Through the war on terrorism under the Bush administration, he pointed out, the legitimacy of U.S. leadership was damaged due to their unilateral action of imposing democracy by force. The Obama administration, in which Steinberg was deeply involved with from the very beginning, re-established cooperative relationships with other nations.
BY YOICHI KATO NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT
James Steinberg answers questions at his home in New York (Yoichi Kato)
Ten years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the once-damaged U.S. leadership in the world has been restored and strengthened, said James Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state of the United States, in an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun.
"That's the single most important achievement of the Obama administration," said Steinberg, now dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University in New York.
In dealing with a rising China, Steinberg also emphasized the need for cooperation among regional countries, saying, "It is up to all of us to create an environment in which China is more likely to choose a benign course."
"It is time to make a decision one way or other," he said on the sense of urgency regarding the relocation plan of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. He urged Japan to move forward with the current agreement to relocate the facility within Okinawa, but added, "If it's not going to happen, (it is time) to look at what the choices are."
Excerpts of the interview are as follows:
Question: It has been 10 years since 9/11. Is the United States safer now?
Steinberg: I can say undoubtedly that we're better prepared, better focused, better resourced, better organized to defend against terrorist attacks. But it's hard to say that makes us "safe," because there are so many ways that a determined terrorist could cause harm. I think the place where we've been most successful is focusing on the core organization that was threatening to the United States. Undoubtedly the capacity of al-Qaida to harm the United States has been diminished.
Q: What was wrong with the way the Bush administration responded?
A: I think that part of being safer is having strong support from others to deal with the problem of terrorism. So, I think that many of the measures that the Bush administration took, which were taken without regard to the respective review of partners, pose new kinds of risks for the United States--not only in dealing with terrorism but also in terms of dealing with the other threats.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, by taking actions unilaterally, by appearing to want to unilaterally change the face of governments in the Middle East, this sort of promoting democracy through force or trying to impose it, I think, led people to question the sincerity and motives of the United States.
Q: The situation in Afghanistan still does not look so good.
A: I think that, despite the efforts that you see, like the attack on Kabul the other day, that one shouldn't underestimate the fact that in many parts of Afghanistan the Taliban has been pushed back, that their capacity has been limited, that people are turning away from the Taliban and seeing that as a negative force.
Q: All is all is the global war on terrorism a failure?
A: It's not a black or white thing. I think there have been important successes. I think that, clearly, the capacity of the al-Qaida leadership has been greatly diminished, the stature has been undermined.
And the "Arab spring" has made clear that most of the people in the Arab and Muslim world don't want the kind of vision that al-Qaida offers. They want a more tolerant society.
So, I think that, in kind of a macro strategic sense, this has been a bad decade for those kinds of radical forces. But there still remain individuals who are dangerous. You have to be eternally vigilant. This is not a war in which the other side will surrender.
Q: What was the thought behind changing the basic approach from the Bush administration?
A: One of the signature features of the Obama administration has been the conviction that, on all of the big challenges that we face, like terrorism, climate change, or the economic problem, no country, no matter how powerful, can solve them itself. If we want to be successful, we have to gain the support and cooperation of others. So, we need partners who share our interests and are willing to work with us. I think, in that sense, you can see it across the board, whether it's dealing with Iran, North Korea, or counter-terrorism, that we are in a much better place now.
I think our bona fides as a cooperative actor have been established, so countries are more comfortable working with us. I think that's--at a fundamental level--the single most important achievement of the Obama administration.
Q: How has the world changed since 9/11?
A: I think there are two big trends that are shaping our policy.
The one is the fact that most of the direct threats to security now are not coming from states; they're coming from non-state actors or from an intersection between man and natural phenomena. And I think that makes the conduct of foreign policy and national security very difficult, because it is a much more amorphous set of challenges.
That is an important reality especially as the tools of destruction, whether they're cyber, or bio or radiological, are increasingly available to non-state actors. That creates an especially dangerous environment.
The second is the changing balance of influential states in the world, with the rise of these emerging powers, China, obviously one, but India and Brazil and some of the other ones right behind them, like Turkey and Indonesia, create a more multi-dimensional international system, even in the world of nation-states.
Q: How has the U.S. leadership changed?
A: On balance, I think American leadership has been strengthened in the sense that our legitimacy as a leader has been restored. I think that it has always been true that the ultimate strength of U.S. leadership has come from the force of our ideas rather than our arms, and that people follow us not because they're compelled to do so because we are a powerful country, but because they want to because they share our views and interests.
I think that the big challenge now is to make sure that we are strong enough at home to be able to execute on that leadership and sustain it.
Q: Are you talking about the economy?
A: Largely about the economy, but also infrastructure, education, all of the things that give us the strength for generations to come.
Q: But, in that sense, isn't the United States weaker at home?
A: I think our financial position was, clearly, better at the end of the Clinton administration than it is today.
So, I do think we have some work to do, and it's critical that we do it. It's not just debt, but it's the lack of a kind of sustainable strategy over the long term, I think, and the lack of a strong enough political consensus to take the steps that we need to work on. And, I think that is the single biggest challenge, whether we can rise above the partisan debates around these issues and find a common path forward.
I would not underestimate the strength of the U.S. position right now. We have a lot of natural strengths. There's still nobody in a position to assume the leadership. Nobody is looking to see China or India or Russia supplant the United States as playing this global leadership role.
Q: "Strategic Reassurance" was the new vision that you created for managing the relationship with China. But President Obama did not mention it when he visited China in the fall of 2009. Was it rejected by the White House?
A: No, not at all. Ultimately, the United States and China chose building strategic trust, as a formula. The point of "Strategic Reassurance" is to build mutual strategic trust. So, I actually believe, in its own way, that the basic concept that I advocated has now been enshrined in a formal characterization of the relationship. I feel very encouraged.
If you want the purest example of how I believe, frankly, that the idea was fully accepted, is the establishment of the U.S.-China Strategic Security Dialogue (SSD) in May. And we would talk about these areas that I identified as the areas that would create mistrust.
Q: Did you intend to replace the "Responsible Stakeholder" concept from the Bush administration?
A: I think it's a different perspective, yes. I mean, I don't know whether it's to "replace" it, but I think that the problem with the "Stakeholder" idea was that it didn't focus on the bilateral dynamic. It is important that China act like a responsible stakeholder, but what's more critical is to deal with these sources of mistrust.
An element of building trust is to act as a responsible stakeholder, but part of it is to address the specific concerns that the United States and others have about China's behavior. My concern was if you look at China's military modernization, if you look at some of its other practices, its engagement with others, that that created doubts in other people's minds. So, that goes beyond being a responsible stakeholder; it means addressing the concerns and anxieties.
Q: But, did China "get it?"
A: They "get" the idea. Whether they "get" whether they're prepared to do what's necessary, I think, is still an open question.
Q: Next, about "core interests." The New York Times reported in April 2010 that when you visited China in March that year, Chinese officials used this term for the first time to explain their position on the South China Sea issue.
A: I think what's clear is that, although they take the South China Sea very critically, there's no clear decision by the Chinese leadership that it falls into the same category that Taiwan and Tibet do, for example. I didn't come away from our visit there as a decision that they were now defining the South China Sea as a core interest.
Q: When President Obama visited China in November 2009, the joint statement included this now-famous passage: "The two sides agreed that respecting each other's core interests is extremely important" for the U.S.-China relations.
A: Exactly. Because, I think, it is recognizing -- it's taking the other side seriously. And, again, this goes back to my point about "Strategic Reassurance." That is why I actually feel quite positive about how that's been adopted. Respecting each other's core interests; that's what "Strategic Reassurance" is all about. But even if you recognize what one country defines as a core interest, it doesn't mean you have to agree. But you have to understand that this is serious, from the other country's point of view, and as best as one can, consistent with one's own interests and one's own values, that one should try to respect them.
Q: There are some views that this inclusion of "core interests" in the joint statement gave China a wrong idea that they got a free hand on core interests. That eventually led to their assertive and even aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
A: No, I don't buy that at all, because it was very clear what the discussion of core interests was, at the time of the joint statement. And it certainly did not include the South China Sea. Whatever reason they took, whatever actions they took on the South China Sea, it's not because of that joint statement.
Q: Then why was "core interests" taken out of the next U.S.-China joint statement in January 2011, when China's President Hu Jintao visited the United States?
A: I wasn't part of the negotiations. My understanding, from secondhand in the negotiations, is that the Chinese weren't particularly interested in pursuing that formula.
Q: Six months before in July 2010, Secretary of State (Hillary) Clinton attended an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi and articulated that the United States has a "national interest" in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Why?
A: Well, I think we--it was important for us to make clear that--although we had no territorial claims in the South China Sea, we had important interests, and so we were a legitimate part of that discussion. I think there's no doubt that China was seeking to exclude the United States from discussions of issues of the South China Sea.
Q: Even now?
A: Yes and no. It's mixed. But, and so we, clearly, felt the need to make it very explicit that, just because we didn't have any territorial claims didn't mean that we didn't have any interests and indeed we have very important interests.
Q: But two months after that statement, the Senkaku incident happened between Japan and China. And China came out against Japan very strongly, including the de facto export ban on rare earth. How did you take this action of China?
A: Well, I think the most important action that we took is to reiterate our position on the Senkakus, and the fact that it came under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. I think that was a very strong signal of our perspective on this issue and, again, the importance of a core principle for us, which is that territorial disputes should be resolved peacefully.
Q: Do you think China misread the situation and overplayed their hand?
A: I think there was a period of time in which China was pushing the envelope on these territorial issues, and I think that's why it was important that we, along with our friends and allies in the region, made clear that we have important interests, and we were going to defend them.
And, I think China has come to realize that they had not a very good year, that they lost credibility with countries that were bordering them, and that they created suspicions.
Q: What are the ultimate strategic objectives or intentions of China? Do you think, eventually, they are trying to replace the United States as a global hegemony?
A: That's both unknowable and an unanswerable question, because the people who will make that decision are not even leaders today. It's a strategic game. What they will do depends on what others do. So, it's up to all of us, the United States, Japan, all of our partners, to create an environment in which China is more likely to choose a benign course, than one that threatens our interests.
Q: How should the South China Sea issue be solved?
A: There are plenty of win-win solutions to the South China Sea issues. I think, if everybody goes into it in good faith, there are plenty of ways for it to be resolved, and there are plenty of ways, even, to resolve the territorial disputes, through arbitration, through -- all of these tools are available. And what China needs to understand, is that there are plenty of ways that it can legitimately pursue its interests, without appearing to use its military power and its economic position to impose a solution.
Q: Recently Japan has had a number of rather short-lived prime ministers. Some say that this is not limited to individual failure of each prime minister, but a failure of Japanese political system as a while. The Japanese political system cannot produce effective leadership. Do you agree with this view?
A: I'd put it differently. I think it's less a question of the quality of the leaders, but a more systemic one, which is the way in which the political system has evolved. It would be better to have better, rather than worse, leaders, but more important is a kind of a system that can produce clear political choices, through elections, that then lead to sustained governance.
And, it's -- both because of the institutional, political, history of Japan, and the nature of the parliamentary system, it's very difficult to have that kind of stability. So, I agree it's an institutional problem, but I don't think it's an institutional problem that it can't produce strong leaders.
Japan has had strong leaders in the past. What Japan hasn't done is to create a political process in which voters are given real choices, they make those choices, that government has a mandate to act on them, irrespective of who the prime minister is, and then they then go forward. I think that's really the nature of the underlying problem in Japan.
Q: But, given the current situation of the political leadership, isn't Japan less reliable an ally for the United States?
A: It's less a question of reliability, but I do think it is a question about how active Japan can be as a partner. Japan is reliable, but it's not able to be as active on a global stage, because of these internal preoccupations. And I think we would welcome that Japan play a more active partnership role with the United States, not just in East Asia but around the world, in dealing with the big challenges.
Q: What did you think of the eight months that the Hatoyama administration spent to review the Roadmap Agreement on the relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa? It must have been frustrating.
A: Well, no. I think there was quite a fair amount of willingness in the U.S. government to accept this as the price of the evolution of the Japanese political system.
Q: You didn't think it was a waste?
A: You can't call it a waste. If this were part of strengthening the overall political system in Japan, it would be an acceptable cost.
Q: What do you think both governments should do now with this Futenma relocation issue?
A: Well, I think the agreement was a good one and it should be implemented. But I think that we owe it to ourselves to be honest about whether we're going to do it or not, because the uncertainty is not good for anybody. And I think there are both important issues about the bilateral relationship and our security relationship, but also about the long-term force posture of the United States in East Asia.
And there's a danger that, by failing to resolve this, we risk the overall footprint of the United States in East Asia. So, again, the first best choice, implement the agreement. It was negotiated precisely in response to concerns, on the Japanese side, among the Okinawans, about Futenma and the issues there. But I think it's time to make a decision one way or the other, and if it's not going to happen, to look at what the choices are.
Q: If that agreement were not implemented, the credibility of the alliance could be damaged. Or would it be still manageable?
A: I think it's manageable, but I think that it will be important to come to some alternative resolution, that reflects an understanding about why the first decision was made, and what the basis will be for it for the long-term present.
Q: The tsunami, earthquake and the nuclear accident in Japan. Did the way the Japanese government handled those problems change your views on Japan in any way?
A: No, it didn't, and I think there's a lot of debate about this, but I think the Japanese people have to decide for themselves how well the government handled it. And I think what was important for us is that from the first moments we recognized how important this event was to Japan, and how important our engagement would be toward the bilateral relationship.
And I think, despite the challenges and the difficulties, that one of the positive features that came out of this is I think it was a really -- a reinforcement that this relationship is more than about enemies and strategic threats. And I feel quite good about the fact that the United States was ready, with whatever technical resources and people and the way in which our military was engaged, to really demonstrate how committed we are to this relationship.
Q: North Korea. The situation has not shown any progress lately. Your assessment?
A: You are right, it hasn't moved forward. But I think that the good news is that there is a growing recognition among Chinese leaders about the nature of this problem, and a declining willingness to excuse the North Koreans for their behavior.
I think that it's very hard to know what the internal time calculations are of the North Koreans, whether they believe that reaching some kind of understanding and some kind of positive movement before 2012 is in their interest as a way of solidifying what they have identified as an important year, or whether they now are in a position where they just want to wait it out and see what happens elsewhere.
I don't know the answer to that and I think we have to continue to test it. There remains a path open for them, and I don't think it's foreclosed at this point.
Q: Do you think the Six Party Talks should be resumed?
A: Not without a clear indication about what the North Koreans are prepared to do and a serious set of steps in advance of that, that demonstrates some seriousness of purpose. I don't think just talking for talking sake is in anybody's interest.