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.
"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."
Powell said, "There's respect that we can do it, and people want to learn it from us, but there's also resentment that we can do it. What I find is that people are mad about our policies. They're not necessarily mad at us. As policies are successful, attitudes can be changed."
"Does any of this," I said, "remind you of having a dad?"
"Yeah, and being a teenager," Powell said. "And then at twenty-three, you discover the old geezer was pretty smart."
The civilization of the Middle East is old and smart. I asked why the region is full of political and economic failures. I was about to say, "Does the oppression of women … ?" but Powell was already answering.
"To keep the women occupied they let them go to schools, to universities in the United States. Then they bring them home and say, 'Go back in your house and sit there.' That doesn't work. You open Pandora's box. Moreover, you can't have fifty percent of your population that just sits around providing services for the other fifty percent."
I said, "If I started acting like the Iraqis in Baghdad, my wife would be after me: 'You get right in here and stop blowing up the car. If you blow up the car, how can I get the kids to school?'"
"I don't want to lay it all off on women," Powell said. He talked about an African game reserve where rhinos were being killed by young male elephants introduced from another reserve. "They brought two adult male elephants in with these teenagers, and within a few months, problem solved. The teenagers didn't know how to act. The male elephants made it clear to them: 'Excuse me, boy. This is not what elephants do. We don't go around chomping on rhinoceri.' But I've seen this in schools in Washington, D.C., where there are young men who do not know the taboos of the family, the shibboleths of the society, the need for self-restraint. That's what drill sergeants do. Young recruits hate their drill sergeant. They want to kill him. By the eighth week they'll do anything to please him, and they will never forget his name. I was having dinner with Ted Kennedy once, we were kidding around, and I said, 'Ted, what was the name of your drill sergeant?'"
Senator Kennedy remembered—"instantly," Powell said.
Leaving aside the question of whether that sergeant should have been retained on the Kennedy family payroll, I asked if the Secretary saw parallels between the beginning of the Cold War and the beginning of the war on terrorism.
"I think there's something to that," Powell said. "A dawning recognition of a new kind of threat. We really have to see this not just as a temporary aberration that's going to go away. I mean, it took the Cold War forty years. One of my colleagues thought that all you had to do was détente them forever. But Reagan said no, they're evil."
He continued, "Maybe we should never have characterized this thing as something that would be a tough fight but then it would all be over."
"I don't think anyone did say that," I said.
"I didn't," Powell said, but he also said, "The feeling grew." He said, "Everyone thinks all you do is sit in a room and design policy and that's it. But if you look at the experiences of World War II and the Cold War, there was a great deal of trial and error—or, as I like to call it, 'audibling.' No military plan survives first contact with a real enemy. Who was it who said it? Was it Clemens? Some humorist. 'Even the most brilliant strategist must occasionally take into account the presence of an enemy.'"
I asked if we were so worried about terrorism that we were failing to worry about other worrying things. The Secretary seemed to feel that the President and the Department of State were sufficiently worried. "I actually meant the public," I said.
"I think the public is worrying too much about terrorism. Now everybody is running around saying they're going to be bombing all of the shopping centers."
What about nations that are trying to decouple economic freedom from political liberty?
"Yes," he said, "without naming countries, we're nervous about this trend. But I don't think it works. Because if you are going to be economically successful, you can't really constrain your people too much. You've got to turn them loose. They may originally start out being robber barons, but so did we."
The Secretary is optimistic that all nations will see the mutually advantageous, non-zero-sum nature of free markets and democracy. He talked about two poor countries, struggling with issues of political freedom. "They almost like it when I lecture them," Powell said, with just a hint of the adult male elephant in his voice. "Because they've got to be able to go home and say to people, 'This is what the guy told me.'"