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Veteran scholar fields ’20 Questions’

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Stanley Hoffmann speaks at inaugural Humanities Center series

The next Humanities Center ’20 Questions’ talk (date to be announced) will feature Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and author of the recent ‘What Terrorists Want.’ For more on the center, go to

Three years after the start of the war in Iraq, and 40 years after a seemingly parallel situation peaked in Vietnam, it may seem evident to some that the United States needs a few lessons in foreign policy.

Stanley Hoffmann, the Paul and Catherine Buttenwieser University Professor now in his 52nd year of teaching at Harvard, is willing to teach those lessons. He was born in Austria, grew up in France before and during the Second World War, taught in Paris, observed the Cold War as a scholar, and has written more than a dozen books on international politics.

One of the latest, a 2004 collaboration with Frédéric Bozo, is tendentiously titled “Gulliver Unbound: America’s Imperial Temptation and the War in Iraq.” His latest title, published this month, is just as colorfully suggestive: “Chaos and Violence: What Globalization, Failed States, and Terrorism Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy.”

On the world stage, Hoffmann sees America as a stumbling Gulliver: short on diplomatic style, indifferent to world priorities, and blind to the realities of other cultures – a powerful but parochial nation that for decades has grappled with “the impossibility of understanding the foreignness of foreigners,” said Hoffmann in a Nov. 21 lecture at Harvard.

In the Thompson Room, wine patiently chills as the audience members join the assembled panel in posing ’20 Questions’ to international politics expert Hoffmann.

Lessons on diplomacy are difficult to convey to the leaders of the mightiest nation on earth, as Hoffmann has attempted to do for decades. “I have a sense of having repeated myself since about 1963,” he told the audience of 120 at the Barker Center’s Thompson Room.

The occasion of the professor’s remarks was a unique one: the inaugural session of a “20 Questions” series sponsored by the Humanities Center. In a Thompson Room rearranged to look like a living room, Hoffmann delivered opening remarks; answered a single question from each of six discussants – Harvard experts in religion, law, government, history, business, and foreign policy; and fielded questions from audience members – many of them experts themselves.

“It’s the spirit rather than the letter of the game we hope to replicate,” said Humanities Center Director Homi Bhabha of the “20 Questions” format. Opening with queries from a range of experts is meant to set the interdisciplinary terms of the discussion, said Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities. He hopes to make the center a crossroads of interdisciplinary conversation at Harvard – a meeting place for experts in the humanities and the social sciences to share deep conversations in a public place.

A common document was used to prompt questions at the Nov. 21 talk: “The Foreign Policy the U.S. Needs,” an essay Hoffmann wrote that was published this summer in the New York Review of Books. In it, he says that recent events have damaged the “soft power” of the United States – that is, the power to influence other countries by persuasion and example. Instead, Hoffmann claims, U.S. imperial ambition and pride have opened new rifts in a world increasingly hostile to the uses of American power.

In the essay, a review of three recent books, Hoffmann proposes a series of remedies. Among them: that the United States address its domestic “failures” regarding civil liberties and economic responsibility; endorse international agreements on global warming and criminal courts; withdraw from Iraq; and use “building power” in failed states, cooperating with other developed nations in dealing with an “increasingly multipolar world.”

During the two-hour public conversation, Hoffmann praised the newest generation of students. They’re better traveled, and more sensitive to a world of 191 nations that is globally interconnected and regionally unique, he said. “They are both American citizens and citizens of the world. That’s what we want.”

But in the meantime, Hoffmann added, “the political class is always the last to open its mind,” especially in Washington, D.C.

The American press, until lately, has been no help in opening minds to the complexities of the political world, he said. Hoffmann decried “the unbelievable mediocrity of the media” and the role of newspapers and television networks in a post-9/11 celebration of nationalism, which, he averred, obscured the realities of foreign policy and the priorities it demands.

Among the ignored realities, said Hoffmann, are the limits of military power. The United States has more military power than anyone, but it is largely unusable in a world that needs diplomacy and compromise instead of force. (In cases of national aggression or human rights abuses, Hoffmann favors a standby international military force.) He quoted Napoleon, a great military strategist who also acknowledged the power of diplomacy: “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them.”

Among the world priorities ignored by the architects of present U.S. foreign policy, said Hoffmann, are global warming; the depletion of natural resources; the problem of clashing cultures among and within nations; faltering nonproliferation agreements; and increasing numbers of failed states. Half of those in the world, he said, “are states in name only.”

American foreign policy also ignores or neglects universal “values,” said Hoffmann: peace, development that eliminates poverty, and guarantees of basic human rights.

A militarized U.S. foreign policy might have had some justification during decades of confrontation with the USSR, said Hoffmann, “but the Cold War is gone.”

Military might showed its weakness in the war in Iraq, said Hoffmann in response to one of the discussants, J. Bryan Hehir, Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life.

After intervention, Hoffmann said, the diplomats the United States sent in were inexperienced: “The only thing we could do was make things worse – introducing kids to things they didn’t know anything about.” His solution: Get out. Faced with a deadline for American withdrawal, Iraqis would have a choice, said Hoffmann: “Murder each other – or live together, as they did for years.”

Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, asked Hoffmann about “building power,” the arm of diplomacy that would help restore institutions in failing states. The United States understands economic development better, he said, but has not been very adept at rebuilding social infrastructure functions like garbage collection and postal systems.

Half in jest, Stephen Walt, the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs, accused Hoffmann of being “a secret Bush admirer” – George Herbert Walker Bush, that is. Hoffmann – whose essay, in part, was a review of Walt’s recent “Taming American Power” – acknowledged the elder Bush’s diplomatic deftness, but took issue with a Bush foreign policy so infused with realpolitik that it ignored human rights abuses.

“I agree with much of realism, but I am not 100 percent realistic,” said Hoffmann, who admits to a touch of utopianism in his proposals for a new American diplomacy. “These people have wonderful calculators, but they are a little cold for me.”

There are no political realists on the horizon now anyway, said Hoffmann. In the Clinton years, foreign policy was largely ignored. During the years of George W. Bush, foreign policy has been in the hands of neoconservatives, who Hoffmann suggested are better described as “neo-imperialists.” They are tone-deaf to foreign cultures, he claimed, and display a hubris “whose catastrophic effects have been felt everywhere.”

During Hoffmann’s talk, the other questioners were Jacqueline Bhabha, executive director, University Committee on Human Rights Studies; Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs; and Debora Spar, Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration.