Foreign policy likely to be hot topic in 2016 presidential contest

In addition to studying the latest terrorist situations or security crises around the world, the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism team is inviting high-level advisers for presidential candidates and national decision-makers to share their insights on foreign policy as the 2016 campaign season starts. Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was the first guest on Feb. 12 in a new speaker series.

Robert Pape, professor of political science at UChicago and director of CPOST, interviewed Kagan, a foreign policy adviser to several U.S. Republican presidential candidates. Kagan also served on the State Department’s foreign affairs policy advisory board when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

“The worldviews of presidential candidates are shaped by the information they receive from foreign policy experts,” said Pape. “One of the things we’re trying to do at CPOST is to generate the knowledge through scholarship about international security affairs to help inform decision-makers and have a real-world policy impact.”

Kagan believes a strong American power is necessary to keep some world order, as noted in the title of his talk: “America as the Indispensable Nation in the World.” Kagan said one of the great questions of the 2016 election is “what do the American people want? It is a fragile world. It does depend on American activism, which the American people may or may not be interested in doing,” Kagan added. “It’s a very difficult role to play. I think we certainly have seen a kind of weariness with this role since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

When Pape asked what policy the next elected president should invoke early in his or her term from 2016 to 2018, Kagan responded that the next president will need to keep China and Russia on the radar with respect to world order.

“They’re the two major powers that are unhappy with the international order as it has been constructed for many decades,” said Kagan. “China is being a little bit more cautious and biding its time,” he added. But, Kagan said Russia is being more aggressive and creating an unexpected challenge in Europe because of President Putin’s ambitions, which Kagan believes extend beyond Ukraine.

The other issue is the Middle East. “If I knew what we should be doing in the Middle East, I would be writing it up and winning some kind of prize, but I don’t know exactly what the answer is,” said Kagan. “Whoever wins [the presidency] is going to be grappling with that problem one way or another.”

Kagan believes that whatever foreign policy challenge develops, it’s important for the next president to communicate with the American people:

“For UChicago to engage meaningfully, it is important to hear prominent views firsthand and in depth, not to adopt or reject them uncritically, but to identify areas where new knowledge may help improve policies,” said Pape.

Pape said it was valuable to talk with Kagan about his ideas for the U.S. to actively and coercively spread democracy to areas of the world struggling to escape traditional hierarchies. The discussion will help researchers and students judge whether such prescriptions are realistic or would make matters worse, Pape said.

A video of a longer conversation between Pape and Kagan can be viewed here:

Michael Morrell, the former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, will be the next guest speaker on foreign policy in May. Morrell is now a national security professional consultant.