Planet Earth Is A Confusing Place
Trying to make sense of these global developments has been a challenge. We are always up for challenges. The thing is, these days information travels at the speed of light. The problem is: knowledge does not.
I had the great fortune of meeting Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta a couple of years ago. This week I attended his lecture series with Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who succeeded Panetta in 2014. These are 3 of the smartest people on global issues. The topic was THE WORLD, and the focus was on Russia, North Korea, Cybersecurity and the United States. It was quite an event.
The discussion began with the established understanding that the United States is facing threats not seen since World War II. Growing aggression and failed states are breeding grounds for terror. Foreign governments are behind much of the cyber espionage, manipulation and theft. How the international community is responding to these threats has changed in 2017. The panel reminded us that the “international community” is a bit of a farce. Self interest always drives strategies. Pre World War I was a zero-sum game, driven by national interests. Post World War II has seen global collaboration with democratic competition in relative peace. The fact is, Americans have become “allergic” to war and nation-building overseas after Afghanistan and Iraq. The populist movement created the Trump Presidency and Brexit. NATO and the Paris Climate Agreement is testing the strength of the West’s 7-decade allegiances. The current administration’s foreign policy is still evolving according the panel. The One China policy and NATO are examples of this. Secretary Carter said that the US needs to stand for things and get what we want through competitive behavior with collaboration.
Rice, Carter and Panetta all agreed they would have advised the President to stay in the Paris Climate Accord. Even though it is limited in what it can do, Condoleezza Rice said she believes the U.S. can and will continue to achieve economic growth in an environmentally conscientious way, embracing sustainable energy sources with traditional. The panel also reminded everyone that nothing will change until 2020 at the earliest. Rice said that China leading the environmental push is a joke. “Have you tried to breathe the air in Beijing recently?” She quipped. Rice reminded the group that the U.S. continues to lead as evidenced by its 66% reduction in carbon emissions output over the past several years.
Naturally, someone in the audience asked them about their thoughts on the President’s use of Twitter. They acknowledged it was a serious issue, but was also a method that helped get him elected. Broadly speaking, Panetta, Rice and Carter are concerned about the use of social media and politics. “Democracy takes time. It takes listening and compromise”, said Secretary Carter. Today, people send out personal thoughts immediately, often emotionally driven, and it is documented forever. Having emotional thoughts and discussions is as old as humankind. But they are best practiced behind closed doors in a professional forum. They’re dangerous out in the open. Leaders need clear and consistent messages. We don’t always get that right now.
As it pertains to Russia and Vladimir Putin, Condoleezza Rice had this to say: “I know him pretty well and he is an eye-for-an-eye kind of person. He is still unable to accept that the Cold War ended as it did. He called the end of the Soviet Union the greatest tragedy of the 20th century”. Rice said he always tries to project strength. He only respects strength. He thinks of himself as “Vladimir the Great”, following the line of other Russian and Soviet leaders. Putin has played a weak hand masterfully as he has reasserted Russian influence on the global stage. The fact is the Russian economy is a 20th century model, driven by fossil fuels. They are having trouble competing in the digital age, but the weakening alliances in the West and the political infighting in the United States could not have been scripted better for the Russian leader. Putin loves these disruptions. An interesting observation that the panel made was what an effective move that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did when he said the Russians are either complicit or incompetent in Syria. He called them on it, to their face, on Russian ground. That was an important moment. Vladimir Putin makes sure that nobody questions his competency.
In closing, Mr. Panetta asked what issue kept them up at night. Ash Carter gave a list in order of North Korea, Russia, Iran and China, but that his “job was to stay up at night so Americans could sleep”. Condoleezza Rice answered differently. Her greatest concern is that America loses the energy, commitment and confidence to do the right thing. As soon as we stop defending values, the American way begins to dissolve. “It would be an ugly world without us…”.
Despite all of the problems we face, America’s best days could absolutely lie ahead. It won’t happen by itself. We have a vibrant, innovative economy and a way of life that is the envy of the world. But there are serious issues to address. There’s a great deal of anger and animosity. Listening and patience are being left behind. We’re never going to agree on everything. Unfortunately, compromise has become a four-letter word. United we stand. Divided we fall.
Have a nice weekend. We’ll be back, dark and early on Monday.