he had special responsibilities in such areas as U.S. relations with Russia, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, developing a strategic relationship with India and ballistic missile defense.

From 1993 to 2001, Hadley was both a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Shea & Gardner (now part of Goodwin Proctor) and a principal in The Scowcroft Group (a strategic consulting firm headed by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft). From 1989 to 1993, he served as the assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Hadley represented the Defense Department on arms control matters, including negotiations with the Soviet Union and then Russia, on matters involving NATO and Western Europe, on ballistic missile defense, and on export and technology control matters. Earlier, Hadley alternated between government service and law practice with Shea & Gardner. He was counsel to the Tower Commission in 1987, as it investigated U.S. arms sales to Iran, and served on the National Security Council under President Ford from 1974 to 1977. Hadley is a graduate of Cornell University and received his J.D. degree from Yale Law School.


Following a decade of demanding U.S. military engagements overseas and the problems of federal debt and deficits, should the United States trim its sails internationally? Should it reorient its foreign and security policy to reduce its commitments overseas--encouraging others to take on greater leadership roles in handling security threats and other international issues while we focus on domestic renewal?

The country has to get its finances in order. It's got to get its economy growing. It’s got to get its people back to work. Our number one national security problem is our economic problem, because a strong economy undergirds everything we do overseas--whether that activity is diplomatic, economic or military. Obviously, our military presence and engagement overseas need to be managed in ways that are both effective and minimize cost. Whenever we can engage others in a project and share some of the burden, we should and we do. In periods of fiscal constraint, we should look harder for those opportunities.

But I think this notion that there should be a U.S. retrenchment is a mistake. The United States continues to have important interests overseas. For our economy to recover we need to be engaged overseas, since about 30 percent of our gross domestic product comes from a combination of foreign trade and investment from abroad. Likewise, if we want to remain secure at home we need to be engaged overseas. We need the help of 80 or 90 countries overseas to avoid the kind of terrorist attacks that we saw on 9/11. So the United States needs to continue to lead the world. No other country is in a position to do it.


What are the risks of isolationism for the United States if those sentiments became a major influence over our foreign policy?

We've had periods of isolationism and protectionism before. When domestic problems seem overwhelming, there is an instinct to doubt our engagement abroad and say we should be dealing with our problems at home. Historically, though, that approach has not worked out very well for us. In the 1920s and 1930s, it resulted in the Great Depression, and to some degree it contributed to the coming of World War II. Those sentiments, when turned into policy, are particularly inappropriate now because we need to be able to sell goods overseas as we try to get our economy going. International engagement is also crucial in keeping the homeland safe from terrorist attacks. Embracing those sentiments now would be particularly ill advised.


One of the most important international engagements for the United States over the past decade, of course, has been with Iraq. With the end of a U.S. military role there, what do you expect out of Iraq in the coming years? Is there much that the United States can do now to encourage Iraq to peacefully overcome sectarian and regional divisions and continue making progress on democracy, domestic stability and a positive regional role?

There is a lot we can do. But we have to recognize that Iraq’s future was always in the hands of the Iraqis and is particularly so now that our military has left. We've helped give the Iraqi people a start on a democratic future--helped them to build democratic institutions and get Sunni, Shia and Kurds working together toward a common future. But whether it succeeds will be up to the Iraqis. We have a substantial diplomatic presence there. Jim Jeffrey, our ambassador, is a very capable officer. We have a lot of contacts with senior people in the three communities, and we should use those contacts to help Sunni, Shia and Kurds to resolve some of the longstanding issues over governance, oil-revenue sharing and the like. We can make a contribution through our diplomacy. But what the Iraqis are doing has really never been done before in the history of Iraq or of the Middle East. Sunni, Shia and Kurds are all trying to work together in a democratic framework. Throughout Iraq’s history and throughout the region, it’s been either Sunni oppressing Shia, Shia oppressing Sunnis and both of them beating up on the Kurds. What the Iraqi people are trying to do is very difficult and will take a long time. The challenge in Iraq is really the same challenge we’re seeing in the Middle East generally in these post-revolutionary settings. We ought to do everything we can in Iraq and in the region to help make a transition toward open, tolerant and pluralistic political systems.


President Obama has made 2014 the year by which the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan will end and responsibility for that country’s security will be returned to the Afghan government. You recently met with the U.S. and Afghan officials in Afghanistan. What do you expect will be the state of the insurgency by the Taliban and other militant groups by 2014, and what should be the U.S. role there from that point forward?

It’s too soon to say much about the situation in 2014. What do we know? We know our military surge that President Obama courageously ordered has had success and brought reduced violence in the South. It has given Afghans an opportunity to make progress on the political front. Second, we know that we need political reform in Afghanistan. The government is viewed as corrupt, closed, self-protecting and allowing some degree of impunity from accountability. All that’s got to change, and the Afghans need to open up their political system and bring in all groups--non-Taliban Pashtuns, women, other minorities, civil society. There needs to be a broad political settlement in Afghanistan; if the Taliban want to be part of that, great. But it needs to happen regardless in order to achieve stability over the long term.

At the same time, we've got to continue to train the Afghan National Army so they can take responsibility for security and deal with those forces that want to destabilize the situation. That’s a rather tall order between now and 2014, and we don’t know how much progress we will make. But I’m sure that one key to making progress will be a clear commitment now from the president of the United States that we will be present economically, diplomatically and militarily after 2014. I believe that a substantial force after 2014 is a prerequisite to giving the parties confidence to do what they need to do. The Afghan government needs the confidence to lead a process that produces a broad political settlement. The Taliban and other enemies of peace and stability there need to get the message that they cannot wait us out. And, quite frankly, the Pakistanis need to get a message that they have to make a full effort with us and the Afghan government to bring stability to Afghanistan.


How much does the success of the U.S. drawdown strategy in Afghanistan ride on security cooperation with Pakistan? You recently visited Pakistan as well. Can we count on Pakistan to support efforts against insurgents and on behalf of a democratic Afghanistan?

Pakistan itself is an important priority for the United States. It has 140 million people, a sophisticated economy, nuclear weapons and longstanding tensions with India. The long-term stability of Pakistan is therefore very important to the region and to us. We have our own agenda for engaging with Pakistan apart from the Afghan problem. But in terms of Afghanistan, the safe haven that Pakistan provides for Taliban and other al Qaida-related terrorists in Pakistan conducting operations in Afghanistan are real problems and a source of instability in both countries. Pakistan needs to change its attitude on that.

On my trip, the one hopeful sign I saw was that the Pakistanis seem now to understand that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest. Our diplomacy needs to use that insight and try to work very closely with the Pakistani government and trilaterally with both Afghanistan and Pakistan to develop a strategy for a political settlement and peace. Particularly if we are going to reach out to the Taliban, then Pakistan really needs to be part of that process. It needs to be part of developing the strategy, because it has some pieces to play and has influence with the Taliban.


What is your impression of USIP’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan after your visit to both countries?

They’re both classic low-footprint, high-impact operations. In Kabul I was able to meet with a wide range of folks, and I got an interesting and varied view of the situation. So far as I can tell, USIP is at the center of the debate within Afghanistan about the way forward on peace and stability. USIP is also an essential resource for our military and our embassy--for its information and expertise but also, in some sense, as a broker between our diplomats and military officers and various elements of Afghan society that they would have trouble interacting with directly. USIP has a very important presence and is doing something that our diplomats and our military cannot do for themselves, and that really can’t be done by a traditional NGO either.

In Pakistan, similarly, USIP has a small presence but, as far as I can tell, it and its top person in that operation, Moeed Yusuf, are at the center of debates there among think tanks and other opinion-makers about Pakistan’s approach to the United States. He is also central to the debates in the United States about our approach to Pakistan. All that makes Moeed a pretty indispensible participant. The work products on Pakistan policy and its future from him and his USIP colleagues are top quality. You can see USIP’s mission being carried out in that part of world, helping to advance an agenda of peace and stability.


On Iran, can the U.S. strategy of applying diplomatic and economic pressure to curb Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons activities still succeed after years of effort from two U.S. administrations? Ultimately, do you believe that the United States should be willing to use military means to try to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons?

Two administrations have had the policy objective of avoiding putting the United States in a situation where we are faced with two very unattractive options: either an Iran with nuclear weapons or conventional military operations in Iran by the United States. I think there are some alternatives, but we are running out of time. This period, 2012-13, will in some sense be the crunch time. The issue is not when Iran gets the bomb; the issue is when Iran has a clear path to a nuclear weapon that it can go down whenever it wants and the international community can’t prevent it. At that point, Iran will be emboldened in its support of terror, and other countries in the region will make their own decisions about having nuclear programs to obtain the same capability as Iran.

To avoid that outcome, we need to turn up the economic sanctions. We are going too slowly. The Europeans have voted for sanctions to stop buying Iranian oil but they won’t go into effect fully for six months and even then they’ll exempt Greece, Italy and Spain. That isn’t good enough. If we were really to ramp up the sanctions pressure in the short run and let oil production from Saudi Arabia make up for the lost Iranian production, that could have a large impact economically.

Over the long term, what we really need is a different regime in Iran--one that is more responsive to its people, that will not support terrorism, that will not pursue nuclear weapons. With the upcoming Iranian parliamentary and presidential elections there is an opportunity to provoke a debate within Iran about its future. We ought to make clear that we support a democratic future for Iran. I’m sure the regime will steal the elections, as it did at the last presidential and parliamentary elections. If the people of Iran rise up in response and call for a better future for themselves like the Arab populations and their neighbors have done, I hope the United States would be very supportive and make clear that we stand on the side of the Iranian people and their desire for greater freedom and accountability from their government. If a different kind of regime comes to power in Iran I think it will be much easier for us to engage it and resolve our current problems with Iran.


Concern is growing over U.S.-Chinese competition on security and economic matters in the Asia-Pacific region. What is the right U.S. approach for dealing with China’s rise?

To the extent that China seeks a modern and prosperous state capable of providing a good life for its people, and seeks respect in the international community, we should be supportive of China in those regards. Virtually all states have those objectives. China is already an important part of the world economy, and a China that descends into chaos is not a good thing for any of us, much less for the Chinese people. But to the extent China uses its new economic, diplomatic and military power to try to impose its will on its neighbors, we have to make it absolutely clear that that is not how business is going to be done in the 21st century. To do that, we have to maintain strong ties with those countries in the region that want us there. The countries in the region don’t want a confrontation with China, but they don’t want to be left alone with China either. They want us to be there, and it’s in our interest to be there--politically, economically, diplomatically and militarily.

We need a strong presence in Asia--not to contain China, not to try to keep China down, not to encircle it--but rather to reassure the region and to send this message to China. Hopefully, by our presence and our active engagement, we can deter China from taking a more authoritarian course. We will want the Chinese people and government to understand that for their nation to reach its full potential, they must couple increased economic freedom with increased political freedom. That’s the way China can achieve greatness in the 21st century.


For much of your career you have been involved in U.S.-Russian relations and Russia policy. What’s your assessment of the prospects for greater democracy in Russia in light of the recent popular protest, and should the United States tie aspects of its relationship with Russia to progress by Moscow on respecting democratic norms and human rights?

I think linkage--tying progress on bilateral issues to internal reforms--probably isn’t going to work with Russia. It will be viewed as an effort to intrude on what the Russian government regards as internal matters. I don’t agree with that assessment, but I think that will be the reaction. We have to work with the Russian government on areas of mutual interest like fighting terrorism and nonproliferation. But we should be very clear where our interests clash and stand up for freedom and democracy as an important part of people’s well being and of long-term stability.

I was in Moscow during the most recent parliamentary elections. It showed that in the modern era it’s very difficult to steal an election. People have cell phones with cameras, and they take pictures of ballot stuffing. It gets onto YouTube and goes viral and suddenly everybody is aware. That’s what happened in Russia, and then you had tens of thousands of people take to the streets. And these were different kinds of people than you have seen in the streets in the past. These were successful middle-class people—actually, the people who are the hope for a prosperous future for Russia. Now they’ve gotten energized. They enjoy their personal freedoms, but maybe they’re no longer willing to accept just personal freedoms at the expense of participation in their government. People might increasingly object to a deal in which the government gives them personal freedoms if they let the government rule as it sees fit. That is the great hope for a more democratic and prosperous future for Russia, and we should put ourselves clearly on the side of the aspirations of those people.


Let’s close on the role of USIP. From the perspective of a long-time senior policy maker, how useful can an independent federal agency like USIP be on peace and conflict management issues in priority countries overseas?

Terrifically useful. It can do things that the U.S. government cannot do. It can speak to people who will not speak to formal U.S. government representatives, and that’s important. USIP is not just a think tank; it is not just an NGO. Precisely because it has a tie to the U.S. government while not being of the U.S. government, it has a unique role to play in brokering peace in troubled areas. It’s particularly well equipped because it develops the theory of peacebuilding and teaches and trains it, then runs programs on the ground that put it into practice and takes the lessons learned from that practice to enrich the field. This is a unique institution. Nobody else operates in quite this way, in this space between government and the NGOs. It has an irreplaceable role for helping to bring peace in this 21st century.

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    USIP leaders explain the effect that events around the world and here at home will have on the U.S., and the contributions the Institute can and does make during atime of tremendous challenge - and opportunity.


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