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Lindsay: A Kerry Victory Would Change Style and Substance of U.S. Foreign Policy

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 28, 2004

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James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies and a longtime student of American politics, says a victory by Democratic Senator John Kerry in November would lead to changes in both the style and substance in U.S. foreign policy— except regarding Iraq. “You’re not likely to see a major change on substance in Iraq,” he says, “largely because Senator Kerry and President Bush occupy basically the same space, which is to internationalize the effort.”

Lindsay is a Council vice president and the holder of the Maurice R. Greenberg chair. As an officer of the Council, Lindsay is prohibited from working on U.S. political campaigns. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 28, 2004.


If Kerry is elected president, what changes do you expect in U.S. foreign policy?

A Kerry administration will differ from a Bush administration in both style and substance, and the style changes, in fact, may be more significant.

Let’s get into style first.

This gets us into the issue of our relations with our friends and allies. John Kerry’s criticism of the Bush administration throughout the campaign has been that the president has underestimated the importance of working with America’s traditional allies. That’s the meaning of Kerry’s campaign slogan of being stronger at home and more respected in the world. He intends to improve our relations with our closest allies.

And on substance?

You’re likely to see departures on a number of issues, for instance, on North Korea, on missile defense, on how to handle proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and on the size of nuclear arsenals. You’re not likely to see a major change on substance in Iraq, largely because Senator Kerry and President Bush occupy basically the same space, which is to internationalize the effort.

Let’s talk about North Korea. The Democratic Party Platform calls for continuing the six-country talks [among the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia] as well as for direct U.S.-North Korea talks. In the last six-nation round, the Bush administration did have a separate meeting with North Korea in the context of those talks. Do you see much space between the two candidates on that?

A Kerry administration would probably be more inclined than the Bush administration has been to have direct talks with the North Koreans. The Bush administration on North Korea has been divided internally as to the value negotiations can play in dealing with North Korea. My suspicion is that a Kerry administration would be more willing to put more carrots on the table in dealing with North Korea.

What about Iran, which is also discussed in the platform?

Iran is going to be a tough issue for any American president, because the Iranians have powerful reasons to have nuclear weapons. The levers that Washington has to stop that program may not be strong enough. This is where Senator Kerry’s mantra of being respected abroad may be tested. [As president] he [will have] to go to the European allies [and ask them] to take a tougher line on Iran, and they might not be willing to do that.

What about in Afghanistan? Everyone agrees that NATO has not lived up to its commitments in deployment of forces.

The platform pledges to do what President Bush has promised: provide a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. And it talks about making a larger commitment to peacekeeping and moving the NATO [troop] presence outside of Kabul. The problem is that, at the end of the day, questions remain on the willingness of America’s NATO allies to make a larger commitment to Afghanistan. There is also the very real question of the ability of the American military to make a more substantial commitment in Afghanistan, given the demands placed on the U.S. military by its occupation of Iraq. More broadly, the question is: if you have more troops in Afghanistan, do you run the risk of conflicts with local warlords that could greatly change the dynamics within Afghanistan?

If Kerry is elected, will President Jacques Chirac of France end his opposition to contributing to Iraq? It seems implicit in Kerry’s approach that, if he is elected, the major NATO holdouts will cooperate somehow.

That clearly is the message in Kerry’s stump speech and in the platform, that with a President Kerry, the allies will be more willing to work with the United States, because they will have more trust in Washington’s willingness to take their interests into account and treat them as allies should be treated. There is a real question, however, as to whether that is true in the specific case of Iraq. No one knows what Iraq will look like six months from now, when the next president is inaugurated. If Iraq has turned the corner and is doing very well, it probably will be less important that it be internationalized.

The real danger is if Iraq is not going well. If it is not, there are going to be very real questions about whether the Europeans will want to make a commitment to Iraq, regardless of whether they like John Kerry. As a general rule, governments are reluctant to commit themselves to policies that look as if they are failing simply to help out someone else. That is particularly the case given that much of Europe’s public opinion was dead set against this war and is convinced that the problems exist now because the Americans blundered in there.

In terms of style, clearly John Kerry is an internationalist. His father was a Foreign Service officer. He speaks French and, I gather, German. His wife, of Portuguese origin, speaks five languages. Is this a replica of John F. Kennedy, a candidate with a sophisticated wife and a European appeal his rival seems unable to match?

Senator Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry will probably play better in Europe than President Bush has. The problem that a President Kerry is ultimately going to have to face is whether what he wants to do or what he needs to do are things Europe is willing to support him on. Here is where politics can diverge between the two sides of the Atlantic. On the specific case of Iraq, many Europeans are skeptical about being drawn in there— for example, the Spanish government’s decision to pull troops out.

But even putting Iraq aside, because really Iraq is a hard case, there are lots of other issues important to the Europeans— the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the International Criminal Court, Biological Weapons Convention, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. These are all issues that will be very hard for a President Kerry to make much movement on, because the Senate of the United States is likely to remain in Republican hands [and] a President Kerry will be unable to get those treaties through the Senate. So Kerry is going to be constrained at home in how far he can go in meeting the demands and hopes of his European allies. That can cause him trouble in terms of his desire to be more respected abroad.

Who is likely to make up his foreign policy team? Or who would you like to see there?

I am going to beg off on answering that question. I simply don’t know who he is going to pick. This is quite different from the Bush administration, where there was a very clear set of people advising him and clear signs of who was going to occupy what spots. Nobody was guessing in July of 2000 who Bush’s secretary of state would be.

Leaving aside who will end up on Kerry’s team, he clearly faces a major challenge in building a foreign policy team. He needs to have a team of people he brings to the White House who are actually experienced working in the executive branch— because the Kerry-Edwards ticket has exactly zero years of experience in the executive branch, and the White House is quite different from the U.S. Senate. And it is also important that he have a team that works reasonably well together. Administrations that have a lot of fighting can quickly go from being productive to destructive.

The toughest thing that Senator Kerry is going to have to face is deciding what his priorities are going to be in an environment in which everything is clamoring to be the most important issue. Time and energy are limited, so Kerry is going to have to pick. To some extent, one of those choices has been made, since Iraq is going to be “the big issue.” It is interesting to see what other issues he wants to focus on.

The small section on the Middle East in the platform focuses mostly on Israel. Do you anticipate any changes?

The Kerry administration, like the Bush administration, will have a firm commitment to the security of Israel. Where we are likely to see a difference in a Kerry administration is in a greater emphasis in an American role in trying to move the peace process ahead. The Bush administration, when it came into office, was reluctant to get engaged in the peace process, in good part because President Bill Clinton had made such a considered effort to move the ball, and that did not work. The Bush administration decided for a variety of reasons that it would be better to stand back, and then, of course, the war against terrorism intervened, so there was a change in dynamics. I would expect a Kerry administration to restore the Middle East peace process to the forefront of American foreign policy. It would not surprise me to see a Kerry administration appoint a high level envoy to deal with the Middle East peace process.

One thing that struck me is that, on domestic issues, Kerry has very detailed plans, but his foreign policy ideas are rather generalized. Is this typical of presidential candidates?

It is typical for many candidates. There is a great deal of value when you are a candidate not to pin yourself down too specifically to foreign policy commitments, because presidents often find themselves forced to change. It is one thing to campaign and another to govern. The classic example was Bill Clinton talking [in the 1992 campaign] about the “butchers of Beijing.” Once in office, he found that was not a constructive policy to follow toward China.

One of the things you are likely to hear going forward in the campaign is Democrats arguing that the lack of detail in Kerry’s platform or speeches is less important than the broad guidelines he has given on the issues he wants to talk about, particularly the issue of being respected abroad. In turn, you are likely to hear criticism from Republicans that the lack of specificity in Kerry’s approach reflects a lack of conviction about what he wants to do in the world.