The Lexington Rotary Club always begins the year by having John Stempel speak about the state of the world and his expectations for the coming year.
Stempel, senior professor and retired director of the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce and a veteran foreign service officer, is never shy about saying what he thinks. That could be especially true this year.
When I met with Stempel recently for a preview, he said the election of Donald Trump poses serious concerns. “If you were the devil, you couldn’t have done a much better job of screwing things up,” Stempel said.
Stempel speaks at noon Jan. 5 at Fasig-Tipton, 2400 Newtown Pike. Rotary is Lexington’s largest civic club, and its Thursday luncheons often attract more than 200 people. But guests are always welcome for the $9 buffet, executive director Peggy Trafton said. A video of Stempel’s talk will be posted on YouTube later.
Before heading the Patterson School, Stempel, 78, spent 24 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, working in Africa, India, Iran and Washington. Stempel was a senior official in both Democratic and Republican administrations, working in the State and Defense departments, including two years as director of the State Department’s Crisis Center.
Stempel previously taught at the U.S. Naval Academy and George Washington and American universities. He is the author of two books: “Inside the Iranian Revolution” and “Common Sense and Foreign Policy.”
It is not just Trump that bothers Stempel, but some of his key appointments.
“So far the national security appointments are potentially very bad for the United States, and the principal reason for that is the world is losing confidence in us,” he said. “We’re just not being seen as a reliable ally.”
Stempel thinks Trump could be undermined by revelations about Russian espionage and election interference, as well as his own undisclosed business relationships. And he thinks Exxon Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson, whom Trump has nominated for secretary of state, “will simply have no respect in the world.”
Tillerson has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats because of his close ties to Russia and its dictator, Vladimir Putin. His Senate confirmation hearings, scheduled for next week, could be rocky.
“If the secretary of state is an oil baron with the Russians and we still haven’t worked out what he’s going to have to divest himself of, there’s going to be a tremendous conflict of interest,” Stempel said. “As smart as this guy may think he is, he’s going to get taken to the cleaners.”
Stempel said Trump doesn’t seem to understand the importance of international alliances, such as NATO, or keeping Russia from expanding its global influence.
The international nuclear treaty with Iran is “one of the best things an American diplomat has worked out anywhere,” Stempel said, and scrapping it would be folly.
“Trump will be seen as someone who is not alliance-minded and others will draw their conclusions and it will be to the long-term detriment of us,” he said.
Stempel said a treaty he helped negotiate with India in 1988 has helped curb China’s naval adventurism. “But if the Indians start walking away from it, then it’s just going to be us,” he said. “The Chinese have forces, and they’ll use them.”
Stempel said President Barack Obama made several foreign policy mistakes, such as going back into Iraq, but he was severely handicapped by Senate Republicans’ refusal to cooperate with him to find solutions to major problems such as Syria.
These are dangerous times, Stempel said, with anti-democratic populism spreading in Europe and the threat of ISIS, which he called “just about as evil a group as you’ll find on the planet.”
To avoid disaster, Trump must work with allies and not just act like a tough guy. “Problems are not just going to go away because somebody says they are,” he said.