Commentary | January 26, 2016

Our Global Connections: Inroads and Impacts

The Institute has an extraordinary network.

Ross Perot shares his thoughts with world leaders at Davos and Board Member Ikram Seghal’s meetings there bring together top South Asian decision makers. I had the privilege of meeting this month with China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) Chairman C.H. Tung at our New York Center to discuss U.S.-China relations and EWI’s China projects that are supported by CUSEF.

FOX News’ David Webb interviewed EWI’s COO Bill Parker on North Korea and weapons of mass destruction. This interview alone upped EWI site visits by 12 percent. The Atlantic Council Task Force on the Future of Iraq has invited Kawa Hassan, the EastWest Institute’s Director of Middle East and North Africa’s Regional Program, to be one of 25 Iraq experts from around the globe who will make specific recommendations to the incoming American administration’s transition team in late November 2016. These are just a few examples of how EWI is being heard on key world issues.

I also wanted to digress slightly and let you know that our Annual Awards Dinner will take place at the Pierre Hotel in New York City on October 5, 2016. Please stay tuned for details!

I see these developments in the context of our continued conversations with our partners. In Washington, Russian Ambassador Kislyak outlined for me why it’s so difficult to engage in confidence building measures: he ably represented Moscow’s line that western encroachment on Russia’s borders breed suspicion, and thus that “conflict prevention” is an exercise in seeking solutions only after the west has created problems. And yet EWI is keeping the doors open, with Alexander Voloshin and our office director Vladimir Ivanov is seeking ways to allay Russian fears, even as structural economic crisis in Russia feeds anxiety there. 

The institute’s longtime friend, UAE Ambassador Otaiba, is skeptical about the ability of outsiders to calm the fears of regional players in the current setting of low oil prices and the new reality of the Iran nuclear deal. Yet he, too, is open to dialogue and believes that engagement is critical. At the State Department, Assistant Secretaries Danny Russel (Asia) and Anne Patterson (Near East) lauded our efforts to foster understanding, suggesting we build on our notable successes in places like China and consider Korea and other neighbors; similarly, any contribution to dialogue in the Middle East is welcome.

But not only in Washington are doors open to us. During a visit to Sweden this fall, the doors of major foundations such as the Wallenbergs and the leaders of the Foreign Ministry sought our views on the questions that vex our European colleagues: how to deal not with the effects, but with the causes of the great migration to Europe that is changing the face of that continent. It’s striking, really, that Americans—in this year of political debate—are so little seized with the importance of the migrant issue in Europe, our strongest ally and closest friend.  That was driven home to me in January as the leader of the German Foreign Policy Association, the head of the German Foreign Office Policy Planning unit and top Middle East and South Asia experts pressed me to seek, in our conceptualization of conflict mediation, a dimension of the pressure that this migration has caused and will cause in 2016. It will be the defining issue of European foreign policy, and we ignore that at our own peril.

Indeed, in January, meeting with representatives of Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and a host of other Middle Eastern leaders and intellectuals in Europe, I was struck by the hunger they have for us to engage. Yet, this enthusiasm is not without its pitfalls. There is deep frustration with America, a perception (untrue in my opinion) that the U.S. is turning its back on the region. There is anger with the solutions Americans have used in the past in dealing with the Middle East, yet a very sincere desire for the Americans to stay involved. I spent many evenings in the last month hearing for an hour from Palestinians or Egyptians how the west has made every possible mistake in recent decades, followed by an hour in which these colleagues beseech me to stay engaged.

I’ve told them that they need to be careful what they wish for: I believe the Americans will indeed remain engaged, but the old verities (like them or not) are now under scrutiny: no longer should one expect unshakable support for Israel, nor alliance with the Saudis, but that there is a debate, following years of painful combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, about just how much American can do in the region, with whom, and to what end.

In a broader sense, as stock markets around the world decline, we all watch China closely and are inspired now, more than ever, to remain engaged with the leadership there as it tackles enormous domestic problems. Our close ties with the Chinese mean that we have opportunities to be heard, as EWI experts have shown in recent postings on the Taiwanese elections—look for example at David Firestein’s interviews and writings, which have gotten enormous attention in China and among China watchers.

And as Russia chooses to gain the attention of its neighbors by extending itself in the Syrian conflict, we once again are determined to see how that will affect its stability and longer-term relations with the west, its stance toward Ukraine and its willingness to find areas of common interest, from non-proliferation to counter-narcotics. As former U.S ambassador to Russia John Beyrle told me this week, there’s no doubt we need to stay engaged—but understanding things from the Russia point of view is critical (and never easy).

In the broadest sense, we continue our mission: to remain in the center of debate, and to offer our programs where we can make a difference. My own presentation at the Brookings Institution in January, on the troubled past of American assistance to Iraq and Pakistan, is part of that debate. Working with these major institutions, and contributing to understanding of the problems of the day, gives us the insights and access necessary to our goal of building trust and finding solutions.