Big Think Interview With Jim Hoge

A conversation with the editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine.
  • Transcript


Question: What big trends have you missed during your 18-year tenure at Foreign Affairs?

Jim Hoge:
I had a number of people in Washington and the State Department and elsewhere telling me very early on, all the way back 18 years ago, "Put the focus on Pakistan.  Pakistan is going to be the most dangerous state for all of us."  And that was the head of policy planning at the time, a man named Sam Lewis who said that to me and I said, “Well is that the number one item for policy planning, long term planning for the century?”  He said, “You bet it is.”  Well it still is and it’s more urgent now than it was then.  We did pay attention to them.  We’ve done a number of pieces on not just Pakistan, but the dynamics of that region and how easily they come unraveled, but this was long before 9/11 and long before Afghanistan was viewed as anything but a backwater after the Soviet invasion was over, so I still remember that neither the State Department nor Foreign Affairs really grasped at that time just what a problem Pakistan could end up to be. 

Now why do I call it a big problem now?  Pakistan is a major state.  It’s not like Afghanistan, a backwater state.  It has a big population, a lot of big military, nuclear weapons and one of the great nation to nation conflicts that still goes on.  If there is going to be another big nation to nation war it’s more likely to be between India and Pakistan than almost anybody else.  We have been completely unsuccessful, not that we haven’t tried, when I say we I mean the United States, in getting Pakistan and India to finally resolve the problems over Kashmir and get back into more normal state to state relationship putting the emphasis on their economic developments.  In that period of time, those 18 years or so since that first warning Pakistan has gone through a great discombobulation, civil governments that didn’t work, military coups that didn’t work, the rise in fundamentalism there.  Meanwhile, across the border India has gone from being a relatively huge poverty ridden country with very few prospects for economic development into this raging new first rate power, which is where they’re headed, with a very dynamic economy and so you have this contest between a fading Pakistan if you will and a rising India and that of course is the grounds for even more tensions and possible miscalculations.

How would such a war affect the U.S.?

Jim Hoge: Well one has to assume that if there really was another all out Indian Pakistani war that nuclear weapons would be used and what the specific ramifications would be it’s hard to say, but a nuclear war, there has only been one use of nuclear weapons ever, is an incalculable risk with unintended consequences.  We are both an ally of Pakistan and we are an ally of India.  What would we do if the two of them ended up in a war?  What would we do if one started using nuclear weapons?  I don’t know, but it is a cataclysm to be avoided at all costs.

Why don’t Americans care about foreign affairs?

Jim Hoge: The reasons why the American public over a long span of time, 100, 150, 200 years has been mostly disinterested or at least only casually interested in what is going on in the rest of the world is that we were developing a whole continent here.  We had our own major mission, which was manifest destiny to the other coast.  We had two huge oceans on either side of us and up to our north we had a very benign neighbor and to our south while there are immigration problems and so on from a national security point of view that has been very benign, so there were far fewer reasons why we would be engaged than if you lived in a smaller country in Europe where they were always in conflict over one thing or another for hundreds and hundreds of years.  9/11 did indeed change this because it is the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States actually had foreign hostile activity within its own borders and what 9/11 did among many other things is to suddenly make the American public aware that in the modern world of globalization both of security weaponry as well as economics and culture was no longer sort of invulnerable to the plights and the conflicts and the tensions and the angers elsewhere in the world, that those oceans, those two benign north and south borders were only now a smaller part of the story, so that did indeed create a greater interest, but primarily the American public’s interests in foreign affairs waxes and wanes dependent on how much they think a crisis is about to affect us at home. 

During the Cold War years, the 50 years or so of the Cold War the atomic… the bulletin of the atomic science used to have a clock and they would show the secondhand getting or the firsthand getting closer and closer to midnight whenever the Soviet Union United States got into a first class clash, the biggest one being of course over Cuba.  Every time that happened the interest in international affairs zoomed to the top.  As soon as things calmed down again it disappeared again and they worried about local problems and so on.  The same thing to a certain extent has happened since 9/11.  There is not the same level of acute interest now that there was then, but globalization has also meant there are other reasons to be interested in what is going on in the world besides the security question.  There is the prosperity of the country, which now is dependent on a highly internationalized economic system, so I think we’re better off than we were and when polls are taken for key things like do you think the UN is a necessary institution and set of processes, the answer invariably is yes.  It’s a reluctant answer.  They wish it wasn’t so.  They’re not enthusiastic and they know all the problems of the UN, but they don’t take an isolationist position that we would be better off without it.  Some politicians from usually the extremes of one party or another still try to sell the idea that a fortress America would work, just have a strong military, a strong economy, stay out of everybody else’s business and we’ll be okay.  That is not an opinion that anymore captures a large public.  They don’t believe it is realistic.  They don’t believe that you can have a prosperous America, a safe America just by staying within some sort of continental fortress so to speak.

Question: Will China surpass the U.S. as a superpower?

Jim Hoge: Maybe someday, no time soon.  It’s very impressive what they’ve done over the last quarter century, but remember China is still primarily a poor country with four to five hundred million poor rural based population, a string of very successful entrepreneurial operation along the coastline.  Any economic indexes except a gross one, gross GNP they will 25 years from now still be quite far behind us.  Militarily, they’re of course strengthening as you do as you get more prosperous, but they’re way, way behind the military capabilities of the United States.  In technology they’ve become extremely good at the application of technology, but they’re still way behind in innovation itself, so put things in perspective.  China is a formidable country now and it is going to be more so, but it is not a rival of us in power across the whole spectrum, political power, economic power, cultural power.  Now having said that it is going to be the number two country in all of these kinds of things coming up and what is beginning to happen, particularly since the financial debacle if you will of the last two years brought on by the United States and has weakened us at least for a period of time here as an economic force and as a model for other people, China has suddenly moved up the calendar it had in its head of when it would have to get really involved in global governing issues because they saw a vacuum.  They saw an opportunity, so they’re doing a…  They have a more aggressive campaign now for international investment, for building a blue water navy to protect their sea lanes all the way through the Indian Ocean, for straightening out their borders by telling neighbors that this piece of land really belongs to China and so on.  Friction is building up between the United States and China and between China and some other countries, but it is not the kind that brought on World War I or World War II.  They are not an expansionist nation.  They’re not an ideological nation.  

They are a great power on the making and power never is transferred or shared easily in the international system.  You’ve got to grab for it and they’re beginning to do more of that.  Now that is a problem for us, but there are also many opportunities in engaging with China and we have to be careful to keep our sense of balance about what is really a great national security threat and what really is the kind of friction that comes up in this anarchistic thing we call the international system and I think it is more the latter than it is the former.  I don’t think China has any ideas or any ambitions to end up in a first class confrontation with the United States.  They’re interested in developing China and that is going to be another 25 to 30 years of heavily focused efforts on their own economy and their own big problems of democracy, of environmental protection, of worker rights, of a political system which in some ways is very impressive and in other ways is just antique compared to the kind of economy they’re becoming.  The idea that China is going to literally just keep going at a 10% growth rate and whatever problem comes up they will deal with is just not realistic, so they have some dips in the road coming just like we all do over a historical span and for us the real challenge is to try and incorporate them gradually, although at a faster pace than with the case before the recession, incorporate them into the international system so that it is a win/win situation that they win by being a part of the kind of global system that we have setup and then I think you can avoid the most cataclysmic kind of scenarios that you can here. 

The problem there though is that the international system is essentially a western creation and all the major bodies whether we’re talking about the G20, the G8, the IMF, the World Bank have rules and norms of behavior that we’ve set and they’re pretty good.  They’re mostly transparent.  They’re mostly democratic, but these rising powers of which China is the biggest, but Brazil is another, Turkey is another and you’ve seen what they did recently as far as Iran was concerned, they want to be not just the beneficiaries of the international system.  They quite rightly as they rise in influence and power they want to be among those who are the rule setters on how is the system to behave.  What kind of a voice are they going to have in it?  That is a very big challenge for us because so far we have done very little to transform the international system and its institutions since just after World War II, the most obvious example being the security counsel of the UN where the great powers of today are only partially represented and some of them are left out totally like Japan, like Germany, so if you want the biggest long term challenge to the United States I think it is in redoing the international system so it is more representative of the world we are in and are going to become than anything else.

What could happen within China?

Jim Hoge: There are lots of tensions building up in China.  At the moment they do not represent a national movement with linkages between say the workers in Manchuria who are upset not being paid except once a year or those out in some of the non ethnic places like Tibet and Xinjiang where they are upset about pollution and worker rules that are almost inhuman, 27 hours a day, 8 days a week kind of thing.  Those are at this stage not unmanageable, but they are very big problems that China has to deal with and they’re making some efforts.  They have a big demographic problem too because of the one child policy, which has been in place now for well over a quarter of a century they have stopped growing in population and actually they’re going to go off of a cliff here very soon.  They’re going to go from having been a young nation to being a very old one and without a sufficient safety net for a very large elderly population.  They’re also going to have not enough workers for the workforce, so that is a problem they have to deal with and then there is pollution.  There is no place on this globe where they are polluting to the extent that they are in China.  You don’t see that much of it if all you are is in Shanghai or Hong Kong or even Beijing, but if you go into the interior where the new industrial cities are being setup it is awesome and they’re running out of water.  They’re deserts are growing.  In other words I could go on.  They have a series of big systemic problems to deal with and there is no sign at the moment that they can’t deal with them, but there is going to be a point in time because they are developing a middle class and a big one and middle classes when they don’t get the full range of powers that they’re looking for, individual freedom, work opportunities and so forth, is the most revolutionary of all classes and China is facing a period of time coming up where the middle class which at the moment thinks it’s benefiting from the one party political system no longer thinks that it is and then can they make the transition evolutionary rather than in a revolutionary way to more pluralistic politics?  That is a huge challenge.  It’s not quite there yet, but it’s coming.  Right now because they have been a very efficient set of engineers at the top of their government the middle class of China is more pro one party rule than they…  They’re not that dissatisfied, but I would bet a bottom dollar that they’re going to be at some point.

Question: How is President Obama’s approach to Afghanistan faring so far?

Jim Hoge:  School is still out.  We don’t really know.  If you are basing it just on the evidence at the moment you’d have to say not very well.  What are we trying to do now?  In my opinion this is not spoken in administration policy, but in my opinion what we’re trying to do there is to train and transfer, are the two key words.  Train up Afghan security forces, police and army to a sufficient degree where they can take over the security assignment for the country and then transfer, transfer one piece of Afghan after another to the new Afghan forces and at some point say we’ve done enough, it’s now you’re problem, we’ve transferred most of it to you and we’re leaving.  Can we make that work?  I have to be skeptical, but that is what I think we’re trying to do.  I’m skeptical for several reasons.  First of all the Taliban is once again a major force and the Taliban wants a whole different kind of society than an awful lot of Afghanis want and certainly that we want and the second thing is the security forces that we are training and increasing in terms of numbers are not very reliable at this point.  If they don’t become more reliable it’s very difficult to transfer to them a big city like Kandahar or Kabul and then the other problem is regionally.  Their neighbors have different attitudes about what ought to happen in Afghanistan.  Pakistan wants to keep it as a sort of vassal state of potential use in some sort of conflict with India, so they are at the same time that they are in some ways cooperating with us in trying to contain and then eradicate if you will the Afghan Taliban they are quietly under the table supporting…  I mean the Pakistan Taliban; they are under the table supporting the Afghan Taliban. 

It gets complicated, but what it means is that we have an ally in this situation that has two strategies they’re following.  One is to cooperate with us and the other is to cooperate with the Taliban in this country that they want to keep as a vassal.  That makes it very, very difficult to have a political future that looks manageable.  Right now at the moment the central government if you will, the national government of Afghanistan controls the capital and a few regions around it and that is it.  The rest of the country is either in warlord control or Taliban control or in nobody’s control.  Now we also I think are essentially admitting that we cannot pacify the whole country and we can’t even transfer the whole country.  We’re essentially saying to the Afghan government we’ll train up troops and we’ll put them in huge population areas.  The rest of the country, the mountainous areas and so on that’s more than we can handle and maybe it’s more than you can handle.  So at best if we were to be able to pull this off train and transfer and win over some recruits from the Taliban by giving them a share of the government the best you’re going to have is a very disturbed hard to manage mountainous country that is potentially in affliction from time to time to its neighbors.  The one thing that we have to try and make sure doesn’t happen is that international terrorist groups like Al-Qaida can use it again as a base for training, for strategy, for planning major events like 9/11.  If we can do that with whatever government is there by the time we’re ready to leave and with the security forces, Afghan security forces that are in place that is about the best that I think we can expect.

What does David Cameron’s recent victory mean for Britain’s role in the world?

Jim Hoge: Britain’s role in the world regardless of who is in the government has been in a declining state for a long time and still is.  My opinion and that of a number of people sort of in the government, but it’s my opinion, as long as they hold off becoming a part of Europe in a very sustained way across the whole border currency and everything they’re going to continue to decline and will be more and more a small island nation with a big past.  If they join Europe and we see an interest in reinvigorating the European American relationship to be sort of an entity at the top of the international system that is comparable in size both in terms of population and in terms of economics with a continuingly rising China and a continually rising Indian and ultimately a continuing rising Brazil then they have a future, but it’s a multilateral future.  It’s not an individual future.  If they don’t do that, if they stick with the Tory Government’s idea that they should be hands off about Europe except for some things here and there I think they’re a diminishing power in the world and the idea that there will be a special relationship between the US and Britain will begin to fade.  The more likely special relationship if there has to be one between us and just a nation in Europe is going to be between us and Germany.  Germany has once again by far the most powerful and prosperous and successful country in Europe and we have to keep that in mind as we go forward.  Now as to does this coalition government represent something new in British politics, they’ve had them before, but not in a long time.  I think it does represent something somewhat new.  The two old parties, labor and the Tories have lost a great deal of trust and allegiance from the British public.  The British public is ready for more than a two party system.  They’re ready for a more European system of a number of parties and we may see that begin to flourish even more if this coalition government is successful.

Where is the world's next major financial crisis most likely to pop up?

Jim Hoge:  The financial system of market based economics invariably has periods of recession, periods of when people have overbought, undersold or whatever and that is going to happen again.  There is no question, but what just happened the last two years is much, much bigger than most market based slowdowns or recessions and it was based on some very big we might call fault line problems that have to be dealt with.  What I’m concerned…  And I think we will by the way, but there are two things to keep in mind.  This was so severe that our economic base that we’re now going to have to build back from has contracted dramatically.  It’s nowhere near as large as it was and we won’t get back to an economic base that big for at least 10 or 15 years.  Number two, I worry more than anything else that we’re about to make a huge strategic mistake economically and that is to think that we can turn around on a dime and through harsh taxes and harsh spending cuts reduce our deficits and not bring on a big second recession.  Timing is everything.  We are not ready to stop stimulus.  In fact, we need another stimulus program.  We are not ready to give up on spending money, on infrastructure problems that are really an investment, roads which are deteriorating dramatically, rails which are way behind other big countries, on education, so I hear the voices from sort of the conservative wing in congress saying it’s time right now to start slashing our budgets, not to raise taxes, but to cut spending very dramatically on everything from education to roads and bridges and I think that is a ticket for disaster.  Now I’m not a spendthrift who says let’s spend the kind of money we’re spending now forever, but we just simply have not come out of the recession enough.  We have not built and sustained economic growth again enough to begin that and when we do begin it we should be doing it gradually.  We shouldn’t try to solve the deficit problem in one fell swoop.  It’s going to take 10 years to do it and we can afford that as long as we get on the right track, but we’re not going to get on the right track if we don’t first pay attention to what needs to be done to regenerate growth in the economy, a solid growth based on real productivity and real innovation and I just hope that while he is in office the Obama Administration has the grit to stick to the job of rebuilding the economy and our capabilities, our productivity before trying to resolve to a great extent, the deficit problem.  That is later.  That is not for now. 

Recorded May 28, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman