Words of pragmatic and, at times, politicized advice, based on years of Washington expertise and experience, were the order of the night when former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin met to discuss what the next U.S. president — now, of course, President-elect Barack Obama — must do to be successful at home and abroad.
Sponsored by the Center for U.S. Global Engagement in Washington, D.C., and held at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center just prior to the election, the event had a capacity audience, treated to a matchup that displayed the wit and wisdom of Kissinger and Rubin in a friendly exchange, all moderated by Frank Sesno, CNN special correspondent.
The 90-minute discussion was part of the center's "Impact '08: Building a Better, Safer World," a national, bipartisan initiative that urged all presidential candidates to make certain that America invests in global development and diplomacy as part of national security and foreign-policy strategies.
(At the state level in Pennsylvania, the effort is known as "Impact '08 in Pennsylvania," a partnership with the Annenberg School of Communications, the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, and the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.)
Jeff Berkowitz, communications director of CUSGE, said the national initiative will continue through the transition period and the early days of the new administration.
The center, the educational arm of the U.S. Global Leadership Campaign, is designed to unite business, civic, military, faith-based and political leaders around the nation to broaden understanding of America's interests in building a better, safer world.
The 'Wise Men'
Kissinger, Rubin and Sesno were introduced and welcomed by Dr. Amy Gutmann, Penn president, who called Kissinger and Rubin "two equally wise men," and who told the audience the give-and-take's key focus was how the new president should implement the emerging concept of "smart power," a nonmilitary force that combines the "empirical and the philosophical for the good of all — and that can mean a safer, more-just world."
In his opening statement, Kissinger said the new president will be confronted with critical global issues, a "unique set of challenges," from the economy to national security, and health care to immigration, and that he must prioritize immediately, since no president can do everything on the list.
"He must try to understand the nature of the global environment, instead of coming up with quick answers for Europe; Asia, which is much like 19th-century Europe, because the countries there are very much rivals the way European states used to be; and the very complex Middle East," said Kissinger.
In connection with an attempt by the United States to improve its relations with foreign countries, Obama has said one of the steps he wants to take is to appropriate dollars for education and other nonmilitary uses overseas.
"While the new president faces a huge set of problems, he also has a unique opportunity to tackle them. But, from the beginning, the urgent tends to drive out the important. The art of policy-making is to make room for the important," noted Kissinger, who holds an honorary degree from the university.
Rubin, a Penn graduate, agreed that the new president must make some excruciatingly difficult choices, chief among them how to approach solving the very difficult fiscal situation facing the U.S. and the world. "The ability of the U.S. to function on the world stage is told by the strength of our economy. If we're to be what we can be, the economic crisis must be the new president's first priority," he explained, adding that it will be a multiyear process.
"Foreign aid and trade must remain as tools, but we've got to get our own house in order first, as we engage the rest of the world."
Rubin urged the new president to reach out to the world by "sending out key people to meet and talk with world leaders in the first few days of transition."
Kissinger's view was that the United States should come to world leaders at this critical juncture in world history with "questions, not solutions," as the best way to find out how America and the rest of the world can benefit. The country's standing and stature may be tarnished, Kissinger admitted, but the world still sees America as a shining beacon of hope.