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


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. Roland

    I highly doubt the right questions will be asked.
    As they require a proper understanding of the history of US interventions and policies over the years.
    Iran is a special case in point.
    While Americans seem to remember the hostage taking of there embassy staff they seem to not be aware of there backing of the Shah a horrible tyrant for over 30 years.
    Likewise the US public seems to not recall it's governments backing of Saddam Hussein during his murderous onslaught on Iran.
    It also doesn't seem to remember how one of it's warships during this period shot down an Iranian passenger jet.
    While Iran has signed the NPT (non proliferation treaty) and supports a nuclear weapon free Middle East, the USA and Israel do not support it, the only two powers in the region with actual stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
    American foreign policy has sadly been one and continues to be one of extreme hypocrisy and double standards, especially in the Middle East.
    The people in that region simply want to be free and independent to pursue there own peoples desires without foreign intervention and Western backed dictators and corrupt Kings that only serve the interests of peoples in foreign capitals.

    September 22, 2008 at 9:15 am |
  2. Mel of Alexandria, Virginia

    This is an excellent program. It is about time that we hear from States Persons whose love for the Nation can rise above ideology and all the issues which tend to divide us. Please give us more of such discussions
    so that by chance you might educate more of those who appear to wrap themselves in the flag and religiosity, but would rather send the nation to" hell" instead of doing what is in the best interest of all.

    September 22, 2008 at 7:57 am |
  3. Camina T. in Arroyo Grande CA

    On this show Albright was great to mention there is no global warming in Alaska. She got all the men shaking their fingers at her for the joke. Solar power is soft national and world power. Lets see more solar power in the US grid. I am personally ashamed my home state of CA is not leading the way on solar power generation! THANK YOU for broadcasting the climate question CNN. The next president will with little doubt have to deal with too much rain and too little rain in the USA equals CLIMATE CHANGE.

    September 22, 2008 at 2:49 am |
  4. Don, WA

    So put one of them in charge!
    I mean, any one of them Secretaries would have at least looked at a cultural map of Iraq before poking at a beehive.
    Why not invest that money and manpower to the economy, healthcare, education – I know it's repetative – but it does'nt make it wrong.
    Some are so worried about too much government intervention – well I'd rather have some intervention on this side than throwing it over to the other side.
    I have 5 trillion dollars – if I spend it on a wrong war it's capitalism and strong – spend it on our own people and it's socialism and weak. Too much ego and to many labels – GET A CLUE!
    George Bush and company gave cowboys a bad name.

    September 22, 2008 at 12:05 am |
  5. Don, WA

    We really need to carry a big stick – but we need to walk softly with it. We need a president, (who is thus giv'en the big stick), to understand what – "last resort" – means. You decide.

    September 21, 2008 at 11:40 pm |
  6. Ron Illinois

    I still want to know if Collen Powell was duped by George Bush and quit becaused he was used,

    He's the one who laid out the whole pack of lies for starting the Iraq War to the UN. Did he know or was he duped?

    September 21, 2008 at 10:45 pm |
  7. Mark Adams

    Will this program be re-aired in the near future. I, and several other friends missed it and would like to have a chance to see it in full.


    September 21, 2008 at 10:08 pm |
  8. The truth

    The most interesting missing comment from any of the panel was: Don't elect an idiot as the president in the first place!

    September 21, 2008 at 8:01 pm |
  9. c.ca

    Excellent program and an excellent discussion – I watched it twice. It was so refreshing to see a panel of intelligent people calmly discussing world events. These are people that Americans can look up to and admire. They discussed the future of the United States realistically, instead of all of this pandering to voters and 'wanted-dead-or-alive' baloney.

    Finally the news media gave a voice to people that have something worthwhile to say. I am so tired of listening to that shreiking-shrew, Palin, screaming at us with things she knows nothing about. I sit back and wonder, what is this country coming to? This is what people want in a leader? This dingbat is going to represent my country?

    You want a woman in office? Madeline Albright would get my vote in a minute.

    The panel discussion reassured me that there are still people in Washington that can act and react with intelligence and an amazing understanding of historical and current events.

    Great job, Christiane Amanpour and Frank Sesno.

    September 21, 2008 at 8:00 pm |
  10. The truth

    James Baker continues to be a joke, just as when he was serving in the former reublican administration.

    September 21, 2008 at 7:58 pm |
  11. William of Iowa

    Let's see – Vietnam, hostages and dead commandos in Iran, Somalia, Bosnia, Kuwait, weapons of mass destruction, Iraq and Afganistan to name a few. These politicians/diplomats are a stark reminder of the power of diplomacy to bring peace and stability to our fractured world. Their image captured by CNN is a painfull reminder of events that have occured throughout my entire adult life. I honestly don't know how to feel about your interview, but I'll watch.

    September 21, 2008 at 5:50 pm |
  12. Paula, Michigan

    Thoroughly enjoyed the program. The knowledge, experience and power exuding on the stage came through the screen. Stripping away the political parties, it was amazing the agreement of these leaders toward what needs to happen to keep the US in play around the world. Two things struck me: (1) the path recommended appeared to follow Obama's thinking, almost to the exclusion of McCain's (despite Republican men); and (2) when language was lain at Powell's feet, he was quick to deny and put it where it belonged - adding that it was that candidate who would need to answer for it (even though Powell hasn't made a choice yet). I was sorry to miss Albright's quip that brought much laughter and jovial "boo-hiss" remarks.

    September 21, 2008 at 5:20 pm |
  13. Carolyn

    After all the "GOTCHA" polarizing interviews we have been subjected to for YEARS now, I worry that all this from former Secretaries of State will be too little, too late and not much listened to or reported on. The intelligent choices in this up coming election are being swamped by a poorly informed and highly prejudiced media much more interested in their personal objectives than this country's best interests. No one is calling liars out for their continuing lies.
    I no longer trust my fellow citizens, the media and certainly
    not the government leadership.

    September 21, 2008 at 3:22 pm |
  14. Christine

    The Republicans drove us to the ground. The next step down is hell, if we put McCain and Palin into office. I'll be so glad when Obama puts all the non-regulated Republicans in jail. They're sure goal is to drive us to hell.

    September 21, 2008 at 1:49 pm |
  15. Jerry, Charleston, SC

    What a refreshing change from the typical campaign retoric. It was a terrific hour. It was great when Colin Powell, in regard to Darfur, said "I made that decision", meaning to define the situation as genecide. It would be terrific to see this same format used with several of the nations past secretaries of defense, health and human services, education, interior, labor and so on. This is much more of a service to the public than Lou Dobbs self aggrandizing rants every evening. Its likely too late for this election cycle, but it would great to do more using this format before the election. And thanks for keeping on important issues rather than pop news and the usual need to create confrontation. It illustrated that "smart and experienced" people can simply discuss the facts.

    September 21, 2008 at 1:35 pm |
  16. Scott

    It's amazing that all 5 seem to back Pres. Barack Obama's attitude towards foreign relations, cooperation with the world and making decisions carefully and cautiously.

    September 21, 2008 at 1:16 pm |
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