Foreign policy expert Bruce Jones

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The international relations scholar and author of Still Ours to Lead assesses America’s ability to shape international policy.

Bruce Jones is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of its Project on International Order and Strategy. He's also affiliated with several universities, including Stanford and NYU. He has experience in Middle East peace negotiations and crisis management in the Balkans and has advised several international organizations, including the World Bank and the U.N. Jones, who holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, has authored several major policy reports and publications, including the text, Still Ours to Lead, in which he draws on his years of insider access to top decision makers to address the future of global stability.


Tavis: With Russia grabbing Crimea and Western leaders struggling to determine how to respond, questions about America’s ability to shape international policy have once again come into sharp focus.

Bruce Jones, a senior fellow and director of the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution has written then a timely new text that looks into America’s role as a coalition builder, titled “Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint.”

Dr. Jones also holds major appointments at both Stanford and NYU. Bruce Jones, good to have you on this program.

Dr. Bruce Jones: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: And as I had mentioned, what a timely text this is indeed. Before I color our conversation too much, your thoughts about what we see happening in Crimea?

Jones: Well this is a really critical test for American leadership and for the West, and you used a key phrase in your introduction about coalition-building. There are certain things that the United States can do by itself in response to what Russia’s done in Crimea, but it’s in a much stronger position if we can galvanize the Western alliance, if we can galvanize the Europeans, and if we can keep the Chinese and the Indians and others from being too supportive of Russia in this context.

Tavis: Yeah. That means, though, that there has to be some respect for the authority of the U.S., for the style of leadership that we employ when it comes to building coalitions.

It means that people still have to see our capacity and our ability to lead in the world. Is that still the case?

Jones: I think it is, and I think these crises bring it out. There’s been a lot of talk about American decline, about American withdrawal from the world, but when we see in an acute crisis like this, immediately everybody’s looking at Washington to see what Washington will do.

There’s no serious option of responding to this unless Washington leads it, and everybody’s looking to Washington to lead.

Tavis: Yet the flip side of that, Bruce, though, is that when the U.S. stands up and says, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” it doesn’t automatically lead to results.

Jones: Right, never has. At the height of the Cold War when we were the leader of the free world and had Europe’s security at our, had their back, they still didn’t do everything we told them to do. It never works that way.

But the United States is uniquely well positioned to coalesce allies and others to try to build, patiently, coalitions to produce results. But it takes time and doesn’t always succeed.

Tavis: I could talk about Ukraine and Crimea, I could talk about Syria, any number of other places around the globe, where Barack Obama as president has had a lot of potshots taken at him over his inability to lead or the wishy-washiness of his leadership.

One thing today, another point of view tomorrow; on strategy today, another strategy tomorrow. So there’ve been shots taken at the president, perhaps some legitimate, many of them, I think, illegitimate.

But the question is whether or not we have a crisis of leadership in this particular White House, or whether or not the country writ large has found itself in a place historically where people are looking a little differently at the leadership of our nation, never mind who the president is.

Jones: Right. Well, let me say a couple of things here. One of the things I do in the book is try to take a deeper look at the fundamentals underneath American power, and my conclusion is the United States is going to be an enduring power on the international stage, now and for some time to come, by far and away the most influential actor on the world stage.

My understanding of the polling, of trying to get a handle on sort of Americans’ own thinking of the world as – everybody understands that we’ve got to be engaged in the world. It’s not that.

People are gun-shy. People don’t want to go back out to new wars, and that’s understandable. So there’s a lot of support for the president’s decision not to engage in Syria, for example. I’m more critical of that.

But I think we see in a crisis like Ukraine, this isn’t going to be a military action, but it is going to take United States using every other lever of its power – economic, political, et cetera, and coalition-building – to try to contain Russia and reverse this.

Tavis: You can both be, to my mind, tell me what you think, Bruce, you can both be an enduring power and at the same time a power that is viewed as dogmatic and domineering. So just because you’re enduring doesn’t mean you’re respected.

Jones: Right, and I make a point in the book that the United States has to lead, not dominate. There’s a big difference. There’s been a long period of time where we conflated the notion of leadership with unilateral military action.

Our military power is an important part of our leadership, but just by itself it’s not enough. It’s that broader economic engagement, that broader political engagement, that coalition-building, and ultimately, yes, military power at times.

They’re the critical ingredients of American power, especially when large chunks of the world economy are held by countries that are not U.S. allies – India, Brazil, South Africa, China, and of course Russia.

Tavis: What does that mean, that reality? What does that mean for the future?

Jones: Well, it means we have to spend a lot of our time and a lot of our energy building relationships with those countries. It’s really interesting when you travel to Beijing, when you travel to Delhi, when you travel to these places, they have a real mix of interests.

In part they would like to challenge us. They want to assert themselves on the international stage. But they also have a lot of stakes in a stable international system, and they know that their bread is buttered on the side of stability, and they can’t achieve that without cooperating with the United States. So there’s a lot to work with there.

Tavis: How much in the future, Bruce, do you think our military power will or in fact should take a back seat to what we refer to as “soft power?”

Jones: Yeah, I’m never a big fan of the phrase soft power, but I use the phrase in the book, “coalitional power,” and it goes to your very first point. Let’s take a look at Asia.

We’re now focused on the Ukraine, but of course we still have China and Japan and very tense mode off in the East China Sea. Our military presence there is a really important deterrent for China becoming more aggressive, but it’s not the only factor.

It’s that China works with us on energy issues, we’re (unintelligible) economically. They depend on us for a whole series of non-military ways. It’s that balance of the two things that I think puts the United States in a strong position.

Tavis: Do you think our military power is still a deterrent? I ask that for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is I was always troubled when this whole Syria thing kicked up within the last year, the Washington opinion was it was the military threat that at least put Syria on the road to looking at handling this a different way.

What’s come of that, I really don’t know at this point. The war still goes on in Syria. But the argument, again, was that the military threat helped to turn this crisis.

It seems to me that it wasn’t necessarily the military threat as much as it was the conversation getting on a playing field where diplomats could have their say. And maybe it’s not either-or but both-and, but that’s a long way of getting at whether or not we really do believe, whether you believe, that our military power is still an effective deterrent in and of itself.

Jones: Yeah, the key phrase there is “in and of itself.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Jones: Our American, our military power is still really important in these conversations. Part of why diplomacy works sometimes is because the alternative is military power and people don’t want to go there, and so that creates an incentive for diplomacy.

It’s the old saw about carrots and sticks, and the effective wielding of those two still matters. But the deeper point I think here is that there are a lot of places where we actually do have shared interests, even with a country like Russia.

Russia doesn’t want to see chemical weapons spilling out of Syria into its neighborhoods. We had a shared interest in cleaning up the chemical weapons in Syria.

It’s really important to use diplomacy to find those shared interests wherever we can, and the military option has to be the very last, the very last option.

Tavis: Yeah. What about this notion of American exceptionalism as you see it? The first thing I thought when I saw this title, “Still Ours to Lead,” is that age-old question, that age-old debate about American exceptionalism. Where do you come down on that these days?

Jones: I’ve never been a big fan of the phrase, but I have to say – I’ll put it this way. Let’s take the (unintelligible) of the United States that came through the Snowden, revelations.

Here is this NSA spying on the world, et cetera. A lot of people were upset with us in India and in Brazil and in Europe, et cetera.

Tavis: Germany and everywhere else, yeah.

Jones: Germany and everywhere else.

Tavis: Merkel really. (Laughs)

Jones: I don’t think that anybody turns around and says, “Oh, gosh, that means I’d much rather be close to China or Russia.” So by the standards of great powers, there is something very different about American power, and we’ve decided, historically, over the past (unintelligible) years, to set up the way we use American power, to try to build these coalitions, to try to build these alliances and support free trade in an inclusive system.

One of the big ironies of the current moment is that we spend a lot of time thinking about the rise of China, the rise of India, et cetera; well, they rose by participating in the global economic system that we built and we support.

That’s a very different kind of power. There are some exceptions, and sometimes we use our power in more muscular and more unilateral ways.

Tavis: To the subtitle of your text, we certainly know rivalry. The question is whether or not we know restraint. Put another way, what you call restraint, the media might call this Obama administration leading from behind.

But when that phrase was put out, “leading from behind,” he was roundly criticized, and not just by “Fox News.” So we know rivalry, but do we really know restraint these days?

Jones: Yeah, we’re going to have to learn restraint. I think that’s a really important part of the equation. So for example right now we’ve put important levels of sanctions on Russia.

But you already saw today China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, they didn’t join forces with Russia, they weren’t supporting Russia, but they’re very worried about those sanctions.

They’re upset with what Russia’s done, but they’re worried about the United States using financial sanctions against another state or non-Western power, because they’re also vulnerable to this.

We have to be a little bit careful about how far we push this, or we’re going to drive Russia and China closer together, which is not at all in our interest. So we have to learn some restraint as well.

Tavis: What do you say to those persons, when you say that the world is still ours to lead, the flip side of that argument, and there are many who make this argument and we’re going to hear more of it as we head toward 2016, this notion of, whether they call it this or not, a policy of isolationism in that we’re not the world’s police, and you argue that the world is still ours to lead.

Jones: Yeah. We’ve never been the world’s policeman in the sense that we don’t intervene everywhere. But we do play really important roles, and especially in Asia and in Europe, in deterring interstate war.

We also do really important other things. We have Special Forces right now running around in northern Uganda, trying to hunt down one of the world’s most atrocious rebels, Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

We do all sorts of things in the world. It’s interesting going around to these capitols. There are times when they challenge that, there are times when they resent it – Iraq or something – but there are also a lot of times when they recognize that that role actually helps keep things more stable than they would be otherwise.

The part of our diplomacy and the part of our politics which has been underutilized is that coalition-building. We haven’t done nearly enough to invest in our relationship with India, to build out the kind of opportunities we have with China.

There are tensions and difficulties there, but there are a lot of opportunities there as well. We’ve been neglecting our European allies until this crisis. The military option is there, the military capability will be there if we keep it up.

I’m much more preoccupied that we build up the coalitions and the institutions to avoid having to use it. When we have to use it, we’ll have to use it, but I’m more preoccupied by building the coalitions that can sustain American power absent just the military threat.

Tavis: Finally, you think the American people want us to lead, whether or not it’s still ours to lead or not, do they want us to lead or do they want us to mind our business and take care of business here at home?

Jones: They want us to lead, but they want us to lead successfully, and that’s going to be the challenge.

Tavis: Yeah. The book is called “Still Ours to Lead: America, Rising Powers, and the Tension Between Rivalry and Restraint,” written by Bruce Jones of the Brookings Institution. Bruce, good to have you on the program. Thanks for the text.

Jones: Thanks for (unintelligible).

Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: March 25, 2014 at 3:51 pm