On Tuesday evening, John Brady Kiesling ’79, a former American ambassador, spoke to a large audience on the increasing importance of diplomacy for our crowded planet.
Kiesling is best known for his decision to resign in protest of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy in 2003. His resignation, and the accompanying eloquent letter, touched a nerve and inspired a flurry of media attention.
In his presentation, Kiesling outlined the potential of American diplomacy, and the missteps of the current administration. “The good news about being a pretty benevolent superpower,” he explained, “is that almost never do we feel that we need something that requires being really aggressive to foreigners.” In other words, as the world’s only superpower the United States has the ability to pursue its self-interest without a policy of aggression.
This belief became increasingly important to Kiesling as he watched the administration gear up for the Iraq War. One of the many functions of a diplomat is to “warn the United States when something bad is going to happen to its foreign policy,” but in the lead up to the war most people were shrinking into their shells and praying “someone higher up in the food chain knew better than we did, and everything would turn out fine.”
As the days passed, however, Kiesling did not see anyone higher up the food chain taking action. A minor dispute over security clearance sparked his anger, and he decided that someone had to warn the country about this “avertable catastrophe.”
It is clear today that Kiesling’s warning did not halt the invasion of Iraq. This, he argues, is a mistake we should never repeat. In a challenge to most media reports today, Kiesling argued that the United States is not in any serious danger: “We are seated on a remote continent with two weak and friendly neighbors. … We are targeted by terrorism, but those attacks will not in any way fundamentally change the balance of power in the world or significantly undermine the US economic or political system.” This safety, he argued, coupled with our power, gives the United States remarkable flexibility in our foreign policy. “We have a choice as to how angry we want the rest of the world to be with us,” he explained.
While terrorism and conventional threats do not ultimately threaten the stability of the United States, there are other dangers out there. He particularly warned of climate change, a problem which has massive ramifications and is a far broader issue than any in the past. The world is already in a precarious balance between population and resources. The smallest shift, he argued, can cause disasters like the Rwandan genocide or the current crisis in Sudan. These disasters could pale in comparison to millions of refugees fleeing shorelines as sea-levels rise, though.
The United States must ask, argued Kiesling, “how do we deal with a crowded, finite world?” He also presented an answer: diplomacy.
Our recent diplomacy has been “catastrophically stupid over the past five years,” however. Again and again, the United states has worked to ensure that “international law no longer plays the legitimizing role it should.” Weak international law weakens the very fabric of diplomacy.
Ultimately, Kiesling believes that there is only one nation which can restore international law: the United States. Only the United States has the economic, military, and economic clout to reinvigorate international law. To restore international law, however, the United States will have to make sacrifices. It is a “matter of going back to the people of the United States and telling the president that we cannot have all the benefits of international law and of multilateralism without paying a price for it.”
When the United States decides it is willing to pay that price, the world will be waiting.