DAVID SPEEDIE: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council. I'm David Speedie. I'm a Senior Fellow here at the Council. I'd like to welcome both our New Leaders group and the Bard Globalization and International Affairs [BGIA] Program.
It is not my business or purpose to introduce our distinguished visitor. I just want to say two things.
First of all, that, as the Director of the Program on U.S. Global Engagement here at the Council, I can't think of anyone better equipped to talk about common sense in American policy. I've had the benefit of listening to Les and understanding more through him over the better part of the last 20 years. It's a real privilege for me to be the pre-introducer introducer this evening.
The only critical thing I can think to say about Les—and it probably won't come up this evening—is that he probably has the worst imitation of a Scottish accent of anyone since Hollywood in the 1950s. But that's just a personal resentment which I'll try to get over.
Les, it's a great pleasure to see you here.
LESLIE GELB: A pleasure, David.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Now I'd like to hand over to Carter Page, director of the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program, who will politely introduce our guest.
CARTER PAGE: This event is part of the James Chace Speaker Series. We're honored to have Rebecca Chace in the audience this evening. James founded the BGIA Lecture Series in 2001, and the series was named in his honor after he passed away five years ago.
Foreign Affairs, where James was the managing editor, is a co-sponsor of this event along with the Carnegie Council, and we're very appreciative of the Carnegie Council doing this with us this evening.
There is really not much needed by way of introduction, so instead I just want to say a few words about why I've been really looking forward to tonight's discussion.
Les' recognized accomplishments are many, including his work as a senior government official, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at The New York Times, and as the person who really transformed and built the modern version of the Council on Foreign Relations. But an accomplishment that's not as well known is the behind-the-scenes role that he has played in helping to develop more than one generation of foreign policy leaders in the United States.
Just one example is Stan McChrystal, who as a young colonel was a military fellow under Les' tutelage before returning to the field and eventually taking charge in Afghanistan today.
I won't put myself alongside the many giants in his fold, but I will say that, in addition to his advice and inspiration, several of the programs he either started or built were really central to my personal education. In short, this is why I'm so glad to have the opportunity to introduce him to the BGIA students and the Carnegie New Leaders and further add to the list of the people he has provided invaluable guidance to. One of the inspirations for Power Rules, Les' new book, is Machiavelli. Before handing it over to Les, I'd like to end with a brief quote from Chapter 8 of The Prince. Machiavelli says:
From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might perhaps be answered that we should wish to be both. But since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them it is far safer to be feared than loved.
If Machiavelli is right, that it's one or the other, then the gratitude and admiration that so many mentees have for Les makes it pretty clear which of the two leadership camps he falls into.
But there's one instance where he managed to inspire some fear, too. When I arrived at the Council on Foreign Relations as an international affairs fellow, a well-placed insider warned me that "the new Peterson Hall will be unveiled in a few weeks, and Les' wife Judy was involved in the design, so if you have any criticisms of the new facility make sure you keep them under wraps."
Thankfully, these fears proved to be misplaced, as the beautiful new center was well received by everyone. And it's a real pleasure to welcome Judy as well this evening, the strategic asset that Les' deterrence strategy has always protected.
Please join me in welcoming Les Gelb.
LESLIE GELB: Thank you.
You're lucky to have people of this quality here at Bard and at the Carnegie Council. This is good, commonsense stuff. I thank you for making me part of the evening.
I'm actually quite depressed this evening because I learned that I did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature for my book Power Rules. I think it's just a continuation of the prejudice against real power. Nobody likes real power. They like either soft, imaginary power or hard power that gets us into endless wars. There's very little room in the middle for me. But that's what my book is about—it's about power and common sense.
Americans don't like to believe for one minute that getting things done in the world requires power and that power is, in essence, getting others to do what they don't want to do. In personal relations, we sometimes have the great experience of being able to persuade somebody to change their position, although it rarely happens in academia or think tanks. And sometimes, even in domestic politics, you can persuade people. But in international relations it very seldom happens that you can persuade a leader of a country that you understand his interests better than he does. It just hardly ever happens.
By the same token, we have this klatch of Americans who feels even more strongly against soft power than I do, because I think it serves an enormously important role in stage-setting for the subsequent use of power. But there are people who just believe anything like that makes us look weak and the only thing that really counts is force, the threat of force, will, and commitment.
America has been in more wars than all the other countries in the world put together since the end of World War II—more than all of them put together—because of this powerful notion of power.
What I want to do tonight is run through a lot of history with you, because the examples are probably a better way of getting at how power works than my giving you a summary rendition of the book.
I'll start with what I think is the greatest example of thinking about power strategically in the history of the United States since World War II, a formulation of U.S. interests and how to proceed in the world that effectively won the Cold War and got us to where we are now. That was the strategy put together by Harry Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall, and Secretary of State after him Dean Acheson. These people looked at a world that was still totally Euro-centered.
The United States, as you remember, demobilized its troops almost instantly. We went from an army of five million to an army of 100,000 in no time at all. The Soviet Union occupied all of Eastern Europe. The Communist Chinese were battling Chiang Kai-shek in China and were clearly winning, coming to power there. There was a lot of pressure here in the United States to go after them, to start another war, remobilize, confront them.
They looked at this situation very hard, and what they decided was this: that the most important thing to the United States as a democracy, as a world power, was our economy, and the most important thing for the countries we wanted to have as future allies was their economy, because that would be the basis of political stability in those societies.
So, instead of remobilizing, they spent actually quite little on the military budget and they force-fed an aid program in Europe and in Japan, the Marshall Plan and no-name plan for Japan, that really built those economies.
In ten years these countries were becoming good, strong economies again, from absolute devastation. Key, of course, was the restoration of the German and Japanese economies and the establishment of democracies in both those countries, because they realized that if we could actually do this, if we could turn Germany and Japan into vibrant democratic economies, we would be unbeatable; that if you added the economic, military, and diplomatic power of Germany, Japan, and the United States together, no country could have a chance of beating us; we would have 75-80 percent of the assets in the world.
That's what they concentrated on doing. It was the most brilliant strategic decision in the history of our foreign policy, and it was the basis of our winning the Cold War.
It put together all those international institutions—the World Bank, the United Nations, NATO, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—and didn't run them as dictators, but ran them as leaders. They put together such a powerful coalition that, even though we had all sorts of setbacks during the Cold War, including soon thereafter the loss of China itself, we won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed and China became one of our major economic partners. That's how good it was.
It was strategic thinking at its finest, and it was understanding American power at its core, because they understood very clearly and quite explicitly that the stability of our society depended upon our economy being vibrant and growing, and they understood quite explicitly that the basis of our power in the world was our economy, and if we wanted to have military capability we needed a strong economy; if we wanted our voice to count in the world, we needed a strong economy.
In 1956 two very important things happened on the power front.
One was that Britain, France, and Israel invaded the Suez Canal, and almost as soon as they did—by the way, we had no intelligence, pre-information about it. As usual, we had no idea what was going on; it was another surprise—they invaded the Suez Canal, and Eisenhower, without hesitation, told them they better get out.
He specifically told our then closest allies, the British and the French, "Get out or I will destroy your economies. This is no fooling around. We are not going to have a reestablishment of colonialism while I'm president of the United States." We were in a position to wreck their economies still. We could have sold the franc and the pound and that would have been the end of them.
Within weeks they were out of there. It was the first time, and the only time, America just flatly dominated any international event.
Now, I say that because in our reflections today on what we used to be, we've totally lost sight of what was. Almost all the literature today says: You know, we're no longer dominant today the way we were during the Cold War. Well, we weren't dominant during the Cold War. This was a notable exception.
The Cold War was a bipolar world, where the Soviet Union was the other superpower. I think we used to refer to it as "the other superpower." And basically we couldn't do much of anything in their world and they couldn't succeed against us in ours.
It's not as if we didn't try. In 1956, our CIA inspired a revolution in Hungary. The notion was we weren't going to go to war against the Soviet Union, but we would have regime change through revolution. We told a number of Hungarians that we would support them. We gave them money, we gave them arms, and we encouraged them to revolt, in the belief that once they did the United States could come to their assistance and prevent the Soviets from putting their troops into Hungary and crushing the revolt.
Well, we know what happened. They revolted, we didn't come in, and the Soviets crushed them. Many loss of lives.
But it was the first stark example of Americans trying to use a form of power in the world that we would use many times in the future to get rid of our enemies, by supposed regime change at the sacrifice of the people who lived in those countries, and in almost every case—not in every case—accomplishing nothing in the end. There was no regime change. But it started then because there was this powerful force in our country to do good, and that's how we thought of doing good.
When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1956—most liberals have forgotten this; they can't bear the thought—he, Adlai Stevenson, the great liberal, charged that Eisenhower had allowed a bomber gap to open up between the United States and the Soviet Union. Well indeed, there was a bomber gap. We had about seven or eight times as many as the Soviet Union and theirs couldn't reach the United States, and of course ours could reach their country.
But here Kennedy comes and we have the missile gap. This became a central theme because Eisenhower allowed our country to become weak in this life-or-death struggle with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Well, it turned out there was a missile gap. The United States was on its way to the production of about 2,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Soviet Union had a devastating 67. That was the missile gap, all through the campaign, into the first year of the Kennedy presidency. We knew they had 67, because at that point we were flying U-2 flights over Soviet territory and we counted them. And the Soviets knew, because almost everything we do is public, that we had authorized the construction of 2,000 ICBMs.
Now, here's the interesting thing. The United States began what was to become a syndrome of giving away free power to the Soviet Union. Here we were superior in missilery and we said they were superior. What did the Soviets do? Did Khrushchev say, "No, no, no. You have 2,000, we have 67"? He didn't say that. He said, "You're right, and we'll bury you." We gave the Soviet Union free power.
And they took it, and they used it, and they used it very effectively, because the more we talked up the Soviets as ten feet tall militarily here in the United States, the more the Soviets acted as if they were ten feet tall militarily in the world. It gave them power they did not have. And it mattered. It made them far more competitive in many situations than they deserved to be.
Just jumping ahead, at the time the Cold War ended most Americans saw for the first time that the Soviet Union was a midget with a powerful right military arm—and they had a powerful right military arm, to be sure. But in almost all other respects they were a backward country. If you entered Moscow at that time, even ten years later, you would see, once you reach the city limits, it was like driving around a country road in Nebraska. That country was far behind us economically. There was no comparison.
Anyway, into the 1960s and the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was for the Cold War the summum event. It was the United States putting itself to a test we've almost forgotten about now, seeming to lose, and then coming out on top. I'll tell you that story, because it is yet another example of how we did something terribly stupid and ended up on top, because we are a powerful nation.
We made all the decisions about going into Vietnam for reasons I supported at the time. In fact, I didn't know anybody who was a part of the foreign policy community, except for George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau, who questioned the commitment in Vietnam—and they did, and very strongly.
The foreign policy community was essentially hooked on the domino theory. That was our historical reference point. When you argue foreign policy, you can't argue facts, and it's not much of a scientific argument, but you argue by historical analogy. That's our currency of argument in this business.
The dominant event for the people who were making decisions and who were teaching my generation was World War II, where both the Japanese and the Germans attacked little countries first, got away with it, and attacked bigger ones later on, leading to world war. That was the dominant psychological historical analogy.
So we went into Vietnam saying if we didn't stop the communists there we'd have to end up fighting a world war, maybe a nuclear war. That's what the foreign policy community believed.
There are even references, if you look into the Pentagon Papers, to Vietnam as "the Asian Berlin." That's how important they thought it was.
In any event, jumping way ahead, at the end of the line, even Nixon and Kissinger realized they were not going to win, they were only going to lose, and they wanted to create a decent interval between the departure of U.S. forces from Vietnam and the North Vietnamese winning the war, so the impact on our position in the world wouldn't be so great.
They created this decent interval. While they were creating it, they performed some of the most important moves with U.S. power over the last 60 years. Here's what they did because they saw this loss coming. They saw how much of our prestige—and therefore our power—was tied up in the result in Vietnam. So they did the following.
One, they looked to the Middle East, where Israel had just defeated Egypt in battle devastatingly and was about to mop up the Egyptian army. They stopped Israel from doing it. The Egyptians knew we were the reason the Israelis stopped, because they could have destroyed the whole Egyptian army at that point, and they immediately went to negotiations between President Sadat and the Israelis, and they reached the Sinai Agreement. It was palpable that only the United States could have done it. They demonstrated American power in a place in the world that was scary for the whole world. Only we could do it, and they did it.
Secondly, they saw that the world was changing, that you had the Soviet Union and Communist China, but they were far from identical in their interests—in fact, they were more at swords' point than they were in alliance. And so they concocted the thing that became known as triangular diplomacy: We would be the pivot in the triangle between the two communist superpowers, China and Russia. Neither of them could play that role. Only the United States could play that role.
Even though we didn't get any major concessions out of either Moscow or Beijing in the process of that triangular diplomacy, it was palpable that we were the top dog, that only we could do it. Again, the United States gained in power as a result of the diplomatic success.
And then they understood that as we were losing in Vietnam, as the North Vietnamese were closing the ring on our allies in the south, that what Asian nations feared most of all was our being perceived as losers at the very time China was growing in power in Asia. They realized that the nations of Asia didn't want us to lose. They wanted us to be strong in that area as a counterweight to China. We became the counterweight to China, which later evolved into a negotiating partner as well.
All this was such effective use of American power that here's what happened. We took the last of our diplomats and marines off the rooftops of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in April 1975. It was a terrible and dramatic event. You'll remember, with all the talk we have now about 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, we had had 550,000 American troops in Vietnam—550,000. They had fought a bloody war where 57,000 U.S. troops were killed and more than a quarter of a million wounded, and more than that wounded for life psychologically. The price we paid was dear, and the economic price we paid at home was dear.
Our troops and diplomats, the final ones, being lifted off the rooftops in ignominious defeat, and as a result of the use of diplomatic power that I described, three years later, when Jimmy Carter was president, the United States' position in Asia was stronger than it had been at any time since the end of World War II. It was incredible. It was that fast.
It shows you what you can do when you are a nation that has real power and you use it effectively. You can even turn around abject defeat, as we faced in Vietnam, and come out on top.
Now, this was also a period, the Vietnam War, when I was in government. I learned a hell of a lot about the use of power inside the U.S. government and the use of power outside the U.S. government, and I was to learn further lessons pretty soon in the Carter Administration. Just quickly, one story about the Johnson years and then one story about Carter.
I had the great good fortune of serving in the Pentagon, first under McNamara, which was not a good fortune, but then under Clark Clifford, which was one of the most important experiences of my life, because for the first time I saw someone who really knew how to get things done, who knew how to use power internally and externally and knew how to develop a strategy. His way of operating was so effective that it affected everything I did the rest of my life. I would never go to the john after I worked for Clark Clifford without a strategy. And boy, did it pay off.
Let me tell you how this man operated, because it's the way you make policy; if you want to save your power, use your power well.
He came in in February 1968 on the heels of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, at a time when it looked like we were going to lose the war on the battlefield with our troops in the battlefield. When he came into the Pentagon, we were all horrified because he had a reputation for being one of the biggest Hawks in Washington. Well, within a few days it was apparent he was one of the biggest Doves. His overriding aim was to figure out how we can get out of this war.
He turned over the whole running of the department to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze, and he said, "I'm going to spend 90 percent of my time on the Vietnam issue." Now, that's a lesson President Obama really ought to learn. If you face something of overriding importance, like he does today—our economy—he's got to do what Clark Clifford did about Vietnam; he's got to spend 90 percent of his time making that happen, making that work.
Clifford had been around Washington. He understood that unless you were at it all the time on the big issue like that it did not work. You couldn't chew gum and walk at the same time. You could just chew gum.
He sat his closest team down in his office and he said, "I've got to trust you. I've got to rely on you more than anybody else. You've got to tell me the truth, whether you think I like it or not." By the way, he said that at the beginning of every one of these strategy sessions, because he knows how weak we are and he knows how scared people are, particularly about losing wars.
And then he said, "What can we accomplish between now and the presidential elections in November 1968? We have, in effect, six or seven months to work with. What can we accomplish?"
For two weeks a battle royal was engaged in his office where he figured out what were achievable objectives. Now, I say achievable objectives because you can't have a successful foreign policy, you can't begin to use your power effectively, unless your objectives are achievable, because otherwise, by definition, ipso facto, you fail—which is what we do all the time; we set these objectives we can't achieve. "What are achievable objectives in the next six to seven months?"
After more than two weeks of real argument—it wasn't any of this namby-pamby stuff, "Well, he makes a very good point but I would like to disagree with one-third of his points"—it was very direct, very tough—he came up with two things.
One, put a cap on further U.S. troop deployments to Vietnam—not get troops out of Vietnam. He couldn't possibly do that. Think about Afghanistan the whole time I'm telling you this story. He didn't say start taking troops out of Vietnam. We couldn't. In fact, those of you who looked into the history of this—even then we had 500,000 troops there already—we put in another 50,000. But it was capped. That was the end of it. Everybody knew it.
Here's how he ended up doing it. He couldn't get agreement from Lyndon Johnson to announce this cap. Johnson just refused to do it. He was at him all the time. So one day he went and held a spontaneous press conference, and announced to the Pentagon press corps: "The United States has just set a cap of 50,000 additional troops going to Vietnam, and that will be the end of it."
He just did it. Johnson did not speak to him for six weeks. But Johnson didn't change the order. Clark Clifford knew it.
Clifford said, "You have to figure out which arguments you need to win up-front, which arguments you can't win up-front but you've got to build towards, and which people you have to convince or neutralize first in order to make more headway later on.
Every Tuesday there was a lunch with the President. Before those lunches, he would say, "I am going to have lunch with the President. Here's what I intend to say."
He didn't say what kids do. I was a kid, 30 years old. So he didn't say what kids do, "I'm going to make three points, 1, 2, 3." He said he would talk for three to five minutes. He talked. He said exactly what he intended to say at the lunch to Johnson.
Then he would say again, "We're all friends in this room. I rely on you to tell me the truth. Tell me what's strong about my argument. Tell me the weak points." Then you'd have this give-and-take again.
Then he would say, "Let me see if I've understood you." He would repeat his five-minute speech, dropping the bad points, adding the good points. But he memorized it. He said, "I'm getting five minutes uninterrupted"—because that's how the luncheons ran—"to speak to the President of the United States on the most important issue facing our country. I want to get every word just right." And he did.
The second objective was to stop the bombing of North Vietnam and begin negotiations with North Vietnam, because we had no negotiations. He achieved that as well through this method.
Anyway, that's how I was schooled. That's how people should be schooled to handle the power of the United States.
Then you get into the Carter Administration. Carter knew none of this. He was one of the strangest beasts I ever met in my life. A tremendously smart man—his IQ went through the ceiling—but he had these strange notions about America's role in the world and what you do with American power in the world.
I was the Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs. My two main briefs were holding arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union and—of course this is totally logical—being the principal arms salesman for the State Department.
Carter and my boss, Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, had this notion—they felt very strongly about it—that it was evil for the United States to sell arms abroad.
They didn't want the United States to be known as the arms merchant of the world.
Carter, with Vance's support, set a ceiling on how much we could sell to non-NATO countries. I was responsible for carrying out this policy. I had just written an article for Foreign Policy magazine, the enemy of the great James Chace at that time—I had just written an article for Foreign Policy magazine before taking the job, that said arm sales are a major instrument of U.S. foreign policy; it's a major way we have of connecting and influencing other governments.
Well, Carter and Vance set that ceiling. It caused an incredible ruckus. You have no idea.
I was assigned to go around and talk to our major allies, to get them to cut back on their arms sales.
Here is what the French told me. This is just typical. I came and I gave them this spiel, the president's policy, which I did all straight, no giggles, nothing. When I have to be, I'm a very disciplined guy. The French defense minister said, "Are you kidding me?" He said, "What is this all about? Are you trying to get us to stop selling arms so you can take over the arms market yourselves?"
He said, "We sell hundreds of millions of dollars in planes to Libya every year." This was when King Idris was running Libya. He said, "We sell hundreds of millions of dollars to Libya every year, and you want us to stop that? That doesn't do any harm. We sell them, they sit on the runways in Libya, the sand gets into the engines, the engines are no good, and we sell them new ones two years later. What are you talking about?"
Anyway, I met with just that kind of stuff. I had to, with a straight face, listen to this. Then we were negotiating with the Soviets about this too.
Meantime, the defense industry was going crazy because they were going to lose what mattered most to them—not the national security of the United States, but the money. Boy, were they losing money! I don't know what the figure is this year. I think U.S. military sales may be on the order of $40 billion to $50 billion. Then foreign sales, before Carter clamped on the lid, were about $8 billion. This was 1977. A tremendous amount of money. They were ready to kill over this.
But more than that, we were a laughing stock.
I'll tell you a story of what I did. It was my only act in government in my two tours under Johnson and under Carter of outright insubordination. I colluded with my counterpart on arms sales in the Pentagon, a general who was actually the guy who went around and negotiated the deals with the other countries.
Now, there was this arms ceiling that Carter set, and we couldn't mess with that arms ceiling. We couldn't sell more than $5 billion worth of arms to non-NATO countries.
So he and I figured out something. We figured out that for a sale to apply against the ceiling, you sign a contract. Now, historically, if you sell a plane to Saudi Arabia for $5 million, then the whole $5 million counts against the contract in the year you sign the contract. So instead of signing the contract for the whole plane, we signed the contract in the first year for the engines, in the second year for the airframe, in the third year for the avionics. It took Carter a year to figure out what we were doing, but he didn't then reverse it.
But in my defense I'll say this. I told Vance that this was what we had to do. Every time I told him, "This is what we have to do," he would just look at me and not say a word. He wanted me to do it and just take the lumps myself. I just wasn't going to do it. This is a presidential policy.
We were in Geneva negotiating with the Soviets. We had had a long day and he had had some tussles with Gromyko. We had dinner together in the evening up in the top floor of the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. Then Vance bid everyone goodnight and he went to a piano that sits there and he started to play the piano.
I didn't leave. I walked over and stood next to him by the piano. He knew exactly why I was hanging out there. It wasn't to discuss the afternoon's negotiations with Moscow.
He said, "You're not going to go away, are you?"
I said, "No."
He said, "All right, go do it."
Now, I didn't ask him to put it in writing, because he wouldn't have done that. But we went and carried out that change in policy. It allowed us to continue a major instrument of U.S. foreign policy, a major instrument of our power.
Now, I'm going to cut short a lot of the other examples I wanted to give because we'll talk about Afghanistan and other applications of power today in your Q&A I'm sure.
But jump ahead to the George H.W. Bush era for what I believe was the third beautiful application of American power, showing just how we can do it, what we can do with what we have. George H.W. Bush actually carried out pretty damn good foreign policy.
The main thing he did, the brilliant thing he did, was to bring the Cold War to an end—perhaps the most dangerous period in human history—to bring it to an end without a war. Here's how he did it.
Gorbachev was the leader of the Soviet Communist Party. He was calling the shots there. They saw that Gorbachev, for his own strange and convoluted reasons, was actually prepared to allow for the dismantling of the Soviet empire. He was going to let it happen.
Instead of doing what they were being pressured to do by the right-wingers and the neocons, which was, "Let's really squeeze Gorbachev and get rid of communism once and forever," they helped Gorbachev dismantle first the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself. They realized that if they tried to squeeze Gorbachev's arms the way people were demanding here—they were demanding it; it was a huge fight—that Gorbachev would lose power, the Soviet army and intelligence apparatus would regain power, and we wouldn't be able to dismantle any of the Soviet power system. In effect, their whole diplomacy was to use everything we had to let Gorbachev dismantle his power and the Cold War without the firing of a shot.
That was the heritage that your generation has, you students at Bard now, a world where the United States stood as the sole superpower, and where people then began to try to figure out what that meant.
Some figured out that since we were the sole superpower we could do anything we wanted. We could pass around the world. And you have the neocon movement coming to fruition.
Others, on the liberal side, said, "We're the sole superpower so we can cure poverty, conflict, all the problems of the world, through love and understanding and persuasion."
These two extremes, in effect, took over the debate here in the United States. They took over the debate within the two parties, and they began to define power. Whoever defines power defines foreign policy. It all turns on that.
The examples I've given to you about power working really aren't rocket science, they're common sense. I wish they were rocket science so I could claim to be a part of a nobler profession than I'm in. But it isn't rocket science.
It is common sense. What's the basis of our power? Our economy. How do you get Gorbachev to dismantle the Soviet empire? It ain't by forcing him to do it; it's by letting him do it, protecting him while he's doing it. How do you end the Vietnam War? By doing all those things that American power uniquely enables us to do to show that we're still the lead power in the world. Common sense.
We're fighting over it all the time because of the powerful demons in our society that tend to focus on foreign policy. They love foreign policy. And, like all demons, they spring from what's good in us. It's what's good in us being used for, I think, purposes detrimental to American interests.
The demons are our principles, our democratic domestic process, and the power that we have to do good in the world.
The principles become the vehicle for arguing that we ought to transform everybody else, other cultures and histories, despite their cultures and histories. Our democracy, our domestic politics, makes it almost impossible to make compromises that are essential to the leadership you need to exercise your power. The arrogance of power makes you think you can do what you can't.
My book explores all that because I think those of us interested in the restoration of common sense, going back to Truman, particularly now, particularly when our economy is in dire straits, the basis of our democracy and our world power—we've got to win that fight to define power.
Thank you very much.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: In your personal experience, how do private economic entities affect the power relationship between nation-states, and to some respect do they have any control over it?
LESLIE GELB: It's a theoretical question. You won't be surprised to hear that I deal with it brilliantly in my chapter on economic power. But you've touched on a critical element of this, because economic power, as distinguished from military power and diplomatic power, is not the sole province of the state or of the government. Economics is a shared asset/resource, and far more shared in the United States than in virtually any other country. If you want to wield it as an instrument of international power, it's much more difficult for us to do it than for a lot of other countries to do it, where the government control over the economy is much greater than it is in this country.
But nonetheless, our government is powerful enough internally so that it historically can do what it needs to do to put its economic weight down on international problems. But you do it in a different way.
Those of you who are studying trade negotiations or will study it will see a very interesting phenomenon. The United States is the leader in trade negotiations. They don't happen without us. You don't have security negotiations without us, you don't have environmental negotiations that are serious without us, you certainly don't have trade negotiations without us.
The United States triggers serious trade negotiations and compromise by doing what? By making the biggest and first concessions. In every trade round, that's what we did first. We had the strongest economy, and nobody else would move until we put marbles on the table. When we did, they would open up.
What were our marbles? Our marbles were mostly access to the American economy, an opportunity for other countries to sell things here. If we have any hold over China today, it's mainly as a market for their goods. It's a double hold now because they have almost $1 trillion in debt. They've got to make sure we work, that we're viable economically.
So we made the concessions. By the way, that is the major reason why nobody is going to supplant us as the leading economic power. There is no way China, in trade negotiations or any other economic negotiations, is going to make disproportionate concessions, and that's what you have to do in order to lead in the economic sphere and in some of the other spheres as well.
When you get around to doing your thesis, you ought to look into doing it on this subject because it's quite rich and, like almost every other subject of economics and foreign policy, almost totally untouched. It's untouched because universities are a pain in the ass. They separate political science and economics and they don't allow for working up, thinking through joint courses to train people in political economy, which is second nature in most other countries, so they think that way. It's all the more important to think that way in this world where economics is playing a more and more important role.
QUESTION: In your book you say that there are moments where sacrifices must be made. The exact quote is: "This is the only possible response to the Hitlers and present-day terrorists, who must be convinced of our unrelenting resolve and power to defeat them."
My question is—forgive me if it's a simplification of the potential responses to humanitarian crises—but what I'm wondering is: When and how does the United States choose to respond to crises? You mentioned that they didn't respond to Rwanda and Darfur and, for the most part until the very end, to the Balkans. When should the United States respond to a humanitarian crisis if it involves making a large sacrifice on its part, for instance, if it involves forfeiting a certain element of its relationship with China if it wants to go into Darfur, for instance? Should it always make the decision to exert its power during a humanitarian crisis even if it is not going to be beneficial anyway?
LESLIE GELB: It's interesting you raise this. I would say if there's any criticism I get every time I speak about the book it's on the human rights front, because people think that I slight human rights. I don't think so at all. I think my record on this is actually pretty damn clear.
I don't put human rights at the forefront of my rhetoric for U.S. foreign policy. The reason I don't is because when we do it just doesn't work. It just doesn't work. Where we have done best on the human rights front is either in behind-the-scenes negotiations or, to take it all the way to the other end of the spectrum, using military force.
There was genocide being committed in the Balkans. At that time I was writing the foreign affairs column at The Times. I must have written 20 percent of my columns on that issue. I thought it was that important and that it was a sign of the times, that it was going to be a major problem for us for many years to come.
I argued right off the bat that we ought to arm the Croatians and the Bosnian Muslims, let them defend themselves. We, the United States, advanced a resolution at the United Nations to prevent arms sales to any party in that region, which meant, in effect, that we were guaranteeing Serbian military superiority, because they had arms, they had all the arms practically, and the Muslims and Croatians had almost none. So we were condemning the Muslims and the Croatians to being killed, being slaughtered, just the way they were.
Why did we do it? It was the liberals. They were saying, "You don't want to do that, that's killing people," rather than "It's defending themselves. It's giving them a chance to defend themselves, to establish a balance of power on the ground, which is what leads to negotiations, which is what led to negotiations in the end, when we allowed the arms to go through.
I was also in favor of air strikes by the United States in the event that the Serbs were just going to overrun towns and slaughter people. I think if we had done that we never would have had to put even 25,000 troops in there, and we would have dealt with the human rights situation.
With Rwanda the Pentagon recommended putting 5,000 U.S. troops into the border region of Rwanda—not to get involved in the fighting inside the country, but to set up a safe haven in the border area to which people could escape. President Clinton refused to do it. He was so traumatized by his experience in Somalia, the ambushing of a Ranger group in Mogadishu, that he couldn't deal with the human rights situation in Rwanda the only way it could be dealt with, by force, by putting the troops on the ground. We would have saved most of those lives.
Now, it may sound odd to a lot of you, but I think the best way to deal with the worst of the human rights situations is with this kind of limited, directed military force.
The way to deal with it in China is not to lecture the Chinese publicly. They're going to say, "The hell with you"—and they have, time and again. It may make you feel good to give the speech, but it has the opposite of the desired effect. Where we have worked privately to get people out of jail, as often as not it has worked. Where we've developed a relationship with the country, it gives us more leverage in those private conversations.
So I'm in favor of human rights, but I'm in favor of using our power realistically to help those in need.
QUESTION: You mentioned before that during the Vietnam War most of Asia wanted the United States to come out on top rather than China. With the rise of China today, do you think the situation has changed? Do you think that Asian nations would prefer China come out on top or the United States?
LESLIE GELB: There's no doubt in my mind that almost all of them would prefer the United States to stay there and to remain an important Asian power, because as much as they are increasing their trade and mutual investment with China, they fear China more than they fear us.
The United States has the worst reputation in the Muslim world and in America. But if you go to other places in the world, people understand the important role we play. In most places in the world, leadership in those countries sees us as an important counterweight to their problems.
Take Iran. I was going to get into this, but I talked for too long. Iran is a perfect example of how I would think about using power much the same way Nixon and Kissinger played the Asian nations off against China.
We can gain both leverage in the Arab world, by being their protector against Iran—and they want us to play that role—and it's a way of giving us leverage in negotiations with Iran if we will engage in those negotiations.
It's the same theory of using power as Nixon and Kissinger did in Asia. And it works. As long as people need you, you can position yourself on both ends of that bargaining spectrum.
QUESTION: Mr. Gelb, how do you see the United States, and especially the new administration, going forward with the International Criminal Court and its engagements there, because we saw differences, by signing basically the wrong statute, but then getting engaged if it involved Sudan and Darfur?
LESLIE GELB: Again, I believe in international law, but I don't believe that most nations can or will observe it. I would use the International Court where I believe it would advance the solution of problems, particularly in Africa, and I wouldn't use it where I think it would impede those solutions.
I would make the judgment very practically. If the leader of the Sudan would lose power internally or have his power weakened internally by virtue of our indicting him in the International Criminal Court, I'd be in favor of it. If it would only strengthen his hand, I would oppose it and oppose the use of the law.
QUESTION: Since you addressed your book to Obama, I can't help but wonder, has he read it? Did you get any response from him?
LESLIE GELB: Nothing whatsoever. I think he'd profit mightily, given several of the decisions he has made. I sent him a copy, but I never heard anything about it one way or the other.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask a question about history, because it seems to me that the period you are describing, where you're talking about the victories of U.S. foreign policy and the ability to turn what seemed a certain defeat, a defeat in Vietnam, into a surplus or an increase of power, was also the period in which we saw the roots of the foreign policy conflicts we are living with today, that we're trying to solve today, the ones you have written about the most.
The first, of course, is the Iranian Revolution and the birth of Islamic fundamentalism, and the second is the invasion of Afghanistan, where we are still obviously very much involved and arguing about. This happened at the same time. In fact, you were in government at the time.
Were these failures of vision, the United States' failure to stem these conflicts? Were they failure to use what you describe as inherent American power—that is, based on economic power? Or can policymakers simply not be expected to look forward ten or 15 years into the future—is that just the nature of the beast? We live under the shadow of this history right now.
LESLIE GELB: I didn't know one person—I was in the government when the Iranian Revolution started to unfold. I did not know one person, I did not see one intelligence report—and I saw them all—that predicted that the Shah was in any trouble, let alone that there would be a revolution. Not one.
The only one, I later learned, in the country who was saying this was a professor in Chicago named Marvin Zinn, I believe his name was. But no one said it. We had all these people studying Iran. No one saw it coming. It was an eye opener for me once again.
The thing about working in foreign policy is you need to have both eyes blackened before you wake up. Vietnam shocked me, blackened one eye. I said to myself, after I had been a proponent of the war for some time, "What the hell do you know about Vietnam? What the hell does Bob McNamara know or Lyndon Johnson?" They didn't know anything about it. I didn't know anything about it.
The only book I had read about Vietnam—and here I'm director of policy planning in the Pentagon, and I'm working primarily on Vietnam—the only book I had read was the Frenchman Bernard Fall's The Two Vietnams. One book, and that probably put me at a distinct advantage over 90 percent of the people in the U.S. bureaucracy.
They didn't know anything about that place. It was a square on the strategic chessboard. It was not a country with a culture and a history and a people. Americans don't know anything about the world. We know less about the world than any other country. The great irony is we are a country of immigrants.
Everybody came here from someplace else except the Indians—maybe they came from someplace else too. As soon as they come here, they forget about where they came from in terms of doing anything except advocating—the Jewish community advocates for Israel, Greeks advocate for Greece, and so forth. But in terms of knowledge, it just isn't there.
And we don't even make a serious attempt to do it. When I was in school, the foundations—and I used to have this argument with many of David's [David Speedie's] bosses at Carnegie Corporation and the heads of foundations—I said, "You guys used to fund regional studies programs in universities, the foundations. Now you give all the money to yourselves. You used to fund these great regional studies programs and we were building up people with knowledge of history, culture, language. We stopped it. What's going on? What kind of nonsense is that?"
So we don't know anything about the world. Britain even today produces at Oxford all these Arabists, and they actually speak Arabic. We can't find them at the highest price to hire for the New York Police Department or the CIA. We can't find the people, except those who came as immigrants to this country, and we can't hire them because they can't get security clearances. That's true.
So we don't know about these places, and we get involved in them time and again. We didn't know what was going on in Iran. We don't know Afghanistan. I learned most of what I know about Afghanistan from books written by Afghans, Pakistanis, and Brits.
The Americans? I write for this thing called The Daily Beast, just so I can be an up-to-date, modern blogger. There was somebody who is now a regular for The Daily Beast who writes this piece on Afghanistan saying, "Who says Afghanistan isn't a nation-state? Anybody who says that doesn't know anything about the history of this place." This is one of the main guys in the foreign policy debate in our country. What a schmuck. To think that somebody can be a big part of the foreign policy debate and say that—but that's the case. These people don't know about it.
What did Barack Obama know about Afghanistan? Probably not much more than Lyndon Johnson knew about Vietnam as a real country.
So as I say in the book, in order to exercise power you have to know about the country you are trying to leverage. You have to know what buttons to push. Otherwise you screw up.
Anyway, I enjoyed tonight.