Vali Nasr is an Iranian-American political commentator and scholar of contemporary Islam. Born in Iran, Nasr and his family immigrated to the United States following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nasr received a BA from Tufts University in 1981 and a masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1984. He earned his PhD from MIT in political science in 1991.
Known for his view that wars within Islam will shape the future, Nasr has testified before Congress and has advised the President and Vice-President regarding sectarian violence in Iraq. Nasr is the author The Shia Revival, Democracy in Iran, and The Islamic Leviathan.
He has taught at the University of San Diego and the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and Professor of International Politics at Tufts. A Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasr has been published in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. He is an editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Islam and has appeared on CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, and not least of all The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.
Question: How can America restore its standing in the world?
Vali Nasr: There are going to be areas of the world where this is easier done, and there are areas of the world where this is going to be particularly difficult. There are areas of the world where the general thrust of the interest of the population does not conflict with that of the United States, or this current administration or the next. And there are areas of the world where we have fundamental problems.
For instance with Europe or with China, the United States does not have fundamental conflictual relationship. There are policy disagreements, and there is lack of respect for the way in which we see the world and the way in which we’ve conducted ourselves. So you will say behavioral adjustments on the part of the United States should take this thing out by and large.
Consulting Europeans; taking their thinking seriously; having a multilateral approach; also taking issues that they like, including global warming, climate change, Kyoto Agreement, are very important to restoring that relationship.
When you look at U.S.’s relationship with Russia or the Muslim world, it’s much more complicated. Because it’s just a matter of simple behavioral adjustment, contrary to what people say. If the United States was to change its language toward Russia, or its language toward the Muslim world, it will help, but somewhat more fundamental problems at play.
The United States right now has immersed itself in the Muslim world in multiple wars. It has seen conflict, essentially, and its military arm of the United States, as the most effective way of managing U.S.’s interests in the Middle East. It has set for itself very maximal goals everywhere you look in the Muslim world; wanting absolute democracy here; absolutely friendly government there; whereas our means and our moral authority don’t match our ambitions, and we find ourselves continuously sinking.
We face two problems actually in the Muslim world. One is anger at our policies. The other one is now lack of respect for our abilities.
And these are two different problems. It’s one thing if people don’t like you, but they really believe that they should fear you, and that you actually know what you’re doing, that you’re not mismanaging.
Whereas in the Muslim world, you have a combination now of lack of respect for what we want; lack of respect for what our policy is; but lack of respect for our capabilities and our wisdom; and that’s particularly bad. And the Muslim world now matters more.
One is because geographically it is half the world, if you look at it – from Indonesia to Morocco.
Secondly is that we ourselves have elevated the Muslim world and its problems – and particularly the problem of terrorism – to being a global problem, and to being a fundamental focus of American foreign policy.
Look at it. This is probably the first presidential election I know where the Middle East is breaking and making presidencies; is breaking and making coalitions; is breaking and making the domestic politics in America – the rules of the game. And that means that the Middle East matters enormously to us. And it will, but we have fundamental problems in managing our interests in the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007