James Steinberg has had a storied career in diplomacy and national security, but mostly behind the scenes. As deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration, he was the nerve center of foreign policy in the White House. After heading President Obama’s national-security transition team, he was shortlisted for one of the top jobs but ended up as deputy secretary of State under Hillary Rodham Clinton. Last month, Steinberg, 58, retired to become dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. He sat down with National Journal to reflect on the United States’ position in the world. Edited excerpts follow.
NJ How was your relationship with Secretary Clinton?
STEINBERG I got along great with Hillary. Hillary is a fantastic secretary of State and a fantastic boss. I couldn’t have asked for better. I had access to everything. I didn’t win every fight, but I was at every table.
NJ Hasn’t the U.S. lost prestige dramatically around the world since the Clinton administration?
STEINBERG I don’t agree. If you unpack it: The favorable views of the U.S. in Latin America are at historically high levels; views of the United States in East Asia are extremely high; views in Europe are extremely high in historical terms. So where is the challenge? In the Arab and Islamic world, where the numbers are better than [under President George W.] Bush, but that is a challenge. Look at the Arab Spring: They aren’t demonstrating against America. In the past, if there were demonstrations in the Third World, you’d see “Down with America! Death to America!” There’s been none of that. It really is an unwritten piece of the story.
NJ Our most complex relationship is with China, something you’ve thought about a lot. Your idea of “strategic reassurance,” floated in the fall of 2009, apparently didn’t survive.
STEINBERG I don’t agree with that. The language that our leaders have chosen is “building strategic mutual trust.” I’m OK with that. I see that my idea of reassurance is the way you build strategic trust.
NJ What is your gut-level sense of how the Chinese view the global power balance? Do they really believe in “peaceful rise,” or do they seek some kind of global hegemony?
STEINBERG There is no single Chinese view about their role in the world. There are thinkers in China who believe that China can secure its future only by becoming the next hegemon, and there are some in China who think it’s the road to doom if they do it. There is a diversity of opinions.
There is no way of knowing which opinion will prevail. For the near term, the Chinese leadership has resolved their debate. They’ve concluded that for at least the next decade, they need to continue to focus on what they’ve been focusing on, which is economic development and dealing with [internal] tensions. So they want another generation of peace and tranquility.
NJ Do you see evidence that they’ve ratcheted up their military ambitions, trying to create a blue-water navy, a dominant position in space, in the cyberworld?
STEINBERG It’s sort of unanswerable. Here’s where strategic reassurance comes in. There are various activities they are undertaking, which can be justified under a variety of different theories. And you can’t just say that because they’re building an aircraft carrier that that proves they want to be a globally dominant power. We worry a lot about what we call the anti-access capabilities the Chinese are developing. Things that make it harder for us to get close to China and sustain our presence in the western Pacific.
NJ Iran has had some serious issues with their nuclear program, possibly thanks to us.
STEINBERG They’re not as successful as I’m sure they would like to be. On Iran, the bigger question is, Where is the country? I’ve always been kind of optimistic about Iran’s political future in the longer term.
NJ Could the U.S. have done more to support the green movement there?
STEINBERG No; I think it would have damaged the green movement more.
NJ It’s hard to imagine them more damaged. What about aid for cybertechnology and communications?
STEINBERG We did a lot. In terms of keeping open the public space for the reformers, we did that.
NJ Is there an issue where you would have done something differently?
STEINBERG I’ve previously said that we didn’t handle the closure of Guantanamo well. It was very important to do it, and it remains important to do it, but we did lose the public-affairs battle on that one.
NJ What about other traditional security concerns? Russia?
STEINBERG We don’t view ourselves in a competition with Russia. But I do think there are some Russians who view themselves in a competition with us—and remain very suspicious.
This article appears in the July 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.