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Role of American Values & Diplomacy

May 29, 2011

On April 7, 2011, the Aspen Institute sponsored a forum at the National Cathedral called “Role of American Values & Diplomacy.” The forum consisted of a panel of three former Secretaries of State: James Baker, Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush; Madeleine Albright, Secretary under President Bill Clinton; and Colin Powell, Secretary of State during the first term of President George W. Bush.

Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of the Aspen Institute, served as moderator. In his opening remarks, Mr. Isaacson posed the following question:

“The question we’re addressing tonight is one of the oldest in our nation, which is whether our engagement in the world should be based on our values and our ideals, or whether we should mainly be sticking to our national interests.”

In order to better understand these issues, the former secretaries discuss values-based leadership in diplomacy and international relations, reflecting on their experiences to provide insight for the foreign policymakers and diplomats of today and tomorrow.

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Here are some of the points I found to be most interesting:

• There doesn’t need to be a conflict between our national interest and our ideals; it is in our national interest to have values-based foreign policy. Secretary Baker explained that one of the primary challenges faced by foreign policymakers is to determine which to concentrate on, in any given situation.

• According to Secretary Albright, our foreign policy should be based on morality, but “it cannot be moralistic, where we go around telling everybody what to do.” This means that Americans should support the worldwide spread of democracy without imposing it.

• When it comes to foreign policy, Idealism vs. Realism is a false dichotomy. We need to view foreign policy from a paradigm that includes both. It’s really about striking a balance: for instance, do you do nothing, simply because you can’t do everything?

• Secretary Albright spoke of the National Security Toolbox, stating that, “…the bottom line is, there are not a lot of tools in there, if you want to know the truth.” She and Secretary Powell shared several stories about their time working together in the Clinton Administration, Albright as Secretary of State, and Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Based on the conversation, it stuck me that, at least in the 1990’s, Secretary Albright seemed more willing to use hard power in foreign policy than GEN Powell.

• All three former secretaries discussed careful use of military force. Secretary Albright said it had been then-CJCS Powell who had taught her the crucial question: “What’s the exit strategy?” Secretary Baker provided a simple rule: “Before you commit military forces substantially, you need to have a national interest involved.” It’s worth noting that the questions and frustration of a young platoon leader in the middle of a jungle in Vietnam who doesn’t understand the Big Picture–or even if there is a Big Picture–ring loudly in the tenets of the Powell Doctrine, displayed powerfully in the Gulf War.

• Secretary Albright explained that in many cases, “women are the parakeet in the coalmine.” How a given society or regime treats its women is often indicative of how people in general are being treated.

• It was very interesting to hear the three former secretaries discuss major international crises like Rwanda and Bosnia. Secretary Albright made a statement that seems so simple, yet profound: “People do not sit in their offices trying to make bad decisions.” It’s easy for armchair diplomats to sit in front of the TV and criticize foreign policymakers, because we don’t have to deal with seeking information and perspective for making life and death decisions while working on the often mach speed timelines created by dictators and sociopaths.

• Secretary Powell warned against impulsiveness in foreign policy based on what we see on TV. He explained that we are compassionate, problem-solving people. We want to end injustice wherever we see it. “But you don’t see any cameras in the Congo.” He went on to warn: “Don’t be overwhelmed by the vividness of the moment.” This is likely one of the keys to gaining perspective in any crisis.

• International relations is very situational, and we often have to decide whether to value justice or fairness. Fairness demands that we treat everyone the same in every situation, but justice recognizes that sometimes different situations call for different responses. And this is why having a values-based foreign policy is so crucial. Secretary Albright put it this way:

“There is not always consistency in foreign policy decisions. You do have to look at it case by case, which is why having that underlying value system so that you can assess what’s happening in every case, I think, is very important. And these decisions are very hard to make.”

In the end, the three former secretaries seemed to agree that the American people will not support a foreign policy based entirely on realpolitik. The very fact that a word like “Anti-Americanism” exists seems to imply that we are a society based on ideals, and a brief glance at our founding documents will only confirm it.  It is important that we remain true to our ideals, but our values are not always at odds with our national interests. It’s all about seeking the best balance between the two.

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