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Alumni hear international relations predictions

Jens David Ohlin, M. Elizabeth Sanders, Thomas B. Pepinsky
Patrick Shanahan/University Photography
Jens David Ohlin, M. Elizabeth Sanders and Thomas B. Pepinsky participate in the Current Events Roundtable: America and the World during 2015 Reunion Weekend June 5 in Goldwin Smith Hall.

Alumni streaming into a darkened Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall – from a sunlit Arts Quad on the Reunion Weekend afternoon of June 5 – heard some relatively cheery forecasts at the Current Events Roundtable: America and the World.

Presidents in their last two years of office typically don’t start new wars in new places – and maybe President Barack Obama won’t either, predicted M. Elizabeth Sanders, professor of government.

And whatever Obama’s frustrations and failures in international diplomacy have been, Jens David Ohlin, professor of law, assured roundtable listeners: A new president is on the way.

Moderator Thomas B. Pepinsky, associate professor of government, opened the hourlong discussion by saying: “Twenty-five years after the fall of Communism, it is a truism that the United States remains the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. And yet the U.S. is pressed on many fronts. President Obama, the U.S. Congress, the foreign policy establishment [face] challenges like Afghanistan and North Korea, alongside new challenges like ISIS and Crimea. At the same time Washington is polarized – you might say paralyzed – by partisan politics. Not since the 1970s have fears of U.S. decline seemed so real.”

Sanders cited her research on presidential war-making and said: “We’re in the most peaceful period. In the last year of an eight-year term since World War II there have been no new wars.

“Obviously if there is some terrible attack, we can always expect a president to respond to that. But they seem to emphasize different things in the last two years,” she continued. “They seem to be very intent on their legacy, that their legacy is not about war but peace. There’s a lot of cleaning up to do in the last two years, so no one wants to start a new war and leave that to your successor … this seems to be a clear time for diplomacy.”

For examples of Obama’s late-term efforts at diplomacy, Sanders cited “the enormous amount of effort, time and persuasion … forging a diplomatic agreement with Iran on nuclear capacity, the opening to Cuba [and] meetings with Chinese leaders to talk about climate change.”

Ohlin promised some good international relations news and some not-so-good, in that order, starting with alternative forms of warfare that potentially reduce civilian casualties.

Drones, he said “are at the leading edge of showing other countries this is not mere legalistic talk, that there are actual weapons platforms that could be deployed [to] meet the legal and ethical obligations to reduce civilian causalities.” Also, the increasing reliance on cyber warfare is a positive, Ohlin suggested, because that tactical shift fulfills “the requirement that the attacking force use a weapon which is as surgical as possible.”

Ohlin’s prediction for the remainder of the Obama administration was more of the same good intentions – and more frustrations. Admitting Ukraine to NATO would be “too aggressive and hostile” to Russia to risk further deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, he said. Using Shiite militias to fight ISIS, he said, ignores the fact that some Shiite fighters are funded and armed by Iran.  A United Nations Security Council resolution for intervention in Syria won’t happen, Ohlin said, because Syria is an ally of Russia.

“But we can always hope,” Ohlin said cheerily, “that the next president will have some solutions.”

Pepinski had begun the discussion by lauding what he called “a uniquely Cornellian perspective” on America’s evolving economic and social relations with the world.

“That uniquely Cornell way,” he said, “is rigorous critical scholarship on American institutions, on the Constitution and international affairs – with a deep sensitivity to local histories, local societies, local political forces in the places where U.S. foreign policy operates.”

The event was organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.

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Joe Schwartz