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Warren Christopher Fields Student Questions on International Hot Spots
Warren Christopher (right) with Geoffrey Garrett. Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Warren Christopher Fields Student Questions on International Hot Spots

The former Secretary of State recalls the three most memorable political events of his long life and answers questions from students on today's global crises.

Leslie Evans Email LeslieEvans

"We are at a tipping point in Iraq."

Warren Christopher has spent a lot of time in the last few years passing on some his enormous knowledge of international affairs to UCLA students. He has taught several undergraduate honors seminars as well as single lectures as part of longer class series. On May 5 Mr. Christopher led a session of the first class of UCLA's new undergraduate Global Studies major, opening with some brief comments on what he viewed as the three most dramatic political events of his life, and then taking questions from some of the almost 400 students enrolled in the class.

Now in his 80th year, Warren Christopher has had an illustrious career in American public service over almost sixty years. Geoffrey Garrett, UCLA's vice provost for International Studies and dean of the International Institute, in introducing Warren Christopher cited some of the high points of his life, from his active-duty service in the navy during World War II to his term as U.S. Deputy Attorney General during the turbulent sixties, his role as a chief negotiator in the Iran hostage crisis at the beginning of the 1980s, and his tenure as Secretary of State in the first Clinton administration. In addition to his very visible role in U.S. foreign policy, Warren Christopher has been a top national expert on domestic racial disorders, beginning with investigating the riots that swept American cities after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and including heading the Christopher Commission that investigated the need for reform of the Los Angeles Police Department following the beating of Rodney King in 1991.

Three Events that Changed the World

Warren Christopher singled out three events from his long life that he felt had the greatest impact as turning points in world history. These were the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the ensuing antiwar and political turmoil of the 1960s, and 9/11 and its aftermath in Iraq.

Before Pearl Harbor, Christopher said, "Germany was actually winning" the war that had broken out in 1939. Prior to the attack, "the United States had tried to stay away from this war." Within four days of the attack at Pearl Harbor the United States had declared war not only on Japan but on its allies Germany and Italy. "Germany went from winning the war in 1941 to losing the war in 1945." Without Pearl Harbor, he said, "Germany might has won or Germany might have produced a stalemate that would have really marked the whole of the rest of the twentieth century."

The second great event, he said, was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. He linked this event in its effect on national politics to the later assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April 1968, and of the John Kennedy's brother and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in June 1968. "These three assassinations showed the United States to be a country where the fabric was very thin." The killings of these major political figures had as its principal outcome, he said, "a change in the United States' attitude toward race." Prior to the civil rights legislation passed during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Christopher said, "the United States was segregated and indeed deeply racist." He recalled the extreme segregation in the Navy during his term of service in World War II. African Americans were only permitted to serve on shipboard as kitchen help. "Toward the end of the war, my ship put in for repairs in Mobile, Alabama. And I had no idea of the degree of segregation. Everything was segregated in Mobile, Alabama. The churches. The cafes. The restaurants. The theaters. Even the officers' club was segregated."

Christopher pointed to legal reforms in the 1960s outlawing segregation in education, in housing, in voting, and in transportation. In addition to political struggles over race, the fabric of the country was being torn, he said, because of the Vietnam war. "We were in a losing war that became increasingly unpopular. If you think the Iraq war is unpopular now, you have no idea how unpopular the Vietnamese war was." And then came the urban riots. "After the assassination of Martin Luther King there were major riots in 26 American cities, with twenty or thirty people killed in many of the cities. President Johnson sent me to some of the cities where the worst rioting was going on to try to help restore order through the use of American troops."

The third great event in Warren Christopher's view was the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Up to that time the United States had felt protected by the two great oceans." 9/11 "taught us that we were subject to attack by nonstate actors, not an attack by an organized state.… It gave us a sense of vulnerability."

Christopher said that he agreed with the U.S. response in attacking Afghanistan and the Taliban. "What was not so natural was our attack on Iraq. You couldn't justify that in traditional preemption terms because there was no suggestion that Iraq was about to attack us." The invasion of Iraq also changed U.S. relations with the rest of the world, he said. "Countries around the world will be asking themselves, are we next? Who will be the next country to be attacked in terms of preventive war?"

The Students' Questions

At this point students were offered a microphone to ask questions. Each questioner stood up, introduced themselves, said where they had lived before coming to UCLA, and asked their question. The questions below have been summarized. Warren Christopher's replies have been slightly abridged.

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Q: Ward Churchill, a professor at Colorado State, has claimed that 9/11 was an inevitable result of U.S. foreign policy and its aggression and brutality toward other people in other countries for the last century. He has also made the claim that the majority of the people working in the World Trade Center who were killed were justifiable targets, "Little Eichmans" as he calls them, in reference to the Nazi Adolf Eichman.

Christopher: Well, I don't know how to find sufficient words to condemn that line of thinking. I think it is utter balderdash and nonsense. The United States has been a great influence on the world as a whole, a positive influence. I traveled to over a hundred countries when I was Secretary of State, and however much we may regret some of the things we may have done, the United States still stands as a beacon of liberty around the world. We are admired for our democracy. Individual things may be criticized but I think there is no basis for saying that this was our just rewards for what we have done in the past or that the people who were killed there had some justified retribution against them in some way. The United States is not perfect. We have much to do, we have much to improve. When I was Secretary of State I always took considerable satisfaction in telling my interlocutors from other countries that I knew we had failings. It took us a long time to get the vote right in the United States. First there were property qualifications, then there were racial qualifications, and then gender qualifications. But we have come a long way and we have a great democracy and I think to try to discount the progress we have made by saying that the attack was in some way justified is not worthy of any more comments by me.

Q: What do you believe the real motives for the Iraq war were?

Christopher: Now that's really a question to ponder. The justification that has been given has changed so dramatically over the period of time. I myself think that President Bush entered office perhaps concerned about his father's earlier reaction, concerned about the condition of events in Iraq, and had decided earlier on that that needed to be the point of United States action and to propel ourselves forward from there. But it's not easy to answer that question in a satisfactory way because of the number of rationales that have been given for it. Most recently, I guess, that it will produce freedom in Iraq. No one would admire the Iraq situation [before] the war. It's a country of a ruthless dictator who exploited his own people. We are all glad to see that that dictator is gone. But I don't think there has been any satisfactory historical explanation for exactly why we did what we did. Historians may have a better account of this as we move further into this century.

Q: After the abuses of Abu Ghraib and other unpopular things that the U.S. has done in Iraq, how do you think that the U.S. could begin to rebuild its image and gain legitimacy in terms of being able to actually reconstruct Iraq?

Christopher: First, let me say about Abu Ghraib, I think it is one of the failings of our government to this point that we've not had a satisfactory investigation of that calamity. The only people who have been charged are a relatively small number of low-ranking military personnel. There's been no investigation that would be justified as impartial into where the responsibility lies. I guess one thing that we might do is to have an investigation comparable to the 9/11 investigation by an impartial group of Americans to try to get to the bottom of it so we can understand better what the responsibility for it was. [More broadly] on your question, what the United States needs to do is to use its soft power around the world, to use the term coined by the dean of the JFK School at Harvard, to try to make use of our aid and support around the world to get back to providing funds, as we did after the tsunami in South Asia. To do more things like that to restore our reputation. We have a great well-spring of goodwill toward the United States. We simply need to evoke that once again. We won't get it back in a minute. It will take a series of events. But look at the reputation of the United States after the Marshall Plan after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, when I was just getting started, the United States had a sterling reputation for what we had done in World War II, saving the world from the scourge of Hitler, and also providing the kind of aid we did to reconstruct Europe. We need to do more things like that to make use of our soft power, our power of persuading, our power of support, to try to reclaim our reputation around the world.

Q: What is the significance of North Korea's nuclear threat, and is there any solution?

Christopher: I have thought and continue to think that North Korea is the most dangerous situation that we face in terms of foreign policy. One of the reasons for the danger is that it is such an irrational society. When you deal with other countries you can sometimes predict what they might do on a rational basis. I think that unfortunately that is not true of North Korea. They are willing to do things, to take risks that border on the irrational. They have a very large army. They have the ability to severely damage South Korea, even though they might lose a war in the long run. So I think we need to deal with North Korea with great care. Indeed, before the Iraq war I felt that North Korea was the most serious of our foreign policy problems and I continue to think so.

They are not just on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough. They almost certainly have nuclear weapons at the present time. They assert it and our intelligence tends to confirm it. We need to give high priority to that. As the President indicates, we need to make use of the support of China and the six-power talks. For myself, I would not hesitate to have the United States, alongside of the six-power talks, conduct bilateral talks if that is what it takes to get them to the table. In 1994 we entered into an agreement with them that did freeze their nuclear capacity for at least a number of years. They began to violate that agreement in 1999 or perhaps the year 2000. In such a dangerous situation we need to bend every diplomatic effort we have and use every forum and ally we have to see if we can't get that situation under control.

Q: I am a history major. I am wondering about a foreign relations career but am a little afraid of getting involved in politics because of all the bureaucracy. Is foreign relations any different from the rest of politics, in that it is less bureaucratic and not about getting elected so you don't have to go for certain interest groups, or are you better off getting involved in other ways?

Christopher: There are a lot of questions there. Probably not very many good answers. If I can get to the heart of your question, it's very natural for people your age to try to decide what they want to do with their life. Especially if you are idealistic you want have a positive effect on the world. Of course, you also want to have a satisfactory life for yourself and your family. It's important to try to keep those things in balance -- your career, your obligations to your community, your obligations to your family. I would say you have a wonderful start being here at UCLA and being in programs like this where you study globalization and the great trends that are taking place around the world. There is no single best route. I had the good luck to start as a lawyer and was able to establish a base of operations as a lawyer that enabled me to branch out into foreign affairs and government. I think the thing to do is to follow your interests, follow your idealism. Do those things that really excite you. Try to find something that seems like it just energizes you so you come in to work every morning feeling good about life rather than feeling bad about life. Foreign policy is an area of enormous interest. Once you get into it it makes everything more interesting in the world. I can read a newspaper today probably with a greater sense of excitement than I could have if I hadn't done the things I have done. Try to find something that turns you on, as they say, that excites you, but that also demands the best of you. Don't take the easy route. Foreign policy is not much different in many ways. It's not cleaner. It's not better. Indeed, you can find your disillusionment or illusionment in foreign policy as in the rest of the world.

Q: How would you gauge the success of the diplomatic efforts to slow down the progress of Iran's uranium enrichment? And do you think the talks with the EU Three and Iran will be successful, and if not, what do you think are the alternatives?

Christopher: Iran seems to me to be one of the instances in which Secretary Rice has had a positive influence on American foreign policy. With her famous closeness to President Bush she seems to have been able to influence American policy to try to join with our European allies in trying to persuade Iran to give up the nuclear option. It's an interesting situation and it's not as clear as we would like to have it. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which means that they are committed to give up nuclear weapons. But at the same time they are authorized to have peaceful nuclear power. Iran is arguing that they need uranium, need to produce uranium, in order to manage their nuclear plants. That contention can be challenged, but they have a reasonable case in saying that we need to be able to produce uranium in order to have peaceful nuclear power that we are entitled to under the nonproliferation treaty.

Well, back to the present situation. Because we are very skeptical of that, and because Iran has been a promoter of very difficult causes over the last years, it is important to get into some kind of negotiations with Iran. What Secretary Rice has done is to persuade the President and the United States to join those negotiations to see if Iran can't be persuaded to forego any efforts to do things that suggest that they are trying to have a nuclear weapon rather than just peaceful nuclear power. Those negotiations are not going well. As you read in the paper today, Iran has indicated they are going ahead with their nuclear efforts, at least on the peaceful front, in their terms.

I think we have to pursue those [negotiations]. I think the United States should be prepared to say to Iran, if you are willing to forego the nuclear weapons option, we are prepared to do many things, looking forward ultimately to a positive relationship with you, resuming diplomatic relations with you, assisting you in various ways. And we need to do that alongside of our European allies. If that doesn't work, the next step is that we ought to join with our European allies in going to the United Nations for sanctions against Iran. Sanctions are a very difficult tool. They only work if they are almost universal in their application. That's the route I would suggest. Continue negotiation. Put more incentives on the table. If you don't get a positive reaction then, go to the United Nations and be as tough as is necessary to try to try to keep Iran from joining the nuclear club, which would be such an enormous disadvantage. I have some hopes on this front because Iran is a country with a clear incentive toward democracy. Badly as I feel toward them for all the things they have done, including taking 52 hostages in 1979, nevertheless I think we need to make it possible for them to resume more normal relationships with the world community.

Q: You said that one reason the United States felt secure before 9/11 was because of its nuclear capability. So with respect to the world's increasing globalization how do you feel that all these smaller countries being concerned about their national security and also wanting to have a similar nuclear capability -- I found it difficult to understand why it is such a major problem when it is pretty clear that for a lot of smaller countries doing anything with their nuclear capability apart from just having it for a sense of security would result in their annihilation. So is there any genuine threat in any country actually using nuclear weapons?

Christopher: Yes, I think there is a legitimate fear by countries around the world that the nuclear option might be taken. For example, in the issue between Pakistan and India, both of them now have the capacity to build a nuclear bomb. They may or may not have a nuclear weapon. When they were having such tense times over Kashmir in 1999 there was a real sense that one of them might try to use a nuclear weapon against the other. There was certainly the threat that Russia might use a nuclear weapon against the United States. There were the great issues in the early 1960s over Cuba. It is really not possible to rule out that some country, motivated by anger or fear, that has nuclear capability might reach out and use that nuclear capability against an enemy. If that began, it might trigger other uses of nuclear weapons. I add to that the capacity of nonstate actors to perhaps buy nuclear weapons from an irrational North Korea. You run a terrible risk that somehow the nuclear genie might get out of the bottle in terms of there being another nuclear incident. It's amazing that we haven't had one since the United States attack in Japan, but it is a very real danger. I really can't discount the notion that this would be an ever-present threat for us until we do away with nuclear weapons, which will be a long, long time.

Q: Throughout your experience in foreign affairs how have you seen globalization change the world and how has it affected your job and your tasks directly?

Christopher: Globalization has brought the world so much closer together that events in one country dramatically affect events in another country instantaneously. When you have a financial crisis in a single country, the world is so interknit that that crisis in a single country touches off crises in other countries. Take, for example, the crisis that began in Asia in the last part of the twentieth century. It went from country to country to country because the economies are so interdependent on each other. When Mexico had its near meltdown in 1994, that affected not just Mexico but the rest of the world. So globalization is a reality. We can't retreat from globalization. It's simply there and it has affected the way the United States has to deal with the rest of the world, how immediately affected we are by developments around the world.

Now, outsourcing is one of the almost natural consequences of globalization. When you have the ability for people in one country to perform services for people in another country so glibly and so easily and so efficiently, then you make the world closer together, and in my judgment much more interdependent. I think the whole phenomenon of the interdependence of nations is enhanced and accelerated by globalization. It's a consequence that we all have to deal with. You all know Thomas Friedman, the brilliant writer and columnist for the New York Times. He has a new book called "The World Is Flat," which is a short answer to the good question you asked about the effect of globalization. Globalization has made the world flat and made us very conscious of what's going on in other countries around the world.

Q: My question is regarding Sudan. The former head of the peace-keeping mission in Rwanda has come out and said, probably quite accurately, that the international community has had such a slow response to Rwanda and now Sudan just based on the fact that they don't care. Considering that the instability of areas such as Sudan and others really creates a breeding ground for terrorism, I would like to know what your opinion is and what you think should be done.

Christopher: We think about Sudan and we are really talking about not one conflict but several conflicts. There was the long-standing conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south. That seems to have been brought to apparently a peaceful conclusion, at least in the short term. Action was taken in the signing of the peace treaty between those two discordant elements in Sudan. I assume where your question is going to now is the almost unimaginable tragic events in Darfur where the world community has not reacted in an effective and positive way. We depend instead on the Organization for African Unity to move into that situation, but it has been very ineffective. Press accounts that I read coming out of Darfur indicate that that area has changed almost permanently for the worse with villages terrorized, on a racial basis largely. So I think the United Nations and the world community has been very ineffective in Darfur and we should take a new resolve to try to bring that calamity under control.

Events around the world are so interrelated. When the United States does what it did in Iraq we tend to have less flexibility to deal with other events. As General Myers said the other day, the fact that we have troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq, large numbers of troops, limits our flexibility to do other things around the world. I really wish we would take a stronger stance in Darfur, but as I say, commitments in one area tend to limit the ability to be effective in another area.

Q: The implications was that the war in Iraq was going to change the face of the Middle East and I was wondering how well you think we are accomplishing that mission?

Christopher: On Iraq, I would like to say this. I think we are at a tipping point in Iraq at the present time. We are at a very dangerous moment. Will the insurgency succeed in producing chaos and civil war in Iraq? The news today is very harmful on that front. Fifty policemen, or people who wanted to be police, were killed, not in the Sunni triangle but in an urban area in the northern part of the country, a part of the country that had been relatively free of that kind of violence. 200 Iraqis have been killed in the last week, most of them people either in police training or policemen themselves. So I think there is a very dangerous situation, a tipping point. Will it become a civil war or will the force in Iraq, those trained by the United States, be able to get control of the situation and produce a peaceful future? On your question of how it will affect the region, I think it will affect the region positively if the Iraq government is able to successfully control the insurgency and if the United States can leave and come home. But right now the situation is right in balance. One of the reasons it is so important is that for many years the Shiites have been a depressed minority, sometimes a depressed majority, in the countries of the Middle East. The Sunnis have been in control of Iraq, repressing the Shiites. Now the Shiites have gained control, but when I read the news today, there is so much risk that they will not be able to rationalize the situation between the three [ethinc/religious groups], the United States has not produced any rationalization. Will the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Kurds be able to work out some modus where they can get along?

I say the news is not good today. The Iraqi government was formed with seven vacant ministries -- important ministries, like the ministry of oil -- because the Sunnis refuse to go along. The reason I assume they will not go along is because they were not given the kind of power that they asked for. So the effect of Iraq on the Middle East depends so much on the success of the Iraqi government, with the help of the United States. We are basically there providing support and cover for them, but for how long? The United States has lost fifteen hundred and eighty-two people, service people, in Iraq. Right now we are not in a Vietnam situation. The war has not become that unpopular. But if those losses continue with no real possibility for the United States to be able to withdraw its forces, then, I think, there is the risk that the war will become so unpopular in the United States that the opposition will grow by the day. But I don't think you can tell the effect on the rest of the Middle East. If it has a positive effect, if it is shown that the Shiites are responsible leaders of the country, that they will let in the Sunnis and provide adequate autonomy to the Kurds, that is one thing. On the other hand if they try, out of the repression that they have suffered for so many years, to be dominant then it can have quite another result. So it hangs in the balance there in Iraq and today's and yesterday's news give grounds for grave concern.

Q: In another part of the world, recently Taiwan and China have opened up talks and the Taiwanese government visited China. What does this signal about China's changing place in the world and where does the United States fit in as Taiwan's protector?

Christopher: That situation is sort of fragile and changing, almost daily. A few months ago we were all very concerned when China issued quite a bellicose statement about Taiwan and people criticized China for doing so. Most recently they invited the head of the opposition party in Taiwan, who got almost half of the votes in the last election, to come to China and talk about getting along. Now they have apparently set some conditions, maybe they are too harsh conditions, but conditions for the government of Taiwan to come and talk with China. My own feeling in the longer term is that if the situation can stay stable for a few more years that the commercial realities will bring them together. Commercial aircraft are now flying from Taiwan to China. The investments by Taiwanese in China are just enormous, the largest investments made in all of China. So there are things pulling those two countries together. United States policy ought to be, as it has been in the past, to try to make sure that those two countries avoid an armed clash, to try to sit on both sides of the fence if we can to avoid a clash. I think our policy of studied ambiguity, that is, to not say what we would do if there was a clash, is probably a wise policy. It is a very narrow line to walk, and the United States has walked it well up to this point. It encourages both sides to seek a peaceful solution. Events in the last week or so are encouraging in that China is willing to take a more open stance with respect to Taiwan, and Taiwan, with the visit of the opposition party and perhaps even the majority party in Taiwan, seems more willing to explore those possibilities.

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