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ISU alum and ambassador Donald McHenry: Foreign policy starts at home

Shea Grehan / senior photographer, University Marketing & Communications
Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Donald McHenry, left, spoke this week at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities, as part of the Adlai Stevenson lecture series. The moderator was WGLT's Charlie Schlenker.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry urged the nation to get its domestic house in order during addresses this week at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State universities, as part of the Adlai Stevenson lecture series.

"I don't know of any student of political science who would say that you could exercise power or responsibility if you yourself are weak, your institutions are at risk and where there is such divisiveness as appears in the United States today," said McHenry.

McHenry was the U.S. representative to the U.N. during the Carter administration; he is a 1957 graduate of ISU.

He said the challenge of getting the country's domestic affairs in order is complicated by the fact that there is no pause in conducting foreign relations at the same time. He said the U.S. is "not on this planet alone and we cannot resolve the problems we face alone."

Lessons of pandemic

McHenry offered the pandemic as an example of the truth of connectedness that should teach the nation several things about foreign policy. The fast spread of the virus around the globe and later worldwide supply chain issues that kicked off during the shutdown are things to guard against in the future.

"So, the lesson I think we ought to draw is not that globalization is bad, it is that globalization done to excess is bad. We still need some independent capability,” said McHenry.

“And the tendency of our manufacturers and our business people is to simply pack up things and go to a foreign country where labor is cheaper, or where there aren't unions. And to do that, without regard to the weakness in which we find ourselves, is bad.”

Ukraine success

Ukrainian battlefield success has limited the possibilities for negotiation to end the war with Russia, said McHenry. Russia has turned down multiple off ramps to end the war, even after it became clear it would not be a quick war. Now, Ukraine is not willing to give up territory, but Russian President Vladimir Putin needs something to position as a win.

"Perhaps some kind of greater autonomy for the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine; not independence, not a separate state, but some kind of greater self-government or autonomy," said McHenry.

Attrition, though, could promote peace talks. He said military conscription may increase pressure on Putin to negotiate.

"Once you draft, you cannot hide this war. They could do a lot of hiding because they control the media, but once you start body bags coming home, there is an opportunity even in a police state, there is an opportunity for the public to react to the situation. And I think Putin is seeing it now," said McHenry.

On the other hand, he said inflation and energy prices pushed upward by the conflict, and the ongoing cost of supplying Ukraine with weapons and other aid may weaken U.S. and European support. And Russian destruction of civilian infrastructure could weaken Ukraine's resolve.

The rise of China

McHenry also spent time discussing the rise of China both economically and as a global influencer through the use of loans to developing nations and construction of infrastructure such as ports, dams, and power plant infrastructure. He said that has fostered dependence on China by those nations and if they default on the loans used to build the infrastructure, it could lead to Chinese ownership of the facilities.

He said that strategy may not be as prominent going forward because economic growth in China itself is slowing, its population is aging, and other nations are now adapting to the strategy.

“I think the international community, which has treated China well and maybe too liberally in terms of trade, is now reacting to it. I think the next five years are going to be quite interesting in terms of the economic position of China, and that it's going to affect some of these projects,” said McHenry.

That said, he called the tariffs put in place by the Trump administration "dumb."

“No matter how Mr. Trump said he's gonna make the Chinese pay, American taxpayers, American consumers pay those tariffs in the form of higher prices on goods coming into the United States. And I think it was a bad idea,” said McHenry.

That does not mean China should have been allowed to continue the kinds of trade practices it was following, he said, but there are other ways to address the challenges.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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