Distinguished alum Donald F. McHenry ’57, an East St. Louis native and career diplomat, who was a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Cabinet and served as ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, was the speaker for the Adlai E. Stevenson II Memorial Lecture Series at the Center for the Performing Arts in November 17th.
In a wide-ranging Q & A, moderated by WGLT’S Charlie Schlenker, McHenry touched on several topics, including: US foreign policy; COVID19; Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin; Ukraine; China; Taiwan; climate change; and midterm elections, to name a few.
On the subject of American foreign policy, McHenry offered an unequivocal assessment.
“We need to get our act together in the United States,” he said. “We are expected by many around the world to be strong enough so that they can rely on us in times of need. You cannot exercise power or responsibility if you are weak or your institution is at risk.
McHenry said the US must live up to its responsibilities and not expect the world to stop when it goes through whatever it takes to regain its position of power around the world.
“We can’t say, ‘Stop the world I want to go to,’ nor can you say, ‘Wait until we get together,'” McHenry said. “We have to learn to do both at the same time.”
Democracy, he said, depends on a certain level of harmony in society and interdependence.
“It takes time to restore confidence in our institutions when they have been weakened,” McHenry said. “Time is something we should never be patient with.”
He warned that even the United States needs partners, especially because of the pandemic that is not yet over.
“We are not on this planet alone, and we cannot solve the problems we face alone,” he said. “If you don’t believe it, look at COVID. We remain from today vulnerable to the fact that COVID is reasserting itself in some parts of the world that are not vaccinated.
He added that COVID-19 is just one example of the fact that the world is very interdependent. COVID shows the danger of exaggeration, he said.
“Globalization is a good thing,” he said. “It takes advantage of the interdependence of the international community, but overdone globalization is dangerous.”
He pointed to the country’s difficulty protecting medical staff and testing its own citizens.
“So, the lesson I think we should draw is not that globalization is bad,” he said. “It’s that globalization is done excessively, it’s bad. We still need some independent capabilities.”
Another example he offers is Europe’s dependence on Russia for its fuel.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if the Europeans are completely dependent on Russia, it’s an incredible temptation for someone like Putin to come in and weaponize the availability of gas,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t buy gas from Russia, but it means you don’t depend on it. A Putin is always a possibility.
Regarding the war in Ukraine, he said that Russia is in the corner, having passed all the steps that would stop the conflict at an early stage. The Russians think they will take Ukraine in four or five days, he said.
“Russia is losing this war,” McHenry said. “The military has proven to be incompetent, poorly trained, poorly equipped, bad leadership, bad morale, bad strategy…
He said the negotiations are unlikely to be imminent as neither side sees the benefit of meeting today. The conflict will not end until Russia can seem to have won and Ukraine can show that it conquered and defeated the “blue”. He added that Ukraine relinquishing the territory will be a non-starter. The rest of the world should still try to support Ukraine without pulling the strings of a larger conflict, he added.
“Putin has strengthened NATO across the board,” said McHenry in describing an irony that is part of the unpredictable nature of war.
In climate change, we are only now at the point where both Congress and the public have concluded that climate change is real. He said there will be a long debate about how much sacrifice the U.S. must make both at home and abroad to put itself in a position to take the necessary steps to address climate change.
The difficult relationship between China and Taiwan is a dilemma that relates to McHenry. Taiwan’s leaders believe in Taiwan and its desire to assert its independence and maintain its current independence from Beijing.
“Beijing sees its time,” McHenry said. “The longer they wait, the more difficult it will be for them to take Taiwan peacefully. What we need to do is extend the time. There is no reason for American politicians to encourage Taiwan to talk about independence.
He said that of course the better thing is to encourage Taiwan to continue to progress, to continue to improve, to keep making itself very important.
“China cannot live without chips from Taiwan,” he said. “Time is on Taiwan’s side. Don’t do anything to push Beijing to act now quickly.”
He spoke briefly about the surprising results in the midterm elections, saying it would cause a difficult situation in Congress. He added that pollsters should find new methods of polling.
He also warned against the tendency of US factories and businesses to move to foreign countries where labor is cheaper or where there are no unions regardless of the country’s weakness.
McHenry said he was honored to participate in a lecture series named after Stevenson, one of his heroes. Early in his career he worked in the US State Department office in Washington, DC, which supported the work of the United Nations, then headed by Stevenson.
“There was an opportunity for this young man from Illinois to work with one of his childhood idols from 1963 until his death in 1965,” McHenry said. “So, this makes it a special event and it’s back in this community.”