If there’s one thing Emory University Professor Kenneth Stein is emphatic about, it’s that foreign policy is hitting closer to home than ever before.
The problem is that the U.S. is less equipped to deal with the realities of a changing world, and simple answers are hard to come by, especially in the region he studies — the Middle East, he told an Atlanta Council on International Relations audience Wednesday.
“Foreign policy is now at our doorstep; 9/11 proved that. Tariffs, cybersecurity trade — all have domestic implications and ramifications that were not present in the ‘70s and ’80s or during the Cold War,” the Middle East expert said at the Capital City Club.
While U.S. policy has shifted with the winds of the times in the Middle East, its negotiating postures are often predicated on the idea that satisfying solutions are achievable. Dr. Stein has studied the region long enough to know that this can be naive.
Take the Suez Canal, which is so vital to U.S. interests that many presidents have had to “hold their noses” and support certain Egyptian leaders. The intractable Israel-Palestine conflict also serves as an illustration. Even a two-state solution would require a guarantor to put up billions of dollars to help a newfound Palestinian state function and survive, an unlikely scenario in his view.
Besides, he said, the mediator (the U.S.) can never create a solution where there’s no appetite for one among the parties — which he believes is the current state of affairs.
Sometimes the best outcome is to make sure things don’t get worse, he said.
“One sentence doesn’t solve a problem, because the complexities of these problems are enormous and the best solution at times is just managing them,” he said. “Because we in the United States want a problem to be resolved doesn’t mean that a problem can be resolved.”
The Middle East has lagged other regions of the world in growth and human-rights indices, in some cases beset by strongmen who have taken advantage of weak institutions and used state coffers as their private piggy banks.
Add a little oil wealth to a mix of nations where borders were drawn by outside powers with little regard for tribal and ethnic loyalties, and you have the recipe that has cooked up constant frustration in U.S. efforts to deal with a region that is as volatile as it is vital.
“I’m fond of saying that in the Middle East, borders are suggestions. They really are, and they’re very porous, and that hasn’t changed,” Dr. Stein said during the luncheon lecture.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring that upended some national leaders in the region, hopes emerged that true representative democracies would take their place, especially since the movements gave voice to the economic frustration of many Middle Eastern populations. Those ambitions have largely failed to come to fruition, further evidence that “Arab nationalism” propounded in the aftermath of World War II has failed, Dr. Stein said.
Now, Islam itself in some areas has become a “platform for mobilization” against outside forces, he said, with sometimes catastrophic consequences as in the case of movements like ISIS and acts like 9/11.
Forging a policy toward one country, much less an area like this, can be challenging, and the approaches of former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump show two extremes on the spectrum, Dr. Stein said.
Using speeches given a decade apart in Cairo in 2008 and 2018 by Mr. Obama and Mike Pompeo, President Trump’s current secretary of state, Dr. Stein illustrated just how different presidents can be in the way they promote their vision of American ideals.
Mr. Obama favored dialogue, engagement, economic collaboration as a means to defusing radicalization and eschewed the conflation of Islam with extremism, leaning toward more of a “soft-power” approach. Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, vowed a harder line on Iran and called out Islamist ideology.
As an academic, Dr. Stein refused to say which approach was better, but he did make one warning to any who would attempt to mold the region into Americas’ image.
“Don’t feel that American exceptionalism gives you the right to change other people who are of a different political culture, because it doesn’t, but many presidents try, many administrations try, and some problems just can’t be resolved, so just face it.”
His views on the region may have come off as sanguine, but they were leavened with a broad fascination by the people and culture of the Middle East — as well as a sense of its future promise. He also offered a note of encouragement to those who would engage with a field like foreign policy, where the reality dictates compromising on certain principles.
“It’s always impossible to get to the ideal, but you have to strive for it.”
Along with that, he advocated for a renewed interest in international affairs education, providing a knowledge baseline for leaders and legislators who can be sometimes inadequately prepared for the issues that will cross their desks.
“You don’t have to be of a certain ethnic background to have lost your historical perspective or your memory,” he said. “We don’t teach history the way we used to, we don’t teach geography, we’re not teaching as many people in foreign languages, and yet foreign affairs and foreign issues are influencing us on a day to day basis more so than ever.”