Colin Powell, USA: a leader, not a superpower


He was one of the most distinguished members of the American military in recent decades and long-time potential presidential candidate. He is a Republican who voted for Democrat Obama and is impressed with his performance. At 72, he says he no longer has any political ambitions.

He was the most powerful African American before President Barack Obama. At 72, Colin Powell usually says he is ex-everything: National Security Advisor under Ronald Reagan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military post in the country, for George Bush and Bill Clinton, Secretary of State for George W. Bush’s first term of office. He planned the American invasion of Panama in 1989 and led Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War in 1991.

In 1995, he was so popular that he was appointed by the Republican Party as their presidential nominee, but he opted not to run for office. His reputation appeared immaculate until his fateful speech at the UN Security Council in 2003, when, holding a test tube, he stated and “showed evidence” that Saddam Hussein was holding chemical weapons which would justify Iraq’s subsequent invasion. The Iraqi arsenal was never found. What was found were the shortcomings of the American Secret Service.

For many, this speech tarnished Colin Powell’s reputation. For others, the then Secretary of State had been a victim of a set-up by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He was, in fact, the only one who did not want to go to war.

Since he left government, at the end of George W. Bush’s first term, Powell has been avoiding journalists. He seldom breaks his silence. He did so in October 2008, when he declared his support and voted for Democrat Barack Obama. And in May, when he said that the Republican Party needed to be reformed. Last month, in the presidential suite 816 of the luxury hotel Rittenhouse, in Philadelphia, hours before he was due to speak to young leaders from over 20 countries under the EEF Program (which was created by ex-president and World War II Allied Forces commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of Colin Powell’s role models), the former chief of American diplomacy spoke a little about everything.

SD: For you, who have been at the epicenter of the main international events of recent decades, what role should the United States play in this new world, so different from the 90s post-Cold War scenario, when it was the only superpower? Now that we live in a so-called “multipolar” world, with China, Russia and other players on the international scene, what role is destined for the United States?

CP: I still think it will be one of leadership. But the term “superpower” no longer applies. I don’t like words like “bipolar” or “multipolar”, they sound like psychological issues [laughs]. We’re witnessing the appearance of various emerging power centers. The European Union is a power center. In Asia, China and Japan are power centers. India, Brazil, South Africa. Today, there are multiple power centers. There is wealth in various parts of the world. There are very influential people in different parts of the world, and the United States must take that into account. So the term “superpower” or, as my French friends say, “hiperpuissance”, no longer makes sense.

We are the leaders of a league of nations. I don’t mean “leaders” as in an alliance. But we all have much more democratic systems nowadays. Russia is not a true democracy, and neither is China, but they are becoming more and more financial democracies. China is a financial democracy more than any other country, but they have an authoritarian political system. So what I see are countries becoming wealthier and wealthier, with a growing middle class, which didn’t exist 30 years ago. You can see it in Central and Eastern Europe. But the United States is still the country that people turn to when looking for a reference point, the country which is followed closely and with whom an aligned policy is maintained.

How can I prove it? China and the United States have a very close economic relationship, they are financing our deficit. Who could have imagined, looking at the world’s economic history, that one of the least developed countries would finance one of the wealthiest nations in the world? Who is more or less powerful? The point is that we cooperate. Russia and Western Europe, and even Russia and the United States, nowadays have a completely different relationship from the one they had when I was growing up. These days, Russia is responsible for Europe’s energy supply. It’s a different relationship.

I never thought I’d live to see Latin American countries with such sophisticated economic development as we see today in Brazil. Brazil is now an important player on the world’s economic scene. We see the same happening slowly in Africa. Look at India, 1300 million people. India used to be a Soviet ally, today it’s strategically partnered with the United States. So nowadays we have different areas of power: military, economic, cultural. Children all over the world use Twitter. The United States will still have a position of leadership, but not as a superpower.

SD: How can you develop an appropriate relationship with a more provocative, assertive and powerful China, a China who buys oil from Sudan, natural gas from Burma, and who says that business is business, and politics is a different story?

CP: In my four years as Secretary of State, we had issues, but we resolved those issues. We always understood that we had more points in common than differences. But there is a difference between the way China sees the rest of the world, and the way we, and most Western countries, see the world. We believe that democracy is the best political system. We believe that we must help countries rid themselves of corruption, develop a judicial system, end poverty, help fight HIV-AIDS and other problems. China has a different outlook.

China thinks it’s the center of the world, the Middle Kingdom. And it uses its overseas investments to serve its own interests, more than the interests of the country in question. Therefore, if China is in Sudan, it’s only to guarantee access to oil, not to improve the lives of the Sudanese; in Iran, they want to guarantee minerals and oil, not help lead Iran towards democracy. The Chinese will say: “It’s their problem.”

It’s different from the vision of the United States and Western Europe, where we believe we must help these countries improve their life conditions. But China goes to one of these countries and asks: “What would you like to see built?” They can choose between a hospital, schools, a football stadium or a presidential palace. And if the government wants a palace, they will get a palace. Even if this is not the best option for the country. If that’s what the people in government want, China will make it happen.

The United States and the European Union, on the other hand, would say: “What you really need is roads, schools or hospitals.” So there’s a different approach here. What we must do is work very closely with the Chinese to show them they should approach these matters differently. But China is a big country, an important country upon which rules cannot be imposed. The days of imposing rules on wealthy and influential countries are over. We must tread carefully around China, we must acknowledge their interests and worries and work with them. From my experience, I believe this can be done, even if China has an authoritarian system instead of a democracy.

Today’s China is very different from the China I visited for the first time, 37 years ago, when I was a lieutenant and everyone was dressed in uniform and holding Mao’s red book in their hands. Those days are over. China is a much more liberal country now. So we must be patient, because the Chinese are patient. I believe they will change when they realize it will be better for them. So I would still sit down with them to talk about religious freedom, about their relationship with the Dalai Lama and the Catholic Church – you can push, but don’t think you can enforce.

SD: What about the transatlantic partners in this new, more transpacific world? Do you believe that the United States can resolve its main international issues over the next few years without a strong link to Europe?

CP: Well, there are two big transatlantic organizations: NATO and the European Union. I’ve been a NATO member since I was 21, when I was a young lieutenant. And, to my great surprise, as was a great surprise to my Russian friends when the Cold War ended, in 1991/1992, and the Warsaw Pact disappeared, my Russian general friends would say: “Ok, Colin, this is the end of NATO, right?” And I’d say: “Why do you say that?” And they’d answer: “With the end of the Pact, you don’t need it anymore, as NATO was created precisely because of the Warsaw Pact.” And I would say: “But the problem is that countries still want to be a part of it. How do you shut down a club when people are knocking on the door, wanting in, and are still asking to join it?” Since the Cold War ended, NATO went from having 16 to 26 members. How can you explain that?

The European nations who enabled the Iron Curtain wanted their safety guaranteed, and the best way to achieve that was to get into NATO. And once you’re in NATO, as well as your European friends, you then also have the United States and Canada. So NATO still has a purpose, it’s broadened its vision, now it’s in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, it’s acting outside its remit, as we say. Nowadays, that seems normal, but in the 90s it was very controversial. It was very hard to imagine the German army going anywhere outside its German borders, and today it’s stationed in those regions. NATO is still the largest security organization in the transatlantic region.

As for the European Union, we aren’t members, but we follow this integration with great interest. And I often say in my lectures that, when I look at Europe and see a single currency adopted by almost the entire territory, I think about the countries that really were able to give up the franc and other national currencies, which meant so much, in order to have a single currency. It’s extraordinary. And the Schengen visa, the only visa which allows you to travel anywhere in Europe. Recently, ex-president Kwaniewski came to visit me and told me that he’d travelled by car with his family on holiday from Warsaw to Southern Europe, and that at each of the borders he’d stop, waiting for a guard, but there were no guards, you just carried on, and he couldn’t believe it… So we find different ways of working together, the European Union and NATO. I feel… all of this suggests there’s still a powerful attraction between Europe and North America (Canada and the United States).

SD: But when you think of President Obama’s first visit to Europe, despite the many smiles, Europeans didn’t seem willing to pay the price for this alliance with soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan…

CP: But they are in Afghanistan, thousands of them. No, don’t go there… They are there, French, Germans, many countries are in Afghanistan. The problem is that there aren’t enough of them. We’d like them to send more soldiers, but when we think of alliances, and what changes when the United States is no longer alone at the top, is that each Prime-Minister or President has their own political issues. Therefore, in a democracy, they must convince their people that it should be done. And so far they haven’t been able to gather enough public support for NATO countries to send more troops into Afghanistan. When it came to Iraq, they sent few soldiers from few countries, because they didn’t have internal political support. They didn’t approve of what we were doing. So they couldn’t support us in the way we wanted. This reflects the changing world we live in today.

SD: So do you think that the United States still needs a strong relationship with Europe in order to face most international issues?

CP: Absolutely. In order to deal with all world issues. There is no region in the world where Europe or the United States don’t have a stake. We have mutual interests in the Middle East, or in improving conditions in Africa, we’re connected by all these countries now, economically, through the Internet, the power of TV, air travel, and “travel” via online chat sites. And all countries in Europe have a stake in the Pacific, one way or another, they all go to China to see what business they can bring. India is emerging as another economic power on the international scene. When I look at Central and Eastern European countries, they all want BMWs, more jobs, no one can afford to be isolated anymore. The only countries who still think they can are Iran and North Korea.

SD: I was there.

CP: I wasn’t. I was at the border. How can that happen? It’s another world. Iranians also think they can isolate themselves, but their children think differently.

SD: Do you think that the economic and financial crisis we’re living through today can escalate armed conflict on a global scale? After all, the two great world conflicts were preceded by great crises, depressions.

CP: It’s a tough crisis. It’s still haunting many people in the United States and all over the world. It’s affecting markets all over the world. I’m starting to see a recovery in the financial sector, but it will take time before it helps people who were hit by the crises, who have mortgage repayment debts, credit card debts and who have lost their jobs. But I don’t see anything that compares to the Weimar Republic days, like collapse and hyper-inflation, and that’s because we’ve developed mechanisms, systems to correct these imperfections. Even if systems fail once in a while, as happened in the United States last year, there are corrective mechanisms. So you see President Obama injecting billions of dollars into the financial system, you see Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel doing the same. I think there’s enough understanding, coordination and transparency to prevent a collapse such as the one your question suggests. I don’t wish to underestimate the agony provoked by the financial crisis, but who would wish for a war, and a war against what? Nothing suggests there’s another Hitler on the way.

SD: And what are the foreign policy priorities for the United States?

CP: I would say that the number one priority is the crisis in the international financial system. We essentially caused this crisis, with our housing bubble, with the problem of housing credit and we spread the crisis worldwide. So the world is looking to us, the United States, not France or Germany or any other country, but to us, so we can start stabilizing the system and make it run again. We’re still the engine which propels the international economic system. So I believe that this is the number one priority for the United States, for President Obama. Next, he’ll have to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. You have to look at both countries at the same time. This is an issue he said he was going to do something about. Thirdly, there are various fronts, like the Iranian nuclear program, which relate directly to the Middle East and Israel’s concerns. There’s also North Korea’s nuclear program. Sooner or later, he’ll have to work out how much North Koreans will demand to get rid of their weapons. It’s the only thing they have, no one would pay any attention to North Korea if they didn’t have a nuclear program. So they won’t throw it away for nothing, because it’s their only currency, their only product. You were there. In my opinion, and I don’t speak for President Obama, the priorities are the international financial crisis, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq is in there too… what we’ll see in Iraq is a significant decrease in troops, but it will be the Iraqis’ decision to determine how they wish to proceed.

SD: How can President Obama keep balance and focus on a long-term international policy when domestic policy is filled with lobbies? Is he starting to think of re-election, or an election for a Democratic congress in 2010? Look what happened with the Guantanamo issue in the Senate. Is it possible to keep a long-term international strategy in this domestic setting?

CP: Of course it is. You’ve just described the beauty of a democratic system. We’re not a dictatorship, you can’t say: “This is what I want to do.” There is a congress, political opposition, other people who want to be president and many who want to be elected to congress. And you have allies and enemies. All the presidents I’ve worked with (Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush) – and I worked for them in pretty senior roles – had to balance those interests throughout conflict. And constantly think about what the people want. I’m impressed with President Obama. He’s very calm, very coherent, he listens to people, to his staff, to international partners, and so far the American people see him as someone who can maintain the strategic sense of where we’re headed, even if he does have to deal with all these diverging interests.

On a particular week, the issue will be Guantanamo, the interrogations, and the following week it will be another subject. The Guantanamo issue is, essentially: how do we shut down the base, where do we send those people, and how do we protect ourselves? President Bush repeatedly said he wanted to shut down Guantanamo. I defended and requested its closure for years. And President Obama has said he will close it down, that he needs a year to do it. Well, he needs to present Congress with a plan, because they’re not willing to give him the money until he shows one. And there will be a debate about it. In a little while, President Obama’s speeches will begin, followed by those of the Republican, Mr. Cheney, criticizing President Obama. But that’s democracy for you.

SD: How does voter Colin Powell rate Obama’s government so far?

CP: I think he’s had a spectacularly good start, but I think this thing of 100 days, 101 days is artificial… I was invited to take part in a panel discussion next week to talk about Obama’s first six months in government, which will come up in July… I said no, that this is a media construct. He’s only been there for four months, he’s done a lot, has a lot of problems to solve, let’s wait and see. The only grade that counts in our country is whether he gets re-elected in four years. I don’t go for this A, B, C or D…

SD: But is voter Powell pleased with President Obama?

CP: The American people seem pleased with the work he’s been doing. And, as part of the American people, I’m pleased too. I’m not pleased about everything. There are certain situations, issues which I discuss with him. When I have a different opinion, I tell him and he listens. The President listens to a lot of people. But so far he has managed to sustain the American people’s support. And that’s all that matters.

SD: You once said that you’re an ex-everything, when you referred to all the roles you played in different administrations…

CP: [Smiles] I’m retired.

SD: For the second time? [Powell laughs]

CP: For good.

SD: Really for good?

CP: I’m very happy with my private life and I’m old [72 years old].

SD: So you’re not thinking about returning to politics?

CP: Seventy-two… that’s old [he smiles]. I’m happy with my life and I’m not looking for any political role or job.

SD: So what does a day in the life of a retired Colin Powell look like? Do you still wake up at 5:45 am every morning?

CP: No. I don’t get up at 5:45 am, like I did for forty years. Generally, I get up whenever I wake up, unless I have to wake up earlier to be interviewed by some journalist [more laughs]. Now, I usually wake up at 6 am… [laughs]. Fifteen minutes are fifteen minutes! I don’t run out the door, only if I have a trip or a speech to make in a different city. I have my coffee while I read six newspapers. Every morning. All in English, because I can’t speak any other language. I watch a little TV, not a lot. And I go to my computer and log on to the Internet. That’s where I get most of my information and how I stay in touch with my office.

When I’m not traveling, I stay home most of the time writing speeches, reading, answering questions. I have so many requests [in any given week, General Colin Powell’s office receives hundreds of requests and invitations for events, conferences…]. I can do that for about 14 hours. My days are full. I have a few businesses. A partnership in a technology company in Silicon Valley. I have a center named after me at New York’s City College. I’m involved in several projects to do with education, and my wife does a lot of charity work. But it’s different from having to be in the same place every day from 7 am to 8 pm. I’m not doing that again, ok?

[He looks at his watch and realizes that the interview which was supposed to last 15 minutes has now been running for 30]

You tricked me! [Powell bursts out laughing as he points to his watch]

SD: We forgot to talk about Turkey. Are you in favor of Turkey joining the European Union?

CP: [Getting up to leave] Yes.

SD: Why are Europeans so resistant to accepting them?

You’re the one in Europe, ask them and find out… [laughs]. According to my Western European friends, there are some difficulties associated with Turkey’s admission. They’re not completely happy that Turkey is both an Asian and a European country. It’s true that it’s a secular country. But there are fears that, it being a large country, its admission might upset the current balance.