This is a revised text of the sixth John Whitehead Lecture delivered by Strobe Talbott at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House on 9 October 2003. As always with writings and commentary of Brookings scholars, the views expressed here are personal and do not reflect institutional positions or policy.
I am honoured to give a lecture established in honour of John Whitehead. He was a predecessor of mine at the State Department and an active trustee and chairman of the board of Brookings. He remains a friend and mentor.
Two weeks ago, I visited Chatham House in cyberspace in order to read the inaugural address of its new Chairman DeAnne Julius. Like her, I feel I should address the war in Iraq, where 138,000 American and 11,000 British troops are stationed and where my president and your prime minister have bet their political futures. Indeed, the stakes are even higher—I daresay much higher—than that. The war and its aftermath will have much to do with determining the direction of American and British foreign policy for decades to come.
Before offering my personal concerns and hopes about what may lie ahead, let me begin by offering a few reflections on the past.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the international system was based largely on two epochal events in European history: the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the Congress of Vienna of 1814–15. My country missed out on both those grand and consequential assemblies—Westphalia for the simple reason that the US did not exist, and the Congress of Vienna because the US, then not even 40 years old, was not invited. President Madison did not even have a representative at the Habsburg court to sit in as an observer. Besides, we Americans had our hands full negotiating an end to the War of 1812 with George III’s envoys at Ghent—and, I might add, cleaning up the mess the Redcoats made of my hometown when they sacked it and set fire to the White House.
My biggest concern is that Washington is signaling to Russia that it’s OK to meddle in the politics of sovereign nations which are your neighbors. Meddling is going on from Paris to Ukraine, from east to west and north to south, within Europe and at its borders, and always with the intent of undermining the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions. And it is being either denied or downplayed.