Five Secretaries of State Meet at GW

By Tara Chandra and Carey Hale, IAR staff writers

(From left to right: Warren Christopher, Henry A. Kissinger, Madeleine K. Albright, CNN correspondents Frank Sesno and Christiane Amanpour, James A. Baker III, and Colin L. Powell.)

“The Next President: A World of Challenges,” a roundtable featuring five former U.S. Secretaries of States, was led by CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour and special correspondent Frank Sesno, and included Madeleine K. Albright, James A. Baker III, Warren Christopher, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, and General Colin L. Powell. The discussion focused on challenges and recommendations for the next U.S. president. The theme was the importance of reestablishing confidence in the United States, both domestically and internationally, and for the next president to serve as a world leader on vital international issues from Iraq to climate change.

Moderators Sesno and Amanpour began the discussion by asking the five panelists what they believe are the most immediate and critical issues that President McCain or President Obama will have to tackle come January 2009. All agreed that, while the next president will be facing many challenges, the most pressing task will be to restore a sense of confidence in the United States, both domestically and abroad, and to reach out to our allies to rebuild friendships and begin new relationships. Working with other countries on regional issues, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and international challenges like climate change, will be the only way to effectively tackle these problems; the emphasis on cooperative behavior stressed multilateralism as a source of strength for the United States as it improves its standing in the world. Christopher emphasized that the next president should not run a “with us or against us” administration. Baker pointed out the need for more clear lines of authority in the national security apparatus in order to better formulate and implement foreign policy. He stressed the need to strengthen and broaden elements of soft power—advice all of the panelists agreed with and emphasized throughout the discussion. Dr. Kissinger asserted that one of the biggest hurdles the new president will face, before anything else, is the necessity to ensure consensus on each issue within his circle of advisors to avoid competition within the administration.

Additionally, General Powell stressed that the upcoming presidential election is important for the American people and the international community as a whole, especially when considering the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Study, which found increased anti-American attitudes worldwide. The new president has to regain respect and confidence from within and without its borders, and do so while achieving U.S. goals. The former secretaries urged the new president to use all elements of national power, including “soft power.” As a sign of good faith, all five agreed that Guantanamo Bay should be closed immediately.

Climate change is another critical challenge. Warren Christopher proposed that the next president take a forward-leading position on this pressing issue to begin achieving results, and also to present the United States as a world leader. Albright went on to say that the United States is “ultimately part of a global system.” She felt that the president must be aware of how he talks to the American people; what he says at home is also watched by a foreign audience.
The conversation also highlighted several contentious issues, including the U.S. relationship with Russia and Iran, and the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The discussion shed light on the importance of looking at issues and countries within a global context. All agreed that the United States needs to have a straightforward and strategic relationship with Russia. The United States must have the ability to cooperate and confront Russia on vital issues, such as dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. General Powell pointed out that, while Russia acted foolishly in the Georgian incident, it was also a predictable move; it is necessary for the next president to look at challenges from every angle. Parallels from the Russia discussion can be drawn from the suggestions on how to handle Iran—the next president needs to deal with confrontational countries by finding common ground and maintaining communication. The former secretaries agreed that the next president must find the right level to begin a dialogue with Iran sooner rather than later.

General Powell identified three key elements that must be part of the strategy in Afghanistan: increase the number of U.S. troops in the country; work with the government in Afghanistan to improve its capacity and actions; and, most importantly, develop a strong relationship with Pakistan so it can begin to control the tribal border areas. The importance of increasing U.S. soft power was repeatedly asserted as a way to work with Pakistan to improve the security environment in Afghanistan. Dr. Kissinger also pointed out that Afghanistan is a long-term problem and it is necessary for the next president to educate the people of the world that this war is going to need a lot more support in order to be successful. Albright suggested that the U.S. president has to explain the importance and relevance of international involvement. She also stated that U.S. officials must look at the situation in a regional manner, rather than as solely an Afghanistan or Pakistan issue.

On Iraq, there was a consensus on the importance of beginning a concrete political reconciliation, which the next president must pressure the Iraqi government to focus on. General Powell said that, ultimately, any timetable should be based on the conditions on the ground, and again stressed an idea that Albright had previously raised— the United States cannot afford to be counterproductive.

The roundtable ended with a brief discussion on the U.S. presidential election. Baker and Albright have endorsed McCain and Obama, respectively, while Powell will make his decision after the debates. There was a consensus that electing the first African-American president would send a powerful message. However, regardless of political preferences, it was stressed that the Secretary of State has to be committed to bipartisan policies. It is the United States’ responsibility to lead in key international challenges, from Iraq and Afghanistan to climate change and humanitarian situations that are vital to our national security interests.

Overall, the new U.S. president needs to better understand America’s place in the world, and how our actions, and other international issues, are interrelated within the context of the world at large. U.S. power has diminished over the past few years and it is the job of the new commander-in-chief to begin rebuilding confidence in America, both domestically and internationally. There are many opportunities that he can use to begin taking a more positive and productive role in world affairs. Russia and Iran will continue to grow in power. The next administration must abandon previous attitudes and begin to find common ground to start dealing with them.

The event was hosted by The George Washington University, in conjunction with the Center for New American Security. Lisner Auditorium was sold out since students, alumni, academics, professionals, and over eighty members of the Diplomatic Corps were eager to hear from the American foreign policy leaders from the last four decades. CNN International will air the show on Saturday, September 20, at 9:00 PM, and again on Sunday, September 21 at 2:00 PM.

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