Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens visited Kenyon on Feb. 8 to deliver a lecture called “The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy,” an event co-sponsored by The Center for the Study of American Democracy and the Kenyon Israel Club. Stephens writes the Wall Street Journal’s foreign-affairs column and serves as the Journal’s deputy editorial page editor. He is also a regular panelist on the Journal Editorial Report, a weekly political talk show broadcast on Fox News Channel. He previously served as Editor-in-Chief of the Jerusalem Post.
In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has accused major news outlets of being “fake news,” Chief Strategist Steve Bannon has advised the media to “keep its mouth shut” and Kellyanne Conway has asserted that verifiable facts may be countered with “alternative facts.” What do you think is the role of journalism in an increasingly turbulent media landscape?
It should be what it always has been, or what it always has been at its best, which is holding people in positions of authority and power to account. What’s so disturbing about the comments by Bannon is that they sound like the words that might be uttered by despots, not senior advisors. Conway’s comment about alternative facts, while it’s probably something that was just blurted out, was revealing in its own way because I think it squares with the Trump campaign and the Trump administration’s assault on some foundational concepts of truth and facts. Belief is not a substitute for data, is not a substitute for fact; it’s not a substitute for truth.
You have been an outspoken critic of Trump and voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the latest election, despite being, in your own words, “right-of-center.” What would your ideal Republican Party look like and what is it about the current Republican party that you reject?
I think the future of a viable conservative movement in the U.S. has to rest around the party that believes in aspiration, opportunity and inclusion. The Republican Party is a party of people who want to better their lives and do so by getting government bureaucracy and red tape out of the way. It should be a party of immigrants and a party of refugees. That message of aspiration, of making it in America, ought to be the core message. What you have with Trump is essentially a message of nationalism and exclusivity. It’s not a message I think will carry the Republican Party very far.
Critics have accused you of engaging in hate speech that essentializes and demonizes the Arab world. For instance, you have been quoted as saying that “the Arab world’s problems are the problems of the ‘Arab mindset,’” that several Arab countries are “backwards” and that Muslims in America are less of a threat than Muslims in Europe because, in America, many of them are “not Arab.” What is your response to these criticisms?
Last year, I wrote a column arguing that anti-Semitism has harmed the Arab world more than it has actually harmed Israel. That mindset of conspiracy theorizing, of turning Israel and the Jews into a national obsession, has done material damage to the prospects of the Arab world and Arab society. People who evade the reality of pervasive anti-Semitism are whitewashing hate. I doubt you’d whitewash hate on this campus or in this country so why should you do it in the rest of the world?
In a recent article, you wrote that the U.S. should intervene in foreign affairs by “reassuring the good, deterring the tempted and punishing the wicked.” Why should America assume this responsibility? Are there some countries in which the U.S. has overplayed its policing roles?
Yes, I suppose you could make that argument. America’s not a nation of saints; we’re not a perfect country. But we’re also a country that has helped maintain a stable liberal international world order for close to 70 years, and that’s a really good thing. If you’re Taiwanese, if you’re Israeli, if you’re Estonian, you look to the U.S. as the guarantor of your government, of your freedom against neighbors like China or Syria or Russia, who want to conquer your country and oppress your people. I think that’s been a heroic role that the U.S. has played. It turns out that the only kind of world system which guarantees the greatest good for the greatest number of people is an American-led world system.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.