Interview with Walter Russell Mead

10 November 2014, Istanbul

Walter Russell Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and the Humanities at Bard College. He is also the Editor-at-Large of The American Interest. He previously taught at the Yale International Security Studies Program where he was a Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy. Between 1997 and 2010 he was a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Mead is the author of several books and various publications in which he received honors and prizes. He regularly writes for prominent journals on current international affairs.

Melisa Mendoza:You recently argued that geopolitics is back with the new maneuvers of revisionist powers. Has Arab Spring become a battleground of revenge in this new geopolitical setting?

Walter Russell Mead: It is interesting that the Arab Spring has not become a huge focus of the great power struggle. China seems to have decided to stay out of Middle Eastern issues. Russia has played some role in Syria. Russian support for the Assad regime is an example of a geopolitical competition between Russia and the NATO powers-- as one sign of this new geopolitical reality having an impact with the Arab Spring.

Melisa Mendoza: How will the United States and the European Union respond to this revenge in the Arab Spring countries?

Walter Russell Mead: Well, so far what we have seen is that they have not done very much in Syria. I've studied the history of American foreign policy and one of the things that I have seen in these studies is that when an allied power is in a revolutionary situation that is the hardest challenge for the foreign policy of any country, certainly including the United States. This goes back to the French Revolution. The French were allied against Britain in the Revolutionary War. It originally looked very much like the American Revolution-- the French Spring with democracy and all of these wonderful things. Americans were very sympathetic but then the French Revolution ran in a completely different direction by plunging Europe into a generation of war. Themodern American party system is born out of the political fights we had about "what should America's attitude toward the French Revolution be?" Ever since then, when the US has relations with a major country or ally and there is revolution, the foreign policy is thrown into disarray. Because in a revolutionary period, people in that country care much less about what foreigners think. Everything is about life and death struggle. So foreign allies have much less influence or ability to work with them. I think we have seen that in the Arab Spring the US has had a very difficult time managing its foreign policy.

Melisa Mendoza: Is this a new Cold War in the Middle East? What is the prospect for future?

Walter Russell Mead: I do not see much "cold" about the wars in the Middle East. The big struggle in the Middle East is the sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunni. Iran is the "captain" of the Shia team. There is struggle among the Sunnis between the Saudis and the Egyptians and the UAE in one camp and Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood in the other camp. And there are radical jihadists in the third camp. The Sunni world is trying to figure out what its strategy is going to be vis a vis the Shia crescent and Shia power. We see civil wars among the Sunni and then we see a much larger war between many Sunni and Shia. Of course, not everyone is involved in these things.

Melisa Mendoza: The diffusion of the protests remains within an interdependent Arab regional environment. Why is this so? Does the lack of trust to the US and Western role in case of turmoil has anything to do with it?

Walter Russell Mead: I think the problems of the Arab world today have much more to do with the failure of the secular nationalist Arab regimes to match the achievements, say, of Turkey in the Kemalist period. In Turkey, I think we can call it in some ways a "Kemalist dictatorship" was established in the 1920s. This dictatorship, with all of its flaws, actually built the basis for a modern society in Turkey. People like Saddam Hussein and the older Assad and Nasser were seeking to imitate Ataturk in various ways. But they did not create the foundations of a modern economy or a modern society in their countries. In Turkey the struggle between liberals, neo-Kemalists, and Islamists is standing on a foundation of achievement. In the Arab world we have many of the same ideological struggles but they do not have that firm foundation of a society in which its institutions work, educational system works, and there are jobs for young people. Arab countries do not have this. Ideological and political struggles are both more desperate and more difficult for any side to win and set up some kind of a stable society.

Melisa Mendoza: How do you get that foundation?

Walter Russell Mead: It was a cultural problem. Now it is also a problem of catch up. Turkey, like Japan which was another successful non-Western modernizer, was smart enough to do its modernizing early. Today, for example, if you want to develop a manufacturing industry in the Arab world, you are competing with China, Bangladesh, and Malaysia. I do not see the Arabs managing this soon. I think it requires more social discipline and stronger institutions than they have.

Melisa Mendoza: In Turkey, there was a very top- down foundation process. Yet, top- down approaches are heavily criticized. What is the formula of it?

Walter Russell Mead: The Arabs tried the top-down. Nasser tried a top-down modernization. Saddam Hussein only believed in top-down. Pakistan also was trying to imitate Ataturk. In that sense, we have to ask not so much whyit failed in all these countries but how did Turkey do it and what are the lessons from the Turkish experience. I would also argue the Japanese experience is one that others can adopt.

Melisa Mendoza: The revolutionary popular masses and anti-revolutionary authoritarian rulers pursue a struggle over the future at the Arab countries. You define revolution as a process. How do you see future of this struggle looking back at the record of history?

Walter Russell Mead: There's a man in American history named Yogi Berra. One of his famous sayings is, "prediction is always difficult, especially when it involves the future". I think we have already seen in some ways that in most countries the Arab Spring, like most revolutionary movements, has failed. If you look at the history of revolutions, the large majority of revolutions fail. This is, if what you mean by success is the establishment of a democratic, stable, prosperous new order. Some revolutions are destroyed by external enemies who come and invade them, crush them. Some revolutions fail because the counter-revolutionary forces overcome them. Some fail because even though they gain power, they are not able to use power to achieve the idealistic dreams that they had in the beginning. On the other hand, while most revolutions fail, over time most countries seem to get closer to the idealistic goal of revolutions: democratic, open society. Look how many revolutions and counter-revolutions France went through to go from absolute monarchy to democracy. So you can fail your way to success in a revolutionary tradition. I think most of the Arab revolutions have already failed, but this doesn't mean the Arabs are going to fail.

Melisa Mendoza: Would you place Tunisia differently from this?

Walter Russell Mead: Tunisia of all of the Arab revolutions seems, so far, to be having the most success.

Melisa Mendoza: Do you think it is stable?

Walter Russell Mead: I think it is remarkably stable given the circumstances and the regional conditions. They are now at the stage where the future of the economy may be the most important variable. For Tunisia, the problem is that their trading partners are in terrible shape: Egypt and Italy. Where do they trade? For Tunisia the tourist industry is a big factor. There is a fear because of the violence associated with the Arab Spring. I don't know whether they will succeed, but they certainly have done more to deserve success than many other places.

Melisa Mendoza: The rise of ISIS sounds like a waking call for regional and international powers. Would the rivals in the new geopolitical setting willing to have a common ground on such challenges? Or will they take advantage of them for their own causes?

Walter Russell Mead: I am afraid that so far the rise of ISIS has not produced a unified view of the crisis. The rise of ISIS has probably made the Obama administration less committed to the overthrow of Assad and lean a little bit more to the idea that talks with Iran might be the best way for the United States to achieve some stability in that part of the world. But for Turkey, and not only for Turkey, the rise of ISIS has made many people feel the danger of the Assad regime is even greater. Unless Assad can be pushed out of power, there will be terrible new things coming out of Syria and there will be new dangers.
There are three divisions in what we can loosely call the Sunni world and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt also do not fully agree on how to deal with ISIS. ISIS is exploding the divisions among its potential enemies. I do not know where it is going to go. It is a very serious problem. The recent letter by the Obama administration to the Supreme Leader of Iran deepens some of these divisions. The US won't be bombing any Assad related targets. I can just imagine how that new was received by President Erdogan.

Melisa Mendoza: I think ISIS appeared to be a unifying factor for Kurds. Kurds in Syria, Turkey and especially in Iraq started acting cooperatively.

Walter Russell Mead: Yes, the Kurds. For some time the Syrian Kurds have gone in one direction, the Iraqi Kurds have gone in another, and the Turkish Kurds have gone in their own directions. The rise of ISIS threatens all of these groups. I think, yes, ISIS has a unifying impact on the Kurds and that, in turn, has made the Kurdish question a more difficult question for Turkey. Turkey was quite happy to see the Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian Kurds, and the Turkish Kurds in different camps.

Melisa Mendoza: The US was actually withdrawing from the Middle East. Now, it is involved once again. Is this involvement only for IS and will the US leave the region as soon as IS conflict is settled? Or do you think this involvement is for a longer term?
Walter Russell Mead:I think there has been a change. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were a lot people in the US who did not want to think about the Middle East. They did not care about what happened in the Middle East.

Melisa Mendoza: "We had enough of it?"

Walter Russell Mead: I think the Middle East had enough of us. Everyone was tired of each other. The fact that American oil production in increasing to such a great extent and the US is going to be energy independent and maybe even exporting oil and gas, for a lot of people this was one more reason to stop paying attention to the Middle East. The US is about to pass Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of oil.

Melisa Mendoza: Why did not the US do this fracking much before?

Walter Russell Mead: Becausegetting oil this way is a much more difficult technical process. And only in the last few years have they developed the engineering techniques that allow you to do it. You could have gotten it out before but it would have cost you 500 dollars a barrel. Now the price of getting it out has fallen. Evenif the lowest is 65 dollars a barrel, most of this oil will be profitable.
In addition to the oil, we have been able to extract natural gas using similar techniques. Both oil and gas are growing. Beside this, Mexico has a very large potential for shale oil and gas. The Mexican oil company Pemex has now decided that it wants to invite foreign companies into participate with technology and exploration. And Canada probably has much more oil and gas than the US has. Canada may have 3 or 4 times as much oil as Saudi Arabia. So North America is likely to be exporting oil and gas for a very long time. As you can guess, Americans are happy with this. But it remains the case that the Middle East matters to the US.

The other thing that happened is that after the videos of the ISIS beheadings, a lot of public opinion in the US began to turn. You can see this in the polls. Beginning in the summer of this past year, public opinion began to demand more active involvement. With the Republicans winning the mid-term elections in Congress, Congress is likely to be more hawkish. While Hillary Clinton has criticized President Obama, her criticisms have mostly been that he did not do enough. She was in favor of a more active policy in Syria, she was opposed to withdrawing all US forces from Iraq. It is likely, whether the next president is a Republican or a Democrat, that the next president will be somewhat to the right of Obama on foreign policy.

Melisa Mendoza: Despite the Turkish government's opinion, the US is providing arms to the Kurdish group fighting against the IS in Kobane. Did the US choose the Kurds as a secular ally in the region or is this only a "image thing" trying to show that the US is actually doing something against IS and not staying indifferent?

Walter Russell Mead: I would not call it an "image thing". I think there is a genuine humanitarian concern. The story of Kobane is seen as a group of people being besieged by terrible people who will kill them and sell women into slavery. Americans saw what happened to the Yazidis after ISIS captured their living areas. There is a feeling in the US that we really need to do something to stop these people. If you read the US press, people do not talk very much about who is in Kobane except in the sense of victims. Not the experts in foreign policy, but the public opinion simply sees this as a humanitarian issue and not a political issue.

Melisa Mendoza: Do you see this Kurdish- American cooperation as only for a temporary time or as a longer friendship?

Walter Russell Mead: Turkey is America's oldest ally. Turks, Saudis, Israelis, and the Iranians are America's oldest allies in the Middle East and right now we have bad relations with all of them. I can't tell you what will happen tomorrow. But I think that the Americans were happy to see the Kurds get autonomy in Iraq but not have pressed for Kurdish independence. Americans have supported the peace process in Turkey and haven't raised any kind of pressure for Kurdish independence. The Americans have been very careful on that. The Syrian Kurds are a new question. When the Assad dictatorship was strong, they did not have much political activity. Now with the collapse of the central authority the question of the future of the Syrian Kurds is on the table. That is where both the US and Turkey are thinking of a relatively new reality.