On December 6, 2005, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was the guest speaker at Wilkes University’s “Outstanding Leaders Forum” sponsored by the college’s Jay Sidhu School of Business and Leadership. Speaking to a packed audience at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, General Powell toured the world in a spellbinding hour and thirty-minute address delivered without a note.
Powell emphasized the tremendous geopolitical transformations that have occurred in his lifetime. Reflecting on his lengthy military career, Powell noted that as a young army lieutenant one of his first jobs was to help guard the Fulda Gap in Germany against a potential Soviet attack. Many years later, as a corps commander in Germany, his job, though at a higher level of responsibility, remained essentially the same: containing the Soviet Union. Then, when he was President Reagan’s National Security Adviser, the world began to change when a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, faced economic and geopolitical realities and accepted the demise of the Soviet Empire. The United States, said Powell, lost its longtime enemy.
Powell noted that the fall of Soviet communism meant that for the first time in centuries Europe was, and is, free of great power rivalry and conflict, and all of the major countries of Europe are democracies or are in the process of becoming democracies and constitutional governments. A striking feature of this new Europe, however, Powell explained, is the continuing viability and expansion of NATO, despite the fact that the original reason for the formation of NATO-the Soviet Empire-has vanished. Powell believes that NATO survives and thrives because the governments of Europe, especially the newly liberated countries of eastern and central Europe, look ultimately to the United States for their security.
Powell was also upbeat about U.S. relations with its major post-World War II European allies, Germany and France, despite current differences over Iraq. He insisted that the United States, France and Germany have more interests that unite them than differences that divide them. What Powell did not say, but what follows logically from his own analysis, is that NATO and good relations with France and Germany just are not as important as they used to be during the Cold War.
Powell’s intellectual tour of Asia was similarly upbeat and optimistic, but with important caveats such as North Korea and the China-Taiwan problem. North Korea, he sanguinely opined, will not use its nuclear weapons except to try to gain concessions from the United States and South Korea. The North Korean nuclear threat will be resolved diplomatically, according to Powell. China, meanwhile, will help the United States diplomatically contain the North Korean nuclear threat, will continue its good economic relationship with the U.S., will use its economic power to increase its military power, but will not directly challenge the U.S. in Asia unless Taiwan openly bids for formal independence and the U.S. comes to Taiwan’s defense. China, Powell warned, will go to war over Taiwan.
The General, surprisingly, spent little time discussing the war in Iraq. He avoided the controversy over faulty intelligence and allegations about Bush lying or misleading us into war there. (He did acknowledge that we should have had more troops on the ground immediately after the fall of Baghdad to prevent the rise of an insurgency). Instead, he was forward-looking. The United States, he opined, must continue to help Afghanistan and Iraq develop and institutionalize democratic forms and habits. Powell emphatically rejected any notion that U.S. forces can quickly leave Iraq, but he did foresee a gradual drawdown of our forces as more Iraqi troops and police are trained.
Powell punctuated his survey of the world by expressing his belief that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would reverberate around the world to America’s benefit. He implied that much of the world’s anti-American sentiment would dissipate if we took advantage of the new diplomatic opportunity presented by the departure of Yasser Arafat from the scene. Here, it seems, Powell was expressing the conventional State Department view that tends to magnify the global geopolitical impact of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
One came away from Powell’s speech with a renewed respect for our military and political institutions that helped shape the character and skills of this soldier-statesman. Powell is the latest in a long line of soldier-statesmen-George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, Vernon Walters, Edward Rowney, Alexander Haig, and Brent Scowcroft, among others-who have served their country at the highest levels in both the military and political/diplomatic arenas. We are, indeed, a fortunate nation.