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Zoellick: A Survey of U.S. Diplomacy Abroad

Interviewee: Robert B. Zoellick, Goldman Sachs & Co.
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 21, 2007

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Robert B. Zoellick, who served as deputy secretary of state and special trade representative for the Bush administration until resigning last summer, in a discussion on current world issues, says the North Korean agreement is critical for getting China’s cooperation; the Iranians must be pressed to decide on whether to cooperate on nuclear issues or defy the world; U.S. forces must be maintained in Iraq; and the main question in the Middle East is whether the countries there will remain stuck in the past or modernize as China did.

The Bush administration’s approach to diplomacy has been more activist in the last year or so. We’ve now had at least a partial agreement on the North Korean nuclear issue and we’re in unison with our allies up to a point on Iran. And [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice is just finishing up a Middle East trip which hasn’t produced much in results but looks like a new departure for the administration. Am I drawing too much from this?

Perhaps I can help you get a sense of some of the logic of at least what started when Condi became secretary of state since that’s the time that I moved over to State from having been the USTR [United States trade representative]. It’s important to take each of these on its merits, although as a general principle, when Condi came to State [in January 2005] both the president and her emphasized the importance of using our diplomacy effectively. She has the confidence of the president, which is critical for the success for any secretary of state. I worked closely with Secretary of State [James] Baker. He obviously had a very special working relationship with President Bush 41; when I’ve talked with [former Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger about his time, he emphasizes the importance of the secretary of state to be in sync with the president that he or she serves. Condi came with a mandate to try to strengthen the diplomatic hand on some of these issues, and that’s what you see her trying to do.

In the case of North Korea, I don’t think either the president or the secretary sees this in narrow, nonproliferation terms. They see this as a question of trying to work with the other four parties—China, Japan, South Korea, Russia—to create a pathway for North Korea to open up if it chooses, and then to set up a framework for dealing with broader issues of peninsula security, and then even the ultimate question of relations of the major powers in northeast Asia. So what one is seeing, as the administration emphasizes, is just an initial step. It’s far from clear that the North Koreans will follow through, but the North Koreans now have a pathway developed by the United States in concert principally with China but others as well, that would give Kim Jong-Il the opportunity, if he chooses it, to follow through on reform and opening up his economy.

And as part of this, there is a recognition that any opening Kim Jong-Il makes could create, in his mind, vulnerabilities. Combining the notion of confidence-building measures, security assurances, and even ultimately a peace treaty to North Korea, offers a broader framework to deal with the nuclear weapons issue. But in the president's and in Condi’s mind this is also a question of working with China as a responsible stakeholder on common security issues, and also dealing with some of South Korea’s anxieties about its powerful neighbor.

Is this going to help our overall relations with China much?

I think people recognize that China has shifted some of its past positions. It certainly did with its vote in the UN Security Council on sanctions against North Korea. The ultimate evaluation will depend on what happens with North Korea and how China is seen as advancing that issue. Even if this agreement does not succeed—and there’s a long history of broken agreements with North Korea—I do think it will position the United States to work better with China and others to deal with the risk of North Korea.

Let’s talk about Iraq. You were one of the letter writers back in 1998 to President Clinton asking for a tougher policy to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Do you now look back with any regret on that?

Well, obviously there’s a long history about the conduct of the war and the aftermath with Iraq, and I’m not going to replay all of that. I obviously believe, as Senator John McCain [R-AZ] emphasizes, that a heavier presence and emphasizing more on the security side is a critical lesson learned. The issue now though is what we do going forward. And it’s not surprising that this is an issue that generates much debate, because I think there’s a weariness of the public and it’s hard to sustain a policy without support of the public. On the other hand, I think there’s a recognition of the very high stakes involved about trying to establish security and give this elected government a chance to build ties across sectarian lines. I went to Iraq a number of times in 2006, particularly in the period before Zalmay Khalilzad became ambassador, and I went beyond Baghdad. I was in Fallujah, I was in Hillah, and what struck me was that there is a tremendous amount of talent in that country, and somehow either in the pre-Saddam period or even afterwards, there were a number of people who managed to get engineering degrees, other sort of training that led them to want to rebuild that country. But it’s extraordinarily difficult to do if you’ve got sectarian communities tearing each other apart.

Since you’re on the list of advisers to Senator McCain, you obviously agree on the “surge” policy, I suppose?

McCain has been very clear about why he’s taken that position. That’s what’s important, not mine.

Do you have a particular point of view on this whole discussion about whether we should be talking to Iran? In the past you’ve not been in favor of pushing negotiations before they suspend their uranium enrichment program, right?

I don’t think I’ve said anything publicly, but I think, going back to your initial question, what Condi shaped in 2005 was a position that first brought together the United States and the EU-3 [Britain, France, and Germany], which hadn’t been the case before, and then sought to bring together the Permanent [Security Council] Five as well as Germany to emphasize that Iran faced two options. One is the positive option that would allow them to have civilian nuclear energy, and would also allow them to engage and integrate in the international community more broadly. The other is if they continue on the path that they’ve been on in terms of nuclear enrichment, developing a nuclear weapons capability, it’ll lead to greater isolation. At this point—particularly since one is seeing some signs in Iran that people were surprised at the UN Security Council coming together on the resolution—one should continue to offer those two pathways.

The more we can do it in concert with others, the better off we’ll be. You mentioned my work with China. When I went to China as a government official early in 2006, in advance of President Hu Jintao’s visit [to the United States in April 2006], I not only emphasized why this cooperation with United States [on Iran] was important in terms of the Sino-American relationship, but I also talked to the Chinese about why it was in their own interest. They’re interested in energy security in the world, and if you have a country that has supported terrorism, has said that Israel should be wiped off the map, and has questioned the Holocaust—and that country develops a nuclear weapons capability—it’s not going to be good for energy security. So the Chinese also have an interest in trying to support the Permanent Five effort, at least from what I’ve seen. But I’m no longer in the government.

And of course Iran right now finds itself in this odd situation of having an energy crisis.

This shows the fundamental weakness of its economy and its economic model. Even though they’ve produced energy, they have to get a lot of refining done outside, and even their energy production has been at risk because they haven’t been able to make the capital investments. It underscores the point that the key players in the international system should emphasize to Iran that it can choose two paths. One is a constructive path and one is a path of isolation. I think that’s the best chance to try to influence Iranian behavior.

You don’t see the president looking for some excuse to invade Iran in the last two years, as some critics have alleged.

I don’t at all. I left the administration in the summer of last year, but I had no sense of that when I was there, and certainly I’ve had no sense of it since I left. I think he’s trying very hard and I think Condi’s tried to organize this to try to mobilize the diplomacy. But you’ve got players like Russia that have a multiplicity of interests. That’s the hard work of diplomacy.

And on the Middle East, is it too late now to get anything done? It seems like, after staying away from any direct involvement, Rice is now saying she’s going to take the lead and work hard on this.

Well, I think there are different dimensions of the Middle East. You may be referring particularly to Israel-Palestinian issues?

That’s what I’m talking about, yes.

But let’s start more broadly, because for this administration or those that follow it, these challenges are not going to go away. A fundamental issue is well stated by Goh Chok Tong, the former prime minister, now senior minister, of Singapore. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004, he said this is about a struggle for the soul of Islam: You’ve got some people who want to return to the seventh century caliphate, and you’ve got some people who want to enter the twenty-first century and find a way for Islam and modernity to coexist successfully. I thought it was a powerful point.

The larger question here is how to help. Part of Goh’s message was it’s ultimately up to the Muslims to decide, but those who want the modernizers to succeed can do things to try to increase the likelihood of success. In the position where I sit, I can see that there’s a group of modernizers in the Gulf countries, in the Egyptian economic team, some in the Emirates, who want to try to create more open economies, more open societies, and build the conditions for a middle class.

We have a very strong interest in helping those people succeed. It’s one reason why, when I was the trade representative, I pushed a series of free trade agreements. We got some done with Bahrain and Jordan and Oman, we launched one with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and we got one done with Morocco. But take Egypt today. You’ve got a team who are starting to get some growth in Egypt. For the long run, there’s a lot that we should and can be doing today to try to help those people succeed. If you look at the Gulf states, they’re all trying to become mini-Singapores now. They’re trying to diversify their economies, and they’re trying to move in the service sector. Even Saudi Arabia really moved forward on reform, just about the time I was leaving USTR, when King Abdullah took over to push its WTO test.

I partly draw an analogy to the world I saw in East Asia in 1980, when I was in Hong Kong on a fellowship, and some people thought Confucian societies and Asian societies were not conducive to economic development or democracy. We’ve seen obviously economic development take off, and you’ve seen democracy in South Korea and Taiwan and Indonesia and the Philippines, and it’s struggling in other places like Thailand. So while I wouldn’t say that the Mideast pattern and the Far East necessarily follow a one-to-one connection—actually some of the energy and oil resources create a danger in some Middle Eastern countriesnevertheless there’s a lot that we and others can do to try to help the modernizers succeed.

Coming back to the broader peace process, it’s important for the United States to be trying to advance the process. There are two ways you can go. Dennis Ross [Middle East negotiator for President Clinton] wrote an op-ed recently about trying to establish a cease-fire, and that struck me as having some constructive ideas. What Condi was trying to talk about was to pick up on the president’s notion of having a two-state solution, and perhaps to outline that. That’s obviously gotten harder to do, given the agreement between Hamas and Fatah for a unity government, because Hamas has still not recognized Israel’s right to exist in the prior agreements.

So I would lean more toward trying to make some incremental progress and build confidence at this point, but recognizing that that’s still going to be a challenge.

But there are other aspects. Because of all the focus on Iraq, the larger questions of Persian Gulf security, which were always part of American foreign policy, have slipped to the background. One of the things that I tried to push when I was at the State Department was to try to rebuild a set of connections. I think that has started to take place. The Middle East is so important to U.S. national interests, and it’s linked to this larger question of the Islamic world’s struggle with modernity, that I think we have no choice but to be deeply engaged. At the same time, I don’t think we can afford to ignore other critical issues in the world, like the rise of China.

I come last to the question you’re the expert on. Is the 2008 election going to be important on the future of free trade?

Yes, unfortunately. The trade agenda we had, whether it was pushing the global negotiations or the bilateral regional agreements, was not only in our economic interest but was an excellent way to draw countries more closely to the United States. While you’ve heard a lot of frustrations about the United States around the world, you also saw a lot of countries wanting to try to deepen their ties through these free trade agreements. It is sort of ironic and troubling that the new Congress may be shutting down this business.

I think that Senator Max Baucus [D-MT], the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Charlie Rangel [D-NY], the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, would like to try to move something forward. I’m concerned that their caucuses may not back them. If you look at the midterm elections, there were a lot of people who took office on a very economic isolationist platform, and they play a big role in the majority caucus. I’m still hopeful that the administration will work out with the majority some adjustment to move forward the Peru, the Colombian, and the Panamanian free trade agreements (FTAs). If they get those through, we will have achieved free trade with two-thirds of the Western hemisphere, by GDP or population, not counting the United States. It’s a wonderful position to be in. It’ll maintain the momentum that you have with other countries, in South Korea and in Southeast Asia. The United States represents 25 to 30 percent of the world’s GDP. We’ve got a wonderful magnet through the strength of our economy. Some of that will take place with our private sector anyway, but frankly we want to be at the table when the rules are being negotiated for open markets. So this year is going to very important, and then beyond that I think how the candidates approach the 2008 elections will be important.

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