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September 19th, 2008
02:37 PM ET

Former Secretaries of State to next President: Get over it. Get real. Be smart

Program Note: 5 former Secretaries of State tell Christiane Amanpour & Frank Sesno what advice they have for "The Next President."

Watch The Next President: A World of Challenges. Saturday, 9 p.m. ET

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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.

soundoff (316 Responses)
  1. H D Barnes

    Henry Kissinger advocating a balanced, diplomatic approach to our adversaries? Give me a break. What a short memory you people have. This man was the architect of the Vietnamese War... he was Nixon's trusted advisor.

    As for iran, why would you want to enter into honest negotiations with a government back by radical Islam,
    and whose leader himself has denied the Holocaust?
    I don't want even want to look at people like that, much
    less negotiate with them.

    I hope Israel takes care of this problem for us.. and soon.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:19 pm |
  2. John Howser

    It was a great show, but I felt cheated because of the lack of time for each section of the discussions. It was like skipping a rock over the surface of a surface of water.......it just skipped, kicked up a bit of the water, and then moved on, finally sinking without any depth being realized. More time was needed....or less subject areas discussed.

    Having said that, this was a terrific program, albeit too short. THANKS so much for bringing this program and these great people to our living rooms!!

    September 20, 2008 at 10:17 pm |
  3. Kimberly Florida

    I think if we were ALL honest, we'd admit that we could sooner see Obama watching this and learning from it than McCain. At this point, McSame won't support ANY idea that doesn't come from a focus group!!

    September 20, 2008 at 10:17 pm |
  4. AngelaMarie

    Just saw the show. I was struck with the similarity of their responses, how much we have lost with the anti intellectualism and powermongering of the current administration, how concerned I am that the neocons actually have a chance and finally, I was struck at how much I miss Colin Powell...

    September 20, 2008 at 10:16 pm |
  5. Jeff Woodward

    Fascinating to watch these intelligent people discuss the state of the world and our role in it. All I could picture is how out of place Sarah Palin would be in complex conversations such as these. We must acknowledge that we need leaders who are elite rather than 'just your average American", educated rather than just enthusiastic, and capable of steady judgment rather than someone who refers to herself as a 'pitbull'.

    It is reasonable to consider that McCain, having suffered from Stage 2 skin cancer, could encounter serious health issues over the next four years which require him to step aside leaving an 'average hockey mom' running the world's most important country. God help us!

    September 20, 2008 at 10:15 pm |
  6. kate

    Outstanding lesson in diplomacy. This should be a mandatory "must see" for every american. Especially, John McCain. I don't believe that any of them are comfortable with john Mccain, i bet baker votes obama, but just stays behind the curtain to do so.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:15 pm |
  7. Michael

    Thank goodness that, for the first time that I can tell, someone in this election season has called for a dose of pragmatism and realism rather than a reliance on ideology. Let's hope that the candidates, and Americans in general, listen.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:15 pm |
  8. Dayahka

    All of these people are realists, rational, scientifically literate, deliberative, thoughtful. Obama shares these traits, so for him you are speaking to the choir. For the Republican ticket, however, they are speaking to antagonists who have none of these qualities, who speak rashly and off the top of their heads, who have ideological axes to grind, and in one case extremely narrow and limited and extremist and unintelligent views.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:14 pm |
  9. f. skip robertson

    actually most of the problems america and in fact, the world, face today can be traced to the Paris peace talks of 1919 after WWI. an excellent account of these proceedings can be found in the book 'Paris 1919' by margaret macmillan. her discussion of how the middle east was divvied up is astonishing, and, i believe, crucial to an understanding of the present mess. the death throes of imperialism spawned the incredibly tangled web we face today. and as thomas freidman points out, our continuing addiction to oil taints everything we do both in the middle east and elsewhere. personally, i believe america needs a program along the lines of the Manhatten Project to develop the sources of energy necessary for a planet bursting at the seams with industrialization. the greatest hinderance that i see is simply this: our economic system is based entirely on greed, and greed is, of course, antithetical to rational long-range planning. we've had eight years of pure greed, no marbling. and so, obama's got my vote.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:08 pm |
  10. lbh

    What a powerhouse of intellect and experience. Curious how much their recommendations seem to be reflected in Obama's policy and how little they sound like McCain. I'm sure they are precluded from giving opinions about the candidates, but one has to wonder if they inwardly cringe at the thought of someone like Palin taking the helm...

    September 20, 2008 at 10:04 pm |
  11. Bass

    I think their comments were great. Too bad after 4 decades they finally got it. Did you look at their records while they were in office? Much achieved? I can agree we can do more with aid then through the military. Ms. Albright tried to engage with Iran and where did she get? A better approach is to get out of Iraq. Win in Afghanistan and withdraw our military more closder to home such as get out of South Korea, Japan and with the exception of our missle silos out of Eirope.

    Start to do more to aid this world. But mostly concentrate on us and get us inside the USA in a better world and that starts with stop spending and pay off our debt. Yes start a serious process of eliminating foreign dependence on energy and pay off our debt. Stop waisting our dollars overseas. If there is room cure cancer.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:01 pm |
  12. Vince

    Wow I am watching now. Everyone basically agrees with Obama. We must speak to Iran using top level liaison. The cowboy foreign policy is old news.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:01 pm |
  13. Ayaz

    I was very excited to start reading this article.

    However, as soon as I read 'America has to lead,' I knew that this article was more of the same.

    Disappointing.

    September 20, 2008 at 10:00 pm |
  14. Ella

    What an exciting and refreshing show! It's SO nice to get some depth in coverage for once. Look how honest everyone was. It's just very exciting that despite their political differences, they ALL agree on the obvious - the issues that we "average Americans" all know: Close GITMO! I wish that the American people would listen, in depth, to the candidates as well as all of these exemplary Americans. The candidates would speak on a deeper level if the 24-hour news cycle would ALLOW us to HEAR their FULL statements and not just keep playing the irrelevant sound-bites over and over. CNN did a great job with this, so where is the depth when covering the campaigns? (And who knew that Madeline Albright is hilarious!?)

    September 20, 2008 at 10:00 pm |
  15. Dennis

    Let's look at some of the thingsthe Secretaries have recommended:

    1. Engage Iran- we've been doing this for at least the last 15 years and guess what, is hasn't worked. "Engage" Iran and do what ? Ask them to halt their nuclear weapons program, pretty please? We need to continue to be tough with Iran and if military action is needed, we need to act.

    2. Close Guantanimo- This is just what our enemies want. If we close Gitmo, what do we do with the POW's there ? Give them trials in our courts? We need to keep Gitmo open and build more Gitmos if needed. We're at war with terrorists who want to destroy us and the POWs at Gitmo should stay there until the war is won.

    3. Repair our image-The need to "engage" other countries pops up again. Engage and do what? If some countries don't like what we're doing in the Middle East, so what. We need to defend ourselves. Once we win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these countries will get over it. And if our image is such a mess, how do you explain the elections of staunchly pro-American prime ministers in countries such as France and Germany?

    This panel of ex-Secretaries of State sounds like a panel of Liberal appeasers to me. I don't think I'll be tuning in.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:58 pm |
  16. incognitoboy

    WHAT?? bi-partisan deep thinkers with real experience all in one room together??

    saying something like – "get over it. Get real. Be smart."

    wow. sure puts mccain/palin out of the picture, doesn't it?

    unfortunately, obama/biden are not much more likely to follow this advice.

    can't we just put these 5 on the ballot instead? please??

    wish i had cable. i'll have to watch on youtube later.....

    September 20, 2008 at 9:56 pm |
  17. Susan, Minneapolis, MN

    Great interview! It appears that all 5 favors Obama's foreign policy. He may not have as many experience as McCain, but he sure proves to be the smartest one to lead our country.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  18. Barb

    Hosts should not be laughing when one member of the panel breaks the rules of engagement. If Ms. Albrecht can't even honor the rules of the panel, how can her comments be respected.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:51 pm |
  19. John

    It sounds like these wise people are endorsing Obama over John"shoot em up" McCain.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:48 pm |
  20. Dutch

    Sounds like they all agree with Barack Obama position of engagement. Couldn't agree more that we need to get smart and stop the cowboy lack of diplomacy of the past

    September 20, 2008 at 9:46 pm |
  21. Concerned citizen

    As always, the pendulum swings too far to the other side. We know Americans aren't perceived well overseas. We have made mistakes...true. We have some restoration to do. But I am SO sick of the Europeans beating us over the head with it (just like some are here on this site). Many of the people complaining don't have clean hands either.

    Let's get out of Iraq, focus on capturing Osama, and leave the rest of the world alone. We have lots of troubles to focus on right here.

    If the world thinks we're such bad people, let them try to handle world hunger, diseases, and famine caused by corrupt governments and warlords all over the world. We'll take a back seat and let the EU drive for a while. Then, we can sit back and criticize them when they make the inevitable mistakes.

    Go ahead, bash me for saying these things...because the conventional wisdom is that USA should bow down to anyone who criticizes us.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  22. jean, from the midwest

    Wow,What a great show! This should be required watching BEFORE anyone is handed a ballot. I would put ALL of these people on an international committee to give advice to me. Such a wealth of knowledge. They sure sound as though Obama's ideas are compatible to theirs, even the Republicans. I wonder what they all think of Palin?

    September 20, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  23. barbara

    Thank you for stepping up and doing this....what a fantastic idea.....would love a similar approach to other issues the next president will face...healthcare, supreme court, economy....
    Thank you again for this level of discussion.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:44 pm |
  24. Lyndon,CA

    Thank heaven we can see Russia from Sarah Palin's house.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:42 pm |
  25. DB

    I've been doing much research on both Senator Obama and Senator McCain. Each have remarkable records; regarding their giving to our country, in their respective and unique ways.
    Bottom line, McCain is "out of touch" with what is really going on, in our country and internationally. He can be compared to an old turtle who lost his tough shell. He's just punting, making crass and and ignorant comments, and hoping that his choice of the controversial Sarah Palin will get him into the White House. Sorry........he's just too old, and too desperate.
    Senator Obama, on the other hand, does has a fresh approach to what this country needs; as far as moving us into the 21st century, as a reputable country and community, world-wide. He is well spoken, well informed, and.......let's just face it, he has the face of a leader/President.
    McCain's biggest playing card is that he chose to continue to suffer under enemy control and be a POW: when they gave him an opportunity to leave. Clearly, his "dogged" , "do or die" ignorant will rules him today. This man does "live under a rock", and is counting on his wife's wealth and connections to get into the White House.
    C'mon American Citizens.....Obama is the clear, obvious, and most promising choice to become the next and best President of The United States of America!

    September 20, 2008 at 9:37 pm |
  26. Mary from Clarksville, TN

    Wonderful program, glad you are doing these types of program, with smart people in the know, why not have Obama and Mccain answer questions in such quick time answers as these educated folks on the show are giving instead of the run around answers they usual give. How about limiting the answers to a minute or two. God what an excellent program, what took you CNN so long to do this. Let us see more!!!!

    September 20, 2008 at 9:35 pm |
  27. Ron Bowe

    Seems that these people are all talking about dealing with countries, and have forgotten that the terrorists are not counties and you can't deal with them. Maybe they and the news media should get real. Terrorists don't talk, the blow things up without warning and without guilt. That's the real world. And the answer sure is heck is not talking with some head of state, who might be the next to get blown up. If you want to get real you need to deal with real ways to infiltrate the terrorists groups. And I don't think I would trust a lot of the current leaders in the world to keep their word either. Carry a big stick and trust but verify is much more appropriate now than ever. False hope of negociating with terrorists is a pure pipe dream that will get us all killed.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:34 pm |
  28. Axl

    It's clear than on Georgia, Obama's reaction was 100% correct. He analyzed the situation and called for restraint on both sides Giuliani lied in his convention speech and mocked Obama but Powell said it.

    "Georgia started it!"

    Americans deserve the truth from their leaders.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:31 pm |
  29. Mike Moyle

    Why isn't there more reporting like this????? Finally, news worth reading and thinking about.

    I am sick to death of headlines that candidate A's people have accused Candidate B of attacking Candidate A, or of choosing words with the wrong nuance.

    What?!? We have fewer than 5,000 people in the foreign service?? WTF!!! I knew that diplomatic science lagged far behind bomb-making science, and was just a mere shadow of bomb-delivery science, BUT THAT"S JUST CRAZY.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:28 pm |
  30. Pip

    Sounds like Obama has been right all along, everything they've been saying is exactly how he feels. McCain, Palin and the right have been heckling them since the beginning that the USA shouldn't talk to anyone that disagrees with them. Instead they sit there and sing "bomb bomb, bomb Iran" with smiles on their faces. Way to go.

    At least Obama will have these people to back him up when the debates go on TV. McCain and Palin will have no where to hide from their isolationist views on foreign policy.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:27 pm |
  31. Christopher

    8 years of Clinton dipolmacy led to 9/11.

    Of course that was 7 years ago, so who cares right?

    September 20, 2008 at 9:26 pm |
  32. Kathy of AZ

    This sounds great, I will be watching this tonight. It is interesting we have a candidate although I disagree with many of his positions, does want to talk to countries we have not been talking to - That is Sen. Obama.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:25 pm |
  33. Bill Graham

    John McCain missed such an opportunity this week. Instead of a willingness to meet with Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Zapatero, McCain refused to make any commitments. He refused to give an answer because he wanted analyze our relationship with that country. I don't know all of McCain's reasons, but the conjecture has been all around Spain's withdrawal from Iraq.

    If we have another four years of Bush policy, our prestige will suffer even greater, perhaps irreparable, damage. Can we afford to have another four years of gunboat diplomacy? Do we want someone who just now getting her first international credentials to be one heartbeat away from the highest office in the free world?

    It's time for someone who will engage. We need someone who understands what it means to help other national leaders to preserve face. Perhaps the next leader should understand some rhetorical concepts such as kishotenkhetsu, so that we're not constantly offending our allies with a brusk form of American jingoism. Let us hope that our next leader understands international diiplomacy.

    Bill Graham

    September 20, 2008 at 9:23 pm |
  34. Paula

    Oh, God, smart and reasonable consideration of the value of intellect, genuine diplomacy, cultural awareness, and tact. How marvelous!

    And this mentality is something that is beyond Mcain and Palin; they just could never do it. It's simply not in their script.

    I hope with every fiber of my being that Obama and Biden are elected. I want my country to be respectable again.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:22 pm |
  35. Simon Abela

    The Greatest country on earth the USA. need course. From Ground Up !! its not about Democrats or Republican its about the American the People. History repeats itself. What Happen the to the Greatest ROMAN Empire it crawled from within. I do not want to see this great nation heading to disaster.
    We are already falling apart, helping other, but not helping our own.
    We need to stop mingling our nose in others country;s business.
    On another note the European nation have been fighting for centuries, they do not want war??

    September 20, 2008 at 9:19 pm |
  36. Scott

    Great article. It is time we engage with US Government as a whole and fund and develop the State Department to work on issues instead of forcing military action. The US needs to show leadership lead not arrogance and might !

    September 20, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  37. Patricia WOODWARD

    All Americans must watch this with an open mind, then engage their brain when voting. Did anyone but me notice thtat the current President said "Bring them on." then flew into and out of Bahgdad with lights on the plane off. The soldiers are brave, not so the Commander in Chief.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:16 pm |
  38. Chris

    Everyone talsks a good game about being bipartisan. But notice that the second comment on this subject, pulled the current political contest in, with partisan bias stamped all over it, Maureen, and the other Obama commenters that followed – just try to hear what is said withour pimping your candidate to everyone. You lose your message when it's painted with a blue brush.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:14 pm |
  39. Matt

    It's interesting that when these national leaders put politics aside, they seem to match Obama's positions almost perfectly. The mature, reasoned approach is also very like Obama. We need more of this – honest dialogue without all the snap judgments, bluster and posturing. It sounds like a great program, I definitely want to watch.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  40. Jack L. Crain

    Clearly we need a president who will approach the world thoughtfully and realistically, not spouting rediculous diatribes against ideologies and individuals in a silly attempt to appear strong, moral or just plain stubborn. We have made enemies of our friends and have failed to make friends of old enemies who were reaching out to us. This has come from outdated and outmoded, inflexible idiolgical concepts that have become not only obsolete but rediculous and downright dangerous. As a result we have lost our influence with the population if not the heads of state of the European countries that once looked to us for moral and social leadership.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:08 pm |
  41. Andre

    Mr. Sesno:

    Great work. I think you can see the experience that these former Secretaries of State have and the nuance that they are able to put on American foreign policies. I truly hope that the next president, be it Barack Obama or John McCain, use this pool of talent to steer America away from the dark places into which she has been reaching these last eight years.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:07 pm |
  42. Ken Keeton

    It's not rocket science that the U.S. has to communicate with other countries, especially the ones we are having trouble with. I never understood the mentality of this white house, or the one John McCain is adhering.

    I just hope that Obama wins since he makes the most sense of all the candidates. If McCain wins, then no progress will be made in fixing our global image.

    Obama is such a great person, we would be lucky to have him as president.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:05 pm |
  43. J.

    The one thing that we need to do is have some respect for nations like China and Russia. We may not agree with them all the time, but we need them. Enough with the sound bites. The next president needs to sit in a room with those leaders and just talk, iron things out, work on things that we agree on and respect the cultures and opinions of others.

    McCain is not as much like Bush as everyone says, but Obama is the only one with the fresh ideas that just might put this country back on track.

    Either way both men will be 100 percent better that Bush.

    September 20, 2008 at 9:02 pm |
  44. Kay in Ontario

    Is this not what Obama has been saying all along about diplomacy and sitting down with your enemies?? As I recall, Obama was heavily criticized by Mc Cain for saying this. Well, at least, here are some intellignt experienced people who agree with Obama !! Let's see if McCain criticizes them !!

    September 20, 2008 at 9:01 pm |
  45. Mark

    Amazing comments. As someone who has served in both Iraq wars, stood on the DMZ in Korea and seen "real" poverty (as opposed to, "I don't have health insurance" poverty, I am amazed at how ignorant many Americans are to the reality of the dangerous world we live in. If you you think Obama's "I'll talk to the bad guys and everything will be OK " approach will work, you are fooling yourself.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:59 pm |
  46. Gregory

    McCain and Palin if elected will start the World War III with Iran, Russia, North Korea and China.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:58 pm |
  47. DebM

    If we want to have global partners who will assist us in times of need and stand strong with us when necessary, we cannot elect McCain and Palin. The world will laugh at us as we fall apart. Obama and Biden are our only hope to restore this country to its previous great standing with the rest of the world.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:52 pm |
  48. Daniel

    Anderson,
    Not only do presidential candidates have to express their acknowledgment about reality and our place in the world in such a short time frame to choos one of them, they have to prove that their rationality is grounded in reality. For instance, if Sarah Palin is indeed a supporter if Intelligent Design theory, she must come out and explain why this bias should not be considered anti-science. When there is talk of over turning Roe vs. Wade, I also fear that anti-science will be on the agenda, as well. This will continue the slow degeneration of our country if we allow anit-science views to permeate our counties education system. This is serious Anderson, I'm asking you as one of the few remaining reporters the people can trust, please help this view be expressed and get on the table so the American people can understand the true conservative agenda.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:48 pm |
  49. Nancy

    What a breath of fresh air!

    September 20, 2008 at 8:36 pm |
  50. courtney

    lol, funny i don't any right-wing McCain supporters commenting on this page...

    September 20, 2008 at 8:34 pm |
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