Foreign Policy Experts Urge Interns to Take an Active Interest in the World

Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and journalist Gayle Lemmon

On the morning of October 27th, two foreign policy experts, author and CNN contributor Gayle Lemmon, and former Clinton-era Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, were placed in the driver’s seat, answering questions from The Atlantic’s Steven Clemons about the problems that have made their way onto their “dashboard of global concerns.”

Not content with setting the vehicle on cruise control, the panelists urged The Washington Center interns to take an active interest in their country and world.

The discussion began with a run-down of some of the geographic areas that concerned Cohen and Lemmon, but quickly converged into a critique they both shared: a lack of “a coherent policy going forward,” on the part of the United States, to use Cohen’s phrasing. As an example of this, the former Republican senator cited President Trump’s habit of rapid-fire Twitter pronouncements about Kim Jon-un. Lemmon added an anecdote of a meeting she recently had with Chinese officials, who, after asking her what America’s five-year plan is, were surprised when Lemmon laughed back, “America doesn’t even have a five-minute plan!”

William S. Cohen
William S. Cohen, former Republican senator from Maine and secretary of defense to President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001, takes a question during The Washington Center's Simpson-Mineta Leadership Series.

Another theme the experts lamented was America’s willingness to cede the stage as the world’s preeminent power, in both the actual and moral sense. Cohen, with an eye toward history, wondered whether Americans are living through “our own Suez crisis,” referring to the 1956 military action in Egypt that spelled the effective end of Britain’s status as a leading global force. America’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed regional trading bloc, struck him as an similar situation, isolating our allies and giving China room to make a greater impact in the region. Lemmon recounted a conversation with an African man, who, in the aftermath of January’s Travel Ban, inquired of Lemmon, “Is it true that Trump is kicking out all the Africans?” While inaccurate, it reflected in Lemmon’s mind the fact that “people are watching us even if we’re not paying attention to them.”

You should never undervalue what you bring to the conversation. It’s not about where you come from, but what you’re dreaming about and doing the work to get there.

Gayle Lemmon
CNN Contributor
CNN contributor and New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lemmon
CNN contributor and New York Times bestselling author Gayle Lemmon makes a point during The Washington Center's latest Simpson-Mineta Leadership Series.

However, both panelists were sympathetic to some of the themes that paved the way for President Trump’s election last fall. According to Cohen, “Donald Trump was right when he said we need national-building at home” and went on to describe some of America’s crumbling infrastructure – its roads, bridges and Amtrak railways. Lemmon noted that the Gini coefficient – the statistic used by economists to measure the level of income inequality in a given nation – is at roughly the same place as it was in 1929 on the eve of the Great Depression. This, in Lemmon’s memorable phrasing, made it inevitable that “some people just wanted to throw a Molotov cocktail at the entire system. This country can’t just be one for the arugula-eaters. It has to be one for the iceberg lettuce-eaters as well!”

After a Q&A session with The Washington Center’s students, Lemmon and Cohen were asked to provide one lasting piece of advice for young people trying to make a career in Washington, DC. Lemmon, recalling her childhood as the daughter of a single mother in working-class Maryland, reminded her audience that “you should never undervalue what you bring to the conversation. It’s not about where you come from, but what you’re dreaming about and doing the work to get there.” Cohen, harkening back to his days as a freshman congressman from Maine at the height of Watergate, noted the importance of having a basic set of ethnics. “It was the biggest trial of my life, so I knew from early on that I wouldn’t be moved by party politics. The one thing people will judge you on is your level of ethical concern. You’ll never become rich enough to buy back your reputation.”

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