Leon Panetta: We're living in a more dangerous world

Leon Panetta: We're living in a more dangerous world
© Greg Nash

In the gathering storm of national security threats facing the United States, it would be irresponsible not to recognize that we are living in a more dangerous world. The growing number of flash points in the world raises the fear that if our elected leadership should fail at this critical moment in history, we could very well find ourselves in the middle of another war.

We cannot afford to ignore the lessons of history. In 1914, the world faced many of the same problems — terrorism, territorial disputes, fragile alliances, nationalism and the failed hope that war was unthinkable — and the result was that miscalculations escalated out of control into a world war. Memories fade but the realities of a dangerous world make clear both the strengths and weaknesses in our diplomatic and military capabilities.

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Today, the freedom, security and prosperity of the United States and our democratic allies are under serious threat by adversaries who are determined to reshape the world order and undermine our interests. Our adversaries have employed hybrid or grey zone tactics; operated against the U.S. and our allies in space and cyberspace, and employed new forms of economic, informational and legal warfare.

Effective strategies to overcome challenges to national security need to be aggressive, comprehensive and integrated. The failure of the United States to employ consistently all tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, intelligence, law enforcement, financial, cyber — combined with the decline in U.S. military readiness have endangered U.S. vital interests, undermined deterrence, invited aggression and increased the likelihood of conflict.

Added to this is a foreign policy that largely relies on chaos as a way to gain leverage and force opponents to eventually capitulate. While it may be a way of doing business in the real estate world of New York City, in the real world, adversaries do not easily surrender to pressure unless they believe they can successfully protect their national interests. Sanctions, tariffs, torn up agreements, and bluster will only result in retaliation. No adversary is going to negotiate with a gun to their head. Pressure and chaos only work if accompanied by credible strategy that leads to negotiations and trust between the parties. Chaos without that kind of strategy is a prescription for a more dangerous world.

Just look at the crises we are now facing:

In Iran, the president has torn up the nuclear agreement worked out by the U.S. and our allies, increased sanctions, labeled their military as terrorists, tried to stop all oil shipments and taken other economic and diplomatic steps to bring Iran to its knees. Instead, Iran is retaliating and the tensions are escalating on both sides increasing the chances of miscalculation and military confrontation. Rather than working with our allies to bring Iran back to the negotiating table, the United States has decided to bully Iran. That has not and will not work absent a strong diplomatic strategy aimed at resolving the crisis.

The same is true for North Korea. It is not enough for the two leaders to meet in summits unless those meeting are accompanied by a carefully worked out diplomatic strategy that defines each of the steps required by both parties in order to achieve denuclearization.

The fact that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE and Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTrump to have dinner with Otto Warmbier's parents: report Ted Lieu congratulates first Asian American cast member on 'Saturday Night Live' Overnight Defense: Trump marks 9/11 anniversary with Taliban warning | President rips into Bolton as 'Mr. Tough Guy' | More turmoil trips up government funding MORE may or may not have a personal relationship will never substitute for the substantive work required to resolve the huge differences between the United States and North Korea. Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin may have liked each other when they met but without the extensive military and diplomatic work that accompanied their meetings, little would have been accomplished. Without that larger diplomatic strategy, despite two high level summits, North Korea remains a nuclear threat to the United States and the region.

Finally, the United States is now engaged in a full-fledged trade war with China. The president believes that increasing tariffs on China will ultimately force this adversary to capitulate. But China is retaliating with tariffs as well and the result is what the president’s own economic adviser recently stated: There are no winners in a trade war.

There is a reason the United States in the past has avoided the chaos of a tariff war — it doesn’t work and it certainly doesn’t replace the comprehensive and difficult negotiations that have accompanied every major trade agreement in our history. The best place to resolve trade differences is not by shooting yourself in the foot and hurting your own consumers and farmers, but by tough, serious, patient and non-stop negotiations with our trade partners.

Added to this list of crises in the world is the stalemate in Venezuela, the continuing threat of an ISIS terrorist attack, the failed states in the Middle East like Syria, Yemen and Libya, aggressive cyber attacks and deployments by the Russians, and increased Taliban attacks in Afghanistan.

It is a more dangerous world. There is no question that America remains strong economically and militarily. But what really defines our strength is not our weapons or the value of the dollar, it is the quality of our leadership. Empires have fallen because they took their strength for granted and thought they could bully their way in the world.

Every president would like to short-cut his way to success. But what every president has come to realize is that there are no short-cuts and no substitute for the careful work required to develop strategies that avoid chaos. The failure of a president to recognize that basic principle of leadership is what could make the world an even more dangerous place.

Leon Panetta was a Democratic congressman from California from 1977 to 1993. He served as director of the CIA (2009-2011) and secretary of Defense (2011-2013) during the Obama administration, and as director of the Office of Management and Budget (1993-1994) and White House chief of staff (1994-1997) during the Clinton administration. He is chairman of the Panetta Institute, which concentrates on government, politics and public policy studies at the University of California, Monterey Bay.