For the last two days, I have been deeply embedded in German Marshall Fund President Craig Kennedy’s “Brussels Forum“.
In years previous, I have been to the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, Economist Intelligence Unit seminars, McKinsey sponsored meetings, and I generally like them all. But I found this meeting in Brussels to be quite important, extremely well organized — and surprisingly worth the time. It really is one of the premier conferences that brings together international notables — but also wrestles with real issues and ideas.
The Forum has quite a number of papers that have just been released along with the conference — and will be posting videos online of the public, on-the-record sessions — though I feel the best meetings were the off the record sessions.
Unfortunately, the US Senators who were supposed to be here had a plane malfunction, and they were forced to land — and sit — in Newfoundland. We found that out this morning. The many House of Representatives members had to cancel en masse because of late votes on Friday in Washington on the FISA bill and other matters. Only Rose DeLauro (D-CT) made it — though I haven’t connected yet.
A couple of quick observations. First of all, though the “Cuba After Castro” meeting I wrote about the other day was Chatham House rules and thus I can’t fix any quotes on any of the participants — I was given permission to publicly note the views of Czech Republic Deputy Prime Minister for EU Affairs Alexandr Vondra who I thought would be a fellow traveler of sorts with US-Cuba Cold War spear-carrier Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart. He pleasantly surprised me and though a fervent promoter of the “human rights” and “democratization” agenda in Cuba policy — Vondra said that the failed economic embargo of Cuba is not a path towards democratization and improved human rights. He said he does not support the embargo or the restrictions on travel and people to people contact — and he (and I in my own remarks) noted the Czech Republic’s vote in the United Nations this past year against the embargo.
The Cuba session was actually quite superb — and I appreciated Deputy Prime Minister Vondra’s candor, as well as the thoughtful presentations of Policy Review editor and Hoover Institute fellow Tod Lindberg, El Pais columnist Andres Ortega, German Marshall Fund President Craig Kennedy did a great job managing a very feisty discussion — and most there seemed to open up a bit to the new possibilities presented by transitions in Cuba’s government as well as the coming change in administrations in Washington.
There’s much more I want to write about — but will do it later. I have to admit that I was quite taken with World Bank President Bob Zoellick’s talk here last night. He’s just an exceptional intellectual able to synthesize economic and strategic issues in the way they should be synthesized. I think that Zoellick ought to be Secretary of the Treasury no matter who the next President is — and nearly asked him (in the on the record session) whether he would consider serving in an Obama administration. I decided to put him on the spot on another issue. More on that later.
I also chatted a short bit with Richard Holbrooke who is the closest thing to a potential Kissinger that the Dems have right now (other than Zbigniew Brzezinski who will not serve in government again). Holbrooke is a broker of power, drawn to power, ambivalent about the unpowerful (at conferences).
A number of people strongly reacted to his provocative performance on a BBC World Debate discussion here with Russian Duma International Affairs Chairman Konstantin Kosachev, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Poland Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, and BBC World Lead Anchor Nik Gowing.. Essentially, Holbrooke challenged Sikorski and Kosachev to stop wasting time in conferences like this one on their “second tier issues” and to focus instead on the macro challenges — like genocide in Africa, turbulence in the Middle East, and climate change.
My favorite audience response about Holbrooke — said to me by at least three people — was “Holbrooke is a prick, but he’s right.” I left the graphic language alone because I think Holbrooke would expect nothing less and would probably like to know that he stirred up some meaningful emotional reaction.
But then, after the session, as I was greeting Holbrooke and UT Austin LBJ School Dean James Steinberg (who served as Deputy National Security Adviser to Bill Clinton), Holbrooke grabbed Steinberg’s hand — much in the same way that George W. Bush walked hand in hand with Saudi King Abdullah on one photographed occasion — and then went and sat with him in the lobby having a private discussion for at least 45 minutes.
Steinberg was one of the first major Democrat foreign policy hands to call for a withdrawal from Iraq as noted in this Spring 2004 op-ed co-authored by Brookings scholar Michael O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon apparently changed his mind on the subject — but Steinberg told me here and in the past that his views on withdrawing from Iraq remain the same.
Holbrooke’s zeroing in on him is the biggest indicator I have seen yet that Jim Steinberg is perhaps destined to be the next National Security Advisor (or the next next?) to the President. He could very well be up for the position in either a Clinton or Obama White House.
Holbrooke would not have spent as much time with him otherwise.
— Steve Clemons