Jonathan Tepperman

 Jonathan Tepperman is the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs. He is the former deputy editor of Newsweek International and director at EurasiaGroup.

Jonathan Tepperman is the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs. He is the former deputy editor of Newsweek International and director at Eurasia Group.


What role do U.S. economic and strategic interests play in interventions?

I would argue that the strategic interests are more obvious than the economic ones, but if you look closely enough you’ll find that the two are almost inexplicably intertwined.  Take Bosnia for example.  Bosnia was an easy call for the U.S. because this was a conflict at the heart of Europe – one of America’s core security interests but also an economic one.

The kind of physical and geopolitical disruptions that the war in the Balkans was causing, the ripple effects it was having throughout Europe, were politically dangerous and economically as well.  And I suspect that if you look at all interventions that the U.S. has engaged in from Kosovo to Bosnia to Somalia to Libya, you will find – to Iraq for that matter – you will find an economic component.

But I take issue with those; the conspiracy theorists who argue, for example, that wars are conducted merely for oil. I also take issue with those who argue that economic issues should not factor into American foreign policy thinking when it comes to intervention at all – both of those are reductive and naïve.  A U.S. policymaker has to keep both of them in mind when making a decision whether or not to intervene.

How should U.S. policy makers calculate when to intervene?

It’s very difficult question and there is no formula.  There is now a formal standard, which was articulated in 2005 when the countries of the world got together under the auspices of the U.N. and worked out the new doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. The R2P standard, as it’s known, is pretty basic.  It says when a country is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, it is now the responsibility of the world community to intervene.

That’s, on the linguistic level, that’s very clear; but on the policy level, a bit nebulous.  And the question of whether Americans should commit blood or treasure to an actual conflict gets more complicated, but I think there are a few simple metrics that the government uses. The answers are never simple, but the standards are.  Do you have the capacity?  And that takes several forms – the military capacity, the financial capacity.  Do you have the international support and domestic support, and then do you have the stomach or the will? And the answers to those shift and vary from time to time, which is why you see the U.S. and other countries, for that matter, behaving dissimilarly in what seem to be parallel or similar situations.

Is nuclear proliferation still a top threat for U.S. security?

This very much depends on who you ask.  If you ask the Obama administration, they’d say yes. That’s why they’ve made this push to get to zero nuclear weapons a major priority.  I would argue that’s mostly been a rhetorical priority – the government isn’t putting much substance behind it. Then there are those who would argue that nuclear weapons are a lot less dangerous than is commonly thought because they are very bad, every rule that’s been assigned to them except keeping the peace.  This is what’s been known as the nuclear peace argument, and it argues that since the creation of the atomic bomb, it’s only been used once.

And in other bilateral or multilateral conflicts where the bomb has been introduced – in the Cold War, in the India-Pakistan conflict, etc. – it actually does a good job reducing conflict because both sides come to realize what the consequences of getting involved in a hot war where both sides have the bomb will be.  The atomic weapons have a funny way of bringing down temperatures rather than raising them.

Now there are concerns about Iran getting the bomb, for example, that have more to do with Iran passing nuclear weapons or technology on to non-state actors or terrorists, who are not constrained in the way a nation-state is.  But I would argue that’s not a real threat either because nuclear weapons are so valuable, and now so easy to trace, that it would be suicide for Iran to give the bomb to Hezbollah, for example.

Have 21st century threats, such as cyber and biological weapons, surpassed traditional threats?

I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We are starting to see, as you and your viewers will know, a dramatic increase, for example, a dramatic increase in cyber attacks.  We haven’t gotten to the point – with one possible exception, and that was the Stuxnet operation by Israel and the U.S. against Iran – where cyber weapons have had any physical, practical, what military planners call kinetic; that is, real world effects where keys clicked on a keyboard have actually affected physical change.  Until we get to that point, cyber will still be a secondary threat to conventional  military ones.

With the Cold War over, why is the U.S. still spending thirty billion on maintaining a nuclear arsenal?

That’s an excellent question, and there are a lot of people who argue we shouldn’t be.  And here, having just a moment ago said I’m sympathetic to the case for nuclear weapons, I would argue that there’s no reason that we need so many.  It’s here purely a question of momentum rather than clear strategic thinking.  It also takes a lot of effort and money to reshape your nuclear forces. And, as you see, we’re living through a moment where the political climate is so incredibly toxic in Washington, and any attempt, say by the president or Democrats, to draw down nuclear forces gets met with a sea of, a tidal wave, from the right of whether that’s genuine or not. So making modifications that moderates on both sides see that are necessary, and I don’t think that there are many right thinking thinkers who would argue for the massively inflated current U.S. nuclear strategic posture – something like 5,000 active missiles or warheads.  While there’s genuine consensus that there’s way too many nukes, actually getting that number down is proving very difficult.

What issues do lawmakers have before them in 2013 in terms of choices for policy makers related to changes in security threat?

I don’t see 2013 being dramatically different from the last few years.  Depending on what happens in Syria, you’ll see big decisions there.   The draw down from Afghanistan will be a pressing issue, especially if there’s a major uptake in violence. Thinking sort of geopolitically, what you’re seeing, and here Syria is a very good example, is a real hardening of these new, post-post Cold War camps with a broad Western consensus in cases like Syria and Libya and a very intransigent Russia and China, vehemently opposed and doing everything they can to block those international ventures.  I think you will see increasing conflict along those lines.

And then there’s the much ballyhooed and, so far, not substantiated, American pivot to Asia.  But we can expect to see much more American investment in the Asia-Pacific region in 2013 as the U.S. begins this process that’s only recently begun of quietly outflanking China through the security and diplomatic cooperation with the small, medium, and large-sized and very frightened countries on China’s periphery.

In terms of economic and security concerns, why is Iran important to the United States?

That’s a good question. The easy answer is because of oil – Iran is one of the world’s largest suppliers, and what happens with Iran’s oil wealth can affect global oil markets.  Then there’s the Iranian nuclear program, which has the potential to dramatically alter the global security market, especially – I would argue, or most traumatically – if Israel decides to take unilateral action.

I’m of the school, which is in its minority opinion, that an Iranian bomb is not particularly dangerous because the Iranian regime has proved to be fairly rational in the past.  It’s never initiated another conflict with another state since [they became] the Government of the Islamic Republic.  And there’s no reason to think they would use the bomb for offensive purposes, but there is a real chance of conflict in the next few months or the next year if Israel decides to take matters into its own hands or if the United States, to keep Israel from doing that, does it itself.

What outcome is Iran looking for in their pursuit of a nuclear weapon?

If you look around the world – and this is something Iranian leaders are really good at – and look at the survival rates of tyrannical regimes, those that have nuclear weapons tend to do better than those that don’t. And I think that’s Iran’s primary interest, which is mainly securing the regime’s survival. There’s a lot of talk about nefarious Irani designs about spreading its influence through the Shiite crescent.  I don’t think there’s much there; I think Iran would like to be seen as a regional power with regional influence, but it’s certainly not going to get in the game of exporting its revolution or invading, say, countries in its region.  So the bomb is entirely defensive, I would say.

What has been the U.S. relationship with Egypt since the signing of the Camp David accords?

It’s very simple.  We pay you a lot of money every year, and you keep things quiet, play nice with the Israelis, and represent, as much as you are able or are willing, an American security interest in the region.  Egypt has been less good on that last point, and pretty good on the first two points. There is almost no chance that that basic arrangement is going to change, certainly in the next year, for two reasons. Because number one, the military, which is committed to that arrangement since it’s bankrolled them for all those years since Camp David, has no interest in letting it change and has no interest in letting it –namely the military – be pushed away from the center of power. And, second, I think the new president of Egypt, Morsi, recognizes the value of  a) the strategic relationship with the United States and b) of all the money that comes with it. He is not likely to upset the apple cart, whether it has to do with Egypt’s relations with Israel, or with other countries in the region.

Did the relationship between Egypt and the U.S. create a conflict in how the United States responded to the 2011 revolution in Egypt?

The U.S. responded very tentatively to the revolution because they, frankly; because no  one expected it, number one.  And number two, because there was a lot of concern that the Brotherhood, if it took power, would dispense with all of the arrangements it had been struck with Mubarak and his predecessors. Some of the confusion you saw in the early days of the Arab Spring and the very tentative responses of the Americans, on the one hand, had to do with wanting to be on the side of the angels, the side or the protesters;  but on the other hand, not to jeopardize this very, very valuable strategic relationship. I would argue that in the end, the Americans have gotten it right; that Washington has gotten it right.  The Administration is now seen by the people of Egypt as being roughly on their side, and yet that very important military to military relationship remains strong.

What decisions face U.S. policymakers next year in how to deal with these emerging powers?

Frankly, they don’t have a lot of options.  The dirty little secret about U.S. foreign policy in general is things tend not to change from administration to administration, whether it’s in a party or between parties, and that’s because the general structural factors that determine that policy and determine U.S. interests don’t change that much from year to year to year.  Now there are a few rare and dramatic example, like the Bush administration – the George W. Bush administration – in the three years after the 9/11 attacks dramatically broke with the traditions of U.S. foreign policy, but apart from that you don’t see many changes. So, I think you will see a continuation of basic U.S. policy towards Egypt in the year ahead because the basic factors and the imperatives remain the same. Now, if things dramatically change on the Egyptian side, say, if Morsi somehow manages to push the military out of power and then to take a very different course, becoming much more hostile – not just in rhetoric but in action towards Israel – then you could see a real recalibration on the American part.  But short of that, I don’t see that happening.

Is NATO still a useful alliance for the U.S.?  What do we put into it and what do we get out of it?

It’s an excellent question and a difficult one.  NATO’s facing a very difficult moment as constrained budgets in Europe produce a real reduction in defense spending, and the alliance casts around for what its current and future role will be.  Now this is a debate that people have been having since the end of the Cold War, and arguably no real answer has been found. That said, I think Libya showed how useful the Atlantic alliance remains because it serves, certainly from U.S. interests, as a very good mechanism for burden sharing.  If you take an American mission and make it a NATO mission, all of a sudden you’ve got political coverage because you can put other countries, like in the case of Libya, Britain and France and Italy, in front and you get financial burden sharing.  NATO’s very useful for that.  And I would expect to see more missions like Libya in the years ahead; that is, if there is stomach for further interventions, they will be NATO interventions and broad multilateral interventions, rather than lone American ones.

How can U.S. remain competitive for resources around the world while avoiding conflict with China?

I think the U.S. is actually still in a very strong position in Africa and in Latin America for several reasons.  First of all, European investors; I think too much is made of Chinese investment in areas like Africa. In terms of raw numbers, it’s still relatively small; it’s much smaller than European investment in Africa.  It gets a lot of attention because it’s new and it’s dramatic and it’s sexy, but the United States is in a very strong position for the one big reasons that it is so much more attractive to most of these countries, as an economic and political model.  At times it is more difficult to do business with the United States because the Americans ask questions about things like democracy and they put conditions on aid, and they put human rights conditions on investments; because the United States has a messy and complicated government rather than a single party system as China does. But the United States also has a very vibrant knowledge economy. It’s much better at technology sharing than the Chinese do.  What you’re starting to see already in Latin America and Africa is that Chinese investments don’t bring much for people on the ground in those countries.  The Chinese are really good at sucking out raw materials and natural resources, but they don’t leave very much behind.  Whereas if you get in bed with an American business, you tend to acquire a whole wealth of benefits beyond the financial ones in terms of things like knowledge and technology transfers.  That, I think, is the American way forward – showing all the extra benefits you get from doing business with the United States.