Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on re-imagining public diplomacy NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Robert Gates, former defense secretary and founder of the Gates Global Policy Center, about the center's new report focused on re-imagining public diplomacy.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on re-imagining public diplomacy

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is one thing here in hyperpolitical Washington to talk the talk about bipartisanship. It's another thing to walk the walk. Well, our next guest is not a politician, but Robert Gates did pull off that rarest of feats serving in the Cabinet of a Republican president - he was defense secretary to George W. Bush - and then staying put, pivoting to serve uninterrupted in the same role under Barack Obama, a Democrat. Gates has since founded the Gates Global Policy Center. Its goal is finding nonpartisan solutions to security challenges. They have a new report out. And Secretary Gates joins me to share a little of what is in it and how it may apply to a real-life situation or two. Secretary Gates, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Good to speak with you again.

ROBERT GATES: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be back.

KELLY: So the report is focused on concrete actions that the U.S. can take to reimagine public diplomacy to better compete in the 21st century. Concrete actions like what? Give me an example.

GATES: First of all, I think the important thing to take into account is that if we are able to avoid a military confrontation with China, then this contest that we're in will be waged as much of the Cold War was with nonmilitary instruments of power.

KELLY: Well, and may I ask you to pause for a second? I'm interested that you're putting China at the center of everything, of our national security challenges before I'd even asked you about China.

GATES: Well, I think in the arena of strategic communications, the only real significant challenge to the United States is from China. And that's because in the early 2000s, well before Xi Jinping came into power, Hu Jintao allocated about $7 billion to creating a global strategic communications capability for China. And they now dominate that space, particularly in the Global South - in Africa, in Latin America, in parts of Asia and South Asia. The Chinese are putting billions of dollars into this. And we have basically starved our capability in this area, both in terms of communications with the rest of the world and especially in the public engagement area, which is about bringing people from other countries here to study, creating apprenticeship programs. The Chinese are doing all of these things. And we're basically at the starting gate.

KELLY: Who's the audience for all this great messaging that you would like the U.S. to be doing?

GATES: The first and by far the largest is the Global South in particular and all countries that aspire to democracy or that are willing to work with us and are willing to consider partnering with the United States. But there's another audience as well, and that audience is the people of China and the people of Russia and other authoritarian or totalitarian states. We need to be more aggressive in getting our message to them. And our message there is more about the behavior of their own government.

KELLY: Let me ask you, Secretary Gates, to apply some of this to Ukraine. It seems like one disadvantage that the U.S is laboring against here is that, as you acknowledge in your report, there's so much division. There's so much polarization. Since part of your messaging is there needs to be bipartisan support for the measures that you endorse, do you believe there is bipartisan support for being all-in on Ukraine?

GATES: I think there is. There are obviously a growing number of people, particularly on the left and on the right, who are - who have reservations and who are concerned about it and who are opposed to it. But I think...

KELLY: There was a Washington Post headline this week talking about a Republican civil war on Ukraine and the subhead GOP leaders and voters are increasingly skeptical.

GATES: Well, I think that civil war describes it in the respect that there are some very powerful Republicans in both houses of Congress that are very supportive of what we're trying to do in Ukraine. I think that it's possibly time limited. If a year from now we are still in a situation like we're in right now, where there hasn't been a dramatic move on the part of either the Russians or the Ukrainians, then I think that opposition may grow. But right now, there is still very strong bipartisan support in the Congress for our support for Ukraine.

KELLY: This week saw the U.S. come the closest we have come yet to confrontation. The Pentagon says Russia downed a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. How dangerous is this situation? Does this mark a shift as you see it?

GATES: I think it's dangerous because it shows a level of aggressiveness on the part of the Russians that, frankly, I think is a manifestation of their frustration that they have been unable to do anything to oppose what the United States and NATO countries and other countries have done to support Ukraine. And so I think if the reports are accurate that we know that doing this was approved at the very highest level in Russia, that's a concern as well.

KELLY: I want to shift gears once again because it occurs to me that you and I are speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I've traveled with you in Iraq back when you were SecDef, and I was in the Pentagon press corps. I watched you interact with Iraqi generals and with U.S. troops. And I wonder, 20 years on, are you proud of what the U.S. did in Iraq?

GATES: I think that from today's vantage point, you have an Iraq that has a democratically elected government, however flawed. It's really the only democratically elected government in the Arab world, for all of its flaws. And you have a country where the different ethnic groups and religious sects are talking with one another, negotiating with one another instead of shooting at each other. So I think in the respect that...

KELLY: At such a great cost, though, such a great cost.

GATES: All at a very high cost and - for both Americans and for the Iraqis.

KELLY: Let's apply that to where we started, with a push for bipartisanship, for nonpartisan politics, because there are questions over whether it was, you know, a backlash to the Iraq War that led the groundwork for broad mistrust of the political establishment and questions about how active and engaged the U.S. should be on the world stage ever since.

GATES: I think that where Americans get impatient is if we get into conflicts that seem to have no end. And so I think there is a cautionary tale in terms of our use of our military engagement. But I think there is still very broad support for our international leadership. And I think, you know, just as an example, I like to say that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have done something no one else has been able to do, and that is bring Republicans and Democrats together on the Hill. You know, you get beneath the soundbites and social media and so on, I think on a number of very significant national security issues there really is broad bipartisan support in both parties, whether it's for continuing strong investment in the military or how we're dealing with both Russia and China.

KELLY: Robert Gates - he served as secretary of defense in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. He is founder and chair of the Gates Global Policy Center. Secretary Gates, thank you.

GATES: Thank you.

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