Trista Parsi & Stephen Wertheim

A Statecraft of Peace

Air Date: September 30, 2019

Newly inaugurated Quincy Institute cofounders Trita Parsi and Stephen Wertheim discuss their mission to stop endless war and militarism.


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we host the brain trust of the newly inaugurated Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. It was formed to promote ideas that move American foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in pursuit of international peace. Heeding the instruction of John Quincy Adams that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy” the institute’s mission states “The foreign policy of the U.S. has become detached from any defensible conception of American interests and from a decent respect for the rights and dignity of humankind. Political leaders have increasingly deployed the military in a costly, counterproductive, and indiscriminate manner, normalizing war and treating armed dominance as an end in and of itself.” Our guests today will expound on their mandate and vision. Trita Parsi is cofounder and executive V.P. of the Quincy Institute and founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council. Stephen Wertheim is cofounder and research director of the Quincy Institute and research scholar at Columbia University. Welcome gentlemen, thank you for being here.

PARSI: Thank you.

WERTHEIM: Great to be here.

HEFFNER: Congratulations on the inauguration of this trans-partisan endeavor funded by the Kochs on the right, historically speaking, and Soros on the left.

PARSI: When we started the conversation about having an institution in DC that will be promoting the ideas, the intellectual space for policies that could bring us out of these endless wars and really fundamentally shift our foreign policy it was very clear to us from the very outset that this would need to have the support of both the left and the right, that this is not a perspective that only belongs to one specific political angle and our outreach to both CKI, so this is Charles Koch’s foundation, it’s not the Koch brothers. And Soros started pretty early and it was very clear to us that there is a lot of sympathy between these two very, very different entities when it comes to this specific issue, in the sense that we’ve seen Soros’ very strong anti-war perspectives and very critical of how the U.S. has used military interventions. And of course, what is perhaps less known is that the Koch Foundation has had a very long presence in the anti-war space, coming from the libertarian perspective in which they’re very, very critical of U.S. foreign policy, particularly the interventions and particularly the militarization that has taken place. They disagree on a whole set of different issues. But on this one, they could come together.

HEFFNER: But do they also believe that we ought to be preserving liberal democracy, Stephen?

WERTHEIM: I think they do. I can’t really speak for them, but I can speak for myself, and

HEFFNER: And this Institute!

WERTHEIM: For the Quincy Institute and we certainly think we want to preserve liberal democracy. In fact, we’ve come to the conclusion after several decades of overly militarized foreign policy, where unfortunately, experts and politicians from both sides of the aisle routinely tell us that foreigners are coming to kill us when we’re a fundamentally safe, secure country. It’s no surprise that we see our own democracy at home under strain because we have a president right now in a movement that is appealing to nativism you know, threatening to take our own civil life in a more authoritarian direction, in a direction that brings the war abroad to our civic life at home where we seem to be so at odds with each other internally, it’s as if we’re waging a kind of cold war within our own country. So I think the record of bipartisan militarism has a lot to do with that. And I think in this particular moment, this is one reason why different people are responding to, you know, from different political sides, are responding to this moment and saying, wait a minute there is a real cost to liberal democracy to crusading through military force to promote liberal democracy at least in the name of liberal democracy or to do any number of things that really don’t respond to the national security interests of the United States.

HEFFNER: Ultimately the Vietnam fatigue, the Iraq fatigue and the ongoing concern that our military was deployed to expand peace around the world and is that what we’ve achieved? I think that the folks who advocated for military intervention, especially in the Bush years, will say just as some might go back to the Vietnam era and say, well look at Vietnam today, look at Iraq today, relative to where it was. And I’m wondering if that is an acceptable or persuasive argument to you in any fashion, knowing that both in the Far East and in the Middle East there is more stability and there is more potential promise at least in those countries, Iraq and Vietnam of stabilization and democratic rule.

PARSI: I don’t think the premise of the question is correct. First of all, when it comes to Vietnam, the United States left. So to argue that that war is the reason why their stability there is problematic in and of itself but also when it comes to the idea that Iraq is now very stable, that is not the case. The most destabilizing event in the Middle East in the last 40 years has been the invasion of Iraq. That destroyed much of that society destroyed much of the institutions of that society that could keep the state together. And as a result, it wasn’t too long ago that there was discussions in DC about potentially dividing Iraq up into three different countries. We’ve seen the spread of sectarianism that is directly linked to this. And we also seen how ISIS was born out of the destruction that came from there. The reverberations of that instability has not yet come to an end even though parts of Iraq right now are more stable than it was five years ago. They’re not necessarily more stable than they were before the Iraq war.

Now, of course, Saddam Hussein was an absolutely horrible dictator, but we are also talking about a war that left, in the war phase alone, roughly 500,000 people killed, for a situation today in which it is a very weak state, parts of the territory of the country is not under its own control. And the prospect of it actually being a real democracy in which people are voting based on ideas rather than other types of identities or tribal belongings is still very, very embryonic at best. So I don’t think we in any way, shape or form can point to Iraq as an example of a successful case of the U.S. making itself more safe or making the region more safe.

HEFFNER: In the American consciousness the attack on us still today is 9/11, and of course there was a detour from the attempts to obliterate and eradicate fundamentalism and ideology or terrorism that would once again destroy us. Now we live under that constant threat, as do other developed democracies and countries. The idea of peace today, it is soft power it is not pacification. How do you define the underlying philosophy that Quincy will espouse?

WERTHEIM: We envision a world in which peace is the norm and war an exception. That’s not to say that we’re pacifists. You know, military force should be used in cases of national defense, could be used you know, in concert with the international community if there are gross violations of human rights or fundamental international laws. So, you know, we don’t think that there’s this kind of easy solution where you can lay down a set of rules and take the craft out of statecraft. That’s one of the reasons why we use the word statecraft in our name. But we do think that we now find ourselves in a condition of endless war in which war seems to be normal. And even when President Trump said less than a year ago that he wanted to withdraw troops from Syria and have a draw down in Afghanistan, it was so shocking to everyone. The very people who think that this president is reckless, losing his mind has no strategy, were also scandalized by the idea that he would want to relinquish his own authority to command troops anywhere in the world with an open ended mission. That suggests a kind of deep conceptual problem, which is that we have normalized war and we find it shocking that U.S. troops wouldn’t be everywhere.

HEFFNER: The argument is that those officers who are stationed there are attempting to secure peace, right? And in reality, I think you both are espousing the view that it is exacerbating tension and not improving the conditions for peace in the Middle East, but broadly…

PARSI: Peace requires a tremendous amount of diplomatic engagement. It requires a lot of conflict resolution. It requires to a certain extent, the degree of nation building, things that are not suited for the military, that things that the military itself does not want to do. I think the problem we’re seeing is that we’re thinking that for every problem that emerges in the world, the military is the solution. It’s the militarization of our foreign policy. What we need is to take a step back and recognize that diplomacy has to be at the very center of American statecraft. We have to rediscover the art of diplomacy and recognize that that is actually not only more effective, it is far less costly.

It also tends to have far less blowback than throwing around military weight and might all the time.

HEFFNER: The Marshall Plan is often cited as a post war measure that redeveloped social capital and diplomatic means of achieving political goals. And that to date is maybe the most visible example of the path we can chart. I think you gentlemen are saying that in the case of Iraq that it was a misadventure, misguided, destructive. But we are where we are today. So knowing the conflicts around the world and the fact that we have a president who at once, Stephen, wants to pull out of the Middle East in an isolationist framework or perhaps two and an anti militaristic framework who is touting nuclear arsenal re-engagement of military force by virtue of budgets and who has been tempted to re-engage militaristically with Iran, certainly in Syria, he did on a low scale, Venezuela. I think that his instinct in North Korea initially was fire and fury. And then that was pacified. But looking at the stages of potential conflict now, how are you going to peel away the temptation of war?

PARSI: There’s this bizarre combination of a remarkable degree of lack of self-control when it comes to the escalation and then a surprising degree of self-control when it comes to actually not pulling the trigger at the last minute. That’s what we saw in North Korea. That’s what we saw in Iran. In the case of Iran, he destroyed a fully functional nuclear deal. There’s no reason for us to be in this escalation whatsoever. But when push came to shove, he’d rather blink than pull the trigger, which I think actually was the right decision and one has to be fair, many presidents probably would not have been able to do so at that last minute. He did.

But it doesn’t take away the fact that many presidents probably wouldn’t have ended up in that situation in the first place by having shown greater self-control at an earlier stage and not escalated in a situation needlessly. But having said all of that I think what we want to do, is to instead of just immediately be in the middle of these different crises and then having more or less a tunnel vision, well, this is where we are right now. What do we do now? If that’s our approach, we will likely end up with the same type of policies as in the past with the same repeated failures as the past. We are at a moment where the country needs to take a significant step back and rethink not just how do we get out of here, but how do we get in to this place in the first place?

How do we change our conception of not only foreign policy but America’s role in the world so that we don’t repeatedly find ourselves in these situations because that’s the question that has to be asked? Why are we constantly in these situations in which military forces brought up as an option? That should not be normal. What did we wrong that caused us to be in this situation in which we’re constantly on the verge of military action?

HEFFNER: When the statecraft or diplomacy is only on the part of Trump and Kim in the case of North Korea, that doesn’t bring any relief to the people who were under severe duress in that country. And so there’s a whole piece of diplomacy that’s missing from that conversation and understanding.

WERTHEIM: Absolutely true. And right now we’ve gotten to the point where our reliance on military force actually gets in the way of diplomacy. It prevents us from using our good offices to mediate conflicts because instead we find ourselves on the side of every conflict. Now, what we did, the cofounders of Quincy put together a set of principles of responsible statecraft and some of those principles address the specific scenarios that you were mentioning. So in the case of Venezuela one thing that we say is that, you know, the United States should not be attempting to change regimes of governments that don’t threat us. Threaten us. Excuse me. That should just be a basic principle because even though the Trump Administration hasn’t yet taken that to a military level, it decided very early on to withhold the recognition from a government in power confer recognition on a faction that was vying for power but hadn’t made it yet. And that’s effectively a regime change policy, perhaps just without willing the means. And so what that systematically does is it puts pressure on the president to ramp up the intervention. It makes it very difficult to use diplomacy to bring the sides to the table so that they can discuss their differences. So that’s what we’d like to see, a more even handed approach that uses the influence of the United States to convene people, not to dictate to them which party we prefer and which we want to see go.

HEFFNER: In the case of North Korea, there aren’t any good answers because you have the beginning of a diplomatic relationship and then you see them fire off more missiles and there’s no indication that they recognize our values of liberal democracy and freedom of speech and human rights.

PARSI: I think the very approach of thinking that the moxy can come about through the use of force, through the barrel of a gun has been proven entirely incorrect. Democracy has emerged where ever it has emerged because of forces inside of that country, oftentimes decades long, if not century longs processes in which a society is transformed internally from inside indigenously towards this movement. Yes, it would be absolutely fantastic if we could just wave the magic stick and be able to turn countries into democracies. And it would be great if we really could. We don’t have that capacity.

We have been under the illusion that we have that capacity and a lot of people have died because of that illusion. And one thing that John Quincy Adams says in that passage towards the end of it is that he points out that if we were to go down this path of chasing monsters to destroy outside it will perhaps lead to a scenario in which the United States would become the ruler of the world. But it would come at the expense of her own spirit, the spirit of liberty and freedom at home. And that is exactly the process that we have seen, that the more militaristic the U.S. foreign policy has become, the more he has come at the expense of the civil liberties of the American people at home.

HEFFNER: How do you rationalize the World War II example? I mean that seems to not jibe with what you’re saying in the sense of the United States operating in an environment militaristically and preserving and rebuilding, re=cultivating democratic order. Why was that different from today? And, and at what point do you think that military engagement is justified?

WERTHEIM: Yeah. Well, in World War II, the United States faced the threat, particularly after the fall of France in the middle of 1940 that the Axis powers could dominate Eurasia and perhaps then encroach upon the western hemisphere. And then of course, the United States was attacked by Japan at the end of 1941. So it faced a very different international environment then, than anything like what we could conceivably faced today. With North Korea we’re talking about a country that is so insignificant to the global economy that the United States is happy to sanction to the hilt and not ease those sanctions, which I think should probably be done in the case of, in a real diplomatic process. And so I think that’s what we need. With North Korea even if we wanted to ask the question and approach it purely from the standpoint of how could we best promote human rights and liberal democracy in North Korea, if that’s what we really wanted to do putting aside the security issues for a moment, I think the best thing we could do is work with the south and the north which have wanted to embark on a process of Inter Korean peace building and go down a path where we have a step-by-step agreement to limit the nuclear capacity and testing of the north so that and ratchet down tensions that is an enormously hopeful development that unfortunately looked like it could produce much more than it has over the past year when unfortunately the Trump Administration, despite President Trump’s, I think positive instinct to open diplomacy with the country, hasn’t followed through with a real diplomatic process that could convene the parties and hammer out a step-by-step agreement.

HEFFNER: We’re seeing now the rise of new demagoguery, illiberalism, which we recognize often as the preface to mortal danger and combat.

PARSI: When we’re talking about the idea of spreading democracy to North Korea and other places, I want to emphasize we’re not taking the position that it would not be good, or that the U.S. should play no role, but the primary role of the United States can and should play, not the only, but the primary role is to actually be an inspiration. Have that self-power making sure that other countries were to look at the American example and say that’s a path we would like to follow. I doubt that under the current circumstances, a lot of people outside of the United States are looking at American politics and feeling a tremendous amount of envy right now. So we need to start with that at home.

HEFFNER: Right. That being said though, the Obama Administration proved adept in negotiating deals, whether it’s the Paris Accord or the Iranian nuclear deal. But when one of our former guests here a former Iranian academic said that, you know, the theocracy reign supreme still in Iran. And I’m just wondering, the Obama years represent a case study in soft power and they kind of left us with the rise of new hungry demagogues and theocrats. And I’m wondering if that was, if that can’t be correlated, if that’s not a fair correlation.

PARSI: Not sure it is, but particularly if we take a look at the example of Iran, I think many of the people who supported the deal, many people in the White House, were hoping that if this deal were to be put in place and if it were to be implemented by both sides, that reduction of tensions would give space for internal processes inside of that country to move in the direction which clearly the people of Iran want, which is towards greater democracy internally.

And that over the course of time, not within two years, not within five years, but over the course of time, perhaps 10, 15, 20 years will transform Iran entirely. That process has been arrested, but it was not arrested by the theocracy. It was arrested by Donald Trump and him withdrawing from that deal. And it’s, so in my mind, it still is an untested proposition as to whether that type of diplomacy eventually could lead to a more favorable circumstance for the indigenous emergence of democracy.

HEFFNER: Right. And on a final point, because the Middle East is wide, there are many players in kind of thinking about the future of that region. From the outset Trump allied himself with Saudi Arabia, and you saw, you know, very modest steps of we’re going to integrate ourselves into a more liberal way of thinking and then, you know, then you see the assassination of a journalist ordered by the person who runs the country. Are you at all hopeful that that arresting of democracy or democratic norms in Iran can mean, from the Trump Administration standpoint that in other countries, Saudi Arabia, namely, there may be progress as a result of, …

PARSI: I don’t think the Trump Administration is thinking along these terms to begin with. Democratization, human rights is clearly not on their agenda. They’re approaching this from an extremely transactional standpoint.


PARSI: The prospects for democracy in Iran are far superior to that what else exists in Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, the civil society as much,

HEFFNER: I mean, let me just ask you this, to close, transactions: when you think of diplomacy as a transactional effort, can that be an appropriate or functional response, Stephen or do we have to think beyond what each party is getting?

Is there a way to think of it other than transactional?

WERTHEIM: I think there’s a notion in which transactionalism could be a good thing: when it’s in the service of a strategy, a real conception of what the party’s interests are and what it’s in the service of values as well. The problem right now is that we just seem to have in the name of transactionalism, which Trump appeals to, we have this kind of caricature of arguments about status and interest that don’t respond to anything except perhaps a set of personal relationships and other things…

HEFFNER: Right. Impulsiveness. Amoralism.

WERTHEIM: Right. But look, I think that the notion of transaction is not entirely wrong because what we’ve seen is the United States over 20 plus years, slide into a position where we have permanent unconditional alliances with one set of forces in the region, which are increasingly illiberal and permanent unconditional enmities with another set of forces which are also illiberal.

And this makes no sense. So if we care about a democratic liberal values and if we care about our own security interests, we should be thinking in terms of the interests of ourselves and different parties in the region disaggregating those and making a much more intelligent strategy.

HEFFNER: Thank you both for your time today.

PARSI: Thank you.

WERTHEIM: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.