Stanford foreign policy experts discussed flashpoints around the world at an OpenXChange event this week.
Three of Stanford's most seasoned international affairs experts discussed foreign policy and diplomacy – and practiced a bit of it on stage, too – as they tackled the topics of refugees, Russia and other politically thorny issues at a campus forum March 1.
The event, "When the World Is Aflame," featured Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford political science professor and former U.S. secretary of state; Michael McFaul, director of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and former U.S. ambassador to Russia; and Jeremy Weinstein, a Stanford political science professor and former director for the National Security Council.
Janine Zacharia, a Stanford visiting lecturer in communication and former Jerusalem bureau chief and Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post, was the moderator.
The event was hosted by OpenXChange, a campus initiative to provide a forum for students and community members to focus on today's societal challenges.
"So you were resetting some of my policy?" Rice half-jokingly interjected, as McFaul discussed the objectives behind the U.S. trade talks with Russia a few years ago.
"It was not about making friends with the Russians – I want to make that clear," McFaul continued after the laughter in the audience died down. "And it wasn't that we needed to correct the wrongs from the previous period," he said, casting a quick glance over at Rice. "The Russians had an interest in giving the Iranians a nuclear weapon. Our answer was, no, and let's work with them to prevent that."
A series of trade sanctions with Russia were eventually accomplished, but as it turns out, McFaul noted, the political environment has since changed with Russia's aggression in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria.
Today's conflict in Syria was laid about four years ago, the panelists agreed, when the United States decided to aid the rebels and not overtly attack the current regime.
"There were reasons our president and others did not go down that path, but it was an invitation to others to play games in that environment," Weinstein said. "What their endgame is, we don't know."
Rice added that Russian President Vladimir Putin "does not mind countries that basically don't function." As such, "a stable, functioning Syria was never his definition of success."
Zacharia asked, "Are you saying we have yielded the endgame to the Russians in Syria? There is nothing we can do? And we're playing defense?"
"Yes," Rice answered.
"Wait, there is no endgame," McFaul said. "It's not that we yielded the endgame."
"Right," Rice replied.
Though the panelists' opinions differed at times, the trio of political science professors agreed on many points, including that international order is being tested, and that the refugee crisis is an overwhelming problem – one that the United States should help resolve.
"I'm a firm believer that America has a moral obligation to take [refugees]," Rice said. "But let's remember that we have to have a way to take them that is actually going to work within the system."
"We have a humanitarian architecture that simply isn't up to the task," Weinstein said. Securing congressional funding to reform the system will be a challenge.
What's more problematic, McFaul added, is that the current political rhetoric about how the United States should handle refugees is "based on fear."
"We're not having a rational debate about this in my opinion," McFaul said. "We have to fill the debate with empirical facts instead."
Public fears will continue as long as extreme Islamic State terrorist groups remain influential, "inspiring lone wolves like [those] in San Bernardino," Rice said, referring to the December 2015 terrorist attack there that killed 14 and injured 22 people.
"Somebody has got to defeat ISIS in its crib," Rice said. "They march in columns; they don't hide in caves like al-Qaeda. If CBS News can find them, then the American military can find them."
The tougher challenge, however, will be the task of influencing sectarian politics and creating a more stable state in the long term, Weinstein said.
Stanford – with its cache of expertise – should strive to shape the national dialogue with concrete facts and analyses, McFaul said. Inspiring students and giving them the foundational tools to become the new generation of policy leaders is also part of that, he said. Adding a course on Russian politics would also be an improvement, he said.
Weinstein is a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Rice, a former Stanford provost, is the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.
The panelists urged students to gain a deep knowledge of the areas and issues they care about.
"Know your facts," Rice emphasized.
"When you're making policy decisions at the table, the people who understand these places and understand the political dynamics – those are the people whose voices are second to none around the table," Weinstein said.
"And we need to get you prepared for that in a more robust way," McFaul said, inviting students to pass any ideas about this to him.
In terms of career choices, "there's nothing greater" than public service, he said. "Sometimes I would get goose pimples when I could stand in front of Russians with the American flag behind me, representing the United States of America."