April 16, 2019 | By Brian Hanson, Ryan Crocker

Deep Dish: Ryan Crocker on Iran-Iraq Relations

Warming ties between Iraq and Iran, and souring ties between the United States and both, raise the question: Did Iran come out as the real winner of the Iraq war? Ryan Crocker, who served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, joins Deep Dish to discuss. 

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Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about US policy in the Middle East with one of the US's most distinguished diplomats in this generation, ambassador Ryan Crocker. Last month marked the 16 years since the United States invaded Iraq and two nations have never been closer. But I don't mean the US and Iraq, but rather perhaps Iraq and Iran. To be provocative, the warming ties between Baghdad into Iran and the souring ties between Washington and both may beg the question, did Iran come out as the real winner of the Iraq war?

Brian Hanson: To talk to us about this and other issues, pressing issues in the Middle East, I have as I mentioned with me today, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He has a very distinguished career serving as US ambassador to six countries in this region, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. He is now a visiting lecture and diplomat in residence at Princeton University and a senior fellow at Yale University. Ambassador Crocker, welcome to Deep Dish.

Ryan Crocker: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Brian Hanson: So I want to start our conversation in that provocative setup that I started with, about the situation in Iraq today. So share with me as you look at Iraq right now, what is the state of play there?

Ryan Crocker: It's pretty clear, Brian, that as we have changed our policies and shifted our presence mainly by drawing it down and out, especially our military, that does not win a war for you. It simply leaves the battlefield to other forces who have more determination and more staying power. In this case, of course Iran was a major beneficiary. It's a problem that we face globally and that our enemies have learned to exploit. We're Americans. We like to get things done, get on with it, get it fixed and move on to the next thing. Well, things in the Middle East aren't that easily fixable. It takes time. It takes strategic patience, and we as Americans tend to be in pretty short supply there.

Brian Hanson: So as we look at Iraq, one of the things that seems to have happened recently is there's a relative decrease in sectarian violence. What's the state of the current government and its ability to really move the country forward at this point?

Ryan Crocker: With the new senior team in Iraq, with Adil Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister and Barham Salih occurred as president, in a sense it's a dream team. These are people we know very, very well. We've worked very closely with them. But we're not the only ones. The Iranians have worked very closely with them, and they would be the first to tell you they cannot put themselves in a position where they are openly confrontational with Iran.

Brian Hanson: And what does mean in practice? So what kinds of decisions, what kinds of positions are they not able to take or policies are shaped by that relationship in dependence on Iran?

Ryan Crocker: Well, it depends on Iran, in a most critical aspect, it would be economic. We have counseled them on what our policies are, what our regulations and laws are moving forward. They're going to have to figure this out and we're going to have to give them some space. In other words, they're going to keep some ties going. We would not be doing ourselves any good and certainly not doing them any good if we sanction them forward. So as in so many other complex issues around the world, this would be a great time for us maybe to do a little more listening and a little less talking.

Brian Hanson: And is there a constructive role that you can imagine us playing now in helping move Iraq forward or is it really that we need to take a step back from that situation now?

Ryan Crocker: Well, it would be hard to find any more backward room for us to take a step back. We have a-

Brian Hanson: Fair enough.

Ryan Crocker: ... We pretty well backed out, not just to the room but of the block. So this is a good time to step forward. Perhaps not so much in a number of Americans on the ground, but in the roles we play and the interest we pursue. We've gotten some credit in our account because of the role we played working with and advising Iraqi forces as they lead their own campaign against Islamic state, which of course was quite successful. They appreciate our contributions to that effort. So I think this will be a good time, again, with a good leadership that is basically well disposed toward us and understands us, to sit down and say, okay, it has been quite a while, more than a decade and a half since we got involved, where should we be going now? What do you in Iraq wants to do? What do you want us not to do? And let's figure out what the limits of the possible are. So I see an opportunity for us here as much as a challenge.

Brian Hanson: So this administration has been very focused on Iran's role in the region. And I want to talk about that more broadly, but for purposes of this moment in the conversation, with Iran relationship to Iraq, are there things that we should be signaling are places that we would not want to see that relationship go? Are there limits that we could usefully encourage? I want to avoid red line situations in language because we've been through that in this region. But are there things that we should be concerned about and we should be working with the Iraqi government in order to try to avoid?

Ryan Crocker: Well, again, I think the conversation is the important thing to be had right now. We don't need to guess at this stuff. We can actually ask them. That doesn't mean we implement everything they say, but it does mean we understand their point of reference and their calculations of their own opportunities and limits. There will be some issues that we will definitely want them to not do or do something. You see this in other countries. If you look at Turkey right now, the F-35 issue vis-à-vis the Soviet air defense systems. So that is a red line for us. And in this case, a very serious one. They're not as sharply etched in Iraq, but they're there. What we need to do is commit ourselves to a longterm relationship with Iraq. We have an agreement to that effect. I negotiated it 10 years ago. So let's look at that. Let's calm down, sit down and start a strategic dialogue over where Iraq is in the region, where we are in the world, and see what the best way forward is.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. And are there any particular goals or objectives that the US would want to keep in mind as it engaged in that conversation and certain types of outcomes that we would be looking for ways to help facilitate?

Ryan Crocker: This is where it's almost easy. Almost nothing in the Middle East is easy, including this. But what we want from Iraq is something Iraqis want. A stable, secure, prosperous society in the Middle East that treats its own people with respect and dignity and is no longer a threat to its neighbors. Obviously there are issues in Iraq now, but if you cast your mind back to the pre-2003 era under Saddam Hussein, this was in Iraq that invaded two of its neighbors Kuwait had occupied. In Iran, it started an eight year war. So the Iraq today, however challenged had may be, is infinitely better than the Iraq of the pre-2003 era. We would do well to remember that and to work with Iraqi government on ways that they can continue that move forward to a better future for them, for the region and indeed for the international community.

Brian Hanson: Terrific. I want to then pivot our attention to Iran. And of course, the Trump administration has focused on Iran and its policy in general to the region and made it a great deal of emphasis on condemning Iranian behavior in the region, putting increasing sanctions on Iran, of course, pulling out of the so-called Iran nuclear deal. How effective do you think this approach has been toured around?

Ryan Crocker: Well, I'm wrestling with this a bit because you seem to be giving them an enormous benefit of the doubt and suggesting that they have a coherent policy toward Iran. I haven't found it.

Brian Hanson: Yeah.

Ryan Crocker: On the one hand, we've all seen the statements from the president, from the secretary of state and from others that we are going to confront Iran. How was that working for us? Well, some months ago we announced that we were closing our consulate in the southern Iraq city of Basra. That is the center of their oil industry, it is right on the border with Iran and the Iranians are very much involved in that southern area. And we are apparently going to confront the Iranians by closing our consulate and pulling out our diplomats. I'm just having a little trouble processing that into a coherent policy. But they are consistent because you've seen the reporting of late, we are getting set to half our civilian presence in Afghanistan. That's this year, and next year it'll be Iraq's turn as we significantly draw down our embassy in Baghdad. So I don't quite see how that fits into a muscular posture of confronting Iran on their borders. We seem to be doing the opposite, talking tough and retreating on the ground. That is not a role that suits a world power, which United States still is.

Brian Hanson: Sometimes the rhetoric from the administration has been very strong to the point where some have wondered if we're on a potential pathway to a conflict or a war with Iran. And in a recent testimony before Congress Secretary Pompeo was asked if the 2001 AUMF technical acronym for the authorization to go to war, which was passed after 9/11, was justification for the action in Afghanistan of course, and then Iraq afterwards. He was asked if that authorization would cover a war with Iran today. And not only did he not say no, but he went on to say that there were links between Al-Qaeda and Iran. For some folks, this sounds very similar to kinds of the things we heard at the beginning of what led up to the conflict in Iraq. Do you think the potential with Iran to actually go to a military conflict with Iran is something that could occur? And if so, what would the consequences be?

Ryan Crocker: There's a lot in that question. Now, I'll start with the part today I think is an accurate observation if we are speaking of Iran having ties to Al-Qaeda. Yes, they do. And they have had them for quite a while, since shortly after 9/11. They have given a safe haven to Al-Qaeda leaders. Back in 2003, we broke off a dialogue with Iran after telling them that we had intelligence that Al-Qaeda elements in Iran were planning attacks on us interest in Saudi Arabia. Those attacks took place and that we shut down a diplomatic channel over it. So that part of it is true. And it's been going on for quite a while and it is not good. Is the answer military action against Iran? I would say emphatically no. If you don't like the way the war's gone in Iraq or in Afghanistan, bear in mind that Iran has about four times the population of either country and they have a long history of foreign intervention and resistance to foreign intervention.

Ryan Crocker: It goes back to the early '50s when it joined with the British 1953, in bringing down a democratically elected prime minister to reinstate the Shaw and then publicly bragged about it. Nobody in this country remembers what happened in 1953. Nobody in Iran will ever forget it. So the more we talk about as we read our sabers and suggest we're thinking of significant military action in Iran, the better the regimes going to like it because it will rally its people to it. And in a sense, the strongest weapon we've got against the Iranian regime is their own population, which is not very happy about how their country is going economically in particular. This kind of conversation makes it very hard for any kind of dissent to develop because it gives the weapon to the regime to say, ah, you're in bed with the Americans, and we all know what they do. So again, sit under a tree somewhere, reread your history, measure your words and at a minimum, try not to help your advisory.

Brian Hanson: So you've also talked about the fact that yes, indeed, Iran has engaged in activities that are against US interests and that we would like to have them not do. Do you have a sense of what you think US policy should be toward Iran, both in terms of objectives and some of the key ways that we should go about trying to achieve those objectives?

Ryan Crocker: To be absolutely frank, it's going to be very hard with this administration. It's hard to imagine how this administration can get on the right track since they have done a series of things that are absolutely on the wrong track. What we should be seeking is Iran's isolation internationally. Instead, we're isolating ourselves and the joint comprehensive plan of action, Iranian Nuclear Agreement would be a case in point. We negotiated that agreement. We let it from a position of strength with the core of the international community. It wasn't just us, it was the other four members of the security counseling, including China and Russia. And it included the Germans against the Iranians. So what we should have done is build on that, the Nuclear Agreement is a reasonably good arms control agreement. It's not a treaty of friendship.

Ryan Crocker: Reminiscent of what Reagan negotiated with the Soviets in the eighties, getting the SALT Agreement didn't stop him from talking about the Soviet Union as the evil empire. That is what we should be doing. We had the opportunity to go on with a follow-on agreement on their missile program, not included in the Nuclear Agreement because it's a separate subject. Europeans were ready to negotiate the Iranian's down on ballistic missiles and promising them more sanctions as they didn't go that way. So lesson one, do not do things by yourself. Do things with friends and allies. We gave that one away when we pulled out of the Nuclear Agreement and actually isolated ourselves, much to the delight of the Iranians. We have seen it bilaterally where again, we have closed our consulate in Basra where we are drawing down our staff in Baghdad. These are the last things you want to do if you're serious about limiting the Iranian capability for really bad actions. You need people with you.

Brian Hanson: And I suppose the Trump administration would respond and say that actually in the region they've reached out to build alliances with people to work against Iraq with countries they would probably point to strengthening the relationship with Israel. Their relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. How would you respond to them saying, actually, that's for cracker we're doing ... Yes, we want a different way on the nuclear deal, but we recognize we need friends and allies too, and this is the strategy that we're using in order to bring together other countries to help with this?

Ryan Crocker: So in the case of Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration has managed the hugely difficult, which is bringing a spirit of by-partisanship to our Congress, that by an overwhelming majority passed a bill that is going to the president significantly curtailing our cooperation with Saudi Arabia because of their actions in Yemen. So that partnership building, maybe the president could just take a walk up constitution avenue and start with the congress. Again, as the Iranians know, and we know, or we should know at least, the Saudi actions in Yemen we're an own goal, to use a soccer term, for Saudi Arabia to the benefit of Iran. The Houthis are not Iranian proxies, they're Yemeni nationalists. So without making much of an investment at all, the Saudis have given basically a political weapon to the Iranian.

Ryan Crocker: So you got to look at these things in some depth and detail. What are we trying to do here? Well, writing a blank check for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to do whatever he wants to do in Yemen or anywhere else he wants to do it, that would not be my idea of a partnership that is working for the interest of the United States and indeed for Saudi Arabia. So let's sit down, let's talk these things through. Who is doing what, where? In terms of recent visits, Secretary State of course, was recently in Kuwait, he was in Lebanon. He's been in Iraq to tell the Lebanese that they really got to get rid of Hezbollah because it's controlled by Iran. Well, flash news break here, that's been the case for like the last 35 years.

Brian Hanson: So we're not breaking news here, we're Deep Dish with that observation.

Ryan Crocker: I hate to break it to you, Brian, but that's the sad truth. The Lebanese cannot move against Hezbollah. So we've got to understand who our friends are, who our allies are, what are the issues they face, what can they do, what they can't do and settle in for a long haul because that's going to be what it is. We're not going to fix this one overnight or in any succession of nights that I can imagine. We need to indicate to friend and foe alike. We're serious. We're deliberate. We're not going away. We will move where it is advantageous. We will sit still when that is advantageous, but we're not going away. That's the message we need to send as we talk about drawing down and pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Sadly, that is not the message that we're conveying.

Brian Hanson: So that's a perfect transition for me because I wanted to talk about Afghanistan again, a country that you've been ambassador to during critical period of time. And there is news in this area and the administration has a plan to work toward drawing down, as you point out. And you wrote in January, when you were writing about the talks between the US government and the Taliban, you said, "This current process bears an unfortunate resemblance to the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War then is now. It was clear that by going to the table we were surrendering, we were just negotiating the terms of our surrender." That's a very strong statement. What do you mean by that?

Ryan Crocker: The Taliban has said almost from the beginning of our occupation in Afghanistan that they are more than ready to talk to the United States. They are not ready to talk to the puppet government installed by the United States. The Afghan government. For the last 18 years, we have said we will not accept those conditions. We are in support of a legitimate Afghan government. We are not going to delegitimize them. Now we are. So a huge concession upfront, and a deeply dangerous one for the stability of the Afghan government and Afghan forces. I can't imagine any more demoralizing, as you're fighting and dying out there as an Afghan trooper against the Taliban to hear that supposedly your strongest external ally, United States is now sitting down with the Taliban enemy trying to kill you out there in the field while your own government is excluded from the meeting.

Ryan Crocker: So the only explanation I can find for it is we're done there. We're coming home, we're pulling our troops out. We'll get the best deal that we can possibly get just as we tried in Paris. We'll buy some time, people's attention will focus elsewhere. So that by the time the helicopters rotate in to lift the remaining staff off the roof of the embassy, as they had to do in Hanoi two years after the Paris agreements, the world will largely have moved on. And this will be a footnote because that's the only place I see this going.

Brian Hanson: So some people express a concern about how long we are going to be there. This is at this point, the war with Afghanistan, America's longest war in history. And some folks say, well, at some point we're going to have to get out and bring this to an end. Others can have some traditional realists to worry that being present actually exacerbates the conflict and advocate coming off shore balancing a role here, say that actually if we leave we can reduce the trigger of the conflict. We are currently investing somewhere around $50 billion a year and have thousands of troops on the ground. Is this worth it making that kind of commitment, which doesn't seem to be moving in a good direction over time and to do otherwise, aren't we just locking ourselves in for the long haul in a self defeating strategy that hasn't worked in 18 years? How do you respond to that kind of critique?

Ryan Crocker: I would note that when I was out there during the Afghan surge, we reached 110,000 troops on the ground. 2011, 2012. Right now we have about 14,000. And that 14,000 as it turns out, certainly enough to keep the Afghan government and its armed forces moving in the right direction in spite of really major losses. And we've had losses too the last week or so. We lost several of our troopers out there. And any casualties, one casualty, too many. I stood enough ramp ceremonies to never forget that. At the same time, we lose more American military and training accidents in the United States than we're losing in Afghanistan. You've got to be proportional about this. So it's expensive? Yes, it is. 14,000 is a whole lot less expensive than 110,000.

Ryan Crocker: It's not so much what they're doing. It's the fact that they are there as a signal to friend and foe alike that Afghanistan is important to us. If you think you're going to push us out, if you think you're going to defeat us, think again, we're in this for the long haul. That's the conversation we need to have. And as we calculate cost, we might remind ourselves how much 9/11 cost. 3000 lives, trillions of dollars. Who brought us 9/11? Al-Qaeda embedded in a Taliban run Afghanistan. Who wants to country back and who are we negotiating with to that end? That would be the same Taliban. They have not become kinder or gentler in the intervening 18 years. They're tough, committed, smart, they gave up the country rather than give up their ally. If they're back, Al-Qaeda is back too. We saw that movie once, I don't think we want to see it again. And I think the cost of maintaining somewhere north of 10,000 troopers in Afghanistan is a reasonably inexpensive insurance policy against what we could get if we decide we are really truly done.

Brian Hanson: Let me just draw that out a little more in terms of what you see as likely to develop in Afghanistan if indeed we do play the scenario out and end up pulling out of there. Some folks again, just counter arguments, some people argue that actually Afghan--well the Taliban would play a role in the government going forward. We wouldn't be in the same situation that we were in 9/11 where it's likely to be used as a platform for an attack on the United States. That why we would be leaving behind a relatively weak Afghan government.

Brian Hanson: What would result would likely be some power sharing arrangement in which the Taliban would have a role, but there would also be other voices and perspectives part of that government. And that no matter how long we're there, and I guess this is a, can we afford to be there in the long term question, we're going to end up with a result, something like that. So shouldn't we just take it? So you spell out from you a little bit, you talked in big sweeping terms about what might happen in Afghanistan, but what would that really look like if we were to pull out? What do you see happening?

Ryan Crocker: Well, again, if we decide we're done and have negotiated some agreement with the Taliban, and then we are done and we're gone, if there's anybody out there who thinks that whatever is written down say about power sharing and Taliban respect for the rights of women and observance of democratic principles. If any of your listeners actually believed that, please, please give them my email. I've got some great real estate properties that they might be interested in. Look, this is not Switzerland. I mean, this is Afghanistan. The last time we saw an iteration like this was after we pulled out following the defeat of the Soviet Union. What did we leave behind? The Afghan civil war. Once there was no common enemy in the presence of the Soviets and no check in American presence, the Mujahideen factions went after each other.

Ryan Crocker: When I got the Kabul to reopen the embassy beginning of 2002, it looked like Berlin in 1945. I mean, entire streets reduced to rubble. Did we do that? No. Did the Soviets do that? No. Did the Taliban do that? No. The Afghans did it in their civil war. So the notion that there's going to be some kind of democratically guided power sharing, that's magical thinking. The Taliban know power comes from the barrel of a gun. And they have shown no hesitation to use that kind of power in the past. Why on earth would we think they're going to do it differently this time after 18 years in the wilderness? Again, it is magical thinking and it's highly dangerous.

Ryan Crocker: The other point I'd make here, something that I do feel strongly about, in the United States we have a constant tension in our foreign policy between our interests and our values. We're the only major country in the world that has values at the core of our nation. All men are created equal. Well, at the time that meant all white men who owned property. But what the heck? We got to start somewhere. Other countries work off of interest, not values. In this case in Afghanistan, we had a rare intersection that I thought was very important and that was on the position of females and Afghan society. From the very beginning, we paid attention to everything we could do to improve the lives of girls and women in Afghanistan who had been treated horrendously, particularly by the Taliban.

Ryan Crocker: We built girls' schools, we encouraged women to step forward, to run for election in parliament, where they are over 25% of the deputies, to join the military, to go into government, to go into businesses as entrepreneurs, and they did all of these things. So what happens if we decide we're done and welcome the Taliban back into Afghanistan? Because the implicit deal here was, you step forward, we got your backs. Now we're saying, well, that was then, this is now. We're tired, we've got other stuff to do in other places. Goodbye and good luck. That to me would be making a mockery at some of our core values. Who are we as a people? If we encourage women to step out into the sunshine, where they are exposed and then say, ah, we don't have your back anymore. Sorry about that. That's not what America stands for. So if you're looking at costs, well you might think of the moral costs of the United States of America to say, too bad about you Afghan women. Wished it could have worked better for you. But maybe some of you will make it.

Ryan Crocker: The New York Times did a horrific editorial on its time to leave Afghanistan acknowledging that there could be some rocky moments for Afghan females. Hey, but maybe not. Maybe the Pakistanis and the Chinese and whoever else hangs around that neighborhood, maybe they'll step in and do something good for Afghan females. I mean, who knows? It could happen and then merrily rush for the exits. So I think this is a moment to consider what are our values here? What have we given birth to out there that we're now prepared to betray? These are real people, real women, real lives.

Brian Hanson: So you have spent a career working in this region which, as we've talked about, and we've only touched on some of the challenges in the region today. I want to ask you something completely unfair, which is to draw on your life's experience in that region and look out, say five years from now. What do you think the best case scenario for the region broadly would look like in, say five years? And how could the US help contribute to getting there? I know it's an incredibly broad question, but what might that look like?

Ryan Crocker: Well, I'm glad you recognize that that is completely nuts. Look, an extreme long range prediction for the Middle East, that would be a week from Sunday. Give or take a day. Okay look, if you look back five years, you could not imagine where we are today. But you ask. Best case would be a spreading of the Tunisia phenomenon. Tunisia, small country in the middle of North Africa is the one April, sorry, Arab spring country that has a chance at evolving into a stable democracy. The Islams moved in, they won elections and they lost elections. They accepted the results. There have been some horrific terrorist attacks in Tunisia, but you're not seeing a complete breakdown of order that you have seen in its neighbors. Libya of course, and Algeria, which is getting pretty crunchy as well. Here's what you need to look at. If you distill everything in the Middle East down to a single word, that word for me would be governance or the lack thereof. That is the problem that has to be set the modern Middle East for the last hundred years since the end of the first World War.

Ryan Crocker: We have seen every ism we can imagine take its shot at running countries in the region. Western backed monarchism, Arab socialism, communism, Arab nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, Islamism. And in terms of Islamism, the flavor of the month, the good news is Islamism hasn't worked any better than the other isms as Islamic state has found out to its own detriment they didn't do any better at governance than anybody else. They got it. They started out by saying, we're going to have courts, we're going to have cops, we're going to have justice. Harsh justice, but predictable. While all they didn't get very far with that, our pressure in their own extremism, I think under cut it, but they understood the problem. So until you have governments and population saying this really is about governance, we've got to build stable institutions.

Ryan Crocker: Until that happens, I don't see this trending anywhere good. There'll be another ism. I don't know what kind, we've been through most of them, but I'm sure they can come up with something else. But unless that problem of governance is tackled and corrected, you'll see that go down too, and a region that has seemed so much bloodshed and disorder continue to experience the same. And finally, on that note, I would just say that sadly what happens in the Middle East doesn't stay in the Middle East. You can't build a wall around it. And now there's a concept. It shouldn't be around Mexico, but think big, entire Middle East. Well, it didn't work. Either the root causes get fixed or of the problems they engender are likely to be not only regional problems, but international problems. Again, as we saw on 9/11.

Brian Hanson: Well, Ambassador Crocker, thank you so much for being on Deep Dish and sharing insights from your long and distinguished service. And I think where you left us is a very good place to end this discussion for now. Thanks for being on Deep Dish.

Ryan Crocker: Thank you, Brian. Go cubs.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your podcast App. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please take a moment to tap the share button and send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. And there you can ask our guests follow up questions about anything you heard today or submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who express them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of the Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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