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Foreign Policy in Denver

August 29, 2008

Denver, CO – Some of the most respected Foreign Policy experts in America, from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, came together on Wednesday to discuss the future of international relations and a new direction for American Foreign Policy.

“I think the next President will inherit the worst first day in office in the history of any American President, except maybe for Lincoln,” Richard Holbrooke said, sending the message that the world is at a crossroads and the upcoming Presidential election will be of historical significance. The panel of thinkers aligned with the Democratic party agreed that eight years of the Bush Administration have spoiled America’s moral standing in the world, causing a deterioration in relations with many of its closest allies, and put at risk global stability.

“The US today is not in a position to lead,” Jessica Tuchman Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the audience. According to her, the US has fallen behind because of the way it has dealt with important domestic and international issues, from climate change to energy to non-proliferation. “I think President Obama is going to have to climb out of a hole back to the ground before we can lead again at the international level,” Dr. Mathews said. NoEndinSight

The speakers then took turn in offering advices and solutions to the next President, from strengthening the economy, to improving international cooperation and polishing American public diplomacy, with the aim of undoing the damages of the last decade, and re-establishing America’s role as the world leader.

Madeleine Albright pushed for the establishment of an “internal team” within the new White House, comprising of advisors that “can present a variety of different views,” so as to avoid the mistakes traditionally made by a President who never had to listen to a divergent opinion. “I would look very closely to how the next President puts together his cabinet,” Albright said. Richard Holbrooke, instead, focused on the economy. “After all nations rise and fall on the basis of their economic strength,” he argued. Hence the economy should be the next Administration’s first priority, since it is what will give the US the means to reassert its leadership on the international stage.

There was much talk as well on the idea of democracy promotion: “American promotion of democracy has a bad name around the world, but it is not always like Bush’s invasion of Iraq,” Vince Weber, Chair of the National Endowment for Democracy, said. “Democracy is a part of our Foreign Policy and it shouldn’t be thrown out like the baby with the dirty water,” Weber continued, advocating for a new, softer approach to this policy, one that relies more heavily on local people and NGOs on the ground, and that follows more gradual steps towards the achievement of the end goal, which is – according to those attending the CFR forum in Denver – not democracy per se, but human rights and rule of law.

Whatever new direction the next President of the United States will embark upon, he will have to do so in the face of a changing world, an aspect that was emphasized by all panelists. The US must confront a reality “where India and Brazil recently determined the faith of global trade at the latest Doha Round,” Madeleine Albright reminded the audience, “where France brokered the truce between Georgia and Russia; where Iran, a government we are trying so hard to isolate, hosted a meeting with representatives from over a 100 non-aligned countries, comprising the majority of the world’s population.”

In this regard, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn offered the most shocking picture of how the global balance of power is shifting away from the West when he pointed to a few key economic figures. OECD countries control today close to 75% of the world’s GDP; in 2050 this number is expected to drop to 30%. In just a few years, China will become the largest economy in the world, with India in the second spot and the US coming only third. Japan is predicted to rise to number four or five, and South Korea will get up there too. Even Vietnam should climb up the ranking and into the top 10. Thinking of the world in these terms necessarily requires a new Foreign Policy paradigm, while institutions such as the G8 – for what they are today – seem to be losing significance.

In short, the US faces a world that is as interconnected as ever, where the important players are numerous and where, like Carnegie Endowment’s Tuchman Mathews pointed out, “what happened to the poor in Pakistan directly affects us here in America.”

The poor, how poverty needs to be confronted and the role it might play in US foreign policy decision-making was also a central part of Wednesday’s discussion. Combating it, many speakers argued, should not be seen anymore simply as a humanitarian issue and a matter of charity of the rich towards the poor. Today more than ever, global poverty directly affects America’s economic and national security. Bringing wealth to the rest of the world translates, first and foremost, into new markets and new costumers for US goods — an effective way to address the challenges of a dwindling economy. Moreover, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor creates instability. Fighting global poverty is, according to Madeleine Albright, a way to prevent “the recruitment of the disillusioned by those who hate us.”

One practical suggestion for the next Administration on fighting global poverty came from Nancy Birdsall, the President of the Center for Global Development: “The new President should simply say, let’s take the fifteen poorest countries in the world and guarantee them full and permanent access to the US market, with no tariffs or duties.”

After all, “the world wants US leadership,” Richard Holbrooke said, “look at Germany, they might have a 30% approval of the job of President Bush but when Obama went to Berlin he took 200,000 people to the streets. And he could have done the same in London.” It was a view shared by all speakers today — that exercising leadership in the right fashion will be the key to a new American Foreign Policy.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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