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Interview: Representative Wexler On Engagement, Democracy, And Soft Power

Florida Representative Robert Wexler at RFE/RL

Florida Representative Robert Wexler at RFE/RL

U.S. Representative Robert Wexler (Democrat-Florida), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Europe, held a hearing in Congress that looked at the role of “soft power” in the world – specifically, the role that international broadcasters like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America play in countries where the media is neither independent or free. After the hearing, he spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Pavol Babos about U.S. foreign policy, President Barack Obama’s first six months in office, and what Iran needs to do next.

RFE/RL: A group of intellectuals and former policy makers from Eastern and Central Europe recently wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to renew America’s ties with the region and assume a greater role in Europe, or risk losing the strong post-Cold War alliances that ushered in democracy. Do you think the letter writers have a legitimate point?

Representative Robert Wexler: The people who signed the letter are the leaders of the democratic and human rights movements in Central and Eastern Europe, so it would be ridiculous not to take very seriously the points of view that these leaders have expressed. I think the concerns that they raised are the jumping-off point from which the new American administration and the Congress need to address the public opinion and the substantive issues that they brought to light.

I think the good news is that’s already being done. Vice President [Joseph] Biden’s visits to the region are a direct result not of the letter, but of an authentic and genuine concern by the American administration for keeping our relations in Central and Eastern Europe at the forefront of our foreign policy goals.

President Obama is seeking to engage with Russia in a more positive way, and what the president has said, which is what I think is the genesis of what should be a positive approach, is that no longer can we assume, and nor should we, that the American-Russian relationship is a zero-sum game.

I think the president is correct -- to the degree that the United States can in fact work more collaboratively with Russia, on issues of mutual concern, then the nations of Central and Eastern Europe should benefit from that cooperative relationship.

But that does not mean, not in one small instance, that the United States will change its perspective in terms of its principals and ideology in terms of supporting freedom – whether it be freedom of the press, or freedom of expression, or freedom of assembly.

And nor does it mean that in any way we are lessening our commitment to transatlantic institutions, or the ability of nations such as Ukraine, or Georgia, or others who wish to join transatlantic institutions, that our commitment is any less. It’s just the opposite.

In a practical the degree that we, the United States, can be working in a more cooperative way with Russia, the integration of these nations in transatlantic institutions may in fact turn out to be an easier task. But that’s not the legitimacy of why we pursue the goal. But it could be a byproduct.

RFE/RL: Since the letter calls on the United States to take a bigger role in Central and Eastern Europe, especially with respect to the region’s interactions with Europe and Russia, what do you think the Obama administration’s response should be?

Wexler: You’re correct, the letter is, in fact, a call for a refocusing of American attention and I think that that is something that is entirely consistent with the American administration’s foreign policy goals. [State Department] Assistant Secretary [for European Affairs Philip] Gordon testified before the Europe subcommittee not too long ago and he said precisely these things: that in effect, there has been extraordinary progress in Central and Eastern Europe over the last 20 years, but the job is not done, and the job is not done, clearly, in the Balkans.

There are some concerns which were outlined in the letter, in terms of growth of nationalistic movements, [and] there are concerns beyond the letter, in terms of extremism and different political phenomena that are occurring in the region. America would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that and try to assist those [countries] to continue on a path of greater and greater democracy, and greater and greater concern for human rights.

That’s where America’s policy has always been and will continue to be, and it’s good that our allies raise concerns, and it’s important that the American administration from the top down addresses those concerns, and that’s what I think the Obama administration is doing.

RFE/RL: What is the level of support for international broadcasting among members of Congress?

Wexler: It’s not just Democrats, it’s not just Republicans, it’s not liberals or conservatives, it’s everyone in the United States Congress.

There is a consensus of thought that for the amount of money that we spend, which is relatively small, the value of what we gain as a result of the efforts of Radio Free Europe, of Voice of America, and the other institutions, is that this is arguably one of the most cost-effective ways to engage public opinion across the world, globally, to exert smart power, soft power, whatever the right term is, in a way that wins the hearts and minds of people all across the world, and from a position not of propaganda, but from a position of simply enabling access to information. Objective information about the policies of the United States, about ongoing situations in their own countries.

RFE/RL: A new survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project has found a vast improvement in global opinion of the United States since President Barack Obama’s election, most strikingly in Western Europe, but also in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and some majority Muslim countries. You were an early supporter of Obama when he was running for president, so maybe this doesn’t surprise you. What specific things has he done or said in his first six months in office to effect such a dramatic change?

Wexler: It’s what President Obama represents, it’s his keen intellect, it’s his extraordinary charisma, it is the substantive nature of the policies he is promoting, it’s the manner in which he communicates with people, and it’s not a communication style that is dictatorial -- it is a communication style that is engaging. He clearly has [repositioned] the United States from a point of view [in which]...we believed we were dictating a result instead of listening and engaging with our allies.

Also, when the president of the United States, in essence, tells the world that he’s willing to engage with leaders that are fundamentally opposed to his policies, such as leaders in Iran or leaders in Venezuela, leaders in Cuba, or wherever it may be, I think many people in the world sit back and say, “Well that’s the America I’ve always loved and respected.”

RFE/RL: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said the Obama administration’s offer to sit down and negotiate with Iran was not an unlimited offer. What does Iran need to do to if it doesn’t want to lose this opportunity?

Wexler: Secretary Clinton is correct, and what she articulated is consistent with what President Obama has said, which is that there is a time-limited nature to this policy of engagement with Iran, for good reason. Because the president and the secretary of state are not going to allow the Iranians to use this policy of engagement as a vehicle in which to run the clock out, in effect, on their nuclear program.

What does Iran need to do? They need to comply with the agreements that they have signed, in terms of the nuclear weapons proliferations accord. They need to stop enriching uranium in violation of international agreements. They need to allow inspectors into all facets of their programs.

The Iranians allege, I don’t think particularly credibly, that they don’t have a weaponization program, they just have a civilian program. Well, if that’s the case, then let the inspectors in and let them determine that.

Again, in all aspects of their program, they have misled and acted fraudulently for decades in terms of their responsibilities with respect to their nuclear program. There’s no reason to believe that they are not continuing to mislead and acting in a fraudulent fashion, and like the secretary has said, again, consistent with what the president has said, is that we will give them an opportunity to engage, which will be done for the purpose of changing their behavior.

The policy is no longer a change in the regime, but it is a policy of change of behavior, change of action. So what does Iran need to do? They need to change their behavior, and they need to do it relatively quickly, within the timeframe that the secretary and the president have outlined.