What happens when foreign think tank heavyweights get together at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations to talk about the United States and the state of the world?

“Is the United States in decline?” asked Igor Yurgens, chairman of the Russian Institute of Contemporary Development. His answer: “America was good to go until Libya, which gave (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin a pretext to go back to a new form of Cold War. There are no reasons for confrontation.

“The U.S. Defense Department does not give us any reason for confrontation. Russia is no danger for the U.S. in Europe. For rational and pragmatic reasons, you are bringing back your troops from Europe two decades after the end of the Cold War. Putin will be at Camp David with (U.S. President Barack) Obama in May for another try with the reset button.

“The post-Lisbon rapprochement due to the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the initial plan to deploy missile defenses (against Iran) in the Czech Republic and Poland, came unglued again with NATO’s plans to deploy more sophisticated systems in Poland and Romania. Russia says any such system should be a joint venture between NATO and Russia. Another chance for reset is coming.”

Thierry de Montbrial, president of the French Institute of International Relations, said: “Franco-American relations go up and down like a roller coaster. Everything had reached bottom again when (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy was elected president in 2007 and back up it went.

“The world itself is fundamentally disorganized and we all seem to be moving toward chaos and anarchy. New blocs are bound to emerge from our crisis in confidence about who we are.

“The identity crisis is illustrated by a book on the coming Islamic age in bookstores. It’s an ID problem.

“We all see China, sooner or later, becoming the next superpower, illustrated by the front-page picture of Obama bowing to China’s Hu Jintao last January. We see fragmentation leading to anarchy.

“We believe the U.S. has made fundamental mistakes — e.g., the financial management crisis of 2007, a fundamental flaw that was not taken seriously enough.

“There was also the big failure of Afghanistan. So was Iraq. We now live in fear of Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear installations because we know the U.S. will be automatically involved, which makes the next phase unpredictable, except we know it will be a major setback for all of us.”

Next, Yasushi Kudo, represented Genron NPO, a non-profit dedicated to creating forums to discuss Japan’s future, also a former publisher of the leading business weekly magazine Shukan Toyo Keizai and editor of the monthly magazine Financial Business and Debate, was more upbeat.

“The U.S. dispatched 20,000 troops to assist us in the tsunami disaster,” he began. “And we continue to view the U.S. as a strong ally. On the debate about the relocation of U.S. bases, we should think this through together. Eighty-four percent of the Japanese people view the U.S. favorably.

“Because there is a Chinese threat, some see the U.S. already passing from the scene and as a result of this thinking Japan is being thrust into the forefront. It is critically important that we communicate frankly with each other. What does the U.S. want Japan to do?

“There is, as we can all see, a rise in nationalism in China. Eight years ago I initiated a muscular dialogue with China on our geopolitical futures. I concluded the most adroit thing for us is to counterbalance fear of China about Russia and vice versa with clever diplomacy, building up trust.

“Chinese groups and associations invite us all the time. From here in (the District of Columbia) I leave for Shanghai and another conference. Our expectations are lower so everything looks good.”

Montbrial injected: “Our fear is about a China that is too strong and too weak at the same time. China recognizes that it has never dealt with the whole world before. Collective security is the management of different balances of power.

“Russia has a big problem with China. There are 8 million Russians in Siberia versus 1.3 billion Chinese on the other side. It would be wrong to adopt a Cold War attitude but it is quite legitimate for the Chinese to have armed forces commensurate with their size.”

Next, Russia’s Yurgens said: “I hear complaints about TV propaganda in Russia. There are four TV channels and one radio network that are state-controlled. So we now have an Internet party and a TV party, two different worlds. Most Russians get their news and commentary on the Internet and 52 percent of Russians think relations with U.S. are good. Twenty percent believe they are predominantly bad.

“While almost all Russians are now on the Internet, TV still plays a leading role in perceptions. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., we focused on domestic problems. We’re now coming back internationally, notably in Latin America.

“We are much criticized for our decision to stay with President Assad in Syria. Libya is a good example of what could happen in Syria. Of course, we also have a $20 billion exposure in Syria for arms sales. Syria also has the only port available for Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean.

“In Libya, the U.S. and NATO rode roughshod over Russian interests, which we could see happening again in Syria. And what are you leaving behind in Libya?”

France’s Montbrial continued: “April 22 and a possible runoff May 6 will decide whether Nicolas Sarkozy (57), known as pro-American, is re-elected president or replaced by a socialist, Francois Hollande (57).

“With President Hollande, I cannot see military interventions in a united front with President Obama and (British) Prime Minister (David) Cameron.

“Do we really want civil war in Syria? What would be our objective? Are we prepared to increase chaos everywhere? In Syria, we should be working with Russia and China to put an end to what could become a civil war.

“For the next 20 years I see the U.S. keeping its place as the world’s No. 1 economic and military power but it’s important you rely less on brute military power.

“And understand that the Iranians are smarter than all of us. They’re a genius at the diplomatic game. Very cruel. But I’m absolutely convinced they only want to reach the threshold of nuclear power, like the Japanese. The Iranian regime is very shaky. The leaders know that if they cross the barrier into military nuclear power, others in the region would follow. Not in their interest.

“During 40 years, the U.S. was consistent in its opposition to the Soviet Union, which was eventually defeated. It would behoove the U.S. to be smart and consistent over a long period of time, as it was during the Cold War.”

Japan’s Kudo (through an interpreter) conceded: “I’ve undergone a cultural transformation. Until 10 years ago, I disliked China and thought we couldn’t agree on anything. Now I’ve been there 20 times and we are on the same playing field and are having a good dialogue. We got really connected last year and now we’re on the same page.”

Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times. This column was syndicated by UPI.