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Strobe Talbott — “We’re Menaced by the Zombie Behavior of Nations”

Strobe Talbott assumed the presidency of the Brookings Institution in July 2002 after a career in journalism, government and academia. He served in the State Department from 1993 to 2001, first as Ambassador-at-large and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for the New Independent States of the former Soviet Union, then as Deputy Secretary of State for seven years.

Previously he worked for 21 years with Time magazine, covering Eastern Europe, the State Department and the White House. Some of his past books include: Fast Forward, Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming (with William Antholis); The Russia Hand; and At the Highest Levels (with Michael Beschloss). He translated two volumes of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs in the early 1970s.

He is currently a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the Academy of Diplomacy. He has honorary doctorates from the Monterey Institute, Trinity College, Georgetown University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Fairfield University, and he has been awarded state orders by the presidents of Estonia, Georgia, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and the Kings of Sweden and Belgium.

He was awarded the Ralph Bunche Award at ADST’s April 26, 2016 gala for his exceptional contributions to diplomacy and foreign policy which exemplify the combination of outstanding leadership, scholarship, creativity, and achievement that is the legacy of Ralph J. Bunche.

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History seems to have been thrown into reverse” 

Thank you, Ambassador Hughes. I’m glad ADST was able to include Ben Franklin this evening. It’s my first chance to meet him in the flesh, which is great fun. He is, of course, a kind of secular saint for all of us who have worked at the State Department.

In my time there, I took personal comfort and inspiration from the portrait that hangs in the eighth floor dining room that bears his name. (At left: Ben with Strobe Talbott and his wife, Barbara Ascher)

In addition to being a Founding Father of our nation, a scientist, and a printer, he was also a journalist and diplomat, in that order, thereby giving a legitimacy of precedent to my own checkered career.

I’m sure Ben will agree that we could never have made the temporary transition to diplomacy without the help of people like all of you.  We were amateurs in a craft that is your profession.  No doubt when Ben showed up in Paris he relied heavily on his DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission]. I would have never been able to hold my own as a political appointee were it not for the help, example, and friendship of dedicated foreign affairs officers and civil servants.

I’m thinking particularly of Nancy McEldowney, who shepherded me through some organizational complexities when I joined the Department twenty three years ago.

I’d like to use my few minutes to pick on Joe Nye’s remarks.  Once again, as so often over the years, I learned from listening to him, just as I’ve learned from reading him over the years.  He’s been — for more years than either of us want to count — a friend, colleague, and mentor. Back in the ’70s, while Joe was working for Secretary [Cyrus] Vance, I covered what was happening on the seventh floor [where most Department principals, including the Secretary, have their offices] from the semi-quarantined press room on the second floor.

From that vantage, I came to know how much Cy valued Joe, notably for his quiet and effective achievement in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

This evening, Joe has given us a much needed antidote to despair over the state of the world. He’s right that crisis is a permanent — even an organic — part of the human condition.

Cy Vance and Ralph Bunche would certainly agree. Their lifespans encompassed two world wars and the decades-long, day-in and day-out threat of an apocalyptic third one.

It’s worth noting that “crisis” does not mean disaster per se. Etymology helps in this regard. The Greek word from which it’s derived means an inflection point or a decisive moment. Make the right decision, implement it well, and you’ll avoid catastrophe.

Then there’s the wisdom of the Middle Kingdom. Forty-two years ago, when I was part of Henry Kissinger’s press pool, he told us on a flight back from Beijing that Zhou Enlai had noted that the Chinese word for “crisis” is a compound of two characters, one connoting danger and the other opportunity.

That dualism applies to the nature and purpose of diplomacy: it’s a matter of heading off danger and leaning in to opportunity.

I think all of us would agree that the last few years have produced a bumper crop of crises. The dangers are multiple, but they have a common denominator: regression.

We’re backsliding.  History seems to have been thrown into reverse, undoing much of the progress that the world made during the post-cold war period, which lasted close to twenty five years, from the late 1980s into the first years of this century.

Now we’re in the post-post cold war period. We’re menaced by what might be called the zombie behavior of nations: attitudes, actions, and justifications that were all too common in past centuries, which seemed to be in retreat as recently as a decade ago. But now they’re back, with a vengeance.

Here are four examples from around the world. In Eurasia — specifically on the part of Russia and China — there’s a resurgence of atavistic, aggressive geopolitics. In Europe proper, there’s a return to divisive nationalism. In much of the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Africa, there’s a reversion to a barbaric mutant of theocracy. And, in our own country, there’s more than a whiff in the air of xenophobia, protectionism, and isolationism.

In all four cases, what’s happening meets a definition of insanity as attributed to Albert Einstein: doing something that has already proved a failure and expecting a different result. To wit: competition among great powers and sectarian politics within nations were the cause of two world wars in the last century.

Those were bad ideas then, and they’re even worse now, given how interdependent our world has become.

The good ideas that gained traction starting twenty five years ago helped us pivot toward a rule-based, consensual world order and collaborative internationalism.

Those are still good ideas, even though they’re being stress-tested by flaws in their implementation as well as by external adversities.

So the overarching task is to reverse the reversal — get back on the path to integration; revitalize — and in some case reform — systems, the institutions, norms, and governing principles that must prevail if we’re going to have a peaceful twenty-first century.

That’s largely a task for diplomacy. It’s a task of persuasion, getting other countries to see the virtues and adopt the benefits of ideas that work to a common good.

In short, we need to marshal what Joe has taught us all to think of as our soft power along with our unmatched hard power.

But since Ben was good enough to join us tonight, I’m going to give him the last word. “Diplomacy,” he once said to John Adams, “is seduction in another guise. One improves with practice.”

He might as well have said “training.” Which brings me back to ADST and its mission is to train the next generation of America’s diplomats.  They will be up for the task, not least because they have had — in you and your colleagues, nation’s diplomatic professionals — the best teachers and the best role models.

So have I.

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