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Special Guest: Chuck Hagel and the Self-Correcting World

March 31st, 2011
Chuck Hagel, Senator-turned-Professor

Chuck Hagel, Senator-turned-Professor (Credit: Washington Post)

Five incumbent senators retired during the 2008 election cycle—all of them Republicans. Of this group, none has remained more engaged on policy issues, especially national security, than Chuck Hagel. The two-termer from Nebraska currently co-chairs the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and sits on the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board.

In a recent interview with Bellum, conducted on March 18, the Senator-turned-Georgetown professor addressed a wide range of issues, from the nature of American power to the future of US domestic politics.


The night before the interview, March 17, the UN Security Council had authorized the creation of a no-fly zone in Libya. It was also announced that France and Britain would take point in the operation, leading many commentators and critics to decry the abdication of American global leadership.

“I think the President was very wise: do not rush into another war,” Hagel said. “Wasn’t that a better way to handle it?”

Hagel cited Peggy Noonan’s column in The Wall Street Journal that very morning, which cautioned that wars were easier to enter than to exit. Holding up a copy of David Nichols’ recent book, Eisenhower 1956, he suggested that policymakers could learn a great deal from the 34th president’s response to the Suez crisis, which, incidentally, was sparked by military action in Egypt by none other than France and Britain.

The Future of War

It was just last month that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed West Point cadets, stating: “I must tell you, when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.” His comments about heavy armor, land armies overseas, and bureaucratic rigidity further rippled across the blogosphere.

“I think Gates is exactly right,” Hagel said. “He’s not saying we don’t need planes, we don’t need tanks. We need all those pieces, but the emphasis we’ve had over the past 60 years” will change.

“If the objective of war is to win,” he said, “then that means you use all the instruments of power you have to win and be smart in how you do it. The smart way is space, cyber, naval air, blocking sea lanes, bottling up the Persian Gulf, and so on.”

“Cyber is one of the real issues, and we’re not equipped at all,” Hagel warned. “You can render a great nation powerless, bring it to its knees,” by targeting power grids and banking systems, “without firing a shot.”

Transforming the US military to deal with these new challenges, of course, is easier said that done.

Brave New World

The conflict in Libya and the debate over defense priorities are underway in the context of two broad trends. First, US foreign policy is adapting to profound changes in the international system.

“We are living at probably as significant a time of global self-correction than at any time in history,” Hagel said. “Markets, societies, and individuals all self-correct. It’s just the law of nature.”

Echoing recent pronouncements from leading foreign policy thinkers like Brent Scowcroft, Hagel pointed to the immediate post-war period during which the international system in its current incarnation was born.

“We need to now adjust in ways to accommodate other interests,” he said. With respect to the rise of other powers, “that should be good, we should embrace that, we shouldn’t fight that.”

The institutions created in the wake of World War II will have to evolve. “The United Nations of twenty or thirty years ago isn’t sufficient to deal with the kind of challenges we have in the second decade of the 21st-century.”

“What we are seeing today is the new world order being built for the first part of the 21st-century,” Hagel stated. The goal of international institutions is to “keep the behavior of nations within some parameters…People cheat on treaties, yes, it’s imperfect, yes, but if you have no boundaries, if you have no expectations, if you have no guidance on behavior for leaders and for countries, then it is a Wild West shoot-out.”

New Governing Coalition

The second trend unfolding concerns domestic US politics. Disagreement among conservatives about the appropriate response to the Libyan crisis calls to mind similarly divisive splits on other security-related issues. Ratification of New START, for instance, pitted the Republican foreign policy establishment against most sitting Republican senators.

“What we are seeing here is not only a new world order being built, but you are seeing also the parallel dynamics that flow with that,” he explained. “We are evolving into a new governing coalition in the United States.”

The rise of independent voters is “hugely significant,” while the Tea Party “is just a manifestation of a very frustrated, unhappy American public,” which has “lost confidence in their institutions.” The Tea Party movement is “having an effect, but it’ll be absorbed into something.”

“You’re going to see shifts in the parties,” Hagel said. “You may see a new party. I don’t think there will be three parties.” He continued: “It’s very likely that in 2016 you will see a very credible independent candidate for President.”

As far as the GOP goes today, Hagel is unsure of its future. “I’ve always been a Republican. The first vote I cast was atop a tank in the Mekong Delta in 1968…I don’t know what the Republican Party is today, quite frankly.” He cited the various wings of the party “all jumbled up in there, and where all that comes out, I’m not sure.”

“We’ll find that center of gravity,” he said. “Maybe even a different name…Certainly something’s happening here, and the Democrats are going through some of this, too.”

Conservatives have also quarreled over trimming the defense budget, with Haley Barbour and perhaps Mitch Daniels in favor, and Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney dead-set against.

“Haley Barbour steps out front and not only does he say we ought to get out of Afghanistan,” Hagel said, “but he says we ought to cut defense. Boom! Mitch Daniels, boom! Now you’ve got something going here…You’ve really opened up a major, major fissure very early in the process.”

The Exceptional Nation

American exceptionalism has emerged as one of the dominant issues in political discourse over the past year.

“I do believe we have an exceptional country, I think we have an exceptional system, I think we’re exceptional people,” he said. “You start with our values, with our principles.”

“Everything flowed from the freedom to work hard,” the former business executive said. “Your industry mattered—your innovation, your creativity, your ability to think the way you want to think.” American military dominance and its super-power status emerged as a result, not the other way around.

“We don’t need to go around the world and beat our chests, and rub their nose in it,” Hagel said. “When you look back at 1776 and other defining moments, there were lots of questions, a lot of imperfections. That’s why we have 27 amendments to the Constitution. We didn’t get everything right at the front-end, but we have a system that self-corrects…That, in itself, is pretty remarkable.”

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