In the early months of George W. Bush’s ’68 presidency, Strobe Talbott ’68 started to hear from friends in the White House that it was taboo to use the word “globalization,” which had been popular in the Clinton years. Equally off-limits was discussion of “climate change” or “global warming” — that was Gore talk.
In the George Herbert Walker, Jr. Lecture in International Studies on Wednesday, Talbott cited the drive to repudiate previous administrations as one characteristic of the Bush foreign policy that brought the United States into Iraq and that differs dramatically from the internationalism of his father, George H.W. Bush ’48. Talbott was the founding director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization before he accepted the presidency of the Brookings Institute, a Washington think tank, in 2002. He previously worked as deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton LAW ’73.
Talbott began his lecture, entitled “America and the World: Restoring a Damaged Foreign Policy,” by contrasting the foreign-policy views of current president Bush and his father.
George W. Bush revealed his skepticism of his father’s internationalism by pulling out of agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Talbott said.
“If Bush 41 was an arch-multilateralist, Bush 43 has been the arch-unilateralist,” he said.
Talbott said Bush adheres to a peculiar brand of American exceptionalism, which sees the United States as so mighty that it follows a different set of rules than the rest of the world and can act alone.
Bush also uses the division of the world into good and evil as a core principle for American foreign policy, Talbott said. Iran, for example, marked itself as an evil country with its search for nuclear technology and its anti-Western rhetoric.
“That makes it a certifiably bad country, so we don’t negotiate with its leaders,” Talbott said. “Well, I ask you, what kind of sense does that make, historically or logically? For 40 years, we negotiated with one of the worst of bad regimes, the USSR, which had the authority and the professed will to blow us up.”
These tenets came together in Bush’s initial decision to invade Iraq, Talbott said. He said Bush was determined to be tough where Clinton had been soft, was willing to act in defiance of the international community and was convinced that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a threat.
“As a result, Iraq has the potential today of becoming the most serious foreign policy blunder in the history of our republic,” he said.
Talbott’s lecture attracted about a hundred people. Many attendees said they agreed with his analysis.
“I thought he gave an incredibly nuanced insight of what drove George W. Bush to go into Iraq,” Vincent McPhillip ’10 said.
McPhillip said he thought that although Talbott provided many criticisms of Bush and few solutions, this was because of the nature of the problem in Iraq.
Talbott’s lecture also resonated with the adults in the audience, who made up a large proportion of the crowd.
“Any future president should pay a lot of attention to listening to whatever Strobe Talbott has to say,” said Bob Bloch, a former special student in Chinese at Yale.
But some said they wished Talbott had explained the implications of the war in Iraq for future administrations.
“[I wish he had gone] deeper into what Bush’s successor will have to deal with and … what the U.S. will be able to do as the global policeman,” Nick Rutter GRD ’11 said.
Talbott is the first person to give two separate George Herbert Walker, Jr. lectures at Yale.