A word or two of advice

Five former secretaries of state share their wisdom with the next president of the United States

October 12, 2008|By Karl F. Inderfurth, Frank Sesno and Derek Chollet

As Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain ponder how they would guide America in the world, they need wise counsel and sound advice. Recently, five former U.S. secretaries of state from both political parties provided just that.

Henry A. Kissinger, James A. Baker III, Warren Christopher, Madeleine K. Albright and Colin L. Powell gathered at George Washington University to talk about the challenges facing the next president. Two support Mr. McCain (Mr. Baker and Mr. Kissinger) and two favor Mr. Obama (Ms. Albright and Mr. Christopher), while Mr. Powell remains undecided.

Here's the secretaries' bottom line: The world is a complicated place. America has to be a leader (but not "the policeman for the world," Mr. Baker said) Hold down the ideology and approach the world realistically and with perspective.

What they said also reflects a silver lining that can be difficult to perceive in the current presidential debate: There is a bipartisan center for the future of American foreign policy.

They all agreed that the next administration must seek greater international cooperation. Immediately after taking office, Mr. Powell said, the new president must "start to restore a sense of confidence in the United States of America." That means letting "our friends and allies know that America is reaching out to them. ... We're going to work in unison." Mr. Christopher put it this way: "The president has to let the world know that this is not a 'with-us-or-against-us' administration."

On Iran, they all agreed that the next administration needed to engage Tehran at a high level. "The whole point is, you try to ... deal with countries that you have problems with. It's one of the most important relationships we need to work on," said Ms. Albright, who tried to pursue an opening with Iran during the Clinton administration. Mr. Powell joined in: "Don't wait for a letter coming from them. Start the discussion." Mr. Kissinger said he would begin these talks at the secretary of state level, adding: "I do not believe we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations."

Mr. Baker added Syria to the engagement agenda for the next administration (along with Iran, a country snubbed during the Bush years): "There's a Syria deal to be had."

These diplomats agreed America's global image needs serious repair. They laid out three things the next president should do to start to fix it: Close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo ("A very serious blot upon our reputation," said Mr. Baker), outlaw torture and lead on climate change.

On Russia, the secretaries didn't excuse that nation's recent invasion of Georgia, but advised to keep perspective. "The Russians are the offenders right now," said Mr. Powell, but "the match that started the conflagration was from the Georgian side." Mr. Powell said to keep the strategic picture in mind: "You have to treat Russia as a proud country and treat them in a straightforward, businesslike, objective way, and not emotionally."

Mr. Kissinger, father of detente with the Soviets, concurred. "We need Russia for a solution of the Iranian problem," he said. "It is helpful to cooperate with Russia, not just on the proliferation question but on the issues of energy." His bottom-line assessment: "This Russia is not democratic, but it is also not what it was before, and one must permit some evolution to take place."

Mr. Kissinger offered a similar prescription for dealing with a rising China. His advice: We are likely to have intense disagreements with China, but "the question is whether we can imagine and work on a world in which China and the United States do not look at each other as adversaries, but as possibly cooperating."

Beyond the specifics, these five former secretaries of state made clear that the next president could find a bipartisan foundation upon which to build his global agenda. This is especially important given that with the recent collapse on Wall Street, a President Obama or McCain will face making foreign policy in an age of limits. But, as Ms. Albright wryly put it, the next occupant of the Oval Office should always keep this in mind: "Remember, you wanted this job."

Karl F. Inderfurth, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state, and Frank Sesno, a CNN special correspondent, are on the faculty at George Washington University. Derek Chollet is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Together they helped organize the meeting of the five secretaries of state.

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