Conversation September 2004

Adult-Male-Elephant Diplomacy

Colin Powell talks about Iraq, the Cold War, his place in the Administration, and chilling "the ambitions of the evil"

I talked to the Secretary of State in his office on June 21. He'd recently written, in Foreign Affairs, "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. Forsaking zero-sum is the key to free-market thinking and, as parents know, the key to adult thinking. But then there's geopolitical thinking.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"A Conversation With Colin Powell" (August 2, 2004)
Colin Powell and P. J. O'Rourke discuss foreign policy, Volvos, Elvis, and more. The full transcript of his interview from the September 2004 Atlantic

"Yeah," said Secretary Powell, "most of my career was in a zero-sum world: us versus the Russians. Zero-sum kind of takes you to places like Vietnam."

Powell described how zero-sum competition made little sense even within the insensible logic of mutually assured destruction. "Their target was different than ours—two absolutely asymmetrical target problems. But we had exactly the same number of missiles, almost."

Soviet SS-20s and U.S. Pershing IIs were eventually retired, and Powell was on hand when one of each was presented to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. "The SS-20 was a big thing," he said, "and the Pershing was small. It's much more efficient, a better missile. 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 she says, 'How come theirs is bigger?'

"You always want your adversary to walk away thinking he prevails," Powell said. "Not to the point he can boast about it. But if you prevail and he prevails, it's a win—especially in a no-longer-zero-sum world, 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. I'm considered the multilateralist. Multilateralism means finding areas of compromise. The ugliest form of it is 'You scratch my back …' As we have discovered, you really need to have friends and partners, and they come with their own needs and their own desires, and you've got to scratch their needs and desires."

So, I asked, is our country in the unique historical position of wanting other nations to be as powerful as we are?

The Secretary looked at me over the top of his glasses. "No, I wouldn't say that. I think our historical position is that 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 value system. What we would like to see is a greater understanding 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 press secretary interrupted. "That's good," she said. "Did you just make that up?"

"Yeah," Powell said. "Not bad, eh?"

I tried to scribble down the exact words. The deputy press secretary offered me a tape. "A humorist," I said, "doesn't do that much note-taking."

"He can make it up too," Powell said.

"I think," he continued, "the world is well served right now with the United States still having the edge on economic power and a heck of a margin with respect to military power. The reason for that is that no other nation, with a few exceptions, is yet as well grounded politically in the democratic system as we are, or to be trusted with the kind of military power we have."

"I was thinking," I said, "more about our friends, about the EU. Why aren't they pulling on their oars?"

"The United States believes it has worldwide obligations. Our European friends have never felt that that was their destiny or their obligation. The American people have always been more willing to shoulder this burden. The average European citizen, looking around, sees some of these out-of-the-way places like Afghanistan and the Balkans and Iraq. And they're willing to do a little there, but they're not willing to put up to three or four percent of their GDP into defense spending the way we are. But our great strength is the image we still convey to the rest of the world. Notwithstanding all you read about anti-Americanism, people are still standing in line to come here."

Powell said, with a busy man's insouciance toward memoirs, "There's a story I tell a lot—I think it's in my book." In 1990 the head of the Soviet military and his wife visited the United States. They toured various military sites—"He was not the least bit interested," Powell said—but also went to such places as a Cadillac plant and a four-star restaurant. The Soviet general's wife said to Powell's wife, "I'm not envious of what I've seen. I'm just mad. I'm mad that we could have done this and we didn't."

Presented by

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His book Peace Kills, a survey of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, has just been published.

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