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Former Diplomat Khalilzad Speaks on the Age of “Pervasive Uncertainty”

<rmer diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad opened his Accepted Students Days convocation by emphasizing the current international system as “an age of pervasive uncertainty.” Having served as the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and then the United Nations, Khalilzad drew upon his experience of serving in the second Bush administration to speak about the dynamic role of American global influence. In his talk titled “U.S. Global Leadership,” he outlined the traditional role that the United States has played in world affairs, and what challenges America may face in an increasingly competitive and uncertain future.

“I never personally liked the word ‘U.S. hegemony’ because it seems hostile,” Khalilzad said as he launched into the history of American involvement in global affairs. “The United States has been inclusive and democratic,” he continued, while outlining many essential terms and concepts that students would find in any introductory International Relations lecture. Both World Wars, peace and conflict, and the ideological struggle between the U.S. and its Soviet rival formed the historical landscape that saw the rise of an American global presence. “We were active in creating a ‘zone of democracy and peace’ that incorporated European and East Asian economic centers,” said Khalilzad, highlighting that this “was arguably a greater achievement that containing the Soviets.”

This emphasis on building ties with various countries continued in Khalilzad’s description of American influence. “One of our major strengths is our alliances,” he stressed, illustrating the United States’ support of extending NATO into central and eastern Europe. “A crucial element of American foreign policy in the post-war period was the prevention of critical regions from being dominated by hostile powers,” he remarked, “and Asia was only added later as a region that qualified.”

Discussing American involvement in Afghanistan and then later Iraq, Khalilzad described the controversial issue of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair’s decision to invade. “They concluded that problems unattended that look small could grow big,” he said, noting how the two leaders made a judgment that Iraq also looked like a festering problem at the beginning of the previous century, and needed to be dealt with.

Touching on global American preeminence, Khalilzad stated that “when you are at the top, you get fat and lazy,” and thus the U.S. cannot afford to lose its advantage in areas such as technological leadership and innovation. At the same time, he stressed how overextension is a poor strategy, for the United States clearly cannot be involved in everything.

In discussing potential rivals on the world stage, Khalilzad addressed the rise of China and the potential for an international system to once again be dominated by two countries in a bipolar arrangement. Yet the former ambassador highlighted what he saw as a distinct American advantage in world leadership: “We have strong allies, whereas China has not yet cultivated clear alliances. Recent discovers of domestic oil sources means decreased dependence on the Persian Gulf, whereas China’s massive energy consumption will only keep growing. Then there is the constitutional order of the U.S., and the recent rebirth of federalism and local leadership.”

Nonetheless, Khalilzad still advised caution and cooperation, pointing to what he saw as the next greatest U.S. foreign policy challenge in the future: “How do you act when China can be both an ally or adversary? Can we contain and engage simultaneously?” Though he did not elaborate on the mistrust between American and Chinese policymakers, and methods to which confidence-building measures have been initiated to establish better relations, the former ambassador made it clear that the Sino-American relationship is going to be a crucial one in the years to come.

In his conclusion, Khalilzad reiterated the slew of global challenges that U.S. leadership currently confronts. “Uncertainty, chaos, and tensions that can no longer be contained to a single region,” he highlighted, listing a range of issues from cyberattacks, climate change, and economic decline. The former ambassador needlessly reminded his audience that the world we would enter as graduates “would not be boring” in the slightest, and entreated us to ask questions about the future role of American influence on the international stage: “are we going to continue seeing an isolationist streak present in the U.S. from the beginning, or will we play a more catalytic role in world affairs?”

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