Big Think Interview With Leslie Gelb
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of "Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy" (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Question: What is power?
Leslie Gelb: Power, to me, and I think power historically, has been the ability to get others to do something they don’t want to do. It’s a political and psychological relationship. It’s using carrots and sticks to create an impression in someone’s mind of what you can do to help them or to harm them. It’s about pressure and coercion.
Question: What is effective foreign policy?
Leslie Gelb: Effective foreign policy really comes down to common sense. It’s understanding what’s attainable, which power can produce, and what’s not attainable. It’s understanding how to use your power because you understand just what power you do have and how it’s going to affect other societies and other political leaders, some things that Americans rarely understand. So it comes down to common sense judgments.
In international relations, it puts you on the mountain and if you have the most power at the top of the mountain. But it also should give you responsibility if you have power because you have the power to get things done, solve problems. That’s an awesome responsibility.
Question: How did the Left and the Right misunderstand power?
Leslie Gelb: At the end of the Cold War, there we were, United States, alone on top of the mountain and we thought we could do anything. There wasn’t another power in effect to balance this. Cold War was over. The other superpower was gone. And the left thought that meant, finally, we could deal with the world the way they also wanted to, through love. And so, you had this idea of soft power being conceived. And soft power was understanding and leadership and morals and the like, all good things. But these are, to me, foreplay and not the real thing.
But frankly, as I’ve ask all the soft power advocates over the years, show me one example where leaders of a country change their position on a major interest to them because we persuaded them that we understood their interest better than they did. It just doesn’t happen. That’s what happened on the liberal side, or the left side.
On the other side, on the right side, were the neoconservatives who said, hey, we’re on the top of the mountain, we’re now the sole superpower. We can threaten military force to get our way. Or if they don’t observe our threats, we can actually use military force. They thought that this would solve all the problems. But what they failed to understand was that in the modern age, in the 21st century, in fact for a good deal of the end of the 20th century, our superior military force would be sufficient to conquer capitals, to get rid of dictators, but not to conquer countries. So here was the situation. On the left, they confused power with a rational act, with reason, with persuasion. And on the right, they confused it with force, which is the kind of thing you do when your power fails. And I wanted to restore the meaning of power because, as I said, that’s the key way to get things done in the world.
Question: What is mutual indispensability?
Leslie Gelb: Mutual indispensability is the central operating principle of power in the 21st century. What it means is this. United States is the indispensable leader but we don’t have the power to dictate solutions. We need to get things done to solve problems, exercise our leadership effectively. We need equally indispensable partners. And those are the other key nations of the world. I say in the book that there are eight of them, Germany, Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia, India, and Brazil. If you can put together some coalition of those countries, those become the equally indispensable partners. So we’re the indispensable leader, they’re the indispensable partners. Together we can succeed. Alone we fail, time and again.
Question: What is the most serious threat to the United States?
Leslie Gelb: The global economic meltdown is the most serious threat to American national security and to our democracy.
So this has got to be our first priority, to restore our economy and the global economy. And that’s a strategic decision I don’t believe President Obama fully grasps. He says economics is the most important thing, but to exercise real leadership, real strategic leadership, to understand power, you have to make choices and set priorities. You can’t do everything. I know it’s fashionable in the White House to say, we only have 100 or 200 days and we got to get everything in before the tide turns against you. That’s not right. What you got to do is succeed. And the way to succeed is to focus, not exclusively, but to focus on the main things and to really put your muscle behind those things.
By far, the most important security threat is the economic meltdown because, as I said, we need that economy to keep our democracy afloat. It’s the basis of providing money to fix up public education, essential to our democracy. You can’t have a democracy if public education continues to fall apart like it has.
And it is the way we can afford a military capability that outstrips all the rest of the world put together. We spend as much, on defense, by the way, as the next 25 largest spenders on the military put together. We do that because of the strength of our economy. That’s the biggest issue for us and for our national security. Our fate is not going to be determined in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Question: What foreign policy experts do you admire?
Leslie Gelb: The people I found to be the greatest of all were the people who led our country at the end of World War II and at the start of the Cold War, President Harry Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall and his successors, Secretary of State Dean Acheson. These guys were so brilliant, it makes me jealous. Here’s what they did.
First, they set up all these international institutions, the UN, the World Bank, IMF, NATO, and the like. Real international institutions that we led. We didn’t try to dictate. We couldn’t dictate even then but we led them. And these institutions were so good, they helped us prevail in the Cold War, and they exist even today. That’s how good they were, workable.
Secondly, they understood even then that our economy was our ultimate strength for our democracy, for our military power, for our diplomatic power, for everything. And they looked at a world where the Soviet Union, at the end of World War II, had five million troops in Eastern Europe, and people here were clamoring, go nuke them. Because if they take over Eastern Europe, they’ll take over Western Europe, all Europe will be gone. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they concentrated on building up the economies in Western Europe and Germany in particular. And last time I looked, we won the Cold War, not the Soviet Union. And all the predictions about the Soviets taking over Western Europe, I don’t think it happened.
And take China. Mao conquered China and everyone said, Chinese communists are in control in China, they’ll take over all of Asia. Last I look, China’s our biggest investor.
Truman, Marshall, and Acheson concentrated on building up the economic power of Germany, Japan, along with that of the United States on the presumption, which was absolutely correct, that once you added up those three economies, strong economies, that we would have 75%, 80% of all the economic, military, and diplomatic power in the world. And we did. And they figured out if you had that, you couldn’t lose.
Question: What foreign policy lessons can we learn from the Cold War?
Leslie Gelb: President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State Baker, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft did a brilliant job of ending the Cold War without war. They helped Gorbachev relinquish his own empire in Eastern Europe, and then helped him dismantle the Soviet Union while people in this country were screaming, Gorbachev is a Commie, this is the time to tell him what to do. If they had done that, it would’ve been a reaction from within the Soviet Union, and none of this stuff would’ve happen, you’d still have the Soviet Union today. But they handled the demise of the Soviet Union by helping them kill themselves off, another brilliant act of diplomacy.
It’s not as if the spark of genius exist only in that immediate post-Cold War era, it existed at other times. Because the essence of it is good common sense. And that’s what we really need now.
A couple of months ago, this country went crazy over Sully Sullenberger. I went crazy over Sully Sullenberger. What did he do? He landed a plane safely on the Hudson River. And the country thought this was absolutely marvelous. They thought it was absolutely marvelous because it was an act of simple competence. And this had been seen so rarely in our country that they went nuts over a guy who exhibited it. And this used to be the hallmark of America and Americans, pragmatic, problem-solving, common sense, and competence.
Question: Is there a place for torture in foreign policy?
Leslie Gelb: To me, there’s no question that the United States as a matter of policy, must be against torture. We’ve sign treaties to that effect. We brought people to trial internationally because we accused them of torture. And some of the things the Bush administration did, fall to the same category of torture as the Japanese we tried after World War II.
The legacy of the George W. Bush administration will be calamity, calamity for our country, here in America, and for the world. For those eight years, we went backwards almost the whole time. So much damage was caused to the quality of our government. Good people left the government in droves. Executive branch was politicized by people who were know-nothings and do-nothings. And they stopped functioning. And all the problems we had here and abroad just festered and got worse. What a legacy.
Question: How has Secretary Clinton performed so far?
Leslie Gelb: She’s going around the world, I think, saying, by and large, good things to leaders and to people around the world, like President Obama, to try to dispel this anti-Americanism that built up over the last eight to ten years, the sense that America didn’t know how to be a leader, thought of itself solely as a dictator. So anti-Americanism reached terrible proportions. And they’re doing it by acknowledging that the United States, we can’t bear to admit this, actually made mistakes, didn’t understand them, didn’t spend much time trying to understand them. So, I think, they’re taking the right first step. I know they’ve been accused of abandoning American power because they admitted past mistakes and they shook hands with people we disagree with. But they haven’t given away a thing yet, and they are getting the publics around the world on our side, which as I said, is good foreplay for the real things that will come later, I hope.
Question: How were the Pentagon Papers produced?
Leslie Gelb: Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense. And for reasons I still don’t understand to this day, he wrote out 100 questions, almost all of which were about current Vietnam issues, basically, political issues and attacks on the administration. And there were about ten or so questions that were of historical nature. And I was, at the time, director of policy planning in the Pentagon and I was also given this assignment. And said, it’s hard to answer all these current policy questions without delving into the history of them. So they said, yeah, go get yourself six people and work for the summer and answer the questions.
Well, we got into the archives to start to answer the questions. And I think all of us felt, we’re a very bright group of people, that this was an opportunity to try to do a quick history. So we outlined a whole bunch of studies that we thought needed to be done.
And the next thought of McNamara was: take another six months and get it all done then answer the questions. And it turned into almost a two-year effort that I oversaw at the same time I remained director of policy planning, where we had access to government documents, not all of the government documents but, I would say, 85%, 90%. And we wrote a history based on those documents, which were then leaked to the “New York Times” and other papers and became known as the Pentagon Papers.
Question: How are the Pentagon Papers perceived?
Leslie Gelb: Mind you, I think that most of what’s been written about Pentagon Papers just isn’t true. They say that the Pentagon Papers show that the history of United States and Vietnam is the story of lying. That’s what the Pentagon Papers prove, our leaders lied to us. There was lying that went on from time to time, to be sure.
But by and large, we got involved in Vietnam because that’s what we believed. We believed in the domino theory. We believed that certain nations were lost and will lead to communism, will lead to loss of other nations.
That’s what happened with Hitler and Hirohito in World War II. They took little nations and then bigger nations and then we got involved in World War II.
So we believed in the domino theory. My whole generation was raised on the domino theory. And it was believed at the time, including by me, that Vietnam was kind of the testing ground of the confrontation between East and West. So we fought there, principally, for that reason. And it was supported by domestic politics and it was supported by the arrogance of power, as I write in my new book on power [“Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy”].
Question: What role should think tanks play in foreign policy?
Leslie Gelb: Policy is figuring out what problems you can solve and how, and what problems you cannot solve, and then what you do about them. And that’s what the people at the think tanks ought to be doing. And it ought to be very practical and it ought to be in the national interest. That doesn’t mean there’s just one national interest and they’ve all got to agree, but it’s got to be reasonably done. It can’t be politicized and ideologized. It’s got to make sense.
And it’s that quality of common sense that, I think, we’ve lost in a lot of the think tank work. And it got to be based on, ultimately, a realistic notion of power because that, still, how you get things done in the world.
Recorded on 5/1/09.
A conversation with author and former Pentagon official Leslie Gelb.
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