Watch The Next President: A World of Challenges. Saturday, 9 p.m. ET
Frank Sesno | BIO
CNN Special Correspondent
There we were, sitting alongside five people who had made history and shaped American foreign policy for nearly four decades. Vietnam and détente. Hot war with Iraq and Cold War with the Soviet Union. Mideast peace conferences and arms control. Kosovo and Iran. Rwanda and Iraq. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the scourge of drought, poverty and AIDS in the developing world. Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell. Five former American Secretaries of State. The conversation was remarkable for its candor, depth and realism.
We gathered at the George Washington University, where I teach, to talk about the challenges facing the next American president. Christiane Amanpour brought her experience and hard edge to the questioning. The list of challenges we asked about was daunting– from big global issues like climate change and poverty to decisions about how to deal with the new, more assertive Russia, how to handle Iraq and Afghanistan, whether to reach out to Iran, how to fight terrorism and fix America’s tattered image in the world.
Here’s what the secretaries’ bottom line was: get over it. Get real. Be smart. The world is a complicated place. America has to lead. Play down the ideology, they seemed to say, and approach the world rationally and with perspective. Imagine that.
They didn’t agree on everything but the points of consensus were striking – and refreshing, far from the attack soundbites of the campaign and the seductively quick-fix ideas we often hear from politicians and pundits. In fact, on more than one issue, it was clear that this conversation could not possibly take place in the hothouse of the campaign. Poll-driven comments and rapid reaction war rooms ready to pounce prevent candidates from admitting mistakes or embracing the nuance of the real world – even though it’s the real world in which we live.
Some of their suggestions were practical and incremental, some would be big departures from where we are today.
It’s time to engage Iran, the Secretaries said. Drop the preconditions and the political posturing. “The whole point is you try to … deal with countries that you have problems with.” said Madeleine Albright, who tried to pursue an opening with Iran when she was in office. From across the aisle, James Baker agreed. His advice to the next president: “You ought to engage.”
Engage the whole world, really. The secretaries agreed America’s image is a mess. And they laid out three things the next president should do to start to fix it: close Guantanamo, end torture and take the lead on climate change.
On Russia, the message was similarly realistic. Georgia fired the first shot in that little August war, they reminded us. Not to excuse it, or suggest Russia’s a benevolent, democratic place. Keep the pressure on. Make Russia feel international scorn. But keep perspective. Don’t overreact. “We need Russia for a solution of the Iranian problem,” said Henry Kissinger, father of détente. “We may need Russia if Pakistan evolves in some of the directions that it might… It is helpful to cooperate with Russia, not just on the proliferation question, but on the issues of energy.” His bottom line: “This Russia is not democratic, but is also not– what it was before.” Colin Powell said keep the strategic picture in mind. “The Russian Federation is not gonna become the Soviet Union again.”
One of the most poignant discussions was about ‘soft power,’ those activities we do in the world that don’t often attract headlines – development assistance, humanitarian aid, educational and cultural exchanges, that kind of thing. We need a lot more of it, they all said. Former Secretary of State Baker brought it home with a simple comparison. America has fewer people in the foreign service today, he said, than serve on one aircraft carrier. That’s got to change.
It was a challenge to the next president, who will face a world of them.
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