Interviews September 2004

A Conversation With Colin Powell

Colin Powell and P. J. O'Rourke discuss foreign policy, Volvos, Elvis, and more. The full transcript of an interview from the September 2004 Atlantic
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Ideas are important, and, of course, actions are. But interviews are rude. Any child will let you know this when pumped about what he did in school that day. And imagine interviewing your spouse at breakfast: "What's your opinion of passing the toast? How do you feel about the eggs you made? Will we stay married?" On the other hand, conversation is good, even if—or especially when—it's polite conversation.

I talked to the Secretary of State in his office on June 21, 2004. In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs he'd written, "The sources of national strength and security for one nation need no longer threaten the security of others. Politics need not always be a zero-sum competition." "Zero-sum," a term from game theory, means any gain to you is a loss to me.

P. J. O'Rourke


P. J. O'ROURKE: Zero-sum thinking is an obsession of mine, but mostly in economics. I'd never heard the concept applied to foreign affairs. I got excited about that. I've got little kids. They regard everything as zero-sum.

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah, most of my career was in a zero-sum world—us versus the Russians. Zero-sum kind of takes you to places like Vietnam. The domino theory is a form of zero-sum thinking. My whole life, especially as a senior officer, we were always focusing on having to have the better tank, and they would immediately start working on a better tank than our better tank, and of course then we'd have to have a better tank than their better tank, and everything was zero-sum.

Let me give you a perfect example. It's a nuclear example. When you looked at how you had to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons, there was a certain way you went about it. We're a fairly contained country, between two oceans and three time zones. They're across about three continents and eleven time zones. And the industrial base is different. They knew what they had to do to our industrial base, and we knew what we had to do with their much smaller industrial base. So it was two absolutely asymmetric target problems. But we had almost exactly the same number of missiles. We all worked like the devil, not so much to deal with what we needed to do for targeting, but to make sure they didn't have more than we did ... It was that kind of zero-sum mentality.

My favorite story is, after we got rid of the Pershing IIs and they got rid of their SS-20s, my counterpart Mikhail Moiseyev, chief of the Soviet military general staff, visited Washington in 1991. We had brought one of each of the missiles to the Smithsonian. And he and I are down there with adoring fans watching this unfolding of their SS-20 model and our Pershing. Well, the SS-20 is a big thing. And the Pershing is small. It's much more efficient, a better missile. And so everybody is looking at this. And my wife, Alma, is with me. She pays no attention to any of this military stuff. She's only been a military wife for the past forty years. And she looks at it and says, "How come theirs is bigger?"

You always want your adversary to walk away thinking he prevails—not to the point where he can boast about it or make you look bad, but if you prevail and he prevails it's a win. And that usually takes non-zero-sum thinking, especially in a no longer zero-sum world. There's no longer just the United States versus the Soviet Union, but the whole West and international community against [here the Secretary gave a diplomatic, and apt, name to what opposes the West] the whole whatever-you-want-to-call-it. And so in my job especially—and I'm considered the multilateralist—multilateralism means finding areas of compromise.

Our nation also rests on a non-zero-sum concept. It was intended that Congress work by finding compromise, and from compromise you achieve consensus. Without compromise, you never get to consensus. It's through consensus that laws are written. The ugliest form of compromise is you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.

As we have discovered, you really need to have friends and partners as you try to deal with the world's problems, and friends and partners come with their own needs and their own desires, and you've got to scratch their needs and desires.

P. J. O'ROURKE: What you've told me comes out of your personal experience. Is there any philosophical background to your ideas about zero-sum thinking? I was wondering, especially since I write for The Atlantic, if there's any sort of bookish input.

SECRETARY POWELL: No, I don't think so. I'm different from most people in senior foreign policy circles, both in the United States and among my colleagues overseas, in that I'm not an academic and was not raised to be a foreign policy intellectual. I'm fairly well read, but at the same time I'm not an academic. I'm a practitioner, somebody who was raised to see a problem, analyze it, have views about it, and have passion for a solution. I tend to go with my experience. My experience is in the soldierly things. Also, you know, my educational background is a B.S. in Geology and a Masters in Business Administration—data processing. It's not as if I was at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard. Most of my foreign policy senior level education came from the National War College. Till then, I was just another infantry officer.

P. J. O'ROURKE: In terms of non-zero-sum thinking, is our country in the unique historical position of wanting other nations to be as powerful as we are?

Powell looked at me over the top of his glasses.

SECRETARY POWELL: Wanting other nations to be as powerful? No, I wouldn't say that. I think our historical position is we are a superpower that cannot be touched in this generation by anyone in terms of military power, economic power, the strength of our political system and our values system. What we would like to see is a greater understanding of power, of the democratic system, the open market economic system, the rights of men and women to achieve their destiny as God has directed them to do if they are willing to work for it. And we really do not wish to go to war with people. But, by God, we will have the strongest military around. And that's not a bad thing to have. It encourages and champions our friends that are weak and it chills the ambitions of the evil.

A deputy secretary interrupted. "That's good," she said. "Did you just make that up?"

SECRETARY POWELL: Yeah. Not bad, eh?

I tried to scribble down the exact words. The deputy press secretary offered me a tape.

P. J. O'ROURKE: A humorist doesn't really do that much note-taking.

SECRETARY POWELL: He can make it up, too. The question you asked was: Do we want people to be as strong as we are? I would like to see the whole world have an economy as strong as ours. That would benefit us. But it isn't going to happen anytime soon.

The Secretary recounted a "slip of the tongue" that reportedly had been made by one of the delegates to the European Council and the Intergovernmental Conference on a new EU constitution, which had been held the previous week.

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