Q&A with Professor Stephen Kinzer

Katie Glueck

The Daily: What do you think of “A Day with Northwestern in Evanston?”

Kinzer: It’s great to see that NU inculcates in so many students the desire to learn and to remain engaged.

The Daily: What do you hope the audience takes away from your speech?

Kinzer: I’m hoping people take away a new appreciation of what lies behind today’s news. Everyone knows what happened today, but why did it happen? How does it connect to other things? And what are the implications for the future?

The Daily: You’re speaking on the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration. What are they?

Kinzer: The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on everyone’s minds. The pirate capture of an American captain also focused us on Somalia. It’s the quintessential failed state. Longer term challenges will be Mexico, and I’ll talk a lot about Iran. It might be a crisis, but it could also be a wonderful opportunity. We could build a mutually beneficial relationship.

The Daily: How do we go about doing that?

Kinzer:I don’t believe small steps are going to work. We’re trying to find little areas in which we could cooperate. But instead of looking for little confidence-building measures and then hoping to expand to a better relationship, we should lay out the vision for where we want this relationship in five years.

The Daily: And where’s that?

Kinzer: We want this to go to a place where Iran and Israel are both fully integrated into the Middle East. We need to strengthen the hand of those people in the Iranian government that want better relations with the U.S. I read the arrest of a Medill graduate (Roxana Saberi) as led by factions who want to upset engagement.

The Daily: You emphasize the importance of understanding the past. What happened to get us to such a rocky point in U.S.-Iranian relations?

Kinzer: Our policy of isolating Iran is so foolish. All these years that we’ve refused to talk to them, they’ve been building centrifuges. They made an offer to discuss things in 2003 and we never responded. When they made the offer, they had 400 centrifuges. Now they have (thousands). We’ve let our emotions cloud our rational view of our own self-interest.

The Daily: So how do we move forward?

Kinzer: It’s not too late if we really want to change policy. So far, there’s only been a change in tone, not policy. The situation with Iran is comparable to our position with China in the `50s and `60s. We thought of the Chinese as a bunch of fanatic nihilists with whom the idea of dialogue was totally ludicrous. But the pieces on the global chessboard aren’t welded into place. Nixon knew things didn’t have to be that way. Now, we have many strategic long-term interests with Iran. Far more than with many of our so-called friends, like the Saudis.

The Daily: But what happens if Iran still goes nuclear?

Kinzer: A nuclear weapons-free Middle East must be a central goal of Western policy. For Iran to develop nuclear weapons would be hugely destabilizing.

The Daily: Beyond engagement, what can the United States do to prevent that?

Kinzer: The only way to get any country to make security compromises is if they feel safe. We need a Middle East in which all countries feel secure. It’s so important to create a new security architecture in the Middle East.

The Daily: Moving a little closer to home, how are you dealing with the administration’s decision to not renew your tenure?

Kinzer: One point I always make in discussion of foreign policy is that you can’t make foreign policy based on emotions. It has to be made based on a cool assessment of self-interest. If I recommend governments follow this approach, I guess I should follow it myself. I’ve been so happy with the students at Northwestern. I’ve loved teaching here and the outpouring of support I’ve gotten from students has been intensely gratifying. I have loved NU and the support of alumni is an important part of that. They’re a wonderful group. If things don’t work out here, I’ll miss them almost as much as I’ll miss the students.

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