The award-winning foreign correspondent and author of The True Flag speaks on the 120-year history of American intervention in the world.
By Patrick Lawrence
When I started reading The True Flag, Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, I got only a few pages in before thinking, “I’ve read him for years. Why not try to meet?” The result was an interview, the first half of which follows.
The book is a revelation for its rich detail and “dolly in” camera’s eye on events now a century and more in the past. Subtitled Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, Kinzer’s book relates the story of a 32-day period in 1899 when the question before Americans was astonishingly large and stark: Shall we be an empire or shall we resist the temptation and make history another way? Twain and TR marked the poles of this debate, but the book is a proscenium through which pass most of the important figures who were part of the debate.
There is no surprise ending to give away, is there?
If you are anything like this reader, you will marvel at the superbly blunt language used by those who took up the imperial question when it first arose in the American story. Our discourse is cotton wool by comparison. One would be thrown in the street, an outcast kook, were one to speak or write in the terms senators and other grands personnages of the time took for granted as ordinary, state-your-case exchange. A point of sadness arises. Where is this debate today? What has become of us? Where is the argument? “We’re not having it,” Kinzer remarked during our conversation. “We only debate whether the next surge in Afghanistan should have 3,000 troops or 6,000. We never pull back and have the larger debate about what our role in the world should be.”
This is the point of Kinzer’s work, he told me when I asked: He writes of the past to comment on the present. “I would love to stimulate a debate something like that epic debate that the Senate had for 32 days in 1899,” he said.
This is Kinzer’s ninth book. He co-authored his first, Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1982), with Stephen Schlesinger. It is a history of the illegal toppling of Jacobo Árbenz as Guatemala’s elected president in 1954. Kinzer memorably treated the 1953 coup against Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh in All the Shah’s Men (2003) and numerous other cases in a sort of grotesque catalogue of American interventions, his 2006 Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.
I rank The True Flag with what I heretofore considered Kinzer’s best, The Brothers (2013), a biography of John Foster and Allen Dulles that leaves you asking: Do I laugh or cry in the face of their reckless insanities? (Both, is the best answer I can manage.) Among the singular features of the new book is its position: The True Flag begins at the beginning, tying all the rest together as if they are one (which Kinzer tells me they indeed are). Were I a museum curator, I would consider this interview a kind of retrospective, and what Kinzer does in The True Flag is the origin of the thought.
Stephen Kinzer is that rare correspondent who makes the leap from newspapers into history and lands standing up. He now lectures at Brown. I met him at his summer residence in Truro, the Cape Cod town that has been refuge for generations of writers and artists for a century or more. We sat on his porch for most of a partly sunny August morning. Midway we took a coffee-and-smoke break, and it punctuated Part 1 well.
Part two will appear shortly. As always, I thank Michael Conway Garofalo for his excellent, careful work turning the audio recording into a transcript.
Patrick Lawrence: Stephen, your new book is your ninth, and it seems to me to be a terminus. Wrong word, maybe: I don’t mean to imply that you’re finished writing—I’m actually eager to hear what you’re going to do next—but to say that in writing of the opening debates on American imperialism you’ve gone back to the starting point of everything else you’ve written.
You recently sent me the syllabus of a course you’ll do at Brown this autumn, and the point couldn’t be clearer. The course is called “The History of American Intervention.” I wish I could take it, honestly.
Stephen Kinzer: That class is very popular. I’ve been giving it every year. I have 90 students signed up.
PL: It’s as if all your books are chapters in one big book. If this is so, well done by way of literary design. Do you see your work in this way? Does the bibliography reflect a plan?
SK: Yes. I come at the story of America’s role in the world from a different perspective than many other people who write about it. I don’t come out of academia. I don’t come out of think tanks. I don’t come out of congressional staffs. I’m not part of a Washington Beltway crowd. I learned about American foreign policy by being on the ground in countries that were victimized by it. I got to watch the effects of American foreign policy. That goes all the way from Argentina and Nicaragua to Europe, Central Asia, Africa. I was a New York Times correspondent for 23 years, most of it as a foreign correspondent. I was always a slave to events. When something happens, you have to write about it when you’re a daily journalist.
When I finally left the Times, I started asking myself: What did it all mean? How does it all fit together? So I’ve tried to pull back and weave in some of my experiences with deeper research. I see that the United States has recklessly intervened in so many places around the world, where it intended to do good but ended up harming not only the target country but undermining American security itself. So I’m trying to recover some of these lost historical episodes and tie them together.
History tells us that some episodes are very important and other episodes are far less important. But as I tell my students: It’s said that even God can’t change history; historians can. I think part of our job is to review the list of priorities that past generations of historians have handed down to us. I believe, sometimes, that the episode that is mentioned in a tiny footnote [of a book published n the past] is more important than what the whole chapter is about. You can read an encyclopedia about the 1950s and never learn about what the US did in Guatemala or Iran. These are tiny footnotes. They shouldn’t be.
PL: You remind me of a great line of I.F. Stone’s. “It’s always fun to read The Washington Post, because you never know where you’re going to find a page-one story.” Same principle. You’ve already begun to address my next question. It was as a correspondent that you tipped into history, I take it.
SK: I landed in Nicaragua for my first foreign posting. That country has such a rich history. There’s no country in the world where the cycle of American intervention, rebellion, new intervention, repression, rebellion, is so long and so clear. I delved into that history and became fascinated by it, and then came to realize that Nicaragua wasn’t the only place where this had happened.
By that time I had already written my book about the overthrow of Árbenzin Guatemala, so I already had an interest in what went wrong in Central America and why it became so violent and underdeveloped. Since they’re in the shadow of the United States, eventually the US played a big role there: What was that role? And how does that explain America’s larger role in the world? All of these questions were filling my mind as I was covering the Contra war [waged by American-supported “rebels” against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, for more than a decade beginning in 1979].
PL: In my view, the immigration and drug problems, the extreme violence of police and paramilitaries that we see in Latin America are, to an extent, our doing. We can’t stand in stern consternation. Are you with that observation?
SK: Before Darwin, there was a theory about the origin of species called “spontaneous generation.” Species would just automatically emerge from wet swamps or something. Most Americans think of world crises the same way: They just suddenly emerge. They’re not caused by anything. Our news media definitely feed that by covering crises only when they suddenly explode.
PL: Causality: The press is allergic—as is the government, of course.
SK: I’m not going to write a memoir, because several publishers have told me that no one buys journalists’ memoirs except other journalists. However, I do have a title. Usually, it’s the other way around—I write a book, then think of a title—but now I have a title for a book that’s never going to be written. It summarizes my approach. It’s a line from a movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, starring Cary Grant.
The story in the movie is that Cary Grant goes to visit his old aunts who run a rooming house and he slowly discovers that they’re poisoning the guests. There’s a scene where one of the aunts says to Cary Grant, “The gentleman died because he drank wine that had poison in it.” And Cary Grant’s eyes kind of pop open and he says, “But how did the poison get in the wine?” That’s my theme.
PL: If I may give you some advice, write it. Good writers must never pay attention to what the market will or won’t accept. Nothing of importance ever comes of that.
I’m curious, how was it writing for the Times from places like Guatemala? You know the Sydney Gruson story and the Ray Bonner story—hardly the only blots in the Times’s history, but prominent among the many. Did you run into difficulties in the Gruson–Bonner line? Who was foreign editor then, anyway? [Decades apart, Gruson and Bonner were correspondents the Times removed amid controversies concerning their coverage of Central America. Both were subsequently praised; neither was ever discredited.]
SK: I had six foreign editors: Craig Whitney, Warren Hoge, Joe Lelyveld, Bernie Gwertzman, Bill Keller, Andy Rosenthal.
PL: I would have taken Lelyveld and Gwertzman as the best of the lot.
SK: They were very good to me.
The answer to your question is that I didn’t feel intense pressure from New York to report stories in certain ways. I think one of the advantages I had in Nicaragua was that there wasn’t anyone sitting at the foreign desk in New York who thought they knew a lot about Nicaragua. When I got to Germany, Poland—to Europe—there were always people who had served in the military there 20 years earlier and wanted to call me and say, “You should call this guy,” or “You didn’t get this part right.” But that never happened to me in Nicaragua. I guess I had spent enough time in Central America before I joined The New York Times that people in New York had some respect for my expertise.
PL: I had that experience covering Asia for the International Herald Tribune. My editors in Paris were good enough to say, “Patrick, we don’t know Asia. You’ve got to lead the way…. Anyway, behind that question was a question about self-censorship. You didn’t feel any, then?
SK: I never felt that way. I never wrote stories or failed to write stories because I was worried about what the response would be at The New York Times foreign desk.
PL: You write of the past to reflect on the present, it seems to me. Book to book, this is more or less explicit, usually tilting toward “more.” I’m thinking of All the Shah’s Men, for instance: You’ll never understand where we are now with the Iranians unless you understand this, you seem to say. Certainly it’s the case in The True Flag, times 10. On the other hand, the Dulles brothers are such a rich story all on their own that one gets a good book, The Brothers, simply by telling it.
Please describe your strategy as an historian and a commentator on the present.
SK: I do believe that great lessons are to be learned from the past. In particular, I’m writing about the 120–year history of American intervention in the world. We have made the same mistakes so often that I have to ask myself why we don’t learn from them. We do the same thing over and over again. America, because of its size and wealth and importance, is always going to be intervening in the world in some way. What can we learn from past interventions that will allow us to avoid the catastrophes that those interventions caused? Unless we tell the stories of those past interventions, we’re not going to understand how they were planned and why they went so badly wrong.
I am definitely trying to inform the contemporary debate, but I try not to be too explicit with this. I don’t like to hit my readers over the head with my conclusions. I like to let the reader participate in the process of making conclusions and observations.
PL: We differ here. I prefer addressing readers directly, even bluntly—in the language you find in the new book, in fact.
SK: When I wrote The True Flag, about the original debate over American intervention in the world, I became very envious of the people in that era. The reason is, they had the debate that should be happening now. But we’re not having it. We only debate whether the next surge in Afghanistan should have 3,000 troops or 6,000. We never pull back and have the larger debate about what our role in the world should be. I would love to stimulate a debate something like that epic debate that the Senate had for 32 days in 1899.
PL: Let me remind you of something Stanley Hoffmann [the late international relations scholar at Harvard] said late in his career. He said, Look, it’s tiring writing the same old criticism over and over and over again, and nothing changes. Nobody in Washington ever learns from any mistakes. What’s the point? Hoffmann, to finish the thought, eventually returned to European studies. Do you tip into that kind of pessimism?
SK: No, because I am not writing laments about what’s happening in Washington today. I’m trying to inform that debate by looking back into history. I’m writing something that’s new. I’m not repeating what everybody else is saying and wringing their hands about.
PL: Can we learn? This becomes the vital question.
SK: Evidence suggests that the answer is no. I like to believe that that’s just a temporary phenomenon that lasted 120 years. If I didn’t believe that there’d be no point in writing these books.
PL: Optimism of the will, pessimism of the mind—Gramsci’s thought.
You’ve written in detail about Mossadegh in All the Shah’s Men, and Árbenz in Bitter Fruit. Here and there you take on various figures of their time: Nasser, Nehru, Sukarno, others. The so-called “independence generation.” I’ve long viewed these figures as somewhat larger than life, every one of them flawed, certainly, but to me they gave an almost magnificent expression to human aspiration at a moment unusually thick with possibility. World War II had ended, decolonization had begun. It’s hard to imagine such a moment now.
The Cold War destroyed this environment of possibility, or it did for four decades. Then the wall came down and the Soviet Union came to an end. And we found that, far from history having “ended,” as the foolish [Francis] Fukuyama asserted, it had restarted. We also found that, in many odd ways, it had restarted precisely where it had left off at the Cold War’s opening. The aspirations were and remain remarkably similar.
Your work spreads across key decades in this thumbnail summary I just gave. In many ways, it describes the arc of it. Do you think I’ve got it right about that?
SK: The only one you missed in there was [Patrice] Lumumba [Congo’s first elected prime minister, who was assassinated in 1961].
One of the tragic misjudgments the United States made in the early Cold War was considering the emerging leaders in the anti-colonial world to be enemies. We saw the world, as the Soviets and many Europeans did, as being shaped by a battle between forces led by Washington and forces led by Moscow. But most people in the world saw the conflict differently. They saw it as a conflict between, on the one side, Russia, America, and Europe—the traditional dominant powers—and all the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America that were finally trying to find their place in the world. We took them as enemies because we were in this Manichean view that anyone who wasn’t on our side was our enemy.
After the Cold War we have come back to this point. We believe that our sphere of influence should extend right up to the borders of Russia and China. The whole world is our sphere of influence. We still have this sense of primacy, this sense that the world would be in chaos if the United States doesn’t impose its own rule, and we can’t understand why so many people in the world are not happy with that.
PL: There’s the myth of Narcissus. Aside from the self-absorption—the stare into the water—there’s Echo, the nymph. Echo echoes, and Narcissus cannot bear to hear back the words that he has spoken. We need to think about this. You could argue that America—with its “freedom,” “democracy,” “liberty”—cannot bear to hear these words spoken back in the context of a developing country.
I wonder if this is not a defining feature of postwar American policy, or maybe going back to [Emilio] Aguinaldo [the Filipino resistance leader the US betrayed as the Spanish–American War opened]. Are we effectively intolerant of democratic rule taking hold in the developing world?
SK: We’re a teaching nation. We’re not good at learning. We have so much to teach the world, and we’re sometimes shocked that the world doesn’t want to pay attention. Countries are like individuals. We all imagine that we’re wonderful, and the aspects of our life and personality that are negative, we try to forget. We always exaggerate the good parts of ourselves. Countries are the same way, and America is a great example of this. The eternal fascination with World War II is a great example of this. Of course, it was a hugely important episode that shaped the modern world. But that’s not enough to understand the endless flood of books and movies and video games.
PL: I think it’s because it’s the last time we could claim justice.
SK: In World War II we were the country that we like to think that we are. We went into countries that were evil dictatorships, liberated them, and turned them into democracies. But the other 50 stories that were the opposite never appear in our history books, so we shape our entire self-image on those episodes that make us look good. All the other ones disappear from our history. Part of my goal is to recover those stories so we can have a fuller view of who we are and what we’ve done in the world.
PL: And then we can go forward. But how far along do you think American leadership is toward what we’re talking about now? Acknowledging a usefully accurate rendering of the past and getting it into the ordinary discourse, I mean.
There are signs. I’m going to talk about apologies. Clinton, in Guatemala City, gave the Guatemalans a whole half a day back in the ’90s. Obama said “Sorry!” to Tehran, and more recently, when he was in Vientiane, to Laotians. But these are stingy apologies—non-apology apologies, if you see what I mean. They are history as a dismissal of history. They’re as if to say, “OK, done, let’s move on”—a phrase whose currency in the past few years I don’t view as at all coincidental. Do you see some kind of an advance from myth to an acceptance of our place in history?
SK: I don’t think we’re anywhere close to accepting the reality of our place in history. Nonetheless, I do think there’s a growing awareness, at least in some circles, of episodes that were unknown in past generations. For example, the story of the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 is now pretty well known. I saw Bernie Sanders mention it twice in a debate! It tells me that people’s understanding of the world may be broadening. At least some people’s.
You can’t force-feed people this material, but it’s out there now. I’m trying to contribute to that. I want to be sure that anyone who wants to have a richer understanding of the history of our engagement with the world has an opportunity to do so.
PL: I finally came back from Asia in 2010. I remember thinking, “My goodness, people are absolutely hungry for a new story. The old story is worn out. It doesn’t work or match reality, and people want a new narrative of who we are and what we do and why we do it and what we’ve done in the past.” I have found that to be eminently, unassailably true. There is this kind of vacuum in people’s minds that just awaits filling. So I’m with you on that point, but I don’t know how far along we are.
SK: The foreign-policy establishment in Washington is largely monochromatic. In order to be accepted in the Washington foreign-policy community, you have to embrace several dozen principles about America and its place in the world. If not, “You’ll never eat lunch in this town again.” This embraces the Democrats, the Republicans, the liberals, the conservatives, almost all think tanks, and most important of all, the press. Despite this barrage, I do believe there’s an amorphous constituency out there that could support a different role for the United States in the world.
Many Americans, at least at some level, are aware that our invasions and overthrows and interventions have not worked out well. We have not been able to come up with the political or intellectual leadership that could take this amorphous form and forge it into a real political movement.
PL: We are not moving it into the political process. The very few times that Bernie Sanders even attempted it, he broke his pick. It’s bitter to consider this, but I’ve come to question whether it’s even possible to transform the conversation in Washington.
SK: All evidence would suggest that it’s almost an impossible task. But for those of us outside Washington, the world looks different. I’m not the only one. I’ve got a little cadre, there’s a group of us. There are voices out there, and it’s frustrating to see that we haven’t produced a more coherent movement in favor of a different approach to the world. If that real alternative emerges, which would terrify the ruling group in Washington, I think it would find popular support.
PL: I couldn’t agree with you more. My take, very broadly, is that our “American” moment is over. We did not understand “the American Century” as an interim. We mistook it as eternal. Now we can do this [accept and adjust to 21st-century realities] gracefully and with imagination or we can do it messily and with a very great deal of violence.
SK: The rise and fall of empires is one of the beautiful themes of history. Why do we believe that we are immune to the patterns of history? It’s one of the worst things that happened at the end of the Cold War. Not only did we learn the wrong lessons from history, we went a step further and concluded that we had no lessons to learn from history. No country had ever been in our position before, therefore the lessons of the past don’t apply to us. That’s a terrible approach.
PL: I’d love it if you could share some of your reflections on the Dulles brothers. A more uncanny pair I can’t think of: the puritanical avenging angel and the sybarite. When I was reading The Brothers, I began to reflect on whether you saw a paradox at the heart of the American character in this, a defining contradiction. Depending on how one answers this, you might conclude that it’s just who we are and we can’t change.
SK: When you write a book, you’re living with the people you’re writing about. This was the first time I’d spent a couple of years living with people I really didn’t like.
It’s interesting to me that, although, as you point out, the Dulles brothers were polar opposites in their private lives, when it came to shaping America’s approach to the world, they were identical. It tells you that no matter how people in the American political establishment may differ on other issues, when it comes to the outside world, they unite. They all share this exceptionalist view that the world will be in chaos if America doesn’t intervene. Only our military and our bombs and our coercion stand between the world and apocalypse.
The Dulles brothers were really products of their era, and I see a parallel between that era, the peak of the Cold War, and now. It’s this: The Dulles brothers believed, like everybody in Washington at that time, that what we were facing in communism was not just the kind of threat that countries get all the time but, as John Foster Dulles put it, something on a scale that only happens once in a thousand years. All human life on earth could be wiped away or made meaningless by tyranny if this battle doesn’t result in our victory. Therefore, sacrifices of civil liberties and peoples in other nations may be lamentable, but given the stakes it’s only a small price to pay.
Now, again, we’re telling ourselves we’re facing a threat that only comes once in a thousand years. It’s been only 50 years since the last one! It’s the same concept. The world is going to be devastated by this threat. This is not some normal, everyday threat: This is an existential threat to all humanity.
Sometimes I think there’s an instinct, in political leaders in particular, to want to be living in really dangerous times. The idea of saying, “Actually, we’re pretty safe and don’t have too much danger around us,” is not exciting enough. Think of the leaders we remember in history. They’re war leaders. They want to go out and fight. And we are a warlike nation. We cheer bombings of other countries and assassinations of foreign leaders.
PL: What is the Fourth of July if not a reenactment of the violence with which this country started?
SK: “The bombs bursting in air.”
PL: There’s signification in all those fireworks, if you ask me.
SK: Even worse are the air shows, where you get these fighter planes showing off how wonderful it is that we have these fun little toys that pilots can ride in circles, without thinking what they’re really used for.
PL: But if the Russians run a piece of artillery down Main Street in Moscow, wow, that’s really the worst.
SK: How would we react if the Russians had military maneuvers in Tijuana, or the Chinese opened a base in Montreal? We would never allow that. Now, under international law and the principles of Westphalian independence, they have every right to do that. The Mexicans could say, “We’re an independent country. We can do whatever we want.” But in reality we would never tolerate that.
PL: The principle here is that the sovereign who makes law is above law.
PL: What’s your view of the Dulles legacy? Do you trace a legacy in their respective institutions, CIA and State, and in the relationship between the press and power?
SK: To me the real legacy of the Dulles brothers is not to be found in Washington or American politics. That system has continued to unfold. Had there been different people in office in the ’50s, politics in America probably would have unfolded in more or less the same way.
The real legacy of the Dulles brothers is in the rest of the world. The anger that several generations of Africans and Asians and Latin Americans have felt toward the United States has its roots in the terribly distorted view of the world that the Dulles brothers embraced. The leaders that emerged in that period embraced what we would like to call American ideals. Yet because they placed the interests of their own countries ahead of the interests of the United States, we took them as enemies.
PL: You served in Latin America, and I in Asia. There are distinctions arising from different histories. Latin Americans are more given to open and vociferous expression, notably in the political sphere. Asians are not. One of the phenomena you see when you’re reporting in Asia is that the things you describe in Latin America are there in Asia, but they are layers and layers below the surface. They’re there in Japan in those unfailingly courteous Japanese. The Koreans—they used to be known sometimes as “the Irish of the Orient”—are actually a little more out front about it. And the Indonesians a little more. But generally speaking, Asians submerge this stuff. So we continue to illusion ourselves with how marvelously willing the Asians are to be part of “the American security umbrella.”
This is the great upset about [Rodrigo] Duterte in the Philippines. What? He is actually saying, “I resent what you have done to my country?” Asians don’t say that. And note, the Philippines happens to be the only country in Asia that has a Latin streak in its cultural tradition.
SK: That particular story is especially interesting to me because of one footnote to it. Duterte went on a rant at a press conference. That rant was reported in the United States because he said he didn’t want to be friends with us anymore and he was angry at us and we had not treated him well. And of course he was described as kind of a nut, possibly mentally ill.
PL: Max Boot’s line was that he’s a disturbed human being, that’s all there is to it. Ridiculous. [Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, made the remark in Foreign Policy.]
SK: But what was not reported in the American press was that, as he was on his rant, he was waving a large photograph and kept pointing to it. This picture was in the paper in other countries, but I never saw it here. The picture is a Marine platoon standing over a pit full of dead women and children in 1906. So more than 100 years later, that episode is shaping America’s relationship with a major power.
PL: And we airbrushed it out of the story. I didn’t know about the photograph until this moment.
SK: And it’s a specific massacre, a specific episode that he talked about. So he was giving a reason for his feelings about the United States, but we can’t believe there could be any good reason for it. First of all, we never heard of this episode, but second, what could anything that happened 100 years ago have to do with the world today? This is the American view. We cannot understand that, although we forget these interventions very quickly, the people in the target countries don’t forget. The memory of these interventions festers. It burns their hearts and souls and it shapes today’s politics.
Now, when the Dulles brothers were alive, they carried out covert interventions that had terrible long-term effects. If they were here today and we put them in the defendant’s chair, they might have one good argument to defend themselves. That would be to say, “We can now see that 50 years after these covert interventions they have terrible results. But we didn’t know that then, because there had never been any covert interventions; we had never used a covert agency to overthrow a government. Now we see it, but we didn’t know.” However, people today do not have that excuse. We know what they didn’t know. We’ve seen the results, yet we continue on this path.
PL: Was Mossadegh in ’53 the first?
SK: The first CIA overthrow, yes.
PL: Nothing before the war?
SK: We never overthrew a government covertly. We didn’t have to; we had the Marines. But after World War II, we had another factor in the world, which was the Red Army. You never knew if we invaded a country if they would send troops, and the next thing you know we’re in a nuclear exchange. So we had this fantastic new tool.
Eisenhower’s final speech about the military-industrial complex is often held up as a great example for something we should be looking back at now. However, there’s an underside to Eisenhower’s view that militaries were getting too big and too powerful, which is: Eisenhower believed we should do it all covertly. He’s the only president, so far as we know, to order assassinations of foreign leaders. He was a great believer in covert action. No one knew that at the time, but it’s the job of those of us writing today to bring that to light.
PL: We have the administrative state or, if the term doesn’t offend you, the deep state. As I was reading The Brothers, I thought, The seeds of this are all there. Look at what Kinzer is describing. One of the Dulleses would put together a little report of a few pages and walk over to the White House and say, “Mr. President, I think this is what we ought to do.” “Oh, do you? OK, do it.” That was so informal, and so cast in ’50s imagery, that it took a while for me to see that, actually, that’s the beginning of the problem we face now. A walk to the White House.
SK: You’ve pointed out an aspect of my writing that is intentional. You had to come to that conclusion yourself. I didn’t hit you over the head and say, Hey, did you notice what that implies? Let the reader figure that out.
PL: I’ve often argued that imperial decline or failure or decay, however you wish to put it, is a choice, not a fate. At least in theory, it’s a choice. I wonder if you agree with that.
I’ve also argued that starting with Gibbon and then considering the histories of others—the Iberians, the British, and so on—that two signs of progressive decline are deafness and blindness. The predominant power can neither hear others nor see them as they are. Do you agree? Or maybe you identify some other incipient symptoms. [Edward Gibbon published The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from 1776 to 1789.]
SK: I don’t see ourselves as more deaf or blind than we’ve been for the last century. I don’t think we’ve become deafer or blinder. We’ve been like this since we started crashing into other countries. I do believe, at this moment,that it’s inevitable that at least the relative power of the United States is going to decline, but it is our choice to decide what is our future identity.
Trying to cling to fantasy of the past is a recipe for disaster. The United States can play such a positive role in the world.
PL: It could, indeed. And I think the choice before us now does not have to do with, as you say, relative decline; it has to do with who we are and what we are able to do after that is accomplished. We can be a fabulously constructive force in the world, but if we don’t understand and manage this transformation carefully, that may not be possible. The indispensable nation is already just so glaringly alienated from such an extraordinary proportion of the global population.
SK: Carefully managing geopolitical transitions is not something we’re very good at.
PL: Well, who is or has been? Human beings are crisis managers, I suppose.